Africa’s dark beauty

By  Mbugua William, S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • October 25, 2006
 Hope in the Dark, photography by Jeremy Cowart with reflections by Jena Lee (Relevant Books, 192 pages, softcover, $16.49 at amazon.ca).

The beauty of Africa is that nothing is hidden, what you see is what you get. There is less business of cologne, deodorant, tinted windows, gloves all aimed at covering reality — making it appear good and nice. In Africa, good, nice, beauty, messiness, ugliness, sadness, life and death are all joined in a wonderful marriage. It takes courage to walk that line in peace, hope and joy.

Reading Hope in the Dark really means looking in the eyes of the people in the book.  This extended photo essay has captured the real life of God’s people in Africa as they strive to live life through the sufferings, deaths and resurrections their lives have to offer. I can’t help but see their determination to carry on in the midst of the suffering. I note there is great hope written on people’s faces, and I believe that this is deeply rooted in their hearts. Giving up is not an option.

There are smiles on people’s faces, in spite of not having what many in the world would consider the essentials. They have a ray of hope telling them they have it good and the better is yet to come, not to mention the best.

For many like myself who have lived in a developed country, the greatest mistake is to think the people portrayed in Hope in the Dark are not happy — to see their way of life as pathetic. I believe and I hope photographer Jeremy Cowart came to realize the children, men and women in this book are very happy human beings, with souls full of life, possessed of an incomparable skill of celebrating life, of knowing beauty. The trick is to see that and also acknowledge that messiness exists and journeys with us, but not forever.

Hope in the Dark captures a way of life that, if viewed from the outside, looks strange and perhaps in great need of transformation. There is great joy, however, in knowing that, viewed with God’s eyes, the people must share in a joy and peacefulness that mere spectators will never fathom. It takes wisdom and grace to enter the souls of this people and accept their experiences — to know their joy, love and hope as they know it but not as we outsiders have come to be taught or to judge.

Poor Africans might die without having their way of life improved or fully realized, even though it is a right born in God’s act of creation of every person to reach close to that goal. Their struggle for the very basic needs engenders an endless cycle of hope and hopelessness joined together. And it has to be admitted that sometimes the hope remaining is less and less every day.

This book is a testament to the range that exists between working structures and dysfunctional structures of our societies. We, as a church and as a society, have the potential to perpetuate the cycle of decline for some and progress for others. We also have the potential to find healthy ways to balance needs and demands and share our resources. We live far from the dream of finding that balance, or even the commitment to share what we have. 

But Cowart shows that we can at least look in the eyes of the people God has given us to love.

Many organizations are highlighted at the end of the book for their efforts to bridge the gap between the developed world and Africa. They offer us ways to find the balance we all long for.

(William is a Canadian Jesuit scholastic born in Kenya who is working for the African Jesuit AIDS Network in Nairobi, Kenya.)

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