Why Responsibility Matters
In 2008 Possibilities Africa “PA” began ministry engagement in the Mbeere community in the Eastern region of Kenya. As we do in all the new communities on first engagement, we conducted a community needs assessment. As we met with pastors, community leaders, and villagers they were only enthusiastic to list for us the numerous needs and community challenges they were facing. Key among their needs were extreme poverty, lack of education for their children, community members who were addicted to chewing Khat (a common stimulant leaf) which was the only reliable commercial crop in the area, poor infrastructure and almost everyone mentioned a lack of access to good water for use. The people explained to us how they have to travel long distances, women waking up as early as 3 am to go to rivers kilometers away to fetch water – many times on their backs and on the backs of donkeys. This excise took most of their time and energy.
As we traveled through the village we observed several things. Other than the dryness and rough terrain of the land of this semi-arid area we noted two things which stood out for me and my team. One, there were so many young people sitting idly in local village markets as early as 7 am; some drunk and others chewing on khat. Secondly, we also observed several water wells which had been sunk in different locations in the community. It was obvious that as we listened to the people tell us of their community’s needs we would reflect on what we had observed, especially these two issues.
We asked them especially regarding the water wells, about 10 of them, located in different places in the community. They replied that those water wells belonged to a non-governmental or non-profit organization (whose name I will withhold) which had installed them several years back. They said while the water wells worked the community had some ease of getting water. By the time of our visit, the wells had fallen to disrepair for 2 to 3 years. They said the NGO which installed them has never come back to fix them. In the mind of the people in this community, these water wells provided by an NGO to solve the water shortage of the community were not their responsibility. They belonged to the NGO which installed them and which, in the mind of community members, was therefore responsible for maintaining and fixing them if any broke down.
A similar case was witnessed in the Ahero community in western Kenya, almost 10 hours driving from the Mbeere community. And if anyone visited the Gem Rae village in Kisumu county one will not fail to notice a huge tall water tank which was installed many years back. This too stopped working due to disrepair. The same reason was provided here, that the donors who funded the installation of the water wells were expected to come back and pay for maintenance fees. The management of the well tried to get the locals to contribute towards the maintenance costs or pay for access to water but they refused. To them, this was a free gift from donors and should, therefore, be accessed by them for free. Most of these communities continued to receive aid. In Mbeere the USAID continued to provide food to feed the hungry children and going to school was encouraged through food rations. The Ahero community is in a region where the majority of NGOs in Kenya do their work. But in all these communities nothing has changed for decades. And even today the people face the same problems in ever increasing intensity despite the efforts of numerous NGOs. The people believed that their problems can only be solved by a European or an American NGO coming in to provide, fix and repair anything that was needed in the community. In other words, their problems were someone else’s responsibility.
The greatest need in these communities is not to feed a child for a day or to drill a water well for a village. It is to teach the families to do those things that will make it possible for them to feed themselves and get their own water for a lifetime. This is what Possibilities Africa refers to as “taking responsibility!”
Possibilities Africa teaches people to take responsibility. We believe that in every community God has created people with skills, talents, and resources which they can exploit for their own well being. For generations, well-wishing foreign organizations and governments have provided handouts to help mitigate the suffering of poor people in Africa. While this is commendable and needed in some cases, it has, nevertheless, over the decades cultivated and nurtured a handouts mentality. Most of our people in rural African villages do not explore ways to improve their lives. Instead, most live subsistence lives and hope for aid from a well-wisher or an NGO. The communities are used to seeing one NGO leave only to be immediately replaced by another NGO all doing the same thing – providing an immediate band-aid to eliminate immediate suffering. Hardly to any of these NGOs help communities to build capacity for a better tomorrow. As such the people are accustomed to depending on NGOs, elected government officials who give handouts so they can remain in power, and educated working relatives who wire money home from far away towns and countries to help meet the daily needs of their relatives. This culture of depending on someone else has driven African villages to the rot that they are.
PA teaches the message of hands-up and not hand-outs. We aim at helping villagers to realize how the handouts approach to life has not helped over the years. We then help them to identify their skills, passions, local resources and what it is they can do for themselves to improve their livelihoods. We further work with them to help them get organized into caring groups which provide a sense of community and accountability and have leaders who will lead the efforts of encouraging the people to work for themselves and together for their communities. We also teach them, in their groups, the basics of life skills such as hard work, adopting a savings culture, borrowing to start an income generating activity which is not for consumption, the discipline of repaying the loan, and working together to help others meet their needs. All these teachings and activities are geared to cultivate a sense of responsibility and to help the people believe in themselves and what they can do. We remind them that they have it in them to take steps to improve their own lives.
As the people respond to our message and begin taking responsibility we then support them through microloans, training, and monitoring which then helps them create micro-businesses and other activities that improve their lives. Some have grown businesses which are employing others in their communities. From these we have seen families able to feed themselves, church members starting to contribute tithes and offerings, and church groups working together to help the most vulnerable among them including children, widows, and orphans. When we start working with most communities they always demand of us to give them lunch, transport, and sitting allowances; something they are used to getting from other NGOs. However, it is the policy of PA not to give those as we feel they only help to enhance laziness and handouts mentality. With time we notice our clients begin offering to us drinks and meals. We see them, again and again, paying their way to come to attend our training meetings for the value of knowledge and not because of some handout they will get. We see the groups getting organized into movements for holistic change. As the partners take responsibility for their own lives they are realizing that they can do more than just provide for themselves. All the above happens through the work, resources, and coming together of community members. Although PA trains and provides some financial support, our goal is to offer a hand-up and not a handout.
As a result of engaging our partners to take responsibility, learn to use locally available resources such as idle youth labor and land; PA has been able to operate on a very efficient budget to achieve a lot. For example in 2016 with a total budget of $275,000 and a staff of 10, we worked in 4 countries in Africa, served a total of 83 communities, supported over 3,349 households, engaged over 957 pastor-leaders who together are serving a combined total of 79,000 church members and over 20,000 children. We also did the following:
- 346 shalom groups (an accountability life group) were formed in 2016 through which the members provide accountability to one another towards taking responsibility. An average shalom group has 10 members.
- Families are saving to begin income-generating activities with many starting to work with their hands to provide for their families. In 2016, families saved over $23,000 to which PA gave a matching gift of $50,000 which money was used to start over 627 micro businesses.
- Churches are beginning to take care of the most vulnerable persons in their communities including widows and orphans instead of waiting for a foreign NGO to come in and help. In 2016 over 600 vulnerable people were helped.
- Leaders trained by PA have started children mentorship and education centers to ensure their children learn values of holistic living at an early age. In 2016 there were 25 learning centers providing early childhood and elementary education for over 4,028 children. In total over 20,000 children are being mentored by the leaders we have trained through church and education programs.
This efficiency is not experienced in most NGOs because, unlike other NGOs, we empower people to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-sustaining. This transformation is what Africa needs and it is our goal to introduce this message and ministry model to all the countries of Africa.
Initially, when we started we received significant opposition from communities who were accustomed to handouts. Today, we are receiving many invitations from other African countries where people who hear of our impact are asking us to help them. Our work in Malawi has attracted people from Mozambique where a group of pastor leaders travels by bicycle weekly to attend our training events. In Tanzania groups of pastors from 2 communities have asked to join what we are doing in Kenya. Many others have written to us from other African countries and from India asking if we can help them.
When people learn to take responsibility and to cultivate their innate talents and community resources they thrive and regain their God-given dignity. The result is that a new confidence is born and all things become possible for them. This is what PA is seeing among those we serve. This transformation is what Africa needs and it is our goal to introduce this message, and ministry model to all the countries of Africa.
With God all things are possible!
Martin M. Simiyu,
Founder/MD and Chief Strategist,