4 Things Making Me Happy (including Black Panther)

4 Things Making Me Happy (including Black Panther)

A round-up of some exciting news from around the Spirit in Action network:

1. SIA partner recognized for anti-FGM work

Samuel Siriria Leadismo, co-founder of Pastoralist Child Foundation (PCF) and one of SIA’s grant partners in the fight against female circumcision, has been honored for his work. The Kenyan Anti-FGM Board presented Samuel with the very first “End FGM Male Champion of the Year Award.” Samuel and PCF have trained more than 5,000 school children to respond and say “NO to FGM.”

Samuel accepts the award for male allies in the right against FMG.

2. Smart Risks Book in Swaziland!

Smart Risks, the book that I co-edited and which features Spirit in Action, is now available at the University of Swaziland Library! Smart Risks author Clement Dlamini is from Swaziland and held a book launch at the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre last week. He wrote about his experience with community resiliency and how international partnerships can build on communities’ and people’s strengths. I love that the book is moving all around the world!

3. Energy-Efficient Stoves in Kenya

At a recent on-day seminar in Maua, Kenya, representatives from CIFORD Kenya talked to farmers about how to best care for their produce after harvest. CIFORD Kenya (a SIA partner) is a holistic community organization, dealing with issues of female empowerment, sustainable agriculture, and peer support. As part of the seminar, energy-efficient stoves (called jikos) were distributed to some families to reduce the need to cut down trees for firewood.

When I visited CIFORD last June, Joseph and Penina Ayemo showed me the jiko in their cooking hut. Penina told us, “This saves a lot of wood. We can cope now with just a few poles. The wood that used to last for one night now lasts for one week.”

Energy-efficient stoves for distribution at the CIFORD workshop. Photo from CIFORD Kenya.

4. African Fashion in Black Panther

Have you seen the new movie, Black Panther yet? It is a comic book story set in an imaginary African country called Wakanda. The cool part is that the costumes actually reflect African tribes and cultures. Also, several of the actors are (rightfully) from the African continent, including from Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Kenya! Check out some of the amazing costumes and their inspirational sources here.

Malawi dance at COMSIP grand opening

At the opening ceremonies of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training Centre, a group of men danced a healing dance and dance of welcome. (May 2017, Malawi)

Bonus! Recommended Reading: A study finds positive impact from a program that provides poor households in Uganda with a combination of cash transfers, mentorship, business training, and support for the formation of savings groups over a one-year period. Read the report here.

 

Meet Austin, Manyamula’s Carpenter

Meet Austin, Manyamula’s Carpenter

Austin used the SBF grant to buy wood. He already had a chisel, plane, and saw.

On our first day of site visits in Manyamula, Malawi, we met Austin Panday, a carpenter and a recipient of one of the most recent Small Business Fund (SBF) $150 grants. Our big group moved out of the sun and squeezed into the cool shade of Austin’s workshop, wood shavings underneath our feet. With me were three SIA team members from North America, seven SBF Coordinators from Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, and two interpreters and COMSIP members from Manyamula. (English is taught in school and it is one of the official languages, so many Malawians know English. The local language in Manyamula is Tumbuka.)

Austin’s shop is right near the central market in Manyamula. He is renting space until he had enough to build his own shop. 

Austin told us his story, now a familiar narrative in this town that until recently had very little economic opportunity. “I went to South Africa to seek employment. I was there for four years. When I was deported back to Manyamula, I had nothing to do.”

Austin, with his carpentry skills and his certificate from the nearby Mzuzu Technical School, was a good candidate for a Small Business Fund grant. He had great potential and a grant would give him the start-up capital to buy wood for constructing bed frames, cabinets, and shelves. There has been high demand for his furniture.

Austin continued his story: “Canaan Gondwe saw something of potential in me. Now, I’ve been doing my new business for three months. I say ‘thank you’ a lot. I got out of drug use. My life has changed tremendously for me and my family.

“I bought six bags of cement and now I am doing plastering on my house. I bought one goat. Our basic needs are met.”

“Canaan Gondwe saw something of potential in me. Now, I’ve been doing my new business for three months. I say ‘thank you’ a lot.”

Sharing the Gift

It’s not only Austin’s family that is benefiting from the business. In addition to all the people who are enjoying his beautiful creations, he is also training a 19-year-old boy to help in the shop. “I’m sharing the gift,” Austin told us, even before we asked. He was proud to be paying-it-forward already. (Read more about Sharing the Gift.) In this way, each Spirit in Action grant ripples to benefit a whole community.

After hearing Austin’s story and admiring the shelves he was building, we left to move onto the next SBF group in the area. As we left, we encouraged him to continue the good work, Chito iweme. Good job, Austin!”

A tour around the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training Centre

A tour around the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training Centre

One of the highlights of my visit to Manyamula Village last May was the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremonies for the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training Centre. This centre was the great dream of Canaan Gondwe and the Manyamula COMSIP membership and I was so proud to see it realized and open for business! The Training Centre is so much more than just an office for the savings and loan cooperative. It’s already generating income for the cooperative and building a stronger community. Let me show you around! (Click on the photo for a larger version)

On the day of the opening ceremonies, May 24, 2017, Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative members, local officials, and SIA Small Business Fund members gather around the central gazebo of the new Training Center. Behind the gazebo (from left to right) is the new dormitory, the administrative offices and the kitchen/meeting hall.

This is the room where I stayed at the Manyamula COMSIP Training Center dormitory. The electricity had just been connected the day before we arrived! The plastic chairs were bought with a grant from SIA. Some of the guest rooms are rented out to teachers at the nearby technical college.

The meeting hall is used for educational and training events. It is also being rented to church groups on the weekends. Pictured are Tanya Cothran (back to camera, wearing a skirt made from COMSIP fabric), Canaan Gondwe (in suit) who was master of ceremonies that day. SIA Team members Dana Belmonte and Boyd Cothran observe.

The Cooperative employs attendants and watchmen who fetch and heat water for guests to use for bathing. In the background is the goat house. This is here for demonstration purposes to educate local farmers on good care of goats. The house is elevated so that the goats hoofs will be out of the muck throughout the night. This also allows easy access to goat manure for farming. The goats go out to graze during the day.

In the shell of the under-construction warehouse at the Manyamula Training Center, women cooked over open flames to provide three meals a day for us. We ate eggs and potatoes, nsima (made from corn/maize), vegetables and chicken. The warehouse will help farmers to safely store their harvest, especially corn/maize and groundnuts (peanuts), until they can sell it collectively for a good price. The national COMSIP organization is investing to finish this construction. The COMSIP grant came after they saw the good work that the cooperative is doing to help farmers and community members. Manyamula has a population of about 25,000.

During the open ceremonies, Canaan said, “We built this centre with local materials, especially local bricks. The building of this center is a source of pride, duty and community. Now we are distinguished in the world. The hall is used for church services and youth empowerment programs. We hope it will soon be a place for indoor sports, and as a recreation center, to watch soccer on TV, and as an internet café so that youth can learn computer skills.”

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

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