Watching Emmanuel Katongole in his native land of Uganda last November, the first description that came to mind about the Catholic priest and Duke theologian and professor was not “resident alien of global Christianity.” But as fellow co-director of the Duke Center for Reconciliation, I knew that for Emmanuel it was exactly that strange sense of identity that offered unique gifts to the conversation we convened with Christian leaders who had gathered from the surrounding conflict-torn region.
On the plane back to the United States a few days later, a conversation with a flight attendant, an American like me, spoke to the need on the other side of the Atlantic.
He asked where I had just been.
“Uganda,” I said.
He looked puzzled. “Were you there doing mission work?”
“Ah … no,” I said. After all we had experienced, it definitely didn’t feel like the right word, too much about me changing them.
“Did you have bodyguards?”
“Oh, no,” I said with a chuckle.
“The land of Idi Amin, huh?” The movie The Last King of Scotland had just been released, portraying the infamous Ugandan dictator-president who ruled the country in the 1970s.
“Actually,” I said, “Uganda is a place of incredible beauty and hospitality. You definitely should go sometime.”
One brief conversation, three prevailing stories of Africa: a continent for Americans to save; a continent not of gifts but only to fear; a continent of impoverished leadership.
The need to disrupt standard visions of Africa seems all the more important given the enormous attention the continent draws these days. From Bono’s humanitarian pleas to booming Christian mission on the continent, from celebrity adoptions and Oscar-nominated movies like Blood Diamond, Babel and The Last King of Scotland to the shift of Christianity’s vitality from North to South, all roads seem to lead to Africa.
If Emmanuel was right about the dangers of a “sentimental humanitarianism” in all this, the journey with him from Duke to Uganda and back offered a profound contrast of story-telling and conversations. Here was a Catholic within a Methodist setting, an African living in the United States, a village-born-and-bred son of Uganda teaching in a wealthy research university, going “home” and back again and again in the name of a “fresh conversation about Africa” and “interrupting dialogue.” Something embodied in his own “strange situation” or “pilgrim identity” as he called it, was what was required for the church to shape a more hopeful future on the African continent.