Ever since I was told that I needed to be tested for cancer, and as I waited for biopsy results, I thought through what confirmation of having the disease would mean. Two major questions were on my mind:
- what legacy am I going to leave?
- how should I plan to die, in a way that is dignifying to me and my family?
Also, I did not want to die abroad or in a hospital. To the shock of my parents (I didn’t understand what it meant to see your child in such a state) I even started talking of what I wanted done with my remains.
What I was not prepared for though, is the reaction of the people around me. Immediately the news spread, people visited our family and came to pray for my healing. I think the prayers I liked least were the ones challenging God to prove God’s power by casting out the disease from me. I didn’t like those prayers because my faith had never been dependent on whether God healed me or not. I believed in the great love of Christ displayed on the Cross, and in God’s perfect will. In fact, as I left the surgeon’s office after being informed that the biopsy was positive, I prayed to God the words of a song sung by the Winans and which I have always loved: whatever you do Lord, don’t take your joy from me.
But in this, I was literally alone. Apart from people coming to coerce God to heal me, others would blame me for choosing so-called Western medicine instead of going for herbs, some even after I finished the treatment. They talked of herbalists whom I could consult for help. Others suggested I had eaten too many chips and junk food (classic blame the victim), and suggested that now I needed to be on a literal John the Baptist diet of wild nuts and honey.
And I dreaded going to church. Really. That was because church seemed not to have a space for people like me who had accepted this journey. The prayers were all for healing but never for perseverance and strength of spirit, yet even these are the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
The only people who seemed to accept who I was and the decisions I made were my doctors. With my surgeon, I would joke about my body being disfigured from the surgery. My oncologist would tell me stories about the misadventures of families who withdrew their members from chemo while the patients still stood a chance of recovery, only to return for the same chemo when the patients were completely wasted and their life hanging by a thread.
However, I was calm throughout my journey because I was educated, and because I had a job that had insurance. I could make informed decisions, I could block my ears to the noise in form of advice of what I should do, and the cost of treatment was not an immediate worry. And part of that has to do with the fact that I had always been doing the routine checks for cancer since I was an undergraduate student, and so mine was detected early before it spread. I could be rational about my life and its end because I had studied history and known the lives of great people, and so I knew that dying young doesn’t mean that one’s life ends.
When I think of what real healthcare should be, I wish that experience for every African.
However, what has happened in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and what happens in most of Africa, is the exact opposite.
Healthcare facilities are in dire straits. But even worse, the people lack the tools to make sober and calm decisions in the face of a deadly threat. So they panic, consult all sorts of medical experts, only to end up spreading the disease.
Besides us citizens demanding better political decisions about healthcare, more investment in research and in training of medical personnel, and better appreciation of the risks at which medical workers go to keep us alive, I wonder whether it’s time for the African church to reconsider its theology and preach a more balanced message when it comes to disease. Maybe if there was not so much pressure to prove our faith through miraculous healing, people would have the mental and social tools to cope with diseases that seem overwhelming. The African church needs to preach the Christ who healed people with a simple touch, but who also willingly took a week-long journey that culminated in the Cross and unsuccessfully begged God to relieve Him of His suffering. It is the same God who inspired Paul to say:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
We are not responsible for a rock suddenly falling out of the sky, but we are responsible for the social conditions by which that rock could be transformed into a disaster. And as our technology increases our ability to predict the movement of natural phenomena, it brings with it the responsibility for the kind of damage that can be unleashed by such things on the world of the living.