I’ve always been interested in technology (computers and anything related to it) and use this to the best of my ability, especially when I’m working in my office. As I’m away from my office fairly often, my cell phone has now become a handy device to check my email (and to do Facebook updates!) But as a missionary in rural Swaziland, where most houses do not even have electricity and not a single house has running water, modern technology has little use.
Last week I was visiting a lady in her primitive house together with one of the caregivers of Shiselweni Home-Based Care
. She is in constant pain, has swollen legs and sores forming on her skin. The caregiver had enquired before whether the client was HIV+, but she seemed reluctant to speak about this. When I visited her, the client took out her “clinic record” card – a document each patient receives when going to a clinic for the first time on which diagnosis and medication are indicated and handed it to me. It’s not the first time it’s happened. I don’t know why they do it, but it might be because I’m white and that they think I am a medical doctor. I had a look at the card, but the diagnosis gave me no indication of what was wrong with the woman. Neither did I have any idea what the prescribed medicine was for.
And then I thought of a possibility. The Swaziland cell phone service does not allow me to go onto the internet with my cell phone. But then I realized that the area in which this woman’s house is located, is fairly close to the Swaziland / South Africa border. I changed the network on my cell phone and found that I could connect to the South African service provider through which I could go onto the internet. I Googled the name of the medication and immediately found that this was indeed anti-retroviral medication (ARV). It was the weirdest feeling, sitting in this primitive homestead, with someone who has absolutely no idea what a computer is, let alone the internet or Google and finding answers which will enable us to raise the standard of our care for this individual. One thing we will do, is to ensure that she takes her medication regularly as prescribed and also to ensure that she has enough nutritious food to eat.
I couldn’t help wondering where this could lead to in the future. We’ve already had situations where clients had severe wounds. The caregivers could take photos of the wounds with their cell phones and we then showed the photos to a pharmacist who helped us to decide on the best medication and method of helping each client. For people in Western countries, this may sound fairly primitive. In our situation, where doctors are scarce, public transport is expensive and where people are so sick that it is very difficult to transport them, this technology might, in the words of Neil Armstrong, be a small step for man, but a giant leap – if not for mankind – at least for the people in rural Swaziland.
One of my favorite topics that I blog about, is partnerships in mission. Almost three years ago I posted the following three essays on the topic of partnering in mission:
One of the reasons why I’m positive about a more formal “partnership agreement” is because it leaves room to end the partnership in an honorable way. In Swaziland, in our Shiselweni Reformed Church Home-Based Care
, we have a number of “formal” partners and a number of “informal” partners. In the short term “informal” partners are good people to have around. They’re mostly excited about mission in general, they tend to follow a vision easily and they will often set great ideas in motion to support mission. The problem comes when the individuals who had driven the vision within their own church or organization lose the vision or move away. The support can then stop abruptly if there is no formal partnering agreement.
In the long term, a formal agreement works much better. Agreements are made beforehand. The partner may agree to be part of the mission project for a certain time (one year, three years, five years) after which the partnership comes to an end. Or the partnership runs for a year with an option to renew the partnership for another year, depending on certain criteria.
As we entered our new financial year on 1 March, I had concerns about three of our “informal” partners. Because we have no written agreement, I had no idea whether they were intending to continue their support. One of them told me a day or two ago that they have no intention of stopping their support. (Big sigh of relief!) After I contacted the second one, I was told that no decision was made to stop support but it seems that no decision has been made to continue either. So we’re still waiting to see what will happen. Which strengthens my argument. The third partner also made no contact with us, but I did hear via the grapevine that they are stopping their support.
If you’re part of a supporting church / organization / foundation or you’re an individual wanting to help a mission organization, the more formal agreement might in the long run be much more fruitful, both for those giving and for those receiving help.
For the past few weeks I’ve been under extreme pressure, not sleeping nearly enough, working towards deadlines and eventually feeling more tired than I think I’ve ever been in my life. Last week we trained a group of 43 new caregivers for our HIV/AIDS home-based caregiving project ( www.shbcare.org
). I usually only attend the last day, when we have a celebration function at which time we welcome the newly-trained caregivers into our group and commission them to go out and serve their neighbors. This is usually a very touching ceremony, but on Friday morning, when I had to leave to join the new caregivers, I was so exhausted that I could not imagine how I would get through the day.
I arrived at the community in the Mantambe area and greeted the trainers who were waiting outside for my arrival. I then entered the community hall where the newly trained volunteers were singing in their typical Swazi fashion. But even that couldn’t do much to lift my spirits – I was just too tired to care. But I put on my smile and as the crowd was singing I started greeting them all with a handshake – the first one, then the second one, the third, the fourth and then the fifth one. And then, as I shook the hands of the sixth person, she let go of my hand, put her arms around me and hugged me. And then the next one did the same. And the next one. And the rest of the 43 new volunteers all did the same. This is not Swazi custom. Swazi’s are normally very reserved in the way they greet and even more so when greeting someone of the opposite sex. But as each one hugged me, I could feel my energy returning and the rest of the ceremony was a huge celebration.
That afternoon, after returning home, I tried to tell my wife what had happened. Failing to be able to share the emotion I had felt, I summarized it by saying that I had never in my life experienced so much love concentrated in one place. Nobody else had known how I had felt that morning, but as each one hugged me, it honestly felt as if it was God Himself putting His arms around me.
Feeling fairly revived on Saturday, I thought back to what had happened the previous day and realized that, as one starts serving others, this action in itself leads to advantages for oneself. This was probably an unique experience and I can’t expect to feel the same when next we train a group, but I will always cherish in my mind what had happened on this past Friday.
One of the questions that I’m frequently asked when people hear about the work of Shiselweni Home-Based Care
in Swaziland, is: “What’s the secret of your success?
” Although the question might be flattering, my standard answer is: “I really don’t know.
” (And this is not false humility!) God has been extremely gracious towards us and this, more than anything else, has been the major key to success. But then I do know that we also did certain things “right” which contributed towards our success. Through a number of – mostly negative
– experiences in my life and more especially in church ministry, I decided many years ago that I’m not going to follow the leadership hierarchy approach
in my ministry (or, in more Biblical terms, the shepherd / flock model
) where everything that needs to be done in church has to be channeled up
the hierarchy to the top in order to get approval and then channeled down
again. In church the result of this approach is usually that the pastor is totally overworked as he / she tries to control everything happening down the line. I opted for the “body of Christ” model
where I consider each church member to have certain gifts which they can and should use in service of Christ. And regardless what the gift is, if it is important to God, it is important to the church. This, I think, is the only way in which church members can fully function as a team. This does not make the role of the leader redundant. There are times when tough decisions need to be made and there are times when someone has to take responsibility when the buck can no longer be passed, but within a team approach this happens much less often than within the strictly hierarchal model.
The truth of this was further confirmed when I did some training on personality testing many years ago and realized that most business companies would probably be able to function far more productively if every employee was encouraged to use their strong personality traits (spiritual gifts and talents in the church) as part of a team, rather than one person making all or most of the decisions while the employees sit around waiting for someone to tell them what to do.
When a friend recently advised me to read Patrick Lencioni’s
“The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
” I had mixed feelings about it. (Raise your hand if you enjoy hearing how and where you are dysfunctional!) But I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I love his writing style. The book is written in the format of a fable
, taking a real-life situation which is all too commonly experienced in the corporate world (as well as in the church), and applying certain principles in the fable to better help the reader to understand where things could be improved and what the best method would be to do so.
Lencioni goes out from the premise that there are basically five things which can cause a team to become dysfunctional, (with the actual problem causing the dysfunction in brackets):
- Absence of Trust (Invulnerability)
- Fear of Conflict (Artificial Harmony)
- Lack of Commitment (Ambiguity)
- Avoidance of Accountability (Low Standards)
- Inattention to Results (Status and Ego)
Through the fable, the reader gets the opportunity to fully understand how and why the problem leads to the specific dysfunction and obviously methods are explained and demonstrated through the fable on how these dysfunctions can be addressed – even to the point of having to fire someone who, although that person might be an excellent employee, does not serve the interests of the team any longer. The book ends with a more formal discussion on different methods that can be used to improve on the team’s productivity.
This is a book I can recommend to anyone working with teams and I would especially want to recommend it to any church leader, as many churches still fail to understand how to make teams work.
As I finished the book, I mentally evaluated Shiselweni Home-Based Care
. After more than four years as project manager of this team, I still have to find a more dedicated and loyal team of volunteers to work with. Honestly! The problems we have are mostly minor. Through the grace of God, more than through my own wisdom, the team is functioning well. But as I thought about what Lencioni had written, I could see potential cracks. For one: Within the Swazi tradition, conflict
is usually avoided. But gossip is not avoided!
And gossip leads to a lack of trust. As I plan to start using this book with our twenty two coordinators, we will have to plan for a session on conflict management – and the only way to do this will be to teach and allow them to speak openly about frustrations they may experience with each other. But I’m excited to take this group of dedicated people up to an even higher level of productivity by focusing on still greater teamwork.
A great book that I absolutely enjoyed reading with great potential to make a bad team function properly and to make a good team function even better. Highly recommended!
I’m probably biased when I say that missionaries seem to experience God’s providence in more practical ways than Christians who are not involved in spiritual work of that nature. Or possibly it’s not only missionaries, but anyone part of faith-based organizations where they have to rely on the goodwill of people for the daily running of their organization.
I recently had an experience that still gives me gooseflesh when I tell others about it. We have a client in Swaziland who hurt his leg in 1993. What started as a small sore on his leg, developed into a massive sore which just became progressively worse over time. In 2008 we had a volunteer, Tim Deller, from Milwaukee, who worked with us. Through one of our caregivers, Tim met up with this man. You can read about Tim’s first gruesome encounter with John and his leg by going to http://swazilandexperience.wordpress.com/2008/03/07/7-march-2008/
and then scrolling down to: “My New Friend Johane
.” By the time Tim left, the size of the sore had drastically reduced and it seemed that it was merely a matter of time before the leg would be fully healed. But then, when Tim returned to Swaziland for a visit in 2009, he found that the sore had become much larger. His report on this visit can be read at http://swazilandexperience.wordpress.com/2009/08/03/3-august-2009
At the moment we are fortunate that we have a young pharmacist who is working as a volunteer with us in Swaziland and I asked her to make John’s leg a priority. By the time she leaves Swaziland at the end of the year, I want John’s leg to be healed fully. We arranged with a nearby pharmacy to give her the medication she needed and she has now visited him a number of times to clean and dress the wound. There is one problem however: the dressing is extremely expensive. It is costing us around R75 ($10) for a single dressing (and one dressing is too small for the wound at this stage) which needs to be changed twice a week.
While I was recently in Fresno, California, we had a reunion of a team from Fresno that had visited Swaziland in July 2009. One of the team members arrived with two bags which she left in a room with the request that I check the contents and take whatever I needed. One of the other team members works at a pharmacy in Fresno and I asked her whether their pharmacy by any chance sold the product we use for John’s leg. I was hoping that we might be able to get the product in the USA at a more affordable price. I had the name of the company manufacturing the product as well as the precise item name, but because it was produced by a British company, it is not commonly distributed in the USA and she could not help us, save for trying to get the name of an equivalent product produced in the USA. (A bit of a disappointment!)
After the visitors had left, I opened the bags that had been left there. The larger part of the contents was too sophisticated for our caregivers to use, but I then opened the other bag and – you’ve guessed it – I found a bunch of the dressings that we use in Swaziland, the exact British company name and the exact item. It honestly didn’t even cross my mind to pray about this. God had provided in our needs even before we thought about praying about this.
Sceptics may say it’s coincidence. I know it’s not coincidence. Statistically it would be hard to convince anyone that this had been merely coincidence. A product that’s not manufactured in the USA and not distributed in pharmacies in the USA, dropped at the exact location where I’m staying at exactly the time when we were trying (unsuccessfully) to source the product in the USA (and the person who had dropped the bags had NO idea that we needed that specific product. But furthermore, the fact that this is not the first time that we’ve experienced this type of thing happening, shows us that God really cares about the work we are doing amongst the people with serious health conditions, including HIV and AIDS, in Swaziland.
In more affluent societies people spread the word of their needs and others respond. Working within poverty-stricken areas, people tend to be more focused on God’s provision. I am not a man of “great faith”. Often I feel like the father of the boy possessed by evil spirits of whom me read in Mark 9:17-27
who said to Jesus: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
But each time something like this happens, then it helps me a bit further on the road of overcoming my unbelief.
No, I didn’t stop blogging. I’ve just been through an exceptionally rough time and when I did get a chance to relax, blogging was fairly low down on my priority list. But now that I’ve reached most of the deadlines that were stretched out before me, I should be able to do a few things that I neglected over the past 6 – 8 weeks, including blogging.
One topic that has been on my mind quite a lot lately, is the influence of prayer on mission. A lot has been written about prayer and I hardly consider myself as an expert on the topic. In fact, I’m usually the first one to admit that I have no idea how prayer works. That’s not the same as to doubt whether prayer works. It’s just that I have no special formula that I can use to guarantee that things will happen in the way we want them to if you keep to certain rules. I do also know the truth of what Søren Kierkegaard once wrote: “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realised that prayer is listening.”
What I do realize, the longer that I’m involved with mission, is the essential role of prayer in this work. Just looking at our own ministry in Swaziland, Shiselweni Reformed Home-Based Care, and the way in which God has provided in our needs after people prayed about something, has made me realize that, statistically, it would be virtually impossible to say that it was purely by chance that things had happened, sometimes within an hour after praying about a matter. It could happen once. It could happen twice. But when you have ten, twenty and more stories to tell of how people prayed about a certain matter and an answer came, then you have to admit that something supernatural is happening.
We have a large number of prayer supporters all over the world. Not nearly enough though! But those who are praying for us, form an essential partnership in our ministry. Some pray daily. Some pray on a specific day in the week for Swaziland. But without prayer support, we, who are working on the inside, know that our attempts to do what we do will never rise above mere humanitarian assistance.
We can do lots of good things for God, but to rise up to a higher level, every mission ministry needs consistent prayer support. Perhaps Acts 1:8 could be our guide for prayer for mission: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth. If every Christian could start praying consistently for four mission ministries – one close by, one a bit further away, one even more further away and one really far away – who knows what we might see happening in the world.
A very sad thing happened today. On Thursday evening I called our coordinator for our AIDS ministry to discuss a few issues with her before meeting one of our Home-Based Care groups on Friday. She told me that a family had been identified, a mother and father (both HIV-positive) who have recently had triplets. The children are one month old. The children could not be nursed as it is absolutely essential, when a mother is HIV-positive and nurses a baby, that the baby may not take any other food or liquid for the first six months, not even water, after which the child is put onto solids and then the baby may not be nursed at all anymore. With three children this is impossible.
However, when the family was found, the caregiver found out that the mother is feeding the children with thin maize porridge as she does not have money to buy milk formula. I was shocked when I heard this. On Friday morning I had a quick discussion with our coordinator about the situation and we decided that we would take responsibility for the children until they are at least six months old. We would buy the formula and bottles and everything else which is needed and will make sure that the children are fed properly. I went to a local pharmacy and arranged to have the correct formula ordered so that we could start caring for these children as from Monday.
At this point I need to share a remarkable incident, something which have happened to us a number of times in the past. Our budget does not really allow us to do things like this. Our income is too small and our expenses just too big. But we have learned to be open to the nudging of God when we need to do something like this and normally don’t spend much (and normally almost no) time on discussing where the money will come from. It’s not that my faith is so big. But God has taught us a few lessons over the past few years. In any case, when I arrived home on Friday and opened my email, I received a message that a group of students that had been with us in Swaziland had arranged to have money deposited into our account. At least now we know that we will be able to take care of the children.
And then, this morning, I got the news that one of the babies had died! Not because of HIV. Because of malnutrition. I was angry. I’d had a tough day, struggling to work through some bureaucratic red tape, both in South Africa and in Swaziland. But suddenly all my impatience seemed to vanish as I realized that these parents had lost a child, probably not because they did not care, but more probably because they lacked some basic knowledge and lacked the funds to be able to give their three children what they needed. I was angry at the injustice that seem to force certain people to do things that we would consider to be absolutely irresponsible. I was angry that we were not able to pick up this problem earlier.
The other two children are also suffering form malnutrition and have now been hospitalized. As soon as they leave the hospital, we will make sure that they are properly fed.
Last year I preached in a church (on World AIDS day). Afterwards I heard that a certain man who had been in the church was absolutely disgusted with the service, saying, amongst others, that AIDS was not his problem. The people who had it had made a choice and are suffering the consequences.
I wish I could take him to these children and ask him what they had done to deserve this.