Living by the Mountain image

Living by the Mountain

'Africa’s coastline? Great beaches, really, really lovely beaches, but terrible natural harbours. Rivers? Amazing rivers, but most of them are rubbish for actually transporting anything, given that every few miles you go over a waterfall. These are just two in a long list of problems which help explain why Africa isn’t technologically or politically as successful as Western Europe or North America.'

I’ve been reading Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography while on a trip to Cape Town and his opening statement about the state of Africa certainly caught my attention. Cape Town is an African anomaly – its climate, flora, economy and demographics are all different from the rest of the continent but the power of geography is very clear. Poured into a narrow peninsular separating the Indian and Atlantic oceans and huddled around Table Mountain the ‘mother city’ is all about geography. Her incredible beaches, stupendous scenery and sensational wines are all geography dependent – as are its human demographics. High up on the hill exclusive suburbs like Bishopscourt and Fresnaye literally look down on poorer communities. The leafy southern suburbs spread out around the foot of the mountain while the dusty townships are far away on sandy plains. Far more even than in class-conscious Britain a Cape Town address immediately spells out the likely socio-economic place of its occupant; and most probably their skin colour too.

Sometimes the geography blurs though, as is the case in Hout Bay (see photo in the header). Here a township of tin and timber shacks is separated from expensive property by the thinnest of lines.

The extreme, very visible, contrasts between wealthy and poor in Cape Town can be unsettling. I find it helpful to be reminded of global realities though: the reality is that when I am in prosperous Poole it is very easy to forget the poor, simply because I don’t see much obvious poverty; in Cape Town that is just not an option. Living in the UK it is easy to forget how blessed I – we – are, but that doesn’t diminish the realty of the poverty in which so many live.

‘The land on which we live has always shaped us’ writes Marshall. ‘It has shaped the wars, the power, politics and social development of the peoples that now inhabit nearly every part of the earth.’ The truth of this is writ large in Cape Town and it is something that scripture directly addresses too. I’ve also been reading Amos this week and through the prophet God warns those who feel complacently secure because of their geography.

Woe to you who are complacent in Zion,
  and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
you notable men of the foremost nation,
  to whom the people of Israel come!
Go to Kalneh and look at it;
  go from there to great Hamath,
  and then go down to Gath in Philistia.
Are they better off than your two kingdoms?
  Is their land larger than yours?
You put off the day of disaster
  and bring near a reign of terror.
You lie on beds adorned with ivory
  and lounge on your couches.
You dine on choice lambs
  and fattened calves.
You strum away on your harps like David
  and improvise on musical instruments.
You drink wine by the bowlful
  and use the finest lotions,
  but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph.
Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile;
  your feasting and lounging will end.
(Amos 6:1-7)

It would be easy to make an exegetical twist of passages like this against the residents of Bishopscourt and Fresnaye but it surely speaks to all those who are complacent in their comforts, whether that be in Cape Town, Poole or Timbuktu. Our geography shapes us but it must not blind us to the needs of others. We need to huddle around a mountain but it is Zion we must anticipate (Rev.21:10) more than a desirable address in the city of men.

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