I began my sabbatical study leave by attending an international consultation on Child Theology. This gave real space to engage freshly with theological exploration of what it means to do theology where the child is placed in the midst of us all by Jesus. Many of those attending also exercise ministry amongst poor and vulnerable children. The heart of Child Theology is to ask, ‘What happens to all aspects of theology when a child is placed in our midst?’
Then after a few days reading it was time to fly to Rwanda. I approached the researching around the projects in East Africa from a simple question: “Did these begin as a compassionate response to the needs of children in poverty and move over time into more questioning of why they were in poverty and thus towards action around questions of justice?”
The reasoning behind this was the simple observation that very often individual Christians (and indeed those of other faiths and none) see a need and respond with compassion. Only later as they discover more do some at least start asking more questions about why the situation has arisen in the first place, and then find themselves involved in advocating and working for justice. Many never move beyond a compassionate response. (This is not intended as a judgmental statement purely observational). This journey can be observed in the recent history of Foodbanks in the UK where the Trussell Trust, for example, began very simply wanting to respond to a need, and whilst continuing to do this has moved ever more into questions of advocacy and policy based on issues of justice alongside compassion. The same can be seen in the recent development of ‘Holiday Hunger’ activities taking place across my diocese during the past 2 summers.
The reality I found however was that in all the projects in East Africa with which I spent time from the outset there was not only a compassionate response but also inspiration from wanting to pursue matters of advocacy and justice. These have developed and altered through the years but every project had some root desire for justice from its inception.
The Hannah Ministries’ Tumerere Project has worked with child-headed households since 2005. It began in response to the reality of child headed households created because of the 1994 genocide and the impact of HIV/AIDS. It has always been small scale. It involves feeding, developing skills that could be used for work (haircutting, basket weaving, tailoring), and helping ensure that these families rights are protected. As Josephine Mujawyira, one of the founders put it, ‘Care and love given to these children can help produce good citizens for our country.’ Alphonsine was first helped by the project in 2006; 10 years on her memory of the first impact of the project was, ‘it gave me lots of change; I grew up, gained weight, got hope, met other children and was helped to feel that life could continue.’
The Batwa Project in Kibali has developed a great deal since I first visited it. This project was the initiative of the Anglican Diocese who have had assistance from both Christian Aid and the Red Cross. The adults talked of how their lives had improved through fewer babies and infants dying because of ill health, cold and lack of shelter. They are pleased that their children attend the local school (including the first few to attend secondary school). They also invest hope in their children, ‘They will change our lives’. The children themselves spoke positively of school; they have good relations with other pupils. They feel confident and comfortable participating. There is less stigmatisation (a major change).
African International Christian Ministry was established by Enoch Kayeeye in 1983. It runs a Vocational Training College, works in community development across the region, including some specialist work with the Batwa. They have worked with orphans care and fostering. Over 30 years there has been a consistent commitment to this work. It has been far from easy. Yet meeting a community development worker who began in 1989 with a small group of people now coordinating 88 local groups with 5,674 members is testimony to faithfulness and inspiring in regards to how things can develop and mature. Sitting with the Batwa hearing them talk of their changed lives through local community development and engagement is also deeply moving.
The Potters Village was he project about which I had heard much but had never before visited. It began in 2007 when Revd Jenny Green, a CMS Mission Partner, had had more than enough of burying babies who did not need to die. What began as a baby rescue mission 9 years ago now still does that work, although in very different ways, but also has a paediatric medical centre, a child crisis centre, a nutrition centre and works out in the community with the families into which the babies are fostered. It has 58 staff, all local except for Sue and Dr Mike Hughes who lead the work today.
The Rainbow Centre, like The Potters House, started as a response to babies being abandoned, or parents simply being unable to care for their child adequately. It moved into fostering through local families very soon after its inception. The centre offers support, training, and activities. This was founded by 3 leading church women, headed by Mathilde, wife to the then Anglican Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi. This was a local response to local need, drawn from a conviction that acting locally was probably going to be more effective, and more able to use funds well, than that originated from larger international bodies. 13 years on it continues to work with the Childrn and families that came to them first in 2003. It continues, in the midst of a nation in crisis, to operate. Visiting foster families was truly inspiring.
Alongside these 5 ‘core’ projects Rosemary and I found ourselves visiting many others that also work with and for children in poverty in these 3 neighbouring nations in all their similarities and differences. An SOS Childrens Village, vocational training, health centre, and schools in Byumba; pre-school and single parent families work, schools and college, elderly persons work in Shyogwe Diocese, Rwanda; vocational training in Kisoro; health centre, church planting and community leadership in Gitega Diocese, Burundi and key conversations with those engaged in encouraging preschool development across Rwanda, tackling the support of orphans through community fostering in Rwanda, street children in Burundi, and education and health care in Uganda.
Alongside this there was the privilege of exploring with church leaders questions of the impact of the widening gap between rich and poor in all three of these nations. The questions raised by political stability and instability on the poorest, and particularly on the lives of children.
It was simply an enormously rich 4 weeks. I met so many inspiring people, from children in deep,poverty through to those in senior leadership. There were many smiles, laughter, an enormous amount of singing and dancing, and inevitably tears and heartache. But the abiding memories are of the former rather than the latter.
So in these first two posts I hope to have offered something of a flavour of what I did and why. Moving on I want to reflect on poverty and its causes; specific issues relating to child poverty. Then something about motivation of those who work alongside children in deep need. For now I hope you have enjoyed travelling with me through my brief memories of 4 wonderful weeks.