Congo Update: What if?
My goals in writing these updates are to share some theological questions that have occupied my thoughts, and to tell you stories of what is happening with our work with people in eastern Congo. The stories are few, but they are good. The theological questions provide the context for our work because good theology makes for good living.
What if the lives of Christians were ruled by shame? What would that life look like?
The key word is ruled.
There would be many secrets – thoughts, events, illnesses, circumstances about which you would never speak. Secrets are things to be hidden in darkness. Never should the light of day shine upon them.
What if the lives of Christians were ruled by fear?
Again, the key word is ruled.
In a community where disease spreads rapidly and people die prematurely, there would be hostility and much fear-driven decision-making.
In a community where the demand for water, food and housing is great and the supply is small, there would be desperation. Desperate people do desperate things – even Christians.
COVID19, and for those living in Texas, the recent freezing weather, has given us a window into the world of people living in the DR Congo.
Trip 13 wrapped up on March 3, 2020, just a few weeks before Rwanda shut its borders which would have made flying home difficult. We were thankful we made it back with no incidents or disease.
Early in the COVID19 crisis, I was quite sad for the people in Bukavu because like the rest of the world, they were going to “flatten the curve” of the spread of COVID19. The difference is that when they shut commerce down and confine people to their houses, they have no supply of food and often no supply of water. There is much fear.
For cultural reasons, there is also much shame. Perhaps, it is a legacy of the AIDS crisis. I asked people if they know of anyone having COVID19 and they said no. Then, I asked if they knew a lot of people who had died, they would say, “yes” and start naming them and quickly say, “but they did not have COVID19.” Of course, the testing ability is limited. So, for them, COVID19 is a silent and secret killer.
Sad. Very sad.
Shame. Fear. Desperation. Even for Christians.
As most of you know, our solution to these issues which we have been working to implement for over 10 years is characterized by two phrases:
- Truth and love
- Relationships and resources
More on those in a bit.
Exporting Human Intelligence (EHI)
By the grace of God, our work in the Congo continues without needing to travel there. We had built a strong foundation for “remote ministry” through our regular trips, the building of relationships, and the use of social media.
Recently, we wrapped up the first phase of an experiment – getting 10 people started on a “gig economy” platform called Upwork. You can see it at www.Upwork.com. Our vision is to create a network of people in Bukavu earning a good living working for companies all around the world.
In my business, I have hired people in the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, UAE, South Africa and rural Vermont. It’s a great way for people to put their talent to work and for companies to get a small part of someone’s time.
Although the concept is simple, helping people in Bukavu learn to be successful on Upwork is quite time-consuming and challenging. Think of it as trying to teach a 6-month-old child to run. You can’t. It’s impossible. Their muscles and balance are underdeveloped. Fortunately for parents, they don’t have to break down the actions in the process of learning to run and teach each action. It happens naturally.
In our Upwork effort, we must determine the sequence of actions to help them progress. Karen Myung and Elin Waagen are working diligently to determine the equivalent of crawling, walking, and running.
Since many of the people in Bukavu with whom we work have college degrees, they have a desire to use those degrees. Of course. Unfortunately, as in this country, many of those degrees have no value as a means to earning an income. When most people in Congo should be getting degrees in agriculture, computer science or engineering, I see many people with degrees in international relations, climate change, economics, and other degrees that have little chance of helping them earn an income. Also, keep in mind that these degrees are coming from colleges that have little to no electricity, no computers, and libraries with no books (really).
So, the first step is casting vision about what is possible – earning a good living – and the second step is helping them to realize that it is a long journey that will require them to do some rudimentary work that does not take advantage of their college degrees. I remember the days of rudimentary work early in my career – not exactly rewarding – but it was part of the process of career development. There were a lot of intangible skills and knowledge that I needed to develop and there was a lot of rudimentary work that needed to be done. I had to learn to crawl and walk before I could run.
We are calling this experiment “EHI” which stands for Exporting Human Intelligence. (It would be tough to export any products from eastern Congo.)
We celebrated a great victory on February 12 when we had our EHI participants on a GoToMeeting call – probably their first ever conference call. We were even able to do screen sharing. (We didn’t use video because they pay for their data based on usage.)
The technology capabilities in Bukavu have advanced significantly since my first trip in 2008 – another example of crawl, walk, run.
Currently, the EHI participants are doing some administrative work in Microsoft Excel and Word for my company. Once we get them trained, we will try to “market” them to my company’s clients. They are also applying for gigs advertised on Upwork.
Leaders take people to “places” that they cannot get to on their own. That’s my favorite definition of leadership.
The people of eastern Congo want to go to a place where they can live in peace and have an opportunity to work where they can earn money to buy the necessities for life.
But who will lead them?
For the last 100 years in Congo, exploitative leadership ruled. The people learned from the colonialists. In a nation characterized by under-development and extreme poverty, exploitative leadership is quite rational. It is about survival – man’s most basic instinct.
Jesus set the example of servant leadership. Servant leadership is only rational if one has an eternal perspective — the knowledge that this life is but a wink of the eye in the context of eternity and that there is something far superior to the physical.
We have been working to identify and walk with leaders of leaders in eastern Congo.
Many years ago, a friend introduced us to Paul – a leader of leaders.
Paul is a counter-cultural pastor of a church. He understands the importance of leadership and started the Congolese Leadership Institute.
In September, the Congo Leadership Institute started its annual training for a sixth group of leaders. Each group has about 12 leaders who commit to the program for one year. They held a retreat recently to cast vision about the power of Godly leadership using the example of Nehemiah and to develop relationships among the participants. Usually, we teach the Nehemiah lessons at the retreat and enjoy interacting with the participants, but COVID19 intervened this year. We supply the funds for the retreat and provide Kindle Fires and e-books for the curriculum. I pray that God would use these meager efforts to inspire and grow a new generation of servant leaders for the Congo – leaders who are fearless and have no secrets because they are empowered by the presence of Christ in their lives (John 15).
It is loving to inspire and equip leaders.
It is loving to teach truth to impoverished people.
Poverty is endemic to most of the African continent.
Here are some questions that we ponder.
(Note: With some questions, you must consider the time frame involved. For example, you might have one answer for the short-term lack of physical resources (water, food, clothing, healthcare) caused by a natural disaster and another answer for a consistent, multi-generational lack of physical resources. Our focus is on the long-term. There are many charities who focus on short-term relief measures.)
- What causes some people to be poor?
- Is the primary cause of the lack of water, food, housing, or healthcare the lack of money – meaning more money is the primary solution to the problem?
- Is it loving to provide impoverished people with money (or other physical resources), but not truth, wisdom, and relationships?
- If impoverished people just want your money or other physical resources, what should you do?
The US has been working on programs to end poverty for decades.
“In his first State of the Union address in January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress to declare an “unconditional war on poverty” and to aim “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it” [emphasis added]. Over the next five years, Congress passed legislation that transformed American schools, launched Medicare and Medicaid, and expanded housing subsidies, urban development programs, employment and training programs, food stamps, and Social Security and welfare benefits. These programs more than tripled real federal expenditures on health, education, and welfare, which grew to over 15 percent of the federal budget by 1970.”i
It is now 57 years later. Has it worked? If not, why?
Wrestling with these questions has informed our core values which provide direction for our initiatives like the EHI experiment discussed above. The core values can be summarized as:
- Truth and love
- Relationships and resources – never one without the other
If you want to explore the answers to some of these questions, you might want to read, When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert.
Solomon – Leading by Example
I never would have guessed that Solomon would be setting the pace on entrepreneurial activity. But God knew.
Some of you long-time readers may remember that I met Solomon through a divine appointment on my second trip in 2010. We became friends and he became our translator and trusted adviser. Through the years, we have spent a lot of time on phone calls. I thank God for Solomon.
Solomon has developed several products and services – real innovation for Bukavu – that his company can sell to the same customer.
He started with a new style of charcoal – briquets – that cut the cost of fuel and saved cooking time. Then, he started installing vertical gardens in containers mounted on walls. In Bukavu, there are lots of retaining walls due to the hills and many houses have walls on the perimeter of their lots for security. Then, he started a nursery to grow plants. Then, he started making pavers. Finally, he started doing more general landscaping work like a project to clear land and create a soccer field.
Solomon is leading by example. He wants young people to see that change is possible through diligent effort. Here are some of the reasons he is unique in Bukavu:
- He has been in business for more than three years. He told me that most businesses fail after one year. People want to work for his company because they see longevity.
- He is doing new things in Bukavu. People have told them that they have seen some of what he has done in other cities and now they are pleased to have it in Bukavu. (Solomon is an internet research king. He has been that way for many years. He looks for ideas on the internet and then implements them in Bukavu. How does he know how to execute these ideas? Easy – Google it. Lately, he has been researching leading and managing employees.)
- He wants to provide good value to his customers.
- He has a heart for young people. He gives tours of his business to school groups to inspire them.
- He is a servant leader, not an exploitative leader.
- He wants to learn and grow as a person, a manager, and a leader.
Now, Solomon has 17 full time employees. Managing those employees has been a struggle. He has experimented with some innovative strategies.
Here’s one example. He decided that his core team would get paid once per month and that they would decide together how much they would pay themselves. Each day, they recorded their revenue and expenses for all to see. (Transparency is important because the lack of trust is endemic there.) At the end of the month, they would decide how much they should invest in new equipment, how much they should save and how much they should pay themselves. He said after they implemented that plan, the employees would be disappointed and angry if they had a slow revenue day. Solomon was delighted that they were motivated to produce more revenue – a significant change!
Solomon loves his people. He serves his employees and wants to see them prosper (and not just physically). Solomon learns truth and communicates it to all who will listen.
Thank you for reading. Many of you have prayed and supported these efforts for many years. I appreciate you.
One day, you will meet these people in heaven.
In the meantime, if you would like to meet these people sooner, you can go on the next trip with me. Just let me know if you have some interest (not a commitment). I suspect the trip will be in either October, January or April.
I would also appreciate your prayers – for Paul, Solomon, the ten EHI participants, and the 12 leaders in the Congo Leadership Institute. I usually pray some of Paul’s prayers for them, for protection from evil, and that they would experience Jesus’ personal and powerful provision for His people.