Treating Africa’s Headaches

Beyond “Monkey” Solutions

By: Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, PhD

                       “The heart of the African problem is the African heart”--SKP

My plea in this article is that, in our well-meaning effort to do something about the plight of our continent, we must first correctly diagnose the problem. Failure to do so will result in offering “monkey solutions.”And “monkey solutions” are more deadly than the problems they seek to solve. Let me explain.

Monkey Solutions

I derive the expression “monkey solution” from a story I heard from one of Ghana’s pre-eminent statesmen—an Oxford-trained social anthropologist, a prolific author, and a theologian. His name is Dr. Peter Kwasi Sarpong, the Archbishop Emeritus of the Catholic Church in Kumasi, Ghana.

The Retired Archbishop was the special Guest of Honor on the opening night of a 3-day “African Must Think” lectures I was conducting in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city.  His assignment was to give a short introductory speech to set the tone for my first presentation. As he concluded his insightful address, he told the story of some monkeys to warn against acting from well-meaning ignorance.  It is from his story that I’ve coined the expression “monkey solution.” Let me retell the story:

One day, as raging floodwaters covered their land, a group of monkeys quickly ran and climbed to the top of trees. From the top of the trees, they looked down at the turbulent waters below, and to their consternation, they saw fishes swimming energetically and jumping about in the flood.

The fishes seemed to be enjoying themselves. Yet it had to be a false impression, the monkeys concluded. The fishes were in a dangerous situation. The truth was, the fishes were fighting for their lives. It was a shame that they could not escape to the hills since fishes did not have legs.

On seeing the predicament of the fishes, the monkeys decided to help. They jumped down from the trees, waded in at the edge of the flood, and with much difficulty, caught the fishes one by one and placed them on dry land. After some time, there was a great pile of fish lying on the ground, all of them motionless.

The monkeys told themselves: “You see how tired the fishes are; they are just sleeping and resting. Had it not been for us, my friends, all these poor fishes without legs would have drowned.”

Then one monkey said: “Yes, at first they were trying to escape us because they could not understand our good intentions. But when they wake up, they will be very grateful because we have brought them salvation.”

Salvation? No, the monkeys had not brought the fishes salvation. Rather, their ignorance of the way of life of fishes had brought destruction upon the fishes!

Here’s the point of the story: In the face of danger, ignorance in action is as dangerous as stupidity or inaction. Or as the Word of God says, “Ignorant zeal is worthless; haste makes waste” (Proverbs 19:2; Message).

It is this same caution that I want to share in this short “Africa Arise” article—a journal whose stated purpose is to “combat Africa’s unique challenges from a Biblical perspective.”I underscore the phrase “biblical perspective.” This emphasis is what is all too often amiss in the myriads of panaceas prescribed for the ills of Africa. It is the important but overlooked lens through which we must view the lamentable dysfunction that is the African problem. And without a correct diagnosis of our problems, we shall end up offering monkey solutions.

 Treating Our Headaches

In order to address the issues facing our continent, we must not treat the challenges we face like the way we tend to treat our common headaches.

When a person has headache, what do we typically do? We quickly and freely dispense the advice: “Take aspirin, drink a lot of water, get some sleep, etc. etc.” All these panaceas assume that we know the root cause of the headache. Meanwhile, our guesses may or may not be true. And if they are not valid, we’d have wasted time and resources trying to address the problem, with solutions that might prove ineffective or fatal.

But what SHOULD we do when we have headache? We must go to a competent doctor to carefully diagnose the cause of the headache and offer an effective prescription.  This is what we must do with respect to our plight in Africa.

Yes, Africa has problems. We see it in the widespread and unbridled corruption, in the lack of transparency and accountability in government, senseless tribalism and wars, mediocre leadership, whining and victim mentality, culture of dependency and begging for everything, etc.

Africa’s headache also manifests itself in other ways. For example, instead of raising millionaires and billionaires, we’ve succeeded in producing nillionaires (people with a lot of nothing or people with next to nil). The richest continent in the world is inhabited by the poorest people on the globe. Mediocrity is the new standard of excellence. PHD means “Pull Him Down” or “Pull Her Down.” We excel at hammering those who stand out. And we clip the wings of our soaring eagles so they can become chickens like us. This is Africa. It is not the Africa that ought to be. Somebody must ask Why? By asking this question, we can begin to address the what and how solution to our African problem.

It is here, at this diagnostic level of asking “why,” that Bible-believing Christians can bring something to the table that is often missing in discussions about African issues. It is their privilege and responsibility to go to the heart of our problems, inviting Africa’s most competent doctor (God) to tell us the root cause of, and the solutions to, our problems.

The Heart of Africa’s Problems

When we reflect biblically on the why of our African condition, we shall come to the conclusion that the heart of the African problem is the African heart. This heart must be transformed if this is to be a lasting cure to our ills. The heart, biblically speaking, is a reference to our mindset.

Stated differently, the root of our continent’s woes is our mind-set—the way of thinking that has impacted our behavior and outlook in life. This African problem is a variation of the general human condition. The Bible describes it as our inherent bondage to self-centeredness or selfishness and offers mind renewal or heart transformation as the effective cure.

Three Bible texts are relevant to our diagnosis and prescription to our condition: Ephesians 4:23, Romans 12:2, and Romans 1:28.

In Ephesians 4:23 Paul says, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” The phrase “the spirit of your mind” suggests, at the very least, that the human mind is more than just a sophisticated computer that stores information, manages data, and relays them to the heart for appropriate emotional responses. The mind has a “spirit.” In other words, our mind has what we call an attitude or a bent—a leaning in a particular direction. It has a “mind-set.” It doesn’t just have a view; it has a viewpoint. It doesn’t just have the power to perceive and detect; it also has a posture, a demeanor, a bearing. And this mind or mind-set must be renewed.

The phrase in Ephesians 4:23 (“Be renewed in the spirit of your mind”) is strikingly parallel to Romans 12:2 in its call for mind renewal: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

So, then, the problem with our mind is that it’s naturally inclined in the wrong direction. Our choices and actions are bent on not seeing God as infinitely more worthy of praise than we are. We think we are smarter than God or don’t need Him. We think our opinions, our morality, perceptions on reality, etc., are far superior to God’s. Hence, we want to have our own way. We don’t want Him to tell us what to think or do. We want independence from Him.

This is what we find in Romans 1:28: “And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting.” Some other Bible versions render the phrase “debased mind” as “depraved mind,” “degenerate mind,” “corrupted minds,” or “foolish thinking.”I like the translation by Holman Christian Standard Bible: “And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a worthless mind to do what is morally wrong” (HCSB).

If we want to know the root cause of Africa’s poverty, wars, greed, genocide, corruption, etc., it has to do with our twisted thinking or mind-set. But in making this assertion, I’m not suggesting that the problem with our mind-set excludes ignorance, illiteracy, and superstition that are rife on the continent. Not at all. Ignorance is included in the mind-set issue. This is why in the Ephesians 4 passage the apostle Paul stated earlier:

“This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:17, 18).

Paul says that included in the problem of the mind—the “futility of the mind”—is a “darkened understanding” and a willful “ignorance,” both of which are rooted in “the blindness of the heart.”

In short, the Scriptures affirm that the problem with our minds is not merely that we are finite and don’t have all the information that education can provide. The problem is that our minds are fallen. They have a spirit, a bent, a tendency or mind-set that is hostile to the supreme authority of God. As such, for any good to come, the mind must be renewed or transformed.

Beyond Monkey Solutions

The implications of the above diagnosis of the African problem is beyond the limitations of this short article. For now, it’s only important to assert that without this correct diagnosis and acknowledgment of our problems, we shall end up offering monkey solutions.

So, then, the challenges facing contemporary Africa—e.g., misplaced priorities, corruption, nepotism, tribalism, war, hunger, disease, culture of dependency, abuse of power, etc.—can only be effectively addressed by a new breed of Africans whose minds have been renewed or transformed. Our continent’s problems can only be effectively addressed by Africans with a new mindset. A new psyche or psychology. And this begins at the heart level. I refer to this heart renewal as “mind liberation.”

We need a transformed mind. Not refurbished, not recycled, but a completely new mind. And the call for a new breed of Africans does not necessarily mean a new generation yet unborn, but a generation of Africans today who will start doing things differently in a way that will get the results that have up till now eluded us.

 So, at the risk of over repeating myself, let me conclude by saying this: There’s nothing wrong with the African mind. Our problem is the African mind-set. It is not a lack of resources, but a deficit of resourcefulness. And ours is not merely a need for more educated minds, but also for more transformed minds. In other words, the heart of the African problem is the African heart. This heart needs transformation, which can only come by the renewing of the mind. And this mind or heart renewal cannot be effected by a mere classroom education. Only God can change the heart—if we allow Him.

We need the “mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5-8). Once the spirit or attitude is right, once the heart is right, we can see our problems with new eyes and approach them in ways hitherto untried. For, when our old mind-sets are replaced by the “mind of Christ,” we shall display Christ’s life of excellence, humility, and service.