Saturday, November 27, 2010

On the road again...

Lou Haveman
Tinashe Chitambira and family
On Saturday, November 27, I leave for a nine day trip to Southern Africa with my former colleague, Lou Haveman, and my new colleague, Tinashe Chitambira.  During this time we will be visiting our partners in Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, and will spend some time in Swaziland as well.  A number of North American guests and partners will be traveling with us for portions of this trip, to learn more about the work that we do and to visit partners with whom they are already connected.  The main purpose of this trip is the transitioning of partnerships from Lou, as Southern Africa Regional Facilitator, to Tinashe.  My role is to support Tinashe in his new position, as he is new to Partners Worldwide.  I look forward to spending time with Lou, who has been such a support to me in this work, and I also look forward to getting to know Tinashe, working towards building a strong Africa team.  I'm excited that we now have two Africans as regional facilitators:  Tinashe for Southern Africa and Martin Mutuku for East Africa.  I'm hoping that one day my position will be turned over to a West African as well.

My path for the next nine days.
I'm rather ambivalent about this whole trip.  Bob always wanted to live in Southern Africa and wanted to visit there with me.  Now I go alone.  The couple who stayed with Hannah and Noah the last time are not able to stay this time, so essentially I am leaving them alone.  I haven't been taking care of myself and am pretty exhausted.  I question the wisdom of taking on additional responsibilities in this year especially.  So I am fighting a lot of guilt over going.  But after spending significant time in prayer about this, along with my prayer partners, I am going in faith that God will meet me there and continue to be with the kids at the same time.

I would ask that you join us in prayer for a few things:
  1. Safety, security, comfort and peace for Hannah and Noah while I'm gone.
  2. Wisdom, clarity, safety and security for myself and the team as we travel and plan for the future of these partnerships.
  3. Relationship building between team members and staff, as we learn about each other, our passions, experiences, and gifts, appreciating how God has gifted us in unique and wonderful ways.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Bob carving the turkey in 1993.
This week Thursday is American Thanksgiving.  This was Bob's favorite holiday.  Our most fond Thanksgiving memories were spending them with Dan and Beth Wilcox (Dan was Bob's best friend and spoke at the Memorial Service).  Bob loved trying new stuffing recipes - one of his favorites was stuffing with apples and dried cherries - but of course nothing could beat his mom's stuffing.  Each Thanksgiving was truly a feast.

Last week Tuesday was a Muslim holiday in Ghana, called "Eid-ul-Adha" or Sacrifice Feast, a day in which Muslims commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, as an act of obedience to God before God intervened and provided a ram instead.  [No, I didn't make a mistake - you read it right.  Muslims believe that Abraham was called to sacrifice his eldest child, Ishmael, not Isaac.]  On this Feast day, Muslim families slaughter an animal (depending on income level, it could be a cow, goat, sheep, pig), keep one third for their family, give one third to friends or neighbors, and give another third to the poor.

In my devotions last week, I spent some time in Isaiah 1: 13-20, where the Lord says,
"Stop bringing meaningless offerings!  Your incense is detestable to me.  New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations - I cannot bear your assemblies.  Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates.  They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.  When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.  Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean.  Take your evil deeds out of my sight!  Stop doing wrong, learn to do right.  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.  Come now, let us reason together," says the Lord.  "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool."
I'm not trying to be a party pooper.  But I do wonder what God's attitude is this week as we approach Thanksgiving.  Is it a burden for Him?  Is He weary of it and looking forward for it to pass?

I am convicted that an attitude of thanksgiving, generosity, and justice is something that needs to permeate my entire life, not one day prescribed by a calendar.  I need to look at my own hands to see the blood.  The text goes on to talk about our rulers being rebels, loving bribes, chasing after gifts. I realize that the blood on their hands is mine to share as well.  One of Bob's favorite quotes from Martin Luther King was "all that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men to do nothing."

This, of course, leads me to what I am ultimately thankful for this Thanksgiving.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  Mercy.  The sacrifice God made through His Son, Jesus.  To begin each day anew, with the hope of doing better.  With the knowledge that when I screw up (not if), I can be forgiven and try again the next day.

But this Thanksgiving, I'm also very thankful for all of you.  I experienced the hands and feet of Christ through His body, the church, in so many ways this past year.  Your prayers, your emails, your comments on the blog...each one was an encouragement, reminding me that I'm not alone.  And I would be remiss if I didn't thank those of you who continue to give financially to support us in our work.  We absolutely couldn't be here without you.  Through you, we have food on our table, water in our cups; because of your partnership with our work, others have food on their table and water in their cups.  We pray that together, we can continue to "seek justice, encourage the oppressed."

May God bless you this Thanksgiving.

Here are some pictures of my beautiful children, for whom I am also very thankful!
Noah is learning bass guitar and is practicing every day.  Hannah is his first groupie:-).
Hannah getting ready to play her first soccer game of the year.  Doesn't she look great?
The game - if you pick up on the fact that it looks hot, let me assure you it was.  Playing from 11 am - 1 pm in 95 F heat was not easy. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Village Savings and Loans

In a book titled, Portfolios of the Poor, How the World's Poor live on $2 a day, the authors make some startling observations.  Of the 40% of humanity (2.5 billion people, of whom 1.1 billion live on $1/day) who survive on this amount, two realizations changed their perspective on world poverty.  First, money management for the poor is a fundamental and well-understood part of everyday life.  [I imagine that the poor have much to teach the wealthy about money management and budgeting - actually, I don't have to imagine it.  I've seen it - both in Africa and in Grand Rapids.] The second realization was that most households in this category rarely consume every penny of income as soon as it is earned - they manage their money by saving when they can and borrowing when they need to.  [The US has been at a negative savings rate - with Americans spending more than they earn - for some time, until just recently with the economic crisis.  Then suddenly people are able to save.  Very interesting dynamic.]

A major frustration among this group of people in poverty is the poor quality or low reliability of the instruments that they use to manage their meager incomes - for both savings and loans. In West Africa, it is very difficult for the poor to get loans, not to mention micro businesses, and even SMEs.  Bank interest rates in Ghana vary from 37-43%; the average in microfinance institutions is 50-60%; the more informal way of saving, often called a susu, has interest rates up to 120%.  Not to mention that if you save with a susu, you normally have to pay the susu man, so you are paying to save instead of being paid to save (as with typical savings accounts in banks).  And it's not unusual for the susu man to run away with the money, leaving you with nothing.

A VSL group in Dodowa
Another VSL group in Akropong
Hopeline Institute, the partner with whom we work in Ghana, has a program that addresses this dilemma very well.  It is called "Village Savings and Loans" (VSL) and they are currently using this methodology in 94 villages.  Each village has a group of 25 persons who have organized themselves, appointed executives, adopted a constitution, all for the purpose of saving and loaning to themselves.  The money goes into a box, held in the box keeper's home, with three different padlocks on it, and each key is held by three other members of the group.  The group saves by buying shares - they decide among themselves how much a share can cost (usually around 25 cents to $1) and each person can only buy 5 shares per week; these shares are marked through stamps in a book.  Once this has gone on for several weeks, people can begin taking loans at an interest rate decided by the group (usually 10%), at no more than three times their savings.  VSL groups are designed to last for nine months and then the share out happens, where everyone cashes out their shares and the interest paid (as well as fines) is divided among group members.   So you can imagine if the share is $0.50 and every person buys five each week for 36 weeks, that is $2250, a good amount for loans.  Additionally, each group charges a social fund fee, usually around $0.20 each week, which goes for sickness, death, or other things that may happen to a group member during the nine months.  While the buying of shares is optional, the social fund is not.  I was quite surprised that most groups still had most of their social fund money by share out time (around $180 US) and they use it for celebration at the end of their work together.

Last week, we also had our second batch graduation of the Small and Medium Enterprise(SME) class with Hopeline.  As a reminder, a person might start working with Hopeline through a VSL group, then move to a micro-finance solidarity group, where a little business training is given and the loans are a little larger than with the VSL.  Then a business owner might move to the SME training, where they receive more in-depth training about running a business and develop a business plan for their business.

Mariama Issah is part of a VSL in Abokobi.  She owns a provision shop and graduated last week from our SME class.  The women in her VSL group is so proud of her that she went through this class.  She stated at the graduation that she is not very educated and didn't think that she could do it but is very proud that she did and she's thankful that she now has a white friend!
Rev. Philip Tutu, national leader of the Global Leadership training for Willow Creek, commissioned all SME graduates as marketplace ministers.  This was a powerful time where business owners committed themselves and their businesses to God, to serve as ministers in the market, working to restore it as Jesus redeemed it.
This precious woman wept throughout her entire statement at the graduation as she shared how she was ready to quit her business and took this class out of desperation.  Through this class, she has felt God's call on her to view her business as a ministry.  She shared the joy in discovering that the work she does can have value in God's eyes and that she has worth as well.  She vowed to view God as the owner and her as the manager.  Praise God!
The second SME class for Hopeline Institute. 

Monday, November 8, 2010

A November Reed Update

Weather:  I know Bob was very good about sharing the weather with you weekly and I tend to forget.  So let me give you an update.  We are transitioning from the rainy season to the dry season.  This rainy season has lasted a little longer and we have seen more rain than we did last year, which has given us more comfortable weather.  Average weather has been in the mid-80s during the day and low 80's at night.  As we edge toward the dry season, the temperature will begin creeping into the 90's.  The forcast for today is 90 F with humidity at 89% and dewpoint at 73%.

This has been a busy and stressful time for the Reed family and as I write this, we are not bearing it up very well.  In addition to a crazy work schedule and traveling, there has also been a number of guests coming and going in our house.  While we love them individually, it takes a toll on the three of us and how we operate as a family unit,  especially as introverts.

Additionally, there have been other stresses as well.

October 20, 2010 would have been our 20th wedding anniversary.  I took a sick day and spent the day mostly in bed sleeping and hoping it would be over soon.  This was not how I had hoped to spend our 20th wedding anniversary.  In the evening we watched the wedding video together, which we hadn't watched for years and years, and Hannah and Noah got a big chuckle over how young we all looked and acted.

On Monday, October 25, my father was moved into a nursing home, which was a difficult decision for my mom and siblings.  As I may have shared before, he has Alzheimers and it had become increasing difficult for my mother to care for him.  We are so thankful to God that the transition seemed to go well and he has settled into his new home fairly quickly.  He celebrated his 82nd birthday yesterday (November 7) and all my siblings were able to gather with him to spend time together.  The picture is of my dad in his new room, along with my brother Henry.

On Friday, October 29, I received word that Dea Lieu, our Affiliate Manager for Cote d'Ivoire had seen a doctor in the US and was informed that he has one week to six months before his kidneys shut down.  My heart feels so sick for Dea, Charlotte his wife, and their five children.  The North American team with whom he works (from Iowa) has been great in quickly rallying to support him, but the process of how acquiring a kidney transplant for someone with no insurance, who is not a citizen of the US, living in a country that cannot offer good follow-up care, is not an easy task and we ask for your prayers for Dea and this team as we work to find an answer.  This picture is of Dea and his family and their kids.  It's a few years old, and the kids are bigger, but you can still imagine the impact of this news on their family, especially as they are separated now by thousands of miles.  We are thankful that the voting in Cote d'Ivoire was peaceful so the family is safe at this time as they await the runoff elections at the end of this month.  Please keep them in your prayers.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Images and thoughts from last week with Laura

More thoughts from Laura:  

Well, I am here in Liberia but I am going to talk more about my experience last week in Ghana--

Renita has given me reading assignments :-) One booklet I am reading (as time allows), is "Against All Hope: Hope for Africa", I am perplexed that a continent as rich as Africa is not reaping the benefit of its own riches.  I am trying to understand the impact of colonialism today, the impact of the transatlantic slave trade today, and I am sure there are other dynamics, so I will keep reading . . .  I am considering the slave trade, especially after I visited the Elimina Castle and the Point of Return.  The Point of Return is located in a village/community near Cape Coast, there is a trail that leads from Sweet River, the last place the enslaved Africans washed and were shaved before they walked the last 45 kilometers to the Elmina Castle in Cape Coast, where they were held in dungeons before they walked through the Door of No Return.  Walking in my barefeet the trail that my ancestors walked, was difficult because, although I was with others, I felt alone on this journey, because no one with me could understand my pain, so I held my tears back I did not to make a spectacle of myself.  Many Ghanaians have heard the slave story many times, but me I feel the impact, Renita had her own perspective as a white woman, but I was the lone African American, it was not easy.  And it was the same way at the castle, although most of my tour group was brown-skinned like me, none of them had lived the African American experience, once again alone in a very strange way.  It is my hope that next year I will have this experience with a group of African Americans and Africans, and that we can dialogue after the tour, but for now it was lonely.

I had the opportunity to spend the day with a Ghanaian gentlemen, who took me out to have a real Ghanaian experience, so the first thing we did was stop at the roadside and drink coconut water, a little warm for me but sweet none the less, I even scraped and ate the coconut from the inside of the fruit.  We stopped at a metalworkers stand and watched him make all kinds of metal baking pans, for bread, cakes and the like.  Then we went to the waterside where the indigenous people lived and their livelihood is fishing.  There were 4 women who were happy to explain the fish smoking process to me and they were all about the photo opps!  I met one woman as she was gutting a fish . . . and then I was ready to go.  As I walked through this community, I saw just that, community--children, the men gathered, the women working, teenagers, socializing.  And then I thought, Lord you know each and everyone of these people, you love them, you understand their words even though I don't.  And you, (Lord), don't assign greater or lesser value to any of us . . . "for God so loved the world" means the world equally.  Wow!  The last note about that day, I loved hanging out with Captain Amponsah Gyima, proud to be a Ghanaian, proud to have served in the military for his country and currently working for the United Nations, and proud of his children.  He said, (something like), "my country may be poor, but I love my country and my people," that expressed the attitude of the typical Ghanaian, a very proud and independent people.

Here are just a few word snapshots of Ghana--really, really bad side roads; motorway, (expressway)-fast, slow through a town, then fast fast again; people walk along the side of the motor way; every billboard has people who look like me; police checkpoints on the motorway; every major intersection has folks selling anything and everything; businesses with names like "The Lord is My Shepherd" photo shop, "To God be the Glory" dress shop, bible verses on the back of taxis; goats along the side of the road; small herds of cattle; people selling snails and ground hogs; roosters and chickens here and there.  Oh and did I mention when you gotta "go", you can "go"  especially men, just right along the roadside.  I asked if women could do the same thing, and I was told yes just a little further away from the road in the tall grass . . . hmph, needless to say I was very careful on long trips.

I just want to say that I was blessed to spend two weeks with the Reed family.  Renita, Hannah and Noah are fairing well.  I watched Renita working hard for Partners, taking care of her children, taking care of other family stuff, taking time for herself, accommodating me and still grieving the loss of her husband, her children's father, our brother, Bob . . . I am amazed at how God has made this woman!  I see God's strength in Renita Reed and thank God for this, my sister.  Keep praying for her and the kids as they continue to walk this valley.

I will stop there, I will tell you about my experience in Liberia, next week, Lord willing.  God bless!
Laura gets her hair braided...for five hours!  Tylenol was in order.
Hannah, Noah, and I watched in amazement as they set the ends of her braids on fire.
After it was done - Laura looking beautiful although a little stupefied after the abuse her skull just took.
The next day she enjoys her first coconut water drink.  Thousands upon thousands of these are consumed every day on the side of the road.  People loudly proclaim the benefits of this drink and the seller will cut it open in front of you so you know it's fresh.
On Thursday, we spent the day in Cape Coast, the place where much of the slave trade passed through in West Africa.  Here we are at the Slave River, or some call it "Sweet River" where those captured had their last bath after walking hundreds of miles in their bare feet.  We removed our shoes out of respect for where they walked. 
Sweet River, a somber and sobering place.

From Sweet River, those captured walked to one of three castles, the largest of which is Elmina Castle, once owned by the Portuguese, the Dutch, then the British.
This sign, on the wall of the castle, proclaims the desire for such atrocities to never happen again.
The fort, across from the castle, built by the British, who didn't want to be overtaken by surprise as they did to the Dutch.  Brown house in the front right was for the mothers and children of those made pregnant by the slave owners.
Meanwhile, at home, Noah and Douglas battle a water monitor found in our yard by the dogs.  This type of monitor can grow up to ten feet!  We are thankful it was only a baby when we found it.  We aren't sure how it got into our yard as there is no significant body of water around.