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What’s a Mom to Do?

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Begging feeds my children, but there is no dignity in it,” Kumafi explained. “I have been spat on, and a day rarely goes by that I’m not propositioned to sell my body.”

My new friend shared her story with me recently. Kumafi and I met when I was buying fruit at a roadside stand near our home. Her three kids caught my attention because they were speaking Bambara, the language I learned while serving 10 years with The Alliance in their home country in West Africa.

More than 60 percent of Africa's urban residents live in slums or informal settlements. Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk-Kwant

The day I sat with her on the corner where she begs, Kumafi told me she’s a widow. After her husband died, the extended family couldn’t afford to care for her and her children (the cultural norm in this part of the world), so they sent them to live with a distant uncle in our city of 2 million. Since he didn’t take responsibility for her care and she never had a chance to attend school or learn a trade—like many girls in West Africa—this young mom was forced into begging.

Our Response to Suffering

Kumafi’s story personifies the heartbreak I’ve witnessed in sub-Saharan Africa, where within the next decade  about 9 in 10 of the world’s extreme poor will live.1 Children and widows suffer the most: I’ve seen poverty force girls to make unthinkable choices; I’ve witnessed a mama grieve the loss of a child to malaria, even though treatment costs less than $10. I’ve seen how poverty rips families apart, forcing children to work, putting them at great risk for physical and sexual abuse.

How do I respond to this suffering? Together, as an Alliance family, we follow Jesus’ lead. He loved and cared for the poor, and He calls us to model His example and commands. (Check out these Gospel passages—Matt. 25; Mark 10 and 12; Luke 4, 6, 11, 12, 14, and 16).

Can Anyone Hear Us?

So, how do we define poverty? Most of us understand or measure poverty in economic terms—extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $1.90 a day. (I paid twice that when I treated myself to a Starbucks grande white chocolate mocha when I was stateside last year!) But here’s how 20,000 participants in a World Bank study, Voices of the Poor: Can Anyone Hear Us? described their plight:

Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness [because of] unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom.

Despite their great lack of resources, I’ve experienced the deep generosity of the desperately poor in West Africa. One Sunday, Kumafi invited me to her home in a massive junk yard, no more than a square room pieced together with old boards, scraps of tarp, and broken cement blocks.

She gave me the seat of honor—a bucket she had flipped over. Kumafi then served a meal from her home country because she remembered me saying how much I missed the dish. I could hardly eat it for the tears choking my throat and the smell and taste of beetles in the rice.

When I came home that afternoon and told my husband about my experience, I wept—over her situation and the injustice in this world.

Eyes Opened to the Urban Poor

I had previously worked in a rural setting among West Africa’s poor, but God used Kumafi to open my eyes to the many who call the slums or “informal settlements”  of our city home. Compelled to do something, I Googled, “How do you work with the urban poor?”

Last fall, Alliance teams and a local church began a nutrition and education program for the kids and mamas in Kumafi's neighborhood. Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk-Kwant

I learned that sub-Saharan Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world; with rapid urbanization comes increased poverty—more than 60 percent of Africa’s urban residents already live in slums or informal settlements.2 This poses a great challenge and an opportunity. In Cry of the Urban Poor, Dr. Viv Gregg says the urban poor now constitute the world’s third-largest unreached people group, which is doubling every decade; it is also the most responsive group to the gospel.

CAMA is the lens through which The Alliance both sees and serves marginalized and vulnerable people who would otherwise be overlooked. So, I don’t think it’s an accident that God opened our team’s eyes to the needs in Kumafi’s community. We also share a vision with the other Alliance teams in our city—to take the whole gospel to the whole person, to see healthy churches established among the urban poor.

Seeing Success

Last fall, in collaboration with our Alliance community development team, urban and medical teams, and a local church, we began a nutrition program for the kids in Kumafi’s neighborhood. Each weekly session began with prayer, after which every child was weighed and received vitamins. While the children played on mats on the floor, our medical team members taught health and nutrition principles to the mamas, who then received bowls of porridge for their children. The moms also had an opportunity to buy pre-packaged porridge, at cost, to serve their families the rest of the week.

Alliance medical workers facilitated the nutrition program in Kumafi's neighborhood, bringing their expertise, equipment, and training that helped to ensure its success. Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk-Kwant

The program was a great success. Within six months, all the kids were meeting their target weights and no longer needed to be enrolled!

We still make weekly visits to the community, where the doors are now wide open to continue sharing tangible expressions of Christ’s compassion. Currently, we’re in the beginning stages of working on a collaborative project proposal to start an education initiative with our other Alliance teams here; it includes planting a church that radiates God’s love to these neglected people. There are no communities of faith among the urban poor in this city—we want to see that change!

A Song for Kumafi

Over the Christmas holidays last year, my teenage daughter and I visited Kumafi, who had recently moved. Property owners of her previous home had demolished it, trying to rid the area of squatters like her. Kumafi was discouraged. She’d been out begging when her home was torn down and had lost most of her possessions and some money she’d hidden.

Alliance medical team members taught health and nutrition principles and gave out bowls of porridge to the children. Photo by Ewien van Bergeijk-Kwant

I’m not sure why—I’m the furthest thing from a vocalist—but I sang a song to her. It’s one of my favorite Christmas songs, in the common language Kumafi and I share, which talks about how Jesus, our Kisiba (Savior), has come. I was hopeful her spirit would be lifted to know she has a Savior—that He’d come to restore all that’s broken between the two of them and between her and her world. When I sang the chorus the second time, Kumafi tried to sing along! We gave her a bag of food items before leaving, and she teared up when my daughter and I prayed for her.

As we walked away, I asked my daughter what she was thinking. “It’s just sad, mom, it’s just sad,” she said. Poverty is sad. Our world is broken because our relationships with God are broken—the perfect, harmonious world He created was no longer “good” when sin entered the scene. Now, our relationship with our Creator God, each other, and our world can be messy and ugly. We see this in the life-conditions of people like my friend.

When we recognize poverty affects the whole person, like the participants in Voices of the Poor so poignantly expressed, we can begin to understand that caring for the poor is not just about adding to their income. Yes, money certainly helps, but it needs to be so much more. When we as the Body of Christ engage in efforts to help the vulnerable, the gospel must be at the heart of our efforts.

I continue to try and visit Kumafi weekly. I often buy lunch for both of us near where she begs, and we sit and chat. I know it will take a miracle to see change in her highly dysfunctional life. But I believe that when the good news is woven into every aspect of her life—when she sees, feels, and hears, even tastes it—that’s when she will experience true transformation.

May God give us all eyes to see the Kumafis around us—and courage to be the hands and feet of Jesus to them.

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