Kountouma’s Story: The Daily Reality of Material Poverty

I believe in the power of stories. Stories carry a weight that no amount of essay and exposition ever will.

Did you know that when you listen to someone speak, you engage the language processing portions of your brain- where you decode words into meaning?  That’s all.

But when you listen to a story, you not only engage language processing centers, but you also engage any other area of your brain that would engage if the story were happening to you!

When you listen to a story, your brain engages as if you are experiencing the story.

(You might be interested to read my source here, but do it later. Don’t get distracted because there is a story coming.)

This is a story about Kountouma. (Koon- TOO-ma)  I want to tell you her story, because telling you her story will allow you to experience the reality of material poverty better than anything else I could write.

This is Kountouma’s Story

Kountouma has been our housekeeper this term.

Kountouma is our housekeeper. She is a Togolese woman whom I hired when we first arrived in Togo in October of 2015. She works for me three days a week helping me keep a house clean in a dusty and humid climate. She frees me to write curriculum, teach seminars, and to sit at my desk and write blog posts.

A few months ago, one of Kountouma’s two college-age daughters was in a motorcycle-taxi accident. She was wearing a helmet and at first it seemed she was just a little scraped up and sore, but otherwise fine. Then about four weeks later, she started having extreme pain. Even walking hurt.

Kountouma is a single mother. She was married once for a few years, but her husband’s mother opposed the marriage. She didn’t think Kountouma was good enough for her son, so she manipulated to separate them and eventually her son chose his mother over Kountouma.  He left her, refusing even to help her financially support their little girls.

Kountouma does have a legal recourse, but he is an officer in the military, which means he is connected in the government. If she took him to court, there is a chance a judge would rule in his favor due to his position, rank, or influence. Even if she won a ruling in her favor, it would cause him enough disgrace to lose his rank and position, which could make him vengeful. She’d be required to give him access to her daughters and she would fear for their safety. It was much easier for her to make an agreement with him. He stays away, and in exchange, he owes her nothing. She has traded financial security for the safety of her daughters.

I’d like to tell you that while she lives modestly, she is managing. But the truth is, she is not.

She has very little. She works for me part-time and I pay her significantly above minimum wage for her job, but she still only makes about $70/month. She has not been able to find another part-time job in the 16 months she has worked for me, so she is supporting all three of them on $70/ month.

Financial poverty at this level is a downward spiral. The World Bank defines extreme poverty as an individual living on $1.90/day or less. Do the math- she and her  daughters are living on $0.77/day.

Her home is a little ways out of town because that is where she can afford to live, but it means that transportation to work each day costs her more. She pays about $1.25 per day for a ride on a taxi-moto. Her daughters also need transportation money. During the rainy season, her neighborhood is inundated with mud. She has trouble getting a moto to come to work, and a car taxi would cost her $5.00 or more. Either way, even the weather can lead to loss of income.

She has no electricity at her home and no running water. They draw water from a well in their neighborhood, and the water isn’t clean.  Lack of clean water, electricity, and adequate sanitation means that she wages a constant battle with preventable illness. The swampy area where she lives means that she constantly has malaria.

This is not Kountouma’s home, but it does show the living conditions of some in similar circumstances. I don’t know how many people live here, but it is likely to be an extended family or possibly multiple families. This home, unlike Kountouma’s, has electricity.

It costs less than $10 for her to visit a locally-trained physician, but even that amount means she only goes to the doctor in a dire situation.  It’s much easier to go to the pharmacy , purchase whatever the pharmacist recommends, and hope it works. If the pharmacist is wrong, she’ll have to come back and try something else at more cost to her.

But even more devastating is the catastrophic effect one setback, like a motorcycle taxi accident, can have.

When Kountouma’s daughter was unable to get out of bed from the pain, Kountouma took her to the hospital with money borrowed from a neighbor. Her church helped her pay for blood tests and exams. Everything came back negative, but her daughter continues to be in extreme pain. The next step is for her to have a scan. (The word she used is generic. It could be an MRI, or it could be a CAT scan.) The price is going to be about $125.00. Almost two months salary.

Kountouma has no other resources. She is just out of options. She has been crying at work off and on for a week. She tells me she hasn’t been sleeping.

You may be wondering at this point why she didn’t ask me for help. About a year ago, Koutouma’s other daughter found a lump in her breast. Kountouma’s financial situation was exactly the same then as it is now, and at that point, we helped her pay for the surgery to have it removed. We gifted her some of the money and she borrowed the rest. She just finished paying that sum back a few months ago and she didn’t want to ask us for help again. It was humbling. Humiliating.

Without help, Kountouma’s financial situation will continue to deteriorate. She didn’t ask, but the Lord spoke to us to help- because it was within our power to do so.

Kountouma needs help in two ways. She needs help that falls under the category of “relief,” and she needs help that falls under the category of “development.” 

1. Kountouma needs the kind of help referred to in humanitarian circles as “relief.” She has an immediate and urgent need that she is unable to meet herself. This afternoon, we gave her a gift to pay for the scan for her daughter. And even more importantly, we prayed for her. Will you join us in prayer for a miracle for Sarah?

2. Kountouma also needs the kind of help that falls under the category of “development.” She needs someone to work WITH her (not FOR her)  to create long-term solutions. When we leave for the US in a few months, she will be unemployed again. But she needs to be able to support herself, even when something unexpected arises. She needs to own a solution with dignity. 

We are trying to help her with this need as well. Before she came to work for us, she had a stall in a local community market. She sold dried pasta, canned tomatoes, oil, and rice– basic staples in the local kitchen and the kind of thing that people buy daily to make a daily meal. She has managed to pay the subscription to keep her market stall, but she needs money to start back up again. Getting a start-up loan from a bank is difficult and comes with exorbitant interest.

Will you pray with us for this need as well? We want to help her, but this is a step of faith for us too. The amount she needs is not a comfortable amount for us to lend. This falls outside of the designations for our missions account, so this will be a personal arrangement.

I’m not telling you this story to make us look good. In fact, I didn’t really want to tell you what we are doing to help her, because we aren’t trying to brag and we don’t want praise.

But I decided it was important to tell you this story because I want you to see the face of extreme poverty. It isn’t laziness, or bad management. It isn’t lack of determination. It isn’t even lack of faith. Koutouma is why I have trouble swallowing the validity of the  “health and wealth” gospel.

The world is not fair, and that is just the honest truth. It is broken and fallen. Some people have, and some people don’t. But where there is great need, there is also great faith. The African church sees so many more miracles than the American church because so many believers in the African church have nothing else to fall back on. And where there is that desperation of faith– that need for God in which there is no plan B if God doesn’t answer– God answers. In fact, we got to be part of a miraculous answer to prayer just a few days ago. 

This is the hope we all have in Jesus. You. Me. Kountouma.

Will you join with us in prayer for her needs, and for the needs of millions of other individuals with just as desperate of circumstances whose names we don’t know?

 

 

 

 

All We Had Was Beans: Stories from the Field

Once upon today. . . . we went to visit an orphanage.

Well, it isn’t really an orphanage. But it’s a little clunky to say “once upon a time we went to visit a program for former street children who have been invited off the streets and are now short-term residents, during which time trained volunteers will attempt reconciliation and reintegration of the child with their family.”  They call it an orphanage, so we will stick with that.

This wall shows all the children currently in residence.

A bit of back story

Last fall we were contacted by King’s Circle Assembly of God in Corvallis, Oregon. The church wanted to do something special for children in Africa during the upcoming Christmas season. We, in turn, approached the Togo Assemblies of God Children’s Ministries department and asked about ministries directly impacting orphans or vulnerable children. The national leaders directed us to La Solution Orphanage, just outside of Lomé, Togo.

We first visited La Solution in November. We toured their facility and asked questions about the services the facility provides, and we heard about their needs, and we passed that information along to King’s Circle.

Click here to read more about the services and needs of La Solution Orphanage.

 King’s Circle then took an offering. A lot of consideration was given to how to use the gift to best help the ministry of La Solution. In collaboration with both the Togo Children’s Ministries  Department and the donor church, it was decided that the best way to help the program was to provide a three-month supply of food to meet an immediate food shortage, and to designate the rest of the funds toward an animal husbandry project that will both provide meat for the children to eat and provide income for the other needs of the ministry.  Meanwhile, the director of La Solution, Celestin Mawussi, knew nothing about the upcoming offering. The national leaders decided to keep it a surprise.

Once upon today, we went to visit an orphanage.

We pulled up this morning at a few minutes before 8 AM. Executives from the Togo National Children’s Ministries department pulled up in vehicles beside us. One of the vehicles was noticeably loaded, the wheel wells just inches from the tires.

The courtyard was quiet. The children were all next door at school, but Mawussi greeted everyone in typical African fashion, friendly and welcoming, but obviously not sure why we were there.

Pastor Renée Afangbedji, the children’s ministries treasurer, apologized for the unexpected visit and asked Mawussi if there were some people around who could help unload a few things from his car.  If Mawussi hadn’t guessed by then that something was up, the amount of cameras recording video certainly gave it away.

Renée opened the back of his little SUV to reveal that it was laden with food. Jugs of cooking oil, boxes of canned tomatoes and macaroni noodles, and five 50-kg bags of rice were unloaded, hoisted onto the heads of young men jumping in to help. Mawussi was quiet- not reserved or ungrateful– but thoughtful, and contemplative. I wondered what he was thinking.

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After the food was unloaded into his office, he invited us to come sit down. Introductions and social protocol completed, Pastor Koffi Evú, President of the Children’s Ministries department, began to explain.  “The department believes in what you are doing to touch the lives of children. Our missionaries, when they saw your work, were truly touched. God has put it on the hearts of a church in the US to help meet some of your needs. We’ve brought some food, but in the interest of helping you move toward financial independence, we also have a financial gift- enough to develop the animal husbandry programs.”

I was filming, but I looked up to see that Mawussi’s eyes had filled with tears. He stood formally, and explained.

Celestin Mawussi expressing his thanks for today’s gifts.

“I am lacking the words to say thank you . . . except to say that the Word of God is always true. Your visit is written in the Bible. One day Abraham received three angels without knowing they were angels. He showed them hospitality, and he fed them. He did not know why they were there. But when they had finished, they revealed that they were angels. They delivered a message of God’s promise- a promise that was fulfilled the following year when Sarah gave birth to a baby boy.

“In seventeen years, I have not had something like this happen to me. What you do not know is that this morning, there was nothing on the cooking fire for the children except beans. I was troubled because I knew that if I didn’t feed them, they would sleep during their class, but I had nothing but beans to give them. Our flour and our sugar are gone. I had no bread or beverages. So I gave them the beans and sent them to school. If you have ever had to tell a child that you have no food to give them, you know it is difficult.

“What you do not know is that this morning, there was nothing on the cooking fire for the children except beans.”

“But you have changed our situation. You have shown the love of God to these children. My faith was weak this morning, but those who believe in God are not disappointed.”

The Togo Assemblies of God Children’s Ministries department leaders, plus Mawussi, Director (far right)

I have no ulterior motive for telling you this story. We are not raising funds for this project. In fact, the offering that was given was for the specific purpose of helping the project be financially self-supporting. I tell you this story today because sometimes we all need to be reminded that God still sees us. Whether your situation is as desperate as having nothing to eat but beans, or whether it isn’t quite that desperate, God still sees you.

Psalm 25:3 says “No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.” We arrived with food on the very day they were out of food. Consider how much God planned in advance for this to happen. All of the preparation for this day, stretching back to last October and all of it came together just when Mawussi had reached the end of the food and the end of his ability.

 

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

Jeremiah 17:7-8

 

Mission KidMin: The Donated-Curriculum Connondrum

“We have some used children’s curriculum we would like to donate to Africa. How can we get it to you?”

It’s a question we receive on a regular basis and to be honest, it’s a hard one for us to know how to respond to.

We are so excited that you want to help. The lack of curriculum and resources is one of the three most common challenges churches here struggle with, and we appreciate that you are willing to spend money and make the effort to ship us your materials.

So how do we  let you know that your materials would be better donated somewhere else without punching your compassion in the throat?

The answer, I think, is to show you.

three reasons why U.S. Curriculum doesn’t usually work in Africa

1. Language

Your curriculum is probably written in English. This is a problem in some countries in Africa for the simple reason that English is not spoken. Africa is home to somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of the world’s languages, with even small nations like Togo recording 40 or more languages. Many countries have adopted a foreign language as their official language, the three primary being French, Portuguese, and English, but even those three don’t cover all of Africa.

In the nations where English is the official language, it is often people’s second or third language. Children may not learn to speak it until they attend school. Adult teachers will have to read the curriculum in English and translate it into the local language to teach it. And in some places, such as Liberia, the English spoken is so different that even the teachers would struggle to read a curriculum written in American English.

Still, there are plenty of places places in Africa where an English curriculum would be usable in terms of language. In fact, English is one of the primary languages in which we try to make materials available. But language isn’t the only issue.

Official Languages of Africa: The map is a bit oversimplified as many countries have multiple official languages.

Official Languages of Africa: The map is a bit oversimplified as many countries have multiple official languages.

2. Resources

When we first arrived in Cote d’Ivoire in 2001, we visited a local church that was asking for help with their children’s ministries. They were using a donated curriculum from the US that someone had translated into French for them.

We opened it to the first lesson- Creation.

Opening Activity: Attach a large sheet of paper to the wall. As children enter the class, give children crayons and have them draw a mural of all the things God created.

We looked around at the classroom space. A concrete floor, wood supports, a corrugated tin roof. No walls.

Even if they had walls, they had no crayons. Colored pencils were available but the cost was out of reach. The church had no budget for children’s ministries and the teachers couldn’t afford to donate them. Even the cost of the paper was out of reach.

Lesson Introduction: You will need to black out the windows before class. Seat children in a circle and turn the lights on and off. Talk about how God separated the light from the darkness.

No windows to black out. No electricity. Even seating children in a circle is problematic because there will be over 150 children in this 15′ x 15′ space on Sunday morning. They will be crowded so tightly on the benches that the children on the end will fall off.

The lessons continued, item by item, with very few ideas that could reasonably be done in this setting. At some point, their curriculum was just irrelevant because most of the ideas wouldn’t work as written. They just didn’t have the right resources.

The slideshow below highlights conditions in various Children’s church/ Sunday schools in West Africa.

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3. Cultural Appropriateness

Anybody who has worked in KidMin for a while is familiar with the term “age-appropriate.” It refers to adapting content and teaching methods to correspond to the age of the child. But did you know there is such a thing as “culturally-appropriate” too?

American curriculum is full of cultural imagery and references. For example, one lesson refers to a fisherman character. He wears waders, a utility vest and a big floppy hat. He carries a fishing pole and makes puns about the Bass Pro Shop.

Children here don’t understand any of this. A fisherman here goes out on a lake or on the ocean in a wooden boat and uses a net. He’s often dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts. Bass Pro Shop? What is that?

Superheros, spies, science laboratories, the circus, adventure sports– All themes that most children here would not relate to at all. Don’t even get me started on Pirates.

Setting aside the cute themes, let’s just talk about a curriculum’s application to children’s lives. The issues that children in America deal with are very different than those that African children deal with. There is overlap to be sure- some issues are common to all of mankind. But rarely does an American curriculum deal with trusting God in the midst of Ebola outbreaks or war. Rarely do they address the issues of children who are kicked out of their home onto the streets because a new step-parent doesn’t want them there, or with children accused of witchcraft, or children converted out of Islamic families.

I’m not saying that every child in Africa deals with such extreme circumstances. Even in less extreme circumstances, a US curriculum is much less likely to deal with food insecurity or how to witness to your Muslim friend.

American curriculum, written for American kids, just isn’t culturally-appropriate.

The Result:

If we try to fit this sort of square peg into a round hole, if we give a teacher a curriculum imported from the US, knowing it isn’t designed for her situation,  one of two things will happen-

  1. The teacher will conclude that in order to do children’s ministry, she must have walls, electricity, crayons, paper, glue, puppets, a projector.  If she cannot get these things, or the missionary cannot purchase them for her, she cannot do children’s ministry.

2. Or, she will just set the curriculum aside and not use it.

This is not a projection or a guess on our part of what may happen. This does happen. We’ve seen it. Either way, the investment of  purchasing a western curriculum, or of shipping donated curriculum here, is wasted.

The slideshow below is a real-life example of an American curriculum, with notes about what can and can’t be done in our local churches and why. *Note: The curriculum pictured is the Gospel Project, ©LifeWay 2016. The curriculum is well-received and popular in the US and this slideshow is in no way intended to disparage the materials. It is simply to highlight the difficulty in using them here in West Africa. 

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what you are probably thinking:

Let’s keep the conversation going. If you have read this far, you are probably still interested. I can guess what you are thinking because its what I would have been thinking.

Isn’t something better than nothing? An experienced teacher could adapt activities to their situation when they don’t work. 
That is true. And “experienced” is the key word. Few teachers here have  worked with creative teaching methods. They weren’t taught themselves using creative teaching methods.  They have no frame of reference. They aren’t ready to adapt. So what happens? Either item 1, or item 2, above.

We can provide the paper, the craft supplies, and the puppets as well. 

Thank you for your generous heart! I don’t want to be a jerk, but let me ask this question. Can you provide those things to all the churches? If you provide them to one church, another may conclude that they also need those things in order to do children’s ministry. Since they can’t get them, they can’t do children’s ministry. Is that the message we are trying to send?

We’ve donated before and the national people are always happy to receive it. 

Yes, they are. You are offering to help them and they need help. They may not yet realize that the materials you are sending them won’t work. Even if they do, their culture will not allow them to turn you down. It would be very rude to say “no,” to an offer of help, so they say “yes,” even if it won’t help them.

I’m not saying there is not a place in the world for donated curriculum. Even if Africa, there are a few isolated places where the conditions might be right for donated materials to be reused. But those places are few and far-between.

So now that I’ve trampled all over your good intentions, let’s look at the alternatives. What is the solution? What is the better way?

 

 

 

Mission KidMin: The Curriculum Campaign

We first met with the team of children’s ministry volunteers at Temple Eben-Ezer in Lome earlier this year. There are about 12 of them, each one a volunteer. They are men and women, married and single, young adults, and middle-aged,  each with his or her own job and family to attend to. But they come every week to teach around 300 children between the ages of 2-16 the word of God.

“Tell us what you are doing,” we asked them. “How do you decide what to teach each week?  Are you using a curriculum?”

An uncomfortable silence followed. They eyed each other nervously, each one hoping another would speak. Finally a young man in his twenties smiled shyly, “No,” he said. “We don’t have anything. We meet every week. We decide who will lead the music and who will lead the prayer and who will teach from the Bible. We decide what the Bible theme will be. Then we come on Sunday and teach it.”

“What are your biggest challenges?” we asked them.

“We need training,” they said. A few of them nodded and another one raised his hand, commenting that he had been to one of our training seminars. “And we need curriculum.”

Temple Eben-Ezer is normal. In fact, curriculum for the children’s programs is one of the three most-often expressed needs in Children’s ministries across Africa.

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The Children’s church volunteers at Temple Eben-Ezer in Lome, Togo

As KidMin missionaries, one of our number one priorities is to-

  • Locate usable materials for Africa and facilitate their translation and distribution, and
  • Create new, culturally appropriate materials

why do african churches need curriculum?

This may seem like a softball question, but let’s take it apart and examine it. Why do they need curriculum? Can they not teach directly from their Bibles? Children’s ministry is as old as the church, but children’s curriculum is a relatively new concept.

African kids ministries need curriculum because they need solid biblical content.

Children’s pastors in Africa are almost unheard of. Most of those involved in children’s ministry are volunteers. They may be adults, or it may be teenagers teaching the children. Many are new believers themselves. And in order to faithfully teach the Bible, they have to adequately understand the Bible. A good curriculum provides solid, Bible-based, doctrinally-sound content.

african kids ministries need curriculum because the teachers are largely under-trained.

Most children’s ministry volunteers in this part of the world lack any personal experience with creative teaching methods.

I was raised in the suburban American church. I am familiar with a flannel-graph Bible story, a memory verse game, what an object lesson is, etc. But across most of our region, those teaching children were taught as children using rote-memory and lecture-based learning. They were taught to repeat what the teacher says and to sit down and listen to the teacher talk. It’s what they know.

In our efforts to train teachers how to disciple children, how to transform their lives, we constantly stress the importance of teaching in a way that children will learn– that is to say, abandon lecture-style teaching, or preaching a sermon to children. Use methods that allow children to participate, to be involved in church, and to be active and vibrant members of the church, not just pew-warmers.

In fact, we kind of have a catchphrase we stress in all of our training:

The more you participate, the more you learn. 

But if the teachers don’t have any frame of reference to even know what those kinds of methods look like, and they don’t have a curriculum to tell them how, they fall back on what they know- lecturing, preaching, and reciting.

african kids ministries need curriculum because they need comprehensive biblical content,

If you are writing your own lessons, week after week, month after month, how do you know if you’ve covered the entire Bible in the years that children pass through your ministry? How do you know that you have covered the broad range of topics that children need to hear in order to build their faith? How do you know if you’ve spent too much time teaching about the life of Joseph and not enough time teaching about the life of David?  A well-written curriculum is intentionally planned to teach a broad and balanced range of topics, and to tie the Bible into one cohesive story.

So now that we know why. . . .

what makes materials USABLE in the african context?

A good curriculum covers a broad range of topics, and has been written to intentionally give children balanced spiritual nourishment. A good curriculum in any country, in any church, should always be Biblically-based, doctrinally-sound and comprehensive. But in addition to these criteria, what else are we looking for?

In order to be usable by a local African church, it must also be:

In a language the teacher can read.

If we can find materials in English, French, Portuguese, or Swahili, we can cover most of Africa. We can also cross-translate materials.

Resource-level appropriate.

A curriculum that requires A/V equipment, supplemental materials or costly supplies is out of reach. Even one that requires photocopies, crayons & craft sticks is probably out of reach.

Culturally-appropriate.

Children in this region are not familiar with western cultural references. Going deeper, even some of the issues children here face are different than issues faced by children in western cultures. A curriculum here needs to be able to challenge children to deeper faith in their own daily reality.

Unfortunately, this excludes 99% * of American curriculum from being usable in Africa. We hate to be Negative Nellies, but importing donated and out of date materials from the US really doesn’t help our churches. If you are interested in more information on why this is the case, please click this link to read my previous post, “The Donated Curriculum Conundrum.” 

*May be poetic license, but you get the idea. 

Locating and distributing existing materials

Why re-invent the wheel? We are always on the lookout for existing materials that are usable here. We look for materials that meet the above requirements, and we look for materials that incorporate creative teaching methods. How can we tell our teachers they need to teach creatively so that children learn, and then give them materials that don’t?

There just isn’t much that fills all of these requirements. But we are always on the lookout.

We ask Missionaries:

Missionaries have been here for decades and many of them have written materials for children. We just have to locate them. We ask everyone we meet. We ask other organizations. We ask other regions of the world. “Do you have any materials you’d be willing to share?”Then we put them on an online library that we all can access.  It’s all about sharing.

we ask national churches:

National churches have written some of their own materials. The country of Togo has been producing Sunday school material and distributing them to all of their 2,000 + churches for at least ten years. This material contains good content, but is weak on creative ideas. So what can we do to help them strengthen it?  We can help them add creative teaching methods! This way, they create a product that is both 100% theirs, and still effective at discipling children. We are also encouraging them share too!

We translate:

Finally, we are working to translate the materials we do locate into other languages to widen their availability. One of our ongoing projects right now is the translation of an age-graded French curriculum. Eight years of Sunday school materials, already available in French, soon to also be available in English. This is a big step forward!

Creating New Materials

Creating new materials is a very labor-intensive process. That’s why we’d rather locate existing materials first!  But in some cases, creating brand new materials is the best option.

We are currently involved in a  project to create new Children’s church materials. The project, whose working title is “Principles for Life” is a cooperative effort between every region of the world. Missionaries and national people from all over the world contribute individual lessons which are being compiled into five years worth of curriculum. The lessons are specifically written for use in churches with little or no financial means, for use by teachers with little or no training. Currently, year one is complete, year two is in the editing process, and year three is completely written and waiting for editing. Translation is also in process into French, with the possibility of Portuguese to follow.  We are serving as the coordinators of the project, facilitating the French translation, and we have input on the editing team.

The slideshow below shows a lesson from the Principles for Life Materials. Notice that the only props required are items that someone in a developing nation can find in their home, their neighbors home, or on the way to church. The activities are simple and the materials cover the entire Bible in five years.

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HOW CAN I BE INVOLVED?

Please click here to find out more information about how you, personally, can be involved in any of our ongoing ministry projects, including Curriculum development.

Thank you so much for your interest in The Malcolms in Africa Curriculum Campaign. We would be glad to answer any further questions you might have about the project, and we appreciate your partnership. Together, we can build children’s ministry in Africa, reaching a generation for Christ and shaping the future of a continent. 

 

An Orphan and a Sheep Pen

An Orphan:

*Koku is a ten-year  old  boy. He’s an orphan by local definition. His mother died. His father remarried, and Koku’s new stepmother had little inclination to care for another woman’s child. Day after day she told Koku’s father, “Your son refuses to obey me. He is lazy. He has disrespected me.” Grave charges in this culture. Maybe they were true, and maybe they weren’t, but one day, Koku’s stepmother forced her husband’s hand. “Either he goes, or I go.”

So Koku became a street child, struggling daily to survive and facing a future that could include crime, being trafficked or exploited, or prison.

“La Solution” is an orphanage, but it isn’t what you expect. It wasn’t even what I expected. This orphanage is not a permanent residence center. It focuses on kids like Koku, and it’s primary goal is the restoration of Koku’s relationship with his family.

Welcome to the Orphanage "The Solution"

Welcome to the Orphanage “The Solution”

This orphanage looks for kids like Koku. “We go out after nine o’clock,” one of the orphanage staff explains. “That’s when you will find the children. They sleep next to gas stations and under the tables in the public market.” This was where the staff found Koku. They offered him food, clothing, a place to sleep, if he was willing to come with them.

Trained staff, licensed by the state, visited Koku’s parents. They explained that Koku was safe with them. They explained the law- that Koku’s father has forfeited parental rights for three years, but  both Koku and his family will be offered counseling and education, and a chance at reconciliation at the end of that time.

Koku moved into the boys dormitory. He was welcomed into a community with friends from similar situations and adults who understand the unique needs of rehabilitating street children.

The dorm room housing boys Koku's age.

The dorm room housing boys Koku’s age. The green netting keeps malarial mosquitoes from biting while the boys sleep.

Today, Koku is fed, attends school, receives medical care as needed, and is expected to participate in daily chores. Deliberate attention is paid to making sure that Koku hears about the love of Jesus, and that he is given every opportunity to allow Jesus to transform his life.

Koku attends school in a classroom like this one. (Koku is not pictured.)

Koku attends school in a classroom like this one. (Koku is not pictured.)

At the end of three years, another reconciliation will be attempted with Koku’s family. Will it be successful? I do not know. But the success rate after three years must be high, since this particular orphanage has had nearly 500 children come and go in the last 15 years. It currently houses 40 boys and 33 girls between the ages of 5-18, and has a waiting list of 45 more children.

A Sheep Pen:

But what does any of this have to do with a sheep pen? Stay with me and I’ll get there.

This program sometimes doesn’t have food to feed the children. “I can explain it to the older ones,” the director told us, “but the younger ones just cry. They are hungry and they don’t understand. It breaks my heart.”

This program struggles to pay tuition fees. “We can’t send street children to public schools. The children don’t adapt and the schools won’t adapt. So we have to send them to private schools. It costs 2,600,000 cfa (about $4,500) to send all of the children to school for a year. We never know where it will come from.”

This program constantly struggling to pay for basic health care for the children. “There is a clinic just around the corner. The woman runs it out of her home. She treats the children, for free when she can, and on credit when she can’t- something nobody else will do. But we owe her 450,000 cfa. (About $785) She needs us to pay her even just a little bit of that because she is out of medicine. But we don’t have it.”

I know what you are thinking. You are already reaching for your wallet. I even commented to Phil, “this is the kind of thing that makes me want to empty my pockets.” But let’s rein it in for a moment. Is a one-time donation the right solution for this project? It might solve an immediate need, but what happens next week, or the week after?

This orphanage is not a missionary endeavor. It was started by Togolese people for Togolese children. That is a good thing! It represents local people creating their own solutions, and ownership is the beginning of sustainability.

Sustainability is the ability of a project to maintain its own operations, services, and benefits, without dependency on outside help.

This orphanage depends entirely on donations: local churches, alumni, local people, and the occasional outside organization. None of these are stable sources of income. Donors are hit by recession and can no longer afford to give. They lose their jobs. They change their giving strategy. Or they just get bored and give to a new cause. For whatever reason, when the donations stop coming in, the program will suffer. Until La Solution has a stable source of income, it will always be vulnerable.

How can we help projects like these? You are generous. You are ready to give, but this isn’t intended to be a fundraising post. It’s intended to be an illustration. Sometimes the best way to help projects like “La Solution” is not the glamorous way.

The orphanage is building a sheep pen. It is just one of several projects they are working toward to generate their own income. Their plan is to buy lambs and raise them, breeding them and selling them year after year. The annual income will help keep the program running. Most of the project is complete- they have purchased land and they have built a shelter for the animals. But they only had half of the roof on when their funding ran out.

the best way to help a street child like koku may be to help the program supporting him achieve financial independence. It may be to build a roof on a sheep pen. 

sheep-pen

As a missionary of 18 years, I can tell you from experience that some things are easier to raise funds for than others. Raising funds for food, for school supplies, or for medicine is easy. Raising funds for a roof on a sheep pen is harder. It’s not glamorous. It doesn’t tug on our heartstrings.

But my hope is that the next time you are making a decision about giving, you will remember the sustainability principle and consider how giving to an unglamorous project, like a tin roof on a sheep shed, might be the best way help a street-child like Koku.

*Koku’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.

The “It’s Complicated” Relationship Between Poverty and Dignity

A number of years ago, Phil and I were in a difficult financial situation. I had been unemployed for several months despite my persistent attempts to find a job, and the mailbox was full of envelopes stamped in angry red letters, “Last notice”. One day, when we had just $10 in our checking account, and no reserves, I stood at the gas pump doing math in my head. “For six dollars, I can buy 2.5 gallons of gas. The car gets 27 mpg. It is 20 miles to Phil’s office. That should be enough to last until his next payday. I’ll use the last four dollars to buy a gallon of milk.”

That same week, a friend happened to hear of my difficulty by reason of tears I couldn’t hide in time. She asked what was wrong. I broke down and told her the whole story. Being my friend and a wonderful human being, she immediately took out her checkbook and wrote me a check for $300, no further questions asked, no repayment required.

It was a tremendously generous gesture and to this day, I am moved by her act. But there was a consequence of her gift that neither of us had anticipated. I felt shame. Had I somehow manipulated her into giving to me? I hadn’t intended to. Her own finances probably were stretched by the gift. How could I have taken it from her? The money helped, but what I really needed was a job.

For the next several months, the vague sense of dishonor returned every time I saw her. I didn’t post on my Facebook when we scraped together the money to go out to dinner because I didn’t want her to see. When I wore a pair of shoes that looked new, I felt like I had to explain to her that they weren’t new. How could such a kind gift produce such a humiliating consequence?

As a missionary working in some of the poorest countries on earth, I hesitate to tell this story in this context. Even in my moment of poverty, I still had a car to drive and a home to go to. I never missed a meal, had electricity and running water and clothes to wear. My situation was not dire. But the story still illustrates my point. There is a complicated relationship between poverty and dignity.

In their book, “When Helping Hurts,” authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe an exercise in which they asked various people to define poverty.

While poor people [in low-income countries] mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc. [pg 51]

Interesting, isn’t it? That people living in some of the lowest income places on earth don’t define their poverty solely as a lack of money.

Think about how you might feel if you needed a foreign person to send you money every month so you could feed your children. Would you feel thankful, but oddly ashamed at the same time?

Might you feel a little humiliated, too, if a tourist in your country snapped a picture of your child sitting in the dirt and then used it to elicit sympathy for their fund-raising campaign?

What kind of desperation would drive you to surrender your child to an orphanage supported by a church far away because they might give your child a better life than you could? Would you not wonder why someone wasn’t using those same donations to create opportunities for you so that you could support your own child?

What if your child got a letter from a child in a far-away country who was far richer than you, asking your child what it was like to be poor? Would you feel inferior? Embarrassed? Marginalized?

Might you feel a little voiceless if you ran a shop selling clothes, school supplies or toys, and a church in a foreign country spent more money than you would earn in a year to ship a container of the same items, to be given out in your town for free? Would you wish they had used the money they spent to ship the container to purchase from you instead? Would you fear what the influx of free goods in your town might do to your income?

So what am I really saying? Am I saying that my friend did something wrong in giving me a check for $300? Am I saying that we shouldn’t participate in child-sponsorship ministries or support orphan care initiatives or donate material goods?

No. That isn’t what I’m saying. I’m saying that sometimes help, even help with the purest of intentions, has unintended consequences. I’m saying that sometimes our helping hurts. I’m saying that all of us, missionaries, pastors, lay-people, anyone who wants to help others, can and should consider the dignity of those they want to help.

The fact of the matter is, we like to know who we help. We want the personal connection. We want to put the picture of the child on our fridge, or see before and after videos for the project we gave to. And that isn’t wrong, but it shouldn’t drive our methods. We should be careful that we respect the dignity of people- as capable and intelligent, made in the image of God and not just an object of pity- even if it means we miss the photo-op.
For example:

  • There are child-sponsorship programs that protect the dignity of those they help by channeling funds into projects that benefit many children and their families without putting people in situations that might be embarrassing for them.
  • There are a lot of great orphan-care ministries run through local churches. These ministries place local orphaned children in homes and communities, and help support parents who might otherwise be tempted to surrender their children to an orphanage. These types of ministries have an extra sparkle in their shine because they elevate the local church. The entire community sees the local church caring for children in need, which draws people to the church.
  • A clothing and school-supply outreach is a fantastic idea, and if the organizers are deliberate to purchase locally, more sparkle in the shine. We heard a story recently of a church in the US that wanted to purchase school supplies for children in need in Togo. The church sent a financial donation to the school. The school, a Christian school operated by the local church, purchased the supplies from the vendor next door, a Muslim man. The man was so touched by the idea that a church in America would support his business that he continued to donate supplies to the school in the months and years following.

These are just a few examples of hundreds of ministries endeavoring to be deliberate about when, where, why, and how they engage with the materially poor. A small adjustment to our practices, our attitudes, and our responses can make a big difference. By making informed decisions, we can avoid  unintended consequences and do a better job of showing the world the light of Jesus.

 

 

My New Clothes are Here!

When we first came to Africa, I struggled with clothing. I wanted to fit in, to show that I was glad to be here, that I cared enough to try. But I just didn’t like the local clothing.  I found the fabrics either ugly or gaudy, or both. I felt ridiculous in the  mu-mu style dresses and I found the two-piece “complet” outfits restricting and hot. But mostly, I just felt like I was pretending to be something I wasn’t.

Over the years, though, I have come to love African clothing. Perhaps it’s that fifteen years ago, Pier One and World Market hadn’t taken off in the US, and ethnic styles weren’t “in.” Perhaps African styles have changed a bit. Perhaps it’s that I’ve walked into too many churches feeling like I was the oddball in my Land’s End dresses. But whatever the reason, I have reached a point where I would rather wear local clothing than my American clothing on a Sunday or to an event.

Aaaaaannnnnnnyyyyywaaaaayyyyy . . .

Nearly a month ago, I ordered some new clothes. Michée, the seamstress I use, came to my house and I showed her photos of what I wanted. She took my order and the fabric I had chosen and left with it. If you missed that post, you might want to back up and read it here.

 The Denim Skirt

This is a bias cut maxi-skirt made from stretch denim. I got this photo off Pinterest. (Photo cred to Eve Collections.)  

I wanted a skirt just like this one. No changes.

I wanted a skirt just like this one. No changes.

I gave Michée the denim, which I had purchased here, and some scraps for the applique. She added the sparkly trim and the buttons. The buttons will not last long. One has already come off, and for practical reasons, I’ll probably remove the rest of them.

It came out exactly the way I pictured it in my head. Michée assures me this skirt is acceptable to wear to church, but I plan on pairing it with a t-shirt for everyday wear, and with a slightly nicer t-shirt for when I teach all day in hot weather. Due to the denim, it’s pretty heavy but it’s so loose so it doesn’t feel hot.

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The AG Cote d’Ivoire Women’s Ministries Outfit.

This outfit was kind of a Frankenstein of pieces I had seen. I gave her this photo, which I snapped, paparazzi-style, of a lady in one of the churches we visited, and told Michée I wanted this skirt.

This was the skirt I asked for.

This was the skirt I asked for.

I gave her this photo, that I found on a Pinterest board of Nigerian fashion, and told Michée I wanted the waistline of this top, but I wanted sleeves and I didn’t want the illusion neckline. I liked the top as pictured but felt like I would be uncomfortable in it in church. (Photo cred to weddingdigestnaija.com)

I asked for the top to this outfit, with some changes to neckline and sleeve.

I asked for the top to this outfit, with some changes to neckline and sleeve.

Here is what she created. It is very close to what I pictured in my head.

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The outfit is fully lined with cotton fabric. This will make it a bit hotter than a loose dress, but the lining is cotton and it helps the outfit keep its shape.

The top zips up the front. She added the trim herself, and although I hadn’t pictured it, it works. She also did pleats around the waistline where I was picturing gathered ruffles. But they came out so beautifully that I forgot I was picturing something different.

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She put fluttery sleeves on it when I asked for just straight. Normally I am not a fan of the fluttery sleeves—I feel like I’m flapping every time I move. But the flutters are high enough above my elbow that they don’t move around much.

 

The skirt has an elastic waist. She did perfect on the pleats up the back  and while the skirt is tight, (as they usually are) I can still sit down. I don’t think this one will be counted among the skirts that I have to hike up above the knee just to get into the SUV.

Back hemline of the skirt. Lovely!

Back hemline of the skirt. Lovely!

This fabric was given to me by a pastor’s wife in Ivory Coast and is printed with the Assemblies of God WM’s logo and theme. It’s local branding and I love to collect these custom fabrics.

This is a dressy outfit and I probably will wear it mostly to church and to pastoral events.

 The Boho Outfit

I found this dress on Pinterest and loved it. It is made from African prints, but as near as I can tell, it is not an African designer. I’ve never seen one similar here. It is a good example of the blending of different ethnic styles, and how access to the internet is making it easier and easier for African designers to blend American and European styles, and vice versa.

None of these photos are mine. Photo cred to original poster on Pinterest.
I showed the photo to Michée. What I told her was that I wanted sleeves and that I wanted it in two pieces instead of one , so that I can mix and match the skirt and the top with other pieces.  I liked the corset lacing up the back and I liked the patchwork bustle style back with the front of the outfit in one fabric.  (Photocred to Etsy seller ChopstixWaits. Listing is no longer active.)

Together, Michée and I browsed my fabric stash but we didn’t find anything appropriate. She asked me if I would trust her to pick the fabric and I agreed.

What she came back with was gorgeous. It’s probably not a fabric I would have pulled off the shelf myself, but it is absolutely perfect.

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This is a fairly simple dress. The top is lined, but the skirt is not. She got the corset lacing perfect and it has a hidden zipper up the side. When I put it on, I need help getting the corset to lace right, but that would be true of any corset-back dress, and Phil is happy to oblige.

She did a fabulous job on the patchwork on the back of the skirt too. I do feel like the skirt is a bit too long and I may take it up myself. (We went to a village church this Sunday and the skirt kept falling in the mud.) And the density of the gathers in the back is not quite as thick as I was picturing.

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I am really happy with this dress. It’s a fun outfit! It works for church but I am also excited to have something light enough to teach all day in without resorting to my t-shirt dresses.

How Long Did It Take Her?

It took her a little over three weeks to get back to me for a fitting. I was not surprised that it took this long, although at the two week mark she did call me to apologize for the delay and tell me she’d been sick.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is normal. In fact, there really isn’t a normal turnaround time. One seamstress once told me she could make me a dress in a day, but when she did, it was poor quality. The kind of work Michée did for me takes time, and she doesn’t run a shop- she just works out of her home. A professional shop might be faster, or they might be just as slow.

Like I said, no normal.

 How Did She Do It?

She made everything without a pattern. She has a “Certificat Couturière” meaning she formally trained to make clothing. I couldn’t make this without a pattern- her skills are amazing.

She made it on a treadle machine. There are electric machines here, but the ones I have seen are 30-40 years old and in bad shape. Since electricity is always an issue, a treadle machine is a better choice for most seamstresses and tailors. Their machines look vintage, but I suspect they are still being manufactured. Michée also has a serger, so the interior seam allowances are all serged.

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How Much Did It Cost?

Here’s a breakdown of what I spent.

  • $5 for the denim fabric for the skirt
  • $2-3 for the applique fabric part of the denim skirt. (She used scraps I had on hand, so I’m not sure how much that cost me.)
  • $18 for the fabric for the patchwork/ Boho style dress
  • $59 to Michée for her work. (Out of which she purchases the notions/accessories, etc.)

Total for all three outfits: $84.

A Note about Geography and Clothing:

Lest you expect me to show up in the US wearing these things, let me be clear. I am still very self-conscious of feeling like I don’t belong. There are very few of my African outfits in which I would be comfortable walking into an Applebee’s. But it works for me here! (And I’m looking for ways to bring African fabrics into my American styles when I am in the US. Right now, I’m thinking about a jacket made of wax-print. What do you think?)

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Mission KidMin: Agnes’ News, or How Teacher Training Makes a Difference

Agnes waited for us at the church on a sticky Thursday afternoon in August of 2016. She had heard we were going to be stopping by her church and she had left her wage-earning work aside to wait for us. She had news she wanted to tell us!

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A seamstress by trade, Agnes is also a volunteer “monitrice,” a children’s ministry teacher, at Temple El Shadai in Lomé, Togo.

In the fall of 2015, with the help of a visiting team of volunteers from the US, we had put up a Sunday school shelter at Agnes’ church as part of our Sunday School Shelter Project. The project assists churches with simple, climate-appropriate shelters for children’s ministry.

Within a few weeks, attendance at Agnes’s church swelled from about 75 children to over 200. The influx of children overwhelmed Agnes and the other the teachers and sparked a hunger to learn more effective ways of teaching. The old ways, rote learning and memorization, were not very effective, and the teachers were concerned the new children would not continue to come if nothing captivated their attention.

We arranged a teacher-training seminar in February of 2016, and Agnes was among the 75 teachers who attended, coming not only from Temple El-Shadai, but from a dozen or more other churches in the region.

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This is the teacher training seminar Agnes attended. She is in the center, her Bible and glasses in her lap.

When we arrived that day, Agnes was waiting for us. She greeted us with a warm embrace. “S’il vous plait, Madame.” I turned to her and noticed the anticipation glowing on her face as she began to speak.

“I wanted to tell you that I have been using the methods you taught us in my class,” she began. “The illustrations, the teaching games, the storytelling methods. And the parents have been coming to me, pleading, ‘Madame, what are you doing in children’s church?’

“I asked them what they meant and they said, ‘My children never used to want to come to church. Now they want to come. I used to ask them what they learned at church and they couldn’t tell me. Now they tell me exactly what they learned. What are you doing?’

“So I invited them to come see. They loved my class so much that they wanted to stay too. I had to chase them off and make them go back to the adult service!” Her eyes shone with the telling and I laughed at the image of her chasing mothers and fathers back to church. A little training had made a big difference.

Agnes was already in an ideal position to influence the lives of children in the Aflao-Sagbado neighborhood long before we met her. She lives in the neighborhood. She encounters the children in her daily life and she understands them. She is able to form relationships with them and to model Christian life in their culture and context.  What she lacked was training.

We train so that children may be effectively discipled in their own communities by their own leaders.

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Students working together to study what the Bible says about teaching children.

How do we do teacher training?

  •  Teacher-training seminars: Often one local church will host a seminar and invite the teachers from all the local churches in the region. A typical seminar is two full days, and we have taught as many as several hundred teachers at once, and as few as a dozen. We have taught these seminars since 2000 in many locations across the continent of Africa. Our current focus is on the sub-region of West Africa, which includes sixteen nations.
  • Training of Trainer seminars: We are not physically able to reach every church in West Africa, but by forming new trainers, we empower West African people to take charge of training others, and we expand our influence.

  We teach seminars for teachers in the local church and we prepare leaders to train others through Training of Trainer seminars and events.

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Training of Trainers seminar, National Children’s Ministries department, Lome, Togo. The attendees of this seminar graduated and will be training regional trainers in the 12 different regions of Togo.

How do we choose where and who to train?

  • Training of Trainer seminars are planned to be strategic. We have done ToT seminars at the national level in Togo, Burkina Faso, and Liberia. Those that graduated from our training are now tasked with training others at a regional level. Regional trainers will then go to the churches in their region to do active and ongoing training with local teachers. This formal plan for systematic training is currently off to a good start in all three of these nations, and we are working to expand it to all of West Africa.
  • Teacher-training seminars, those designed to teach local teachers, sometimes happen because we will be in a particular country for just a few weeks and we want to make the most of the time, but often they happen by invitation. We accept as many invitations as we can and we encourage the host church to invite teachers from other churches so as many as possible can participate. We are also looking at ways to use these seminars to mentor newly formed trainers and allow them to begin training.

We want to encourage national Children’s ministry departments to systematically train their teachers. To do this, they need trainers committed to going to all the churches and investing in ongoing and active mentoring.

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What subjects do teacher training seminars teach?

The basic teacher-training seminar covers topics that any children’s ministry worker needs to know in order to be effective at discipling children.

The seminar always includes:

  • Why Teach Children Creatively: A study about what the Bible says about the importance of teaching children and why creative methods are worth the extra effort they require.
  • Creative Storytelling Methods
  • Creative Illustrations
  • Using Games to Teach

The seminar may include:

  • Using Curriculum
  • Creating Lessons without Curriculum
  • Classroom Discipline

All the seminars are taught modeling the creative methods we promote. For example, in the session on games, participants play games to learn about using games. In the storytelling session, participants will hear and participate in several stories, and in the Illustrations session, students will work together in groups to create their own illustrations.


The takeaway from all of our seminars is the principle that the more you participate in a lesson, the more you learn.

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How can I be involved?

We welcome anyone who would like to be involved with this project at any level. Here are a number of ways you can help.

 

Thank you so much for your interest in The Malcolms in Africa Children’s Ministry Training Seminars. We would be glad to answer any further questions you might have about the project, and we appreciate your partnership. Together, we can build children’s ministry in Africa, reaching a generation for Christ and shaping the future of a continent. 

 

 

 

 

Clothes Shopping in Togo: Where There is No Mall

Hello my American friends! I need a couple of new skirts and a new church outfit. Want to go clothes shopping with me in Lomé, Togo?  It’s going to be a lot different than what you are used to! I plan on having these things made by a local seamstress, and the process is a little more involved than just a quick trip to the mall.  (Although if I have to go to her shop, finding parking could be equally as challenging.)

Can we find Western clothes here? 

Yes, we can. There is no cultural prohibition against wearing Western clothes, and in fact, nearly every Togolese person I’ve ever met owns some clothing in Western styles. Cast-offs and donations are sent to Africa by the container load and resold; often even the donated clothing is sold. Cheaply manufactured clothing from Asia is also extensively imported. Local vendors purchase them and sell them in tiny boutiques, off of clotheslines or makeshift stalls outdoors, in clothing markets displayed in organized heaps of chaos, or even direct sales via your friendly neighborhood street hawker.

Finding exactly what you want in the exact size you want is like looking for a needle in a haystack, but you never know when you might have a serendipitous encounter with a heap of used clothing.

A vendor selling western-style clothing at the side of the road.

A vendor selling western-style clothing at the side of the road.

Can we buy pre-made traditional clothes here?

Yes, we can. There are a lot of boutiques that sell handmade ready-to-wear traditional clothing. High-end boutiques have beautifully done pieces, often made with quality fabrics and fancy embroidery.The tourist markets and local markets are full of cheaper traditional clothing- often done with low-cost in mind: lower quality fabric, done on older machines and in general, less attention to workmanship.

The only challenge will be the size. If you are looking for something very large and flowing, it probably won’t be a problem.  If you want something more fitted and tailored, it could be more of a problem if you aren’t the same size as an average Togolese person. (We aren’t.)

How do we order custom clothing?

It starts with the fabric. You get to pick it yourself!

Fabric is normally sold in 2 yard sections, called a “pagne.” Most often, a vendor will have folds of fabric that are 3 pagnes (6 yards) which is enough fabric for a full outfit- top and skirt for a woman, top and pants for a man. If you want less than that, they will usually cut it for you.

Fabric ranges in quality from  poor to excellent, and the price varies accordingly. Low or average quality fabric will be about $1.25/yard or so. It is adequate for clothing, but the clothing will not last very well with daily use. The excellent quality stuff is about $12/yard and up, depending on the brand and how much decoration it has.

It’s not hard to find fabric vendors. Fabric is one of the staples of life here and nearly every community market, corner vendor, or streetlight hawker has some.

Once you have your fabric, you take it to a seamstress or a tailor. The best way to find a good seamstress is word of mouth, and believe me, there is a big difference between a good one and a “just okay” one.  In fact, there are seamstresses and tailors on every block in Lomé, and I’m sure that many of them are excellent, but we tend to stick to the same one or two because we know they do good work, we trust their taste, and we know they aren’t going to price-gouge us.

This is Michee. She's my favorite seamstress in Lome!

This is Michee. She’s my favorite seamstress in Lome!

When you go  to the seamstress (or she comes to you)  this is where it gets tricky. You really have to know what you want and you have to be able to communicate it to her. Many seamstresses have printed posters on their wall showing various options, and sometimes they have catalogs or old magazines too. You can pick and choose, “I like this hemline, but I want this sleeve, and this neckline.” Or you can try to draw it for her. But really, the best way to get exactly what you want is to take her a photo of it.


How do you know what you want if you aren’t familiar with local fashions? Well, you look around. I watch the women walking along the street, particularly on Sundays when women are wearing their nicest traditional outfits. I watch them come in and out of church, and I just pay attention to what people are wearing. If I see something I like, I take a picture. Full disclosure: I don’t like approaching strangers, so if I can get a photo without her knowing  I do. But otherwise, I just ask. They are always flattered.

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A stealth photo I took of a skirt that I liked.

Next, the seamstress will take all your measurements. When she settles on a measurement, say, around your hips, that’s how tight the skirt will be, so now is the time to tell her if you want it looser.  Remember that you will want to be able to sit, move around, climb stairs and climb into a vehicle. I’ve had some skirts turn out tragically tight in the name of fashion, and they hang in my closet collecting dust.

Sometimes she will ask for an advance, but most of the seamstresses I work with do not . To be honest though, I wouldn’t be surprised if I were working with a new seamstress and she asked for a deposit. There is no right way to do this. If you are happy and she is happy, then you did it right.

Finally, let’s talk about expectations. Even if you point to a photo on a poster or bring in your own photo that is exactly what you want, without any changes at all, you still have to be prepared that it won’t turn out exactly as you pictured it. Every ex-pat who has ever ordered tailored clothing can tell you stories about something that came out nothing like they pictured, for better or for worse, for beautiful or for tacky.

After you leave, she is going to go to work. She is a miracle worker. Seriously. She’s going to make you a one-of-a-kind piece of clothing, with no pattern, and often on a treadle sewing machine that we would call vintage, antique, or cute. What she is able to do is incredible– I’ve been sewing for 30 years and I can’t do what she can do with as little as she does it with.


She will call you when your outfit is done. It could be done tomorrow or it could be done next month. It’s good to ask her time frame in advance so that you aren’t waiting around wondering if she’s forgotten you, but remember that this is Africa. Time has much less importance here. In truth, it just depends on her workload, if she works alone or has apprentices, and what else is going on in her life.

My seamstress delivers my outfits to me. I know that  a bigger shop would not do this, but I like it because I can try them on and make sure they fit right. Once I’m satisfied, then we talk price.


There are a number of factors that can change the price. Number one is the quality of her workmanship. A good quality seamstress knows the value of her work. Next, if she added any decorations such as trim or appliques, or had any embroidery done. (Most seamstresses do not have embroidery machines, so they outsource it which adds to the cost.) Finally, if the dress had any detail work that added to her time– pleats, ruffles, fabric manipulation, the cost will be a bit higher.

So, what do I pay? Most of my dresses vary between $30- $40 for the workmanship.(Remember, I’ve already paid for the fabric.) Skirts are about $15-$20. Men’s shirts are about $15 and up depending on work. A cheaper seamstress would cost less, but her workmanship would not necessarily be as good either.  And prices in different places and different countries may vary greatly.

I know that doesn’t sound super cheap, but considering she’s spent at a couple days working on it, and maybe more, it’s pretty cheap. If I were making them for you, I’d charge a lot more.

And that is it! I hope you had fun shopping with me! It’s definitely not the mall and there is, sadly, no Starbucks or Orange Julius, but it is fun, and in the end, you end up with a one-of-a-kind outfit!

 

Come with us to Summer Camp: Kids Camp in Togo

Who doesn’t love summer camp? Some of my happiest childhood memories involve sleeping bags on creaking bunks, swimming in the lake, five days of freedom from parental admonitions to  use soap, and spoiling my appetite with all the candy my $5 would buy at the snack shack.

Side note: my Mom was really mad about the soap thing. I do not recommend it as a course of action.

But what about summer camp in other countries? Do they do it? What does it look like?

I can’t speak for every country. In fact, I can’t even speak for every country in Africa. But I can say that a lot of African churches run kids camps and a few weeks ago, we had the opportunity to visit one run by the national Togo Assemblies of God Children’s Ministries Department.

Do you want to take a look? Please say yes!

Kids on the front row of the chapel. I couldn't get any father back into the crowd because there were too many kids!

Kids on the front row of the chapel. I couldn’t get any father back into the crowd because there were too many kids!

We arrived at the camp on a Friday morning. The camp had already been in progress since Monday, and was scheduled to finish on Sunday. That is a long camp!

That wasn’t the only impressive thing. As we pulled up, there were kids everywhere. I mean everywhere.– even on top of the fact that we were the speakers for the morning chapel and most of the kids were already in the chapel waiting for us.

In fact, a later query revealed that there were about 3,000 kids at this camp.

3,000 KIDS! 

In 25 years of children’s ministry, I have never been to a camp with that many kids before. Immediately this begged all kinds of questions.

Was this a camp for the entire country? 
No! This was just a camp for the Lomé region- the capital city of Togo. The other regions would host their camps on other dates in other locations.

Of the 65 or so churches in the region, 50 had sent children. Do the math– that means that each church sent an average of 60 children. And although I neglected to ask the age range of the campers, it appeared to me that there were children as young as 6 or 7, all the way up to young teenagers.

How could they possibly keep track of the whereabouts and safety of all of these children? 
The more questions I asked, the more I realized the camp was operating on a very decentralized structure. In essence, each church was responsible for their own children. It’s different than the way our camps function, but it works.

How were they feeding and housing all of these children? 
Each church was given a dormitory or a large room in which to house their children. For the most part, children slept on mats on the floor, which sounds like harsh conditions to an American, but is probably not too far from many of these children’s daily realities. By sleeping them on the floor, they can fit a lot more children in much less space.

There was no central cafeteria for feeding the children. Instead, each church was responsible to send enough food to feed all their children for the entire week, and enough volunteers to cook it, serve the children, and clean up afterwards. After the morning chapel was over, we had lunch with one of the administrators and as we walked through the campground, we could see clusters of children eating around outdoor cook-fires and grills, multiplied by 50 churches.

As with housing, this may seem harsh to those of us who remember the particular rules of the summer camp cafeteria, but most kitchens here are outdoors, even in the capital, and children are accustomed to eating this way.

50 churches feeding 3,000 children in outdoor kitchens!

50 churches feeding 3,000 children in outdoor kitchens!

Volunteer "Mamas" from each church came just to feed the children from their church for the week.

Volunteer “Mamas” from each church came just to feed the children from their church for the week.

These kids were tripping over each other to get in the picture with their meal- pasta with a little sauce, bread, and a piece of white fish.

These kids were tripping over each other to get in the picture with their meal- pasta with a little sauce, bread, and a piece of white fish.

How do they have a chapel big enough for 3,000 kids? 
They don’t. I’ve tried to include photos that show you how crowded it was under the open-air chapel, but none of them do it justice. Children sat on mats on the dirt floor, packed so tightly that I couldn’t move out among them to get photos. Older children sat outside in plastic chairs set up around three sides.

Phil spoke by himself on this particular morning and despite the fact that he had super-sized all of his props, I’m still certain that only a small portion of the children could actually see his visuals.

Super-sized Bible story!

Super-sized Bible story!

What kinds of activities were there?

Just like an American camp, the primary focus of this camp was Jesus. Chapel started at 8 AM and ran until noon, incorporating praise and worship music, prayer, presentations of skits and choreographed dance by different church groups, a message and an altar time.

We didn’t stay for the evening service, but we were told that the evening would be similar, although probably not quite as long.

Four hours would be a very long chapel for an American camp, but like all the other differences in the way this camp was run, it reflects their reality. Church services regularly last this long. Children are accustomed to waiting and sitting through long events that don’t even target them. To attend a service that is entirely targeted at them isn’t boring. It’s exciting and it doesn’t happen very often for many of them.

In the afternoons, they offered various organized activities. That particular day, there were soccer tournaments for both girls and boys, with the winners to be announced in the evening service. On other days, they had Bible Quiz tournaments, dance and music classes, or the churches could organize their own activities.

As far as I know, there was no swimming, which, to me, seems like an integral part of summer camp. (“But Mom! I didn’t need soap! I swam in the lake every day!”) But again, that is my own cultural experience and not a necessary part of camp.

How much does it cost for children to attend? Can they afford it? 
It doesn’t cost any child anything. How cool is that? Nobody is excluded- children from Togo’s elite classes can attend alongside children from the poorest of the poor.

The use of the facility is donated. The woman who owns it as an investment property donates its free use for the week of camp.  Expenses such as electricity and water are covered by the National Children’s Ministries Department, and with each church feeding and transporting their children, all other costs are deferred back to the churches. It’s a brilliant way to include all children!

Children praying at the end of the morning chapel.

Children praying at the end of the morning chapel.

In the 16 years we have been involved in children’s ministries in Africa, we have heard a lot of cool stories about kids camps and their results, but oddly enough, this was the first time we’d had a chance to visit one. We hope you enjoyed taking a look with us!

If you are interested in visiting other events in Togo via blog posts, be sure to check out the other stories in the “Come With Us” Series below!

Come with us to Children’s Church!

Come with us to Church: Sunday morning in Lome, Togo