I’m fresh back from spending most of the last week in beautiful Burkina Faso (not Uganda, as my mother believed). I say ‘fresh’ which is an unusual state to return from any trip in (especially one which involved 5.30am starts every day, temperatures in the high 30s and not a lot of food), but it’s how I feel. Grateful, inspired, humbled.
I was making a film about how churches are doing small, beautiful, counter-cultural things in their communities to improve their lives and those of their neighbours. (You might remember part one of the same project in Sierra Leone last year). This time I was out with Prospect Arts‘ Ben Sherlock, a whizz with a camera and a failsafe vitamin supplier.
One day we drove off down a dirt track, and then turned off that onto a footpath (still in the 4×4) and continued on for about an hour across sandy, uneven scrubland, dodging bushes, trees and huge gaping pits. We arrived in a remote village in the far east of Burkina and were greeted by some of the community who took us out the other end of the village on foot to see their school.
In contrast to the other simple, sandy homes scattered through the village, here was a large, clean, modern-looking structure with three big classrooms housing about 100 children from 4-16. The youngest ones had never seen a white person (I went and said hello and shook all their hands to dispel their fears…).
We interviewed the pastor of the community who told me the beautiful story of how the school came about. It began with a letter he received one day, there in the middle of nowhere.
He set off to the next town, the one we’d driven from, to find someone who could read it to him.
Was there no-one in his village who could read? the inhabitants of the next town asked. (Nobody). Did they not have a school? How many children were there? Did he know that if he could prove there were 60 children with no access to schooling, the government had to provide a school and a teacher?
And that started the journey of the small, illiterate church community advocating to the government on behalf of their village. The government sent a teacher and the church members built the teacher a house. And then, a few years on, the government built a school. And now how the horizons of those young people have changed. Different futures have become possible.
That same day we spoke to a church elder in another community with a similar story, and he said something that has stayed with me. “These things probably seem small to you, but to us they are huge.”
Heading off into unknown territory in faraway countries with a nice camera to make a film makes me anxious to find impressive sounding stories that will captivate people. Some of this week’s stories were about church communities building themselves a church building, which can seem underwhelming, but the journey behind those projects is a deep and significant one. It’s the story of people who struggle to meet their most basic needs starting to believe that they have the ability to do something for themselves, and for their wider community. It’s the start of a longer journey towards a better life.
So I don’t count any of the stories as small. To believe things can be different when you have never known what ‘different’ looks or feels like is an amazing act of faith and courage, especially when you live so close to the edge of survival.
These are big stories. And just think where they might lead.