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Mochatern Monday 12.19.16 : Fare Thee Well

It’s been almost 4 months since I tried to enter the back door of Mocha Club and eventually found the front door of our lovely office. I drove 8 hours the day before from Virginia and all of my belongings for the next 4 months still filled my car. I walked into the office and began. As it often does, the time rushed past and now I have about a week left in Nashville. As I think back on these months spent in the South, I consider what I learned.

I learned a lot of things, but the most important one that will affect my work and life is about how to relate to other people. I deeply respect the way that Mocha Club staff members operate by working closely with African leaders. They make these leaders’ dreams their own and work with them toward their goals with a posture of humility and respect. I could go on about the many other things I learned through being here day to day, or talk about how every person at the office showed me kindness and included me, but that might make for a long post. So I’ll stop here and just say that as I pack my bags, I will be taking more with me than when I came—things that I cannot pack in my car, lessons that will stay with me all of my life.

I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote based on a quote by one of our partners in Africa. May you be blessed and spread the blessing.

 

But Then

“The name of that place is actually Tumbe . . ., which means a place for rejected people, but God spoke to us and told us these people are not rejected, they should not be called rejected, they should not live with the name of rejection, so we said we are going to call this place Blessed Camp.” –Peter O O’chiel (Action Ministry)

The first word of the first Psalm

In my English Bible reads “blessed.”

A foundation of identity, something I

Have always been without knowing.

Ignorance is hard to shake

But it is not the kind of knowledge we

Think we need that will save us.

We think we are damned—

And we’re right, sort of.

We think we are unworthy—

And there is a hint of reality in that bitter delusion.

We think we are rejected—

And we could not be further (and nearer) to the truth.

We are only these things before.

We are only these things without.

We are only these things outside.

But then Love.

Mochatern Monday 12.05.16: So why the Mocha Club?

 

I’ve asked this question to a number of my colleagues here at Mocha since beginning my internship three months ago. What brought you to this organization? Why this nonprofit, rather than another? Why work at a nonprofit at all? I’ve phrased the question in different ways each time, but really there’s one thing I want to know: tell me, how passionate are you about what you do? How invested are you in Mocha’s vision? screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-1-38-10-pm

If you’re anything like me, you tend to approach nonprofits with a critical eye. There are many pitfalls that go along with aid work in developing countries, particularly when that work is cross-cultural in nature. (I’ll point you, not for the first time, to books like When Helping Hurts and documentaries such as Poverty, Inc because they’ve been so helpful to me in understanding such challenges.) Doing work that is truly good, helpful, and sustainable is never easy. So when I think about the initiatives I want to support, both financially and with my time, I tend to start with a bit of cynicism, and I ask a lot of questions.

An internship is, by nature, rather like just skimming the surface of an organization. So during my time here at the Mocha Club, I’ve tried to ask questions, to dive deeper. I keep asking: why are you here? Why work at a place like the Mocha Club? 

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-1-39-21-pmAnd you know what? My coworkers really believe in the work that the Mocha Club is doing. They keep looking back at me with excited eyes and telling me about what they love most. One talks about Mocha Club’s work with our artist partners, and how beautiful it is to work hand-in-hand and face-to-face with artists to unite their musical pursuits with the opportunity to support a good cause. Some talk about how the transparency of the organization makes it easy to see where your donations go; others speak on how much they believe in the value of the pastor training, orphan care, and the other projects that Mocha Club supports in Africa. I’ve had many conversations about the challenges of working cross-culturally—with, not for, the poor—and more than one coworker has voiced the importance of listening and of humility.

Forgive me if this all sounds like a pitch. Because here’s the thing: my internship with this lovely group of people is about to conclude—in fact, this is my last post on this blog. And this is what I’d love to leave you with. Believe in the good heart, the effectiveness, and the humility of the work that Mocha Club is doing in Africa. Believe in the people that send you emails, invite you to support new initiatives, and answer the phone when you call the office. When you join the Club, you’re joining a pretty special thing.

Mochatern Monday 11.21.16 : Through the Back Door

Much of what I have learned recently came through reading books: a history book, how-to books on qualitative research, that one economics book, books on how the spiritual intersects with caring for others. And then there are all the words I’ve gratefully received from the people around me that work in the nongovernmental (NGO) sector. However, just because I’ve learned a lot doesn’t mean my application is on point.

In my first blog here, I wrote about learning that we ought to work “with” and not “for” the poor. In the world of education, it is easy to say, “Got it! I passed that test. I know that information. Let’s move on.” But good learning is so much more than that. These foundational pieces are meant to be built upon, not disappear. They are so important that we might have to check every once in a while and make sure the foundation isn’t cracking.

I considered sharing a poem I wrote recently called “Envision a Heard World.” In it, I basically critique the position that advocates for material things to be sent to those who need them, instead of also acknowledging their nonmaterial needs. I say that dignity never arrives in a box. So far so good. At the end of the poem, I wrote: “Please do not be deaf, too. / Hear our voices, / Close your eyes of self-determined vision / And hear our need to be heard.”

When I wrote this and read through it again the first few times, I saw nothing wrong with it. This time, though, I realized that I used my voice to cloud the voices of those who want to speak for themselves. Not good. In fact, that goes against everything I want to do and achieve. There is a time to advocate or speak on behalf of someone when you are acting as a mediator, but this is not an appropriate way of doing that.

One of the important things I learned in creative writing classes in college is that form needs to match function. If you are trying to say something, use a format that works with the point you are trying to make. I broke this rule when I used quotations in this poem, inserting my own power over the voices of those I did not even speak to. Those words were never said outside of my head. If I appeal to my audience in my own voice on behalf of others, perhaps that could be done in a way that does not trample on their own words.

So this is my confession. I am still learning and always will be. But I hope the cracks in my foundation are being filled with good cement so that I can build and advocate in a way that reflects the people I’m trying to love. This is also my warning, a little piece of advice to myself and others: don’t let words like this slip in through the back door of your mind and out of your mouth or onto a page. Yes, speak for yourself. And speak with others and sometimes about their stories when appropriate. But do not speak for them. They are capable of that. And if they need a megaphone, maybe your role is just to hand it to them without saying a word.

 

Mochatern Monday 11.14.16 : Good Work

There are a lot of people rejoicing today and a lot of people in pain. Two presidential candidates were up for election; the result was, for many, an unexpected one. Many rejoice, many are in tears, and perhaps all are overwhelmingly disillusioned by a campaign season that was paved with hatred and discord. So while America can’t seem to agree on much, perhaps we can all agree on the importance of this question: is there a way for us to be less divided?img_6056

There are many things we may never agree on—and really, what a blessing to have the freedom to disagree. But I’m glad to be sitting at a desk at the Mocha Club office this morning, because it’s reminding me that there are so, so many things we can agree on. Orphan care is important; education is vital. Extending a hand to friends, both near and far, is beautiful. The way Mocha Club enables us to hear the stories and know the hearts of people in countries very far away: that’s special. There is work to be done, and we have the power to join in that work, with our attention, our volunteering, and our monthly donations, even the smallest of them.

Many of our friends in African countries do not have the luxury of peace amid changes in political power. For some of them, one-party governments often resemble dictatorships, elections come with rumors of rigging, and changes in power are accompanied by violence. No matter your views on last week’s results, let’s rejoice in a transfer of power that is peaceful, and let’s focus our energies on the good work still left for us to do.

 

Mochatern Monday 10.17.16 : Happy in the Midst of Horrible

painting

2016 has been a year of discouragement in so many ways. Between the refugee crisis, the primacy of terrorism in world affairs, and, here in America, a presidential race that is perhaps the most hate-filled and controversial that this country has ever seen, the news cycle is often filled with fear and confusion. News from Africa, especially, is often dominated by images of war, devastation, even hopelessness.

So today when I opened my computer and found some happy news, I immediately wanted to share it. The image above was painted by Leslie Lumeh, a Liberian artist. When the Ebola crisis hit West Africa two years ago, Lumeh was one of the artists called upon to help formulate posters to educate the public on how to protect themselves and prevent the spread of the disease. His posters went to multiple countries in West Africa, saving countless lives in the process. In addition, even after the crisis subsided, he continued to document life in Liberia, with colorful, winsome paintings like the one above.

Though Ebola-stricken Liberia was in many ways a fear-filled place, Lumeh’s art doesn’t just show that horror—it is also filled with hope. “I paint scenes and subjects that people can relate to,” he says. “You see it, you understand it, you know it, you feel it.”

Click here to read on, and to see more of Lumeh’s work: http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/20/africa/african-artist-who-helped-in-fight-against-ebola/index.html

Mochatern Monday 10.10.16 : The Day of Small Things

It’s the way the sunlight drapes itself over the tops of the bushes in front of the office. The way the little chipmunk just scurried by. It’s hidden in plain sight: the sun rose this morning, maybe when you weren’t looking at its brilliant artistic talent strewn across the sky.

Did you see it?

That brief moment where something happened? There it is again . . .

Writing 35 thank you cards this week to some generous Mocha Club donors reminded me of how important it is to be aware of these moments. The task consumed time and wasn’t the most brain stimulating exercise. But it was worth my time and focus. Why can I say that? First off, who doesn’t love receiving a hand addressed envelope in the mail? Maybe just getting a letter gave someone that happy feeling when they wonder what’s inside. (If you’ve never felt that feeling, you need to get a pen pal ASAP.) Hopefully the letter reminded them that they are appreciated – that what they do has a positive impact on the world. How lovely that I got to be a part of bringing that thought to someone’s mind!

Here’s the point of this little ramble: Celebrate “the day of small things.” (Hint: that’s every day.) Some days just don’t feel fun or exciting or joyful or enjoyable. I get it; I live this human life, too. But muster the courage to find a window, look out, and consider whether there is something there worth noticing. Whether it’s your friend down the street, raindrops on the windowpane, or the tree branches dancing in the wind, there is something to inspire gratitude. And if your office or classroom doesn’t have a window, I’m sorry (I’ve been there too), but I’d bet that you can find something good in the article you’re reading, the décor in your officemate’s cubicle, or in the lines of the paper you’re writing for that college class.

Here at the Mocha Club, we’re all about everyday generosity. It starts with a small gift that gets transformed into food for an orphan, medicine for some who is sick, clean water, etc. Never believe the lie that a small gift of time, money, or energy cannot bring meaningful beauty into someone’s life. Here’s to the day of small things, to discovering joy in the mundane.

*For some inspiration, check out Alli Rogers’ song, “The Day of Small Things.

Mochatern Monday 10.03.16 : “Poverty Inc.”

What if our efforts to fight poverty have hurt more than they’ve helped? Do good intentions always equal good impact? What if we’re part of the problem?

Last Monday, my fellow intern, Kelly, wrote about the importance of working with—not for—the poor. Dignity is more effective than pity; the poor need a seat at the table, not a handout. Unfortunately, the poverty industry as we know it has far too often maintained the us vs. them mentality. Donations of money, food, clothing, and much more pour in; while this can be a boon for people in poverty in the short term, this variety of long-term aid can leave economies, local business owners, and individuals worse than it found them.

That’s all a little confusing, though, isn’t it? Phrases like “the poverty industry” can make us want to run far away from any such discussions. What does all of this really mean, anyway?

There are two things that have been most helpful to me in learning about poverty and how we should (and should not) address it. First is the documentary Poverty, Inc. I saw this film for the first time last year, and I haven’t stopped talking about it since. In a mere 90 minutes, Poverty, Inc. introduces viewers to stories of success and failure in poverty alleviation, explanations of why the system works the way it does, and solutions for forward movement. I can’t recommend it highly enough—get yourself on over to Netflix, Amazon, or iTunes, and watch it.

The second thing that’s been helpful to me is getting involved with organizations such as Mocha Club. The reason I applied to this internship at all is that, after getting to know Mocha Club last spring when I helped organize a showing of Poverty, Inc. on my college campus, I was impressed by the candid, honest way that Mocha Club seeks to help those in poverty in Africa and connect them to people here in America. Mocha Club wants to work with people in poverty; they help us break down the notion that poverty alleviation is a simple idea, and Mocha Club seeks to do this work in a humble manner that listens first to community members and workers already on the ground.

So what does all this mean for you? Go watch Poverty, Inc. Ask good questions. Find winsome, honest nonprofits like Mocha Club to support. (Go back to Kelly’s post from last week, and read the book she mentions, When Helping Hurts!) Poverty alleviation and relief isn’t impossible—it’s just not simple. But it can start with people like us taking steps to effect a cultural paradigm shift in the way we talk about the poor. It starts right here.

Mochatern Monday 09.26.16 : Work with, not for, the people you aid.

“When one is poor, she has no say in public, she feels inferior. She has no food, so there is famine in her house; no clothing, and no progress in her family.”

Although our media-driven culture constantly places shocking images or words in front of us, this quote from a man or woman in Uganda emphasizes aspects of poverty that often merit less attention in North America. I am familiar with the need for food and clothing among people living in poverty, but hear less about what it is like to experience feelings of inferiority and being voiceless. What can we do so that this person has access to food and clothing as well as a sense of being heard in her community?

When Helping Hurts, the book where I found the above quote, strives to help North Americans answer this question, and its underlying questions, well. Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, the authors of this book, taught me an invaluable lesson about perspective. The quote at the beginning of this post does mention physical needs, but it, along with many others that Fikkert and Corbett use, demonstrate that when asked about what poverty is, many of the poor talk about psychological and social issues. In other words, poverty is deeper than its physical manifestations. However, when asked about the same topic, North Americans often refer to having less material things. Fikkert and Corbett go on to talk about how this lack of continuity in thinking damages the ability of wealthier North Americans to truly help those living in poverty. The authors emphasize the need for healing in relationships in order to bring about restoration and poverty alleviation.

Additionally, North Americans often perceive the poor as inferior. This can result in working for the poor instead of with them. They advise, “Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.” The authors teach readers to combat this mentality of working “for” instead of “with” by using tools like asset-based community development. When beginning an aid project, a group often does a needs assessment, which essentially asks, “What is wrong?” Instead, an asset-based community development model asks, “What is right?” In other words, this method starts by asking what is good in a community that can be used to help solve whatever problems they currently face.

When I think about what I learned over the past month by interning at Mocha Club, the most important thing that comes to mind links perfectly to what I’ve learned from When Helping Hurts: Work with, not for, the people you aid. I love that the staff constantly communicates with African leaders about how to run the programs currently operating in multiple African countries. We partner with them to help their visions succeed. I think we’re part of helping, not hurting, this world, and I’m thankful to watch and participate in this work.

Mochatern Monday 09.19.16 : What is Africa like?

Whenever you travel or experience something new and different, your return home comes with the inevitable onslaught of questions. Boil all those questions down, and everyone is asking essentially the same thing: What was it like? What did life look like there?

This gets at a desire that many of us, especially here at Mocha Club, share: to experience the lives of people who are different from us. What is Africa like? We want to know.

What do you do on a Tuesday morning in urban Kenya? What does Friday night look like in rural Malawi? Is it immensely different from life in America? Is it similar? Whenever it’s me on the receiving end of questions like these, I fumble around for answers, remember we all like showing more than telling, and then stick my iPhone in front of my listeners. This is what driving down the road on a Saturday afternoon in rural Uganda looks like. Cows being herded down the highway. Driving on the left side instead of the right, with innumerable speed bumps when you’re passing through every village. That’s not a baby you hear crying at 0:11 seconds—it’s a goat bleating. Those are the Rwenzori mountains in the distance; you’re heading east. It looks like rain. Of course, this is only a tiny moment—one minute and one second, to be exact. But moments like this can be invaluable to us. We get to step out of our own selves and be someone else for that minute. And when we go back to our own selves, the ones holding a phone or sitting in front of a computer in the United States of America, we find that Africa isn’t so far away after all.

Mochatern Monday 09.12.16: “Sit, sit and watch for a bit. Listen, listen a while before you speak.”

This summer, I went to a faraway place. The dirt covers your feet there, the mountains loom large and the children shout “mzungu!” (white person) as you pass. I went to Bundibugyo, a small town in rural western Uganda, and it did not leave me where it found me.

While in Bundibugyo, I learned to say about forty words in Lubwisi, the local language. I learned to say hello, goodbye, and thank you. I could say chicken, cow, and goat. I was a far cry from any sort of real conversation. I learned to buy chapati (a tortilla-flatbread-pancake sort of thing) from the lady chapati maker on the corner, though I too often forgot to greet her before placing my order. I learned my way around the market, through stalls of cabbage, tomatoes, fish, beans, and rice, always struggling to figure out how Ugandan shillings worked in my American-dollar brain. Though I was welcomed and loved by both the community I lived in and the organization I joined, as I drove eastward to the Entebbe airport on my way out of the country in late July, I knew I’d barely scraped the surface.

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 1.35.09 PM

 

I think this gets at one of the biggest things I realized, in those weeks in Uganda: the immense length of time it would take to really become a part of the community. You can’t simply pop over the Rwenzori Mountains from Fort Portal and start enchanting all the locals with your enthusiasm, your willingness to help, or your care for children or elderly people or pregnant women. No, it takes a bit more than that. Because even if you’ve got the Lubwisi down, you’ve got an accent too; and do you really know the culture yet? Do you know why western Uganda is the way it is? Do you fully appreciate all the nuances of life there? And let’s not forget you’re a Mzungu, a white person from a place very far away. Sit, sit and watch for a bit. Listen, listen a while before you speak.

This lesson is one that has served me well, even after returning to America, and into my internship here at Mocha Club. Much of the work that Mocha Club supports is done in places like Bundibugyo, places where joy and brokenness and sorrow and gladness live side by side. The Home Again Children’s Home, for instance, a ministry supported by Mocha Club that provides a home for over 70 children, is in Kaihura, Ugandaa town I drove right through on my journey back to America. These are places with need, but they are not places devoid of of histories, of traditions, of language, or of people who love them. The joy for us comes when we listen, when we wait, and when we join in the work that is already being done.

That’s the real privilege, isn’t it? Even here in the States, somewhere around 8,000 miles from a place like East Africa, we who are a part of the Mocha Club get to join in this work. We get to go to shows, contribute a few dollars a month, see photos, and hear stories of the work already begunwith, not for or around or in spite of, the people in places like Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda. We join in. And maybe that’s all way more humbling than we expectedbut oh, see how much better it all is, and watch how much we learn.