LitHub – Book Review
In the eyes of some Christians, Western missionaries in Africa are often regarded as holy martyrs who must Christianize the dark continent at all costs. In the eyes of secular skeptics, missionaries are usually the destroyers of indigenous cultures and irrational proselytizers who want to convert people to the Christian faith against their will.
Both of these divergent views of missionaries are turned on their head in Caroline Kurtz’s memoir Today is tomorrow. It is a sequel to her award-winning memoir A road called Down on Both Sides: Growing up in Ethiopia and America.
She and her husband Mark are both Americans whose parents did missionary work in Africa. Neither of them are missionaries in the traditional sense of the word, although both worked for the Presbyterian Church. Both of them stand, as it were, with one foot in America and the other foot in Africa because of the special connection they have with both. America is their country of birth and Africa is the continent where they grew up and both parents worked as missionaries.
Caroline grew up in Ethiopia from the age of five. The family lived in the Presbyterian Church’s most remote mission station in the mountainous regions of southwestern Ethiopia near the town of Maji. From the age of ten she attended boarding school in Addis Ababa and then in Alexandria, Egypt. She left for a university in the USA at 18, unprepared for American culture. She eventually marries her childhood sweetheart Mark, who is also the child of American missionaries in Ethiopia. Shortly after their marriage and disillusioned with America, the couple returned to Africa with their family to live and work in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan.
In Africa, Caroline is repeatedly confronted with the dark side of the continent full of conflict, corruption and poverty. However, she also gets to know the human side of Africa which is known as ubuntu. It is often described as something to remind us: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
Her story takes place against the background of the second Sudanese civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2005. Caroline plays an important logistical role during the Wunlit peace conference to end the conflict between the warring factions in North Sudan and the south of the country that would later become the world’s youngest independent country, namely South Sudan.
She describes her work in South Sudan as the most important and hope-inspiring work she has done in all her years in Africa. “In retrospect, it just seems right. Hope and despair, peace and war, reconciliation and violence – these contradictions lie sharply side by side in South Sudan” (142).
She does not fit into any of the stereotypes of a traditional missionary. She is neither a holy martyr nor a proselytizer who tries to convert people to the Christian faith against their will.
She never wanted to become a missionary. For her, her vocation lies in teaching and helping people to be independent. She especially has a soft spot for the women of Africa, who suffer under a tremendous patriarchal system.
Although she has always had a keen sense of the spiritual dimension of life, for her it is primarily about the human being. What she deeply cares about is not winning souls or wanting to change others’ faith. For her, it is about people’s lives in the first place. Justice. Mercy. Peace. The redemption and rebirth that only love can bring (125).
One of the interesting aspects of the book is the realization that Christianity is not as new or foreign to Africa as one is often inclined to think. Africa already figures strongly in the early history of the church long before European missionaries wanted to come and Christianize people in Africa.
The Northern Sudanese conquered Egypt in the 8th and 7th centuries BC and around 500 AD the Nubians adopted Christianity in three northern Sudanese kingdoms.
The church father Augustine, for example, was a North African and the Coptic church in Egypt was already established in the first century after Christ. The Christian faith therefore did not come to Africa in the first place by means of Western missionaries. It was already spread in the 9th and 10th century by means of ordinary people in Africa who transmitted the tradition orally from generation to generation. People in Africa found the merciful God of Islam and the Christian God of love a welcome relief from the malicious spirits of the world with which they were then familiar.
During her work in Africa, Caroline is not only confronted with the conflict in Africa. Her marriage is a personal conflict that keeps threatening to become a civil war of its own. Her husband’s depression, tantrums and constant accusations that she doesn’t value him weigh heavily on her mind all the time. Together with the prevailing ideas of biblical womanhood, this puts great pressure on her personal life and also on her marriage.
Both she and her husband are confronted with the corruption and bribery that is well-known to Africa and is so often part of everyday culture. It conflicts with her own beliefs and principles. At one stage she has to choose between paying a bribe to avoid a traffic fine and going to court.
While her husband hesitates about it, it is not an issue for her. She flatly refuses to pay the bribe and has to go to court to plead her case. After a huge struggle and red tape in the messy court, the fine imposed on her is the same amount as the bribe would have been with much less effort.
Without trying to justify the corruption in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, she realizes that it is not as simple as looking at it with Western glasses. Kenyans and foreigners often debate what to make of the corruption that has taken hold all over Kenya. Idealists believe that if no one pays bribes to the police, they will eventually stop trying to bribe people. The realists again argue that much of the bribery should rather just be seen as a tip to get through all the red tape faster.
Caroline’s story is the story of searching for the ever-elusive peace. Peace between the warring factions in Sudan, but also the search for inner peace in her own confused mind.
After the peace summit between North and South Sudan, she never returned to Sudan. New ethnic violence broke out in South Sudan, which developed into another civil war in 2013. South Sudan is today widely regarded as a failed state and is still embroiled in an ongoing civil war.
In Caroline’s words, it is a nation that hopes for the best, but is not too surprised or discouraged when the best does not happen. They wander on in their own wilderness, trying again and again to find that promised peace (240).
For Caroline, her connection with Africa was paradoxical. She felt she belonged there but not really either. “I belonged and I didn’t belong.” It was in South Sudan where she could make peace with herself, but it is also the land of ever-elusive peace.
The complexity of Africa with its ethnic, cultural and religious differences leaves the reader with the question of whether there will ever be light in the tunnel of dark Africa. But also with the realization that failures and successes always alternate on this continent just like the rhetoric of war and peace.
Kurtz shares her personal vulnerability and experience with readers without getting bogged down in a superior intellectual discourse about the cross-cultural differences that are so unique to Africa. It is a story that creates hope, but also not unrealistic expectations for the future. In Africa, tomorrow is always just another day and today is tomorrow.