But what do we have in common?

But what do we have in common?

I shared the following testimony of faith and mission at First United Methodist Church of Point Richmond a few weeks ago. The message was about finding common ground around the world, seeking connection, rather than differences.

Last month, when the fires here in California made it on the news in Malawi, Canaan Gondwe, our long-time partner, sent me a message. He was worried about us after hearing about the fires and let me know that he was praying for us and our donors and board members in the area. “To raise a home,” Canaan said, “it takes time, it takes a lot of money and effort. And just to lose it through fires is very unfortunate. We are praying for California.”

Fires, floods, drought. Dry cops, unbearably hot or unbelievably cold days. Possessions stolen or lost in disaster. Jobs lost, unemployment stretching on and on. Fighting and scheming for the best education for a child. Being part of Spirit in Action is a practice in living and seeing our shared humanity. These are basic experiences we have in common.

It’s so easy to focus on the differences between places like rural Malawi and the Bay Area. In my experience, Malawians are just as likely as Americans to think that there’s little we could have in common. Representations of North America arrive in Malawi through the distorted examples of volunteer programs (Peace Corps and church mission trips), movies (James Bond and Disney movies), and music videos (Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson). These leads to a belief that Americans are all rich people who don’t have any worries or challenges.

Checking Facebook in Malawi. Think complaining about internet speed is only a #firstworldproblem??

Similarly, representations of Malawi (lumped in with all of Africa) mostly arrive here through calls for charity and news about poverty. There are not many opportunities for each of us to see the wealth of experiences and cultural diversity in each country, or to experience each other as individuals.

Do only poor people pray?

While I was in Manyamula Village in Malawi in May, my Spirit in Action team spoke at the local church. Like this church, they share a love of music. The raw, loud, acapella voices filled the church, singing praises to God and proclaiming God’s goodness. (Listen to Standing on the Mountain of Zion.) The children’s group presented their offering of tubs for water and some utensils for cooking to the visiting church leader – while singing and dancing down the aisle. Like your service here, they said prayers and made announcements, and greeted one another.

Children presenting at church in Manyamula, Malawi.

After the service, Matthews – who was one of our hosts there said how wonderful it was to have us in the service and how good it was to have Mike Hegeman, from the SIA team, give a sermon. Matthews said, “People here think that Americans don’t pray, because they are all rich. And only poor people need to pray.”

It is true that we pray in need, perhaps more than we pray in abundance. But certainly, all of us have times of need. These assumptions create space, rather than bring us together.

If their logic was that you are rich – therefore you don’t need to pray. What are we also assuming, what flawed logic do we have when we think of Malawians as poor? I think many of us might also be guilty of thinking that all Malawians, maybe all Africans, or most at least, are poor. What it took to break through some of these assumptions was simply sharing a church service together, praying and sharing together.

#firstworldproblems

One of my recent pet-peeves is the use (or misuse) of the phrase, #firstworldproblems. Here are some examples:

  • “Don’t you just love it when your phone keeps dying on 20% battery #firstworldproblems”
    • BUT: Who knows better about having a cell phone running out of battery than someone who doesn’t have electricity in their home
  • “Need a nap, but have to wait up for packages… #FirstWorldProblems”
    • Think slow mail systems and lack of sleep only happen in America? Seriously, sending letters to our donors from a Kenyan post office took longer than even the busiest American post office!

My point is that we can be almost glib in creating distance between our experience and how we think others experience life. When actually, there is so much more we have in common.

Kenyans – They’re just like us! They like photobombing selfies! [Mumias, Kenya]

The significance of a house

Coming back to the loss of houses in the fires, and in storms and floods. These are moments that call us to work and pray collectively, with people all around the world.

In America, having your own home is some status of “making it.” Believe me, that’s also the case in Malawi. In 2011, I visited Paulos Lungu at his shoe repair stand in the marketplace. The Saturday market mostly consisted of temporary stands, with a few roughly constructed shops. Paulos and his wife, Sequina, had received a Small Business Fund grant of $150 in 2005. They had invested in a shoe repair business, building off Paulos’ skills.

In 2011, he told me how he wanted to build a home for his family. He was already buying bricks (fired clay, to last longer than packed mud bricks) for their future home.

In 2013, they sent me a picture of them proudly posed in front of their new home – complete with a thatched roof!

During our visit in 2014, Paulos was eager to have us visit his house. He welcomed us inside, showing off the cement floor (no longer dirt!) and showed us where they were storing the iron sheets. They were slowly buying the corrugated iron whenever they had extra money at the end of the month.

Visiting the Lungu home – complete with iron roofing sheets – in May!

Then in May – 12 years after that small Spirit in Action grant, six years after my first visit – I had the honor of walking across the threshold of the beautiful, iron-roofed Lungu home. They will no longer live with leaks during the rainy season! They have tremendous pride in how far they’ve come.

Before Spirit in Action, Paulos told us about how his life had been. He had no house of his own. He would stay at a relative’s house as long as they’d have him, then he would move onto another relative. And how they have their own gorgeous home that also houses other relatives – Sequina’s mother and various aunts.

“This is not a house of a poor person,” Canaan Gondwe, local coordinator and mentor, said proudly of the Lungu home. If you have iron sheets over your head, you are doing well in Malawi. It is a sign that you have made it. Canaan, Paulos and Sequina know very well how devastating it would be to lose a home. Their prayers – after hearing about the fires here – are prayers of solidarity and understanding.

Building Long-term Relationships 

It’s this network and mutual support that is so key to Spirit in Action’s impact. I think I mentioned last year about the book I was working on: Smart Risks: How Small Grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. One of the “Smart Risks” is Being Flexible and with a long-term outlook.” Long-term relationships with our partners give us time and space to deeply understand each other. Long-term relationships mean there is time to know each other, and celebrate our successes and milestones many, many years after the first grant.

My visits to over 100 Small Business Fund groups and nine grassroots organizations in May and June were about more than reports and oversight. The trip was about making this connection, building this cross-cultural understanding.

This year, these holidays, I invite you to consider how similar we all really are the world around. Rather than focus on differences, let’s take time to learn about the true individual experiences of others. Let’s be open to seeing the potential and goodness in those around us and those all around the world. Amen.

Helping their children to have a better life

Helping their children to have a better life

All around the world, parents have the common hope that their children will have better lives than their own. This was the hope of Chimwemwe Beza and Timothy Mtambo in Manyamula, Malawi.

Chimwemwe left high school after her second year and never was able to return. She didn’t have the support of family to continue her education, especially since they were struggling to meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and a home. Still, Chimwemwe and Timothy held onto the hopethat their children – Mphatso (15), Jestina (13), and Constance (10) – might be able to attend high school.

In 2014, when the family was invited to join the Spirit in Action Small Business Fund (SBF) program, the dream of sending their children to school felt far-off. They used their $100 initial grant to open a small retail shop in the Manyamula marketplace. They also bought a piglet, since pigs are a good way to invest savings in rural Malawi. Timothy and Chimwemwe worked long hours to save some money for their children’s education.

Chimwemwe in her first retail shop in 2014, after receiving the $100 Small Business Fund grant.
Malawi

A year later, the family changed their business from a retail grocery shop to a second-hand clothes shop. This is a good business because they are able to buy the second-hand clothes for a good price and there is lower competition in the marketplace.

The Best School in the County

The business has been so successful that for the last two years, Mphatso and Jestina have been able to attend one of the best elementary boarding schools in the county! The test results are now in and the parents are so proud that both children were selected to attend one of the top high schools next year.

Chimwemwe is so proud to be able to afford a top quality education for her children!

When Small Business Fund local coordinator, Canaan Gondwe talked to Chimwemwe, he reported: “She was all joy to tell me that the Small Business Fund has impacted her children tremendously. She says, ‘had it been not for SBF, her children could not have attended boarding school and would not have been able to make it to high school.”

The business continues to this day – 4 years after the initial grant! – and the family is working hard to continue to support the children in having a brighter future! Instead of Spirit in Action paying for school fees directly, we are helping families earn enough so that they can pay for the school fees themselves.

Chimwemwe in her roadside clothing shop

#GivingTuesday – Support entrepreneurs in Malawi and Kenya!

#GivingTuesday – Support entrepreneurs in Malawi and Kenya!

#GivingTuesday is here! As we receive, so are we called to give. And as other receive, they also pay-it-forward to help another. This ripple of giving is embodied in our Spirit in Action logo, and it is at the core of what we do. Start a new ripple of hope today by donating to Spirit in Action now!

Supporting Families

Wilson Nikosi (Manyamula, Malawi) “I did not even have a piece of soap or a blanket. I was using a sack to sleep on. I was failing to send my child to school. And then I met Canaan Gondwe and he talked to me about Spirit in Action. And with the Small business fund I bought groceries supplies and paid school fees. Now my children are eating. Now I have a house made of baked bricks and I have iron sheets as a roof on my house.

“Yes, I have been sharing the gift. I have assisted two people by giving them tomato seeds and sharing compost. Without the grant, I don’t know where I’d be. I am all thanks.”

Thomas Nkhonde, Wilson Nikosi, and Tanya Cothran in Wilson’s shop in May.

Supporting Women

Pheris Amati (Nairobi, Kenya): “I’m grateful for the Small Business Fund support. I can now feed my family. Kids are going to school. I can pay the rent. My husband has been sick and now I can get medicine for him. With my business, I am making bags like this backpack. For Sharing the Gift I have taught a friend to also sew these bags.”

Support Girls’ Education

Rose (Meru, Kenya) I met with Rose in June and had tea in her house. Four years ago, Rose received a water tank from Spirit in Action through the local organization CIFORD Kenya. In her garden she grows kale and green onions, alternating rows of each. The green onions keep away the aphids and screens keep the chickens out of the garden. She also uses manure from chickens as compost.

With the profit from her garden, Rose bought flour to make ugali, the staple food in Kenya. She now doesn’t have to buy as much food, because they are growing it themselves. Both of her daughters attend university! Rose told me, “Now I can pay for school fees for my daughters. University is subsidized, but it still costs $350 a year.”

Today, with giving in the air, please consider supporting families, entrepreneurs, and girls’ education with a donation to Spirit in Action. Thank you!

A Song of Praise and Thanks for SIA

A Song of Praise and Thanks for SIA

Our last night in Manyamula Village, Malawi, the SIA team met with the Manyamula COMSIP cooperative management team to celebrate13 years of working together and to plan for the future. I have deep respect for these leaders who work tirelessly to reduce poverty and to promote prosperity for all in their community. As the sun set and the air grew cool, Matthews Mahowe – a farmer, schoolteacher, COMSIP leader, and Small Business Fund grant recipient – recited his poem of thanks and praise for SIA. He performed the poem in the local language, Tumbuka, and Canaan Gondwe interpreted in English for us.

A song of praise and thanks for SIA

by Matthews Mahowe

I have a song of praise and thanks for SIA.

Yes, I have come out of the depths of poverty because of the Small Business Fund.

Life of food insecurity, begging, even poor clothing, I am out of it.

I have a song of praise of SIA and the whole Board.

When I sleep and have some inside thinking, I think about SIA and the Board.

Why would I fail to sing a hearty song for SIA and the board?

When I see the motorbike, when I see maize mills, when I see people eating well, I think of SIA.

When I remember the time when Boyd and Tanya were doing the ground-breaking,

These remind me that I sing the song of praise.

In 2014, Tanya and the Manyamula COMSIP Team breaking ground for the Training Centre, guest house, and office building, completed in 2017! Matthews is pictured to the right of Tanya.

We have been given funds for five years for operations what stops me to sing the song of praise?

If I fail to sing a song of praise, if it birds from the bush who will sing that song looking at the infrastructure and bricks.

Leave me alone to sing a song of praise.

When I see that home, the office block and the guest wing block, then I have tears of joy and gladness falling through me.

If dead people were to come alive, they would have said, “God bless Spirit in Action.”

If you look at the chairs, if you look at the cooking pots, and women dressing well, that is part of SIA’s support.

Singing a song of praise for the Maize Mill.

SIA affects changes again through Sharing the Gift.

We have a story of a project, Pig-Pass-On, whose major source is the maize mill from Spirit in Action.

We have also this concept of Sharing the Gift, which is a concept born of Spirit in Action, through the Small Business Fund.

Yes, even the district commissioner came to say that, “I have never seen a huge project like

this one done by local people.”

So, we thank you, Spirit in Action!

Tanya Cothran and Rebacca Mahowe in Our Grace Mini Shop. Rebecca and her husband Matthews were the first Small Business Fund recipients in Manyamula Village, in 2004. They started the restaurant, then a grocery shop at home. Rebecca buys chickens then she cooks and sells them. The family is now able to afford good clothing, food, and education.

This poem was also featured in our latest newsletter, available here!

Blessings for a happy Thanksgiving!

Lessons from a coworking space in Malawi

Lessons from a coworking space in Malawi

This is reposted from the blog Centre for Social Innovation’s blog. I wrote it for my coworking community in Toronto.

Halfway around the world, stepping into the Blantyre Entrepreneurs Hub was reassuringly familiar. Even though the dusty streets and tin-roofed houses of Malawi, a tiny country in southern Africa, are very different from the condo towers and streetcars of Toronto, spaces of social innovation around the world seem to share more similarities than differences.

Motivational quotes from famous innovators decorated the lime green walls. Bright orange chairs surrounded the black glossy work tables. The office was quiet on the cool evening in May when I visited. Most of the entrepreneurs – the photographers, caterers, and website developers – had already gone home to their families or guest houses for the evening. Dineo Mkwezalamba, Program Manager for Entrepreneurs Motivation Network (EMNET), greeted me with a warm smile. She was excited to show me around the cooperative’s facilities.

Tanya with Dineo (pictured left) the HUB director, and one of the top entrepreneurs (pictured right).

The Hub, as it’s known, is a coworking space for entrepreneurs in Blantyre, which is the financial and business capital of Malawi, and a city of one million people. The space provides access to high-speed internet, meeting rooms, electricity, and security. These are big perks for the entrepreneurs, most of whom do not have access to the electrical grid at home. The collective buying power of the Hub makes the amenities affordable. In addition to the monthly memberships, they’ve begun to offering day-pass for about CAD$1.75. The hope is that once entrepreneurs visit the Hub for a day, they’ll become sustaining new members.

On the tour, Dineo pointed out the ocpen-seating desks for Silver Members (like CSI’s HotDesk space), the café (with member discounts!), and the closed offices that can accommodate up to four people in a single business. One of the offices stood empty and Dineo assured me that this was because the interior design company had recently “graduated” up to an office building of their own.

The vibrant Hub space for entrepreneurs in Blantyre, Malawi.

Training Youth to Be Entrepreneurs

In addition to providing space for entrepreneurs, EMNET also hosts a local Pitch Night (read an article from the BBC about their pitch night) and runs a youth entrepreneurs training program. I eagerly listened and took notes as she told me about how they frame the concept of entrepreneurship for the youth. I wanted to be able to remember the way she described their mentorship program, connecting local business leaders and high school youth, and the way she connects the concept of entrepreneurship with ideas that the youth already understand.

“All youth know vendors,” Dineo explained to me, “because many of their parents and family members are vendors.” According to the latest labor statistics, 89% of people who are working in Malawi are in the informal employment. Informal employment covers farming and, especially for women, buying and reselling food and household items.

When Dineo talks to youth about entrepreneurship, she wants them to think beyond selling eggs. “Youth know that vending is the first step to being an entrepreneur. Our goal is to help them get to business success, and to make sure entrepreneurship doesn’t seem like a scary thing.”

Dineo and her team use the motto, “train to sustain,” when teaching the youth about adapting a mindset of starting a sustainable and scalable business. I am incorporating this process of helping people imagine themselves as entrepreneurs into my work with Spirit in Action International.

“I have not failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

Animating Community

Similar to my experience at CSI, perhaps the most important perk of the Entrepreneur’s Hub is the access to community and to those serendipitous moments of collaboration. I told Dineo about one of my favorite parts of CSI – Salad Club. Some of the best conversations and exchanges of ideas at CSI have been over a plate of salad. When I mentioned this, Dineo smiled with a twinkle of excitement in her eye. She’d been working on creating more buzz around the Hub office. In July, I got a text message from her, “Keep an eye on our Facebook page today! Your visit sparked some new activities!” That day, the Hub kicked off their #SocialFridays, showing a movie in the lounge space. Generating ideas for animation from their community, they’ve also established: Leadership Mondays, Startup Tuesdays, Business Wednesday, and She Leads Malawi Thursday.

It’s so easy to focus on the differences between places like Blantyre and Toronto. In my experience, Malawians are just as likely as Canadians to think that there’s little we could have in common. Representations of North America arrive in Malawi through the distorted examples of volunteer programs, television shows, and music videos. These leads to a belief that Americans (and Canadians lumped in with them) are all rich people who don’t have any worries or challenges.

Similarly, representations of Malawi (lumped in with all of Africa) mostly arrive in Canada through calls for charity and news about poverty. There are not many opportunities for each of us to see the wealth of experiences and cultural diversity in each country or to experiences each other as individuals.

My conversation and exchange of ideas with Dineo felt different. It gave us a chance to connect as individuals and peers. I left feeling like we were on the same team. Around the globe, there’s always a need for spaces like CSI and the Hub. Places to build community, to bring people together, and to share costs so that entrepreneurs can get our ideas and products out in the world.

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