Empowering African Partners

Empowering African Partners

Aug 19, 10 • NewsNo Comments
As I write this article, I am looking out my African window and seeing the fine dust of a sub-Saharan Harmattan mist settling on the lush tropical forest of the Peninsula Mountains. These are the same mountains from which Portuguese traders, sitting in their ships in what is now the Freetown harbor, heard what they thought was the roaring of lions They gave the land its name—Sierra Leone or lion mountain. Whether the Portuguese traders actually heard lions or the thunder claps of rainy season storms is the subject of historical debates. Other Europeans followed instituting colonial systems that would foster prejudice toward the “uncivilized” indigenous peoples and eventually crush their self-reliant spirit.

In the centuries that followed, the superiority of all things European became so ingrained in the minds of Sierra Leoneans that they began to think of themselves as inferior-incapable of charting their own destiny. African ways were relegated to the status of “uncivilized” and forced to give way to “civilized” society. Survival required subservience. The quicker one could adapt to these new realities, the sooner one could experience the benefits of the new world order. Even after Britain granted Sierra Leone its independence, financial aid from donor governments would continue to drive its internal policies and infrastructural development with limited input from its citizens, creating and perpetuating a “receivership” mentality. Such a mentality holds to the belief that a person or community can only “receive” from others because that person or community lacks the material, intellectual or spiritual resources to contribute anything of value to others.

Mission organizations and humanitarian agencies that operate from the same misguided assumptions that Africans are too poor or incapable of doing anything significant to bring about development to their communities only reinforce a receivership mentality. They come to Africa with a heart of compassion and noble intentions to alleviate the suffering of an impoverished people. But if they don’t take the time to understand the community and cultural worldview they are entering or attempt to learn even simple greetings in the local language, these well-intentioned “do-gooders” run the risk of rushing in and unconsciously imposing their will – utilizing material resources to gain control so they can make their project “happen.” The results will be short-lived and often counterproductive. The local community will not own the project, nor will they feel any obligation to maintain it.

Steve Saint, on returning to the Waodani people years after his father, a missionary pilot, was killed by them, found Waodani church buildings in disrepair. When Steve asked his Waodani friends why they had not been maintaining the nice buildings that kind-hearted foreign Christians had helped them construct, they responded that the only structures they knew how to build were made of thatch roofs and bamboo floors. Since foreigners came to construct buildings of superior materials, they concluded that the churches they built were not acceptable as houses of worship and that only foreigners knew how to build and maintain true God houses. Sadly, they thought of themselves as inferior and unqualified to build their own churches.

The task orientation of North Americans can overpower the efforts of West Africans who value relationships and maintaining unity in the community over completing a particular project. An African church, struggling to depend on the Lord to provide basic resources for ministry, can find it easier to surrender their responsibility for reaching their community to their wealthier Western Christian brothers who are eager to assume control. Westerners link up with local Christians to ‘fix up’ their buildings, do their evangelism, preach in their services, lead vacation Bible schools—all things indigenous church members are better equipped to do because they are cultural insiders. A pattern of dependency and paternalism begins to emerge as local congregations come to depend on outsiders to do what they could do themselves.


Creating an Environment of Empowerment

Empowered partnerships accomplish their mission more effectively and increase the potential for lasting results. They will nurture the kind of fertile environment in which true partnership can grow:

1. Examine personal attitudes and motivation: How will we see our African [indigenous] partner—as poor and in constant need of material and spiritual resources or endowed with true riches and essential spiritual gifts as a follower of Christ? Do we believe that our African counterpart can be a true partner and contribute significantly to the success of the project? What meaningful resources will our African partner bring to the table? Are we motivated by guilt or a need to be needed? Do we want the immediate gratification of making something happen in the short term or will we focus on building capacity in our African partner for long term sustainability and reproduction?

2. Watch for where God is working: A group of destitute widows who have a concern for helping orphans; an indigenous believer who is willing to become a cross-cultural worker because his/her heart is broken for the spiritual condition of another ethnic group; a respected community leader searching for truth– all have one thing in common—they have unselfish hearts softened by the Holy Spirit from which credible ministry flows. Join African efforts by encouraging and equipping Africans who are sensitive to God’s leadership.

3.
Model Kingdom Values: Missional Christians are called to be light in the world. The kingdom values humility, servant leadership, sacrifice, faith and complete dependence on God. This involves a willingness to deny self and the grace to become a perpetual learner of language and culture.

4. Simplify: Those things which are simple and doable at the lowest levels will be the most effective. Any person in the congregation or community should be able to evaluate and reproduce any task that is beneficial and modify it in a way that will make it his/her own. Elaborate programs with big budgets and complicated strategies will eventually die from a lack of outside resourcing to keep them alive. Improve capacity through culturally relevant training programs.

5. Find projects that contribute to encouraging ongoing local ministries. Ministries and projects Africans are already attempting to undertake at personal sacrifice and meager resources are good indicators of real needs that are not being met. Be discerning and ask questions about the vision of leadership and the history of the ministry or project before making a commitment.

6. Be transparent about personal shortcomings. Cultural blunders are inevitable. Mistakes may result from a lack of cultural information or misinformation about indigenous worldviews. Too often pride and fear create cultural discomfort that keeps Westerners from being integrated into African society. A missional mindset embraces vulnerability. Rather than hide faults and problems, transparency permits them to be openly addressed. Fortunately, many Africans are quick to forgive mistakes when the offending party admits his/her fault and asks for forgiveness.

7. Forge partnerships built on mutual trust and respect. Seek and highly value the input of all partners.

8. Set up systems of mutual accountability: All partners minister in the context of community in which the stewardship of resources means partners are accountable to each other to operate in the most effective way possible. Explain clearly any expectations for handling money and making regular reports. Avoid using money as a tool to control partners or as a strategy to create or prop up programs or projects that would collapse without a continuous flow of outside funding.

9. Think Indigenous: The word “indigenous” means “home-grown” –something native to its environment. It also describes those things that are characteristic of the way people do things in their society. Non-indigenous things are the things people “borrow” from another society—foreign structure, foreign music, foreign money. Indigenous things flourish and reproduce naturally in their environment.

10. Have an exit strategy: From the beginning (and with the assistance of indigenous partners) develop an end vision—a description of what the project will look like when it is fully completed. Determine the point at which a phase out will begin and the responsibility for leadership will be completely assumed by local leaders. Throughout the project local leaders should assume greater and greater responsibility while foreign leaders will diminish in their leadership role until local leaders have full responsibility.


The End Vision


“Let’s build something together.” Partnership development is an essential mechanism for building capacity in people and building the high performance organizations necessary to impact the needs of communities in Africa. Capacity shortcomings can be overcome through partners working together. The healthiest partnerships grow out of a shared vision, a common purpose, and mutual respect for the giftedness of each partner. They learn and grow together. A good Western partner learns to navigate between doing for African partners and empowering African partners to do for themselves. African partners learn that they become healthier by growing out of their own indigenous resources and teaching their people to become reliant upon God for their every need. The end vision is African partners who are proactive in identifying the priority physical, social, and spiritual needs of their communities and who are equipped to take the initiative in developing community capacity that enables members of the community to draw on the skills and resources needed to take control and improve their own lives.

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