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Human Folly on a Grand Scale (Amos 6:4; I Tim. 6:9)

by Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 27, 1989, p. 843. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The readings for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost confirm the ascetic ideal, the wisdom that says that we should be divested of this world and its pleasures. Clearly, if we curbed our appetite, or otherwise practiced self-control, we would be none the worse for wear. But the texts’ ascetic ideal also applies to the balance between society and the natural world.

Amos declares, "Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the midst of the stall" (6:4) . The reference to ivory opens a burning ecological issue: the threatened extinction of the elephant. The process began a hundred years ago when virgin forests were invaded and European technology was hitched to the colonial juggernaut to open up east and central Africa. European officials had little understanding of the profound environmental consequences of their actions. Colonial pioneering and blood-sport shared a deep affinity, and Africa offered superabundant opportunities for both. Young men came out to earn their spurs, and glory for the nation. The trails they blazed through the heart of the continent encouraged the reckless destruction of wildlife habitat.

In his deeply evocative book The End of the Game. Peter Beard describes the history of the assault on the majestic game life of east and central Africa. The story includes the saga of a young Cambridge graduate, Ewart Scott Grogan, who vowed to walk from Cape Town to Cairo to convince a reluctant would-be father-in-law to give his daughter in marriage. Setting out in February 1898, Grogan plunged into Africa in Homerian pursuit of his romantic prize, ascending Africa from southern tip and emerging at the other end, to everyone’s consternation. Africa’s mystery had been dispelled, and a whole continent of over 11.7 million square miles lay prostrate, waiting for an avid Europe to subdue it at its spine and limbs.

Europe wasted little time in asserting its authority. Completing the east-west Uganda railroad in December 1901, Europeans laid plans for a south-north line. The Uganda railroad had been built in fiendishly difficult terrain. Although it ran for a fraction of the distance, it paralleled in scale, feat and daring Grogan’s south-north march. The Rift Valley that cuts the continent in two had to be sewn together by tracks, clips and clamps. Workers progressed across the 29-mile Rift through volcanic rock and over steam vents on the valley floor, and then descended from a summit of over 8,000 feet to Lake Victoria in the valley below -- a feat requiring 11,845 running feet of viaducts, some up to 881 feet long and more than 110 feet above the earth. When it was done, the railway consisted of 582 miles of permanent track, weighing 50 pounds per yard, with 162 bridges. The men had dug 326 culverts, laid more than 1,000 drainpipes and erected 41 stations.

Europe used the railroad to penetrate the continent in remorseless pursuit of game: lions, leopards, gazelles, rhinos, hippopotami and especially elephants and their precious tusks. The animals reacted to this intrusion with elemental rage. Beard writes:

Big game and small plagued the workers. Rhinoceros charged. as if out of nowhere, even at trains going at full speed; and even some of Africa’s humblest creatures, the tiny caterpillars, got into the act, riddling bridge timbers and making heavy repairs necessary. The caterpillars also had the habit of crawling over the tracks. Whenever a locomotive hit this sea of ripples, the engine could get no traction and the wheels would spin and whine and splatter gore in every direction.

Carnage ensued on a staggering scale. "The tragic paradox of the white man’s encroachment," Beard comments, was that the "deeper he went into Africa, the faster life flowed out of it, off the plains and out of the bush and into the cities, vanishing in acres of trophies and hides and carcasses."

My native home is at Chajanlot, in the
thana of Domli, which is in the district of Jhelium,
and I have related this story as it actually occurred.
Patterson Sahib has left me, and I shall miss him as long as I live;
And now Roshan must roam about in Africa, sad and regretful.

Nearly 2,500 of the Indians died, and over 6,400 were permanently maimed, a casualty surpassed only by that of wild game.

The apostolic rebuke seems relevant here, too. "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge humankind into ruin and destruction" (I Tim. 6:9) . Our natural environment stands to benefit if we can curb our appetite, restricting it to the "food and raiment" (I Tim. 6:8) necessary for life and comfort.

Lamin Sanneh


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