Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Work

I’ve been reading this book that Jon (my MCC coworker) loaned me called When Helping Hurts. In it Miriam Adeney tells a story she once heard that I think is relevant to our work here:

Elephant And Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!” Animals gathered from far and near. They ate. They drank. They sang. And they danced. And nobody celebrated more and danced harder than Elephant. After the party was over, Elephant exclaimed, “Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!” But Mouse did not answer. “Mouse, where are you?” Elephant called. But Mouse did not answer. He looked around for his friend, and then shrank back in horror. There at the Elephant’s feet lay Mouse. His little body was ground into the dirt. He had been smashed by the big feet of his exuberant friend, Elephant. “Sometimes, that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans, “the African storyteller commented. “Is is like dancing with an Elephant.”

I guess as upper-middleclass American service workers in a foreign field, we are pretty guilty of this. Most of the time, we are trying to fit square pegs into round holes. We’ve got this baggage on how we think things should run, because these ways work so well in the West. And it’s not like I am telling you this with any authority. Shoot, I didn’t even know this was a problem until it was explained to me when I got here. I totally thought I was gonna do this great work, be some great guy, and leave.

We’ve got big hearts, but also big feet.

In our work, we are constantly running this risk.

So our work in Tete is to work alongside the Christian Council of Mozambique to work with communities who we think could benefit from added water security in the form of sand dams. CCM is the face of Christianity in Mozambique, it is highly respected and known to do good work. We’ve been given funding from this awesome organization called the Canadian Foodgrains Bank to provide sand dams that ultimately help to bolster food security in the country. The Mennonite Central Committee’s role in this is to represent the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, to transfer the money, and to provide technical engineering support.

I think the projects are amazing. I don’t have pictures of before and after just yet, but sand dams bring farming to areas that previously had none. It’s transformational.

The problem is that we are elephants. The challenge to CCM is that we need to select communities that can actually benefit from these sand dams. Which means many things. These communities need to use the dams, care for the dams, continue to want to fix the dams, and want to plant upstream of the dams. As embarrassing as this is, we’ve already got sand dams built that aren’t used by the communities in just the two years we’ve been doing the work here. We need these people to view their dams not projects they are doing for us. This is complicated by the fact that we provide food for work, which we distribute to each worker, since the construction is hard work. We should give this food. I think it is entirely right to give this food, but it only makes the community ownership problem worse, because they think they are getting paid to do our work.

Boy, this is hard work. Help, anyone?

Your brother,


  1. Hi Stephen,
    Aunty and I also have time to think about the life we are now living, and it does bring things into perspective. We just need to go with the flow and learn how to deal with things as we go along. You are already learning as you internalize your thoughts and experiencees. You will be a great success there and make all of us proud, for you are already thinking about the community, and not just you being there to bring "progress".
    We have Mennonites here in Rochester who are on mission, to help our community. They are all wonderful people, who takes the time to talk to us. We know them by name and are sad when they leave.

    Take care of yourself and we love your backyard picture.

    God Bless,
    Uncle Carey and Aunty Liz

  2. "The challenge to CCM is that we need to select communities that can actually benefit from these sand dams." So true! This type of hard question comes up everywhere - it's the question of the haves and the have-nots, isn't it? Who says what is best for another group? The brain is one thing, but the heart (soul?) is another and it's hard to integrate the two. I know that it's important for the two to be integrated throughout an organization -- from the top to the bottom. So even though you are working under the guidance of a leader, it's important for you to thoughtfully question that leadership and engage in dialogue with a full amount of patience.

    Excellent post. I hope they're a help to you and not a hindrance or a burden.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Here I am getting caught up on your blogs. You're a good writer, Stephen. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.