Umoja for beginners

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Being taught about a Swahili word by a group of Cambodian development workers was not what I expected on my first day here.

But the more I think about it, the more important Umoja is. It crops up all over the place. In conversations about wells, about classrooms on the front porch, on the cover of a community savings group account book.

Umoja means togetherness, and it’s the way Tearfund works on Church and Community Mobilisation the world over. For ICC, who we’re visiting this week, it’s at the heart of their Village Integrated Development Programme. They’re currently working with 15 churches, and through these churches are seeing 46 small projects changing communities.

In each village it looks a bit different, and works at different speeds, that’s what we saw today in the villages we visited, but at its core is the same five step process.

    1. Envisioning the church
    2. Envisioning the community
    3. Dreaming and developing a vision
    4. Plan for action
    5. Evaluation

This isn’t a quick fix solution,  the analogy the ICC staff shared was that of a chicken and an elephant. A chicken’s gestation is just 21 days – for and elephant it’s 22 months. Umoja is more like an elephant, it’s a long term process.

At the start the church must be on board, the pastor must be committed and a volunteer facilitator able to work with the community. The communities chosen to Umoja are those that have good relationships with the local authorities and wider community including Buddhist monks in the area. They have to be committed to serving the whole community.

Churches and communities are asked to be realistic but also to dream. Three questions they are encouraged to ask are:

    1. What are the problems?
    2. What are the dreams?
    3. What are the resources?

I mentioned it before, but the non-revolutionary, revolutionary part of this process is that the communities are not given the resources to solve the problems they identify. They are encouraged to see what they already have, and how using that, they can change their circumstances. Yesterday we visited a village using Umoja since 2009 and one of chief problems the church pastor identified was the good intentions of other charities who had given the community things in the past, chickens to start a chicken rearing programme, seed to start growing, and the chickens had been taken to market and sold. It had not lead to sustainable development.

Changing mindsets is one of the hurdles to getting the Umoja groups up off the ground. Once communities see the future in their own hands they take far greater ownership than if they are given what they need to solve their problems. The role of facilitators is vital. The action communities take, the small projects they establish, happen because they have changed the way communities think.

Probably the most heartening thing I heard yesterday was from the village facilitator explaining that the fish raising programme they had started early on in the Umoja process hadn’t worked and had to be abandoned. That’s part five of the process, after the envisioning, after the dreaming, after the planning and the action, comes the evaluation and seeing what works and what to do in the future.

We’re getting a chance to see for ourselves the work that Tearfund is involved with in Cambodia. If you sign up to give £3 a month as part of their See For Yourself initiative you can see the difference your money is making to communities in need.

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6 thoughts on “Umoja for beginners

  1. […] Umoja is the thing that makes other things happen. It’s the oil that keeps the projects moving and pushes communities forward. But it’s not the most visible of activities, it’s not the easiest to describe and definitely not photograph. On Sunday we’ll get to sit in on one group as they meet, so maybe some photographs might be forthcoming. But compared to smiling children and squabbling geese the Umoja process is about as exciting as Ernest the not very sexy Earthworm. […]

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