Book Review: Journey of Hope by Jean Gibson (Monarch Books)

The very word ‘Africa’ evokes a range of images and associations in many people’s minds, frequently ones that reflect the poverty, corruption and violence that are endemic in so much of that continent.

Faith, hope and courage are words less likely to spring to mind. But Jean Gibson’s purpose in writing “Journey of Hope” is to inspire us with stories of unsung African Christians who, with the help of Western Christians and churches, are persevering and overcoming enormous obstacles in their local situations.

The book is a series of ‘mini biographies’ based on interviews that have been conducted with a variety of African Christians in Malawi and Kenya that she has encountered through her Irish missionary contacts, interspersed with a travelogue of the writer’s journeyings and impressions of Africa.

There is a certain depressing and recurring familiarity regarding the struggles and trials that the author documents in the lives of the various people whom she encounters in her travels. The poverty that results in dropping out from school due to the unaffordability of school fees; the widespread occurrence of child abuse, even within the extended family system; the scourge of the HIV/AIDs pandemic in African society are all regular experiences that have blighted the lives of her subjects as well as countless thousands of others. Indeed, having lived in Southern Africa for most of my life, I found myself accurately predicting what was about to happen next in a number of the people’s lives. There is, sadly, a predictability that is apparent in many of Africa’s besetting problems.

Jean Gibson writes in an engaging way, and is not afraid to describe some of the horrific events in people’s lives without resorting to being melodramatic or sensational. In that sense, it is not a comfortable read. However, for me, the major disappointment of this book was how much it, perhaps unwittingly, highlighted the culture of dependence on Western help that still exists in Africa decades after the end of colonial rule.

Nearly all the case histories that the author writes about describe people who, in one way or another, were helped and supported, financially and practically, by Irish or other European Christian expatriates, missionaries or agencies. The book’s back cover states: “The future for Sub-Saharan Africa lies, to a remarkable degree, in the hands of the national churches.” To be honest, that is certainly not the impression I gained on reading the book. It appeared much more to be the case that, without help and intervention from Western Christians, the lives of most of those we read about would never have overcome the challenges that they faced.

African countries have long railed against the West for it’s paternalistic and colonialist attitudes, but at the same time, in apparent contradiction, seem to welcome ongoing aid packages, and supplies of food, medicine and welfare, despite the rich mineral and agricultural resources that many of them have. This dependency was also evident in the church and amongst many African Christians in the years when Africa was my home. Now, two decades later, the rather disconcerting message from reading this book is that little seems to have changed on that front. Make no mistake, I admire and applaud the selfless and sacrificial dedication and giving of the Christian missionaries and benefactors which has wonderfully blessed the recipients. But the accounts I read about here are stories that are very reminiscent of the 1970s era (excluding the more recent added problems of HIV/AIDS) when the Mother Church in the West would be the sole source of support and sponsorship for impoverished African converts, underwriting all the needs of the ‘mission church’ in Africa.

I am not convinced that this book portrays a comprehensive or representative picture of the way God is building his church in Africa today. Indeed, that may not be its intention. It would appear to reflect a very limited perspective from snapshots of those who have benefited largely from Irish missionary sponsorship and expertise. I long to hear inspiring accounts of how Christians in Africa today are meeting challenges through the flourishing growth, support and initiatives of the local indigenous church. We all, surely, want to see evidence of an African Christianity that has moved on from simply being the recipients of European solutions. Undoubtedly it has done so in certain parts of the continent, but the subliminal impression gained on reading this book is that there is still a long way to go.

Notwithstanding the dependency that still seems so apparent in the various accounts recorded in “Journey of Hope”, the book does portray an inspiring glimpse of the enthusiasm, determination and vibrancy of faith characteristic of so many of Africa’s Christians.