How Do You Define Greatness?

By Pete Simon

Recently, someone asked me: How is it that some places in this world are filled with affluence, modernity and relative comfort, while in other places people still live in grass huts without electricity and short life spans?  Are we supposed to feel guilty about that?

My answer was no, but we must be aware of history, understand why certain things are arranged so disproportionately, and respond in the best way that we can.

While serving in the Navy on a trip to Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Persian Gulf, I saw many ways to measure the greatness and many ways to compare this country’s “blessings” to other places less fortunate. It is in the eye of the beholder that makes the most difference in how life in one place is compared to another.

What the six months overseas did for me was ask a basic question: Why does extreme poverty still exist in developing places around this crazy world, when continually poor people stand on their own soil and rock containing unspeakable wealth?

It is natural wealth that someone from afar is cashing in on; not them. It is wealth mined or gathered to make OUR cell phones, OUR machine engines, OUR jet airplanes.  Do I need to go on?  And Hollywood gives us a feel-good moment with a blockbuster film about a fictitious African nation controlling a natural resource the world covets. It is the ultimate cruel joke, supposedly providing inspiration.

All of this goes on as our leader uses words like “shithole countries” to describe places where we LUST after the resources. Lust is lust. God makes no distinction between this form of lust and others.

This is the question we should be asking: Does the GREATNESS we want in our hearts represent our better angels and ideals, as taught to us early-on (in my case) in Sunday School? Or is it tarnished by anti-Christian traits like greed, corruption, racism, and sexism? There are many metrics one can use to measure greatness. It depends on who makes up the audience judging whether or not greatness has been reached. Often, it depends on who controls the public’s airwaves to forge public opinion or acceptability on whether we have gotten to “great.”

Please take a few moments to take the short poll at the end of this article.

But any leader who uses the term “greatness” subjectively in an effort to return to the “bad old days” is not a leader of all men and women. Instead, such a leader is beholden to something darker for entire groups of citizens. It is a world where many who are not “privileged” would never recognize it as great and one they’d rather forget.

Through human history, there are countless stories of the rise and fall of greatness. Centuries ago, Africa had great civilizations, as did other places in our world now considered struggling or developing. All empires we have studied expired at some point.

The actual game changer for today’s world wasn’t what happened on the ground, but on the high seas. The mastery of sea-going vessels by European and Islamic peoples had much to do with them establishing dominance over everyone they visited around the world. That and European development of modern warfare tools. Every place you look where people have been exploited, enslaved, killed, maimed, relocated, it all comes down to one group being conquered by another with superior (great) warfare technology.

Since Hollywood has broken the ice with the movie Black Panther, I would love to see another science fiction movie set in the 1500s in which Africans had the European technology at their disposal so Africans could defend themselves when white people started arriving (imagine the same idea for a movie with Sitting Bull or Geronimo on equal footing with our invading armies).

“…any leader who uses the term ‘greatness’ subjectively in an effort to return to the “bad old days” is not a leader of all men and women.”

In reality, once Europeans established dominance over Africans with superior war toys, they did anything they wanted. It was easy for them to justify it with their embedded racism. The proof is seen in rulers like King Leopold, who treated his Congolese “subjects” like cattle.  Ten million of them died during his reign of enslavement, rape, and torture for copper, gold, and other minerals. In today’s world, he would have been convicted of mass genocide, comparable to the Nuremberg trials.

Africans have their own problems with genocide, exacerbated by tribal/ethnic problems which are a by-product of how European nations drew lines on a map of Africa (at the Berlin Conference in 1885, to create colonial boundaries). At the conference African tribal boundaries, watersheds, and geographical features were usually ignored, thus creating staging areas for future conflicts across the continent (Nigeria and Sudan, to name just two).  Slowly (too slow for all of us witnessing tribal violence and killing in South Sudan) this problem will go away, as economies improve.

The first key development has already started in many countries with remote village electrification. For the first time, people there are not only able to run refrigerators to store medicine and perishable food, but they also operate water purification systems and provide power for local commerce. All of this is possible with solar, wind or geothermal technologies; geothermal resources being most applicable in the East African Rift Valley running through central Kenya.

That’s the good news. The bad news? Remember: Colonialism has never really ended.  English and French banks, and mining companies still hold a lot of sway in their former colonies. African nations, in regular need of cash to build infrastructure or a new industry, often borrow money from their former colonizers and the interest rates charged are back-breaking. That is part of the reason things never seem to get better, or they improve at a snail’s pace.

Black Panther: “Hollywood gives us a feel-good moment with a blockbuster film about a fictitious African nation controlling a natural resource the world covets. It is the ultimate cruel joke, supposedly providing inspiration.”

China is the one place in the world where a nation successfully stood up to the colonial power.  Once partly colonized, the Chinese people overcame and have become a premier driving force in the world. It is why I like the movie “The Sand Pebbles” so much. It gives a brief but powerful picture of our country’s misadventure in China 90 years ago. But China has started a second wave of colonialism, in Africa.

Compared to China, Africans are still taking baby steps, and that is a frightening comparison now as China’s involvement in Africa is huge.  If more African leaders had the temperament of the late Nelson Mandela, who knew when it was time for him to personally give up power gracefully, African countries would be closer to building something very powerful and secure.  In too many countries life-long rulers or tyrants run things into the ground (see Zimbabwe and The Congo). Same-old-same-old leaders breed the kind of corruption that people, representing overseas interests, crave when making deals for coveted resources.

So far, no African leader or the African Union has spoken of a specific plan to stop the one-sided trade deals favoring China in Africa, or the propensity of China to ship in Chinese laborers for Chinese-funded infrastructure construction or other projects, leaving African workers idle. This has infuriated African laborers in Angola and other countries and may provide the spark needed to get African leaders to grow a spine when dealing with China.

Even though overseas interests have tied-up unspoken amounts of Africa’s natural resources, there is still an enormous amount of them underground, unclaimed. The future of the African people is tied to those resources. Will African leaders unite and craft a plan to stop the second colonial wave which is decimating African people?

As it stands now, billions of dollars of precious metals and minerals are leaving for Chinese ports because African leaders crave the Chinese cash being offered in return; they say to develop infrastructure and other projects for the people.

One can only hope the people will find an effective way to account for that money and a better way to make deals (with all colonial powers) in the future. That will be the only way African people will attain a true state of greatness, and level a worldwide playing field that has been uneven and cratered for centuries.

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