Meridian invites you to take an armchair journey to Ghana through our coverage that can be found here and continuing in the next few days. For most of us our Church experiences do not extend to the uttermost parts of the earth. We neither know our brothers and sisters in other lands, nor comprehend the extent of their challenges. Meridian’s senior staff has been in Ghana, covering the church there and, expanding your touch with the world.
Africa is a continent of woes. This is a world where troubles are heavy and charitable instincts are stirred. Come to Africa and you want to help, yet as Georges Bonnet, the Church’s Director of Temporal Affairs for West Africa said, “Giving is easy in Africa. It is like a shotgun. Aim anywhere and you can hit something.”
He is also the first to say that you may not hit the mark. One of Africa’s hard-earned lessons is that well-meaning help may not help at all. In fact, money thrown at a problem may create dependency, a welfare mentality, a sense of the “poor, helpless African” who is waiting for a rescue.
Several years ago Dr. James Mayfield, founder of CHOICE (Center for Humanitarian Outreach and Intercultural Exchange), did an evaluation of the USAID projects to see how effective they had been. The results were surprising and devastating. The great majority of them failed or had limited success. Typical was the experience of those who had put in a water pumping system to assure a village would have clean water, only to find when they returned two years later that the pumps no longer worked, had not been properly maintained and the people were walking past them to their old, filthy watering hole.
This does not mean that the crying needs of Africa should be ignored. Far from it. This is a forgotten continent where millions die of AIDS and their children languish as orphans who will grow up and repeat the cycle. Hygiene is horrible, education is miserably substandard, many governments are corrupt and unstable. Saddest of all is the hopelessness that eats like a worm at people who see no future, no vision of a better tomorrow. They collapse exhausted, both emotionally and physically, at the side of the roads, looking only for temporary relief.
Help is badly needed. Those of us who spend our means and time on the next bit of entertainment or Saturday’s golf game need to look beyond gratification to a dying continent. Yet help must be given in a way that is truly effective and pitfalls abound.
Some who try to help finally weary of donor fatigue. Helping in Africa is like throwing a nickel in Lake Victoria hoping to displace the water. It is always too little for the yawning gulf of needs. Even with the utmost sacrifice and effort, can you measure that anything has been accomplished? Compassion in Africa requires a patient, long-term vision that is not easily daunted.
Then there is the trap of cynicism. It is easy to come to Africa and have your helping instincts dissolve before the difficulties and the destructive traditions. Washington Post writer, Keith B. Richburg, lived in Africa on assignment for the newspaper and instead of pulling the tug of his African roots, came away with a most politically incorrect shout, “Thank God my nameless ancestor, brought across the ocean in chains and irons, made it out alive. Thank God I am an American.” Nothing had prepared himself for the brutality, dictatorships and warfare that he saw.
Approach of the Church
So it is refreshing and impressive to see the Church’s method of helping in Africa. The humanitarian efforts are based upon the values of the gospel. Key to that is the truth that all people are children of God with remarkable potential, the seeds of good ideas, and the capacity to find solutions to their problems. Those who would give humanitarian help must do it in a way to empower the recipients, stir their own abilities, and teach them how to grow.
The idea is a hand-up, not just a hand-out.
Georges Bonnet said, “We teach people. We are forthright in telling people the projects won’t work unless they are founded on our values. We are changing a culture of despair, teaching people everything from how to completely clean a building to how to treat each other. We are bold about it. We don’t equivocate. When somebody suggests that will not work, we say, ‘Don’t underestimate your people. They have the same potential, the same hope as anybody else.’”
The Jamestown Project
The Church’s remarkable way of helping is exemplified in the Jamestown project located in the oldest section of Accra, where buildings are dilapidated and people spill into the streets because their dwellings are so crowded. Last year, a businessman born in that area named Frank Tackie, determined he wanted to do something to help the people. He said, “It is a slum, but it is a slum of hope. I could see sparks of hope in the eyes of the youth.”
It could have been tempting—even easier–at that point to give the community only a humanitarian gift. They sent Adja Sowah, a social worker in the community to the Church for help—and Georges Bonnet gave him what he really needed, which first of all, was know-how “I taught him how to put a process together to manage such a project—how to plan it and how to define it. At the second meeting when he presented the plan, its scope and vision really surprised everybody.
“The Church can do great good in helping people go from a good idea to an implementable, simple project that will give them success,” said Brother Bonnet. “We can show them how to translate a spiritual hope or an idea that touches their hearts into a project that will help them become self-reliant so that they believe in themselves and gain confidence.
The projects work because the value system behind them works.
Brother Bonnet warned those working on the Jamestown project that they couldn’t be in it for money, as is too often the case in community projects in Africa. The larger culture has developed an outlook that says, “If I do anything, I expect to be paid.” This outlook can breed graft and corruption. He taught them, instead, that “people who benefit from some part of the project have to give something back to the community.”
This is an energizing idea that multiplies the number of helpers for any community project and brings a sense of ownership. It becomes “our library” or “our technical center”—not just a vague gift from an anonymous donor.
It also allows the Church to use their humanitarian efforts to grow forests instead of a few saplings. The Church’s skill with leveraging resources teaches the groups with whom it works to do the same. Things can move only as quickly as the capacity of the people allows—so the focus is on capacity.
The Jamestown project has many components: a technical center, a library, plans for a school where many kinds of employable skills will be taught a people too long living on the edge.
At the technical center in Jamestown, several people sat at computers, fingers slowly feeling their way across unfamiliar keyboards in their first lessons.
The trainer, who was patiently teaching her students, had learned keyboarding and technical skills through a center that the Church has established in Accra. Now, she in turn was training others, many of whom will, in turn, pass on their own training. Students understand the expectation. They owe something back for the training they have received. Freely they have been given, and now freely they must give. Any number of possibilities are open in Jamestown. They may teach a youngster to read or do a clean-up project. The options for service are endless in their community.
Up the stairs on the second floor of a street in Accra teeming with people, the Gamashie library is another example of the Church’s partnership with the community. Literacy is a problem here. This good-size room was their forgotten, nearly empty library, left that way because they could not afford books. What they could do was build shelves and fix up the room, and then, in turn, when they did, the Church gave books to fill the shelves.
Brother Bonnet said the requirement was that the books had to come with a plan from the community. How would they care for these books? How would they ensure that they would not be torn or damaged, stolen or carted away? How would they manage the library? Who will use it? Who will run it? In devising and implementing the plan, the people were
Among the books donated to the library were multiple copies of For the Strength of Youth. “We don’t apologize for our values,” said Brother Bonnet.
In fact, he never wastes a teaching opportunity. “We are preparing an agenda for a meeting and I ask questions like, ‘How do you resolve differences with your wife? Why do you do it this way?’ We use church material as much as possible—and they like it because they admire what we do.”
The Borestal Project
Not far from Jamestown is a grassy campus filled with teenagers who have gotten in trouble. Borestol is a low security juvenile detention center whose goal is to give job skills to troubled youth so that when they are free they will have hope for a better life.
No matter what the infraction, the term is three years—enough time, said Ike Ferguson,
Welfare Director for the West Africa area, to give a teen a young person a real skill or an opportunity to attend a university.
enhanced as their books were preserved.
The Church is helping here with the same principles. The infirmary used to be a gutted, dingy room with a pile of rusting beds in the corner. There was no getting sick here. The Church supplied a ceiling fan, new mattresses, medical supplies and paint and the inmates supplied the muscle power. They painted the infirmary, fixed the beds and hung the lights.
In nearly every building on the campus, the Church has found the catalyst to improve the situation. In the mechanics shop, it is two boxes of tools; in clothing construction it is a line of sewing machines set neatly in a row. The woodworking shop has been rewired. The library’s shelves have been stocked by the Church, computers supplied in another tech center.
“I’ll never forget a meeting we had with the staff,” said Georges Bonnet. “’You know how many people offer to help and never come back?’ they said. ‘You came back’
“That is the Church’s reputation. We do what we say we’ll do. If we do something small, we do it well.” The Church’s humanitarian outreach offers hope; it assumes people have great capacity if given the chance and the way. It seeks to lift them, not erode their will—and it works.
“The Church is the solution to Africa’s woes,” said Brother Bonnet.
Ga Tribal Council
One morning in Accra, we went with Georges Bonnet and Ike Ferguson to meet with the Ga Tribal Council who are working in the Jamestown community. Drums were thumping out a greeting. The Ga Council were dressed in their colorful robes, draped over their left shoulders. The spokesman for the chief had his staff. We greeted them traditionally, politely, moving around the circle from right to left, shaking their hands with two of ours.
The group could not say enough about how pleased they were with the progress of the project. They talked reverentially of their time in the new temple during the open house. It had not been that long ago that one of them had an injunction issued and all building of the temple temporarily ceased.
But that was then, and this is now. At this point they may agree that the Church is the solution to Africa’s woes.
When we closed the meeting Brother Bonnet asked if he could say a prayer. It was a loving prayer without hesitations or apologies. He thanked Heavenly Father for the gifts he has given and the progress the community has made. The ‘amen’ is truly felt.
Walking across the yard that day, the tribal spokesman took Georges Bonnet’s hand and held it a few minutes. This has a special meaning in Africa. It means, ‘we are one.’