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
Two weeks ago I was in transit from Burundi (East Africa) to the United States. The news flashing across multiple media outlets – CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC – highlighted the Israeli incursion into Gaza, the advancing of ISIS in Iraq, the confusion around the downed Malaysian airline in Ukraine and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
I boarded my plane aware of other passengers, hoping none were travelers from West Africa. I reminded my daughter to keep her hands to herself, the transmission of Ebola on my mind. As I watched the interactive map in flight, I prayed about the outbreak of violence in Libya and Gaza while we split the difference and flew through Egyptian airspace. I moved through the skies with awareness we dodged war zones on our way home after our Burundian summer.
I’d only be home for a set of days before I’d be reminded of the systemic injustice and racism that still resides in my homeland. The shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer sparked cries for justice and showcased the community’s sense of marginalization. In my own country I witnessed nightly broadcasts of protests, militarized police in riot gear, tear gassed crowds and looting on American streets. Another war zone, it seemed.
What stood out in my mind with clarity – there is deep injustice here and there, at home and abroad.No place is exempt from oppression, disenfranchisement, tribalism or the need to cry out for justice on behalf of the dispossessed.
As people who travel to help others, who move across borders to defend the weak and champion justice overseas there remains the challenge to see and stand for justice at home. If we are blind to our own inequities, our dulled discernment diminishes our capacity to advocate for justice elsewhere. If we cannot stand alongside the vulnerable in our own neighborhoods then our work abroad reveals us to be altruistic adventures and not consistent peacemakers.
My personal challenge as a community development practitioner in Burundi is to bring the same eyes, the same ears, and the same commitment to justice back home with me. Yes, I see the vulnerable in Burundi, the Batwa people pushed off their land and living without protection. I hear the cries of those impoverished and homeless, as their homes were washed away with unexpected flooding one rain-soaked night. I watch with great concern as another election approaches and the majority maneuver to keep power. But when I return home I must work to bring those same sensibilities home with me and not allow my advocacy to go on furlough.
(Am I the only one who sees this as a challenge for practitioners who reside abroad and move in and out of our home country?)
Coming home has reminded me, I always travel with the prophets and their imperatives to pursue justice. Wherever I am, I’m called to stand alongside the brokenhearted. I am invited to walk with the oppressed and work for liberation. I’m exhorted to work for economic justice and equity for all and to embody God’s reconciliation wherever I am, at home or abroad.
Isaiah’s words ring in my ears: “You will be called repairers of the streets where people live…” I pray this is the testimony of my life whether I am in Burundi or the United States or anywhere in between. I hope I will have eyes to see injustice and ears to hear the cries of the vulnerable wherever I reside, always ready to do the work of emancipation. Justice knows no geographic boundaries.
Wherever we are, at home or abroad, let’s run hard after justice.
Do you see injustice as easily in your home country as abroad?
Is there the temptation among us to allow our advocacy work to ‘go on furlough’ when we are stateside?
What is your most unexpected re-entry struggle or observation?
Kelley Nikondeha | community practitioner in Burundi
Five years ago we landed in Burundi. Around the small capital I noticed signs everywhere – signs of other NGOs present in the city with logos plastered on their large Land Cruisers, big placards at their local offices and signs out in the countryside wherever they had a project. The rampant self-promotion turned my stomach sour. No one could do any good thing without erecting a sign to mark it, to prove their worth and claim their territory.
For the first season I nursed a secret sense of pride over our unmarked cars that criss-crossed the city, often full of Burundian friends who shared in this development adventure. We didn’t need signs to validate our partnership or announce our project; we just did the work that needed to be done with our friends.
Right about that time we began work with another community of 660 families in a different province. We started planting hundreds of trees together, advocated for identity cards for all the adults and birth certificates for the children. Soon we began constructing an elementary school. And somewhere amid all this activity the local officials made a strong recommendation – that we put up a sign.
Everything in me resisted the idea of a sign. We don’t need signs to do our work, we had three year’s of proof in the province next door, I reasoned. But my husband felt there was some practical wisdom in the recommendation, and decided to order the sign.
I’ve since learned the reasons for signs, at least ones from our own experience.
1. Signs protect your project from other organizations that would try to encroach on your hard work. It’s sad to say, but some organizations will try to take a short cut by using the infrastructure you’ve labored to build for their own project. They will see the community you’ve gathered and walk right in and hold court, telling about their livestock program or health initiative. The relationship you’ve cultivated for years they will usurp for their own work, saving them the time of hard-fought connections, leadership development and the forging of trust. I’m not exaggerating – this happened before my very eyes one summer. With no sign, they felt free to come and begin their pitch.
2. Signs act as a reminder to your own staff. Sometimes the hardest thing is recognizing that your own staff will try to skim a little something extra for themselves. They will take people to visit the project and pass it off as their own initiative so they can bolster their image or increase the chance of a better job offer in the future. Sometimes they will make small contracts with other agencies to come in and give chickens or offer some training – taking the finder’s fee for their pocket. We’ve worked with many good team members who we trust deeply, but occasionally our best discernment takes a hit or a good staff member has a moment of weakness. A sign reminds the staffer, and the people coming to meet with him or her, that the larger team of our NGO manages this project.
3. Signs help your partners remember that you are in this together. When people have lived in poverty for generations it isn’t easy to shed the fear that all this help could go away tomorrow. One of the long-term affects of the impoverished mindset we’ve witnessed is a scarcity mentality. So what often happens in the early life of a project is that the families we work with will take hand-outs from any NGO who offers, often claiming that no one is helping them or, even worse, that we are not offering the help we’ve promised. While trust develops and scarcity reflexes linger, things can get messy as other NGOs start supplementing your project with unnecessary or untimely contributions.
What the sign does is serve as a reminder that we are partners; we’re putting our name right alongside yours to show that we aren’t leaving you. The presence of that sign also means they can’t keep living from all these various handouts, they’ve agreed to engage in a trusting partnership with us and we have made the same promise to them. Together we’ll see the community move toward sustainability – but uncomplicated by the insertions of other organizations that might compromise our plan for sustainability, breaking the cycle of dependence.
I want to be clear, we partner with these families and also collaborate with many other organizations who have experience and expertise to offer to these communities. But we do so strategically, knowing what and when the community needs season to season. We also care about the credibility of the organizations we invite, ensuring we offer the best services to the families. A sign keeps it clear – if you want to partner with us here, call the number on the sign and let’s begin a conversation to see how you can work with us for the sake of this neighborhood.
I still wince when I see our signs. I know they’ve provided some necessary functions within our team and to the world outside. But I still wish the signs weren’t necessary. As an idealist, I wish trust was enough.
This is the sign that matters most – walking into Bubanza and seeing women filling basins with clean water, watching a man water the fruit trees and a few more at the piggery feeding the animals. Or seeing kids play on the swings and being greeted by their parents as friends in the transformative work afoot across the community. These are signs I cherish, evidence of a partnership brimming with goodness, deeper than any signpost.
Do any other development workers out there struggle with the use of signs?
What are other benefits you’ve discovered in the use of signs in your communities – or set backs?
Kelley Nikondeha, community development practitioner in Burundi
We just said good bye to a team of friends who left Burundi last night. Their send off included one last party with friends, good food and the experience of the Burundian drum corp. As they loaded their luggage into the cars and headed to the airport, I thought back over the week.
I remember, in a word, the vibrancy of the first few days up-country as our guests mingled with our Batwa communities. I remembered the moment Godece washed my muddy feet after I fell down the rain-soaked hill of Matara. I’ll never forget the leaders of Matara parading toward us with gifts – a chicken, a branch of green bananas, beans and fruits – all from their abundance. Now they bless us with their first-fruits, after 5 years they have more than enough to share. These are the snapshots from a full week – and if there were time I’d tell you so many more things that took my breath away during this week of visitation and celebration.
Even this morning, as I’m hung over with exhaustion (and an eye red and watery from some kind of scratch or infection) I can remember these few things clearly. I can articulate them even through the fog of my aching bones and coffee-craving. Because we prepared for this all along.
Let me share quickly (because I am really tired) how we practice story-telling and prepare our teams for their return home after their short term mission trip…
1. Give me a word.
At the end of day one or day two, the team is usually buzzing. There is still a sense of disorientation but now, after the first few experiences on the field, there are new sensations added to the mix. You can see that people are still fighting the jet-lag and that they are trying to get their minds around what they’ve just witnessed with the Batwa friends.
This is when, around the relaxed setting of the dinner table, I begin to prepare the team for their return. I look around the table, look at each team member and, after clicking the glass to get their attention, I say, “Give me a word.” I instruct each person to give me one word to describe what they are feeling or what they are seeing thus far.
You can give just one word without explanation. There is freedom in that request – especially for team members who don’t know all the others. One word is not a heavy burden. Also, for people still reeling with a mix of emotions and exhaustion, one word is manageable.
This week some of the words were familiar, joy, heaven, rightness, overwhelming, freedom, love, sustainable, transformation. Mine was vibrancy.
Some people felt the need to elaborate. Others didn’t. But everyone offered one word. It was the beginning of putting words to the experience, starting to frame this trip as it developed.
2. Tell me one moment.
About halfway through the trip I invite the team to share one moment that arrested their attention or provoked some emotion or new awareness. Sometimes this happens around a meal, but sometimes amid a time of devotions. No one is rushed, but no one is skipped either. Everyone tells the group a moment that stands out for them – even if it echoes someone else’s.
Now I watch people strong more words together around what they are experiencing in Matara, in Bubanza, with our various friends and projects. One is touched by the encounter with a driver, the conversation they had driving through one neighborhood in particular. Another shares the recognition that now these local friends have access to healthcare because there is a little clinic with a nurse on duty. Someone else notes that for the first time they’ve witnessed joy beyond circumstances when they saw the Batwa women dance.
For me, my moment was when Godece washed my muddy feet. She took my feet in her hands as her son poured water over them. She wiggled her fingers in between my toes to dislodge dirt and tiny stones. She rubbed the bar of soap over my feet and coaxed out the cleansing suds. It was a sacramental moment between us.
3. A break to rest.
Near the last days of the trip, the team starts to ware a bit. They’ve been on the go for days, they’ve been eating unfamiliar foods, their schedule is irregular and they are feeling it. Despite all the goodness, I can see they need a break. We also know that this is when many of our guests hit the saturation point. So many sights, so many faces, so many stories swimming in their brains – accompanied with all the emotions sloshing around their hearts.
So we plan a set of hours for the team to relax. When there is time, we take the team away for an entire day to a resort to rest. They can walk on the beach, take long naps or read a book by the pool. On shorter trips, we end the day at 3:00pm and allow the team to relax for the rest of the day. They can take a swim, enjoy dinner at their leisure or skip it entirely and go to bed early instead. We just ensure that there is some unscheduled time for the team to rest, to practice some Sabbath amid the trip.
What I’ve learned is that this time allows the stories to seep in deep. This time allows the thoughts criss-crossing their minds to untangle a bit. The rest allows the team members to recalibrate, but also to absorb what they’ve been experiencing. Open time allows the stories to find their place and for deeper connections to emerge.
The truth is that team members have busy lives back home, so we can’t just assume there will be reflection time once they return to their city. But knowing how critical that reflection time is to their ability to process all the local experiences, we make sure to offer space while they are with us.
I assure you, this is not wasted time in-country. Sometimes we don’t need one more story or one more visit across the city, we need time to contemplate all the other stories encounters thus far.
Often the best conversations happen in the following couple of days after the time of rest and reflection. People have put thoughts together and return to us with great observations and questions. I love when this happens before they leave us, when there is time for engagement before a continent separates us again.
4. How was your trip?
On the final night I invite the team to each share the moment that stands out for them, the one that rises to the top. Often I will have them break into teams of two to share for about 5 minutes each. When we come back to the large group, everyone shares the story again, but in about 3 minutes. Then I challenge them to find another team member and now share that same story in 2 minutes.
We are practicing.
Once the time is done I remind them that when they get off the plane, the question they will most often hear is “How was the trip?” This is your moment to honor those friends in Burundi, to say something true about the people or the place. Don’t waste it by saying “It was great” or “I loved it there.” Take the opportunity to share something true about your time among our friends.
So we practice in Burundi so that our team is ready when they land in Houston, Vancouver, Melbourne or wherever. They can share their moment in 2 minutes or so, offer a sterling memory of their time among the people of Burundi. Maybe people will want to hear more… and over coffee you can share more stories, pictures and such. But even if all you get is 2 minutes of their attention, in that time you honor your friends in Burundi and your time overseas.
I’ve had several people over the years tell me how grateful they were for the preparation time in Burundi. They reported that upon landing home, when they were jet-lagged and out of sorts, they kicked into gear when the question was asked. They pulled from the memory of the words, moments and stories they shared around our table and were ready to say something true about their trip.
This is one important way we can prepare our teams for homecoming from the moment they arrive with us in-country… practice storytelling the entire time. Yes, it will offer you a sense of where the team members are as you listen to what affects them. But almost more important, you will prepare them to tell their story well when they return home. I know they will take the goodness of Burundi home with them and spread it like good seed whenever they share a story or a moment or a word.
When I was young I remember embarking on my first short-term mission trip – to Hawaii. I don’t recall much of what we did while on the island, but I remember when we clustered under the buckling metal patio cover for morning devotions. The team leader opened up his Bible and taught us about the seeds of the gospel we were meant to cast with generosity across the globe; a kind and gentle sort of evangelism.
Years later, while in college, I participated in a Spring Break mission to Ensenada. Did I help build something or feed someone – I can’t remember. The tents caked with dust, the days of discomfort, the paltry meals stick in my memory. The other impression time hasn’t eroded were the twilight gatherings round the fire pit, when we heard sermons on the virtues of mercy and evangelism working hand in hand for the advancing of the Kingdom.
My own experience of short-term mission trips convinced me that people needed me to come and help them fix their broken world. The times of devotion reinforced the message, telling me that Jesus expected me to do my part in saving people. I often walked away from mission trips feeling sorry for the poor, sensing the imperative to evangelize but heavy with guilt because I didn’t do enough of it. My ways of thinking about poverty, mission, and evangelism were never challenged, only confirmed.
But when people come to Burundi I want them to see Scripture afresh. I want team members to witness the words and works of God already afoot in Bubanza, Matara and Bujumbura. I want the stories of Scripture and the red soil to mingle – stretching and challenging us, over-turning our assumptions, offering fresh vision. I want my team to feel God’s active and subversive words as work among us.
Here are some things I consider when it comes to crafting devotions for short-term mission teams:
1. What do I see God doing in our Burundian communities?
One large narrative I see played out in Matara, a community of 28 families we’ve been working with for five years, is Exodus. Our friends used to live like slaves huddled on the corner of someone else’s land, working and living at their mercy. When they describe these cruel landowners they sound like the taskmasters of Egypt. But then God gave a gift that changed everything – new land. This allowed our friends to move out of the brickyards and toward freedom. In this Promised Land they faced challenges – hostile neighbors, fields in need of planting and learning to live together in unity. In this land they experienced God’s abundance for the first time – food security by the second year, livestock, businesses allowing them to earn money, access to medical care and education for their children.
Leading devotions along the Exodus storyline creates opportunities to see that slavery still exists, freedom still happens and God has never stopped giving good land and creating viable communities. Maybe we stop thinking of Egypt and Sinai and the Promised Land as props in a Sunday School class and recognize how current these places are in Burundi – and maybe even in our own home as we think about local oppression, liberation and places of promise in our cities.
2. What is God stirring in me, as the local practitioner on the ground, as I engage in this work?
A couple of years ago I was steeped in the book of Isaiah, reading the words of the prophet and the two-volume commentary by Walter Brueggemann incessantly. I could not get enough of the God who called us from weeping to dancing, transforming landscapes, repairing the streets where people lived and doing a new thing. I began to see the images of Isaiah come to life around me as I walked in and out of our the Batwa communities we partnered with – the prophetic visions were inescapable.
When the women of our community got identity cards and became fully recognized citizens of Burundi for the first time, I thought of how God calls the prisoners to come out – show yourselves, an invitation to re-enter society. When wells came to Bubanza, turning the brown dirt into soil able to hold seeds, I remembered when God opened rivers on the bare heights, fountains in the midst of valleys, making the wilderness into a pool of water and transforming the dry land into springs of water. And when it became apparent we were meant to build a primary school in the middle of this remote and unlikely community, “forget the former things, I am about to do a new thing – do you not perceive it?” echoed in my ears and gave me hope. Isaiah named our community development work.
When the team landed in Burundi that summer, sharing from my own interactions with Isaiah seemed appropriate during our devotions. This is what community development looks like, theologically speaking. This is why we do what we do – and see it as Gospel work, like runners coming across the mountains announcing good news. So each morning we would reflect on these prophetic words, then travel to communities and see the text spring to life before our eyes. God still transforms land; God still rescues prisoners and sets newness in motion!
3. What does this look like?
When the central market of Burundi burned to the ground one Sunday morning, the entire city slumped over in despair. Within mere hours thousands of people fell further into poverty, ejected from the economy. Amid the cries and confusion, we sensed the Spirit push us to open new avenues for our clients to re-enter the economy. (Did I mention we run a community bank committed to partner with the working poor?) Against the odds, we worked with each client to see them recover their business and get a second chance at a vibrant life in the neighborhood. By the end of the year, people weren’t just treading water or catching up – many moved further and saw their revenues increase and even hired more employees.
What did this look like – jubilee! We hear in Deuteronomy and Isaiah – even in the words of Jesus – that jubilee is meant to set people free from perpetual debt, to give them a second chance to enter the economy and start again. Jubilee offers concrete economic relief, frees real captives and allows debt forgiveness to recalibrate the local economy. This is what we witnessed in the wake of the market place fire.
Devotions last summer centered on each of the jubilee passages in the Old and New Testaments. We saw jubilee with our own eyes – we met people who got a second chance, people no longer enslaved to debts and witnessed a community re-imagined by the gestures of jubilee. It was no longer some antiquated economic policy in the Hebrew Bible – we knew it was real, and jubilee was for today!
This is my encouragement to fellow practitioners hosting teams this summer – pick a narrative that parallels your community work. Allow these stories to unfold slowly over days, mediate on the Scriptures and look for connections to your place, your people, your project.
Allow the biblical text to illumine your landscape; allow your landscape to illumine the biblical text. What often emerges, in my experience, are catalytic moments where we see deeply and are transformed by both text and terrain.
What stories in Scripture have come to life for you in the context of a short-term mission trip?
How do you shape devotions for your team members – share some best practices with us!
Do you think devotions on a short-term mission team must mention evangelism and salvation? Tell us why.
I’m working on a series of posts on How To Host A Short-Term Mission Trip. The first one, focusing on logistics, can be found HERE. Next week I’ll share about story-telling and preparing your team to return home. But now I’m boarding a flight taking me to my Burundian summer where I will be reunited with my husband, sit on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, eat my share of sun-sweetned pineapple and… host a short-term mission trip!
Kelley Nikondeha, community development practitioner & chief storyteller in Burundi
The dark-soiled land was rich with promise. As they stood on the property line looking across the verdant valley carpeted with cabbage and hills of slim trees whispering with the breeze, the 30 Batwa families could scarcely believe this was their new home. Each man had a plastic grocery bag with the family’s belongings – a cooking pot, some salt, maybe the metal head of a rusted hoe or some cups. Other than that, they had only what hung on their thin frames, like picked over clothes left on a clearance rack. Their eyes were hungry for this sweet land.
The first six months of our combined community development efforts wore us all down. Land cleared for homes, loam planted with cassava, sweet potatoes, carrots, ground watered with new irrigation pipes across the hills. The families rotated through the local clinic for malaria treatment. We faced leadership challenges and all manner of novice pitfalls. But they harvested their first crops and had enough to share with equally famished neighbors.
The next growing season came and they tried new crops – potatoes, corn, even mushrooms. Many families planted gardens with tomatoes and beans on their plots. Soon we noticed banana trees and other local fruit varieties planted and growing. By the end of the second year this community had reached food security. (And they continued the habit of sharing the surplus with their neighbors.)
Eventually the community saved enough money to invest in livestock like rabbits and goats. They wanted cows, but on the eve of purchasing one they realized they needed grass to feed the cows. So they held off on the cow and planted grass instead. It wasn’t long before they were ready for three cows. Our Batwa friends love their cows; it runs deep in their blood.
For these friends, this was the first time they ever tasted milk. In the life before Matara, where they lived like slaves to other landowners, they were lucky to get dirty water to drink. Now they stood on their own land, rich with vegetation, and drank milk from their own cows.
The women brought their bright colored plastic cups forward and the chief of the cow-milking poured from a pitcher into each cup. The cups went into the hands of the youngest children to give them strength. Mothers and fathers circled around, watching with pride as their children drank milk.
Once the children finished their portion, the remainder was divided among the same cups for the parents to share. The milk mustaches looked stunning across their chocolate skin. I vowed to never take a glass of milk for granted again after witnessing this stable-side ceremony.
Only a few months later when we visited one Saturday morning did the leaders show us their most recent innovation – seven bee hives. They decided to cultivate honey. Very carefully my husband followed them toward the buzzing hives and listened to their plans for taking the honey from hive to market.
I stood back a more reasonable distance and marveled at their determination to try new things and contribute to their local community. Then it hit me on the steep incline of Matara, my feet deep in the dirt, Matara had become the land of milk and honey!
I stood on Promised Land.
It was the third year of collaboration when cows came – and milk. Hives to generate honey. These things were considered luxury items by community development standards. Water was a necessity; milk a bonus. Honey was a sweetness we never imagined. But these families had arrived to a place of super-abundance, a land literally bursting with milk and honey.
For the first time I saw with my own eyes a land flowing with milk and honey. I finally caught a glimpse of what a lavish gift God promised to the slavery-weary Hebrews. I was humbled God gave the same abundance to my Batwa friends.
I also recognized that such goodness grew gradually over time, it didn’t happen overnight. The land had promise from day one. But it involved hard work, partnership, generosity and lots of sweat to make it to that third year. All the while, milk and honey were coming to Matara.
Maybe this is my way of encouraging all the practitioners out there to savor the goodness you see, cultivate it diligently over each season. And know that in time, abundance will arrive. It doesn’t come quick or easy, but that sweetness you can taste and see does come.
God still gives us land flowing with milk and honey. Trust me, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Have you stood on a land flowing with milk and honey -(a super-abundance of some sort)?
For fellow community development practitioners out there – when did milk or honey come to your enterprise? When in the life of the community? Any stories to share… spill!
Kelley Nikondeha, community development practitioner in Burundi
One organization generously gave corrugated metal roofs for the thatch-constructed homes. But soon after the installation, the aid workers discovered the metal was sold.
Another religious-based agency gave these families window insets and doors for their unsecured homes. It didn’t take long for word to travel back to the team – all the items disappeared, probably sold for quick cash.
These organizations promptly labeled this Batwa community as ungrateful. They said the people were incompetent to care for the gifts or unable understand the value these gifts could add to their community well being. “They are troublemakers,” the workers said. We were warned to stay clear of them and help someone else or our energies would be wasted.
But my husband had learned to not take the solitary narrative of the NGO workers as gospel. Claude visited this community often and forged friendships with them. He listened to the stories told by the chief, the mamas trying to feed their children, the men looking for regular work. They painted a different picture about the good gifts.
The Batwa families lived in frail homes on the side of a barren hill. “Winds whip across the terrain plying the metal roofs off,” one man shared. The families would try to secure the metal sheets with heavy rocks on all four corners of the roof, but still the rambunctious winds would pop off the metal and the rocks. “Given the conditions, how feasible is it to do roof repair every time the wind blows?” he asked.
The window insets that shut tight and doors that locked were fine gifts, one mother said. “But I have eight children, no husband and no food. What would you do?” she asked. She decided, like all the other mothers, to sell the material for food that fed her family for weeks.
The chief told my husband about the many moves the families had made in the last set of years. These people had no deed for their land; they lived at the mercy and whim of the government officials. With no stability there was little interest in securing homes and bettering this place. Our Batwa friends knew better to build their homes on shifting sand.
When we listened to all the stories, we came up with a very different assessment of the situation. Our Batwa friends weren’t guilty of being ungrateful, incompetent or troublemakers. They had families to feed and no jobs, no fertile land, no stability. These facts radically altered their priorities and shaped what, in fact, were considered to be good gifts.
We began to frame the difficulty another way – the problem rested squarely on the shoulders of the givers, the ones giving gifts too soon to be useful, the ones giving gifts without enough relationship to know if what was on offer was necessary or timely. The trouble is that a roof over your head is little comfort when there is no food in your belly – and many organizations never take time to listen to that story. Instead, good people get labeled as ungrateful and miss out on strategic help from others.
Despite the advice of other organizational leaders, we began working alongside our Batwa friends two years ago. We planted trees to begin to break the gusts of wind that barreled up the hillside and threatened the homes. We worked hard to get identity cards for thousands of men and women so they would have legal rights – and eventually they got the deed to their land. Wells with access to clean water came in last year followed by a new school and a health clinic.
In our community development efforts over the past six years we haven’t always done it right. We’ve learned there is more than one story in operation so we must lean in and listen well. We also discovered the importance of working out of relationship with our Batwa friends so that we better know their needs – and any mistake made can be untangled together over time.
During the intervening years other groups have come to give goats, shoes and more offers of metal roofing. But they weren’t the gifts the community needed then or now. Currently the community leaders have asked for help growing pineapples and learning some trades they can use in the marketplace. They are naming the gifts they need to move forward.
When our friends ask for locking doors or a roof over their head – we’ll be eager to give that good gift and they’ll be ready to receive it. Until then, we’ll keep working on the necessities we discern together. Maybe the best gift we can give one another is long-term friendship and the readiness to give partnered with the willingness to listen to the whole story.
Was there a time you were tempted to offer the gift you wanted to give before asking the community members what they wanted or needed?
When has listening to the stories of your community members changed your praxis and opened up new possibilities?
Have you listened to the long history of your community, shared over multiple meals with different people, to learn what they’ve lived through before you arrived? How did that alter your perspective about them and your work?
~ Kelley Nikondeha, community development practitioner in Burundi, living in transit between Bujumbura & Phoenix