Is Africa mysterious?

I’m going to have to say ‘Yes’. Let me explain.

A few days ago, Leithart briefly summarized an essay on language by Charles Taylor’s here. In it, he defines “mystery” in this way:

Taylor suggests there are three facets to mystery: (1) It refers to something we cannot explain; (2) it refers to something that we cannot explain that also is “something of great depth and moment”; and (3), since “mystery” etymologically refers also to “the process of initiation, in which secrets are revealed,” a mystery is something we cannot understand so long as we take “a disengaged stance” to it, something that must be explored by immersion.

I’ve been searching for things on the web since the early nineties when I dialed in on a 9600 baud modem and used the Lynx text-browser and Alta Vista. I know how to find stuff online. I know how to find scholarly journals and rare works on WorldCat and order them up through my (seemingly unlimited!) access to the inter-library loan system. I’ve frankly, never had trouble finding more than enough information before about whatever I desired to know about. The challenge was always picking what to read from a vast ocean of options.

Now I have found myself in a far different and (shockingly) uncharted place. The past 18 months, I have spent most of my reading and personal research on the topic of life and Christianity in Africa, especially Ethiopia. I’ve scoured the library. I’ve hit Google a thousand times. I’ve dug through old and new journals. I’ve read blogs, I’ve read travelogues, I’ve looked for answers all over the place and I’ve come up with… not a heck of a lot.

“a mystery is something we cannot understand so long as we take “a disengaged stance” to it, something that must be explored by immersion.”

I seriously considered giving up several times and turning my attention elsewhere but the very fact that this topic has been difficult to study seemed to suggest that there are things of value buried here that few others have ever bothered to touch. So I’ve responded by diving in deeper and also casting a wider net. I’ve had to put away popular books and just focus on first-hand research, most of it published only in obscure journals and often poorly written. I’ve corresponded with several people living and serving in the country and tried to kindly ask for the straight dope. I’ve had the fortune of speaking with a local women who spent her childhood there, the daughter of missionaries in the south. I’ve exchanged emails with a pastor there as well as another man who operates an orphanage. I’ve learned to read more scraps of the language.

As I poke around I feel like I’ve just barely scratched the surface. At the same time, I am beginning to realize that I’ve already put together more pieces on this particular topic than, well, all but a tiny handful of people. I have friends writing their theses on some theological topic or trying to tease out one more tidbit on Augustine. Everywhere they turn, somebody seems to be so much smarter or well read. I find the same. I want to write something on a passage of scripture and I read some commentaries and conclude that I’m a moron. I want to develop a topic that Girard touched on and discover about 20 other people more qualified to write on it than I. I know that I have something valuable to contribute, but it can be stifling to be surround by so many smart guys writing really good material. Not so with this particular aspect of Africa. Everywhere I turn now, I’m surrounded by people that don’t have a clue. Or if they do, they only have experience with one small part of the picture I’m trying to cover. There is nobody to explain the picture to me. I’m having to dig it up a tiny piece at a time.

I stumbled upon this cool piece of music yesterday and its exemplary of the kind of difficulties I’m facing on this project. I actually heard this on the radio in the middle of the night. This song (music video below), is from Tukuleur, a French-speaking Senegalese hip-hop group. Its a cover (sort of) of the 1981 song ‘Africa’ by the band Toto. Pretty cool. It showed up on a world music compilation CD a few years ago. I’d love to hear some more of their stuff. Can you find it on iTunes? No. Surely you can buy their album on Amazon. Never heard of ’em. They look kind of interesting; I’ll go read the Wikipedia article on the band. Ha! Good luck. Oh! I know, I’ll check the French Wikipedia. Nice try. Nope. Library loan can surely find it for me. Here it is. Oh, the only copy of their album is non-circulating in a library in Lyon, France. Google… practically nothing. What about the usually rich AllMusic? Nothing.

Start using your ears. I swear I hear (uncredited) Mah Damba, the griot singer from Mali on the interlude after the chorus. Who knows? I finally found a stray copy for sale on eBay. The title proclaims “RARE!!!”. They’re not kidding. I am informed that a lot of pop music in Ethiopia is still only available on cassette tape.

(Do yourself a favor and listen to this – even if you don’t like rap one bit.)

That’s how I feel about nearly everything I’ve tried to learn about Ethiopia. This liturgy book is used by literally millions of people. Is there an English translation? No. This guy could help me. Does he have an email address? Of course not. This map is way out of date. This book is full of communist propaganda from the 1980s and not helpful. This book has all the same tourist crap in the last one did. This author was right there in the thick of it, but only wrote down some boring things about politics. Arg. Huge gaps abound.

People think Africa isn’t mysterious anymore since the entire Congo jungle is on Google Maps. Not so. To discover almost anything that actually matters still requires immersion, as far as I can tell. And (warning!) when you are immersed, YOU change and the questions you asked before turn out to be the wrong questions.