When Gifts Destroy

It is in the culture of America to give to people in need. I have been on enough short-term mission trips to see countless examples of American generosity. People have always been willing to share whatever they have with people in need. Whenever there is a natural disaster anywhere in the world, Americans do all they can to give to others. Most times, as in the case of a natural disaster such giving can be a good thing. But the indiscriminate giving that typifies so much of aid to the developing world has arguably destroyed more than is has helped. A series of events over the past few years have led me to the conclusion that in the long run the harm done by much of our giving is beyond what we have ever imagined.

A recent trip to western Zambia brought this lesson to light in a tiny village of less than a dozen thatch covered mud huts. A 30-year-old Zambian by the name of Kennedy became a follower of Christ. In the process of getting to know him it was clear that he was both a thinker and a leader in his village. I talked with him, through Bonny our translator, and encouraged him to also be a leader for Christ among his people. He agreed that he wanted to do this but expressed that he had a problem with the Bible.

Me: “Bonny, could you ask him what the problem is with the Bible”

Bonny: “He says he doesn’t have a Bible. But he does have a chicken”

Me: “Ummm are you saying he wants to trade a chicken for a Bible”

Bonny: “Yes”

Me: “Give me a moment” I then quickly spoke to Paul the leader of the mission in Zambia and he assured me that this is how it is done.

Me: “Okay Bonny, Kennedy can take this Bible and when he comes back tomorrow he can bring the chicken”

Bonny: “Kennedy says to keep the Bible and when he comes back tomorrow with the chicken then he will take the Bible”

The next morning it was quickly determined that even though cutting the head off the chicken to make dinner that night sounded exciting, plucking feathers for an indeterminate amount of time was not. Bonny had a further conversation with Kennedy that day making it clear that the white people weren’t sure what to do with the chicken. (I would have loved to have overheard that) So they settled on a small hand-made axe instead. So we exchanged a Bible for an axe.

Now some of you are wondering why we didn’t just give him the Bible. There are two very important reasons. If we would have given him the Bible it would have caused a serious amount of jealousy in the village and created more problems for the Gospel than we could have managed. Secondly, in Kennedy’s culture it is simply understood that you trade for things that you value. He was saying that he highly valued owning a Bible and was willing to sacrifice for it. We needed to honor that.

On the other end of the spectrum, ministries that have gone into places like Zambia and handed out lots of stuff have found that unless they keep giving away stuff, people don’t want to listen to them. A friend reported to me a similar situation on the border between Mexico and Southern California. Ministries from the USA have gotten into a routine of doing weekend mercy ministry trips across the border. These have become so popular that unless you come bringing lots of cool new stuff, you have no audience. It is even reported that some folks don’t even bother doing laundry because a new load of clothing will be given away every weekend.

On a bigger scale, I recently finished reading the book Dead Aid by Dambiso Moyo. http://www.dambisamoyo.com/ Moyo is a Zambian woman with a Master’s Degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in Economics from Oxford. In 2009 Time Magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. That’s the whole world people! Suffice it to say she has the academic chops and the life experience that should make people pay attention. Bottom line of her book is that the forty years of sending aid to the developing world has actually cause it to be less developed than it was prior to all the aid and actually made people’s lives worse. Just one small example gives us an understanding of why. A big time rock star rightly decides that thousands of children can be saved from death if only they had a mosquito net. So said rock start does a concert, enlists some of his buddies,and calls a press conference. They raise money for a million mosquito nets and promptly work a deal with Acme Mosquito Net Company in the USA and send the nets to children throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. They all feel good about it and move on to their next cause. Meanwhile, within a few years, the mosquito nets are worn out and ineffective. The celebrities have moved on and so now the kids need to find their own new nets. But here is the rub. New nets extremely hard to find in Africa even if you have the money and the price has gone way up. Why? Because the influx of a million or more nets a few years ago put all the little mom and pop net makers out of business and they are now having to receive aid from the World Food Program just to survive. Before they had a nice little business employing a handful of people and keeping three or four families alive. How different would it be if the nets had been bought, a dozen or so at a time from all the little mom and pop mosquito net makers in Africa?

What we need to come to grips with is the difference between relief and development. In the old cliché about it being better to teach a man to fish than give him a fish, there is a certain truth. But look, if the man is starving to death you don’t have time to teach him to fish. Give him a fish for goodness sake. But as soon as he is healthy, start the fishing lessons. Additionally, make sure the fishing lessons use equipment and techniques that work in his environment. Don’t show him how to fish with a fancy $400 fly rod that if it breaks he can never fix or replace. Just because that’s what you would use, doesn’t mean that’s what he should use.

But back to the gifts. It is interesting to note that the Bible says in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” There is a principle at work here. It has to do with the dignity of people and the value of working for something. When we always give to people we run the risk of creating a feeling of helplessness and dependency or worse, entitlement, that becomes a vicious cycle that sucks the life out of people. God created us to be people who worked, achieved, strove, and accomplished things in the world. Kennedy understood that even though he had yet to read the Bible.

So do we never give gifts? Of course not. But we must make sure that they are in the context of a relationship and not simply a way of making ourselves feel good, thinking we have solved a problem when in fact we may have made it worse. God gives the gift of eternal life through Christ. The “through Christ” part is critical. It is through a relationship that we receive such a precious gift.

Me and Kennedy


By the way, you may be wondering about the axe Kennedy traded for the Bible. I exchanged 20,000 Zambian Kwacha (about $5) with Paul in order to pay for the value of the axe. It was well worth the trade and it is in my office as a reminder of the value a new follower of Christ placed on having God’s Word to read and study as he seeks to lead his people.

Why Zambia Needs Jesus

I have traveled enough to have seen my share of Third World Poverty. From Swaziland, to the Amazon Basin, to India poverty has a somewhat familiar face. There is a difference between the rural and urban face of poverty but generally speaking when you see rural poverty in one country it looks a lot like rural poverty in another. The same can be said of urban poverty. Or so I thought. A few days ago I was introduced to rural poverty like I have never seen it before. The Western Province of Zambia is about the size of England yet has only a million people. Mongu is the largest town in the province with about 30,000 people. But don’t let the word “town” fool you. From what I could tell most of those 30,000 people live in grass huts no different from the rest of the province. Folks outside the town live in small grass hut villages ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred people.

It is estimated that in Western Zambia there is close to a 50% HIV/AIDS infection rate. Before the introduction of ARV’s or antiretroviral drugs, the infection rate was about 30%. So why the rise in infection rates? The ARV’s are helping people live longer. The tragedy in that is that lots of those folks are not changing their sexual habits and simply passing on the disease to more people. Included in that culture is what young girls go through after they experience their first menstruation. I small, closet sized straw enclosure is made outside the house. It has no roof and no door. It is a glorified walled fence with no door. it is built-in such a way that you can’t see directly in. The girls are placed their as the place where they now live and are forced to keep silent in order to learn submission. But every sex offending guy in the area knows this. So it is common for these young girls to be repeatedly raped and they must keep quiet the whole time. Not only do they suffer the trauma of that violation butit comes with the astronomically high risk of HIV infection.

As if it could not get more shocking, three out of five children in Western Zambia die before the age of five. So 60% of all children never see their fifth birthday.  What do they die from? Well AIDs is a big factor but so are very preventable and basic things. Scores of children die from drinking water that is not clean. In little ones, the diarrhea that results is quickly followed by death. Also high on the list is death from malnutrition. Even though Zambia is a net exporter of agriculture, the western province has been shut out and ignored by the central government. There are almost no roads leading into the area. Roads the do exist are either crater filled dirt roads or subject to flooding several months out of the year. So because of tribal disagreements, apathy, and the lust for power, children die.

As painful as that reality may be, the most shocking reason for this mortality rate was that some children are killed by their own parents in obedience to the dictates of the local witch doctor or shaman. Friends who I stayed with told me of the horror of learning that a family just a hundred meters down the road killed their baby. The local witch doctor told them the baby was cursed and the needed to kill it. So they buried the child alive. By the time my friends heard this and rushed to save the baby, it was too late. Lest you think that is one, extreme, unique situation we heard similar stories on several occasions.

But there is hope. My friends, Paul and Marinette Van Coller are living in Mongu and leading an effort called The Zambia Project. Along with an amazing team of people, including their 5 and 3-year-old sons, the Van Collers are providing education, health care, job training, a safe house village for abused children and are taking the Gospel to all parts of the province. Their vision is to plant a church within walking distance of all 1 million people in the province. Walking distance for them is not what it is in the west. Six or seven kilometers or about an hours walk is their target. That means they are working towards planting 6,000 churches.

The reason for planting the churches is simple enough. The only way to break the hold of animism and witch doctors, and sexual abuse of kids, and provide clean water and dignity is if there is a healthy church that is serving people in Jesus name. These folks need the freedom and power that can only come from the Gospel.

The process is actually rather simple. A group of people, including Zambians who are being raised up for leadership will head off into the bush in four by fours. They will go to a village and live out of their vehicles for a week or two at a time, building relationships and talking about Jesus. Eventually some people come to faith and become the beginning of a church. The team then stays in contact and trains local leaders to begin the process of improving their lives in the village. Eventually those new believers duplicate the process in villages nearby. If that all sounds very “first century Book of Acts” to you, you’re right. It is exactly that.

What inspires me is that people like Paul and Marinette and James and Jess, Lehana, Moses, Stephen, Maurice, Scott and Naomi, and Ruani, have dedicated themselves to serve others as Jesus would. Some of them are from the province and they are struggling desperately to bring Jesus to their homeland. Others are from outside Zambia but they know that God would not let them ignore the needs of others. In the developed world we find it easy to insulate ourselves from the harsh realities faced by most people on the planet. Just by reading this blog you have allowed yourself to move out of your isolation and see the stark reality of life that is normal for others. The question is, will you slide back into your comfortable world in the next five minutes or will you allow what you have learned to change you into a different person? Will you live more simply so you can give to others? Will you give up your vacation in order to go and spend two weeks feeding babies or even planting churches in Zambia? Will you reach out to the homeless person you pass each day on the corner? Will you spend more time with Jesus so you can learn to love as He loves and tell others about Him?