Since the beginning of this year, I have been working with a Christian organization called New Song of Grace (NSOG) in addition to ChildVoice. Once a week I travel to a village called Paicho and teach a business development course to a group of about 100 men and women in the community. It has been an extremely rewarding experience so far and I am so hopeful of the possible outcomes of the course.

A few things are different about this class compared to the class I teach at ChildVoice. Many of these adults have had or currently have small businesses and want to learn how they can improve them. Those who do not have businesses want to start businesses and are ready to do so as soon as possible. Therefore, the participants in this class in Paicho really have a sense of ownership for this class. They don’t have to be there, but they take 2 to 3 hours out of their day each Friday to learn. There is no financial incentive for them as NSOG cannot offer loans, yet each week there continues to be a packed room. Also, I give them a “challenge” each week which they are expected to report on in the following class. This challenge could take an additional few hours each week, yet every week I have to limit it to only a few responses or else our whole class would be spent on their reporting.

Last week I went to Paicho early so that I could spend time out in the community with some local business owners and others who were not a part of the class. I first went around just making conversation and buying an item here and there—relationship building. This is a very important part of the Ugandan culture. Unlike in America where we get right down to business, in Uganda, you’re expected to develop a relationship before you discuss business. So it was on this second visit into the community that I was able to revisit and talk to the people who I previously bought from.

I asked the people about the problems they faced in starting businesses, about savings, spending, education, lots of topics that would help me to better understand the people of Paicho and the challenges they face so that I could (somehow…hopefully) help them to overcome those challenges and begin the economic healing process that is so needed in their community. I also asked questions during class—what did they want to learn about, what were their expectations, etc. What I learned was this: I should have asked them a lot sooner! They had great ideas. I stood there thinking “Why didn’t I think of that?” Of course they did though…they’re living it, shouldn’t they know their own needs? Yet more often than not, people trying to help the poor don’t even ask them if they want help or how to help them. You’d think that would be the first thing you would do, yet somehow, we think we know what is best for them.

At the same time as I am instructing this course, I am also a student in another course through the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. It asks questions that force me to reconsider every approach I’ve ever taken in working with the poor…and that’s a good thing. One thing that the course has taught me so far is that I must seek to address not only material poverty but poverty of being, stewardship, and spiritual poverty. Also, it has reminded me that the people I’m working with are the solution, not the problem. Of course that seems obvious, yet my previous approach to teaching (not asking, but telling), may have conveyed otherwise.

Most of the people in these communities never attended high school and many of them never even completed primary school because of poverty, war, gender inequality, or a myriad of other unfortunate reasons. They are so grateful for the opportunity to be educated that after each class each one of them lines up on the way out and curtsies (common sign of respect in Uganda), shakes my hand, or some combination of all three. It is very humbling. One woman even stayed behind afterward and kneeled down in front of me, asking me to lay my hands on her and pray for her. I felt most inadequate, but I did the best I could, praying inside that God would just speak through me.

Without education, there is little hope for a future here in Ugandan, and unfortunately, even with an education there is much difficulty due to the government systems. These adults have passed the time where they can go back to school, but what they can do is learn enough to create businesses that will allow them to send their children to school so that the cycle of poverty does not continue and there may be hope for the future.