This month marks my 14th anniversary with Spirit in Action. When I started back in 2007, I never guessed how much this organization would become a part of my life. With so much change over so many years, I hope you’ll indulge me in some reminiscing and reflection.
The first year I climbed a steep learning curve. I learned the accounting system and tried to memorize the names and locations of the grant projects. I emailed Marsha Johnson, the previous administrator, regularly to ask for advice. After one year, I felt I had a grasp on most things. I had been through a full cycle of annual activities. In my fifth year, I started telling my friends that it actually takes five years to know a job. Now I’m 14 years in and still learning all the time.
Africa is Connected
I’ve taken four trips to Eastern Africa. On my first trip, in 2011, I didn’t have a local SIM card in my phone, and most places didn’t have Wi-fi access. In 2019, I used my cell phone constantly and was never really off-the-grid.
In my first year, I wrote physical letters to some of our grant partners – airmail letters that took weeks to arrive, and months to get a reply. Now, I am connected to all our partners through WhatsApp. And we have active group chats and Zoom meetings across five countries.
Captions: Working on my laptop in the Lilongwe airport. Stanley with the new electrical system purchased with income from his SIA small business (Malawi). Matthews with his solar powered light in rural Malawi.
SIA is Growing
In my first year we gave $20,000 in grants, last fiscal year we gave $150,000. This increase is in part to bequests from Del and Lucile Anderson, and Barbara and Bob Deal. Several other bequests and our growing list of monthly donors and Facebook donors also seeded this expansion. (Check out a map of our current grant partners.)
Question Rush and Busyness
When I had just started, I received an emergency request for funding. I don’t remember the circumstances of the situation. I only know that there was great pressure to get money out quickly. Soon after it was sent, the relationship between this person and SIA broke down. (I probably stepped in some cultural trap that I didn’t know about.) The lesson I took with me is to always question when something is being pushed to rush. “No Hurry In Africa” a bumper sticker in a Nairobi taxi proclaimed. If I’m feeling stressed by a timeline, I now ask myself if this needs to be rushed, or if I can take time to understand more/rest when I’m sick/take time for my family/seek more input, etc.
Strength in Diversity
For the longest time, the board was formed of people who personally knew Del Anderson (our founder). Now we have an African Advisory Board who share their local knowledge and development expertise to help us channel funds to impactful grassroots organizations. Our North American Board, no longer constrained by location, is also welcoming some talented new members this year.
The SIA team in Africa and I have built close friendships in these 14 years. We’ve been there for each other through illnesses, mourning, long car rides, and many tough situations.
Friends across the years. Dennis Kurgat and I in 2011, with other friends in 2017, and with Naomi Ayot in 2019. (Kenya)
Communicating Across Differences
Each time I visit partners, I understand more about the many languages used by our grant partners, and about the cadence of speaking English in eastern Africa. Coming from a direct communication style country and working in indirect communication style areas, I’m still learning how to best seek feedback. It takes practice and suavity to ask for input in the indirect way that is polite and acceptable among our partners.
I’m even learning some other languages! Did you know that consonants in the Ugandan language, Luganda, don’t have any sound? You only say the letter in relation to a vowel. Swahili is a mix of a Bantu language and Arabic. That’s why one of the possible greeting replies is salama (peaceful in Arabic and the equivalent of “all’s well” in Swahili).
In Africa, “SIA” is pronounced see-uh, rather than es-eye-a. So that’s how I say it in my head. I love how that messes with the grammar checker on my computer, which doesn’t like “a SIA project” and wants it to be “an SIA project.”
Can you tell that I’m still excited about the work even as I embark on my 15th year with Spirit in Action? I am so grateful for the hundreds of regular donors – individuals, church groups, and family foundations – who give year after year. I’m grateful for the Board of Directors, which has a “Taking Care of Tanya” committee to make sure I’m looked after. And I’m grateful for and humbled by all the amazing local leaders who work every day for a more just, kind, healthy, and prosperous world. Thank you for joining me in this work!
One of my favorite SIA photos - three women, with such different life stories, working together, visiting a bicycle repair shop in rural Uganda.