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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Umoja for beginners


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.