I straddle two worlds. One foot in America. One foot in Africa. My heart is split. It’s an awkward place to be, as it stretches the legs upon which I stand. I would prefer to be in one place instead of straddled awkwardly across an ocean. Contrary to American doctrine, however, I think we’re supposed to be a little bit uncomfortable as we live within the tensions of this complicated world.
Lately, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just an ocean that separates us from Africa. Greater barriers have caused a distance between the two continents. Misunderstanding has turned goodwill into greater injustice. The media portrays Africans as victims, as children with flies on their faces, as statistics, as those we pity, and as those we judge with Western standards. Even with the best of intentions to help, I don’t think we truly understand Africans because we haven’t taken the time to listen and to share their stories in an honest and humanizing way.
Jeremy Cowart and I went to Africa with a desire to learn and a willingness to have our worldviews shattered. As we swapped stories with friends there, our understanding was reconstructed in a new and transformative way. It’s easy to romanticize our perceptions of Africa; it’s much harder to come, on a human level, to realize that we’re not all that different from one another.
It is true: the greatest humanitarian crisis of HIV/AIDS is attacking Africa with more power and momentum than we can believe. It is important to hear the stories of those whose battle for survival is every day, every minute, every waking breath. I hope that you will slip your feet into the shoes of another as you try to imagine what it must be like to live on a continent that has felt silent to and ignored by the rest of the world. More importantly, I hope that you will come to understand the humanity of our friends in Africa. May you capture the beauty and redemption of communities who have faced challenges and suffering with faith, strength, and resilience. May you begin to connect to Africans as people, and as your brothers and sisters. May these pages demonstrate hope’s ability to triumph over struggle.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. For one man, a picture was worth so much more. It meant that a thousand hearts would be transformed—not least of all his own. One day in 1986, Larry Warren bought a newspaper in an Atlanta airport, having no idea that when he opened its pages, his life would forever be changed by a simple, stunning photograph. The image of starving Ethiopians, without the basic essentials of life, grabbed his attention and captured his heart like nothing had before. He began to ask himself, “Do I have any responsibility to improve the conditions of these desperate people?” In response, he left business and founded African Leadership, an organization that has supported multiple relief and development projects, including orphanages, HIV/AIDS, vocational training projects, and food programs across the African continent. And it all started with one photo.
My trip to Africa came as a surprise to me and to those who knew me. Like most people, I was concerned about Africa—but that was it. I ignored the situation because I considered myself incapable of making a difference. Others were doing the work, so why should I even bother? When a friend invited me to go to Africa, I said yes because I thought it might be fun—not because I thought it might change my life.
My time there gave me the opportunity to connect with real people instead of the numbing statistics. I listened to the stories of brothers and sisters who have faced tremendous challenge, but who have also demonstrated incredible courage. I was humbled by the leadership within the villages, learning that it’s not about us going in to do all the work, but simply empowering communities to do the work themselves.
I never thought my passion for photography could actually connect to something like the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. I never imagined that simply capturing humanity through the lens of a camera could elicit such a powerful and compassionate response. However, Larry’s story proves that a single photo can move someone toward action. I hope the photos in this book allow you to feel like you were there with me. I hope they give you a taste of what it was like to walk through a world greater than our fears and misunderstandings. I hope they allow you to connect with the people; to understand their stories, struggles, and hope; and to join with them to do something. You don’t have to move to Africa and follow Larry’s path. But I do hope that you will allow these images of people who changed me to change you, too.
What keeps us apart from one another? Some would say an ocean. Others would say cultural differences. What must we change about ourselves to break down the wall that separates us? I think it begins by abandoning the pointed finger of blame. It begins by coming with humble spirits and a sincere desire to know one another. Otherwise, it becomes an us/them mentality, and the wall simply becomes thicker. Welcome to the face of the child who is so desperate for an embrace by the rest of the world.
"We know that Americans pity Africans," he told me. "But somtimes I think Africans pity Americans."
"How so?" I asked him.
"Americans seem to expect that everything will be provided for them. For us, " he said, "this ear of corn is a gift from God. This evening's rain is a shower of mercy upon us. This healthy breath is life-giving. And, maybe tomorrow we will not have such things, but our hearts are so full from God's provision."
"Where are the young women?" I asked them.
"We are the young women," she said. " Life has just been hard on us."
Beauty is skin deep.
Dignity is anchored in the soul.
She has both.
Jesus loves me.
**** Decisions I must make on any given day:
- Blue shirt or pink cardigan?
- Tall soy chai latte or Grande caramel macchiato?
- Write reports first or work on budget?
- Text message or call?
- Eat out or frozen dinner?
- Reality television or Headline News?
**** Decisions SHE must make on any given day:
- Blue dress or blue dress?
- River water or puddle water?
- Walk once for four hours to get water or walk twice for eight hours to get more water?
- Sleep with the fisherman who will give food in return or let orphaned grandchildren go to bed hungry?
- Persist through the struggle or give up?
- Curse God or praise Him?
She is more likely to die from AIDS than survive. She is more likely to bcome a commecial sex worker than go to school.
She is more likely to feel that the world has abandoned her than believe that someone values her life.
When she gave birth to an HIV-positive child, she named the baby "No Home," for there was none. The mother's life was an isolated tragedy of stigma, abandonment, and fear. But her community began to shower love instead of judgement, support instead of neglect... and everything changed. Glimpses of grace entered into the darkness of the pain, and hope made itself present. She has changed the name of her child to "Jesus is my Hope."
We walked along the dirt road to Muungano village where these words rested quietly on the brick wall next to a pharmacy shop. "What does Piny Pek mean?" I asked. "Heavy world," they said.
As I dragged my feet along the gravel with my head down, I found myself asking, "Why, God?" He told me, "Broken world, Daughter. Sin is real. Know and repent of your own, and then seek Justice and Love for my children. Do not lose hope, my child. Be an agent of Mercy." And I slowly breathed in the stench, but allowed hope and God's promises of mercy and healing to remain. This peace that lies within me is one of eternal pain surpassing faith in God's ultimate desire to shower mercy in the heaviest and most broken places.
The sores on her skin remind me that there is a Kingdom that has not yet come. The smile on her face reminds me that it is already here.
He has every reason in the world to be proud of himself. As a chairperson of the Nyamonge village, he organized his disease-ridden and over-burdened community to address the water crisis. He formed a water committee, trained the community in sanitation and hygiene, gathered a group of people to help with the digging, adn raised small amounts of money for a well. Though we helped him pay for the larger costs, he is the hero, and we are not, for it is his leadershop, courage, and persistence that have transformed Nyamonge. And that is the way that it should be.
"GOD is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house.
GOD is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives.
GOD is in the cries heard under the rubble of war.
GOD is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives,
and GOD is with us if we are with them."