Ernest the not very sexy Earthworm


The least impressive thing I saw yesterday was a pile of dirt. It was covered over by corrugated metal sheeting in a small plot behind a house. And yet that pile of dirt matters. When the metal sheets were lifted and the earth poked, many small creatures came scurrying out.

It was the site of an earthworm rearing project, decided by the community as crucial to the village’s development. Because chickens eat earthworms, and humans eat chickens, and if chickens can be reared they can be taken to market and as well as feeding families they can provide income.

In just two days I’ve been struck repeatedly by the simplicity and effectiveness of the Umoja approach churches are using with communities across Cambodia. I also have no doubt about the challenges that are part of the process. The difficulty of recruiting volunteers, of finding churches committed to following this through, of overcoming a culture of dependency on aid.

And the earthworm is the perfect picture for the Umoja process. It’s great to see the classroom on the front porch, or the tailoring business financed by investment from four families. The chickens and geese are very visible. But the earthworms are all a bit underwhelming.


What matters most about Umoja is what happens under the surface. The projects that come out are brilliant and vital, and deliver very tangible things to communities in need. They help communities become self-sufficient, they educate children, they teach adults about basic healthcare. They are the things that make brilliant videos and fundraising appeals. I took some photos yesterday and instinctively knew which one was the best. Sure enough, it was chosen to illustrate an article I wrote.

Earthworms are less interesting, they don’t smile for the camera. There’s not even a dramatic contrast of colours between them and their background; you almost need a magnifying glass to make them out.

And yet they are the thing that makes other things happen.

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.

Churches committed to making their community a place people love to live in.

Many charities have worked at trying to address the problem of street children in Phnom Penh. The Umoja process tackles it from the opposite direction. Too often families and small children end up in the city under the prospect of a better life, and it does not materialise. What if, instead, the villages were made into places that families loved to live so were not tempted to move away?

What if the earthworm did its job and provided food for the chickens and nutrients for the soil? What if Umoja does its job and envisions the church, envisions the community and changes lives?

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