One of the best short-term trip resources out there

Ok, so if you’ve read this at all, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of the book “When Helping Hurts” because it explains a lot of the problems we Christians have when it comes to helping people. We think our good intentions are enough… but the sad truth is sometimes even the best intentions can still cause harm to the people we are trying to help (and to ourselves). One of my roles is to prepare short-term teams who come out to help with iThemba, and I am SO excited because I am hopefully going to be able to do some training with our local church here in Hilton, South Africa, about some of this stuff.

But sometimes you just can’t read a book. Sometimes, you want someone to just tell it to you. I understand. Enter THE BEST 20 MINUTE VIDEO ON SHORT-TERM MISSIONS AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT TO HIT THE INTERWEBS! 

To watch it, go here:

Why I love it:

1. The first part succinctly sums up some of the unasked questions we really should be asking about short-term trips: How are we framing these trips to ourselves and others? Are they really helping? Is it ethical to take a trip for 2 weeks that could pay the salary of 7 local people? We don’t have to stop short-term trips, or feel guilty about them, but how can we fit them into a long-term impact model?

2. Then there is an awesome 3 minute info-graphic explaining how to define poverty. (Hint, it’s not about money, it’s about broken relationships).

3. The second part unpacks a Christian view of poverty as broken relationships, and talks about how we need to make sure our “helping” is really addressing problems and not creating dependency or feeding into a “god-complex” that helpers sometimes get.

If you’re working at a church, if you’re on a missions committee, if you’re remotely interested in poverty and want to help, if you’re going on a short-term trip, or have ever been on one… take 20 minutes and watch this. And if your’e super fired up, you can buy the book (Helping without Hurting in short-term missions) and gain access to ALL the video sessions.

Sometimes things are so good, you can’t just keep them to yourself.



I have given my share of construction paper book marks and home-made cards in my life. I always loved making them. Looking back, I’m not sure how much my relatives liked recieving them (aside from the fact that they loved me and thought I was cute).

I love gifts. I love that flutter of excitement right before I open a gift and discover what it is. Even more, I love that flutter of excitement right before someone opens a gift that I have thoughtfully picked out for them. When you give someone a gift, you’re exposing a little bit of yourself–what if your gift is rejected? What if they don’t like it? 

Something I’ve learned since working with iThemba is that many non-profits have to walk a thin line between encouraging people to give (yay! That’s how we stay in business) but also discouraging people from giving. Because sometimes gifts aren’t actually helpful.

It’s one thing if your great-great-grandmother gives you an old sweater of hers that you think is ugly– you can stick it in the back of the closet and forget about it (after you write your thank you note). She meant well. You love her. But you know you just can’t wear that sweater in public without breaking lots of social norms.

But it’s quite another thing if someone shows up on the doorstep of your non-profit with a truck-load of old stuffed animals (or shoes, or tinned food) for children in Sweetwaters. You actually don’t have space to hide them in a back closet, and you can’t really forget about it after writing a thank you note.

Here’s why: As a development organization, iThemba is doing all they can to empower people to make use of the resources they already posses. So if someone in Sweetwaters is able to get food through a government grant programme, or growing a garden, we want them to use that, rather than us. If someone can get government health-care from the clinic for eye-glasses, or cough mixture, or immunizations– we want them to use that. It’s part of reminding people of their dignity, their God-given worth– they don’t have to sit around waiting for some white person to come and help, they can go out and make use of what is already there.

That’s not to say there is not a place for relief work– there is! There are situations in Sweetwaters where a family has no income, people are starving, and they need food and medical assistance. We want to show mercy in those cases, and sometimes we help, or we recommend another group we know that deals with relief. But at the same time– if we always step in to save the day, what if we are over-running local efforts to show mercy? What if we weren’t here? Would people really starve? Or would they share more, help each other more? I don’t know. It’s something to think about.

The other problem is (in the case of a truck-load of old stuffed animals) when we do give things, we want to honor the dignity of people in Sweetwaters by giving them things  we would be proud to give to any of our own friends. Sometimes a used stuffed animal is okay– I own a few I’d be proud to give away– but there are definitely some in the mix that are pretty nasty. And for some reason, it seems that the nasty ones are usually the ones that end up in the “donate to Sweetwaters” truck. There is, in fact an entire competition in the NGO world called “SWEDOW awards” (stuff we don’t want) for well-intentioned but very horrible ideas people think of giving to the majority world.

So then what should people do with all their old stuff if not give it to Sweetwaters? Well. Maybe people shouldn’t have so much stuff in the first place. What if instead of buying new clothes every season (or new stuffed animals) you wore the same clothes until they were uwearable, and then you used them to make tons of crafts that you sold on pinterest and gave the money so more discipleship fieldworkers could mentor others in Sweetwaters?  Or you could recycle your stuffed animals into a cushion. (Basically I just googled searched “how do I recycle _____” and there were a million ideas.)

But let’s go back to the flutter of excitement when you give someone a gift. That’s the part that’s so tricky. How do you honor and appreciate people who are giving, even if you know their gift isn’t that helpful (and may be harmful)? Because, like your great-great-grandmother (or, me, when I was five and made hand-made construction paper gifts for everyone that I was convinced looked “store-bought”),the people giving are doing something right:

They are thinking of others. 

They are sharing. 

They are trying to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Sometimes the gift may have come at a huge sacrifice.

We do not want to squelch people’s hearts of compassion and mercy in our desire to discourage dependency in Sweetwaters. But we also don’t want people to give stuff we don’t need, and stuff that maybe the people in Sweetwaters don’t need either.

 What thoughts do you have?

Saving Drowning Babies

The iThemba staff who attended the lectures given by Francis Njoroge.

One day a missions worker in Africa went down to the river to bathe. While she was there in the water, she heard a cry and discovered a baby, floating in the water, just barely alive. She quickly grabbed the baby, and brought it to the edge of the river bank and gave it CPR. The baby coughed and spluttered out some water, and lived. The next day at the river the mission’s worker discovered yet another baby drowning. Quickly, she jumped in and saved its life. She soon discovered this was a common problem, in fact, each day, there were about 3 babies drowning in the river, and the number was steadily increasing. She mobilized her overseas funders to come help set up a “Save the Baby” operation. Soon, there were trained workers who could rescue the drowning babies, (which were increasing every day). There were T-shirts, facebook pages, and photos of the desperate babies floating in the river plastered all over the internet. Her “Save the Baby” operation really started to take off.

Here, Francis Njoroge, the international development consultant from Kenya who was leading this class on development work, paused. He looked around at the class of 45 American college students from Azusa Pacific University, and at the row of iThemba staff who were attending the lectures sitting in the back.

“This is what we do, right?” he continued. “We see a desperate need, and our hearts are moved, and we jump right in to save the people in the situation. It is easy to get people excited about relief work. People like to know they are giving out food to hungry people, they are saving lives of children, they are building orphanages–people like to give things. And the people you are helping love you. You get to be a celebrity, people leave the food donation center singing. But, do we stop to ask ourselves: Why? Why are all the babies in the river in the first place? We can pour our money into relief work, but unless we get at the root causes of things, we are not really helping, are we? And unless we are empowering other people to use their God-given resources and abilities, rather than depending on the West, we are making the problem worse. If the “Save the Baby” operation runs out of money, will anything be different in that community than before they were there?
But, if the missions worker had taken the time to walk to the top of the river, and discover the reason why all the babies were in the river, and spent her time and effort helping the people to change that situation, then real change would have occurred. Even though, while she walked to the top of the river, there may have been some babies that were not saved. And that is a difficult, difficult truth.”

Francis Njoroge has worked with World Vision, Tear Fund, and other Development organizations all throughout Africa–mostly in Central and East Africa. He comes every semester to South Africa to teach the Community Engagement course for the APU students who are studying abroad here. iThemba is now working with 6 of the APU students for the next three weeks. (Which is another way of saying I get to hang out with the APU students for the next 3 weeks! :D) It is great getting to work with a group of college students that come into iThemba’s work with such a great foundation.

I learned a lot from Francis’ lectures. He was full of inspiring stories– about groups in Sudan who are self-sustaining and don’t need the relief food sent to them because they are working together as a community. Of a group in Kenya that had a dream to own their own land, and met and prayed and worked for 5 years on Tuesdays until it happened. About Christians in Sudan following Jesus’ example and meeting with the Muslims in their area to work together on developing their community. Stories that are all about people discovering their God-given gifts and becoming motivated to use them, rather than expecting the West to step in. We all have a long way to go when it comes to putting these principles into practice. But praise God that even we can have our attitudes and mindsets changed.

  • Praise God for a great 3 days of lectures with the new iThemba staff, and for our great group of APU students.
  • Pray for these students as they engage with the community– working in a creche, helping at the community center site, and leading Life Group Bible studies. Pray that they will learn, grow, encourage others, and be open to listening to God’s voice.
  • Pray for iThemba teens camp (Dec 12-14th). Pray that we will find a good speaker, and that the 50 teens who need sponsorship will be sponsored.


Planting for the Future

The trees waiting to be planted at the community center.

“We need oxygen to stay alive,” said the teacher. “And trees give us…” “Oxygen!” the children shouted back. “If you cut down a tree, you are cutting down your life,” the teacher continued. Welcome to an iThemba Life Skills class during Arbor Week celebrations!

iThemba partners with various schools in the area to teach Life Skills: a required subject in South Africa that covers topics from how to get a drivers license and the importance of hygiene to more serious topics like how to deal with HIV/AIDS, rape, or incest. iThemba has permission to come and teach these classes–from a Christian worldview–and it is an amazing privilege for the discipleship workers to get to know these kids and follow up on what is going on in their lives.

Children at Nobanda school stand proud after planting their tree.

This week was National Arbor Week, South Africa’s celebration of indigenous trees and plants. Through a local businessman and our permaculture gardening initiative, iThemba was donated indigenous trees for all the different schools where we do Life Skills. The iThemba Gardening team came in to do a special lecture on the importance of sustainability in the Life Skills classes, then the kids got into groups and planted trees on their school property. Even though it was a cold, very muddy, very wet week, the tree plantings took place!

This is very exciting, because even though some people have a romanticized idea that everyone in Africa lives “at one” with nature, the fact is most people here (like in the US!) live with a very short-term view of things. Thus, there is lots of de-forestation due to  cattle farming and firewood. Grass is burnt during the winter because it makes it grow back faster in spring–but it also gives off lots of pollution.

In the Life Skills classes, the iThemba staff talked about the need to throw away rubbish, and even recycle, rather than just burning the rubbish. However, the area of Mpumuza is in an interesting position–because it is technically owned by the chief, the municipality does not come and collect the rubbish in the same way they do for the town of Hilton. There is a lot of bureaucracy and miscommunication between the two governing authorities, and many times the rubbish is not collected at all! It made me realize I take it for granted that in Hilton I have easy access to recycling, and sometimes I don’t even take the time to do it.

Me and my little indigenous tree!

The week ended with an a celebration at the site of iThemba’s community center on Arbor day. Right now there are only foundations at the site, but all the iThemba staff, along with the construction workers from the site, planted an indigenous tree along the boarder of the property, and drank hot chocolate under a shelter on the site!

Hot chocolate after planting our trees.

 When Helping Hurts (by Corbett and Fikkert) points out that poverty is not just financial–it is emotional, spiritual and intellectual. This week I was reminded that it is a symptom of poverty to only see the short-term and live in the immediate, grabbing for ourselves whatever resources are closest, rather than seeing the long term effects of our actions. We in the US are just as impoverished as our South African neighbors when it comes to how we steward the environment God has entrusted to us.

The pile of muddy shoes at the office when we returned from the community center–the red clay at the site is pretty sticky!

  • Pray that the people of Mpumuza would be able to find a solution for how to safely and cleanly dispose of their rubbish, and that people would take pride in their community.
  • Pray that we all (South Africans and the US) would be able to take a long-term view of things—that we would see the consequences of our actions in everyday life, and we would not take for granted the resources we have been entrusted with.
  • Praise God for providing us with trees to plant!
  • Praise God that David’s South African Qualifications Certificate arrived! He has several follow up meetings with teachers this week, and is presenting on how to use Geogebra, a maths education program, to a group of teachers this week.
  • Praise God for how well Justina (short-term volunteer from the UK) is fitting in, and for her amazing work teaching English in these schools.

(For more pictures, visit iThemba’s facebook page. Search for iThemba Projects.)