I want a Kenyan cell phone!

I want a Kenyan cell phone!

When you think Africa you might not think cell phones. You should though! In Kenya especially they are doing some really cool, innovative things with cell phones. In fact, there are a few ways I wish my North American cell phone service could be more like the Kenyan system…

Maureen Kasadi in Nairobi texts with a friend before our Small Business Fund meeting starts.

Maureen Kasadi in Nairobi texts with a friend before our Small Business Fund meeting starts.

1. Cheaper service

Have you noticed how expensive cell phone plans are in the US? Of course you have! Even the “pay as you go” plans can have $10/month minimums. In 2013, 70% of Kenyans had cell phones. Once you purchase the phone in Kenya, you can buy of “air time” to “top up” your account balance. Unlike the US, these airtime minutes are sold in increments of about 50 cents to $20.

The Kenyan system is truly pay as you go. If you can only afford 50 cents of airtime you can buy just the amount needed for that one important call. In the US it seems that monthly minimums keeps rising, giving me much more than I need each month.

2. Sending money

A banking revolution is happening in Kenya – and it’s happening because of cell phones. About 70% of Kenyans do not have access to a bank. They DO have cell phones though. Enter M-Pesa! M-Pesa allows people to transfer money through their cell phones.

The sender brings money directly to an M-Pesa dealer (which operate out of city grocery stores and the tiniest rural kiosks) and gives the dealer the cell phone number of the receiver. Then the receiver gets a text saying the money is available. They go to their local M-Pesa dealer and pick up the cash! Whereas before a daughter working in the city might’ve had to travel hours by bus to bring cash to her parents in the country, now she can transfer it instantly to them.

We are even using M-Pesa for SIA! We can make one bank transfer to Kenya and then have the Small Business Fund coordinators M-Pesa the money to each other. Each bank transfer costs us $10. Each M-Pesa transfer costs just $2-3.

Grace's shop in the Manyamula Market is connected to the new electricity lines in town and so she provides phone charging services for a small fee.

Grace’s shop in the Manyamula Market is connected to the new electricity lines in town and she provides phone charging services for a small fee.

3. Shopping around

Most Kenyans have non-smart phones – phones for texting and calling, rather than easy internet use – and most have space for two different SIM cards. This means they can switch between cell phone carriers as suits their needs. Airtel, Orange, and Safaricom are the three most popular carriers and each have different deals and rates for different times. When you have both an Airtel and a Safaricom SIM card, you can shift to use whichever has cheaper evening calls or cheaper calls within the carrier network. This flexibility seems like a dream for those of us locked into one carrier based on the phone or a 2-year contract!

Bonus: Sharing opportunities

As I blogged about last week, people are excited about electricity coming to Manyamula, Malawi. So far, just a few shops have access to the electrical wires, and others are using solar power. Both are highly valued because electricity is necessary to charge all these cell phones! When we visited Winkly Mahowe he showed us his solar panel connected to a power strip, where he allows neighbors to charge their cell phones for free. Charging is also a viable SBF business- we saw this crowded power source in one of the Manyamula market shops.

Fostering dignity in myself and others

Brown Ngoma is expanding his family's store, building a home, and now "when his family is sick he can pay for a private hospital." (Manyamula, Malawi)

Brown Ngoma is expanding his family’s store, building a home, and now “when his family is sick he can pay for a private hospital.” (Manyamula, Malawi)

“If I fail to treat someone with dignity, it is me, not them, who is undignified.” In other words, to keep my own dignity – that sense of self-respect and pride in oneself – I must honor everyone else’s dignity. Just because someone is poor it doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t have self-respect. In fact, as an article in the Guardian about international aid and dignity pointed out, “some of the poorest people are the most dignified. And some of the richest lack dignity.”

Luckily, Spirit in Action is a good place to work to practice honoring the dignity in each person. Our work is not just about numbers and outcomes, it’s about seeing the world and our fellow human beings as inherently filled with potential and self-respect.

Founded with Dignity

Even before Del Anderson founded Spirit in Action, he was enthusiastic about affirming the dignity of each person he wrote to. In the stuffed envelopes he sent out Del included simple self-help projects and encouraging messages.

Messages like: “Within you is the power. Within you is the power to face life and all that lies before you with unshakable assurance that the Lord your God is in the midst of you.”

And, “[The glory of God] is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Does this enhance our dignity and that of others?

The Yuba family shows us that they have enough food - good bread and chicken - from their pottery and kiosk business successes. (Kasozi, Uganda)

The Yuba family shows us that they have enough food – good bread and chicken – from their pottery and kiosk business successes. (Kasozi, Uganda)

Imagine, the Guardian article mused, if before we implemented a program we asked, “is this dignified? Does this enhance our dignity and that of others?” In fact, this is something that the SIA Board already does!

Small Business Fund groups and community grant projects are led by capable and empowered local leaders. They are taking charge of their own success – and that’s dignity. We’re used to seeing that dignity. And so we’re wary when grant applicants seem to play on our emotions by presenting themselves as inherently lacking or desperate.

Dignity is not about SIA buying and sending cooking pots to Africa. It’s about helping a family build steady income through their own business. Then it’s their own hard work that foster their hope in the future.

Last summer, I saw the bright glow of self-respect in the faces of the Small Business Fund members. They were all so proud of how far they’d come – the pots they could buy on their own, the medical care they could afford. They wanted to show me that they were the means of their success. To prove that they were able to tap into and channel that power within that Del talked about. And with dignity I affirmed their success. I drank the tea they offered to me and admired the new chairs. In these exchanges we were each letting our own light shine, and giving the other person space to shine too!

Called to action – now

Called to action – now

Yesterday, Boyd and I took our lunch break to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail aloud to each other. Reading it in its entirety, rather than in a series of quotes, I was impressed by frequent references to God, Jesus, and Biblical figures. There are many deeply moving quotes from King about the arc of justice, about how we are all inter-connected, about expressing compassion to each other, about love and hatred. These are quotes that stem from and refer to the deep truths of his Christian faith without always mentioning his faith.

King’s letter quoted Amos and made more than a few references to Paul and the early Christians. He seemed to take courage from those first Christians who were radical in their faith and who didn’t settle for the status quo. Churches today, King lamented, were afraid to be labeled as “nonconformist” and were shying away from the important work of challenging injustice and structural prejudice. He asks: “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”

This letter is a call to action, now. Not to wait. Not to be afraid to be different or radical or uncomfortable. People of faith must be people who stand up for justice, for moral rights, for the inherent dignity of all people.

Some of the team in Manyamula Village in Malawi that is standing up for justice and hope in their community.

Some of the team in Manyamula Village in Malawi that is standing up for justice and hope in their community.

Spirit in Action is not just a “spirit” organization. It is also an “action” organization. We see light and value and hope and possibility in the poor, in people of distant communities. We see that organizations that do not allow people to be actors in their own future, in their own prosperity, perpetuate an unsettling hierarchy of those who are helpers and those who need help. Action is confronting people who make statements that lump all of Africa into a uniform culture, who distrust all people who are poor. I know that is my great privilege to serve others, to give and encourage so that they can realize their own dreams for a better future.

We may not be able to help everyone. But we are not waiting until we can to solve all problems before we serve one person. We are not waiting to be a perfect organization before we dive into action to co-create with God for a better world.

Thank you for joining me on this path, in this action, in this service, and in using the power of God for good.

I sign off my post today with the same words as Martin Luther King, Jr. used in his letter from the Birmingham jail:

Yours for the cause of Peace and [Sister/]Brotherhood,
Tanya

There is no “us”, there is no “them”

There is no you, there is no me. There’s only God that I can see.
There is no us, there is no them. There’s only God. Amen.
— “There’s only God” by Richard Burdick

A simple meditative chant. Yet it sparked in me, if just for a few moments, a sense of true connectedness with all the world. I paused to consider what this – no us and no them – could really mean for me and for the possibility of peace. I wrote:

If there is no us and no them, then I am completely equal to every other human being.

I am the same as the corporate executive,
we are both worthy of love.

I am the same as the Boko Haram member in Nigeria,
we are both worthy to be heard.

I am the same as the Liberian street kid,
we are both worthy of help.

I am the same as the Midwest meth addict,
we are both worthy of healing.

I am the same as the homeless man,
we are both worthy of a job.

I am the same as the evangelical,
we are both worthy to talk to God.

I am the same as the atheist,
we are both worthy of community.

I am the same as the Congolese,
we are both worthy of trust.

I am the same as every other individual,
we are each worthy to be.

SIA local coordinators from all over Africa sing together in Kenya

SIA local coordinators from all over Africa sing together in Kenya

Are we master builders or workers in this world?

Hastings and Ruth with sturdy bricks for their house. (Malawi)

Hastings and Ruth with sturdy bricks for their house. (Malawi)

Parable of the 3 Stonecutters

An old story tells of three stonecutters who were asked what they were doing. The first replied, ‘I am making a living.’ The second kept on hammering while he said, ‘I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire country.’ The third one looked up with a visionary gleam in his eyes and said, ‘I am building a cathedral.’

(Source: Straight to Go blog)

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador Prayer

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying that
the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

That is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and 
there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.
Amen.

(Source: US Conference of Catholic Bishops)

*****************************************************

Workers or Master Builders?

These two stories have both been sources of inspiration to me. And it was only today that I realized that they seem to give opposing messages.

Should we live our lives like the third stonecutter? Always with our mind trained towards the final vision? Looking toward the end goal of increased equality, improved lives, and a decrease in disease, war, and poverty?

Or do we keep in mind that we can only do the work that is right in front of us? Remind ourselves that the full vision is beyond our vision and that we are only laying the foundation.

Nyend Edwade with a brick mold.

Nyend Edwade, small business leader in Uganda, with a brick mold.

Like Romero says, there is a sense of relief when we acknowledge that we cannot do everything. It’s useful for me to acknowledge this when the problems of the world get too big and I feel overwhelmed by the long road toward the cathedral. It’s at those moments – blinking in the face of the world’s problems – that I can put my head down and take time instead to talk to a friend, rebuild my strength, and find the inner silence.

But too much time looking down can make me wonder what I’m working for! What am I expecting to change down the line, after these years of effort?

With that clear vision of the cathedral, I see how each stone, each small grant, each email to a SIA partner, each resource on chicken-rearing and bee-keeping that I send out, is part of that growing network of people with a hope, a dream for a better life.

Pulling back a little further, I can also see how Spirit in Action is one small, sturdy, well-honed stone important to the design of the whole cathedral.

So, some days I will be a worker with Archbishop Oscar Romero (could you ask for a better co-worker at the table to social justice work?). And other days I will work alongside the master builder at the cathedral, chatting together as we cut stone about what it will be like when the grand building is completed and all are singing with joy, love, and pride at what we have built together. 

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