“Imagine you are walking through a battlefield the day after, bodies are strewn all around, smoke rises from the still smoldering ashes of what used to be a home. Then imagine you have a truck full of supplies with you and you start unloading it and trying to build something new right on top of the charred soil beneath you, that is kinda what working in Ethiopia is like” I said, pausing after the words left to allow the guy on the other end of the phone to digest what I was saying. “Not that I don’t like working here, it is just better when you know going in that there are many who have come before you, and almost as many who have failed and left, tired, and cynical about the whole mess” The line stayed silent for an awkward long momeny
Don’t get me wrong, I love working here, I really truly with my whole heart do, I just have come to realize that it is a lot better if we loose the rainbows and pretty picture approach and take inventory of the stories and battle wounds on the bodies of those who have come before us. You see giving your life to make a place better that has so far to go is a lot like trying to move a mountain with a shovel, you can dig and dig with all the energy in you and still at the end of the day it won’t feel like much. But the thing is, this particular mountain has many diggers, many who are coming at this mountain from different angles with all sorts of different shovels, and even more who were digging here but have now left because the work was just to hard, or their shovels just could not move any more earth.
The question I have today is one that has been nagging me for a long time, you see when I first got here 5 years ago I was about as gung-ho and full of energy as anyone could ever be, no kidding, RedBull would have loved to tap into some of what I was channeling because let me tell you, nothing could stand in my way. Fast forward more painful pitfalls, disappointments, and struggles than I could list if I had all the paper in all the office buildings in Manhattan, and I feel no less committed, but a heck of a lot more skeptical about all the different methods to this particular form of madness. One after the other we have watched well meaning people come and raise money for well meaning projects, and time and time again they fall by the wayside, and I am not just talking about “them” and “they” in this post either, if you read our book you will know that we saw our share of damages as well, good people were hurt, things went south, and many times I found myself curled up in a ball at the bottom of the bed wishing that somehow I could forget about all the suffering and just leave to a better place where I didn’t have to see it anymore. But, for some reason, God would not let us forget, and so the next day we would pick ourselves back up and change strategies, going out again to try to get a few inches further (or sometimes loosing ground) on our little side of the big mountain that we were trying to move.
Can you hear the damage in my voice? The years of struggle taking their tool? Yeah, its true, somedays I have no idea why we are still trying, I feel like we make such little progress on such a big problem. But we move forward, and little by little big things happen, things that we could have no way imagined when we started out, and although no one day has felt like a major victory, when you put them all together you can see little by little God is working and good things are happening.
I say all of this because I feel like we are finally getting to the place where we can see the beginnings of patterns in the darkness, like maybe we have stayed here in the dark enough to where our eyes are starting to adjust and shapes are appearing before us. It is from this place of brokenness and struggle, from one committed follower of Christ who is trying to do our best to give back some of what he gave to us, that I offer up these the top ten rules for doing work in Africa.
1. Mistakes happen. Money gets wasted on projects that fail, and time goes down the drain, you can’t spend all your time focusing on what was lost, instead use it to learn and move ahead with a new plan that will avoid those potholes on your next trip down the same road. The mistake is when you don’t keep trying.
2. You are not the first person who has come and tried to make a difference. Seek help and counsel of those who have come before you, and please please listen to what they have to say no matter how crazy it sounds.
3. You are not smarter than the people who you are coming to help. Don’t ever forget it either. The worst mistakes are made by people who honestly believe that they are smarter for one reason or another. I like to think of if this way, if you take a fish and put it on land, it looks ridiculous flopping around unable to do anything, and if you take a cow and throw it in the ocean things are not going to go well. In the same way, you might feel like you are a pretty smart fish. But I gotta tell all you fish like me, Africa is the dry land, and you and I would do well to learn from the cows who have been here a while.
4. There is no such thing as a new innovative western born plan that is going to instantly make a huge difference in Africa. Anyone who tells you there is is either lying to get your money, or has not yet tried. End of story.
5. Everything will take five times as long as you planned. Everything.
6. You will never get anywhere if you spend too much time looking at the big picture, one person, or one organization won’t do much to take care of all the problems, but if you instead focus on the one child, the one mother, the one family, you will realize that all the effort is worth it.
7. Don’t try and bring your home country with you. Neither in the way you pack or set up your home (although some good chocolate never hurt anyone) nor in the way you approach development. All you are building will be rejected and will end before it helps anyone if you don’t build it in a way that the local people like and can get behind and support. Your ideas are not better or more special because of where you came from, stop, listen and learn before planning or building anything. I know of a perfectly good well that was dug in a village where water is scarce, you can walk up to this thing and pump all day long washing fresh clear water rush out, yet a short walk away children are starving and thirsty. Why? Because the NGO that came to put the well in didn’t ask the locals about the soil in the area, and they put the well right in the middle of an area called “soil salt” by the locals because the soil is so salty, and so guess what? So is the water. Just a short walk from there is a building that was built by another well meaning NGO as a birthing center, its been standing for about a year and has already been turned over to the village children for a tree fort because not one mother in the area wanted to give birth in a birthing center when her home was more comfortable, not to mention that no one planned for a way to send medical professionals to staff the place either.
8. Don’t trust the first person who jumps at you with a plan to help Africa. Without fail, every time we sit down to hear another story about a fantastic failure brought about by some westerner who threw a bunch of resources at a problem in Africa, it always involves a taxi driver or tour guide who reeled them in and took them for all they were worth with a big story about how he was trying to help his people. The first to approach you are never the ones you should trust, the reliable, honest people are standing in the back of the crowd, doing their work with their heads down, those are the ones you want to bring in and who you can trust. I could talk for hours about the amazing trustworthy people who work for Bring Love In, they are the most reliable, and smart people I know, but not one of them came pitching ideas to us that they wanted money for.
9. Take good care of your family. I think the most common mistake that people make is they come in all energized to help, but forget that they need to be in this for the long haul if they are going to see any real change through their efforts. You must pace yourself, and be willing to go without seeing results for long seasons before anything starts to happen. And by all means take a vacation!
10. Plan plan plan, and while you are planning do a little and then plan some more. I know, it sounds all wrong, and many of you want to move to Africa because you think there aren’t any rules and things happen much faster than at home, but trust me, going slow and planning well is better than coming, doing, screwing it all up and going home, that helps no one, and in fact just takes resources from the people and projects that are actually making a difference.
Bring Love In is a project made up of little mistakes that were corrected time and time again to make up something pretty amazing, we aren’t perfect, far from it, we are just regular people who’s hearts have been stolen for the orphans and widows of Ethiopia, and we lean on God every day as we try try again. The result is a project we are darn proud of, 57 kids who were orphaned but now have families of their own in their home country, and 155 of the poorest of the poor families in our neighborhood on the East side of Addis Ababa who are receiving support from us to stay together when statistically many of them would have already given up their children to orphanages for lack of resources to care for them. Not one day goes by that we don’t remember our mistakes and thank God that he gave us the grace to keep moving forward.