You don’t have to be very well acquainted with the history of missionaries in Africa or international aid groups, or the Millennium Villages Project (Jeffrey Sachs), or any interventionist attempt on the part of any western institution anywhere to help poor Africans to know that these things often don’t turn out well.
The most well intentioned (and well funded) programs produce unintentional consequences, disrupt local economies, and have unpredictable ripple effects many of which end up leaving people worse off than they were before the projects began. You begin to suspect that the large organizations that produce the slick brochures you inevitably receive in the mail at Christmas, give altruistic liberals or misguided Christians something to do to make themselves feel better more than they actually benefit the people they mean to help.
Poor Millionaires: The Village Boy Who Walked to the Western World and the American Boy Who Followed Him Home, is the story of Daylight Center and School for orphans of war in Kenya, as told by Michael Kimpur a former village herdsboy turned World Vision Sponsor Child and told from the perspective of his American college roommate Nathan Roberts.
Poor Millionaires is a thoroughly refreshing, extraordinarily honest (and honestly hopeful) account amidst this depressing morass of institutional failures.
In large part because it isn’t the story of an institution–it’s a story about a relationship between two people who readily admit to their brokenness, mistakes, misunderstandings, and failures yet still manage to create something beautiful together.
It is also (very significantly) not a book about a white man’s vision to save Africa (Thank God.) I heard many sermons from missionaries on furlough as a kid, most of them delivered by zealous white men. As a college student I worked with mission organizations in Mali, Honduras and Nicaragua–all of them powered by white men who passionately believed in their vision. Poor Millionaires is an enormously welcome antidote to the umpteen stories of great white men of vision.
The book reads like a novel. Roberts and Michael Kimpur meet by chance in the cafeteria of a Minnesota Christian college where Michael is studying organizational leadership on a scholarship and Nathan is deconstructing and reconstructing his faith.
The reader learns about their histories as the narrative swings back and forth between stories of Michael in Kenya and Nathan in Minnesota.
The juxtaposition of these distinct realities is powerful.
Michael flees his drought-ridden homestead when a rival nomadic tribe attacks it to steal cattle. Nathan leaves his home in a wealthy suburb to study in Greece where he worries about purity and who’s going to hell after they die.
Nathan has father issues, Michael lives for years without knowing if his father was killed in the raid by the rival tribe.
Nathan memorizes the details of an impressionist painting in his therapist’s office, Michael deals with 30 orphans from his village who turn up at his door and who he must figure out how to feed.
Nathan gains weight, the Pokot tribe doesn’t have enough food to eat or water to drink. Nathan nurses his depression watching Seinfeld re-runs in his parent’s basement while Michael negotiates peace in the midst of nomadic warfare.
The reader isn’t pounded over the head with facts and figures about disparity or injustice.
Instead, we come to recognize the imbalances intimately and profoundly as the narrative weaves back and forth between Nathan and Michael’s lives. The book by no means tries to coax the reader into guilty self consciousness or some heroic self denial, rather it attempts to tell the truth about the struggles of living as vulnerable human beings in this complex and ragged world–wherever you land in it–whether your struggles are with disappearing grazing land in the African desert or the changing nature of faith in American culture.
Robert’s often understated (sometimes uproarious) self-deprecating sense of humor is one of the most delightful parts of the book. He is funny and human and he’s not afraid to look hapless or defeated. He sweats and cries and “reaches for the anxiety medication in his back pack” in the Kenyan desert when he first encounters the Pokot herdsmen armed with AK-47’s.
This is the antithesis to the great white men stories I heard growing up. As he enters into the endeavor with Michael, Nathan is tentative and questioning. When Michael tells him he needs his help to start a school in Kenya, Nathan asks “why me?” Michael answers, “Because you are teachable, and where we’re going you need to be teachable.” This is a beautiful reversal from the usual story.
Michael is smart, good natured, and forgiving, with a sense of humor that is different from Nathan’s but just as winning. We hear his affable and melodious voice throughout the dialogue so accurately reconstructed (I know–I’ve heard Michael speak and Nathan gets it so right on.)
Though realities we have created in North America (private ownership, mass incarceration, the dealth penalty, the merciless dominion of the clock) often look ignorant and brutal in the face of the values Michael learned in the Pokot tribe:
“We don’t own things in the same way people seem to here in America. This is our truck because you are one of us. In Africa it is always us”
Michael explains that in Pokot culture
“a punishment is meant to reform the person as quickly as possible so the criminal can be brought back into the group… In America there is the potential to give up on somebody, to leave them outside the community. But there are no prisons in the desert, and without prisons the elders have two choices; reform you or kill you… if they kill you they are not only losing a good worker, but also a brother, and a son. And the desert has already taken so many of our sons.”
Michael never delivers this wisdom in a ranting, shaming or heavy-handed manner. But he is resolutely, relentlessly dogged in pursuit of his dream to give children from the nomadic tribes of Kenya the same opportunities for education that he was given as a World Vision sponsor child when he happened upon a missionary couple after being lost in the desert following the raid on his homestead.
Perhaps Daylight succeeds where other western funded projects fail, because it is truly, veritably led by the party with the most intimate knowledge of the people it intends to help.
Michael is the leader, the visionary in this story. But he is not a romanticized hero. He drinks too much beer one winter night in Minnesota, drives his car onto a frozen lake and gets a DUI. You won’t hear these sorts of stories from many organizations trying to put on a good face in order to raise money to help people. (There was nothing remotely like this in any of the stories I heard about missionaries growing up.) But it is precisely this books willingness to reveal the messiness at the heart of any human endeavor that sets it apart from the usual gloss of this genre.
Poor Millionaires is not a story about heroes or saints. It is the truthful tale of an unlikely friendship between beautiful and messed-up humans and their fumbling sort of path toward something profoundly hopeful. I look forward to following the story of Daylight as the chapters continue to unfold.