Helping Orphans in Africa. What’s the Twist?: a book review

A Twist of Faith: An American Christians’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa by John Donnelly

Maybe it is the unknown. Or maybe it is the images we all have seen of starving children with their sunken eyes and distended bellies, but nothing seems to pull at the heartstrings of the Christian community more than the plight of orphans in Africa. This is especially true when you consider the reality of war, drought and an AIDS epidemic which is ravishing the continent. Many American do-gooders have gone to Africa, see the need, and feel compelled to take action. They send money, start orphanages, schools and feeding centers; however, despite their good intentions and heartfelt concern, the efforts of missionaries and NGO’s do not always give what Africans need or want and sometimes end up compounding problems.

John Donnelly, a journalist with the Boston Globe and a Kaiser Family Foundation fellow, has written a book exploring the effects of American (Christian) intervention with orphans in Africa. While he provides factual data and analysis of what Christians (and other Americans) are doing in Africa and the impact it is having, much of the book tells the story of David Nixon, a carpenter from North Carolina who grows concerned about Africa through his participation on the Mission’s committee at his church. Nixon travels to Malawi, where he intends to start an orphanage, though this is not what the people there want. He amends his original plan and starts a school and feeding center which helps 350 children (who still get to go home and are cared for those in their own community).  Donnelly’s narrative of Nixon unfolds his struggle to keep his mission afloat while facing financial and internal challenges, Nixon’s struggle to understand and minister effectively in an African context, and the personal challenges he faces at home in North Carolina.

Donnelly paints a sympathetic portrait of Nixon, who becomes more and more astute about how to best help the Africans. But the over all message of Donnelly’s book goes farther than Nixon. Donnelly challenges American Christians to pay attention to ‘how’ they set about helping their neighbors in Africa.  He interviews both Africans and community based non-profits who talk about the damaging ways in which American Christians have come with preconceived notions of what Africa needs without ever listening to the community that they have come to serve.  Donnelly makes a strong case for community based development, where outsiders work with local communities to discover what they need. From what I know of community development (albeit in a Western context) this seems like the right approach. However I think more needs to be said about how leadership of these initiatives becomes indigenized.

Donnelly makes a compelling case against Christian missionaries starting foreign orphanages. There are no more orphanages in America because people have seen how placing a child in institutional care damages them psycho-socially. Instead, we have, for its promises opted for placing orphans in foster and permanent care. When you take a child from another culture and place them in an orphanage, the problem is compounded. You have children who grow up apart from their local community and when they are released from the orphanage (because they come of age) cannot function in their own culture because it is foreign to them.  Working with the local community seems to be what will give orphans their best chance.

Towards the end of the book, Nixon makes similar observations about ‘feeding centers’ not addressing the root of problems but fostering dependence. The book ends with the future of Nixon’s organization in Malawi uncertain. But I am impressed by the integrity and humility of Nixon and hope that, with all that he has learned, he continues his mission to help the children of Malawi, even if he still doesn’t get everything right (do any of us?).

If this book is of interest to you, here is a link to chapter one on Scribd:

And here is a link to David Nixon’s organization The NOAH project:

Note: Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Published by


I am a pastor, husband, father, instigator, pray-er, hoper, writer, trouble-maker, peacemaker, and friend. Who are you?

One thought on “Helping Orphans in Africa. What’s the Twist?: a book review”

  1. Wow. This seems like a powerful read. It’s true though, we always assume we know best on how to help others that we often forget to actually listen to them. A humbling lesson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.