March 24, 2009

Going, going… gone!

I’ll be out of town for the next two weeks so don’t be looking for any new posts until Holy Week.

In the meantime, you can reflect on the news that the Episcopal Church Center is not placing any new non-YASC missionaries this year due to lack of funds.

I’ll tell you the story of this child and his family when I return.

Getting better

I was driving into town the other week and gave this woman, Nomvuyo, and her son a ride.
It turns out she was going to the Infectious Diseases clinic for her monthly visit to refill her anti-retroviral prescription. Nomvuyo is a smart and “with it” person so I asked her about her health progression. Almost exactly two years ago she started taking ARVs. Her CD4 count at the time was 53. Now her CD4 count is 695. Not bad!

(It’s possible she was the beneficiary of a mix-up at the lab, something that I have long suspected happens, and that her first CD4 count was someone else’s. She mentioned that when she had a low CD4 count she didn’t feel sick at all, which could confirm this. It’s good for her but less good for whoever really had a CD4 count of 53.)

ARVs work. The challenge is getting them to everyone who needs them.

The Glamour of the Missionary, redux

For all I write about some of the exciting and depressing things that happen here, like the micro-credit program or a patient struggling with HIV, most of my time seems to be spent on mundane tasks. Of late, one in particular has been occupying my time: checking to see if our medical records are proper alphabetical order. Here’s where we keep them.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been through virtually every card in those filing cabinets on the bottom, the card drawers in the middle, and the expanding folders on top. Along the way, I’ve managed to show several prodigal cards their proper place in life. And I’ve weeded out lots of cards from people who haven’t been to the clinic in over a decade and only came for one or two visits. I find myself wondering what has happened to them. Some of them probably just moved. Others are probably dead, based on what their health was like on their last visit. For other patients who have been coming to the clinic since we began keeping records in 1995, their cards make for fascinating reading and tell such intricate stories of all the challenges these people have faced over the many years.

When a baby is born, the parents get a Road to Health card to keep track of their immunizations and growth. The parents are supposed to keep them but we end up with a lot of them and now have a huge pile of really old cards. I even found the Road to Health card for a young woman who is now 20 years old, in Grade 11, and in my English class. I presented the card to her when she came to the clinic last week with her son.
One great thing about sorting cards is that it is so easy. Cards don’t speak Xhosa to me. They obey my instructions. When I get up for a moment, they’re right where I left them when I come back. They’re not demanding or excessively needy. They don’t take any coaxing and prodding to do what they’re capable of. This project has given me a tremendous sense of accomplishment, something that has been hard to come by here.

March 23, 2009

The reluctant loan shark

When I first wrote about the micro-credit program on this blog, I emphasized how I didn’t want to become a loan shark and hunt people down for their repayments. I wanted to design the program so that people would naturally want to make their repayments.

As I wrote in a recent update, that hasn’t quite worked. In recent weeks, I’ve been talking with some of my cultural interpreters to figure out how to revive this idea. I asked one, “Why isn’t it the social pressure of having other waiting borrowers entice the first borrowers to make their repayments?”

This person responded by telling me, basically, how out of touch with it was and how radically different our lending practices are from the high-interest places in town that our borrowers are familiar with.

Naturally, they are ruthless. They charge excessive interest. They take a person’s all-important I.D. until the loan is repaid. They make the borrower pay the loan back in a few large payments over a short time. This explains, for instance, why all our borrowers showed up with their I.D.s the first time we met them and wanted to negotiate as short a repayment time as possible. (I discussed the program extensively with this same person before we launched the program and none of this ever came up. Would have helped.) My cultural interpreter seemed to think that if I just started hounding after the borrowers, they would repay.

Here’s the problem: I’m not sure I want to be that kind of guy. I manifestly do not want to be a loan shark and I do not want to be a coercive force.

But what if being that kind of coercive force is what is necessary for a program like this to work? What if the only incentive they’ll respond to is a constant nagging for money from me? How would that one-talent servant have done if his owner kept asking after him, rather than dumping the money on him and leaving? It doesn’t strike me as very graceful.

I haven’t decided what to do yet but I received some helpful clarity the other day when our growing HIV support group asked to meet with me. They wanted to know when we would loan more money, as I have long promised but continually delayed because I’m still waiting on more repayments. I said, “If you want to see me as just another white person who is here for you to take advantage of, fine. But we’ll run out of money and not have any more to loan. I don’t want to be like the people in town and take your I.D.s. You need to help us help you.” (That’s not verbatim. It all came out in mangled - but demonstrably understandable - Xhosa.)

There were lots of head nods and knowing laughter all around. I told them to get back to me when they had thought about it for a while. We’ll see.

This has all been a reminder to me of the importance of learning the context of a group before doing anything. The context in this situation is not just the other lenders in town but also an attitude that is common here that white people exist to hand out money and have plenty of it. It’s easy enough to say this but when that context is shrouded in an unknown language and different culture, it is significantly harder to learn. I don’t know what I would have done differently if I had known this last July but it would at least have been nice to know.

March 20, 2009

A-Twitter with Excitement!

Part of my job as a missionary is educating people around the world about what happens in this particular corner of it. That’s how we work towards reconciliation and it’s one reason I’ve devoted so much time to this blog.

In the continued effort to shar
e the story here, I have recently joined Twitter - check me out at

For those of you who don’t know, Twitter is often referred to as a micro-blogging site. I write tiny updates about what I’m doing. You can either “follow” me and have the updates sent directly to your cell phone or you can just read along at the web site.

(A note to other users: I can't receive tweets in South Africa so don't be sending me any of those @ messages I don't understand anyway.)

Part of my reason for doing this is that I’ve realized how much of my daily life here never makes it onto this blog. I find that daily life mundane and routine by this point but when I stop and think about it I realize just how different it is. For instance, I had a great series of interactions on Thursday, first getting this really sick patient onto TB treatment and then having an unexpectedly great meeting about micro-credit (almost entirely in Xhosa without a translator) and then having a wonderful English class. Or there’s the time I had five really sick HIV patients in the back of the truck and found myself not feeling sorry for them or wanting to help them but cursing how heavy they were to pick up and help in the back. I’m not sure that writing about it in mini-posts is the best approach but it is at least worth trying.

This is definitely an experiment and I have no idea how it will pan out. For one thing, it might become too expensive for me to keep sending all those SMS messages. Once I've been at this a little while, I'd appreciate your input on how effective a means of communication you think this is.

But for now, check it out.

Life under Law

I usually have a short break when the clinic closes but before my after-school English class starts. I was hungry the other day and stopped in a fast-food place I almost never frequent.

I had been there once before to order all the meat pies for our Game Day last December and the owner/franchisee was sitting behind the counter and recognized me so we exchanged greetings, perfunctorily of course; it’s not like we’re best pals. He didn’t look very happy. He was just sitting behind the counter, watching his employees work. He’s white. They are all black.

As I was scarfing down my snack on the picnic table outside, he came to speak with me. Apparently our business dealings in December convinced him I was a worthy conversation partner. Or maybe it was my skin colour.

“Do you know any white girls?” he asked.

Where is this going? I thought.

“I need someone to help behind the counter. These ones I’ve got right now they rob me blind. I have to sit and watch them all day. I’ve been back there since December and haven’t had any break. I need someone to help when I want a vacation.”

I thought about it for a moment and realized I didn’t know a single young white woman and not that many older ones either. There are white people in Mthatha but they’re not part of my daily life. I do know plenty of educated, intuitive, stunning, vivacious, thoughtful, playful, hard-working, honest, caring young women but they’re all black.

He added: “It could be a man, I guess.” It was clear it had to be a white man.

I honestly told him I couldn’t think of anyone. He seemed disappointed and asked me to keep an eye out. I won’t.

Walking away, I wondered how I could have handled the interaction better and tried to broaden his horizons a bit.

Obviously, this has a lot to say about race relations in this country. What I found myself dwelling on the most, however, was how clearly and simply it demonstrates what a life completely devoid of Grace and completely dependent on Law looks like.

This fair town I call home - Mthatha

March 18, 2009

“Mission Partners,” redux

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post expressing my objection to a proposed General Convention resolution that would change all canonical references in the Episcopal Church from “missionary” to “mission partner.” That post has since sparked a lively and occasionally contentious conversation in my e-mail inbox, in my mail, and over the phone. I want to add to that previous post to update those of you who haven’t been involved but are still interested in the topic.

I have had trouble pinning down the particular reasons this proposal was made in the first place and the resolution approved. My impression is that the reasons given to missionaries by the Church Center have continually changed, confusing me. I haven’t been able to find a copy of the resolution or an account of the Standing Commission on World Mission meeting that approved the resolution. (If anyone can help me out with that, I’d appreciate it.)

Whatever the reasons, one that has been mentioned frequently is the history of the mission. I agree that missionaries have a very mixed history but I also think that the picture is more complex than the dominant “Poisonwood Bible” and Spanish conquistador stereotype allows us to acknowledge. In re-reading Titus Presler’s “Horizons of Mission” recently, I am struck by how many examples of humble, servant missionaries he can find across time.

Regardless of how many examples of grace we can find among missionaries in the past, it is certainly true the church and its members have sinned in the past and those sins need to be repented of. But it is equally true that the church and its members are sinning in the present. I wonder sometimes if our focus on the past obscures our focus on not only the present but the future.

By the way, I have a whole wealth of experience as a sinful, fallen missionary. Every time I read about what missionaries have done in the past, I can’t help but think about all the sinful things I’ve done in my own time as a missionary and wonder just how different we really are these days. Some things change over time; the nature of humanity is not one of them. Will changing how we describe ourselves change who we are? I think not.

One theme that emerged in the ongoing conversation is that it made more sense to invest our energy in our mission being and doing than debating language. I want to agree but for the fact that language for me has always been a first-order commitment of fundamental importance. None of us is the God of Creation who simply speaks to create but I strongly believe the words we use shape the reality we inhabit. Any discussion about language is a discussion about reality. Many people acknowledged this in e-mails, listing other contested words (like evangelism, proselytize, born again, saved, and even church). Each of them deserves a conversation at least as long as this one.

I have also been thinking about the ways this impacts our search for the unity Christ prayed for among his followers (John 17:20-24). I interpret this prayer, in part, as a call to learn more from our brothers and sisters in Christ across the spectrum of views that
characterize Christianity. I think part of this search for unity begins in grappling with the language we hold in common, such as “missionary.” I read a book recently about the search for unity between the Roman Catholic church and the Anglican Communion and was struck by how much the conversation in that forum has been about words - what do we mean when we talk about the eucharist or forgiveness or any number of other issues?

In particular, I think about more conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Christians who have a particular interpretation of “missionary” that is often rooted - almost solely - in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). The Biblical roots of my conception of “missionary” are broader than that and I think that if we run away from “missionary,” we cede the word to an interpretation I disagree with and we end this particular and important conversation with our fellow Christians. By keeping the word, we prevent it from being reduced to this interpretation and we keep the search for unity moving forward.

I wrote this in the last post but it is worth emphasizing that whatever the merits of “missionary,” “mission partner” does not do justice to the full range of mission being and doing and is unnecessarily constraining. I think of “business partners” or “dance partners” when I think about partnership. To me, it is an anodyne, dry, and legalistic word that is difficult for me to associate with an expansive and engaging word like mission. My missiology encompasses much more than partnership; the virtue of “missionary” is it can include it all.

I should note I have heard from some missionaries who welcome the change to “mission partner.” I’ve heard from missionaries who work in non-Christian-majority countries about the potential dangers and struggles they face as a result of the label. “Missionary” is perceived differently in different parts of the world and I really appreciated those perspectives.

What’s more, I’ve learned that other churches in the Anglican Communion, including, I believe, the Church of England and the Church of Australia, use “mission partner” so it’s not like the Episcopal Church would be going out on a limb with this decision and blazing a new path.

So my particular view is not held by everyone. But there are a substantial number (a majority?) of missionaries who do strongly believe that “missionary” is an accurate and true word that deserves to be retained. These people came from a wide variety of backgrounds and were engaged in a wide variety of ministries.

I’m working my way through David Bosch’s “Transforming Mission,” a simply superb book. He writes about the need for “bold humility.” Yes, I think retaining the word “missionary” is a bit bold in this day and age. Maybe we’re just not comfortable being that bold anymore and the retreat to “mission partners” would make us all a lot more comfortable. But it is possible to be bold humbly and I think that is what missionaries are called to do.

Whatever your thoughts about this question, what I have most appreciated is the conversation itself. Conversations like these have an essential importance in the current existence of the church. That the conversation takes place and how it takes place are as important as the eventual decision. I certainly didn’t anticipate sparking anything like this with that first post but am glad of the result and hope it continues.

The Great Pumpkin

Makiwa is one of the cooks in the kitchen and makes the lunch every day for the pre-school children. She’s appeared as a character on this blog before when her husband died and I took some staff to his funeral. She’s also the mother of Simnikiwe, a child whose picture has appeared many times on this blog, most recently here.

I haven’t mentioned her much because she is such a solid, dependable part of my routine. (Good narrative needs conflict!) When I need a break from the clinic, I will often sit down in the kitchen and work on my Xhosa with Makiwa and whoever else is around. Sometimes I give the women in the kitchen the limited produce from my garden. I think she is just a fantastic person.

A few years back, she was given a house in one of the housing developments the government has been building around town and so moved out of Itipini. As a result, she and Simnikiwe walk about an hour to Itipini each day, she to work and he to pre-school. Often I pick them up along the road and give them a lift part way.

Last week, she asked me if I could give her a ride all the way home. The water had been out in her neighbourhood for several days and she wanted to fill up some buckets in Itipini and take them home. I happily obliged.

When we arrived, I took the buckets out of the car and went to say goodbye. She told me to stay, however, and went around the back of the house and came back with a pumpkin. She insisted I take it as thanks, I suppose, for giving her a lift.

My first inclination was to turn it down. After all, she has more mouths to feed and less money to do it than me and she worked hard to produce that pumpkin.

My next thought, however, is that there’s a strong argument to be made for treating poor people like equals. (This is one of many reasons it’s a good idea to charge even a little interest on a micro-loan.) If Makiwa freely chooses to give me something, I shouldn’t be so patronizing and know-it-all to presume that I know better what she needs than she does herself.

(Makiwa seemed to realize what I was thinking because she showed me around her huge garden and made sure to point out all the other pumpkins that were still growing.)

So I took it and it felt really good. Instead of being the person who gives all the time, I became the recipient of something tangible and real that was an honest expression of someone’s respect and admiration for me. Having given so much while here - and not always being sure that I’m doing it in the best way - this was an important moment for me and it made the evening seem particularly sweet.

Here we are, the next day in the kitchen.
(The other cook in the kitchen is Wee Mama and she deserves an encomium too. I’ll write about her someday too.)

March 13, 2009

Learning to give up

Imagine this situation. You see a pressing social problem - HIV, say, or alcoholism or unemployment - and you think you have a great solution to some aspect of it. So you work away at it, bringing on board interested parties, doing research, and laying the groundwork for a really successful intervention. You launch your effort and it takes wing and then...crashes back down to earth. For whatever combination of reasons, your amazing idea hasn’t worked quite as you expected and the social problem you had set out to resolve persists, unchanged.

This is not - quite - the situation I find myself in but I might be heading that way. I am making progress in my work here and I am seeing improvements but sometimes they are hard to see. What is always too easy to see is the way in which some things are not moving in the right direction and are reverting to the pre-intervention stage. I don’t want to dwell too much on any of my impending failures so I’m going to spare you the details of any of the many stories I could tell as illustrations. (More to come on my failures - or, ahem, how I’ve found ways that don’t work - in later posts.)

But the larger point is this: surely, there are South Africans who are dedicated to the idea of improving living conditions in their country. Maybe, similar to me, they have attempted to make concrete fixes that have failed or been less successful than they had anticipated. Don’t you think after a series of such failures they might just give up any hope of improving things and conclude that the way things have always been is the way things will always be? Why then would you even begin to try if you knew you were going to fail?

It is not a major challenge here to start something new. That’s easy. Anyone with a little energy can get something started and there are always people who seem eager and willing to help at the start. (It is particularly easy to find funding for new ideas; less so for continuing old ones.) The major challenge is continuing what has already been begun. That is what saps all the energy and takes so much effort.

Jenny reminded me of the the prayer for steadfastness recently: “O LORD God, when thou givest thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory; through him that for the finishing of thy work laid down his life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.”



In 19 months in Itipini, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen a father bring his child in for medical attention. And two of them happened today!

March 11, 2009

Sacrifice, vulnerability, and being a missionary

People often tell me what a great sacrifice I am making to be a missionary. (This is often part of that erroneous “noble pursuit of a missionary” thing.) Sure, it’s true, I make some sacrifices to be here. There’s no Mexican restaurant, movie theatre, or quality library in Mthatha and I miss all of them equally. I miss out on family events and regular contact with close friends. All these are pretty obvious but it’s a price I’m willing to pay for the experiences I get in return here.

Another sacrifice missionaries make is their time. Instead of sending a cheque over to South Africa (treasure), missionaries look to the root meaning of sacrifice and “make holy” our time and, presumably, talent in the cause of global reconciliation by choosing to live in a different place for a sustained period of time. (All those cheques are what enable us to do it.) Lots of people do this, however. They invest immense amounts of their time and talent in worthy causes closer to home. That’s as much a sacrifice as mine.

There’s another kind of sacrifice that missionaries make and I’ve been looking for the right kind of vocabulary to describe it. Basically, it has to do with the idea of vulnerability, of opening oneself to difference and all the nerve-jangling, mind-warping, and uncomfortable effects that creates. It means acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers and being open to the idea that answers might come from wholly unexpected places. It means setting off into the great unknown, knowing that the unknown may contain surprises we don’t want to encounter.

In our society, we look for as much comfort and as little vulnerability as possible. We try to create protective cocoons, in our familiar social circles, in our gated communities, in our usual routine haunts, and so forth. The sacrifice of the missionary is to forgo that (perceived) comfort and be open to what ensues.

Here’s an example. I’ve taught some of the pre-school children that if they squeeze my nose, I’ll make a honking nose. But occasionally the honking machine malfunctions and I blow a great big buzzer on their hand. Hilarity ensues. When you think about the lack of hygiene and cleanliness in Itipini, by letting children put their hands so close to my mouth, I’m making myself vulnerable to getting sick. And sometimes I do get sick. But it’s worth it to play that game and have a slightly deeper relationship with those children.

I don’t like to equate myself with the heroes of the Bible but what I’ve described is exactly what they did - let children squeeze their noses. No, I mean, give up the cocoon of comfort and set out. Abraham, Isaiah, Jonah (once he got it), Daniel, Paul, and, of course, Jesus did this. So did many others. They sacrifice the comfort of the known for the vulnerability of the unknown. Clearly, I think this sacrifice is worth it. I’ve found that by opening myself to new experiences - even ones that make me uncomfortable and uncertain - I learn more, gain more, and get a better idea of what’s going on in the world.

Vincent Donovan, the former Catholic missionary, writes at the end of his book Christianity Rediscovered, “a missionary is essentially a social martyr, cut off from his roots, his stock, his blood, his land, his background, his culture. He is destined to walk forever in a strange land. He must be striped as naked as a human being can be, down to the very texture of his being.”

This is crackpot entomology but the “vul-” in vulnerability are also the first three letters for the Xhosa word for “open.” It is a reminder of the connection between openness and vulnerability. That openness and that vulnerability are the calling of the missionary. It’s a sacrifice but one that is well worth the price.

March 9, 2009

Greasing the skids… on the road to dependency?

In the past, I’ve described the kind of work we do here as “greasing the skids,” reducing the coefficient of friction in people’s life. If we can help a child go to school by paying his school fees, then that child will hopefully have a better shot in life. (That assumes the school is of decent quality, a doubtful proposition.) I once described this work as being at the margins of life in Itipini but added, somewhat hopefully:

Perhaps if we help people overcome some of the issues at the margins of their
lives, some of the more substantial problems will become a bit more manageable
and or at least seem in the realm of solve-ability.
The trouble is while I may see what I am doing as “greasing the skids” the person in Itipini might take that initial help as a sign that I am willing to solve all her problems for her.

As a result, people start coming to me asking for help on those “more substantial problems.” I’ve written about Nolizwi before, who, after we helped her get started in school, came to me after she was kicked out of her home and robbed. I’ve written about Nomzame, who we helped go to college but now keeps coming back with more and more problems. There are countless other situations like this.

Here’s a secret: I don’t know what to do in those situations anymore than they do. I imagine these people are coming to me thinking I can snap my fingers, produce some money, and solve their problems. That’s not true. I can’t. What’s more, I don’t want to. I want them to be solving their own problems, with some help around the edges from me. But they, having seen the help around the edges, want it in all aspects of their life.

I think this happens in the clinic as well. People with HIV, say, wait until they are very sick before coming to be seen. I imagine they are thinking to themselves, “Well, Jenny has given me medicines in the past that have made my cough feel better so she can handle this as well.” But there are some things - like advanced AIDS - that we are helpless to address. We can only help around the edges, giving nutritional supplements, drawing blood for CD4 counts, and sending them on the way for anti-retroviral preparation but all that is meaningless if the person waits too long to come see us.

What I’m describing is the evolution of dependency, how a little help to “empower” people can quickly turn into making the person dependent on help in all aspects of their life. It doesn’t happen to every person but it happens more frequently than I once imagined possible.

The solution is the sort of personal development I once wrote about, to encourage people to see and use their own God-given gifts. Maybe then they would feel like they could handle bigger problems on their own. But that’s not easy and it’s made less easy when I effectively am giving people contradictory messages - OK, I’ll help you with this right now but in the future you should handle it yourself.

March 7, 2009

“I have gladness on you”

Khayakazi is 22 and a mother. As of this year, she is also - again - a high-school student in Grade 11.She dropped out of school a few years back when she gave birth but approached us in early January because she wanted to go a year-long vocational program that would train her to be a health-care assistant of some sort. I went to check the program out, talked it over with her, and asked other people’s advice. One piece of advice I heard stuck with me: “If she doesn’t have her matric [the high school diploma], it won’t matter what course she takes.”

So I sat Khayakazi down and asked her what she thought about going back to school. She hadn’t been a bad student before giving birth and I thought she had a fairly good shot at getting the matric if she returned. To my surprise, Khayakazi was very excited about the idea and almost immediately turned from being set on the health-care assistant course to wanting to go back to high school.

Now she is in school, faithful in her attendance, and clearly overjoyed to be there. She speaks about school with such excitement and is working hard. I don’t see her often because she gets back from school generally after I’ve left for the day but I ran into recently and asked how things were going. “I have gladness on you, Jesse, because you helped me,” she responded. We might need to work on her English a bit but I’ll take the gratitude as a good first step.

A long while back, I noted how in the Biblical story of Naaman, he is reluctant to bathe in the River Jordan because he thought curing his leprosy couldn’t be that simple. But it was and it was a good reminder that sometimes things are simpler than they seem. All Khayakazi needed was the suggestion that she return to school and off she went. That is something I can easily and happily provide.

“Andingomali yavuza”

One of the hardest tasks I’ve experienced lately is dealing with all the money we need to pay for school fees, uniform parts, supplies, etc. Theoretically, I think this is a very good idea. Many children would not be able to go to school, especially high school, if someone did not pay the fees for them. Others would be hit or fined if they did not have the right uniform. This becomes a prime example of what I once called “greasing the skids” for people here and I’m happy to be involved in it.

But money is fungible and once people see that we are giving out money for some things, I think some of them decide to see how far they can push us. One high-school-age student showed up in early February and said she wanted to go to high school. I almost immediately rejected her out of hand. The school year was three weeks old by that point and I knew there wouldn’t be any space left in Grade 10 anyway. (Saying no to someone who wants to go to school and will otherwise have to sit out the entire year is not easy, by the way.) But through the hard work of a family friend, she found space in a school across town and asked if we could pay the fees. We agreed and off she went.

She showed up a week later and said she needed money for a uniform. I gave it to her. A week after that, she showed up and said she needed money for school supplies. I told her to buy them for herself. Didn’t she know when she went to school that she would need a uniform? Didn’t she know she would need school supplies? Why did she dribble her visits out over so long, missing a day of school each time, thinking I would be so easily be able to dispense money?

There’s a young woman now in college, who began working with me on the application last December, was admitted in January, and began classes in February.
Along the way, she needed money for application fees, the necessary photos, and a whole host of other things and I gave it to her, bit by bit, because I didn’t want money to be the obstacle to her application. When she got in, I asked her to make a list of all the expenses she foresaw for the year, not only tuition but also room and board, supplies, and so on, so we could decide what she could afford to pay and what we could help her with. But before she gave me that list, because she comes from such a poor background she got a bursary that waives tuition and room and board. I still asked her for the list but she never gave it to me.

As a result, she sporadically shows up and asks me for more money, for food, for instance (“they don’t give us enough”), or any of eight thousand other expenses. I have been pretty firm about turning down all these requests. There are big expenses, like tuition, that might justifiably be out of a person’s reach but everyone is going to have to eat regardless of what they do and I don’t want to be responsible for that.

There have been lots of other requests like this. The hardest ones to deal with are the people who say they need the money “by tomorrow” because it is the “last day” for whatever they need the money for. This is really hard but I almost always reject all these requests because I don’t like being treated like a bank or an ATM machine from which people can just make withdrawals on the spot. It’s hard, though, to say no to such desperate requests. (I should note that many of the dire consequences promised if the money is not paid “by tomorrow” have not come to pass.) I say “ndikhangeleka njengo neBank?” or “ndifana noBank?” - “do I look like a bank?” or “do I seem like a bank?” I mean it as a joke but people look at me with a look that says, “well… yes!”

What I object to is the constant requests for money, like I’m just a bottomless pit ready to spray money around. Money doesn’t build relationships. It reduces my role to the simple one of distributor of money and reduces their role to supplicant. We are not our whole selves in these situations. I also feel bad because I know I’m not consistent in my approach to requests.

I’ve been working on learning Xhosa idioms lately and one I like is “andingomali yavuza.” Literally, it means something like, “I’m not leaking money” but it is the equivalent of “I’m not made of money” or “money doesn’t grow on trees.” I’ve used it a lot - so frequently in fact that people anticipate it and say it for me - but we have so much money compared to people here that no one really believes it.

March 6, 2009

Back to work on “The BFG”

A new school year is well underway and that means I’ve started again with my after-school English class. We’re reading Roald Dahl’s “The BFG.” In retrospect, it was a mistake to pick this book for several reasons - there are eight gazillion made-up words that are difficult for non-native speakers to grasp and the humour is really only relevant to English-language speakers. I spent too much time this week trying to explain the humour inherent in the chapter on “whizzpoppers” but didn’t make much progress.

We are plowing ahead nonetheless. Here are the pictures.
I wrote a while back how there were three new male high school students and how excited that made me. I’d be a lot more excited if they showed up to class. So far, they have missed virtually every session while all seven girls have made every single one.


March 3, 2009

Note that I am kneeling in this picture

The extent of our blessings

Sometimes I get frustrated with our pre-school headmistress, Ncediwe. She’s on the right in this picture. She’s a fine teacher and has been working in Itipini for ages. She genuinely cares for the children and on most days does a great job teaching.

My frustration is not with her as a teacher but as headmistress. We turn to her when we have questions about the pre-school, like about the schedule or which teacher is responsible for which part of the day. She seems a bit clueless at times about some of the bigger picture issues involved in running the pre-school.

I was letting myself get pretty frustrated with this situation and at one point thought to myself, “Doesn’t she know anything about leadership?” And that’s when I realized she probably doesn’t.

When I was growing up, I had numerous role models and examples of good (and not-so-good) leaders. I assumed there would come a time in my life when I would be in a position of leadership and began to look for what I admired in people in positions of leadership. Lots of people supported me in this and helped me develop as a leader. I even led several sessions at a summer camp on leadership development for high-school students.

I realize now that Ncediwe probably had none of those opportunities. I doubt anyone saw her when she was young and said, “That girl is going to be a leader someday and I want her to be a good one.” She probably didn’t have a lot of great examples of leadership when she was growing up. When I find myself facing difficult decisions, I often think to my role models and ask myself what they would do. That is probably a foreign concept to Ncediwe.

(Even if she had been taught about leadership when she was younger, I often find myself questioning the kind of leadership exercised around here but that is all for another post.)

It is a cliche that when you go work in the developing world, you learn how blessed you are. It’s a cliche because it is true but even at this stage of my time here I am continuing to realize the true extent of my blessings.

That’s important because one of the Bible passages that is at the core of my beliefs about mission is Genesis 12:1-3, where God blesses Abraham not so Abraham can bless himself but so that all the nations of the world can be blessed. My blessings are to build up others. In order to do that, I guess I need to know more about just how blessed I am.

And so, with Genesis 12 and Ralph Nader’s view that “the function of leadership is not to produce followers but to produce more leaders” in mind, I am - slowly and tentatively - figuring out how sharing ideas about leadership works in a different cultural context.

Micro-Credit in South Africa, the Land of Grants

About six months ago, I wrote about how I had launched a small micro-credit program in Itipini for nine borrowers. I haven’t written much about it since then so it is time to give a bit of an update.

The short answer is that progress is mixed. There are some borrowers who have are current with their repayments and are earning money for themselves. They seem to have “got it” and understood the purpose of the program - start a business with a loan, pay back the loan, and then keep the remainder of the profit for themselves.

There are another group of borrowers who aren’t quite regular with their payments but do make a sporadic effort to repay. For instance, a person who is supposed to make a repayment every two weeks might only pay money every month.

The final group, encompassing a small plurality of borrowers, hasn’t “got it” at all and for one reason or another is no longer making repayments. Their business idea appears to have sputtered. It is this group that I want to focus on in this post.

Why haven’t they “got it”? Why aren’t they making repayments? Micro-credit is a fairly straightforward proposition and I made sure before we made any loans that all the borrowers understood some basic business concepts relevant to their particular business. (“You’re selling chickens? OK, for each chicken you sell, how much do you need to set aside to buy another chicken and how much do you need to set aside to repay me and how much do you get to keep for yourself?”) All the borrowers had to come a series of meetings and classes where I thought I presented a fairly coherent set of ideas and checked to make sure people understood them.

One thing that got in the way was the unexpected. One borrower got pregnant (actually was pregnant, unbeknownst to us, when we made the loan) and then gave birth, which took up most of her time. The infant son of another borrower died and, because there are such high expectations around here for funerals, she had to spend all her money on the funeral, including the loan. Another borrower just up and moved back to the rural villages for about four months, a place where her business idea was not viable and so she spent her capital on herself, I presume. (I don’t know how she slipped through our screening process.) Another borrower was doing really well selling chickens for a few months and we gave her money to expand the business so she could get better economies of scale. It was exciting and she was showing a real entrepreneurial spirit until she was robbed and completely cleaned out. She lost any enthusiasm for the idea and basically gave up. Another woman, who has HIV, saw her health deteriorate remarkably quickly and she lost the energy to work. She has since recovered somewhat but not before spending the principle of the loan on herself while she was sick. I didn’t foresee any of these contingencies, perhaps an oversight on my part, but even if I had I don’t know how I would have planned for them.

When you read about micro-credit programs around the world, there is a lot of emphasis on group-based borrowing, where five (or so) women form a group and only one of them can get a loan at any given time and the other women are her support to repay the loan. For a number of reasons I didn’t think that would work in Itipini but reasoned that we had existing relationships with the borrowers we could use to check in on them and I made everyone have a business support partner. Neither idea seemed to work very well. In a few instances, the business support partner began to think it was his or her right to a cut of the profits (not the idea at all) or generally just fought with the borrower. When I repeatedly asked our borrowers about the progress of their business I would often just get bland replies, like, “I’m selling fine” when it was clear they weren’t. But it is hard to help someone when they won’t talk about the problems they are having.

The other inducement to repay money was the lengthy waiting list we have. The first borrowers know that no one else can get money until they have repaid a substantial percentage of their initial loan. This appears to have no effect at all, as the initial borrowers don’t seem to mind they are affecting others and those on the waiting list seem pretty philosophic about the whole situation.

The final set of obstacles I did foresee when I first thought about the idea last year but hoped I would be wrong. Many people in Itipini get grants from the government, whether for old age, having AIDS, or being an unemployed mother. The latter grant is the smallest (about $25/month/child) but also the most common among our borrowers, who are generally young women. In a very clear way, I am seeing how these grants take away the will to work among the recipients. Here’s an example.

One common business idea (that I will never fund again) is to sell airtime in town. Most cell phones in Africa (and around the world) are pay-as-you-go where you buy airtime in advance and when it runs out you can’t make any calls. The major cell carriers sell airtime in bulk at a discount to individuals who then sell it at face value and make a small profit. I see these people all the time, wandering around town wearing special jerseys and looking for customers. It is an easy business to get into as you only need a cell phone, which most people have, and the initial money to purchase the airtime. If done right, it can result in a profit of $6-$10/day, which is substantial.

What you also need, however, is the will to get up every morning, walk into town, and spend the entire day wandering around looking for business. I don’t know how to accurately gauge someone’s enthusiasm for hard work but I did my best to explain to all of our prospective borrowers the kind of commitment they were making when they took the money, to get up each morning and spend the entire day in town. (I also made sure they had a childcare plan.) Everyone said it would be no problem and they were excited to at last have an opportunity to work.

Well, it didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, it barely worked out at all. Soon after making the loans, I saw one or two of our airtime sellers in Itipini. I asked what they were doing and they said they were selling airtime in Itipini that day rather than in town. This might work occasionally but there isn’t a sufficient market in Itipini to support this business and they really had to get to town. Gradually, I saw these airtime sellers more and more in Itipini, sitting in front of their shacks, and less and less in town.

And yet when the time came to make a repayment, they were good at making them. And when they missed one and I asked where the money was, they could produce it. But they clearly weren’t going into town. What I eventually realized is that they were paying me back out of their grants, actually the grants they received on behalf of their children. The loan was no longer a loan but a low-interest cash advance.

The crucial idea in micro-credit is that the money has to be given in the form of a loan and it has to be repaid. This not only gives the lending organization capital to make future loans but critically it gives borrowers incentive to earn money so they can repay the loan. But having a supply of money each month as grant recipients do takes away that incentive in a very clear and direct way.

(We also contribute to this. Since many of our borrowers have HIV, they qualify for the free distribution of bread and corn meal in the morning. If a person has a grant and food every morning, where’s the incentive to wander around town selling airtime every day? One of the most gratifying things about our successful borrowers is that I hardly ever see them coming for food anymore.)

When I first wrote about this program, I said I did not want to become a loan shark. I haven’t been hounding our borrowers for their repayments. I only want to take repayments that come from profits, not grants. If that means the borrower defaults, then that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

I am probably too close to the end of my time in Itipini to lend more money to another set of borrowers. Even if I had more time, I’m not sure I’d be eager to lend more money. There are some people who have surmounted the grant barrier and are doing well but I don’t know how to identify those people and help them. And I don’t know how to work with people who would get caught in a grant trap.

Three Sleeping Babies... And One Not