Often in community development work we focus on the big things – the massive ideas that will transform the local economy, the construction of classrooms or strategies for improving local human rights. The challenges are not small, so our work efforts expand to meet the needs – we make our best, biggest attempt, anyways.
Today I was thinking of the small things.
We started a school last year. It took the better part of the year to secure the land, design and build the school, decide on curriculum and recruit teachers. I got to make one small decision – the color of school uniforms. Most of the students in Burundi wear khaki uniforms, but technically olive green and blue are also acceptable options. Khaki – the color of the dry dirt that covers the hills of this community and a drab green were immediately ruled out. I wanted bright blue for these boys and girls, vibrant and saturated with life.
Bright blue uniforms for kids with bright futures. It’s a small decision, but not insignificant.
My husband also decided this summer to make a small addition to the school grounds. He hired a friend to make a swing set for the kids. He wanted the kids to be able to swing and slide during recess and reclaim some childhood joy. A small choice really, but these smiles say otherwise.
Over two years ago we opened a bank in the capital city of Bujumbura, a hybrid of a microfinance program and community bank model. This year we responded to the growth by building two new branches, one in a rural community and the other in a hard-hit urban neighborhood. My husband made a decision early on – these buildings would look beautiful.
He decided that the signature feature of both buildings would be stonework, something that cost a bit more but also communicated much more. He believed that the unbanked people of these neighborhoods deserved a bank they could be proud to enter. He wanted them to know, just from looking at the building, that this was a place they would be valued and well served.
This week we had a grand opening… and it seems the community got the message. Stonework is a small aesthetic choice, but it says loudly what is in our heart for these families.
This past summer we celebrated the five-year anniversary for our first community development project in the green mountains of Matara. We thought it would be a great idea to do professional portraits of the men and women of this community to mark this landmark occasion. This is not something that is part of community development protocols or best practices – studio shots. But we thought it would be fun.
It turned out to be profoundly significant for these men and women. Their posture changed and smiles reached across their faces as they saw their images through the eyes of the camera lens. This small photo shoot conveyed such dignity to our friends. You can see this small thing mattered…
I just want to remind my fellow practitioners out there – don’t ignore the importance of the smaller things. Choices about beauty and bright color communicate value and worth. Choices about swing sets and photo shoots bring back some humanity to young and old alike. The simple and small kindnesses we extend to one another always matter. Let’s not shun the smaller things.
I believe that small things, small as mustard seeds, can bring large dividends beyond our wildest imagination.
Do you tend to focus on the big picture or the small details?
How do you balance the big and small matters in a large scale project?
What are small things that have made a massive impact in your own life?
Kelley Nikondeha | community development practitioner in Burundi