Three days ago I returned to Belfast after an exacting and inspiring journey in Uganda and Rwanda with Tearfund, the London-based Christian international development organisation, which has a regional office in Belfast and wide support throughout Northern Ireland.
As part of a group of Tearfund supporters and staff I was looking at two major projects where the local people were being helped to improve their living conditions and to discover better ways of helping themselves.
In the mountainous and beautiful south-west of Uganda, the Anglican Diocese of Kigezi is running a highly-successful water and sanitation programme. This is providing safe facilities for village communities, many of which are located in remote areas, where many people have died from water-borne diseases.
Trained staff teach the locals about the importance of good hygiene and safe water and the conservation of supplies. Rain water tanks are built, pipes are laid over rugged terrain, taps are installed and springs are protected and fenced off from animals and other predators.
The women and children are thus saved hours of carrying heavy containers of water daily up steep hillsides. Accordingly, the children have more time for school, and the parents have more energy and opportunities take greater care of their families, their land and their livestock.
This ingenious gravity-fed water scheme is relatively simple and inexpensive, and it has revolutionised the life of people in poor communities. People are encouraged to undergo tests for HIV/Aids, and those who are HIV-positive, or fall ill in other ways, have their water needs supplied and prioritised.
It is not a project for the faint-hearted and many a prayer was said silently as our vehicles lurched along dangerous dirt tracks high in the hills.
It was also encouraging to know the water was being made available to people of all denominations and backgrounds. Assistant engineer Nyakaana Swithen told me: “We do not discriminate. We are all God’s creatures.”
The Rwanda project was also inspiring. We met people from the Moucecore evangelical organisation in Kigale which provides healing and reconciliation, community economic development and counselling for HIV/Aids care and prevention.
The project was established in 1993, shortly before the horrendous genocide of 1994 in which some 1.6m people were massacred in 100 days of internecine madness.
Just three of the staff we met had lost some 80 relatives between them, in a communal butchering that defies description. Last Saturday, my colleagues and I visited the national Genocide Museum in Kigale which reduced us to stunned silence.
Despite past horrors, the birth of a new Rwanda continues apace, including the work of Moucecore which is helping to transform society through local churches on a cross-community basis.
It was a physically and emotionally demanding 11 days in Africa, but it was also an inspiring insight into two Tearfund-sponsored projects which really are making a difference to local people, and showing that the churches there are contributing significantly to the well-being of their wider communities.
There were many challenging stories which I will be sharing with different groups in coming weeks, but, in the meantime, I feel privileged to have met so many truly inspiring people. Their outstanding work puts many of our own problems into a different perspective.
Why you can’t beat Kenny with a stick
During my visit to the Uganda water projects last week on slippery hillsides, I fell twice on my very first day. One of my Anglican hosts named Kenneth, above, was so worried that he never left my side afterwards.
He even cut me a sturdy stick from the local forest to help with my demanding climbs, and I decided to keep it as a souvenir.
So courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines and British Midland my special stick arrived home late last night after a 4,000 mile journey, as a reminder of one man’s concern for me in my hour of need.
I shall certainly treasure it!
Gospel truth kept simple
Last Sunday I attended a Pentecostal service in Rwanda and, not surprisingly, the singing was memorable.
I was particularly impressed by one rousing chorus where the large Gospel choir led a spirited rendition of “ Jesus is the winner man, the winner man, it’s fun to see Satan lose.”
There’s nothing like keeping your theology simple