Category Archives: Posts from the Group

These are thoughts and ideas that arise from our meetings.

When Helping Hurts; Insights to Consider

A Review of the book When Helping Hurts

By Kent Hotaling

This book, written by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, gives insight into our efforts to help meet physical needs in Africa.  Reading it I kept thinking, “Oh, so that’s why that did (or did not) prove helpful to our African Friends.  Probably the best way to encourage you to read this work for yourself is to tantalize you with several insights from the authors. Kent Hotaling

                “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.  North Americans tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc.  This mismatch between many outsiders’ perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences for poverty-alleviation efforts.” 53

                “We are not bringing Christ to poor communities.  He has been active in these communities since the creation of the world, sustaining them by his powerful word.  Hence a significant part of working in poor communities involves discovering and appreciating what God has been doing there for a long time?  This should give us a sense of humility and awe as we enter poor communities.” 60

                “Shame – a poverty of being – is a major part of the brokenness that low income people experience in their relationship with themselves.  At the same time the economically rich also suffer from a poverty of being.  They often have ‘god-complexes’, a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves.  Until we embrace our mutual brokenness our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” 64, 65

           “Poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God

by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.  The goal is not to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse and mental illness.  The goal is to restore people to a

full expression of humanness, to being what God created us all to be.” 78

“Defining poverty alleviation as the reconciliation of relationships shapes the methods our churches

 or ministries should use to achieve that goal.  Our perspective should be less about how we are going to fix the materially poor and more about how we can walk together, asking God to fix both of us.” 79

 “A first step in thinking about working with the poor in any context is to discern whether the situation calls for relief, rehabilitation, or development.  In fact, the failure to distinguish among these situations is one of the most common reasons that poverty-alleviation efforts often do harm.” 104

 “Relief needs to be immediate and in order to provide timely relief, it is important to engage in disaster preparedness. Relief is also temporary, provided only during the time that people are unable to help themselves.  Unfortunately, determining when to stop relief is never easy.” 110

“Once relief efforts have stopped the bleeding, it is time to move quickly into rehabilitation, working with, not for, people to help them return to the positive elements of their precrisis conditions. 110

 “Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.  Memorize this; recite it under your breath all day long.  Every time you are engaged in poverty alleviation keep this at the forefront of your mind for it can keep you from doing all sorts of harm.” 115

Development experts have discovered the benefits of using ‘asset based community development’ because it is consistent with the perspective that God has blessed every individual and community with a host of gifts, including such diverse things as land, social networks, knowledge, animals, savings, intelligence, schools, creativity, production equipment, etc.  The very nature of the question, “What gifts do you have?” affirms people’s dignity and contributes to the process of overcoming their poverty of being.  And as they tell us of their gifts and abilities, we can start to see them as God does.” 126

“Very few Short Term Mission trips are done in situations in which relief is the appropriate intervention.  Most of the time they go to communities experiencing chronic problems that need long-term development.  Unfortunately, they rarely diagnose the situation and pursue a relief approach which does more harm than good.”  166

Suggestions on ways to improve the missions

                “Make sure the host organization receiving the team understands the nature of poverty and practices the basic principles of appropriate poverty alleviation.  Design the trip to be about ‘being’ and ‘learning’ as much as about ‘doing’.  Stay in community members’ homes and create time to talk and to interact with them.  Ask local believers to share their insights with team members about who God is and how He works in their lives; have team members share the weaknesses in their own lives and churches, and have the local believers pray for them.  Ensure that the ‘doing’ portion of the trip avoids paternalism.  Do not do for people what they can do for themselves.  The goal is for the work to be done primarily by the community members with the team in a helping role.  Keep the number of team members small.  This will promote more learning and interaction with the host environment and will lessen the damage from Elephant’s foot!” 175


Power Pressure

Americans exert power, whether we realize it or not.  Church members go on mission trips to  visit the poor, with a wide open heart to help and give.  I believe that in the process, we unknowingly pressure the people of other cultures with our power.  Jesus was most critical of the powerful, and most merciful to the weak.  Let us examine our approach to helping the poor, and learn to love without applying power pressure.

We have difficulty sensing our power pressure, because we have never lived in a community of severe insecurity.  We have options. We have money to complete a project, or we can figure out where to get it.  We can get a job and rent an apartment.  We feel confident to speak openly.  We criticize with impunity.  We believe in the American dream, where any idea is free to grow.

Our natural self confidence causes us to advocate ideas, to ask direct questions, to take action to provide a solution, such as donating money to complete a critical project.  All of these behaviors feel intuitive to us, and don’t feel the least bit inappropriate.

We have never endured great loss from speaking openly.  We’ve never lost a loved one for not complying.  We’ve never coped with a total lack of options.  We are not self-aware, that we naturally speak and act from a position of personal security and power, and that much of the rest of the world does not.  Other cultures that have suffered under ruthless political regimes, war and extreme poverty, relate from histories of insecurity, and that’s an entirely different paradigm.

After ten years of engaging in African-Western relationships, I am starting to feel great respect for my African brothers and sisters who have learned deeper personal skills of flexibility than me.   They know how to patiently endure power, how to humbly and respectfully go with the flow. They know how to give up for the sake of peace, or win by waiting.  They cope with a lack of options and money.  I have no idea how to do that. 

I speak my mind, and make my case to defend my plans, because I can.  My peers respect me for it.  American culture is a mutual power exerting culture, whereas many other cultures are mutual submissive cultures; a patient wait and see approach.  It’s critical for us to realize that our natural first response is to step forward, whereas in many other cultures, a first natural response is to yield and step back.  We need to realize this difference, so that we don’t incorrectly assume that people agree with us when in fact they don’t.

When I first travelled to Rwanda, all sorts of creative, helpful ideas bubbled up within me.  My solutions to extreme poverty ranged from very grandiose, like building a world class high school, to very small, such as donating chickens to our orphanage home.  My ideas met with enthusiastic affirmation, and I started to believe that I possessed exceptional creativity and even entrepreneurial genius.  Rwanda felt like a magical land where every idea has merit.   But as my projects unfolded, I started to see glimpses that some of my ideas were not that culturally appropriate or actually wanted.  The chicken coop only got half built, and the money invested was lost.  Other projects led to even greater painful results.

My helpful ideas met with initial agreement but not actual consensus. My friends yielded to me out of respect for my position as a visitor and person of wealth.  There is a huge difference between consensus and yielding that is lost on most Westerners.  Lack of consensus will require a great cost to be paid on the back end of a project, and of a relationship.

Jesus’ love is radical.  Jesus’ love does not seek its own way.  How can I release my power pressure, and live in mutual submission with those of other cultures? How do I truly gain consensus?  To start, I will be willing to spend time, without seeking to bring an idea.  I will also let ideas take a very long time to percolate, and gain consensus before moving forward.  I may wait to be asked to help, instead of asking if I can help.   And I will look for opportunities to respectfully go with the flow.

Serena Morones

March 19, 2011

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Posted by on March 19, 2011 in Posts from the Group


The Myth of the Blank Canvas

Africa inspires me to feel unlimited hope for life change.  When I first met Rwandan orphans who had bright eyes, wide smiles showing perfect white teeth, and surprising plans for the future, I was jolted into a swirling dance of ideas, hope and action.  I’ve lived this energizing journey for more than ten years now.  It’s a thrilling but difficult place.  Along my journey, I’ve come to discover an odd behavior in myself, and others like me.  I call it the myth of the blank canvas. 

We look at the African orphan (or widow, or poor person) as a blank canvas, ready for us to splash brilliantly colored paint that will fill out the emptiness of their life.  By blank canvas, I mean we forget to imagine what or who came before us.  We don’t realize the values, priorities and relationships that constitute the deeply ingrained identity of the person we want to help.

In 2007, I had the good luck of meeting a group of business entrepreneurs at Bourbon Coffee in Kigali.  A friend connected me because he thought I would benefit from collaborating with ambitious American businessmen working in Rwanda.  I sat within the circle of dreamers and thinkers, all of whom had become successful and wealthy in America.  They talked of founding a high quality university in Kigali, with just the right educational programs that would fill the deficit of skills in Rwanda, as well as starting business enterprises to employ the students.  The plan was enormous, and sounded perfect in every way.  They expected their plan to be one of the most pivotal events in Rwanda’s development.  Then, in the midst of the euphoria, one of the guys said, “It’s so exciting to be here in this moment today.  I feel like I am eavesdropping, as the founding fathers discuss the plans that will establish the country.”

Founding fathers?  Who do we think we are?  At least one of these men saw Rwanda as a blank canvas, ready for their big splashes of paint, that would make everything beautiful.   I have come to see this is really how many of us westerners think.   Why do we disregard what is already?  When we want to help someone, why do we not honor and learn about the other relationships in that person’s life?  Is it because we see the past as being too broken to be significant? 

I’ve helped many Rwandans over the years, and looking back I can see that in early days, I did not adequately regard the identities of those I helped.  I viewed the youth of Rwanda as enormous opportunities for growth and life change, and thought they would be open to any idea I had for helping.  In fact, I believed so strongly in the wisdom of my own ideas, I declined to follow advice from older Rwandans.   Of course, pain resulted.

As time passed, I realized that my simplistic view was a myth, especially when I saw other Americans behaving as if nothing and no one had come before them.

My husband and I brought a group of Rwandan singers on music tours for three years in row.  As we toured around the West Coast, we noticed that host families seemed very intent on imparting their knowledge and interests onto the guys.  They treated the guys like molds ready to be imprinted.  One person gave a violin and insisted that the Rwandan youth learn it.  People gave them books, CDs, art, gadgets and hobby tools,  and insisted that they adopt it all.  The guys would hear all sorts of strong advice that was wholly  impractical for their situations. This pattern was ridiculously common to the extent that my husband and I joked about it.   But the jokes pricked me into awareness of my own self-absorbed perspective.   

One of the most emotional moments of realizing the myth came a few years back when I asked my friend Angie if she would open her home to host Eric, one of the young musicians I had helped for many years, to be able to attend school in America.   Angie had been to Rwanda and had started to think about adoption, so her heart was ready and open to welcome a Rwandan youth into her home.   Several months after Eric joined her family, Angie wrote a wonderful, heartfelt blog about her adoption of Eric, and what it meant to her to have Eric like a son in her family.  Angie is a great friend (and gave me permission to tell this story), but her blog struck me oddly and made me feel empty.  The blog made me feel as if Angie wasn’t considering  the long journey Eric had travelled to get to her home, or  the other families, including my own, who had sacrificed to bring him that far. 

When we don’t know what is already there, or who has come before, we are not learning the identity of the person we are trying to love.  We are loving our ideas of how to change a person, more than loving  the person. 

There was certainly nothing negative about Angie’s high commitment to parent Eric, just as there is nothing negative about our desires to help the poor, orphaned and widowed.  Angie and her family remain one of the most important, life giving relationships to Eric.   But this kind of parenting is very different, because while Eric is an orphan, he came to her home with a huge world of relationships, experiences and identity; a beautiful and complex picture.    The best outcome for Angie, me and others like us will come after a long time of patient listening and learning how to best fit into a complex story.

Many short-term mission and humanitarian projects fail.  I believe failure is partly due to the speed at which the idea came together.  We don’t take time to listen and learn how to best fit into what is  already there.  Jean Hatzfield, author of the “The Antelope Strategy,” translated the word Muzungu as “usurper.”  I felt shocked to read such strongly negative translation of the word for white person.  But as I reflect, I realize that it’s true that our ambitious world changing plans often  usurp what was already in process, either in one person’s life or in a community.   Wouldn’t it be better to weave our efforts to help into what already is in process, than to launch a whole new initiative?[1] 

Why do we try to make people into copies of ourselves, instead of first understanding the person we are trying to help?  I don’t think it’s because we are bad people.  I believe it’s because we all deeply yearn for significance.  We want to imprint our identity on needy people, because we want to feel valuable, smart and capable of changing the world.  But our desire for significance cannot be gratified by helping others.  Our need for significance will only be filled when we live in eternity in the presence of God.

By Serena Morones

February, 2011

[1] A major thesis of the book, When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, is that poverty alleviation projects should build upon the existing assets in a community.  Start with the strengths of a community and slowly build from there.  Bringing in outside technology and resources doesn’t have long term impact.


Posted by on February 14, 2011 in Posts from the Group


Welcome to Africajourney!

Africajourney will be a discussion site for people who want to share about their relationship journeys in Africa.

This site sprang up from a group of people in Portland, Oregon who are all somehow involved in various African countries.  We meet a couple times per year to share wisdom about our Africa journey, and talk and pray about how to find and deepen genuine “partnerships” or relationships.  We wrestle with the issues of cross-cultural relationships an we contfront our tendancies to want to quickly fix the “problems” in Africa.

We are followers of Jesus who seek to engage in long term committed relationships with our friends in Africa.

Welcome to our site, and we hope you find our posts helpful to your Africa journey.

Serena Morones

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Posted by on November 11, 2010 in Posts from the Group