Learning from Africa in the covid-19 crisis: how to ‘dol’

“In this Crisis, we need to learn how to survive from poor communities,” a friend said to me recently. I didn’t respond. Social-distancing and self-isolation do not represent instinctive responses of poor communities in Africa to disease threats like covid-19. Absolutely contrarily; more closeness would be their response! I could hardly tell him that though, as he had already declared social distancing to be a no-brainer.

An American recently hospitalised here in Africa[1] told me a story from back home. “At this time, my friend’s life is absolute misery,” he said. “He doesn’t get on with his wife. They have a son who is a drug addict. All three are terrified of death. All three are locked together in a small house.”

The front-line of the approach to covid-19 has predominantly, it seems to me, been one supposedly built on science.[2] That probably reflects today’s Western people’s mentality. The Western educational system and much of its dominant hegemony has been in favour of science. So much so that I have at times heard it expressed that today’s young people in the West expect that by the time they get to mature years, science would have solved problems of ageing, and they might even end up living forever. Covid-19 has setback such hopes.

I would like to suggest something Westerners could learn from Africa. I take it from a Luo language word (the Luo people live in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Congo and South Sudan) the root of which is dol. (This is pronounced by putting a d sound before ‘all’). A late Luo friend of mine, who often invited me to dol together with him, which typically I was pleased to do,[3] taught me a lot about dol.[4]

To dol is to go into a dull and depressed situation, to bring hope and joy to it. Hence the pertinence to today’s lock-downs!

This raises the question; how does one bring ‘hope and joy’ to a dull and depressed situation? This often cannot be achieved by science. More-often, it is achieved through an in-your-face denial of what ‘seems’ to be happening. It can be to go into a trench in WW1 to rejoice and give thanks. It can be to go to a terminal cancer patient on their last legs to tell them about forgiveness and peace. It can be to go to a funeral and convert it into a celebration of joy based on knowledge of the wonderful place the deceased has by that time reached. It is to deny depressing reality and replace it with massive hope!

Dol goes beyond the above. Once death-defeating-hope is recognised, it can have endless mileage. In the Africa known to me, dol is done to cleanse a site for house-building. It is done to seal a marriage relationship. It is done in anticipation of children passing exams. It is done to revive a failing business. It is done when someone has bought a new car!

Some will have recognised, dol is the work of a Christian ‘priest’. It is the act of declaring that, no matter how disastrous the situation, action has been taken to resolve it. It is to declare hope that extends to eternity. That action traditionally was the sacrifice of an animal. Nowadays it is remembering what Christ did on the cross. It is to declare that love prevails and will win. It is to invite acceptance of what is declared.

So, here’s my advice to those stuck in lockdown with their families: dol.

To dol, root yourself and your identity first and foremost in God, the creator of the earth, he who has a good plan, who has sent his only son to die for mankind. To dol is to sing out loud without shame! (Praising God in song can be a big part of dol. Such singing does not arise from the pride or ability of the singer, but in response to the great God he believes in). To dol might involve getting rid of the TV, or putting it on ice, as you have found better things to do. Dol often involves exploring the Scriptures, the Bible, often not an easy task; trying to perceive what is God saying.[5] Dol is best done collectively – to partner with others who share the same hope. (Such a collective is commonly known as a church; or in Greek, ecclesia. Now we need churches in our homes!) To dol is to forgive people for wrongs they’ve done to you. An unforgiving heart cannot spread joy and hope. No matter in how rotten a way you have been mistreated or abused or are suffering; dol!

People forced to social-distance. Families in crisis, locked together: I suggest dol in the midst of covid-19.


[1] My office here in Kenya is right-alongside a small hospital. This American was on holiday in Kenya, then got ‘stuck’ here as a result of the corona crisis. The American since recovered and left. He was not suffering from anything related to coronavirus. It is very rare to have Westerners hospitalised here.

[2] I say ‘supposedly’ built on science, because people who draw on science always do so selectively. The basis on which they select often determines the course set by the ‘science’.

[3] Dol is the verb form, whereas dolo is a noun.

[4] Paul, who had been my pastor for over 20 years, passed on in January 2019.

[5] If this task were easy and straightforward, then it would be missing the point, which is that the Bible is God’s Word that he can help you to understand, and that without his inspiration won’t make any sense to you.


Photo by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash 

The views expressed in this blog post are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the GC network.

The following link contains videos from All Nations which address violence against women and may be helpful to some readers:
https://vimeo.com/allnationsuk

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Jim Harries

Jim Harries

Jim Harries (PhD Theology, University of Birmingham, Professor of religion at Global University) teaches the bible in Western Kenya using the Luo and Swahili languages. His focus is on work with indigenous churches. He also works with orthodox and other mission churches. Many articles and books written by Jim can be found here. Having lived in East Africa since 1988, Jim promotes the practice of vulnerable mission. Jim has been a visiting scholar at Christian universities in the USA, Canada, UK and Germany.
Jim Harries

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