community development

Living in a ‘House of Rubbish’

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Here’s an update from some partners in South East Asia.

“Is our new house made of rubbish?” my daughter asked on our first night in our current place (a month ago now). In New Zealand we might use the kinder term “100% recycled materials”, but a child makes no such distinctions.

At first it was what you might call a “handyman’s dream” (and a mosquito’s)! I’m no handyman, but we spent a fair bit of time with fly-screen, plywood, pipes, fabric and nails and have ended up with a place that serves us well. Although it looks like a shack outside, inside it’s our personal palace! Here are some features that make our neighbours say “wow!”:

A plywood ceiling to intercept heat and carcinogenic dust falling from the recycled asbestos-cement roofing. A private toilet (we share a septic tank with our neighbours) and private water supply (we pump from groundwater – which smells of sulphur… hmm…) Most neighbours use the open canal for number twos, and around a dozen families would usually share a water point for washing. Everyone buys drinking/cooking water in polycarbonate bottles – the kind you see at the office water cooler. A layer of concrete between the ground and our “carpet” of recycled advertising banners. It makes a much less lumpy floor than most, and keeps out worms and rats. A few large persistent ants were still able to penetrate (it’s pretty low-spec concrete!) but we’ve since beaten them back. A back door and three windows for light and breeze. As well as being more pleasant, it helps reduce TB transmission between the kids playing inside. (Active TB has a prevalence of around 300 per 100 000 people here. That’s 30 times more than NZ). It doesn’t leak (yet). It’s SPACIOUS. At around 22m² for a family of four, that’s nearly twice the standard shack.

If you like, read that list again and spare a thought for our neighbours – most have none of these features.

Lions and Tigers and Magic

Moving into the ‘slum-proper’, it didn’t take long to feel more involved with day-to-day life “in-amongst-it”. A bunch of teenagers often sleep (or just talk all night) on the front porch of our neighbour’s corner-store. On our third night while in bed we heard the growling and jumping sounds of a mad dog right outside: the teenagers presumably having fun with the poor animal. Considered unclean in Islam, dogs are rare here, so we asked about it next morning. “It wasn’t a dog” they said. “It was a tiger!” Apparently the spirit of a tiger (or maybe a wolf) had entered one of the boys, which happens from time to time. We’re still not sure what to do with that information!

“Has that happened to you?” we asked the store owner. “It wouldn’t happen to me – I focus my mind on God.” He is certainly one of the more diligent pray-ers we know of. Even so, it turns out he was sick the whole of last year and sold his house in the village to pay for a magic doctor to remove (magically) a cursed yellow nail in his lung, which seemed to do the trick.

None of that is as strange as the entertainment put on as part of a wedding on the field a couple of weeks back. The party was an expensive affair that ran from dawn until past midnight, pounding our house with over-amplified music. It also featured a mid-day parade of colourful kids and the bride sitting on winged beasts held aloft on the shoulders of long-suffering dancers, and a late-night clown show.

But the afternoon matinee was a series of hypnosis attractions, whereby, at its climax, lion-spirits were called on to enter the performers: who then pounced each other in lion-battles, drank from muddy puddles on the ground, and set upon an unsuspecting live chicken with their teeth: blood and feathers flying – a kind of Marilyn-Manson-meets-David-Copperfield show. “Is that allowed?” I asked, thinking about Islam’s food laws. Apparently it’s okay if it’s for entertainment. Our daughter’s friends told her to watch out: they might bite. I told her it was just a show (I hoped).

No money, no goats (Wakonye Kenwa Part 2)

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After one of the first meetings of our farmers co-op, several members asked me accusingly: where was the bottled water?

Our group, Wakonye Kenwa, asked the local football club, what community problems do you care about, what needs change? They drafted a list for us: new uniforms, boots, and a new football.

Another village savings group asked us, are you bringing us a loan? Some chickens? No? Well then don’t waste our time with questions about ‘community issues.’

This kind of thinking is the source of Wakonye Kenwa’s deepest struggles. For years and years during the war, communities packed into squalid, cramped ‘camps’ relied on aid. In the final years and aftermath of war, in flooded the international aid groups and up sprouted a hoard of community groups feeding on foreign funds. If you attend one of their workshops or trainings on ‘peace building’ or ‘trauma healing,’ you’ll get bottled water. In fact, you will get paid a ‘sitting fee’ to attend, because they need to prove a good turn out to please their donors. If there is big NGO coming nearby, you should go because they will distribute blankets, clothes or seeds. If you join a community group, chances are you will get some goats to rear. Or pigs. If you impress the right people maybe you will get a lucrative foreign-funded NGO worker salary.

No doubt, many lives were changed. But it has also left a disease.

This morning I discussed with two core members in our group, why is it so hard to get a good turn out? Why is it such a struggle to engage people? Their answer of course is that people have been taught to expect immediate, personal gain:

“When USAID comes to distribute mosquito nets, there will be hundreds of people. They will get their net, and go home happy. If we are successful, our community water meetings will result in safe drinking water for everyone. Kids won’t get sick, and we won’t have to wait for hours and hours to collect water. But people won’t leave our meeting with something new in their hands. That’s why we didn’t get the numbers we hoped for.”

They could see I was frustrated. They could see I was disappointed. He continued:

“This is new here. Let’s work with the people who come. We’ll get this water. Then slowly slowly others will see. God is there.”


For more from Nick and Tessa in Uganda visit

An Unexpected Birth

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I walked armed with huge sketched maps of the area marking all the water sources in the area, a Google maps aerial view for good measure, and blank paper for an action plan. As I walked, the rain started to pitter. Then flow more steadily, accompanied by doom-like thunder rolls. I kept walking, but silently wrote off the meeting. People just don’t move in the rain here. I unlocked the door, and waited, expecting nobody.

Miracles happen – look at the image above!

Members of our church had spent several months asking questions in the community: What issues do you care about? What needs change? The most pressing answer was water. Over a thousand people rely on one water source that becomes contaminated in the rainy season from groundwater flows, and dries up and flows slow in the ‘summer’ season. We invited community members we met along the way who were interested in action to come to this meeting, including local leaders. They came. There was a good buzz. I proposed we become a ‘community water committee’ to tackle the issue. The consensus was no. We need to be an organization! We need to elect a full executive committee, a chairperson, a vice, a secretary, a treasurer! We need a constitution!

In a groundswell of the positive energy triggered by new beginnings and a new gathering of people unexpectedly unhindered by rain and thunder, we rolled with it. I swallowed my skepticism about the restrictive bureaucracy involved in constitutions and executive committees and declared, “yes, and when we have new clean water sources, we can move on to tackle the next issue!” We will not be an NGO, we won’t have salaries, we don’t’ do handouts, or ‘income generating activities,’ but we will grow our collective power to create or demand solutions to local problems.

And that’s how Wakonye Kenwa Lacor was unexpectedly born. (Rough translation: “we help you amongst us.”)


For more from Nick and Tessa in Uganda visit

The Stuff Every Neighbourhood Needs (Issue 19)

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While living in an Asian slum on a mission internship in 2006, I remember the night that my host parents had a screaming match through the floorboards of our shack. This was the night I realised the truth about mission.

I had gone there thinking I could finally find out how to put my hard earned specialist skills to work for God’s kingdom and combat global poverty. But that night, as I listened uncomprehendingly to the hysterical shouting match downstairs, I realised how useless I was to help them.

I was living with this typical slum family for a month. I grew to love their generosity toward me and their three fun-loving kids. While there I was vaguely aware that the husband had borrowed a motorbike to earn some cash as a motodop driver – the taxi of choice in the city. One day the police decided to do a routine blitz on all unregistered vehicles – most of them are – and ended up impounding this unfortunate fellow’s bike. To get it back, the family would need to find the money for the fine, the storage fees and the various bribes requested. This amounted to something unthinkable for him, something like $US150. The bike was as good as lost, the family without means of income, and on top of all their other debts they now owed the owner of the bike as well.

After hearing the argument, I realised that the people who had become my friends didn’t need or even want my technical prowess. And marriage counselling wouldn’t be enough either. They needed neighbours who would step in and care for them. They needed somebody to let them know that God has not in fact abandoned them. They needed a resilient community with a stronger social fabric that could pool resources in times of need and rally together to advocate for the issues they face, fighting corruption and injustice.

Holistic Church: a Healing Community

In that particular slum we could catch glimpses of God’s Kingdom coming. My then wife-to-be and I found a local church community there made up of incredible but ordinary people, intricately woven into the daily life of their neighbourhood. They were a community that helped each other when there was need and shared with each other when there was plenty. They shared their homes. The community had recently pooled together to get their alleyways paved, reducing the mud and disease of every monsoon. The teenagers were buddied up with children orphaned or about to be orphaned by AIDS. They were slowly making ground against the temptations of drugs and gambling. And for my friends, the context of a strong community was enough to support their marriage to weather the stress of poverty and debt.

It was a healing community and became the vision for what the parish church model can offer. It’s why we joined the Anglican Church on our return to New Zealand, because isn’t that basically what we as Anglicans aspire to be within our parish neighbourhood? It’s the stuff every neighbourhood anywhere needs, not just overseas.

When I subsequently worked for a local parish church, I began to ask the question: can we become the place that people in our neighbourhood can identify as ‘their church,’ even if they were never to step foot in it at on a Sunday morning? The aim was not to play the numbers game and grow our own church in some sort of empire-building frenzy, but to find the best ways to serve the community we were placed in.

This is where we need a kind of ‘Prophetic Imagination.’ I love Ezekiel’s prophetic image of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-10). It encourages us to re-imagine our world. Where there are cities of decay, can we imagine cities of hope? Where there is unemployment, can we imagine fulfilling work? Where there is loneliness, can we imagine deep belonging? Where there is addiction, can we imagine freedom? Where there are children growing up with neglect and alcoholism, can we imagine security and happiness? Where there are elderly person dying alone, can we imagine a caring village that will be there to mourn and celebrate each life that passes? What are the valleys of dry bones in our neighbourhoods? Can we imagine the Holy Spirit breathing new life there through us?

The Holy Spirit is the one who “sends us out like sparks to set the world on fire”, as James Baxter put it. The Holy Spirit breaks down the walls of ethnicity, social status, even language as we see at Pentecost, to compel us to relate to people and places that might be uncomfortable. I believe the Holy Spirit is not content for us to simply be church with our own people who ‘speak our own language,’ but to be church out there, particularly in the darkest places. We need to be in the valleys of dry bones; we need to be engaged in our neighbourhoods.