When Paul Simon put out the epic Graceland, one of the most evocative lyrics on the album referred to “under an African sky”. I didn't really understand why an African sky should be any different from any other sky. (There speaks a British city man.)

On my first trip to Africa – to Zimbabwe for a diocesan partnership link visit – I was overwhelmed by the sky at night. Under total darkness – no light pollution out in the bush – the sky appeared to be in 3D: billions of stars filled the night sky, shooting stars appearing and expiring in seconds. It was breathtaking. On one subsequent visit a group of us lay outside on the grass just staring at the sky for ages, silent contemplation squeezing out the distractions of talk and 'stuff'.

Africa is gorgeous. It can also be infuriating. On a diocesan link visit to Tanzania wifi has been mostly non-existent. So, for those of us intending to communicate the experience more widely, we have had to leave the iPad unopened while we immersed ourselves in the experiences and conversations of the moment. In its own way it is very therapeutic.

We have come with a group of thirteen. The historic Diocese of Wakefield had a longstanding and very well developed link with the Diocese of Mara in northern Tanzania. Mara then divided in 2010 and two new dioceses were formed: Rorya and Tarime. We are visiting all three. Now, as part of the Diocese of Leeds (known as West Yorkshire and the Dales – not easy for all Tanzanians to pronounce), Tanzania is one link among several: Sudan and Southwestern Virginia (formed with the historic Diocese of Bradford) and Sri Lanka (with the historic Diocese of Ripon & Leeds). There are also smaller, more specific links with Skara in Sweden and the Kirchenkreis Erfurt in Germany.

Here in Tanzania we have visited people, projects, churches and schools. There are some inspiring people here, and they are doing some remarkable things. From the building of schools to the creation of vocational training centres to help girls avoid FGM and early marriage, the church serves its wider community with commitment, sacrifice and courage. One or two places we have visited are like the Wild West – frontier places that do not look immediately promising for the church.

The church here is growing. Yet, I find myself increasingly annoyed by much of what I have heard over the years that contrasts the church in the UK with the church in Africa (as if 'Africa' was a single entity anyway). For example, here in Tanzania the church is planting churches and congregations where none has ever existed before. They might start a congregation under a tree, but they soon move towards building a church building. In fact, one dynamic bishop went as far as to say that the church grows once there is a building. At the same time as in England there seems to be a rush to get rid of buildings on the basis that they put people off…

Now, this sounds like England over a hundred years ago. The Victorians planted churches and erected buildings where none had existed before and the church grew in many dimensions. But, the church in England – especially one that organises by territorial missional obligation … such as the Church of England – now finds itself in a different culture that holds a different memory about the church and which sees the now redundant buildings as a sign of decline. Yet, many of our buildings are worn out, in the wrong place for today's world or capable only of static worship and use.

In other words, as a bishop said to me yesterday, the African church will probably one day (in fifty, a hundred or two hundred years) face the same situation the English church attends to today. Which means that we English should stop romanticising the African church and recognise that we have to find English ways of growing the church (taking a longer-term view) and not make the simplistic assumption that if we only copied the African church all would be well. There is no simple equation. Technique will never trump inspiration by the Spirit of God.

I always come away from churches in Africa – in Zimbabwe, Sudan and now Tanzania – inspired and energised. But, I never come away thinking there is some simple equation that can be applied in Leeds just because it works in Musoma or Tarime. What gets fired up is the imagination to look afresh at the context in Leeds and, having stepped back, to reimagine how the priorities in Leeds might now be addressed.

Now for the market – after a week of intensive engagement and travel, today is the closest we will get to a day off. Tomorrow I preach in Musoma Cathedral.That said, however, respite from the cold, wet and miserable English winter doesn't half help that imagination get stimulated.

 

The world is not a comfortable place just now. But, let's keep this in perspective: it is never comfortable, never has been, never will be. For most people with a pulse, life is tough and good times should not be taken for granted. Yesterday, spending an hour with a group of teenagers on a big outer-Bradford estate, we looked at who pays the price when we buy cheap clothes in England or drink coffee from companies that pay no tax here and probably don't pay the coffee growers a living or just price for their beans.

We do injustice and greed far better than we do justice and selflessness.

Italy is paralysed – demonstrating that Europe's financial crisis is more political than it is economic. It has to do with consensus, leadership and will… and not primarily the availability of cash.

Zimbabwe looks towards elections and the old tactics of violence and threat are already beginning to colour the process as Robert Mugabe seeks the protection of office (again) at the age of 89. Even the Pope can't persuade him to do the decent thing. And who suffers? Well, the 'wrong' tribes, for starters.

Just a few weeks ago we were in Sudan. President Bashir, already indicted before the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, continues to pursue what can only be described as ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. Stories are coming out increasingly that allow no doubt of the nature of the oppression being exerted by the Khartoum government against its own people.

And there lies the nub of the matter: 'its own people'. The Africans are not seen by the Arab masters as their 'own people'. The Africans are aliens who should go south or disappear. Like all such cleansings – and here, despite the claims of the government, it is clear that the roots of Sudan's bombing and terrorising of civilians is ethnic and racial – people are reduced to categories that then become dehumanised: it is easier to get rid of them, if they cease to be 'people' and become simply 'objects that conform to a categorical type'. See Rwanda, Nazism, etc.

Today serious questions will be asked in the British parliament. Bishops will be urging action by the British Government and its partners in the face of Sudanese indifference to international rhetoric. These bishops are extremely well connected to the grassroots realities in Sudan (as many other places in the world) because we have very close partnership links with dioceses and bishops there. This means we get to see ordinary people living their ordinary lives away from diplomatic environments or media theatres.

After Rwanda we said we would never let this happen again. As Baroness Cox said on BBC Radio 4 this morning, “'again' is happening now”.

 

We arrived in Khartoum an hour late and got to the guesthouse where we are staying at 5am. So Sunday was spent asleep until we were collected and taken to the Cathedral where I was preaching at the 6pm Communion service.

There were probably 40 people in the Cathedral. Over dinner with the Bishop of Khartoum later, he explained how, following the separation of Southern Sudan from Sudan in 2011, the expulsion of people of Southern Sudanese origin has impacted not only on the church, but also on the country as a whole. I was a little surprised to discover that even people in their fifties and sixties, born and bred in the north, have also been expelled because their parents or grandparents originally came from the South.

The decision to push southerners out seems to have arisen from pique that they voted for separation and declined unity with the North. “You have your own country now” might be an understandable emotional response, but it won't help an economy thrive. The displacement is huge and the longer-term consequences as yet unknown.

First impressions of Sudan are limited. It is hot – not a bad thing to get some sun a couple of days after my doctor told me my vitamin D count is very low – and the pace is slow. The only other African country I can claim any familiarity with is Zimbabwe – so, now I understand the superficial difference between African Africa and Arabic Africa.

Today we will be visiting a Christian training institute and having lunch with the Principal. The temperature is due to reach 31C today and 38C later in the week. And we are missing the snow in England!

And below is the view from where I am sitting. Yes, I should have sat somewhere else…

 

Richard Littledale is a Baptist minister in Middlesex and has built a following on his blog, Twitter and through broadcasting on BBC Radio 2. Having published two books on ‘preaching’, his latest book goes back to the basics of good communication. Who Needs Words? takes the reader into the rich world of modern communications, addressing themes around ‘fundamentals’, ‘practice’ and ‘how to make progress’.

I wrote the Foreword to the book, so it might seem obvious that I would commend it. But, I do so because it is the sort of book to give confidence to those who feel a bit daunted by the plethora and complexity of modern communications media. It is intended to be a handbook, written from a Christian perspective, but offering good stuff to anyone interested in communicating better.

Richard offered a good example of how media interconnectivity works by heralding publication with weeks of tweeted quotations, blogged extracts and a wide range of tempting questions – making the book itself land on fertile ground. It’s good to practise what you preach!

Reading this has also opened my mind to wider questions of culture, theology, world view and communication. These questions never go away, but sometimes the stimulus peaks. I have just ordered (but, obviously, not yet read) the new book by Stanley Hauerwas entitled Learning to Speak Christian.

The review I read of it reminded me of Walter Brueggemann’s great book Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles. In it he reminds the Christian community, now ‘in exile’ in a strange post-Christendom land, of the need to keep alive the ‘language of home’. This itself echoes the cry of the exiles in Babylon (Psalm 137): ” How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” This isn’t just a plaintive snivelling by self-pitying losers; rather, it is the gut-wrenching soul-searching of a people for whom the evidence of their eyes and of their immediate experience denies all that they have believed about God, the world and meaning. Their understanding of history, the assumptions about their identity, even the language they use is called into question by their predicament.

The same question is a real one today. How does the Christian community keep its confidence and it’s language alive when both are threatened by a changed and changing culture? It is not enough to simply retreat into nostalgia or to bemoan current conditions; instead, we need to grapple intelligently and creatively with the roots of the Christian world view and learn to use a language that expresses what Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’.

The third book is one that uses words so well that it cuts across much of the mythologising, generalising and complexity of the world’s inter-religious coexistences and conflicts. The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold is subtitled Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. The book comprises 34 journalistic dispatches from Africa (Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia) and Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines). The research is detailed as well as academic and relational. She puts flesh and blood onto the histories of these conflicted countries and exposes why they are the way they are. She is both critical and generous in her judgements, seeking always to understand and interpret, not simply to judge or categorise.

Reviews were mixed because she leaves implicit what many would want to be made explicit; but that is, I think, a strong point of the narrative. Anyone involved in or interested in the modern world should read this excellent book. Contemporary conflicts (I am most interested in Sudan because of the diocesan link between Bradford and Northern Sudan) are explained and illustrated – and all in an accessible way. It is the most helpful and explanatory book on the subject that I have read for a long time.

In her Epilogue she says:

Religious strife where Christians and Muslims meet is real, and grim, but the long history of everyday encounter, of believers of different kinds shouldering all things together, even as they follow different faiths, is no less real. It follows that their lives bear witness to the coexistence of the two religions – and of the complicated bids for power inside them – more than to the conflicts between them.

This observation is one well illustrated also in William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain.

Congratulations to Zimbabwe on thirty years of independence from colonialist Britain. I remember the birth of the new country and was moved by the lowering of the Union Flag followed by the raising of the new insignia of Africa’s newly independent country.

Such promise. Such hope. Such disappointment. Such tragedy.

Christian Aid has put up (with an expanded version here) the following voices of brave Zimbabweans who still long for freedom and dignity and a life without oppression:

Having launched a broadside against Polly Toynbee’s unintelligent rant in last weeks’s Guardian, I now read Matthew Parris’s unlikely article about the Afrcian challenge to his own atheism in today’s Times (www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5400568.ece).

Any chance of a debate between the two of them?