Local Ministries

Africans are us

by Bill Scholl

 I never expected to be talking to the archbishop about toilets – much less on the radio.  But there we were, recording his local weekly show, “The Shepherd’s Voice,” and I was spouting off about how to make and use latrines in Africa.

Recently, I had the privilege of traveling to Ethiopia and Tanzania with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to see some of the work and meet the people that the American Catholic Church helps through our support of that agency. Archbishop Naumann had invited me on his show to talk about Africa, and I felt compelled to share with him and his listeners how important community sanitation is to the developing world.

“One of the things I wasn’t really aware of till I went there was just how sick people get because they don’t have proper community sanitation,” I explained. “There’s so much we have in this country that we just don’t have to think about.”

I then proceeded to expound on arbor loos and ash (see sidebar on next page) and how CRS educates and helps people avoid getting sick. My short explanation started with latrines, which led to wells, and then to smart farming practices.

Capitalizing on the subject change, Archbishop Naumann made the following comparison.

“Back in St. Louis,” he said, “there was a priest years ago. . . . He was revered; he was known as Alfalfa George.

“He taught the farmers there to do contour farming,” the archbishop continued, “and it changed their lives, and it made them very successful. . . . It’s the same kind of thing now that we are doing in other parts of the world, trying to help people have the same knowledge of what can make them more productive.”

With that, the archbishop summed up all my sentiments and suppositions on my solidarity experience: Africans are us.

They are now where we once were, and our Catholic faith calls us to a solidarity that seeks to help them make a better life as once the church helped us to make a better life here.

As we tumbled along in a CRS Land Cruiser on the Ethiopian rough, clay dirt roads on our way to see a water project in a Muslim village, Lane Bunkers, the country representative in Ethiopia, shared this story.

“We went to a Muslim village to discuss with them their needs,” he said. “In the town there was a brand-new, very nice mosque and minaret equipped with loudspeakers for daily prayers. It had been funded with Saudi money, but the people did not have access to clean water. I can’t understand how you could build something like that before helping the people get clean water.”

Water was to be a constant theme throughout the trip. After some harrowing four-wheeling, we stopped at a village where we were greeted by hundreds of beautiful black faces dressed in bright colors.

“You are going to want to record this,” Bunkers predicted.

A chorus of women sang in unison, as 30 men, huddled in a circle, chanted a welcome to us. The chords reverberated their gratitude for what we, as Catholics, through CRS had done. I felt a little like the donkey on Palm Sunday — swallowed up in the joy and celebration in which I was playing such a slight role. But I was swelling with pride to be representing the Catholics of northeast Kansas, who support CRS.

Eventually, the crowd reluctantly stopped and the speeches began. We were touring the Harrar Catholic Secretariat (HCS) water project. Before CRS came, the villagers had limited access to water from various streams. During the dry season, water was scarce, and even when it wasn’t, it was unsanitary: Water was shared by both humans and livestock. But with CRS help, these villagers developed a cooperative plan that secured a clean water supply for themselves and their families.

“It’s a project we call the ‘Multiple Uses of Water,’” explained Bunkers. “We develop a water point for a community or a group of households with two purposes in mind: One would be the personal use for the families to drink; the other . . . would be for economic reasons — to serve as irrigation for their crops and as water points for their livestock.”

The plan involved drilling a well and running pipelines to separate supplies for human consumption and that of livestock. The cost of such a well runs between $30,000 to $40,000, a price completely out of range for a village whose inhabitants make less than a dollar a day.

A plan required the villagers to build a road — more like a wide dirt path cleared with ax and shovel — to provide access to the village by the CRS drilling rig. It also involved the forming of a governing board of 10 villagers to oversee the regulation and upkeep of the well. In order to ensure all stakeholders were represented, at least three of the members had to be women. Although the culture is a patriarchal one, the women do the lioness’ share of the water carrying.

Every family that used the well also had to agree to pay a small fee (about ten cents a month) to cover its upkeep. Once sufficient funds are raised to ensure solvency, the funds will be used to start a micro-loan program that villagers can borrow from for business ventures.

“Ever since the well, we don’t get sick like we used to,” explained one of the villagers.

A distressing reality in the developing world is that diarrhea from drinking bad water can kill. Waste passes through the body so quickly that it takes out all the water with it, and the victim dies of dehydration. Because children are especially vulnerable, CRS works with schools to teach the children hygiene. The children bring these lessons home to their families, and soon the entire village is living healthier, more productive lives.

The village of Yeme Umame Tokuma is lucky. It is on a hill with a good water- shed so it retains enough water to supply the well throughout the year. Other parts of the country and the continent are not so lucky.

When our trip took us to Same, Tanzania, I spoke to Harold Hmsanya, a CRS staffer who works on the “Multiple Uses of Water” project.

“CRS has been working with the Diocese of Same for quite a number of years, and the problem of water has been mentioned every time we go to the community. The critical problem here is water,’’ Hmsanya said.

Each community is unique in that it has special challenges and different resources. CRS works with each community individually to help it come up with the best plan to find and manage its water. At one water station in a remote town near Same, there is a sign that says it all. It reads: “Maji Ni Uhai” or “Water Is Life,” in Swahili.

Conservation is often key to CRS’ strategy. In many cases, the solution involves building terraces along hills or planting trees in what are called micro-basins so that during the times that it does rain, the hills are able to capture and retain the most water possible to supply the water table for wells. The process is labor intensive, which creates a problem.

How can families take time to build village infrastructure when they are already so busy tending their crops just so they can eat? It’s a devilish Catch-22 — you are almost starving because you don’t have enough water, but if you stop farming to solve that problem you will have no food.

Chris West, CRS policy advisor and one of the leaders of the tour, explained that CRS projects are prepared for that. The agency recruits villagers to do the labor, but then supports the workers during the time it takes to complete the project.

“And all during this time they are working to improve their community, we are able to help offer food through Food for Work programs (sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development or USAID) so that everyone’s provided for,” he said. “They don’t have to stop farming and risk going hungry in order to improve their village. Instead, they are free to terrace watershed hills so that they will have more water in future years.”

As part of the Farm Bill each year, the United States donates various grains to Africa. In many regions of Africa, CRS is the chief distributor of those grains. West said that as a CRS policy advocate his hope is that every U.S. Catholic would “give at least $10 to CRS and one phone call to a representative, asking him or her to support USAID.”

West wants Catholics to know that less than one percent of federal monies go to foreign humanitarian aid, far less than most Americans imagine. But he believes that USAID is perhaps the most effective investment America can make in promoting peace around the world. And it en- ables CRS to help millions.

Millions who desperately need our help. Africa is a land of contrasts, CRS workers explain.

“In Africa, you will find the home of the joyful and the sorrowful mysteries — experience it!” said Dan Griffin, CRS staffer and former head of programs in Ethiopia. And experience it we did, sometimes all at once.

On our brief 10-day trip, we experienced it in the agony in the garden of Mother Teresa’s homes for the destitute, where disabled patients don’t have the strength to swat flies away from their faces.

We experienced it in the visitation of joyful Africans greeting us in their arid villages all across the countryside.

We experienced the mystery of finding Jesus in the faces of the poorest of the poor.

We experienced heroic priests and laymen and laywomen striving to enable their countrymen to enjoy more prosperous lives.

We witnessed many moments of “pre- evangelization,” or demonstrating the love of Christ before speaking it.

“CRS is not directly about getting souls to heaven,” Griffin explained. “ It’s about getting people out of a life of hell.”

At the time, I was skeptical and asked myself, “Why not do both at the same time!?”

I was reminded of this naïve sentiment of a comfortable Christian when the archbishop shared a story of another beloved priest in the same radio interview mentioned above. The priest had promoted a sandwich ministry for the homeless in Topeka.

“The late Father John Rossiter . . . would say, ‘You can’t preach and you can’t teach someone who is hungry. They are not going to be able to hear the word of God until some of these basic human needs are met,’” said Archbishop Naumann.

The wisdom of his words echoes the wisdom of our church. You cannot show you care for a person’s soul, unless you are first able to share a love that wills for that person’s good.

Through Catholic Relief Services, “American Catholics are called to witness to Christ’s love through the kind of aid that breaks down prejudices and sees human beings as precious, simply because they are human.

Water is life, they say in Africa.

And it must be true. Because it was through the waters of baptism that we were all given eternal life in Christ — and made one in him. It is thus fitting for care to be taken to ensure that the waters used for baptism are first accessible to all . . . and free of disease.

Africans are, indeed, us.

About the author

Deacon Bill Scholl

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