I recently travelled to Zambia to connect with Tearfund’s local partners who are helping communities to tackle the challenges of poverty and injustice that are before them. Here are 5 things I learned along the way, and why I’m holding tightly to these lessons as I head into the new year.
I love an indulgent cafe breakfast. Smashed avo and poached eggs on sourdough, a fancy soaked oats situation, or, my personal favourite at my local: southern fried crispy chicken on sweet potato waffles with a pineapple and jalapeno pickle and chipotle spiced butter.
Works well for a Saturday morning every once in a while, but my doctor (and my wallet) would strongly recommend it not become a daily thing. Usually, a boring breakfast – say, porridge – does the trick. It’s sustaining, and sustainable.
It’s a bit like that with justice. Much of the outworking of justice happens in the everyday, unseen, kind of boring places. People securing access to everyday things they need. The slow grind of systemic change. The planting and nurturing of seeds.
My mind was not blown in Zambia. I didn’t meet anyone whose story really shook me, or witness anything that made me weep. Still, I saw many obstacles that poverty created, and I saw many people taking steps to overcome them. I saw the incremental glimpses of breakfast-variety justice for ordinary Zambian families.
Dramatic, catastrophic injustices captivate us (and so they should) – natural disasters, traumatic events, stories that cut through the news feed – but if our radar for justice and compassion is only triggered by these types of events, there is a lot that misses out. Long-term, sustainable community development is worthy of our attention and effort, our prayers and our giving. It matters deeply for the people who are at the heart of it.
I think of Jesus, who taught and modelled presence in hidden places and with unimpressive people. I also think of scriptures like Psalm 10 that illustrated the awesomeness of God who hears each cry lifted in the midst of huge and terrifying injustices. This year, I want to be attentive enough to participate in God’s kingdom whether it’s a ‘feast’ or a piece of toast.
After travelling 13 hours on the worst-conditioned dirt road I’d ever seen, I had to smile at the sign outside of a small shop in the remote village we’d arrived at: Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations. It’s so often true: that good and beautiful things are hard won, triumphs on the other side of demanding journeys.
But sometimes we toil through the difficult journey, and what we end up with may not be what we want or need.
I think of Jasmit, one of the women I met in a remote village in eastern Zambia. She told me that some days, she has to make 10 trips to the nearest stream 3 km away to collect enough water for her family’s needs. I did some mental maths and figured I’d misunderstood, so checked again. Yes, Jasmit assured me. Ten trips to the stream – and back. Another woman showed me a cup of this precious stream water. It was brown and dirty. Jasmit explained that before they use it, it has to be filtered and boiled.
I was stunned. Up to 60 km walking in a day, for water that has to be treated before it can even be drunk to quench your thirst from the journey.
I can think of several challenging journeys for Tearfund that have resulted in a less-than-beautiful outcome. The disheartenment that comes with those destinations can really sting, especially when what we’re reaching for is a world that sings more clearly and brightly of God’s kingdom.
As Jasmit and her friends taught me, we may walk 60km and end up with a bucket of dirty water. But we don’t tip it out. We work hard, again, to filter and refine it and get every last drop of life out of it. As we are reminded in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Galatians 6:9). This takes patience, peace, faithfulness – the gifts of the Holy Spirit at work in a willing heart – and reflecting on this has helped me recognise that the Lord often leads us to those beautiful destinations through surrender to his ways, not through our own striving.
Meet Mary. Her basket of dried eggplant might not look all that exciting (especially when we’ve just been talking about fried chicken and waffles), but the way she talked about it, it was a game-changer!
You see, Mary has always done her best to farm what she can, and keep her family fed and healthy. But for decent stretches each year, the fresh seasonal veggies would stop growing and they’d live off their maize staples for months at a time. Most farming families in Zambia are familiar with this ‘lean season’, which brings higher rates of hunger, malnutrition and illness.
But Mary learned how to dry and preserve seasonal vegetables with training from Tearfund’s local partner. “We always grew this, but didn’t know we could dry it,” she explained to me. Others shared that previously, they’d just let surplus fresh vegetables rot in the fields at the end of the season. But now they have the ways and means to grow and save food sustainably. Improved farming, improved health. More nutritious food for more of the year. That’s pretty exciting indeed!
Sometimes the thought that ‘this is all there is’ can keep us trapped in a state of defeat. We can focus on our limitations and hold back from taking action until our ideal comes along. But let’s not wait around for when we have everything we think we need. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be reaching for anything new, or consider the wisdom of waiting. But we can be encouraged to get creative and innovative with what’s already before us to discover what it can offer beyond what we’ve known it to so far. We need not ‘despise the small beginnings’ , knowing that the Lord delights in seeing work begin (Zechariah 4:10) – however humble and half-baked it might seem to us.
Rita is a grade 6 student at a little remote community school, where deforestation and the impacts of climate change have left the surrounding land struggling. She and fellow students have planted tree seedlings around the school yard, and are responsible for their growth. They keep them watered, have woven the protective baskets themselves, and even given each tree a name. Rita knows her tree is important, because it will grow tall and give lots of shade and fruit to eat.
The problem is, Rita will have finished school by the time the tree grows tall enough to offer these things. This does not, however, weaken her dedication to seeing this tree grow to be the strongest it can be. She’s doing it for her younger siblings, and all the students to come after her.
The name Rita picked for her tree? Mercy.
I want to be like Rita. I want to be willing to work hard for something I may not get recognition for. I want to be earnest in praying prayers that I may never see an answer to. I want to give generously without expectation of receiving anything in return. I want to look beyond myself and play whatever part I’m called to, entrusting it all to the Lord of the harvest. I want to plant the tree today, even when it will be someone else sitting in its shade or eating its fruit.
I took thousands of photos and recorded a notebook full of interviews in my two weeks in Zambia. Many of those stories will be shared in Tearfund’s communications in the coming year or so. But many of them won’t – there are simply too many. There are those for which I don’t have the consent of the people in them to publish. And there are countless more that didn’t get recorded at all: stories of hope and inspiration, loss and longing, challenge and triumph.
I can relate with John as he closes out his gospel, still full of stories and encounters but out of opportunity to tell them: Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written (John 21:25).
The stories I can tell only scratch the surface of the transformation that’s happening in Zambia, and that which is still needed – and it’s important to be reminded of this. Why? Because for all of the evidence of God’s kingdom we get to witness, there is infinitely more at hand that is not only unseen by us, it is out of our control. It’ll happen without us, and God’s glory isn’t reliant on us being there to further it or even witness about it. But rather than push us into a place of passivity, it should lead us into stewardship: joyfully and generously sharing the Lord’s goodness that we can taste and see.