Wednesday, September 30
The passengers had little choice but to listen to the message on impending threats, the need for caution, fear and shame. He railed on about Jeremiah's warnings, frequently pausing to lean over a passenger and challenge the individual with the question, "Do you believe in the Lord God Almighty?"
The incident was nerve-wracking, calling to mind similar incidents in northern areas of Africa, where extremists board buses and demand passengers to recite a quote or two from the Koran to prove they are not infidels.
Some passengers pointedly ignored him. Most nodded nervously. He did not confront my friend, but the sermon went on for 90 minutes, intruding on any plans for passengers to converse, read or contemplate the scenery. Shortly before his destination, he passed a hat for donations. Not all gave. Videos of the clean-cut preachers in dress shirts and ties dating back a few years can be found on YouTube, and my friend was told the preachers receive a free ride in exchange for a sermon.
There are varying statistics for the demographics of Zambia: The CIA World Factbook suggests that 75 percent are Protestant, 20 percent Catholic, and the remaining a mix of Hindu, Muslim and indigenous tribal religions. Others report the percentage of those who are non-Christian may run as high as 12 percent. No surprise that there are reports of Muslim preachers are taking up the practice, too.Christianity is the country's official religion, but the constitution protects the freedom of conscience or religion for all. Religious instruction is required for grades one through nine: "Religious education focus on Christian teachings but also incorporates comparative studies of Islam, Hinduism, and traditional beliefs," reports the Zambia 2013 International Religious Freedom Report.
A lack of consideration by any one religion can diminish faith in general among the wider populace. A generous spirit, open minds, support of equality for all including women and men, common courtesy, all these can restore one's faith in human nature and the power of religion.
In Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit, characters must wrestle with doubt over longstanding religious beliefs, especially when values come in conflict with protecting the ones they love. And as an author, I feel very fortunate that few suggest that the topic is inappropriate for a mystery novel. I had one memorable experience a few weeks after Fear of Beauty. I was on a panel for a book festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, an older woman snapped, questioning why I would even think about writing about the Muslims in Afghanistan. But such a response has been a rarity. Most readers express curiosity about the books - and especially so in rural areas of Michigan, North Dakota, Georgia and Louisiana. So few are closed-minded or mean-spirited, and as I have said before on these pages, our values are strengthened by comparing and contrasting those held by others.
Jeremiah offered another warning that may not have been mentioned during the bus ride: "From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit." 6:13.
Photo of a road in southern Zambia, courtesy of Amantia Phalloides, Namwianga Mission and Wikimedia Commons.
Thursday, September 24
Every billion changes the character of the world, reducing the area of wild and open space, leaving fewer resources for other species and future generations.
Many applaud the Pope's call to for action to stem climate change, yet "One of America’s leading scientists has dismissed as 'raving nonsense' the pope’s call for action on climate change – so long as the leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics rejects the need for population control," writes Suzanne Goldenberg for the Guardian. "In a commentary in the journal Nature, Paul Ehrlich, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, argues that Pope Francis is simply wrong in trying to fight climate change without also addressing the additional strain on global resources from population rise."
The population of less developed nations is growing at a faster pace than in wealthier nations of Europe, North America and parts of Asia: "There is not a single issue among the sustainable development goals – including poverty, hunger, housing, education, employment, health, gender equality, human rights and environment – that would not benefit from reducing high rates of population growth," writes Joseph Chamie for YaleGlobal.
As explained in Allure of Deceit, the Central Intelligence Agency tracks such trends. Extremely high or low fertility rates, those that out of balance with resources like water or food can pose a security risk for neighboring nations. The countries with the highest fertility rates:
Niger, average of 6.89 children per woman
Mali, 6.16 children
Burkina Faso, 5.93
South Sudan, 5.43
Notably, Afghanistan's fertility rate fell sharply, near half, since the US invasion in 2001. Countries with the lowest fertility rates:
Hong Kong, 1.17
South Korea, 1.25
British Virgin Islands 1.25
Bosnia and Herezegovina, 1.26
From the first chapter, Allure of Deceit explores population growth and family planning from the perspectives of a remote village in Afghanistan, a conservative director of a small charity, and the director of one of the world's largest charitable foundations:
Pearl Hanson was a Texas conservative, practical and stubborn. Despite limited tools and her brash ways, her program had raised awareness about the economic benefits of small families. The link between wealth and family planning prompted even devout women to pursue methods of contraception on their own. Pearl understood and didn't cast blame.
The book is a murder mystery layered with social mystery. Why do some believers bitterly oppose family planning and contraception for others and yet practice these techniques on their own? why do they resist making contraception freely available for society as a whole, especially the young, and then express surprise about unwanted pregnancies? why do they refuse to fund programs on family planning at the national or international level and then resist the desperate migrants who long to escape conflict and terror in the Middle East or poverty and hunger and lack of opportunities in Africa? why do some resist arguments that access to birth control reduces abortion? William Saletan writes for Slate about studies on the failure rate for specific methods of contraception and how that correlates with abortion.
Shame is a powerful weapon and one that knows no boundaries. Once a powerful authority like a parent or politician or Pope suggests that contraception is wrong, the sentiment spreads, planting fear and doubt. War and economic uncertainty spread doubt, too. Women do not want to commit to raising a child in a dangerous world. So thoughtful women, including many Catholics in the United States, ignore those who wield shame. One way or another, mothers strive to be responsible and avoid having children they cannot afford.
Photo of Afghan market, courtesy of Staff Sgt. Russell Lee Klika, US Army National Guard and Wikimedia Commons.