We stood at the edge of the ancient crater, our eyes taking in 100 square miles of scenery stretched out at our feet. The view was breathtaking, although I admit by the time in the trip we had very nearly become accustomed to breathtaking experiences in Africa. Whether a choir of children singing robustly in Swahili, with the tin roof and orange adobe walls vibrating; or the pride of lions lying together in a pile, golden fur blending into the golden Serengeti grasses, some pale bellies exposed to the late afternoon African sun; or simply the beauty of the people we encountered in village after village, genuine smiles soon turning into open-hearted embraces—we had learned to expect to be bowled over by what we encountered on this magnificent continent. And so I found myself drawn into a silent awe as I stood on the crater’s edge and gazed down into it.
The Ngorongoro Crater formed between two and three million years ago when a volcano almost the size of the neighboring Mt Kilimanjaro exploded and then collapsed in on itself, causing the caldera that remains today. I don’t know if it had something to do with the state of my spirit these days, or if it was because only a week before our group had wept our way through the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, but as I stood on the crater’s edge, I found my imagination going to that moment two million years ago when the volcano exploded. I imagined the sound of it, the shock waves moving out across the land we had just traveled over ourselves. I tried to imagine the terror nearby animals, and maybe even early humans experienced. (The earliest evidence of human species were discovered in nearby Olduvai Gorge, after all!) I imagined the collapse following the explosion, where there once was a sky-scraping mountain, there now was an utterly evacuated depression. If we could have stood and survived at that vantage point two million years ago, I wondered, what would we have witnessed? And wouldn’t we have been justified in believing that the world had just ended? Even now, as I stood there assured that once we drove down into what only looked like empty space, it was nearly impossible to believe that we would see the wildlife that our guides assured us lived there. The view was beautiful, yes; but it also still looked desolate.
And then we descended. Faster than you might think would be possible in tall safari vehicles bounding down dirt roads carved into mountainsides with no guardrails in sight! Before anyone could pop another Dramamine, we had reached the crater floor, 2000-feet-deep. Now we found ourselves lakeside, salt water splashing up to rocky shores and leaving salty waveprints behind. We kept moving and soon came upon a pond full of lazing hippos, each one taking a turn at rolling full-circle in the muddy water, their stubby legs improbably propelling their bodies all the way around, coating their sensitive skin in protective mud. Heron and egrets dotted the edges of the pond. Then crown cranes danced and bowed. And zebras, seemingly the most affable of creatures because they hang with buffalo, wildebeests, giraffes, and Thompson gazelles alike, stood side-by-side, each gazing protectively in opposite directions. “I got your back,” they say to one another. “I got your back.” A jackal slunk through the grass. Flamingoes gathered in crowds in shallow water. What had looked from a distance to be so desolate was teeming with life. That which had one time been so utterly devastated, was now living.
I don’t have to draw the parallels for you to the Christian story of death and resurrection. It is there to be seen by all who have eyes. What I can tell you is this. The previous week, when we met for the first of many conversations with Bishop Alex—the Evangelical Anglican Bishop of Gahini in the Eastern Province of Rwanda—he said that the most pressing problem he faced in his ministry after the genocide was the hopelessness of the people. How, in those early days, could the survivors of the genocide have ever imagined the witness to life and forgiveness that Rwanda would one day become for the world? They had stood amid, and somehow survived, an explosion of violence and a total collapse of their world. How could life return? How could life go on?
The resiliency I see in the Ngorongoro Crater is the resiliency I see in the Rwandan people. And all of it is the resiliency I see in the Good News of Jesus Christ. Each are witnesses to a robust faith that neither diminishes devastation in the face of hope, nor hope in the face of devastation. As we struggle with our own seething divisions and violence in the United States, I think we would do well to turn our faces to the crater, to the country of Rwanda, and to the devastatingly hopeful story of our faith. May we everyday choose life.