Friday, April 11, 2008

The Conversation

When I was a junior in college, I had chosen Food Science and Technology as my major largely because I wanted to be involved with third world development. I had started a 500 level course in international development the year before, but dropped out in favor of taking French because I saw that as a sophmore I had to start with the basics instead of jumping into a full fledged class focused on learning how to plan a project with grad students and faculty who had already traveled the world, been involved with Peace Corps and spoke other languages besides English. In short, I felt I was out of my league.

I had a writing project as a junior that changed my perspective about third world development. As part of my research about the topic, I chose to do something really radical. I decided to interview international grad students from the countries I considered third world. I knew a few who were in my department and talking with them literally smashed many of my American assumptions.

In my interview with Jacques from Africa, we talked about what he thought were his country's biggest needs in development. I was surprised to learn that his country has a huge capacity for agriculture, but most of the food in the cities were imported from Europe. Jacques told me that the soil conditions were excellent and that the crops were often bountiful--way beyond mere subsistence farming. This was in the 1980's, when the drought in Ethiopia led to American celebrities raising money via "We Are The World", leading many Americans to believe that all African countries cannot grow their own food. He said that several countries in Africa struggle with drought, but also many countries do not have such arid climates.

So, we went from there to the next logical question, if his country can produce crops to feed their own people, why are they importing food from Europe? Jacques said that the roads are poor--the problem is not agricultural but infrastructure. A village may produce a bumper crop of tomatoes, but they can't get them to the city markets to sell them fast enough. And the heat causes the vegetables to spoil quickly. It's not like in America, where there is a highway system for reliable trucks with refridgerated compartments or railroad transportation system.

So my next question led us to why there is poor infrastructure. Jacques told me that the government doesn't want to invest in infrastructure. The government is run by people who do not want to see its citizens thrive. The government prefers to oppress and hold back its citizens because it would make it easier to stay in control. It's not just about infrastructure, it's also about education and health. And a starving eight year old is less likely to learn how to read, therefore less likely to know much beyond what is happening in his village and less likely to know that life could be much better.

After our conversation, my understanding about the world expanded 200 percent. Most third world countries do not need Western agricultural technologies or chemical preservatives or pesticides. They don't need American experts to come in and tell them what to do. They have a more complicated need that addresses a basic human condition that exists everywhere in the world--first, second and third world. They need the Gospel to confront the sin in their own hearts, families and government. They need Jesus to show them the way to love in such a way that it transforms their society.

It's been over 24 years since Jacques gently challenged my assumptions about poverty in the world, and I'm sorry to say that his home country, Zimbabwe, has not gotten much better since then. It has only shown me that Jacques indeed had lead me to the truth.

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