Three young friends are now safe from harm

Oury, Navin and Pandey in their school uniforms.
Oury, Navin and Pandey attend school regularly, instead of spending their days at the city dump.

When I opened the email and saw this photo, I could hardly believe my eyes. Were these the same boys that captured our hearts last July? The sight of them in their clean white school uniform shirts brought a lump to my throat.

They’re okay, I thought. No, look at them! They’re better than okay.

We first heard the story of these three inseparable 11-year-old friends last summer. Our child protection team in Asia had identified the boys, Oury, Navin and Pandey, as being at high risk for trafficking.

They spent their days, unsupervised, digging through garbage at the city dump, looking for recyclables to sell. The orange tint to Pandey’s hair – a sign of malnutrition – indicated he wasn’t getting enough to eat. He is the fifth of six children. His father is disabled and drinks every day.

The three boys in the dump.
When we first met these three boys, they were collecting garbage to sell.

Their broken families and hardships brought them together as friends. Their will to survive bonded them. They worked together as partners, they said, because they could collect more trash and finish sooner. They dreamed of using their “profits” to become engineers and building skyscrapers in Cambodia some day.

We worked with them, slowly encouraging them to attend our School on a Mat program, knowing they would resist giving up their income from the dump. At first, they continued to go to the dump in the mornings and attended school in the afternoons. They learned about the dangers of trafficking and how to avoid abuse and exploitation.

Now they’re safe and attending school regularly. And, they’re one step closer to their dream of becoming engineers.

Prevention works. You can get involved in preventing child trafficking by fundraising for the “Free Them” 5k or by supporting World Concern’s child protection programs.

Pandey in school.
Pandey is now attending school regularly.
Pandey at School on a Mat
Pandey, when he first started attending School on a Mat.

Garden = better test scores and more in rural Kenya

School children in Kenya.
Students hard at work at Naado Primary School in Kenya.

Kathryn Sciba is visiting some of our programs in Kenya this week. The following excerpt is from her blog about her trip.

We began our eventful journey to a primary school near Narok. This is the kind of land where safari animals roam wild. The children and teachers at this school blew my mind with how well they welcomed us. The people here are Maasai, nomadic herdsmen. This school has changed their lives since World Concern started working with them in 2008.

The school has a 28-acre garden that World Concern built a fence around so the elephants wouldn’t destroy it. The lack of farming means the families have had to follow the herds and lack a balanced diet.

In the past three years World Concern has not only built a solar powered electric fence around the school’s garden but they’ve also trained the community about farming. Now the families can stay put if they want to. Now the community has wheat and corn fields. The school produces more than enough food for their enrollment and is able to sell the rest. They grow passion fruit, mango, bananas, and vegetables, including basics like beans, corn and wheat.

They do have a water catchment system, which catches rain from the roof and carries it through pipes to the garden, but they need rain to sustain it. Please pray for a great rainy season which was supposed to begin this month but has been lousy so far.

Students in Kenya.
About 800 students receive education and nutritious meals at Naado Primary School in Narok, Kenya.

The garden has provided essential nutrition and that’s helped the student’s test schools improve dramatically. In 2007, 191 children graduated with a Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (a national standardized test required to pass primary school). In 2008, 216 students graduated and in 2009 the number was 261.

Enrollment has been increasing because the community is sending their children there to be well fed and educated instead of having them roam with the herds. The school provides boarding to 150 girls who would otherwise roam with their families. By having girls live at the school, their families may feel less urgency to marry them off at a young age in exchange for a 20 cow dowry.

There are currently about 400 boys and 400 girls enrolled in the school.

 

 

Hunger and waiting

We’re more than half way through the Global Hunger Challenge and are gaining some powerful insights about how we approach and think about food. First on our minds: snacking. We’re not doing any. And we miss it. There just wasn’t room in the budget to factor in snacks beyond the three meals a day we planned in our $34 budget for the week. It’s amazing how much food is offered by others in our culture too. At least five times this week I was offered a treat or something to drink by generous friends, which made it very hard to refuse.

A woman tends a fire for cooking in Chad.
Pots heated over a fire for cooking in a refugee camp in Chad.

Over the weekend I made soup in my crock pot, not thinking about how hard it would be to smell it cooking all day and having to wait until dinner time when it was done. The aroma definitely intensified the snack cravings. It made me think about those who live in some of the places where World Concern serves, and how much of their day is consumed with gathering, planning and preparing food. I’ve also never been so thankful for food when meal time does arrive after an hour or so of my stomach grumbling.

In parts of Africa where we work, three meals a day is not the norm. The two “meals” (which are not even close in quantity to our meals) take most of the day to prepare. Pounding whole grain, such as maize, millet or sorghum, with a mortar and pedestal expends an incredible amount of time and energy. Someone gathers sticks for a fire from a few distant trees. The grain is then cooked in water and possibly fried if there is oil available. Aside from seasoning it with some onions or garlic, or being blessed with a seasonal green as a side dish, most families eat the same food every day. A piece of fruit is considered a rich dessert on a special occasion.

Imagine the patience involved in plowing hard, dry soil, planting seeds, hand-carrying water from a stream or well miles away to irrigate your meager crops, then waiting for signs of growth. Just when sprouts of green begin to push through the cracked soil, all your hard work is washed away by a flash flood. It’s hard to fathom the disappointment parents feel, knowing their children will have to wait even longer for food now.

A woman plows a field in Chad
A woman plows her field in Chad.

It’s exhausting to think about, isn’t it? This week’s Hunger Challenge has given us a tiny glimpse into what millions of people experience every day of their lives. Hunger. And waiting.

Join us in making a difference.

Will the Hunger Challenge be as “fun” as it seems?

Today was shopping day for some of our staff participating in the Hunger Challenge. The task: to figure out what to buy in order to eat on just $34.33 for the next week. The amount is equivalent to the $1.25 a day that many people in Haiti live on. Our adjusted amount will be $4.90 a day, which doesn’t sound too difficult, but our first eye opener was how much planning, calculating and creativity went into making $34 stretch for a week.

A week's worth of groceries.
Here's what Mark and Erin bought with their $34. Will it last them a week?

Mark and his wife Erin had a lot of fun planning their menu together for the week, then figuring out which things—like a hunk of cheese or a loaf of bread—could be used in more than one meal. They decided to spend only half of their combined $68 on groceries and save the rest for a few splurges, like Erin’s daily Dr. Pepper from the gas station soda fountain. They’re also planning dinner out on Friday night while shopping at Ikea. The store has a hot dog, chips and a drink for $1.99, which fits in their budget. Monday is their anniversary, so they’ll order pizza from Little Caesar’s for $5.

Other meals include taco soup, minus the meat (for three nights), grilled cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and of course, some Top Ramen for snacks.

The hardest things to give up? “Soft drinks,” said Mark, who usually drinks soda with lunch and dinner, but will be drinking only water this week.

“We really realized that if you’re careful, you can save a whole bunch,” he said. “We were surprised at how much food we could get.” It may be a little monotonous, he admits, but they’ve got a bag of chocolate chip cookies dipped in milk to look forward to at the end of the day.

But the Hunger Challenge is not all about budgeting and careful shopping. It’s about experiencing—just an inkling—of what other people live with every day of their lives.

Think about the fact that we’re spending our entire $34 on food. What about all the other things families need to be healthy like soap and toothpaste? Here are just a few things I would normally include in my grocery budget, but won’t be buying this week or I’d starve:

Toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, cleaning products, cat food, cat litter, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, feminine hygiene products, over-the-counter medicines, staples (flour, sugar, spices, shortening, oil, etc.), condiments (salad dressing, mayo, ketchup, teriyaki sauce, etc.), soft drinks, juice, other beverages, light bulbs … I could go on and on.

The point is, when you’re faced with a small amount of money needing to stretch for a week, food alone becomes the priority.

Planning for this week might feel “fun” to those of us who don’t live this way every day, but I find it hard to imagine those living in constant poverty would even have the energy to plan a week’s worth of meals. For us, this is a week-long experiment. For millions of people, it’s a way of life.

Follow our team’s Hunger Challenge updates on Facebook and Twitter, as well as this blog.

World Poverty Photos

Poverty Photos

Take a look at some poverty photos.  See how people live in poverty around the world.

If you like the poverty photos, or think they are especially powerful, please share w/ your friends.  There’s a link below the poverty photos (look for “Share This”) that enables you to easily share around web.

Women & World Poverty

Women in Poverty

On Thursday, January 29, 2009, President Obama signed his first bill – the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act (CNN article).

For many years, Lilly Ledbetter worked received much less than her male counterparts who were doing exactly the same work but she did not discover the discrepancy until she reached retirement. She wanted some restitution for the years she had been underpaid but a narrow interpretation of the Statute of Limitations required that she file suit within 180 days of her first unfair paycheck. Since she did not discover the unfairness in the pay system until her retirement, the Supreme Court, on the basis of the present law, threw out the favorable judgment of the lower courts. This law changed the Statute of Limitations to 180 days after the most recent paycheck, providing more recourse to women who do not discover the inequity for many years.

I hope that Lilly Ledbetter will now be able to receive a fair judgment but, if we trace this news event backwards from today’s headlines, we discover that it is rooted in a core belief about equity and gender that is not a part of many of the cultures where I have worked during the years.

If Lilly had herself believed that it’s OK to pay women unequal pay for equal work because that’s just how things were, she would never have brought suit to begin with. That belief, in turn, is rooted in an even more basic belief that women are inherently worth less than men. And that is the core belief, shared by both women and men, in many of the countries of our work that we challenge and begin to change through our microfinance.

On a recent trip to Bangladesh, I asked Khushi (her name means “Happy”) what in her leadership of Women’s Small Business Assistance Center (WSBAC), World Concern’s micro-finance program for women in poverty, brought her the greatest satisfaction. She did not point first to increased family income or even the impact of that income on the women’s families—kids going to school, getting needed health care or enabling the further growth of the women’s businesses. Instead she said, “When we start the program the women look at the ground, many will not speak and, those who do speak share without confidence or spirit. Later in the program, they speak directly and with confidence. They talk of what they can do. They have a much greater influence in their family—their husbands respect them more. They know that they can do things.”

I’ve come to think of this experience as “seeing the lights go on in the eyes” because, quite literally, that is what happens as something that had been asleep in the women is stirred into life, shines through their eyes and is pantomimed in their confident body language—heads up, leaning forward, even interrupting one another to share with confidence and enthusiasm.

I saw it in the eyes of Anowa who was the head of a women’s microcredit group in the village of Kalipur.  This group helps women in poverty lift themselves up.  She sews together jute bags for cement and other items. Wholesalers now place orders with her and she has hired two additional women to help her. Another, after the death of her son caused her to lose her snack shop, began a rickshaw repair business and now owns two rickshaws. A third bought a good milk cow and now sells the five liters of milk it produces a day for Taka 50 (about $.70) a liter. Others make dresses, run market stalls, buy and sell. The eight women call named their community bank “Hashi” or “smile.”

Why is giving women loans, training and encouragement to run their own businesses so different from simply giving them money? This week I discovered a new (to me) insight that I had never seen in quite the same way before. I was again reading the first few chapters of Genesis, foundational to transforming development.

God spoke the animals into being, giving them their life. But Adam and Eve spoke their names into being, giving them their identities. There is great power in both actions. Only God can do the first, giving life to a baby girl in Bangladesh, but people, especially the child’s family, give the girl and the woman she becomes her identity.

Our staff and the WSBAC program speak three new identities into being for these women—community bank member, businesswoman and borrower.

  • Community bank member—As a community bank member, the women participate in making decisions that make a difference. The group must decide who will get the loans first and who will not. The women must become critical thinkers, evaluating the credit-worthiness and character of the applicant, and the likelihood of her success. Girls who transition quickly from the rote memorization of primary school—if they are able to attend—to the passive submission and obedience of a teen-aged wife and mother, may never have engaged in critical thought and decision-making. When the women in the group pay off their loans on time, as over 95% of the over 3,000 clients do, the group members come to be known as smart, insightful and savvy rather than slow, passive and dull women how must look to men for insight.
  • Borrower—As a borrower who must repay her loan with interest, a woman, whose identity was shaped by dependence upon others, is renamed as trusted, responsible and respected. For a woman whose identity is almost exclusively shaped by child-bearing and passive obedience to their husbands, becoming a debtor is a tribute to the confidence that others have in her competence. And when she pays off the first loan successfully and moves to larger second and third loans, respect for her grows within the village and with her husband and family.
  • Businesswoman—Businesswomen must plan, use simple accounting to make business decisions, and find suppliers and markets—even if their business is only a market stall. The women, many for the first time, must make investment decisions regarding money. They must decide what risks they are willing to take. For women whose time line for most decisions extend no later than the next day, extending their sense of control and influence permits hope to take root. If we feel that the decisions that we take today will have no influence over what happens in the future, our hope either dies or slips inexorably into numbing passivity.

Why, then, does the light shine in the eyes of these women? It is because we speak the same words of identity to them that God communicated to Eve—the good news of Genesis. “You are created in my image. Therefore you have value in and of yourself. Together with Adam you are to exercise dominion and stewardship over my creation—responsibly exercising your initiative, intelligence and creativity to make it productive.” Nobody has ever spoken this identity into being for millions of women in the world—an identity that is rooted in the character and action of God. The gifts and responsibility that God gave these women by virtue of their creation have not been awakened or developed. For many this awakening is the first step on a pathway that draws them nearer to the one whose image they bear.

World Poverty and Hope

Mid-second week in the Obama administration, hope continues. More than any president in my memory (beginning with Eisenhower), no president has ever entered office buoyed by the expectations and hopes not only of Americans and all the world.

I arrived in Kenya, Africa on my last trip on the same day that the election results were announced and walked into Obamania that probably had no parallel in the world. The recent saying in Kenya that the United States would have a Luo (Obama’s father’s tribe) president before Kenya had come true and all Kenya rejoiced together. My first work day in Africa was scrapped by a hastily called holiday across the entire country.  I too join in the hope that the only president in my memory who had actually worked among the poor will make poverty reduction a priority, not just as a policy but from a heart that better understands.

As I traveled throughout Kenya during the following week, however, I realized anew that the hope placed in Obama would not soon translate into hope that will reach the people I visited.

Later on in the American election week, I stooped down to enter the narrow and low doorway  of a traditional Maasai hut. Making my way through semidarkness I sat down in the small central room with the open fire in the center, glowing red and occasionally flaming up through the smoke that filled the essentially windowless room. For about ninety minutes I talked through a translator with the two Maasai women, one a grandmother and the other her daughter—kind of—she was actually her late husband’s brother’s daughter’s daughter–who together were rearing 13 children without a man in the household.  They talked about the complexity of their lives, of how they had to fight off men who would harass them, of the problems of dealing with sickness among the children and their few cows and goats, of the second woman’s own birth son and how her husband who had deserted her had come back to try and take the son in order to sell him off to others as a laborer. When I asked about their daily joys, they said it was to see the children grow and know that they were enabling them to do it.

As we prepared to leave, the older woman who had never gone to church before suddenly and without prompting not only announced that she would begin to attend but also that she would stop brewing pombee the local and illegal brew. We were all surprised because we had never specifically suggested that she begin to attend church, and did not even know that she was brewing local beer.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

She said it was because we (the World Concern project) were the only ones helping her with her physical needs who also sit, listen, inquire and give her a chance to share her story.  The others just plunk down whatever they are giving and go. And at this point we had given her nothing. We had only come into her house, drunk her tea and listened to her for an hour or so, following the example of the church volunteers, trained by our program, who also visit and listen and bring practical assistance.

President Obama will, I hope, continue the assistance to World Concern and other agencies that enable us to help combat poverty in Africa. But not all help is the same. As Christians we really believe that each man, woman and child is created by God in his image and worthy of respect and dignity. When this belief is transformed into practice—in showing a Maasai widow and an abandoned mother that they are people of value by receiving their hospitality and listening to them—respect animated by the love of Christ—we go beyond assistance, powerfully inviting lives to be transformed in hope.

So, yes, I share the hope of many in the nation that President Obama will bring positive change. But transforming change is truly brought about by men and women who follow Christ and become his hands and feet bringing assistance, see the poor through his eyes and speak his words of life.

Poverty in Sri Lanka

The BBC reported today (article)  that the Sri Lankan army had taken the last of the major cities held by the Tamil Tigers and would soon have them surrounded. As in all wars, no matter how conscientious the warring sides may be about civilian deaths and injuries, they suffer tremendously. This is especially true in a fight against a terrorist movement that is rooted among a minority population. In Sri Lanka this is made worse because the Tigers tend to prevent movement of their people into a safe area. The Sri Lankan army and much of the rest of the world call them hostages to the Tigers. The Tigers call them supporters. Hostages or collaborators, they suffer.

I first visited Sri Lanka in 1983 just as the first full wave of communal violence broke out between the minority Tamils and the majority Sinhalese. The shops belonging to Tamils were still smoldering in Columbo when I arrived from Bangladesh where I was living with my family. I had come to work with Sri Lankan Christians to set up a relief response. The riot in Columbo was precipitated by a Tamil Tiger ambush in northern Sri Lanka in which nine Sinhalese soldiers were killed.

I finally returned to Sri Lanka last September to visit our work in eastern Sri Lanka among Tamil civilians, many of whom had been displaced several times as they tried to flee the fighting. As I met our mostly young staff, I realized that most of them had lived most of their youth and adult lives between my two visits. Because our work eastern Sri Lanka is largely among Tamils, most of our local staff are also Tamil. They have grown up in the face of a national conflict that became a part of everyday life.

I gained just a glimpse of what life is like now as we passed through one checkpoint after another. As we passed through checkpoints I was shielded from close questioning and body and luggage searches by my nationality and race—clearly not of Tamil or Sinhalese descent—and the World Concern flag and highly visible World Concern name and logo on our hood. The Sinhalese police and military have come to respect our integrity, the quality of our programs and our heart of service to the people.

As I passed soldier after soldier stretched out over kilometers of road, each in sight (during the daytime) of the next one along the road,  I tried to imagine the feeling of the lone military sentry in the middle of the night, whose major role is that of the canary in the mine—unable to hold off an armed assault from infiltrating  Tamil Tigers but whose violent death would alert a forceful response.

As I passed through the checkpoints, I also tried to imagine the growing panic of a young Tamil innocent of any terrorist activity or leanings as he realizes during his questioning that he is for some reason he does not understand falling under suspicion, Or the Tamil child trying to avoid forced recruitment by the Tigers.

As I reflected on the lives of our staff, so different from my own, I realized that Jesus could better understand than I.

  • Jesus lived in a country under military occupation. I imagined Jesus moving off the road with the twelve young men in his group as Roman soldiers passed, trying to obscure their “groupness” by separating, casting their eyes downward and fading into the sides of the road.
  • Many tried to recruit Jesus into the Zealots who carried out a low level insurgency against Rome. They appealed to the prophets who had predicted the coming of a victorious ruler who would free them from the Romans, portions of scripture that Jesus had heard many times from his childhood. His disciples certainly saw the military potential of a general who could heal the sick, raise the dead, feed a regiment from five small loaves of bread and two fishes, and control the weather.
  • Jesus sometimes moved in secret, answered questions in such a way to share his message without giving any specific cause for his arrest, and lived daily with his life under threat.

Even up to the night of his arrest, Jesus struggled with the decision whether to use his power to thwart and defeat his enemies or to die at their hand. During his arrest, for the first and only recorded time in his life, Jesus healed a wound given in an act of violence—a wound inflicted by his follower on one who had come to arrest him. This was the last miracle he performed before his death.

Jesus carried out his mission, giving his life to save those who killed him. He was arrested immediately following that internal struggle in the garden.

As I share with our staff, I appealed to them to model Jesus’ life in occupied Palestne, in many ways paralleling their own.

  • Jesus knowingly washed the feet of the enemy’s informant along with his other followers, illustrating for Judas and all of his disciples that true power lies in loving service and not in conquest and that true leadership is found in humble submission and not in command.
  • He showed that Christian martyrs die with words of forgiveness of their enemies on their lips and not curses.
  • By his death and resurrection, he showed that victory comes through apparent weakness and life springs from death willing suffered for the salvation of others.

I had been meditating on this quotation from Cardinal Suhard, at one time the Bishop of Paris, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”   Trying to understand how to be a Follower of Christ in Sri Lanka, torn by 24 years of war, helped me understand in a deeper way how Jesus’ way is so utterly different from any other.

Why a Poverty Blog?

Bangladesh--Where this story began.

In January 1977, just over 32 years ago, my wife, Kendra, my daughter, Heather, who had just celebrated her first birthday, and I arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh to begin what we thought would be a two year assignment but stretched to seven.

Our shipment of supplies, dishes and things turned up about three months later just as we were moving into our field assignment in Kamalganj, a rural area in northeastern Bangladesh. As we carried boxes of paper diapers, kid’s toys, clothes and other things that we had shipped into a small house that had originally been built for leprosy patients we began to see our world and our place in quite differently.

I am the son of a Baptist pastor and grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia where he pastored a small church. Kendra, a missionary kid was born in Barbados when it was still a British colony and grew up there and in Grenada. Neither of our families were rich by American standards—probably on the basis of money alone, we would have been lower middle class. We grew up thinking of ourselves not as poor but certainly not as rich either.

As we moved in that day, all that we owned in the world fit on the floor of one of the four 100 square feet concrete rooms that comprised our new house—almost without stacking. As our possessions disappeared into the house, however, what seemed to us minimal in the US suddenly seemed excessive. With a start we realized at a gut level that we were rich. With that personal revelation, much around us began to change. Previously we were able to read biblical instruction concerning possessions without guilt, sometimes subtly seasoned with self-righteousness. With the new recognition that we were rich, the same passages became acutely uncomfortable. Beginning with that discomfort, a two year assignment also slowly transformed into a lifelong vocation, and for over thirty years we have led others in ministry to God among the poor.

We quickly came to realize that simply providing money and goods would not in itself change the culture of poverty. If the ship bringing our shipment to Bangladesh had sunk in the Indian Ocean, we would not then have been poor, only inconvenienced for a period. Neither life nor even wealth is actually measured by the accumulation of possessions alone.

In the years since, our family lived seven year in Kenya and I have traveled to dozens of impoverished countries. None of my travels have moved me to romanticize poverty—it is terrible, rooted in injustice and eats slowly away at all that a person is meant by God to be. But I have also been transformed by thousands of hours of conversations with the poor, especially those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ, and come to new understandings of God’s heart.

That is why I am writing this blog—not to give answers but to chronicle my journey especially during this leg of the trip with my colleagues at World Concern.

Meredith