Tilling the earth under the blistering sun


The first time I went bouldering last January I ended up with blisters all over my hands. It was over a decade since I’d done any form of climbing and my hands weren’t used to it.

This morning I helped the umoja group in Tonle Bati till their land under the scorching late morning sun. I’ve now got two impressive blisters to show for my efforts, which I’m currently resisting the temptation to bust. My life working in an office in London has never quite felt so embarrassing.

Over lunch we spoke with Ke Pich, the pastor of New Life church in the village – we’d met earlier in the day and heard some of his story, but the new titbits made an interesting life incredible.

He’d only became a Christian in 2009 after watching Christian television programmes, went to the church in the next village and told the pastor there of his commitment to Christ, and also went on to prove the pastor’s doubts about his conversion by lasting more than three months.

For the past few years he’s been leading the church in his village, and since 2012 working with ICC to develop an umoja group for the church and, in time, for the community.

When Ke Pich was three Pol Pot came to power. He was sent far from home to near the Thai border and separated from his parents and forced to work carrying cow dung to the fields to for fertiliser for the crops. Occasionally he would be able to see his parents, in theory once a week.

Once, he was crying out to see his mother when Pol Pot saw him, and promptly struck him round the face. A tiny symbol of the violence inflicted on a nation.

After the Khmer Rouge regime fell and Ke Pich was nine he walked home. It took him about a month and walking barefoot he, unsurprisingly, got blisters all over his feet.

I now boulder frequently and I don’t get the blisters any more, calluses have developed where once the skin rubbed raw. If I worked on the land more frequently, if I tilled more soil, I’d develop more and my skin wouldn’t form into the bubbles of pain now topping my palms.


When we do something time and time again we learn, and we learn how to change what we’re doing, we adapt and we improve. When I climb, I climb best when I learn from others, seeing what they’re doing that works and doing likewise.

In Tonle Bati there’s a lady who had fifty chickens. She did fairly well out of them, raising chicks and selling them at market. Through the church umoja group she also helped train other villages how to raise chickens, increasing the likelihood that they’ll be able to feed their families.

A couple of weeks back, at the height of the dry season, disease struck. Probably from a neighbour’s chickens, it wiped out most of her chickens. She’s left with just two hens and six chickens.

It’s a bad turn but it isn’t the end of the story. And this is also the beauty of Tearfund’s See For Yourself initiative. You can keep up with what’s going on in Tonle Bati, and hear the stories of the church and the villagers and how they’re seeking to improve the life of their community.

She’s not getting any new chickens from Tearfund or from ICC, but the church is there for her and that’s why Tearfund is focused on supporting and empowering the local church. Next time she’ll ensure the chickens get better food and clean water to try and prevent the same happening again.

The £3 a month that Tearfund is asking for to support these projects is excellent value for money. By investing in people they are ensuring that development is sustainable. While we’re out here we’ve got a target of generating 60 new supporters for Tearfund, I’d love it if you could be one of them. Give online at www.tearfund.org/bloggers

A Lidy bit of action


Today we met Lidy. Around the back of the church he is part of sit large water carriers branded with the name of the international charity that provided them. That charity has now left.

I say this not to make another charity look bad, because we were told they’d help train villages up in fish rearing, pig rearing, insect rearing. Yes, they rear insects here, they’re quite a delicacy (I ate a few myself yesterday). I say this because no charity can stay for ever, and if they did that would be a bad thing.

Lidy is only twenty and is the umoja facilitator for his church. Over the past year a group from the church have come together to ask what their community needs.

What a previous aid organisation had begun to do was encourage the local community to be a part of the development they were delivering and have an investment in the animals they were rearing. Umoja takes this a step further, it is for communities to take responsibility for the needs they identify.

For Lidy and his church the needs of their community were:

    1. Education
    2. Health
    3. Financial problems
    4. Spiritual need

On the inside wall of the church is written their vision statement. They want to increase the size of the congregation, they want to raise up leaders, they want to improve life for the community around them and along the bottom written in English it says: ‘Love Jesus Forever’.

This is a church taking responsibility for the place that God has placed them, they have recognised the needs around them and they want to do something about it.

Many members of the church are part of a savings group, where they invest regularly and from which they are able to borrow if they need to. It costs money to travel into town to use the bank, and the interest rates make borrowing money an expensive activity. I was reminded of churches in the UK setting up credit unions to offer an alternative to pay day lenders – maybe things aren’t so different here.

Lidy’s church is looking to set up a crop growing project and perhaps restart some pig rearing. These will both happen on the church’s land.

Before we left the church we got into a bit of impromptu volleyball over an electrical wire with a couple of the kids that had gathered round to watch. Whether it was projects to serve the community, or a place for kids to play, this church was looking to be somewhere for the whole community in years to come.

After one year they’ve barely started and the work Tearfund are involved with is delivering change through investing in people, like Lidy, who will not leave after their programme is finished. If you want to support Tearfund train more people like Lidy find out how you can at www.tearfund.org/bloggers.


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?

Keep up with all my fellow bloggers and I are up to at: www.tearfund.org/bloggers (and you can sign up to give there as well).


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.