A Healthy Change in Kenge


On our recent trip to Congo, we visited a community called Kenge, halfway between Kikwit and Kinshasa. Like many other communities in this area, the people of Kenge lacked access to adequate health care. The closest hospital was too far away and too expensive, leaving the people vulnerable to diarrhea, malaria, anemia, malnutrition, and respiratory infections.

However, when we arrived in the town, we were greeted warmly by a small group of people from a local church. They had heard that we were coming, so they prepared a little table of peanuts and bananas for us. As we gathered with them under a tree, they told us a beautiful story about how 5N2 was helping to improve health care in Kenge.

Ten months earlier, the group had received 5N2 training from one of our partners. In response to the training, they had recognized their key assets, thanked God for his provision, and begun to envision possible development outcomes. They started with what was in their hands and they simply focused on the most accessible outcomes—what we like to call, the low-hanging fruit.

Their first initiative had been to collect a few Congolese Francs for a church maintenance project of mostly painting, fixing up the instruments and planning a future roof renovation. Then, bolstered by their progress, they were ready for more.

Next, as they surveyed their church family, they noticed that, among a group of mostly subsistence farmers, there were also four men who were trained nurses.

One of those nurses, a man named Seyakuaku, actually had a small collection of medical supplies that he had picked up from previous locations where he had worked. He had stethoscopes and other medical instruments, including a microscope.

Encouraged by these assets, the group in Kenge had then turned to a small hut near their church building that was being used as a guesthouse, which they decided to fix up and turn into a medical clinic.

As we listened to their story, we thought about countless community health clinics in Congo that had started strong with outside help, but quickly fizzled out when the funding faded and they lacked supplies, medicine, and local resources.

It was different in Kenge. Their story told about how a whole community had intervened and together they had established this humble yet functional health clinic. They had a revolving supply of medicine and trained nurses that provided 24-hour care, which enabled them to effectively treat water-borne diseases and other common illnesses. The Kenge clinic even had a small solar panel, wired to a battery, which powered both their microscope and their computer.

As we listened to their story under that tree in Kenge, we were so touched by the passion and vision that we heard within them. They spoke with such a deep sense of community pride. The clinic belonged to them. They had merely started with what was in their hands, offering it with thanks to God and then seeing it multiplied for the good of their community.

As we prepared to leave Kenge that day, the community was telling us that they had already marked out another piece of land where they hope to upgrade the facility. They talked about providing more services and reaching people in neighbouring villages.

And so the fruit of this training continues to grow.                                                                      

Canadian High School Students Learn ‘ABCD’ Principles

Did you know that British Columbia’s new kindergarten – grade 12 curriculum includes a course on Social Justice?  Oh how I wish we had courses like that when I was a teenager. In fact, research shows that this next generation has a resounding focus on empathy, especially on marginalized people groups.

Each course in this new curriculum has “Big Ideas” that the course is centred around.  In the case of Social Justice, this includes:

  1. Social justice issues are interconnected
  2. Individual worldviews shape and inform our understanding of social justice issues.
  3. The causes of social injustice are complex and have lasting impacts on society.
  4. Social justice initiatives can transform individuals and systems.

I used “Big Idea” #4 in our unit on globalization and went through principles of Asset-Based Community-Driven (ABCD) development.  We talked about how communities are invited into a process of realizing their skills, resources and vision to reach their own development objectives.  We walked through basic principles of ABCD, and ended off with case studies highlighting stories of transformation. Beautiful conversation on topics such as dependency, aid and culture brewed out of these lessons that I am certain will stay with these students as they go on into the world.  

For their final exam, students were asked to pick a Social Justice initiative they felt best demonstrated how individuals and systems can be transformed from any of the units we discussed as a class over the course of this semester.  Here are a few excerpts from their reflections-

“Not every country is perfect and therefore requires the people to 1. find the qualities of their community 2. brainstorm ideas that utilize those qualities to benefit a certain problem, 3. Carrying out that action plan to the end, and 4. evaluating what worked and what needs to change with the plan in order for the problem to be solved.  These community-based movements can inspire individuals to contribute to the cause and convince their governments that the issue is worth fighting for.”

“In developing countries, sometimes community is all they have, with lack of government involvement, or corruption, coming all together is all they have left as a choice.  We can all benefit from communities coming to work together, we are all in this together and should be demonstrating support and initiatives within our community.”

“The best way to transform a community for the better is to help support, and listen to members of that community.  Whether the community is big or small, they can make a big difference.”

“(ABCD) involves evaluating the current situation and finding qualities of the community that can be used in developing change within the community.  These influence factors such as sense of community, security, health, economy or even government. As soon as these communities confront their own issues, they begin to take pride in their home.  They are working towards breaking a system of reliance and dependency on other people and taking action for themselves.”

Sure these high school students’ reflections may seem idealistic and eutopic; but, isn’t that what fuels innovation for change? Isn’t that how we shift the power?  Personally, I can’t wait to see what is possible when people work together, giving what assets they have to offer to make transformation across the globe.

Re-Thinking Charity

Positioned carefully in the vacillating shadow of a large palm tree, the three of us exchanged stories as we sought relief from the afternoon sun. As we began to walk back into the classroom, the young Congolese student lowered his head slightly, cupped his hands together and submissively requested a few dollars to provide a meal for his children.

Dr. Murray Nickel, my associate, reacted with indignation: “Why would you ask that?” he queried the student. “You and I are colleagues!”

At the time I felt Murray’s response was harsh, if not uncharitable. Over time I’ve come to realize that it was indeed “uncharitable” and therein lays its significance.

Murray and I had come to Kinshasa along with other Canadian doctors to host a training conference for Congolese medical students. Murray was well aware that a couple dollars would have no lasting impact on this young man’s family. Much worse, he knew it had the potential to transform the power dynamics of their relationship and slowly eat away at the dignity and self-respect of the young man. Taken in isolation, Murray’s response would be harsh, but given his experience serving and loving the Congolese people, his actions pointed to a more profound and effectual impact that lay beyond the “charitable impulse.”

“Charity,” in its modern definition, has come to mean “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need (Oxford.)” In recent years the word has taken on a markedly pejorative connotation.

It is not uncommon to hear the refrain, “I don’t need your charity!” This is because people know innately that charity is not free, but it will cost them something. 

According to theologian Jacques Ellul in his book Money and Power, “Almsgiving affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before. Almsgiving acts this way because it is a money relationship and not a love relationship.”

The Bible not only warns us against giving in the wrong spirit, but also instructs how to give in a way that is truly generous. It is illuminating to note that the familiar Greek word “agape” was translated into the Latin Vulgate as “caritas”. This of course, is the root of the modern English word “charity”. When we maintain this intimate connection between love and charity, we get a fuller understanding of what Christian charity should entail.

For example, 1 Corinthians 13 would read: Charity is patient; charity is kind; charity is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

More than just the voluntary giving of help, we see in the ancient understanding of charity a dimension of empathy and sacrifice that is demanded of the giver. They are in fact not asked to simply reduce the burden of the poor but in some way to bear that burden upon themselves.

In order to move towards caritas we must first lay aside easy and reflexive solutions and seek first to understand. In doing so we come to realize that poverty is more than a lack of things—food, skills, knowledge—but also a psychological and spiritual phenomenon that demands transformation at a deeper level.

In Walking With the Poor, Bryant Myers suggests that, “The fulcrum for transformational change is no longer transferring resources or building capacity or increasing choices, as important as these things are. But these things count only if they take place in a way that allows the poor to recover their true identity and discover the vocation God intends for them.”

How then do we respond in love to the needs of the poor?

A good starting point is to ask, “What do you have?” As we take inventory of people’s unique calling, skills, resources, and ideas we are opening the door to new hope and possibilities. Asking “What do you have?” is not minimizing the importance of their needs, but rather, maximizing the transformative potential inside of them.   

“What do you have?” represents a seismic shift in development thinking. In my experience it is so counter-intuitive that the initial response of the poor is often bewildered silence, since they are accustomed to working with sympathetic benefactors and problem-solvers.

It is not however, a quick-fix methodology but an attitude by which we must relate with the poor and evaluate the merit of our poverty interventions. It is a question that negates the self-importance of the giver, while affirming the significance of the poor as valued citizens and agents of change. Unlike charity as we know it, it is an attitude that is rooted in love, reflecting the true generosity of caritas.