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book review, books, faith-based, global, social justice

Love and Death in the Kingdom of Swaziland by Glenn Cheney

Cheney’s writing is a matter-of-fact style that does not beat around the bush of the issues facing Swaziland. The account follows two nuns who dedicate their lives to helping children and families in Swaziland facing enormous problems (HIV/AIDS epidemic, poverty, violence, hunger, etc.). I was not sure I was going to enjoy this book when I first picked it up since I am very critical about western authors writing about cultures and issues we do not (fully) understand. Swazi culture may not seem civilized to us because it falls outside the norm of western culture. Cheney surprised me by addressing this fact up front, acknowledging his western perspective, and asserting that the sister’s goals were not to push religion or other western values onto the Swazi people. Simply, they were there out of love and the want to help. Love and Death in the Kingdom of Swaziland

For those who are passionate about providing aid and support for Southern Africa (and other countries), many questions have been prompted by this book. These questions transcends the immediate need for aid, and looks at the long term solution for Swaziland. How can we bring greater medical care while still upholding and encouraging Swazi spiritual beliefs? How can we support women and children while still supporting the Swazi values of family? How can we change a culture of violence without assimilating Swazi culture to Western ‘norms’? As outsiders, where is our place really?

My philosophy usually falls around the spot of… helping sometimes hurts more than we think. As westerners, we have a huge savior complex. We go in with lofty goals to create programs and systems that will radically change the landscape of “third-world” nations. We think we know better. So what are we missing? Why in some circumstances are communities left off worse than before these non-profits or missionaries enter the community? I think the answer has two parts. First, we tend not to recognize the the knowledge and skills of the people in the community. We focus on providing aid rather than empowering the people in the community. Only by empowering a community will we ever get to the goal of a sustainable system for positive change. And that is the second part in my opinion: sustainability. Often, programs are set up in communities with no plan to sustain them. Without the support, training, and resources needed, these programs will fall apart.

Cheney does not take a deep dive into these questions and that was not his intent. In fact, I think he ends this book in a place of very little hope, which I was a little disappointed about. I want to take a moment to say that there will be setbacks in this work, there is no simple solution, it will take the effort of many folks, including the Swazi people and government, and one (in this case two) people can really make a difference. Hopefully future authors (or Cheney himself) and future missionaries can start to explore these questions within the Swazi context as well as other cultures. Overall, I thought the book was a good read for anyone interested in learning more about the issues that Swaziland is facing and some of the steps folks have taken towards a solution.

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