Choosing Africa–A Midlife Journey from Mission to Meaning
By B. Susan Bauer
Reviewed by Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Contributing Editor
In the mid 1990s, author B. Susan Bauer left her comfortable life in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to embark on a new life in Namibia. “Choosing Africa” chronicles the six years she and her husband taught at a Lutheran seminary near Windhoek, the capital of the Southern African country of Namibia. But instead of stories about safaris, the Namib Desert, or the Skeleton Coast, readers get to know a different side of this young African nation from the viewpoint of an American missionary and teacher.
At the beginning of the book Bauer cites the advice given during an orientation before her departure: “You’re going to have to learn to manage the transitions. You will feel like Alice in Wonderland. Your perception of what is real will be shattered. Many things will be taken away from you: privacy, personal space, hygiene, being understood.” “Choosing Africa” is about Bauer’s journey to come to terms with these predictions that would come true in every way during her long stay in Namibia.
The author introduces us into her life as a seminary teacher as a personal journey of discovery in a strange land. We follow in Bauer’s footstep and learn about the difficulties and challenges of moving from the United States to a developing nation in Southern Africa. Although Bauer’s book centers on daily life at the Lutheran seminary, “Choosing Africa” is much more than just a chronicle of missionary life. Bauer’s life at the seminary becomes intertwined with the lives of the locals studying and living there, and she and her husband learn about the customs and way of life of the local Ovambo people, Namibia’s largest tribal group.
Being confronted with an unfamiliar culture and a foreign country, Bauer often questions her own perceptions and beliefs, and muses about her life in her new host country, which reveals a great deal of sensitivity and willingness to adapt to her new surroundings: “Pico Iyer, in The Global Soul observed that when you travel to another country you step on the plane as one person and step off as another. Most people, upon reaching their middle years, have acquired a good measure of competence and self-confidence. Self-identity is well defined: you feel comfortable in your own skin. A decision to live and work in another country, especially a developing country, feels like a fast trip back to adolescence. Cultural norms must be relearned, sometimes in embarrassing ways.“
“Choosing Africa” is not only a thoughtful tale about the experiences of an expatriate and missionary, but also a chronicle of contemporary life in Namibia. The author experiences first-hand the struggle of a young nation to define itself and of its people to forge a direction for the country. She also witnesses the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Southern Africa, and the fledgling discussions about how to best address the rapid spread of the epidemic. As Bauer meets more the local people and learns more about their way of life, she discovers the pervasive remnants of superstition, sorcery, and other tribal traditions. how much the local culture and way of life has changed due to the impact of the German and Finish missionaries who came to Namibia in the late 19th century. Bauer expected lively music and rhythmic drumming during church services, only to discover that the congregation used the same liturgy and hymns as Lutherans in the U.S. Bauer’s students explained it to her this way: “When the missionaries arrives they told us we had to stop wearing animal skins and ladies couldn’t be bare-breasted any more. They said we couldn’t use drums in our worship services and that we could only have one wife.” The missionaries’ impact on Namibia’s Ovambo people was in fact so great, that today most of them consider themselves Lutherans.
“Choosing Africa” is an inspiring tale about the author’s courage to pursue a different career path in mid-life and to remain open for new experiences and challenges. It is also a moving story about a young country trying to find itself and its place in the world.