Meet John Nday: A 30-something community-development worker with the United Methodist Church OR from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo)- a tall, lean man with a quick smile and a gentle voice. Over the past two months, I've gotten to know John through our regular conversations en français (French is still the national language of the DR Congo, a living reminder of its colonial past) over dinner or in the field. I wanted to share some of his comments with you, hoping that learning more about one of the participants and his home context will make ARI a little more real to my readers at home. After all, ARI was created for the participants - you cannot really understand ARI and its mission without understanding the participants and their struggles.
Last year, John was selected by his employer, a Congolese branch of the United Methodist Committee on Relief called UMCOR-NGO, to participate in the ARI training program, an intensive nine-month course in sustainable, organic agricultural and in community development. UMCOR-NGO mostly works through micro-finance projects, providing funding and training for local, small-scale income-generation projects in villages throughout rural DR Congo. In all their projects, UMCOR-NGO development workers first meet with village representatives (or, if there is no preexisting representative group, ask that a village committee be formed) and ask them to decide, as a community, how to use the donated funds. UMCOR-NGO then provides basic training related to the project (practical training in agricultural skills or in sanitation techniques), with the goal of enabling the community members to independently manage the project once the UMCOR-NGO workers leave.
I asked John to identify some of the problems facing communities in his area. He described the chronic food and water shortages; the lack of health care or even basic sanitation facilities; the economic and psychological traumas caused by the civil wars that wracked Congo during the 1990s (many of the people who fled their homes almost 20 years ago are still afraid of going back - they now live in permanent-temporary communities in the countryside, "lacking almost everything"). But the biggest problem, according to John, "is poverty, because there are no factories, no industries around, so there are no job opportunities. For these people to survive, it's quite difficult. Most of the people are just farming. We have a lot of resources - we have a lot of land, we've got rivers and streams - but people still continue to suffer. The reason is a lack of knowledge, a lack of knowledge in agricultural skills. We set up projects to empower these people by teaching them agricultural skills." As a project manager, John specialized in agricultural projects that distributed seeds, tools, and food-processing equipment to struggling rural communities. He also led training sessions, giving demonstrations of different agricultural skills (from transplanting to plowing) and teaching communities how to process and sell the foods they produced (sunflower oil seems to be a particularly successful endeavor). Please see UMCOR's website for more details about their work in DR Congo.
Before coming to ARI, John had already studied agriculture at a university in Zimbabwe, but he said that the university program "trained us to become workers in big agricultural companies, maybe companies using chemicals. We cannot apply [that knowledge] to our small communities - where will they find the money to buy chemicals?" So in March, John left his wife and two infant sons in the DR Congo to travel to Japan for the ARI training course, which teaches the theory and practice of sustainable, organic farming. John says that he already finds finds the ARI training must more suited to local conditions than his university studies. "ARI training teaches us to do organic farming using local resources - using bokashi [organic fertilizer] or compost, things you can make." The focus of the training course is not on teaching specific technical skills, but on "teaching us how to think," as another participant said, so that participants can more effectively use their community resources - the people and materials available locally - rather than relying on imported products or imported solutions.
My conservations with John reminded me of an interesting article I read in this past April's National Geographic about water scarcity in northern Kenya. The article described the failed attempts of many-an-NGO to provide the villages of rural Kenya with reliable access to clean water:
"The villages of Konso [in northern Kenya] are littered with the ghosts of water projects past. In Konsos around the developing world, the biggest problem with water schemes is that about half of them fall into disrepair soon after the groups that built them move on. Sometimes technology is used that can't be repaired locally, or spare parts are available only in the capital... The 2007 survey of Konso found that only nine projects out of 35 built were functioning."But the article gave cause for hope, saying that some international aid groups are starting to change the way they implement development projects. "The real innovation," according to the article, "is [to treat] technology as only part of the solution. Just as important is involving the local community in designing, building, and maintaining new projects." ARI was built on the belief that sustainable social change, whether in Kenya or the Philippines or in Japan, must come through local community action rather than imported fixes. John's organization in DRC, UMCOR-NGO, operates on the same principles. Watching this class of participants learn and grow as leaders, I find hope for this world in the belief that they will go back and inspire their communities to develop in ways that are sustainable and appropriate to their local contexts.