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.

“Hope is our Greatest Weapon”

“Hope is our Greatest Weapon”

I was so encouraged by this letter from SIA partner, Samson Turinawe. Samson is the Director of Universal Love Ministries, which works to promote an inclusive and diverse society in Uganda, free from gender- and sexuality-based violence. May we follow his call to stay hopeful in our work for justice. 

2017 is coming to a close and it is a good time to take measure of what we’ve accomplished together this past year. I want to recognize your good efforts on behalf of Universal Love Ministries and acknowledge the relationship that we’ve developed as a consequence of those efforts. Your goodwill and the commitment that you’ve demonstrated made a real and substantial difference in the lives of marginalized people whom ULM supports. 

I don’t know how the year went for you, but surely each of us faces challenges. We must own up to the errors we’ve made in addressing those challenges. We must come to terms with personal weakness that perhaps exacerbated the situation. Yet each of us has strength and wisdom too, which sometimes allows us to transcend circumstances and make things better.

There is more to life than regrets over the past. Never allow challenges to keep you down for long. You are strong and you can do better.

Samson surrounded by Inclusivity Club members.

Everybody Can Serve

If you are a teacher, kids in your class look up to you; their parents trust that you are teaching their kids well even if they don’t say that to you directly. If you are an activist, there is more to stand for; more good change that is needed. If you are a researcher, the future is waiting for your work, discoveries that can help people and make their lives better. If you are a doctor, remember that the society needs you, sick people to restore their health. If you are a writer, don’t forget that we expand our minds through what we read, what we see and feel.

This is what makes our society complete. Nobody is a lesser person. Our individual contribution is what makes us greater as a people.

Sharon Kukunda, Associate Director of ULM, presenting at the Inclusivity Club conference. The theme was “The Role of Youth in Celebrating Diversity.”

Hope is our greatest weapon

Hope is our greatest weapon for facing the future. No matter the challenges we confront today, we must not let pessimism keep us down.

Maybe our politics failed us. Maybe you were betrayed by people you had previously trusted. As we end 2017, make this your oath: never fail yourself and never be destructive because society mistakenly thinks its right to do destructive things on behalf of the majority. We can make this world better than it was yesterday. We can make it better for all people.

However little start, share, learn, network and strive to inspire others, even if it is just one other person.

You have our best wishes and prayers for the New Year. We believe you’ll arrive at the New Year with dreams and an uplifting vision for our world, for our generation and the next generation. The ULM team will never stop to stand with those who are threatened; we’ll stand to make those who have been silenced to speak out for themselves. We are committed to this journey. We do not go to bed blissful, satisfied with the way things are. Every challenge is an injustice to overcome and this gives us reason not to relax. 

Turinawe Samson
ULM-Uganda

Local and school leaders at the Inclusivity Club Conference in November.

What’s new for 2018

What’s new for 2018

Happy New Year! I’m looking forward to another year with new connections with grassroots leaders, more stories of families moving out of poverty and into sustainable prosperity, and hopefully a new donor database (let me know if you have database skills you want to share with SIA)!

This year, the SIA Board of Directors will also be diving into three discussions about how we operate. I’m looking forward to this opportunity to honor what we’ve learned from our experiences over the past 22 years and to consciously open to the ways we can take “smart risks” in supporting more justice in the world.

Smart Risk #5 Practicing Vulnerability

Updating Small Business Fund Training Tools

These are the training guidelines that our Small Business Fund (SBF) Coordinators use with the new business groups as they design their business plans. Over the years, we have supplemented the original document with materials on record-keeping (including record-keeping for people with limited literacy), and planning for reinvestment.

After our SBF conference in Malawi in May, I’ve felt the need to work with our coordinators and board to evaluate all the training guidelines and see what we need to add or change to make sure that the new business leaders are receiving the support they need. Mindset preparation is one important concept that’s not in the current version of the training tools.

Pastor Brasswell Nkhonjera from Mzuzu, Malawi at the Small Business Fund Coordinator’s Conference in May 2017. Local SIA Coordinators mentor the new business groups to help them start successful endeavors.

Increasing diversity of board members

What perspectives are we missing? What expertise can we add to our team? What qualities are particularly important for our board? How do we facilitate listening to local leaders?

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

Reviewing our mission statement

Does our mission statement (“Spirit in Action is a network of people worldwide who are serving God by empowering others”) reflect our current mission in the world? How do we articulate our purpose? What words can we use to describe and motivate us?

For all these topics, there is no correct answer and so we’ll be using consensus and listening decision-making processes. This will help us to share our own inner-knowing, reflect on Del’s legacy, and listen to the wisdom of those around us.

We welcome your prayers and input! Many blessings for peace and justice in 2018!

Partner Spotlight: Matungu Community Development Charity in Kenya

Partner Spotlight: Matungu Community Development Charity in Kenya

A group photo of the members of the Matungu Community Development Charity in Kakamega County, Kenya. Vincent Atitwa sits on Tanya’s right. (June, 2017)

Every six months we check in with our grassroots grant partners to ask how their programs are going and how they are impacting their members. We like to hear about their challenges as well as their successes, and about how they are reinvesting to make their programs sustainable outside of SIA’s funding. Today, I am sharing this wonderful report from the Matungu Community Development Charity in Mumias, Kenya. They received a Community Grant from Spirit in Action in May and I visited them in June and got to see them collect their weekly dues for the table banking cooperative.

The following report is from group leader, Vincent Atitwa:

Vincent Atitwa, the gracious leader of the Matungu Community Development Charity

The approved purpose of the grant: We will start a table banking and a collective poultry project. Our project is empowering small-scale farmers by helping them to improve farming practices and gain access to credit and financing.

Estimate the number of people who have benefited from this project: 20 members benefited directly and 80 members benefited indirectly as family members and friends.

Our biggest success has been:

  • We were able to construct poultry house/ structure that can a accommodate 300 birds
  • Purchased 250 poultry birds for the project. We also bought chicken feed, feeding and water troughs and vaccines
  • Disbursed 15 small loans to 15 group members, each getting 12,500 Kenyan Shillings ($121)

Chicks collectively reared by the members of the cooperative raise funds for low-interest micro-loans.

Our biggest problem has been: We have not yet been able to register our intended savings and loaning cooperative. The registrar of societies suggested we register either a company or multi-purpose cooperative since we are also running the poultry business.

Has profit been used to reinvest back into the project? Yes, by purchasing more 30 birds that were given to 5 more new group members.

How have you been able to participate in Sharing the Gift? We were able to purchase and  pass a gift of 10 birds to 2 elderly women who are caring for orphans.

Please explain how this project has affected you and others involved. Have you seen changes in your community? This project has impacted positively on our group members’ lives. Before, some lacked money to start their own small businesses and now at least 15 members are comfortably running and operating their small business ranging from: farming of maize, growing and selling of local vegetable, horticulture, selling of cereals, and tailoring.

Profits made from these businesses are being used to buy books, uniforms and even other basic needs for the beneficiaries’ children. For example, Judith Were, a single mother who operates a tailoring shop, used the loan funds to expand her tailoring business through purchasing more garments and material stock. Judith reports, “This coming festive season around Christmas, I am prepared to do more work. I hope to realize good profits now that I have enough material in stock.”

Judith Were in her tailoring shop. She used her loan to buy more material to make dresses for the holiday season!

What have you learned from this process of project implementation? I have learned that sometimes when people (especially our group members), are supported with unconditional small loans they tend to work hard and make good profits. This is much less stressful compared to working and using loans borrowed from cooperate banks/institutions with strings attached on it. With SIA-supported unconditional small loans, members become custodian of their own funds.

Tanya displays a dress made by Judith Were. Judith tells her story, “I run a boutique. I have a shop, and I am a tailor. I make colorful dresses and skirts.”

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.

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