Lessons for the Affluent in Africa


God is the Great Healer

When children of wealthy families who live in very affluent communities struggle unsuccessfully to meet the lofty demands and expectations of their parents, resulting failures can cause many to become seriously depressed and to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Sadly, the resulting downward spiral—one that is difficult to escape—often leads to suicide. Thankfully God can help break that cycle by revealing the values that really matter. That’s exactly what happened on a trip to Africa with my eighteen-year-old son, Zachary.

In 2004, my oldest son, Zac, graduated from high school and together we took a two-week trip to Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

The son of a successful New York City executive, Zac grew up in the very affluent environment of Fairfield County, Connecticut. He and all his friends had the kinds of luxuries, exciting experiences, and material possessions about which most American teens can only dream. He was very popular in high school, and as a senior he captained both his football and lacrosse teams.

If you think that sounds like an idyllic situation, think again. Like so many other advantaged youth, Zac suffered for years from depression; he never seemed to be happy or to enjoy life. I had hoped and prayed that this trip might be therapeutic because it offered the chance for him to enjoy his two greatest passions: photography and herpetology.


A Trip to South Africa and Zimbabwe

I shared Zac’s passion for photography; additionally, I was interested in observing African wildlife, so this trip was exciting for both of us. We took thousands of digital photos and, even though it was winter in South Africa, we encountered a number of snakes and other reptiles.

In Singita, a luxurious camp in Kruger National Park, South Africa, we enjoyed twice-a-day jeep safaris. On our first day we observed at close range all of the “big five” game animals—lions, leopards, African elephants, rhinos, and Cape buffalo. On the first night, we saw a mother cheetah feeding her two cubs and then watched as a pride of lions fed on a freshly killed wildebeest. Our proximity to the ferociously aggressive lions was daunting; we watched from an open jeep only ten or fifteen feet away, within clear sight, sound, and smell of the animals.

On the second day we asked the guides if we could search for snakes. Even though they told us it was highly unlikely that we would see any snakes in the winter, within a few minutes of leaving camp, Zac and our guide were on foot, tracking a fifteen-foot python. The guide held his rifle ready as Zac actually touched the python’s tail as it slithered through tall grass and up a rocky ledge.

As thrilling as these experiences were, they were not the defining aspect of the trip for either of us. That came the afternoon we left our luxurious camp between scheduled jeep excursions and a guide took us and two other guests to a fairly primitive local village. Surrounded by fences, the village was protected from dangerous wild game; the homes ranged from cinder-block construction to grass huts with dirt floors. We had never seen anything like this community in the United States, and it seemed like something from a National Geographic television program.

Upon our arrival, we went to the villagers’ makeshift preschool; about forty children ranging in age from three to five were attending. We were charmed by these personable, happy children as they sang and acted out nursery school songs for us. We were especially impressed that they sang to us in English. One of the songs was written to the tune of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” but their version was all about wild game animals. We were delighted as, after each chorus, a different youngster stepped forward to do a solo, imitating the sounds of wild game.

Next we watched, amazed, as the adult women of the village prepared meals with very primitive utensils. This was not a historical demonstration of how villagers used to prepare food; this was how the women currently prepared daily meals for the village—without any of the modern, sophisticated appliances found in the typically well-equipped kitchens of Fairfield County!

With great pride and joy, the senior men of the village then walked us into a small hut that served as a makeshift museum of local history and ancestry. These gentlemen could not speak English, but with obvious delight they gave us many treasured artifacts to handle and admire. The museum housed everything from formal headdresses and nose rings to musical instruments and weapons of war. Because many of the artifacts were dusty and damaged, I couldn’t help but think that the typical residents of my Connecticut neighborhood might have discarded these valued possessions as worthless pieces of rubbish.

To conclude our visit, we were seated outside in the hot midday sun and given a cold, refreshing drink. We were then treated to an adult male dancing group in traditional ceremonial dress followed by a young men’s singing group in much more modern, colorful dress. None of their songs were in English, but somehow we could distinguish love songs from ballads from songs of celebration simply by the rhythm, tone, and expressions on the faces of the singers.

The one common denominator in every delightful experience of our visit to the village was the hospitality of every person we met. All were visibly pleased to have us visit—and all of them, no matter what age, demonstrated the same joy and friendliness of the preschool kids.

After leaving the sumptuousness of our camp at Singita, we headed to Mombo Camp in Botswana, where the game viewing was even more spectacular. There, we saw four to five times more wildlife and were filling our four-gigabyte digital cards on every jeep ride.

Part of the routine at Mombo Camp was for the guests from all nine cabins to dine together at one large candle-lit oval table, after which we sat around a campfire and shared stories of the day’s experiences. On our last evening, we gathered around the table. The sun had set and the temperature had dropped to a cool but comfortable level; the dinner was interrupted often by the evening calls of various wild game animals. We often heard the roaring of lions, the snorting of hippos, and the trumpeting of elephants.

Although there were only about twenty guests, they were an interesting and diverse collection of characters from around the globe. In addition to the Mombo Camp hosts, our group comprised a family of five from New Jersey with three college-age children; two older couples, one from Australia and another from California; and two middle-aged sisters from Britain who were getting away together for the first time in decades. Dinner seating was intentionally mixed, with guests mingling around the table. I was seated across the table and a few seats away from Zac.

At a lull in the conversation, I heard one of the older adult guests ask Zac what the highlight of the trip had been for him. I expected Zac to talk about the wild game, the incredible photo opportunities, or his tracking of the big python.

“It was the visit to the village outside Singita,” he answered.

“Really?” responded the older gentleman. “Why was it so special for you?”

“Because the people were so happy,” said Zac simply. “They had absolutely nothing—no cars, no refrigerators, no expensive toys—but they were happy because they had each other. They had the love of family and the support of their community.” As I listened to Zac’s response, watching the candlelight play across his young face, my eyes filled with tears.

For a young man who had lived a life of privilege yet had suffered from depression, this was a revelation.

Like Singita, Mombo Camp was a luxurious and expensive accommodation; while we hadn’t discussed much about our respective backgrounds, it was clear that visitors to this camp were typically people of strong financial means. So each person at that table immediately understood the import of Zac’s observation. And the response was reverent silence.

After the meal, several of the guests congratulated me on what a wonderful young man I had raised. Once Zac returned to our cabin and the rest of us gathered around the after-dinner campfire, several of the remaining guests—with surprising emotion—expressed their appreciation for the beautiful lesson he had taught all of us on that quiet and dark jungle evening.

As I wiped the tears from my own cheeks, I marveled that here in Africa, thousands of miles from our affluent communities, God could speak to me and to the other guests through the observations of an eighteen-year-old boy—an eighteen-year-old boy who was rapidly becoming a man.


For Reflection

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
— Phillippians 4:11-13

When children of wealthy families who live in very affluent communities struggle unsuccessfully to meet the lofty demands and expectations of their parents, resulting failures can cause many to become seriously depressed and to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Sadly, the resulting downward spiral—one that is difficult to escape—often leads to suicide. Thankfully God can help break that cycle by revealing the values that really matter. That’s exactly what happened on my trip to Africa with my eighteen-year-old son, Zachary.

Have there been poignant moments in your life or in the lives of your family members when suddenly you saw God in others who were ostensibly less fortunate than you? Have you witnessed the unbridled joy and contentment of those who seem to possess little and want for even less? If you can recall such experiences, try to remember how they impacted you and your attitude toward life. We are often inspired and motivated by people who have overcome major obstacles and have in the process experienced a closer relationship with God and a deep appreciation for life. May God help us find ways to learn the secret of being content in any and every situation as Paul expressed in his letter from prison to the Philippians.


Comments from the Original Post

Mark Aldridge 4.23.13

Good morning, I saw your post and like what I see, I have a local mission station in St Mary’s MD and I do believe we could use some of your material if it is available. Also, I am an author. The book is called, “Calling all Catholics a message from the word of God.”

Jim baker 4.9.13

We, in the u.s.a., are SO BLESSED; from the homeless to the very rich. In Bethehem, S.A.,I saw a lady at a huge,brick church scraping the dried mortar of little blades of grass. There was a man with her, so I asked him how much she got for doing that and he told me in very broken English,”6 Rand.” When I was there the exchange rate was 16 Rand to a $1. Need I say more?

Vander Warner, jr 12.4.12

Beautifully put. I quite agree with you God was sending a message and meeting a need. What you are doing is worthwhile.

Magaret Aoko Onyango 10.24.12

Thank you so much the story
You write teachs a lot!!!

Emanuela Gemin 6.15.12

Depression is an evil thing and I can say Jesus saved me from it. Hope it can help someone who believes in the power of prayer. I was about 30 years old (long time ago)and life problems is an open door for evil (even though I was a believer and prayed every day). It was a time of my life I was in hopeless distress. That one day somthing came upon me that reach me half way (a horrible feeling to end it all)and I hear a loud voice to my right ‘why don’t you pray’. The only prayer I was thought to say is the Father’s Prayer. I grew up Roman Catholic and my mother made sure I said it morning and evening. So I begins slowly saying it and I meant every word of it. More words I said more that feeling came off of me. I thank God and I praied again right away in many more situations that came up even the next day and it always sustained me. Didn’t have to ask God what I needed. When I praied I received what I was thinking to God I needed (He knows before we ask is true). I knew that voice I heard was Divine and I asked God: could it be His voice? and a conviction came to me that it was my Guardian Angel. My spirit was still contempleting that voice (is still real to me now) and even though I saw all the miracles that came from it, I still thought (I hope I am not crazy becaus that was not a thought but a real sounding voice). A month or so later I saw a TV show I used to watch called ‘it’s a miracle’. The story was about a lady in a wheel chair. She believed if she could go to the Holy Land she would be healed. Well – she heard a voice saying ‘why don’t you ask’. That was similar to my voice I heard. Instantly I knew: God wanted me to know I am not crazy and felt so good after that. That lady started moving her legs a little at the time she was able to walk without having to go anywhere just by believing. God not only saved my life but again revealed Himself to me (and all of us) in our daily Life. Thank you Fred for this site – God Bless! There is always hope in God if we believe. He is real! NOW and forever

Chuck Failla 5.2.12

Another wonderful story. I continue to enjoy these pieces and especially appreciate your willingness to share your personal life in such a frank and intimate way. Keep up the great work!