I hope you got to spend quality time with your loved ones for Thanksgiving and were able to reflect on God’s many blessings. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this time of year from halfway around the world, since we are entering the dry season here in southern Uganda, following a not-so-wet, wet season. Even though I wouldn’t say winter is my favorite season, I long to feel the crisp, cold air of Colorado and the smell of pine trees. Instead, I sweat in the hot, muggy air of Uganda, which smells like goat, burning plastic, and the occasional waft of a pit latrine! I hope you are enjoying the change of seasons at home.
I can’t believe how far IKOOVA Ministries has come from an initial desire to simply serve God. Each and every one of you has been an answer to prayers. When I came to Uganda for the first time 10 months ago, I didn’t know how I was going to lend a hand to these children, who are often times innocent victims of circumstances outside of their control: be it the death of a parent, lack of food and education, or just the unfulfilled desire to be loved. These children are hungry for so much, but in the end, only God can provide for their needs. It’s been a delight to see the hope and joy in their eyes as they have shown us their report cards; I am incredibly proud of all they have accomplished. It is so rewarding that, oftentimes, I feel selfish that Jenika, Mark, Rebecca, and I have gotten to experience firsthand the gratitude and love of these people. But, my desire is to convey some of that to you in this letter.
I hope I can go beyond giving the obligatory pat on the back for doing a good deed by helping these families, and actually give you a deeper perspective of what IKOOVA Ministries is trying to accomplish, flaws and all. Don’t get me wrong, it has been a real struggle and a steep learning curve. Decades of foreign aid and well-meaning nonprofits have created a culture of handouts and dependency. Around here, Muzungu (white person) = Money. And some people are bold to ask you for anything and everything, regardless of their state of need. Oftentimes, what one may think of as “helping,” leads to a greater sense of complacency and dependency for those on the receiving end. Discernment, thorough investigation, and constant follow up into every individual situation is key to ensuring that resources are properly utilized.
You are probably familiar with the popular children’s series, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” Well they have their own saying here in Uganda: “If you give a man a goat, he’s going to ask you for a rope and a place to tether it.” That, being said, we have made some mistakes and given out some “goats” and some “ropes” to tie them up with. However, our main goal of seeing impoverished children getting a proper education and hopefully seeing them break free from the cycle of poverty, remains intact. Because if you give a child an education, he’ll have the skills and knowledge to acquire his own “goat.” But, we have seen some cases where the mother or guardian is freed from the burden of providing for school fees, and now has a false sense of security that her children are now cared for so she is free to relax. This potential repercussion has fueled the desire to start our own small business education and microloan program.
During their two month stay here, Mark and Rebecca Carlson (our board president and his wife/our operations manager) put IKOOVA in contact with Sustain Microenterprise, which has a simple but highly successful plan for small business development and microloans. Hang in there, as I quickly try to describe how the loan process works. The loans are given on a group basis, where prospective recipients form their own loan groups of 5-12 women, with whom they work well and trust. These women go through approximately 8 hours of small business training to teach them the basics of business planning, record keeping, customer retention, and profit margin. Group members co-sign for one another, as well as secure outside guarantors for the loans. The maximum first-time loan amount is $55. Payments are made weekly over a six month period. If an individual misses a payment, her group members are responsible to cover her that week, thereby giving them positive peer pressure to ensure timely repayment and reducing the workload on IKOOVA as loan officer. Since most people lack assets, this group setup creates social collateral, whereby people are motivated to keep their social standing with their peers by paying their loan on time.
You can imagine the response we got when people heard we were giving out “free money.” They quickly discovered this wasn’t the case at all. Each woman is required to pay a membership fee to start the business training and join a group. Additionally a 10% down payment on the loan amount is required as savings, which is returned to them once the loan has been repaid. Furthermore, 10% interest on the total loan is assessed, which may seem high but is less than half the rate that a bank would charge, were it possible to get a loan through that avenue. As an extra incentive, we are crediting back half of the interest to group members if they pay their loan back on time. No savings will be returned until all group members have paid in full, creating more positive peer pressure to pay on time. Once a woman pays back her first loan successfully, she establishes credit that will allow her to successively apply for greater loans in the future. The loan program also doubles as a savings group. During the weekly meetings, women are encouraged to save, in order to develop a culture of proper money management.
I know that was a lot of information that may not interest some of you, but I wanted to give you some insight into a program that I see as essential to truly effecting change in the community. You see, even if you educate a child, if the mother can’t afford to feed him or pay for electricity so he can do his homework at night, his overall situation hasn’t improved much. In our short time working in the community, we have decided that we don’t want to focus solely on children’s needs, but on uplifting those who are trying to provide for the children as well. Our approach is on the family level rather than on an individual basis.
Another area we feel has been of great help, has been in skills training. The first of our graduates from an eight-month tailoring program are finishing this month. It has been encouraging to see the women take pride in their work, learning a new skill, and possibly being able to provide for their family. It has been good to work with another non-profit, Grow Hope (Tusubira), who provided the training. Today, as I was walking through town, I saw one of the students, Kasifa, sewing a pair of pants on a sewing machine that she borrowed from a neighbor. It really encouraged me to see her using her newfound skill, and that she was resourceful enough to procure the machine from someone rather than coming to IKOOVA and asking us to purchase a machine for her.
I also would like to share that, through your donations in the form of monthly support and one-time contributions, we have been able to expand our program from the initial 45 children to 59 children and 7 vocational trainees. The new families that we have brought in from the village of Kakira were referred to us by local government authorities as being some of the most destitute in their community. Their situation is truly remarkable. It is amazing to see people who are living hand-to-mouth, have no idea where their next meal is coming from, are paying $5/month to rent a mud shack, can’t afford to send their children to school, yet who can be hopeful for a brighter future. It has also given us an opportunity to put into practice what we have learned about not giving them everything they need right away (the whole goat), in order to prevent dependency and slacking. With the new groups, we decided to pay half of their school fees and invited the grandmothers and mothers into the microloan program. Almost every woman accepted the offer. We gave out the first 10 micro loans today and are working through 33 more applications. Please join us in praying for the success of these women’s business ventures.
We have seen a difference in people’s reaction when they realize that the assistance will most likely be temporary and that we are not here to facilitate their every need. Again, we are trying to equip them to purchase and maintain their own “goat.” If anyone is interested in learning more about these topics, we highly recommend the documentary “Charity, Inc.” on Amazon Prime, and the book, “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. It is really difficult to say no to someone when they have a need that your resources can easily “fix,” especially when their standard of living is so far below your own. But, discernment and wisdom are needed to determine true emergencies as well as the best means to help those in need. Sometimes the greatest work is not in finding resources to give, but in investing time into personal relationships and equipping them to draw upon their own abilities, talents, and resources.
And yet, the issues of poverty, lack of food and education, broken families, hopelessness and more all point to the greatest need of humans: the need for a savior. Guiding these people to Jesus and discipling them are the most valuable things that we could offer them but, to be honest, this is where I feel we have failed the most. If we follow the problems back to the source, most of the issues we see stem from broken families and a disregard of Biblical principles on marriage. Most men do not keep their vows and have many children outside of wedlock. Take Fatuma: her husband is dead, she can’t go back to her village and family because she was born out of wedlock and is not accepted by her other siblings and relatives. Her own children have deserted their children and left them with her to care for. Countless people die of HIV and leave children behind for grandparents or aunts to try to raise. This scenario repeats itself over and over, leaving a trail of widows and orphans to care for. But, again, these are all symptoms and much of the current aid in the country simply applies bandaids rather than cures. The only lasting cure is a true rebirth in the spirit, an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ, and an adherence to the Word of God.
Praise be to God that we were connected with an area representative for Child Evangelism Fellowship, Uganda and teacher Ruth has begun a Good News Club for the children every Friday. The children are very eager and willing to participate. At our first meeting, the gospel was presented and 10 children raised their hands to accept Jesus as their personal savior. Many of the children were from Muslim families, so you can imagine our joy in reaching them with the Good News. We are attempting to get Bible studies going but have been a bit dismayed at the lack of interest. Offer loans and 50 people show up. Plan a Bible study and no one shows up. We really are in need of leaders with the right motives and a passion to make Christ known, yet none have been brought into our path yet. We are suspecting that God is using this to force us into teaching and discipling ourselves.
The Lord has definitely been prompting me to share His gospel message, one very memorable instance happened last week. Some of you may have seen a post about Sofia, a hilarious, elderly Muslim woman who by all accounts is nearing 100 years old (not uncommon for people not to know their birthday/year). She has lived in a mud hut, which measures about 5x6 foot, for around the last 40 years. Her roof, although capable of letting in ample sunshine, was woefully unable to keep out the rain. After meeting her, I couldn’t sleep anytime it rained, and decided to replace her roof. I remember chatting with her, after her house was remodeled. She was so appreciative for the work we had done and thanking me, and I would say all thanks and glory be to God! She would agree and praise God, but I could feel the Lord prodding me to share Jesus with her as she clutched her Koran in her arms. I balked, froze up, and soon we were headed down the road. What a total failure! I reasoned with myself and argued with God. She is a crass and stubborn woman, and a staunch Muslim, my sharing wouldn’t have amounted to anything. You can’t teach old dogs new tricks, she would’ve been offended, I wouldn’t know how to lead her to Christ. But I vowed to share next time we met.
A busy week passed, we visited Sofia again, and here I was, again, about to leave without sharing Jesus. I felt the Lord saying that I could do whatever to help this woman, but it would all be in vain if she is not saved. So I asked her how a person reaches heaven. Her response was not unlike most, that she is basically a good person and that she prays that God will let her in. We went over the ten commandments and admitted that we both had fallen well short of God’s glory. But she contested that her good outweighed the bad and therefore would get to heaven. I argued that if you went before a judge on earth for stealing something, would he let you go because you’re basically a good person most of the time? She agreed the thief would not be released.
But what if someone paid the fine? Well then, the judge could release you, she presumed. That’s who Jesus is, I told her. He has paid the fine for all of us sinners, to reconcile us to our Holy Father, something that no amount of good deeds could ever do. I didn’t replace your roof to add some weight to my good side on the balance sheet. No number of roofs on old ladies’ huts would ever grant me eternal life with my Abba Father. I am a sinner, guilty of all charges. But Jesus paid my fine, and I am forever grateful because my sins, which were many, are forgiven. I shared with her John 14:6, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except thru me.” I also shared the parable of the lost sheep, and how His children will know His voice. All of this really got to her and she was in deep contemplation. After some 5-10 minutes of silence she said that if I’m going to lead her in a prayer of salvation to Jesus, that I better come sit closer and lay hands on her! We prayed together and she asked the Lord to be her savior and was adamant that our social workers, the local leader with us, and her neighbor be her witnesses that on that day she gave her life to Jesus! Praise God! We were both crying at this point, and I was so amazed that what I had argued with God to be an impossible task, took less than 2 hours! And it wasn’t some flippant decision, rather I saw the Holy Spirit revealing deep truth to her throughout our conversation. So remember, no matter how unqualified you may feel, or how difficult the one receiving His message seems, it is not us but He who does the heavy lifting. It is our responsibility to open the door to others, and He will walk them through!
Well, I think that’s about all I have (you made it), I hope I didn’t wear you all thin. I couldn’t see myself writing you some short letter praising all the good work we are doing, and painting some “Bob Ross” picture with fluffy clouds and happy little trees. The truth is, its messy, overwhelming, and at times terribly frustrating. However, just one soul accepting Jesus and getting reconciled to God makes it all worth it. To see total peace come over the face of a nearly century old woman as she tells you she is now ready to see God, is nearly indescribable, and something I will cherish forever. I pray you all have a very Merry Christmas and that you can be bold and share the greatest Gift the world has ever known with those you love!
Jeff, Jenika, Lily and Jackson Downs
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