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.

Care for the Vulnerable:a book review

Levi Benkert was a successful Sacramento businessman until 2009 when the economic downturn forced him to close his business.  While his life in California was falling apart he was presented an opportunity to go to Ethiopia to rescue orphans. A tribe in the south of Ethiopia  regards some children born under certain conditions as ‘mingi‘ or ‘cursed.’ These were children who are conceived without the parents announcing their intentions to the tribal elders or children who’s top teeth come in before their bottom teeth or any number of differences from what is considered ‘normal ‘ in that culture. The tribe lives in fear that if the mingi child remained in their midst they would bring on them ill will from evil spirits. So the traditional practice was to abandon them to die from exposure or starvation.  However through the mediation of a local man named Simi and some German photographers (who were there short-term), the tribe agreed to allow Simi to remove the children from the tribal land instead of killing the kids.

Levi embarks on a two week mission where he sees these kids who were rescued, feels acutely the weight of the problem  and is moved to do whatever he can to help. Shortly thereafter he returned to Jinka, Ethiopia with his wife and three kids to run an orphanage for the rescued children. They had sold all their belongings and lived off support that a church gave to them. As Levi tells his story, he in honest about where he and his family wrestled with culture shock, personal motives (was here to escape his business failures or to help?), mistakes he made, and the challenge of being both culturally sensitive and courageous in his stance against injustice. This is a Christian story, and so the themes of surrender and trust in God permeate Levi’s life in Ethiopia.

Without giving you all the details of Levi’s story ( read the book for yourself), the situation with the tribes in Southern Ethiopia has changed somewhat with the Ethiopian government taking a more active interest in managing orphans.  Levi and his family now run another orphanage in Addis Ababa which places orphan children in homes with widow care takers (a creative way of fulfilling James 1:27).

Despite my enthusiasm about missions, I sometimes am wary of  problems in various missionary organizations (i.e. ethnocentricity, paternalism, etc.). I also am suspicious of much of the international adoption agencies because of an array of injustices perpetuated by some organizations. On either score, I found little in Levi Benkert’s memoir to make me wary of his project. He and his wife decided to adopt one of the ‘mingi‘ children, and were involved with setting up adoptions for others but tried to do so in ways that respected Ethiopian culture but didn’t profiteer from the children or the system. They conducted their mission in Jinka and Addis Ababa with a high level of integrity. I was pretty impressed. That being said, I know nothing of their mission except what I have read in this book and have not researched the situation myself. A ‘Note to Reader’ at the end of the book gives the link to their ministry website for those who want to learn more.  On a personal note, I find books like this where people take huge risks to do something good inspiring. You probably will too.

I received this blog from Tyndale Publishing House in exchange for this fair and balanced review.