I had hoped to be blogging live from Sierra Leone but it turns out that posting a blog was a stretch too far for my wavering internet connection in Freetown. And to be honest when I wasn’t out and about I was generally collapsed in an exhausted, sweaty heap. So let me tell you retrospectively about my adventures.
I was there because of an initiative with the unsexy title of CCMP, or Church & Community Mobilisation Process. It has its home in the world of development, that complex and flawed industry in which I work, and in essence it involves working with a local church (there are plenty about) to get them excited and inspired about working with their local community (rather than emphasizing their separateness) in identifying their own needs and looking to their own resources to meet them. It’s not brain science, but in the world of development it’s quite radical. I was with one community who told me that their goal was that by 2014 they would be self-reliant, and not need any help from outsiders like the major British & American charities. And this was a community which currently has no access to its own supply of clean drinking water, to name one major challenge.
Does that sound like blind optimism in the face of endemic African poverty?
I guess it remains to be seen, but I heard some small but beautiful stories from the people I talked to.
I met a small, irrepressibly passionate man called Muhammed, who showed us round the villages of Konta, Mahdina and Mayorgbor in northern Sierra Leone. 3 years ago his organization decided to send him on a pilot course to train as a facilitator in this strange new process of CCMP. He didn’t seem like a promising candidate. When the group first met, he was so insecure he could hardly speak, and yet today he is loved and respected in 30 communities in the region, and has helped to facilitate concrete change in their lives. There are new wells and schools, seed-banks and clinics, and he hasn’t set up any of them. What he has done is to help the communities discover their own resources. The story I heard repeated by men and women, Muslims and Christians, young and old, was that their way of thinking was changing. They weren’t waiting for outside help – for NGOs, governments and mission funds – to change their circumstances anymore, but were looking to their own energies, skills and creativity to bring positive change.
One of the things they do very early on in the process in a community survey. People from the community themselves collate all kinds of information about where they live – how many people there are, what ages, what religions, what facilities there are, what natural resources ( a stream! 6 rice fields!) etc. They also include information that outsiders would never find out – like how many disabled family members are hidden away indoors. If an NGO comes along and tells the villagers that they’re here to dig a well, the community will get out the report. They have something concrete to wave in their faces as they say, ‘we know our village much better than you and we’re getting on with improving life here… but we have an idea of a specific thing you could help us with’.
Sierra Leone has had millions of pounds sunk into its development, and today there are still hundreds of projects going on. But it doesn’t take long driving through Freetown to see that the people are living in all kinds of physical poverty, and nothing is changing very quickly. Everyone talks about the war and how it destabilised things and broke down the infrastructure, but it was more than ten years ago now. Why aren’t things getting much better?
Everyone I met and interviewed had a story of having changed their thinking, which started with ‘I used to think we had to wait for help from [insert name of major NGO or church denomination]…’, which suggests that one of the major legacies of all our interventions is simply a paradigm of dependence, a new colonialism. Which is depressing to say the least. I firmly believe that throwing more money at Africa is not going to change much in a sustainable way, but I also don’t think that pulling out all the investment is it either.
So what am I arguing for? Just doing it all better? A more empowering form of development? To reduce CCMP to ’empowering development’ is, I think, to miss its heart. Which is the church. CCMP starts with a group of people who believe in a God who transforms us totally, and who reaches out in love to the world. Working with churches taps into a rich and deep vein of faith and hope in a better story. And we all want to believe in a better story. Sierra Leone is a majority Muslim country, but the relationships between Christians and Muslims in the villages where CCMP was happening were close. It’s not about the church looking after the church, but it’s a job of re-orientating the church towards the rest of the world (or community).
I remember reading a blog by Matthew Parris a year or two ago, saying “as an atheist I truly believe that Africa needs God.” The work of “secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts… will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
Tearfund is supporting CCMP work in all the regions where it works, so check out their website to find out more.
Or you can just wait a bit and before too long I’ll post the short film I made about CCMP in Sierra Leone.