What kind of “preferential option for the poor”? (PE nr. 1093 – 2018/07)

A well-judged and long-term commitment

It is an option “which has the mark of good judgement” and which aims to be around for a long time. That is the plan. I now submit the details for the scrutiny of confreres especially the younger ones.

Giving bread to poor people or offering them a few coins, paying school fees, are all honourable reactions to the needs of people we know in the circumstances of our apostolate. We have all done so in one form or another. The recipients will be very grateful and they will call down God’s blessings on the good benefactor and may even decide to return and visit him from time to time when they need more help because they will always need more help. However, what happens when, one day, the benefactor leaves?

Thinking about this, I can imagine another way of helping people. It would be something well thought-out, more efficient, with the dream of resolving at least part of the problem in the very long term.

I dream of an option, of a commitment, that mobilises the whole Society as one, with the firm resolve to effectively relieve the burden of poverty. It would also give those who cannot help themselves anymore, the power to retake control of their lives and to break the vicious circle of poverty, while retaining their human dignity.

What I am suggesting is not new. Confreres have already had some experience of it before individualism took over. They opted for a bold community reflection, in order to get out of the vicious circle of a purely automatic and mechanical distribution of funds. The ‘I received, I give’ mentality risks creating an ‘addictive fan club’ or to put it bluntly “dependents.” Do not the Africans say, “The hand that gives is always above the hand that receives?”

If two three or five confreres, after a community consultation process, came together to see how they could serve the people better, then they, through their own solidarity, can engage the solidarity of the Society and start a small trade school for example. It would not matter if those helped were Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, African Traditional Religion. By training the young people in the area, they would move beyond their own circle of ‘fans.’ They would give the young people the skills to help them participate in the development of their country and make a living at the same time. This is liberation because they are no longer under the stigma of a poverty they did not choose.

I feel deeply that what we have always wanted to say is ‘empowerment’, which is awkwardly translated in French as ‘capacitation’. This aims to open up the possibility for somebody or a group of people to develop themselves through self-improvement and at the same time improving their immediate environment. Training is a very effective way of bringing about this empowerment. To teach poor people to get the best out of their environment thanks to adapted agricultural techniques (agricultural school), to train young people in a village to build decent and solid houses which improve living conditions and to make a living by working as masons, carpenters, mechanics, electricians, and tailors. The people going to work in these areas will develop their region and achieve a better quality of life for their family. What we will then miss is the queue of people sitting in our offices asking for help and sometimes submitting to our reprimands because they have no choice if they are going to get a few pennies from us.

Why do I insist on trade schools? Because there is a cruel lack of well-trained young people with these basic skills in many of the countries where we are present in Africa. This directly affects all development. Chinese businesses and projects even bring their own Chinese workers. Sometimes businesses find it difficult to find qualified workers to carry out infrastructure and basic works such as plastering or plumbing. Vocational or trade schools are rare and the Universities, who are only producing semi-intellectuals, are proliferating. Thousands of graduates are thrown onto the work place and they are not qualified for anything. If this state of things continues, Africa risks falling back into under development. This is not good news.

If Providence has ordained that some gifts have passed through our hands, if we are really committed to the Proclamation of the Good News in Africa, then we can participate in the “miracle of charity” by choosing to help the poor in the most efficient way. We can dream of how we can help them become agents of their own well-being and even their own happiness. We may not be able to eradicate poverty, which has existed since the dawn of time. On the other hand, we have proof that the lives of some peoples have clearly improved over the last number of decades despite having experienced periods of extreme poverty. Do we not have confreres who give because they themselves suffered a lot from poverty and now they have made the choice to let the poor profit from the generosity of their benefactors? These are noble sentiments. However, the result is not always what is intended because it creates an attitude of dependency and it is easy to make friends with the money of the benefactors.

Des jeunes en apprentissage à Sharing Centre à Kampala

For us, Missionaries of Africa, “the preferential option for the poor” could be best served, as the Treasurer General has proposed, by an internal Office for Development. It would help us to put forward community projects, which would really help the poor thanks to a judicious discernment of the projects we want to carry out. This would also involve an impact report on the project. We would gain because we are doing things together. The outcome would respect the dignity of people and have a lasting impact on their milieu. It is one thing to have money; it is another thing to know how to use it well!

We need to be daring, taking a risk to do things differently even if that will deprive us of personal “success.” What is within our reach is showing our good intentions for the poor we want to help. That is the best “preferential option for the poor.” There are many confreres who have good ideas and who are ready to share them. There are also those who receive a lot and who would like to do something good which is sustainable and which lasts. What we have to do is to be open to one another and exchange ideas frankly, even if it means talking about money.

Where are we going to find personnel for these “lovely projects”? This false question will lead us to a false answer. With whom can we do it? It will certainly involve a combined effort among ourselves.  

A confrere to whom I submitted this text told me, “Beginning a school for the poor or a training centre will require regular resources, and what if one does not have them?” So then, let us not start from here. However, that does not stop us from looking for resources if we know people or organisations that could help us efficiently. The basic idea is to use wisely and rationally all those resources and make them a tool of the apostolate fot the Society as a whole rather than letting them remain in the hands of individuals.

To your pens, give us your ideas; tell us of your experiences.  

Freddy Kyombo Senga, M.Afr.

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