December 11, 2017

Transformation in Action

Transformation in Action

Africa is a needy continent. Outside the capital cities one soon becomes aware of the endemic poverty with children suffering from malnutrition and people struggling for a livelihood. Yet much of Africa is also very rich. By that I don’t mean the mineral deposits or coltan, for they have been a mixed blessing. They have often led to exploitation and links with the West which fuel corruption and the spread of arms. The real wealth of Africa is in its relationships – its rich community life and strong neighbour relations. And it is that which made the deepest impression on us during our trip to Uganda.

Our journey took us north east, into a dry, hot region, with dust-red roads and parched land. The rains in Soroti were late. In each village we visited there was a sense of patient anticipation. Crops needed to be planted, but not in a drought. Wells needed to be replenished. The thirsty land needed to drink. We realized how close to the natural cycles of life people lived. They were only too aware of their dependence on the rhythms of creation.

The purpose of our visit was not to monitor the weather, however. We were there to see for ourselves what was happening with a process begun a decade ago. Tearfund has been working with local churches to empower communities to lift themselves out of poverty. The process is a simple one, but has enormous implications. Communities map out the resources they already possess, appoint community leaders, assess the needs of families and individuals and then look at what needs to be done to eliminate hardship and destitution. I kept thinking of Jesus’ parable of the talents. Each community we visited had been given resources by God. They had land, skills, strength, ability to work, and, most importantly, one another. So, rather than be overcome by the overwhelming problems they faced, the focus was on how to access these resources and maximise them most effectively.

We were struck by the huge difference in the lives of those communities which had started the process ten years ago, from those who were just beginning. The evidence rose to greet us as we came to visit: clean water, sanitation, healthy animal stocks, citrus trees, good diets, strong buildings and well-nourished children enjoying the benefits of education. Turkeys, chickens, pigs and goats fed contentedly, and their manure was collected to fertilize the land. Fish farms, bee-keeping and crop-growing all provided revenue and brought prosperity to the villages. There was evidence of distribution, too, as those with more resources shared them with neighbours who had fewer. Everywhere we looked we saw the benefits of co-operation and care for ones neighbour.

Yet to focus on material increase was not the only aim of the process. There would be little benefit in exporting Western individualist materialism to communities which are economically poor but relationally rich. They don’t want the spiritual and emotional poverty that we know too well in the loneliness and apathy of our own culture.  No, real empowerment is less about economics than transformation, where spiritual, physical, emotional, educational, health and relational needs are all acknowledged and addressed. The Christian leaders knew this well, and shared their vision with the whole community. Showered by warm hospitality, we saw it for ourselves. In one community we were entertained by a dramatic production designed to show the impact of empowerment on the lives of women. Neither the script nor the acting were very profound, but the point was well made. Amidst much hilarity from the audience, we were left in no doubt that women were to be treated with real dignity and value, not simply subjected to the whims of men!

The underlying biblical principles provided a powerful base for the process of empowerment. The intrinsic worth of every human being was demonstrated in the care for AIDS sufferers, and treatment of disability. It was there in the inclusion of young and old, women and men, Christians and non-Christian in the stewardship of resources. It was evident in the readiness of the church to be servants of the community. People were encouraged, not to see themselves as victims, but to accept responsibility and take initiative to find solutions. And so, change was taking place, not because of the activities of rich Western organisations, but because poor communities put into practice the fundamental principle of neighbour-love.

My Vice-President, Katei and I came to enjoy the way we were enveloped also in these relationships. People shared their food, their stories, and their lives. Their welcome was tangible; their warmth was infectious. ‘Eyalama noi!’  became the language of our relationship, language natural to our hosts, but something we had to learn.  And this was symbolic of our whole visit. We were not the experts, but the students. We were not the benefactors, but the recipients. In spending time with Christians whose lives were so different from our own, we were learning more of what it meant to be part of the body of Christ. In leaving behind the individualist preoccupations of our society we were discovering more of our own identity as people-in–relationship. What we found has reinforced what I have long believed. It is that biblical principles have deeply practical consequences. And especially when we love our neighbour as ourselves and seek the common good, we release God’s transforming power into the whole life of a community.

Reflections on a Tearfund Visit

July 2012