This week's blog post is an excerpt from my sharing at United Methodist Church, Point Richmond last month. If you would like me to speak at your church, congregation, or club, let me know!
Martin Luther King, Junior famously said, "no one is free until we are all free." Looking deeper I found essentially the same quote was used by Jewish poet and activist Emma Lazarus, the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, and Fannie Lou Hamer, the women’s rights activist. The people pushing for new social systems realized that the work of such change requires us all to see how our futures and freedoms are tightly woven together.
My favorite version of this same sentiment is from Lilla Watson, an Indigenous Australian artist and activist. She said, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” It was a phrase that was co-created by members of an Aboriginal Rights group in Queensland, Australia.
There are plenty of non-profit organizations that lean heavily on the first part of Lilla’s quote, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.”
At a Spirit in Action gathering in Kenya a few years ago, James from the Democratic Republic of Congo, shared about a missed opportunity. A donor had wanted James to have a hydraform brick machine. The bricks are designed to be interlocking and not require mortar, therefore making them easier to use than traditional clay bricks. So the machine was bought and installed, but it soon languished. The machine was hard to use and it was actually not filling a real need. Bricks are inexpensive in the rural parts of eastern Africa where clay is abundant. And the hydraform machine would’ve taken away the livelihood of many local brickmakers. In fact, when we do fund building projects with Spirit in Action grants, providing bricks is often the contribution that the community is proud to make on their own.
(Pictured above, front to back: Tanya, Wambui, Dorcas, James, Dennis (behind), Samuel, Barbara, Naomi; Kenya, 2019)
As James was telling us about this, Samuel, from Kenya, interjected that he also had a hydraform brick machine that wasn’t in use! Ha! We all laughed and James summed up the situation by lamenting that, “you can only do so much to convince a westerner to not do a project they think will work.” Just think of what the impact could have been if instead, the donors asked James and Samuel what their communities most wanted as a path to their economic security and development. Also, think of the soul impact of allowing groups the freedom to set their own priorities. As they seize this freedom, I – from afar – am also more free to not have solutions, and to just respond and support where I am asked to help.
"Let's add to their efforts"
Right now Spirit in Action is in the midst of our grant process for the year. I am working closely with five African Advisory Board members – all from eastern Africa – to review and select the projects to fund. This is our second year using the peer-review grant process, and their knowledge of the local context and of development work is invaluable to Spirit in Action.
One of the grant applications that we received this year is from a community-based women’s organization in Burundi, which is just south of Rwanda in eastern Africa, and one of the poorest countries in the world. The group’s name, Tubunganire, means “let’s add to their efforts” in Kirundi, the language of Burundi.
I’m thinking of adopting this as Spirit in Action’s new motto. “Let’s add to their efforts.” In just a few words it captures our mindset of being of service to those projects that are already in motion before we arrive on the scene. And not imposing unwanted help.
Tubunganire has been around for about four years and its leaders are well-known in the community. The group supports women so that they do not need to depend on men or other families members for their daily needs. It's about increasing financial freedom.
Our African Advisory Board member Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana learned about the organization three years ago when his mother was living alone at home. Women from TUBUNGANIRE took turns fetching water for her, giving her medications, preparing food for her, and just coming to sit and talk. The group officially has 45 members, but so many more than that benefit from their work, including Fulgence’s mom, who was not an official member. Let’s add to their efforts!
For the last four years, Tubunganire has been running completely on local support. A grant from Spirit in Action would be their first grant from an international organization. The funds would be used to plant a community garden to demonstrate about growing vegetables, and it will also help them develop what they call a “solidarity chain” with pigs. Half of the members will receive pigs right away, and when the pigs give birth, the members will give piglets to their fellow members and other women in the community. Those women will then pass future piglets to more women – adding to the solidarity chain. Let’s add to their efforts.
(A pig solidarity project in Uganda, run by Universal Love Alliance, a SIA Grant Partner. They met in March to have women whose pigs had given birth pass on piglets to other women in the group.)
"I am because we are"
In Kenya, in the urban area of Githurai around the capital of Nairobi, Lilian Wanjira started the organization Ubuntu to lift up the women suffering from domestic abuse in her community. The organization started in 2019 but it was during the lockdowns related to COVID-19 that she was hearing more and more stories about domestic abuse. Lost jobs and nightly curfews created a pressure cooker environment for couples.
Ubuntu, which means “I am because we are,” has a low-interest loan program for women wanting to start their own businesses. They are doing things like buying vegetables in downtown markets and bringing them to Githurai to sell along the roadside. Or making doughnuts or samosa to sell to people on their way to or from work.
(Lilian, in the red shirt, visits Jane Wangari Wandaka's shop. Jane is a Ubuntu member in Githurai, Kenya.)
Built into the Ubuntu loans system is a regular check-in. In the evenings, Lilian goes around to the women to collect their small loan repayments and to ask how they’re doing. She listens to their stories, provides a shoulder for them to cry on, and prays with them. She hears stories of husbands who come home drunk and encourages the women to start their own businesses to have some financial independence. Lilian is adding to the efforts of each woman, and Spirit in Action is adding to Lilian’s efforts by helping her build a small office where women can come for safety and comradery.
You can see that these efforts reach deep into the strength of the grassroots movements. In contrast to the hydraform bricks, our Spirit in Action grants respond to the needs by uplifting the solutions and ideas that already exist in the communities, by supporting what is already in motion. And I do believe that as we add to their efforts, rather than going in to help, everyone in the world is a little more free.