Monday, April 14, 2014

Two steps forward, one step back

Kenya, like Ghana, is an interesting mix of progress and tradition.  Sometimes the progress you see is surprising.  Sometimes the traditional beliefs you see are surprising.

One example of amazing progress in Kenya is mobile money.  There have been 200 experiments with mobile money in the world and only four or five have been successful.  Kenya is one of them.  Kenya's system, called M-Pesa (pesa is money in Swahili) allows people to move money through their cell phones to pay loans, utility bills, send money to any other person who has a phone, and so on.  People "bank" their money with an M-Pesa dealer, and then use it when they need it.  Statistics tell us that 70% of the adult population in Kenya use M-Pesa and 25% of the GDP flows through this mobile money system!!!  There are 40,000 agents in Kenya working M-Pesa.  That is huge.  [In fact, we have a number of M-Pesa agents in our business programs.]

There are a couple of reasons why it succeeded in Kenya - in part because of low regulations by the government and also because of high fees in more formal sectors causing the demand for cheaper options.  Interestingly, the post-election violence in 2007 also caused for people to begin using this more and more as they tried to get money to family members.  Both Nigeria and India have tried to launch these networks but because of the regulations going through the banking industry instead of the phone industry, it has been much slower and more cumbersome.

Examples of its amazing helpfulness can be seen on a daily basis.  The other day I needed to hire someone to do something for me and he needed transport to bring him to Kitale, so I was able to send him money via the phone.  Another day I was driving somewhere and the passenger in the car asked me if I had money in my M-Pesa account.  She needed to send a payment for her business, had the cash in her hand to reimburse me, and I could send it to her person just by pressing a few keys.  Amazing.  And for those of us who deal with loans to help businesses grow, this technology makes things much easier.

In contrast to this amazing forward moving - forward thinking business development, we have an example of a tradition that makes the country feel much less developed.  The government recently passed a bill, which the president yet needs to sign, trying to bridge the gap between civil law (which allows a man to marry only one wife) and customary law (where multiple wives are allowed).  The new marriage law allows men to take as many wives as they want, but with the new provision that they no longer need to get prior approval from the first wife.  Apparently, the men complained, women weren't giving permission ( real shock there).  One male member of parliament is quoted as saying, "When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife… this is Africa."

To add insult to injury, plans to ban the payment of bride prices were struck down and women are only entitled to 30% of marital assets after death or divorce, provided she can prove that she contributed to the couple's wealth. 

Remarkable.  On the one hand, saying "Woo-hoo, Kenya!  Lead the world!"  On the other hand, hand over mouth, shaking my head, and lamenting for my Kenyan sisters.

Monday, April 7, 2014

My Brother's Keeper

Last week, I was driving back to the Africa Theological Seminary from the central business district of Kitale.  As I came around a bend in the road, I saw on my right a mass of people that had gathered.  It looked as if someone was being beaten.  People were running across the road to watch.  One man ran across the road and jumped right into the fray.  I looked to see if it was the result of an accident, as mob justice can sometimes kick in, but I didn't seen any evidence of an accident.

I felt sick.  Nauseated.  I wondered if I should stop.  I kept driving...

...Let me back up a bit.  One of my biggest fears of living in Africa is getting into a car accident.  I have heard horror stories of what has happened to expats who get into car accidents.  No matter who's fault it is, if you are an expat, it will be your fault.  And driving is a challenge with few traffic laws, pedestrians, bikers, motorbikes, cows, sheep, and goats all over the road. 

In Liberia, I bumped a pedestrian on a busy road with my side-view mirror, while going about 15 MPH.  A mob of sorts ensued. The police were right there.  They stood, watching, and as I found out later, hoping a fight would start so that they could fine and pocket the bribes.  Other times the police would say, "Call us when it's over and we will come and take a report - we aren't armed or equipped."

About two months ago, we were driving to Kakamega and came up on an accident that had just happened; it was a rural area.  A car had hit a motorcycle, which then hit two pedestrians.  The car fled, leaving three very bloody victims at the scene.  We took one injured person in the car with us and rushed to the hospital in the next town.  While there, the people who caused the accident showed up.  They acknowledged responsibility and said that they fled the scene because they were afraid of mob justice.  They watched from a distance, saw us pick up one of the victims and followed us to the hospital.

Back to the present...

As I continued driving, I was plagued with guilt.  Should I have stopped?  Could I have convinced anyone to stop the beating?  Could I have been able to make myself heard?  Would I have become a subject of attack as a white person, trying to interfere?  Should I go back?  I kept driving.  I began praying for the person. 

The next day, I heard that a man had been beaten in Kitale for stealing maize.  He had died during the night.

I felt sick again.  So very sick.  The man died. 

Martin Luther King Jr is quoted as saying, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Was this man's blood on my hands?

Another flashback to Liberia, and the many people who knocked on our gate, day and night, looking for help.  I remembered the one man who came for help because he was sick.  Our response was to recommend he go to the hospital as we were not doctors.  [This was after a stream of people and exhaustion on our part; we were grumpy that day and resentful of the requests.]  He died the next day.  We felt guilt for a long time after that.

I flashed back further to a time when I worked with severally emotionally impaired junior high students.  When they would get into a fight, I would often jump in the middle as I couldn't stand to see two people fighting.  I would get in trouble for this, as I was told that the emotional strain would be much higher if they hit their teacher than each other and that I should just stand by and watch.  

How do we decide when to get involved?  How do we decide when not to get involved?  I teach risk management - is there a percentage of risk that needs to be factored in?  If there was a fifty percent chance that I could have stopped that beating, should I have stopped?  What about ten percent?  How do we make decisions like this?

I thought about my kids and how they have already lost one parent.  I thought about Michael and our desire to spend many years together.  I imagined many people telling me I should not stop - that it would be unsafe for me.

I thought back to the number of times that people have told us not to do something that seemed illogical or unsafe at the time:
  • Don't move into the Madison-Hall area of Grand Rapids, where there is high crime and drugs...especially with two young children.
  • Don't move your children from Oakdale Christian to Jefferson Elementary Public, a school that is failing and slated for closing, where they will be the only white kids.
  • Don't lose your job at Calvin College over sending your kids to Jefferson - this is your livelihood, your career.
  • Don't move to post-war Liberia, where there is high crime and little rule of law....especially with your two children.
  • Don't stay in Africa after Bob's death.  Come home where you can be with family and friends and recover from your loss.
  • Don't move to Kenya by yourself.  Take a position in Grand Rapids.
  • Don't get remarried - it will threaten your ministry.
Hmmmm.  Apparently I'm not very good at listening to the advice of loved ones.

I am to love my neighbor as I love myself.  That means caring about his provision and protection.  I am my brother's keeper.

I don't know who that man was.  I don't know why he stole maize.  I do know that regardless of his sin, he did not receive justice that day.

As I processed this with Michael during the week, he reminded me though this is a horrible event, God has the final word.  God's justice and salvation story will have the final determination on this story, even as we don't know how that unfolded story looks.

And I can't assess ahead of time what to do in these situations when faced with danger.  I can only to do my best to love my neighbor and be his keeper one day at a time.  I know that part of loving my neighbor involves protecting myself for the sake of my children and Michael, as well as my work.

I will fail sometimes and sometimes I will get it right.  [In fact, as I wrote this post, I received an email from the US Embassy warning all Americans to stop travel to Kenya and those who reside in Kenya to assess their personal safety due to recent attacks from Al-Shabab.  I believe I am safe.  But if the attacks were to move closer to Kitale, at what point would I choose to leave?  Which neighbor do I choose to love in this case?]

I don't know if I failed in the instance of the man who stole maize.  But tomorrow I will try again.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Story...or rather...the Randomized Control Trial... of His Glory

Jeff Bloem has been working with the ICM Marketplace Ministry team as the research assistant in Kitale, Kenya since September of last year.  He will be with us until July of this year, after which he will return to the US and enter grad school in September.  I have worked with a number of interns over the years, all of whom have been unique in their own way.  Jeff, too, is unique and it has been a joy to work with him and get to know him.  Jeff lives and breathes economics.  Seriously.  All the time.  It's quite remarkable how much this guy reads and processes, and thinks and processes, and debates and processes, and processes and processes.  We almost never have a quiet car ride as we spend hours in the car each week driving from city to city to do this work.  It's been great fun and I've learned a lot from him. 

He wrote the article below about his reflections on his work here and it does a great job of defining the problem and explaining how our work is trying to address it.  Enjoy!
Mary's bakery is bustling. So much so, that Ushindi Snacks cannot keep up with the demand for it’s fresh baked goods. Her business has room to grow but seems trapped at its current level.

Mary (left) owner of Ushindi Snacks
Beatrice sells beans and grains by the cup. Her shop is small, consisting of seven or eight bags of beans and rice under a temporary structure of lopsided scraps of wood and plastic tarp. Her unnamed business doesn’t grow; she has sold her goods off of the same 4x6 table for the past eight years.

Edward manages a consulting and management business, aptly named Strategic Management Firm LTD. His business grows on a quarterly basis and his employees are encouraged and equipped to work creatively and productively.

These are just three of the sixty-three business owners who signed up for a basic business skills training organized by their church in Kakamega, an emerging city in Western Kenya. And here lies the inherent problem.

The problem is not that Mary has to turn down sales and profits on a daily basis. It is not that Beatrice’s tabletop business has been the same for the last eight years. It is not that Edward is perhaps one of only three business owners attending the training that may actually be realizing his or her gifts and expressing traits of entrepreneurship.

While those are all very real issues, they are tangential to the larger problem at hand. The problem is obvious, almost never understood, and until recently rarely acted upon. Mary, Beatrice, and Edward are all different from each other. Half of this seeming banal platitude goes without saying, while, unfortunately, the other half often goes unsaid.

This problem is only exacerbated by the all too clear fact that the other sixty-three business owners are all different from each other in the same way Mary, Beatrice, and Edward are different. 

Ushindi Snacks in full operations
They all have different desires, different needs, different skills, different knowledge, and different businesses. A singular story about one person from this training would be—depending on your purpose for reading the story, either: (a) interesting and entertaining, (b) informative but probably misleading, or (c) uninformative and completely useless.

Here’s the thing. Those tangential problems discussed above remain because the larger problem is rarely addressed. Over the past half century developed countries have spent about $6.5 Trillion to assist the developing world develop and grow. Most of this money has been guided by loose fitting macroeconomic trends, fun to read stories containing anecdotal evidence, and bleeding heart good intentions.

Invariably what happens is some of the loose fitting macroeconomic trends predict actual growth, some fun to read stories containing anecdotal evidence are true for whole populations, and some good intentions lead to beneficial outcomes.

The negative rub is recognized when experts have a hard time discerning what worked and what didn’t. Today we have experienced remarkable progress in terms of poverty reduction and development around the world, and very little knowledge as to why that progress actually occurred. Until recently, poverty eradication and development have been run like a business that doesn’t keep accounting records.

This is all changing. In recent years researchers have been making remarkable advancements to project evaluation. The major innovation: randomized controlled trials. The methodology is taken almost directly from the medical profession and drug testing.

Jeff interviewing Edward, gathering statistics before the project starts.
For example how do we know if giving textbooks away to schools in developing countries will help raise test scores and improve school attendance numbers? The logic checks out—free textbooks mean more students read, and more kids learn. There is undoubtedly a heart-warming story of a young student who, after receiving a free textbook, went on to become a doctor. But does reality align with the logic? Was the student who would later become a doctor simply an exceptional student? Beyond speculation, what was the actual impact of these free textbooks?

The way to test this is to identify double the number of schools the program has funds to support. Randomly select half of those schools to receive free textbooks, while leaving the other half with none. Then compare the test scores of these two groups of schools to see if the textbooks had any sort of recognizable impact.  [As it turns out, giving textbooks away for free doesn’t work—at least in Western Kenya, where this four-year study took place. (Read more about it here.)]

Randomized control trials provide great feedback for governments and organizations looking to solve any sort of social problem. The major roadblock is evaluations of this nature is that they are often expensive and always challenging to execute well. Studying human beings in real life is much more challenging than studying a medical drug in a controlled laboratory environment. Human behavior, achievement, and success are dependent on seemingly endless factors. The best randomized evaluations control for as many of these factors as possible, but to do this completely in a real world setting is extremely challenging. It is impossible to say, “Lets run 2008 over again and this time there is no global economic crisis.” 

Beatrice's cereal business
For the past six months and the next twelve months a randomized evaluation is occurring in Western Kenya on the impact of the International Christian Ministries (ICM) Marketplace Ministry on churches and business owners, utilizing the curriculum from Partners Worldwide. This business-training curriculum is used in many countries where Partners Worldwide operates. In all of these places an NGO or financial institution organizes the training. Earlier this year the question was raised: would the effects of this faith-based business-training be increased if it were presented in a church supported context? In short, what happens when we train business skills in a church with an affirming pastor and a supporting community of believers?

The results of the evaluation will not be complete until 2015, but initial effects seem to be intriguing. During a training session last week the question was asked, “how many priests or ministers are in this room?” One hand was raised; it was the actual pastor of the church. After a discussion on the Biblical foundation for work, a Godly perspective on wealth, and a missional understanding on God’s intentions for the tasks and responsibilities of His people from Monday through Saturday, the question was asked again. This time, with the understanding that their work in their businesses was just as spiritual as the church’s work on Sunday, everybody in the room raised their hand. Everybody identified themselves as a priest or minister in their own life and work.

The significance of this monumental attitudinal shift remains to be seen. Remember, this story is anecdotal; the facts, however true they may seem, may not necessarily be reliable. The most encouraging aspect of this whole story is that, in the face of their differences, Mary, Beatrice, Edward and all the other attendees of the class experienced something similar and behaved in a uniform manner. 

This is the kind of finding the final evaluation aims to discover, a uniform change across a diverse population. We will then know if training business people in a church works better than training them in a financial institution. We will begin to actually know what works and what doesn’t.  

The Bible tells the story of His glory. Part of the fulfillment of that story is being told through hundreds of stories in Western Kenya. It lacks charm and rhyme but this is a randomized control trial for His glory. 

Jeff Bloem is a Research Assistant working on this evaluation in partnership with International Christian Ministries and Partners Worldwide at the African Theological Seminary in Kitale, Kenya. Follow him on Twitter @JeffBloem or email him at 

Monday, March 24, 2014


I spent the last week in Nairobi, conducting a training of trainers for my former colleagues from Partners Worldwide.  It was a great joy to see old and dear friends from Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya, as well as develop some new relationships.  We worked long and hard all week to get through the material and then had some play time at the end of the week.  For the West Africans who are already doing the business training, this was a refresher with some additional new content; for the East African attendees the material was pretty new so they had the chance to learn the material afresh.  The goal is to get the African partnerships who are not yet doing training to start very soon, hopefully mentored by those who have done it for a while.  I was able to present the opportunity of bringing this work in and through the church and saw some potential synergy in this for an ongoing partnership between ICM and Partners Worldwide.  We'll see what God does with this!

My teaching schedule has been pretty nonstop since the beginning of March.  I have this next week without teaching, giving me the much needed opportunity to attend to a number of other important issues, and then I begin teaching another class on the 31st.  I'm thankful to God for the opportunities!

Enjoy some pictures of the week!
Not a great picture but two great people!  Allen Gweh, National Director of LEAD and Daniel Weetol from Liberia. Ever the comedian, Daniel kept us laughing all week.
The beautiful and talented Beatrice (left) from Hopeline Institute in Ghana.  This dedicated woman came to Kenya not only with her seven month old son, but also with her mother in tow so that she could attend classes and keep nursing her baby!
My dear friend, Fanny Atta-Peters, director of Hopeline Institute in Ghana.  We snuck away when we could to talk!  She is hoping to come to my wedding in June with her dear husband Dennis, my protective big brother!
Boadu, also from Ghana, also the entertainer in the group, as can be seen on the faces of Mary (Uganda) and Jackie (Grand Rapids).  We had some great debates together as a group and a lot of laughs.
The week ended with the "businesses" facing the "bank," both of whom took their jobs VERY seriously and did great jobs! 
Then off to have some fun.  Martin Mutuku scales the rock climbing wall with ease.
Two of my favorite people, Allen and Fanny, lounging on a Friday night.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Loss and Gain

March is a rough month - as it has been for the past four years.

March 20 is the day that Bob passed and this year marks the fourth anniversary.  There always seems to be a bit of a sense of disturbance in the atmosphere, if you will, when the calendar turns to March.
Bob's family, picture taken in 2005; Keith is in the front center.

To make things worse, this March started with processing the loss of Michael's father on February 27, and the loss of my father-in-law, Keith Mosher, on March 4. Both funerals took place on March 8, a mere 650 kilometers apart.  While I mourned not being able to be with my loved ones during a time of grief - both to comfort and to be comforted - I also recognized that even if I had been in North America, there is no way I could have been at both services.  I also knew that these type of events would happen.  It is a given when you live overseas that you wonder who will die in your absence.  We have been very blessed that since 2005 there have not been many family deaths. 

But logistics aside, losing loved ones is always significant and causes a lot of nostalgia and reflection. As I watched family videos on my computer during the funerals, while being so far away, I contemplated both loss and gain.  I contemplated the brevity of life and how quickly it changes.  I reflected on my life and remembered a poem that I had read some time back by Longfellow:  

Loss And Gain
Hannah and Noah with their Grandpa and Grandma.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When I compare
What I have lost with what I have gained,
What I have missed with what attained,
Little room do I find for pride.

I am aware
How many days have been idly spent;
How like an arrow the good intent
Has fallen short or been turned aside.

But who shall dare
To measure loss and gain in this wise?
Defeat may be victory in disguise;
The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.

Said of this poem:  "The life of beloved poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is proof that good can come from sorrow and difficulty. He received great honors for his many successes, but—like all of us—he also knew his share of heartbreak and grief, including the tragic death of his wife. From the losses he suffered, however, Longfellow gained insight and strength that found voice in his poems. Longfellow's poetry lives on today not only for its rhyme and rhythm but because it expresses courage and optimism, even in the face of disappointment.  In his poem "Loss and Gain" Longfellow writes of regret, of longing, of the wisdom born of humility, and of the hope that can come when we have faith in the future."

Who shall dare to measure loss and gain in this wise?  Indeed.  Wise words.
Bob's mom and step-dad, Lucille and Keith, married 44 years.  While not Bob's biological father, Keith was a loving grandfather to Hannah and Noah, and I know he loved me very much as well.  
 So in memory of Bob, for those of you who knew him well and miss him too, let's play a little game called, "What's he saying."  Bob was very expressive...very, very expressive...and you could interpret a lot from his facial expressions.  So, looking at the pictures below, guess what he is saying:

#1:  Location:  Ghana.  This first one is easy.
#2:  Context:  We are in a hospital in Milan, Italy (Bob is the patient) and they just brought in the hospital food.  What does the look on his face mean?
#3  Context - Liberia:  A nightly ritual of helping children get jiggers out of their toes.  Bob has a needle in his hands and those are Enoch's feet.  What is he saying to him?

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Word from a Student

I am in the middle of another training of trainers for the Marketplace Ministry - we completed session one in February and are now in the middle of session two.  Session one focused predominantly on the theological foundation of Business as Mission (BAM); Session two focuses on basic business principles and how to teach the class.  There are fifteen students in Session 2 - twelve pastors from various parts of Kenya (four from ATS who were not in Session One as they had already taken the BAM class), one businesswoman who is a leader in her church in Kitale, and two NGO workers from Tanzania.

Session one started as one of my more challenging classes, with the pastors arguing more vigorously that we must be so careful in introducing business as mission to the church - that business as has been responsible for many bad thing in the world, from the creation of guns, to nuclear weapons, to cloning.  [These are pastors coming from more remote areas who have had varying degrees of theological training.] There was definitely a fear that this could be a slippery slope if we begin to affirm the call to business in the church.  I spent a couple of days on my toes, ready to cope with an argument at any time and found myself quite weary in the evenings.  As I pondered their reaction, I remembered that this is EXACTLY what I am here to do - to counter this belief with biblical support - to win the pastors to the understanding that business can be a calling so that they can affirm and support the majority of their members in their work. 

It reminded me of a quote that I use in my class from author Wayne Grudem, in Business As Mission:
“Who can enjoy being an evil materialist who works with evil money to earn evil profits by exploiting laborers and producing material goods that feed people’s evil greed and enhance their evil pride and sustain their evil inequality of possessions and feed their evil competitiveness?”
I imagine what the members of the collective churches had heard from their pastors about their work, and how that attitude serves to further the split between the "sacred" and the "secular."  Imagine what happens to a person who works in the manner as described above, viewed this way by many and eventually viewing themselves that way.  Imagine what happens to ethics and self-worth.  Gruden then continues by saying this: 
“But what if Christians could change their attitudes toward business, and what if Christians could begin to change the attitudes of the world toward business?  If attitudes toward business change in the ways I have described, then who could resist being a God-pleasing subduer of the earth who uses materials from God’s good creation and works with the God-given gift of money to earn morally good profits, and shows love to his neighbors by giving them jobs and by producing material goods that overcome world poverty, goods that enable people to glorify God for his goodness, that sustain just and fair differences in possessions, and that encourage morally good and beneficial competition.  What a great career that would be!  What a great way to give glory to God!”
One of the expectations of those who take my BAM class is to keep a daily journal to record what the Holy Spirit is whispering to them in this class and to give them a chance to process their thoughts.  
I was so surprised to see the below journal entry from one of the pastors who was giving me the hardest time in class.  (I later learned this man just loves to debate!)  Turns out he was not nearly as far away from believing in BAM as first thought.  In fact, he ended up with the highest grade in the class!  With his permission, I am sharing one of his journal entries:

A New Awakening For Business in the Marketplace to Change the World
The 7th of February came with a lot of enthusiasm and expectations.  It was a chilly morning as I woke up and had nothing else on my mind except making a trip to ICM (International Christian Ministries) in Kitale to attend an eight day class.  The class was to equip pastors and other businessmen in order to increase on their productivity. 

Upon our arrival, we were warmly received with ICM members of fraternity.  To my amazement, the class was a Training of Trainers by a Canadian volunteer by the name Renita Reed.

The facilitator took us via the central core in our role as pastors in the society and why ICM was established.  It tickled my mind as I came to the realization concerning the key role played by the Seminary in equipping and nurturing not only Church leaders but also the business men and women.  That is, to create an enabling environment to transform people in the society and marketplace socially, economically, spiritually, and environmentally.  I came to learn that there is a need to shift emphasis from poverty alleviation to empowerment.

It is important to merge the two meeting points that the church and the marketplace had earlier dispossessed; we need to change this initial presupposition.

Yet it is true that the Marketplace is always punctuated with people from all walks of life with some running businesses of all natures, while others posing as buyers, and while others are idlers.  To complicate the truth further, the Marketplace is alive every day, unlike the functions in our churches which normally open at certain or specific days of the week.  It is at the Marketplace that one can buy anything needed.

MARKETPLACE MINISTERS - A NECESSITY.  Men and women running businesses of all natures are drawn together from their mother churches but they are not well prepared to spearhead the spiritual aspect of it as their place of work. 

This therefore calls for a Christ Centered Business with an aim of reaching out to disciples of all nations.  This can only be realized if I, as a pastor, will encourage and give a green light to my fellow members to engage in this ministry of soul winning. 

In Luke 7: 31-35, Jesus described this generation as rebellious, stubborn, obstinate, and insensitive to the surrounding plight.  The shared insights rejuvenated my otherwise dominant inclination. Stressing also on the same, Mr. Alfred Rutto, on behalf of the principal of ICM, echoed our vitality of transforming the Marketplace via the training of her ministers.
A green light from the pastor.  That is key in this work.  I'm so thankful that this concept has been well received in this pastor's mind!

[The fun thing about Session 2 is that with the addition of the well-trained ATS pastors, I no longer need to be on my toes, as they are ready to jump in - now I just need to moderate the debate!]

And it's been a long time since someone has called me a Canadian!