Glimmers of Hope: Memoir of a VSO in Zambia by Mark Burke

Glimmer is right. Mr. Burke, who served as a math teacher in a rural Zambian school for boys from 2004 to 2006, under the auspices of the VSO (a British something like the American Peace Corps?), left Zambia disillusioned and rather disgusted with the “wastefulness and inefficiencies” that were “trapping Zambia in self-fulfilling, perpetual stagnation.”

“I had been sceptical of religion beforehand and my experiences in Africa had cemented my poor opinion of Christianity in particular. Christianity was paraded endlessly in Zambia, but I often reflected that I never really met anyone there who I would consider genuinely Christian, most especially those in the employ of the church.”

Perhaps Mr. Burke is right, and all Zambian Christians are hypocrites and materialistic, selfish beggars. Or perhaps he found what he expected to find in the Christians of Zambia.

“In the context of Zambia I came to see Christianity not just as harmless nonsense but as positively dangerous. It encouraged irrational thinking and opposed the development of Reason. I had always had this view of religion, but now saw it brutally in action in a poverty-stricken country.”

He attributes almost all aspects of Zambian behavior and culture that he does not like and finds backward and unreasonable to “a lack of critical faculties encouraged by the sheepish following of religion.” It’s the Enlightenment versus the Age of Faith, Frederick the Great versus Bach, debate all over again.

I could not escape the impression that Mr. Burke came to Zambia hostile to Christianity, and he found in Zambian culture reasons to support his hostility. I’m sure that were I to go to Zambia I would find problems within the Zambian church and in the practice of Christianity in that country, but since I am a committed Christian I would see issues and aberrations that needed to be fixed rather than an entire belief system that needed to be jettisoned in favor of a devotion to Reason and Western common sense.

If Christianity is a foundational part of Zambian culture at this point in history, wouldn’t it make sense for even secular aid workers and others who want to help Zambians pull themselves out of poverty and stagnation and ignorance to work with the prevailing culture and help them to live up to the tenets of their faith rather than criticize the people for their Christian “obsession” in the first place? Should outsiders really damn the Christian message itself for not living up to whatever secular heights of Reason the author wants the Zambian people to scale? If your preconceived attitude is that Christianity is equivalent to superstition, then you will find evidence to support that notion wherever you go. Because of my underlying, entirely reasonable, preconceptions, I find Reason itself to be an inadequate god, and I believe that persons in the helping professions need a foundation that is stronger than secularism to provide strength and purpose over the long haul.

I thought this book was informative in regard to the problems in Zambia, but short on answers and quite lacking in a genuine empathy for the Zambian people. Unfortunately, Mr. Burke comes away from his “missions” experience discouraged and dominated by compassion fatigue. He does mention some of those “glimmers of hope”, one or two aid programs that he thinks might be somewhat effective, but the main themes of the memoir consist of disillusionment and disappointment.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote a fiction book after completing her work with the Quechua people in Ecuador in which she meditates on the inability of missionaries to effect change in a culture and on the unfathomable ways of God. The book is called No Graven Image, and it should be required reading for missionaries and other Christian aid workers. In the story, Margaret Sparhawk goes to South America to work with the Quichua (just as Elliot did). While there her most basic assumptions about God and about the effectiveness of missions work are challenged. The difference between Ms. Sparhawk’s fictional experience and Mr. Burke’s real-life experience is that even though the fictional missionary finds out that God does not always “bless” the work, it is the calling and the service lived out before Him that matter.

Again, Mr. Burke has some valid questions about Christianity as it is lived out in the context of Zambian culture and to tell the truth, as it is lived out many times in the U.S. and in other places. It is true that atheists are sometimes more compassionate and more honest than those who claim to follow Jesus. But I could wish that Mr. Burke would have looked a little more carefully in Zambia and elsewhere in his life experience to acknowledge that not all Christians are hypocrites and not all of the consequences of a Christian worldview are negative.

6 thoughts on “Glimmers of Hope: Memoir of a VSO in Zambia by Mark Burke

  1. mark burke

    …lost a previous comment ? Anyhow i was going to make the point that Frederick the Great was one of the first modern rulers to abolish torture and introduce religious toleration. German ignorance of this says more about their history education and perhaps embarrassment that Hitler looked up to Frederick.

  2. mark burke

    regarding my own experience of Christianity in Africa, I must qualify that my comments are largely directed against the Catholic Church, one of the more dogmatic institutions which is currently seeking to beatify a Pope who protected paedohiles ! My comments about religion in general are indeed harsh, but perhaps slightly taken out of context. I also admit in my memoir :’The best that could be said of Christianity in Zambia is that it may have contributed to social cohesion and kept a lid on tribal tensions. That was no small achievement, And perhaps without religion things may have been even worse in Zambia ; I don’t know. I can only judge what I saw, and I saw religion promising a lot and not delivering. Like government, the Church was another power structure being abused, and the problem may have been the environment rather than the idea itself ; when democracy is abused we do not say democracy is a bad thing. ‘
    It is true that religion has inspired much great work, but any creed which makes such claims to truth and holds so much power over people’s lives ( especially in the developing world ) must have the highest standards for itself. It is not enough to say ‘ not all Christians are hypocrites’ – we must ask, why are so many ?

  3. mark burke

    My own answer to that, would be in Zambia circumstances literally reduce people’s choices – hence the prevalence of corruption. Whilst the Church can provide Hope, my point is that despite being largely a moral creed, the bitter reality and harshness of life in Zambia means that this message is ineffective ( hence for example the brutal failure of abstinence campaigns to halt HIV – it is scientists and ARV’s which have turned the tide against AIDS in Zambia ) and the ineffectiveness leads to hypocrisy which spreads to other areas of life e.g politics and governance.

  4. mark burke

    I must also add that i do not think i lack genuine empathy for the Zambian people – i discuss at length why many Zambians behaved as they did, and add that I would probably would have done the same if i were not just a ‘visitor’. I may have lacked genuine empathy for that relatively wealthy section of Zambian society who preached Christianity and did little to help the more needy, and Christian reviewers always find this hard to stomach. But i discuss at length my empathy for courageous groups like the NZP+ , and the genuinely needy in Zambia. It is a shameful misrepresentation to imply that I saw all Zambians as shameless, hypocritical beggars.
    it is a good point that development efforts are likely more successful if they embrace the existing culture, but it is a shame as always that people think a religion is necessary in order to treat their fellow man with decency. It is also a shame that Chrisitianity has destroyed much of the native culture and confused so many Africans about who they really are.

  5. Mark and everyone who is reviewing his book “Glimmers Of Hope”. I have been embedded 4 months out of each year since 2006 in Livingstone Zambia, have an NGO to help street orphans and I am telling you EVERYthing, and I mean everything Mark writes is true…not exaggerated…not negative….it is all true. Actually, I found your book to be written in a positive way which I don’t think I could hve pulled off given the facts and my 5 years there. If anyone thinks otherwise, they haven’t had Marks, or my, experience. In fact, for me it has been like DeJavue(never could spell that word). Laughed a lot too. Mark, you do not have to justify anything. This is a culture no one can understand unless they have been embedded as you have been over an extended period of time. You wrote my book. All of it is my experience. I could not put your book down. Criticisms can only come from people who have not had your experience. Criticisms are probably from a young person who went there because it was the chi chi thing to do and did so via Daddy’s money or the person is an intellectual which means they didn’t “get it”. And that is perhaps the problem with why there is no positive change over an extended period of time.Enabling. I went “starry eyed” as you did…and each time I come, the second week I begin to say “why, what am I doing?” and each time I leave I decide not to go back, then I do. Yours is an authentic book. Perhaps people are critcising because you hit the bulls eye and no one wants to take the fizz out of their fantasy.

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