The following is an excerpt from the newsletter of Daudi Msseemmaa, the ELCA’s regional representative in East Africa.
Rural people are accustomed to cycles of plenty and poverty. Livestock keepers, like the Maasai who live in my region, are even more so. During a severe drought in 2008-2009, I spent time in dusty villages where the carcasses of livestock littered the ground and hungry children fainted in class. There was a lot of suffering. But I did not encounter hopelessness, even among malnourished mothers whose couldn’t provide enough breast milk for their infants. They had a saying – God is far, but he is very near.
I recently recounted that memory with one of my elders – a theologian named Rev. Gabriel Kimirei. He said that in the Maasai traditional religion, there’s a belief that in the good times God is near with all his communal blessings. In the times of drought and communal suffering, God is far. But even when God is far, it won’t be long before he comes back.
This is not to minimize the suffering that our brothers and sisters go through in those seasons of hardship. There is no healthy outlook or ideology that will help you pass painlessly through losing loved ones or being unable to feed your children. It’s a hopeful posture through pain – understanding that it is a season that will pass.
In times like these when the coronavirus has taken so many lives and battered so many economies, and when flooding and locusts plague parts of our region, it would be easy to say that God is far. But our Christian tradition tells us God is a very present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46). God never leaves us. Still, adopting the cyclical way of seeing life can help us avoid despair during seasons like this. It requires breaking free from a linear way of looking at life as a journey from Point A to Point B or looking at time as the steady march of progress. In this view, life is instead like a circle, moving us all through despair and hope.
Daudi Msseemmaa is the ELCA’s regional representative for East Africa. He lives in Arusha, Tanzania, with his wife and children.