In Africa: Illness Brings Perspective

In early September, a delegation of diocesan leaders from across the United States visited Ethiopia and Tanzania to get a first-hand look at CRS work. The following is a reflection by Dianne Hanley, associate director, Parish Social Ministry, Catholic Charities, Diocese of Baton Rouge.

It is Thursday and I am on my second day of being sick. I did not see the sites CRS planned to show me today. A doctor who is touring with the group suggests that I rest for the remainder of the days in Africa. I am disappointed. I am told it is my decision whether to forge ahead and visit the sites sick or to rest. It is a difficult decision. Because of the way the itinerary is set up, I have to travel to all of the remaining sites or forfeit them all. I spend a few minutes in prayer and can see that the Lord has other plans in mind for me. I tell the guides that I will rest.

I am brought to a retreat center of Franciscan nuns, in the city of Arusha, Tanzania.

One thing that I learn, and it is a hard lesson for me, I learned to let people care for me. I have felt like I am asking too much of people, getting them to carry my bags and feed me, etc. Everyone is checking on me, asking what I need. It is kind of embarrassing. The experience makes me think of others who are cared for. How does it feel to be treated as if one is helpless on a constant basis?

That must be how it feels when people who want to help come into a country and take over operations, leaving locals to be cared for rather than joined in the work. Even though I needed the help, this journey has shown me the difference between caring for and working with one another.

CRS has obviously been working with the people of Tanzania and Ethiopia. The people who CRS works with are active participants in the projects that benefit them. The beneficiaries actually must be proactive. Their proactive stance prepares them to carry on even after CRS is no longer actively involved; the participants are consequently empowered.

An example of this process of empowerment was seen at the water projects that our group visited. Before the project could begin, the villagers had to make a road to get to the village, a road suitable for trucks with equipment. The road we traveled was made of dust and rocks. The road was rocky and steep in places and looked as if it would be impassable in the worst of the wet season. We actually drove through dry riverbeds. When I think of a gravel road, I think of bulldozers and dump trucks. This road, however, was made with bare hands, collecting rocks one by one and placing them one by one. Villagers made this road so their families could have clean water.

These same villagers learned about terracing and the impact it would have on growing crops and stopping erosion. Again they rose up and worked together to terrace the mountains around their village. I learned that it took 2,000 work hours to terrace one mountain. The results were striking. We were shown a mountain to our right that was brown and dying. Then our attention was directed to our left to a terraced mountain. This mountain looked like the Garden of Eden, it was so lush and green. The difference: terracing. A terraced mountain produces 3 times the amount of crops and allows for a longer planting season.

What was CRS’s role in the work of the villagers? CRS provided training and expertise and food. It was difficult for the villagers to do the work that was needed and continue the work of providing food for their families. CRS provided the food.

The work of providing a well for their own people was owned by the villagers themselves. Of course the heavy equipment and supplies, the generator and the trucks to haul it all were supplied by benefactors, but the villagers were engaged in the hard work at all stages of the process.

When the well was dug and the generator put in place, the villagers formed committees to manage the work. A water committee was formed of 4 men and 3 women. A finance committee and a maintenance committee were also formed. CRS trained the villagers in maintaining the site, a valuable step that has often been neglected by other benefactors.

The villagers decided to charge small amounts of money for the fresh water. I questioned the villagers about this practice of charging such poor neighbors for such a necessary commodity. They explained that not everyone was charged, in particular the poorest of the poor. The villagers explained, however, that many villagers now saved time and money now that they had clean water. Many hours had been spent going to retrieve water from distant non-potable water sources. Then the water had to be boiled before using for food preparation. Villagers were saving time and money as well because they no longer went to the doctor nearly as much and had less need for buying medicine. The time saved could be used for more productive ventures. Children had time to go to school. The money collected was held in common by the village and used to maintain the water project.

The villagers were also taught to be advocates. They were being taught the process for applying to the government for electricity to be brought to their village. The nearest electricity line was 1.5 kilometers away. Electricity would save the villagers the work and expense of going to market for the fuel for the generator.

This water project served more than one village. In fact, it served 3,000 families.

By viewing this project and speaking with the villagers, I learned how CRS helps people to help themselves. Villagers learn the skills to keep their hard work producing. And are helped to build projects that are sustainable even after the outside resources end.

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One Response to “In Africa: Illness Brings Perspective”

  1. Dianne Hanley Says:

    Just wanted to make note that this was not before my trip to Africa, it was in the middle of the trip. Fortunately I was able to see several of the CRS sites before I got sick. That is how I was able to report on the experience of the people’s work with CRS.

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