What We Learned: SIA Team Members Visit Kenya & Malawi

What We Learned: SIA Team Members Visit Kenya & Malawi

*Today’s post is a reflection from SIA Team Members and Advisory Board Members, Michael Hegeman and Dana Belmonte, who traveled with me to Kenya and Malawi last year. I appreciate their insights on the SIA program and the success of the trip.

Africa Trip 2017: Team Member Report
By Michael Hegeman and Dana Belmonte

It is with an overflowing sense of gratitude that we begin this report. Over the last eight to ten years, we have heard about and supported the mission of Spirit in Action (SIA) and have enjoyed spreading the news about SIA’s work to others in our various friend circles. Our appreciation and love for the relationship building, business training, mindset preparation, and grant giving has only grown and deepened.

Tanya Cothran, Dana Belmonte (left) and Mike Hegeman (right) with two local teachers who rent a room at the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative training center. These two women teach tailoring skills at the technical school. They made the shirts that Dana and Mike are wearing, having produced them in 24 hours from the COMPSIP cloth and from the pattern of shirts given them by Dana and Mike.

Upon our return home, it seemed many wanted us to compare and contrast the countries we visited with our own. We found ourselves searching for words simply because there is no comparison. Suffice it to say, life is very different in Malawi and Kenya and immediately upon arrival in Malawi we were reminded that one must take the new culture and tradition being experienced on its own terms. The time spent simply soaking in the atmosphere, listening, and quietly figuring out the rhyme, reason, and rhythm of our surroundings was very important and an education in itself.

Concepts around time are fluid. “Hakuna matata,” roughly translating to “no worries,” is a mentality that rules the day. Seldom did we have to be concerned about plans not working out, but flexibility around timing and expectations of arrival/departure/meeting is required. That being said, our hosts were very aware that we come from a more clock-oriented society and they strove to keep us on schedule. “Going with the flow” was key to any success we had.

Mottos on the dashboard.

Our trip included the following valuable connections:

Training new Small Business Fund (SBF) Coordinators and reviewing the impact and efficiency of SIA’s program. The Coordinators conference was an education for us. Sitting with the coordinators and hearing about the day-to-day issues they face as they employ SIA’s business training model as well as review the SIA Coordinator’s Manual was an important look at the “nuts and bolts” of SIA.

The SIA SBF Coordinators are a strong part of our worldwide network! Pictured left to right, local SBF Coordinators with Tanya:: Dana Belmonte, Hastings Phiri, Thomas Nkhonde, Naomi Ayot, Dorcas Okoti, Canaan Gondwe, Tanya Cothran, Braswell Nkhonjera, Mike Hegeman, Dennis Kiprop, Boyd Cothran.

Meeting with and encouraging Small Business Fund entrepreneurs in Kenya and Malawi. It was inspiring to see the on-the-ground reality of how SIA is reducing poverty. Program grantees were eager to show us their successful shops and other business models, as well as tell us about these life-changing benefits: Ability to pay school fees, access to medicine, improved housing, better diet, and essential home furnishings.

Witnessing the impact of SIA Community Grants and developing closer working relationships with grassroots partners. Meeting partners face-to-face strengthened our relationship and facilitated better understanding in future communications. Listening to beneficiaries helped us confirm that the program is working.

In the afternoon of June 11, 2017 the SIA team met with the gathered women and a few men of CIFORD at the training center. The women shared their stories of empowerment, business success and how they encourage others to join in the education and empowerment of young women.

Ensuring that funds are being spent as proposed and reviewing potential future projects. In-person visits are one way to do due diligence and verify that grants are reaching those they are intended to help. Visiting potential partners allowed us to evaluate and discern how we may be able to work with them in the future. The amount of people benefiting from SIA grants is amazing. We saw so many examples of sustainable business and through which lives have been changed.

A few months out from the trip, we find ourselves coming back to some key points:

SIA’s model is working! It is a model that is balanced, positive, and welcoming to everyone. SIA’s work is based on the belief that a small grant and sincere encouragement can enable people to tap into their own potential. This is the most important element leading to better food and nutrition, education, housing, etc. The grantees, and not the SIA board and team members, are the true experts and we learn from them.

SIA approaches business training from an abundance mindset and NOT a scarcity mindset. A business serves the community. “When others are doing well, I’m doing well” is an encouraging way to look at business.

Failure is OK. While we saw a lot of success stories, there were some accounts of failure or things that did not work or did not go as planned. It is important to learn from these experiences and be open to the possibility that mindset preparation may need to be revisited rather than simply abandoning the cause.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael G. Hegeman
Dana A. Belmonte

Mike reading with one of the students at Maruge School in Kenya. Children here are reading quite well, decoding the words easily. Reading comprehension was sometimes affected by the subject matter. One boy was reading a book about weather conditions that included snow, sleet and fog. He could pronounce these words, but did not know what these were.

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!

Has it really been 10 years??

Has it really been 10 years??

Has it really been ten years?? When I embarked on this journey as Spirit in Action Executive Administrator in September 2007, I had no idea that I would still be here ten years later.

In those ten years, Spirit in Action has given:

  • $79,650 for 531 Small Business Fund businesses
  • $50,439 to 27 different grassroots organizations

Wow! Behind each of those numbers are families and groups of people. They represent individuals with whom I have emailed, texted, visited, listened to.

Del and Tanya at Del's desk in 2006

Del and Tanya at Del’s desk in 2006

Fond Memories

In these ten years, I treasure memories of:

  • Seeing the realization of a dream in Malawi (breaking ground on the new training centre, and three years later cutting the ribbon and sleeping in the new dorm rooms)
  • Receiving letters from Del, filled with affirmations and encouragement
  • Achieving a personal life goal of publishing a book (and getting to tell the world about SIA’s collaborative and flexible approach to grantmaking)
  • Singing in a circle with our partners in Kenya, and being surrounded by dancing women in Malawi
  • Eating pancakes and drinking chai at Samro School in Kenya, surrounded by dear friends
  • Arriving in Manyamula Village this year and being welcomed by the local team who shook my hand and gave me hugs, saying over and over, “feel welcome!”
  • Surviving rides on packed buses in Malawi, learning to let go and let God as we drive wildly off into the unknown, pedestrians diving out of the path of the hurtling bus
Tanya and Canaan in the MAVISALO poultry house.

Tanya and Canaan Gondwe in the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative poultry house in 2011.

There have been prayers shared, prayers answered, inspiration sent and received, amazing donors, and dedicated board members and volunteers. Through it all, I am continually blessed to be able to dedicate myself to work that I see is making a positive difference in the world.

When I first started, all the places seemed so far and unfamiliar. I didn’t know how to pronounce the names of our partners. Now, when I say “Winkly Mahowe,” I hear Winkly’s own voice in my head. Now, when I think of Eldoret, Kenya, I know the smell of the rain on red earth. This vastness – and the smallness – of this world are more real to me now.

Dear friends in Eldoret. Samuel and Rhoda Teimuge, Tanya, and Dennis Kiprop.

Fanning the Spark

In one of my very first blog posts in 2007 I reflected on 2 Timothy 1:6-7: “I remind you now to fan into a flame the gift God has placed in you. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of inward strength, of love and of self-control.”

I wrote, “This was my morning mediation today and it really rang true for me – I truly feel that working with Spirit in Action fans the Spark of Spirit that God has placed in me. A flame is not timid, it creates a warmth inside (especially necessary during Minnesota winters!) and gives strength to others who see it – passing on hope and encouragement. Prayers and communion with Spirit in Action correspondents will fan my spark into a flame today. As I fan other Sparks each day – my flame grows stronger.”

Today, ten years later, this image of fanning the spark within me still inspires me, and I’ve had the privilege of seeing others fan their spark- for themselves and for their communities.

Thank you to all of you who have been part of this journey with me! And, don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

Pancakes and chai in Kenya. Yum!

 

Surrounded by a song of welcome. (Malawi, 2014)

A grant that gives hope

A grant that gives hope

Last week, I had the great pleasure of sending out the congratulations letters to the groups that received SIA grants at our last board meeting. I work with each of the grant applicants to more fully understand their projects and to refine their proposals. After weeks and months in communication the happy moment arrives when I get to let them know that SIA approved their application!

“Overwhelmed by joy”

Below is the reply I received from Vincent Atitwa, leader of the Matungu Community Development Charity cooperative in Kenya. They received a grant to start a table banking program to provide their members, mostly small farmers, with low-interest loans.

“First, I must say that I am overwhelmed by joy and happiness after learning that SIA funded our project. I say BIG THANK YOU to you and the entire team of SIA, together with their donors who made all the process possible. May God bless you abundantly so that you continue blessing others too.

“To me, this is not just a grant, it’s a grant that comes with a lot of hope and inspiration to our community.

“Finally God has answered our prayers. I believe that the SIA grant holds a key to unlock a lot of business opportunities for marginalized small scale farmers in our community. The businesses will create both jobs and wealth. I am happy to be associated with SIA and its activities, and I look forward to continuing working with you even in future after this grant.”

A Smart Risk

This grant partnership is a great example of Smart Risk #1 from the forthcoming book, that I co-edited with Jennifer Lentfer, about small grants.

Smart Risk #1: Investing in local expertise. 

Vincent and the rest of the team at Matungu Community Development Charity know the context of lending in rural Kenya. They know about the farming cycles and the challenges associated with the climate and markets. They know the community members and can talk to them when they have trouble repaying the loan. For all these reasons, we believe that it is worth investing in local groups.

Follow along this week on our Facebook page for all five Smart Risks! 

Not a corporate board…

Not a corporate board…

The Spirit in Action Board of Directors met over the weekend to approve new grants, receive reports and review our program, and also pray for our partners and donors. We also joyfully welcomed Wendy and Terry Silverthorn of Camino, CA to the board! They are longtime supporters of SIA and are happy to get more involved with our work.

I bet it won’t surprise you to learn that the SIA board does not operate like your average corporate board! After reviewing each grant proposal, we take a few moments of silence to reflect and listen in prayer. Then, we each share our thoughts about the proposal and any guidance that came to us in the silence. This listening prayer and consensus model really does help the meetings flow more smoothly.

New Grants!

Over the course of the day the board approved some very exciting new grants! We funded 23 new Small Business Fund grants, and also grants for a LGBT workshop in Uganda, a savings and loans cooperative in Kenya, a bead work and carpet-making workshop for women in Nairobi, and more! Some of these grassroots organizations are for long-time partners, and others are new to SIA. In all cases we remember Del Anderson’s commitment to building relationships, and his openness to sharing knowledge with each other, and learning what we can about poverty reduction and local needs from our partners.

At the end of the day, and before meeting up for dinner, several of us took a walk in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. After the intensity of the meeting, I reveled in the stillness of those ancient trees and the lush greenness of the resilient undergrowth.

Me next to a giant redwood tree!

During the meeting, board member Barbara Deal shared about her experience of meeting Mother Theresa many years ago. Mother Theresa remarked that the reason she served others, including the most destitute, was that it was an opportunity to “serve Jesus in all his most distressing and glorious disguises.” At Spirit in Action, as we serve alongside our wonderful partners, we also have this opportunity to co-create with Jesus.

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