Can You Go Back?

In 2006 I had the privilege of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Kili 2006
2006 Summit

It was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had.

Kilimanjaro climbs are done with the support of a huge array of porters, cooks and guides. In 2006, a team of 32 support staff, many of whom come from the same communities where Plant With Purpose works, accompanied our group of 8 people. There was something about the grandeur of the mountain, the camaraderie, the epic scale of the expedition and just a touch of real adventure that made it a very special time.

I remember the mounting sense of anticipation as day after day the mountain landscape got wilder and as I wondered whether I would have what it took to make it that final day, beyond nineteen thousand feet to the legendary Roof of Africa. Then came the growing feeling of accomplishment as it became clear I would in fact make it. Finally we came out on the rim of the crater into the midst of a storm and blowing frost that turned our windward sides white.

I have spent a lot of time over the past 12 years telling my children just how amazing it was. The climb up Kilimanjaro has been the subject of numerous dinner-time tales on backpacking trips through the years. At the same time, they have been begging me to visit Tanzania and see the work that Plant With Purpose is doing.

This summer it all came together, so this afternoon I find myself in Moshi, with my daughter, Amanda, 17, and my son, Danny, 14, preparing to start up Kilimanjaro in the morning.

CIMG5317Danny & Amanda on an earlier expedition.

A substantial group joins us, including eight Tanzanian primary and high school students and their chaperones, and Cindy Outlaw, the chair of the Plant With Purpose board, who will be making her 13th trip to the summit. If all goes well we should summit on the 23rd and sometime after the 26th I will be able to give an update as to whether or not one can actually go back.

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Dry Bones Dance

“Every now and then I seem to dream these dreams
Where the dead ones live and the hurt ones heal
Touching that miraculous circumstance
Where the blind ones see and the dry bones dance”

Mark Heard’s song, “Dry Bones Dance,” has long been one of my favorites. It, of course, alludes to Ezekiel 37, where Ezekiel sees a valley full of dry bones, which God miraculously restores to life. The image is wild, improbable and maybe just a little frightening.

However, it is also a vivid picture of something that is beyond hope – these aren’t just dead bodies after all, they are bones, and dry ones at that – being restored and blessed.

It is a vision that often comes to my mind when I look at a devastated watershed, and the people who are visibly suffering from its barrenness. In countless places, I have walked over hillsides that are dry, devoid of topsoil, with almost nothing growing. Sometimes the eroded slopes are scorched from burning. The inhabitants struggle with hunger and malnutrition, often eating only once a day. Hope is hard to find.

Yet I have also had the incredible privilege of seeing life breathed into these communities, of seeing them come alive. Because of our work in watershed restoration and agroecology, this transformation from death to life is often very visible. That which appeared dead begins to grow again. Streams begin to flow. Trees appear. Crop yields increase. Birds come back. The land flourishes. As the land flourishes the people start to flourish.

However, maybe the most exciting renewal is less immediately visible. Hope returns. Community members realize that they have what it takes to change their situation and forge a better future. In Ezekiel 37, God says that once the dry bones come to life, “Then you will know that I am the Lord.” Watching watersheds and villages come to life, I have often been overwhelmed by God’s incredible redemptive power. I have heard many of our local partners express the same sentiments. Then – together – we have known that He is Lord.

As exciting as it is, the redemption that we see physically and even spiritually is just a foretaste of what is promised. Easter is a great reminder of that promise of something even greater and far more lasting. Once again I drift into the words of Mark Heard:

And I long, long, long
For a world without end
The kind of thing that I’ve never seen
but in my dreams

He is risen! He is risen indeed.

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What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

Scott A FrameIn January, I passed a major milestone.

Twenty-five years ago, I first started working at Plant With Purpose. At the time, I never imagined that I would stay in one job for so long. It was a temporary job, part-time actually, and I was hoping to get some experience while I looked for something else.

It was exciting to get a foot in the door with an organization that served the poor and in a place where I could use my Spanish language skills. However, the environmental aspects of the work were not something that I was particularly excited about. Nonetheless, living in San Diego, I did not have a lot of organizations to choose from. Thus, my connection to Christian environmental stewardship is an accident of geography as much as anything else. However, as I learned about the intimate connection between the land and those who depend on it for their daily sustenance, I have grown passionate about the urgent need to care for the earth that God has entrusted to us. In a very short period of time I realized that I would not be happy working for an organization that didn’t address stewardship of the land as a key part of its mission.

Still, twenty-five years is a long time. I frequently get asked how I could stay in the same job for so long, and how I keep from getting burned out.

The answer to the first question is that the organization has changed dramatically since 1993, and every few years I have had to adapt my job to match and lead through the next stage of growth. In the early days, I was the Program Manager (actually Interim Program Manager for the first six months) so I handled much of the direct liaison with our field partners. As one of only two employees, I also did things like stuff envelopes, buy our first computers and fix the printer when it wasn’t working. And on the side I began reading everything I could about Christian ministry, nonprofit management, ecology, and community development. I also began reaching out to my peers to learn all I could from them.

As we began to grow, or rather when I saw that we weren’t growing, I realized that I had a very important role in fundraising. I fought that change for a long time – too long – until I began to understand that fundraising is ministry too. We hired people with expertise in international development who were far more skilled at program development and working with our international partners, so I took on more of a management role and my international travel diminished significantly. More recently, as we expanded beyond a support base primarily centered in Southern California and hired Regional Representatives, my domestic travel has grown to fill in the gap. Finally, as we have broadened our fundraising capacity, I have had the opportunity to take on more speaking and writing opportunities, and think more about the vision and strategy of Plant With Purpose in the years ahead. Each of these shifts has involved new learning and new challenges, keeping the job fresh.

As to what keeps me going, a couple of answers come to mind. The testimonies of the people we serve and the privilege of seeing God at work in the world has been a huge factor. Amazing things are happening. Another is the fact that we keep getting better at what we do. We have a commitment to accurate measurement of our impact and to continuous improvement. As a result, what we are doing to change lives today is much more effective than it was ten or even three years ago. Furthermore, we have learned how to do it in a way that is scalable. Half of all the trees we have ever planted have been planted in the last four years. We have doubled the number of people we are serving in the last three years with relatively little increase in budget. Personally, I am more excited today than I have ever been, because I can quantify our work and see the change.

Throughout the last twenty-five years I have made shocking mistakes, gained valuable lessons, and realized that what we do is a lot harder than I imagined it would be. All the while, the world we work in continues to change. I am hoping to take some time this spring to reflect on some of these lessons, changes and even mistakes, as well as remember some of the people who have made this work possible.

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Hope that Won’t Die

IMG_3796Samson Muvunyi with Bob Morikawa and Corey Chin of Plant With Purpose

I had just spent two days on an airplane from San Diego, when Samson and Birori met us in Kamembe, Rwanda, so I wasn’t in a very chatty mood. However, about 30 minutes into the 3-hour drive to Uvira, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I began to realize that the story Samson was telling was extraordinary. Too late, I began to really pay attention.

Samson’s humility was disarming, but as I listened, my jaw began to drop. The narrative was too improbable. It began with prayer, was marked with unbearable tragedy, and exhibited a hope that wouldn’t be quenched.

I had always intended to get him to recount it again, when I was rested and had my notebook out. Sadly, that will never happen.

I will try to do it justice here, knowing that all of the details may not be right.

Back in the late 1990’s as the Rwandan genocide spilled over into what was then Zaire and led to civil war, Samson, a young pastor from the Assemblies of God, coordinated or was part of a fervent prayer effort for peace and reconciliation. In September 1997, after the fall of Mobutu and the founding of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he organized a massive celebration, prayer gathering and outreach in the remote community of Minembwe, where he was from and where there had been tremendous violence.

The journey overland is difficult, so many of the guests were to be flown in. At the last minute, Samson gave up his seat on the first plane to one of his speakers. Tragically, that plane with all of the guests and VIPs crashed, killing everyone aboard. The 22 passengers included the respected local director of Food for the Hungry, who was to have been the keynote speaker.

That tragedy and its aftermath led to the formation of Eben-Ezer Ministry International, with Samson as its director. Eben-Ezer was created to promote peace and reconciliation amongst the various tribes and share Christ’s love with all regardless of gender or ethnicity.

We first crossed paths with Eben-Ezer in 2008 when Plant With Purpose began working in neighboring Burundi. Lazare Sebiteriko, our founding director in Burundi, and longtime General Secretary of Eben-Ezer made the initial introduction.

In 2011 we were horrified to hear that a group of senior staff from Eben-Ezer were ambushed by Mai Mai guerillas on the road to the high plateau to work with the schools they were shepherding. Six of them were brutally murdered for nothing other than their ethnicity and efforts to bring reconciliation. The Guardian ran this story on the incident.

But hope did not die that day. Many organizations would have given up at this point, but this only seemed to strengthen Samson’s resolve and the commitment of his team. Even though guerrillas again attacked them only a few months later, they continued to serve and love villagers of all tribes.

Three years ago, when Plant With Purpose wanted to begin work in Congo, we established a formal partnership with Eben-Ezer Ministry. Although Birori Dieudonne directs the work of our pilot project in the Kakumba watershed, Eben-Ezer provides the legal structure locally. Samson has long been Birori’s mentor and boss.

Over the last thirty years, I have been privileged to meet some very remarkable people; people whom God has used in extraordinary ways. They include Don Solomon Hernandez, in Guatemala, Pere Wilfrid Albert in Haiti, and Sundar Thapa in Nepal. Heroes that have inspired me. Their examples of faith, love, sacrifice and courage have greatly strengthened my own faith. I realized that day on the drive to Uvira that Samson Muvunyi belonged on this list.

Later on that trip as we walked up the Kakumba watershed together, I got to know Samson even better. This was a walk that he did frequently, continuing on for days to minister to people who were even further from the roads. Sometimes he would spend a week or more on foot, traveling from village to village, despite danger from guerrillas and bandits.

In June 2017 he completed an 8-day reconciliation walk. On his way back to Uvira, he had two alternative paths. Things were tense near Uvira, so he prayed about which path to take, and then, against the advice of many, he took the more remote path. That same day on the other path, a community that he would have visited was attacked and four people were killed.

Unfortunately in early July he was diagnosed with a severe case of malaria, complicated by his diabetes. We got the word that he was in critical condition and to please pray. Just a few days later it looked like he was improving, but sadly on July 15th, Samson was received into the arms of his savior.

Despite his incredible accomplishments for God’s kingdom, Samson was only 57, and leaves behind a young family, and many people who depended on him, including several orphans that he had been supporting, and assisting with school fees. He also leaves a huge hole in Eben-Ezer Ministry and by extension in our work in Kakumba. But hope has not died. It is my prayer that once again, God will bring redemption out of tragedy.

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Milestones

On the other side of Hispaniola, we celebrated 20 years of working together. It seems like only yesterday that Eldon Garcia and I drove from Santo Domingo to Port au Prince, then up into the mountains of Haiti for the first time. We got hopelessly lost, before finally arriving in Cherident, where our principal office sits today. Just getting there seemed nothing short of a miracle, but God intervened in several other ways as well, and what had started as a lark became a firm commitment to make a difference in Haiti.

Nonetheless, I knew from day one that we were in over our heads, and the more I asked for advice the less confident I felt. However, again perhaps miraculously, Pere Albert, the episcopal priest who had extended the initial invitation, connected us to some very competent and creative local people.

Jean-Marie Desilus (Dezo) was the first of these, and very soon after, he brought in Guy Paraison to help launch a local program in Haiti. Both of these gentlemen still work with us today, and I have learned a tremendous amount from both of them.

Bob interviewing candidates
Bob Morikawa interviewing candidatesSigning initial contractsHiring Jean Marie Desilus as first Director of Floresta HaitiDezo hiring 1997

At the same time, Martin Price at ECHO suggested Bob Morikawa, who had run the ECHO farm in Haiti, might be able to help us get started. I called Bob at his home in Toronto and hired him over the phone to come to Haiti with me. Twenty years later he works full time with Plant With Purpose and in addition to Haiti, has helped to start programs in Tanzania, Burundi and Congo.

I didn’t yet know the depth of the talent that we had assembled, so my expectations were low. Bob told me that he would be happy if a few farmers learned how to use grafting knives and their families ate just a little better as a result. I was inclined to agree. That would be success.

Our first initiative was to offer a two-year program in sustainable agriculture in a local vocational school with a curriculum that Dezo created. Although there was only ever one graduating class, several of the graduates are on staff today, helping people throughout Haiti to grow more food, become more resilient, and restore the health of their land.

Vocational School Grad

Twenty years later, of course, those initial expectations have been exceeded many times over. Nearly 52,000 people are participating in the work. Three hundred twenty-four savings groups allowed people to save hundreds of thousands of dollars prior to Hurricane Matthew, making them far more able to cope with crop loss and farm damage. Furthermore the reforestation and soil conservation work they had invested in meant that they suffered less crop damage in the first place. It was amazing to see how quickly people have gotten back on their feet.

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Transitions

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Haiti and the Dominican Republic to celebrate a couple of milestones.

In the Dominican Republic I bade farewell to two of our longest serving employees, and welcomed another to a position of leadership.

Carlos Disla, who has been the director of our local partner, Floresta Incorporada for the last fourteen years, retires having led the organization through tremendous growth and change. When Carlos became director, we were serving about 350 families in the central Dominican Republic. Under his tenure, we moved away from more traditional microfinance to savings groups. Fully integrating savings groups into the program allowed us to significantly scale up work, while concentrating in key watersheds. Today, thanks to the leadership Carlos provided, we work with nearly 5000 families in three distinct geographical regions.

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Estela (Felicita) Rodriguez, who has been a part of the Plant With Purpose family for 28 years, is retiring after a long and faithful career. She has been running many of our credit and savings programs and successfully oversaw the transformation from microcredit to the more efficient and appropriate savings program.

2295014750_d6b757cfbe_zShe is one of only two people who have been involved with Plant With Purpose/Floresta for longer than I have, and I still remember her warmth and kindness on my first visit to the Dominican Republic in early 1993. She will be sorely missed.

Finally, we welcome Durbel Lora Brito, our longtime Agroecology Director into the role of Executive Director. Durbel has been a colleague and friend for nineteen years. In addition to his degree in agronomy he has also earned an MBA, and perhaps most importantly brings tremendous spiritual depth and compassion for the farmers we serve. However, I really glimpsed the depth of Durbel’s character in 2012 when I brought my family to the Dominican Republic:

 

 

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Partner Inspiration

“With VSLA, I have become a new woman. I bought a donkey with the money from the VSLA so that I can go to the market place…My life is new because of Jesus and Plant With Purpose.” Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 11.59.29 AM

~  Cianise Lubin, Fonds Verettes, Haiti

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Party in Sanya Juu (concluded)

At last it was time for the awards. Richard, the director of Floresta Tanzania, Pastor Mosha, our board chair, and I took the stage to hand out the awards.

Anticipation was in the air. Sixty-five hundred people crowded closer… Then one of them apparently tripped over a cord, because suddenly we were without sound.

Ten minutes went by, then fifteen, while technicians fiddled with cords and cables. The MC briefly tried shouting.

They decided to break for lunch, which was catered by several savings groups.

As I ate in one of the tents with some of the other pastors and VIPs, a local commercial bank which was set up in the same tent was taking photos of new account holders right behind us.

Forty-five minutes later we were ready to try again.

Since our first competition in 2013, I have been amazed at the way it has energized people. Often times in East Africa, nonprofits like ours, use subsidies to get things done. If you hold a conference or a workshop, attendance goes up if you give people a free lunch and pay them per diem or a stipend. If you have training – pay a stipend. I have even heard of people who make their living on per diems as they go from one training or workshop to the next. Similarly, if you want to have people plant trees you will certainly need to pay a stipend.

But Richard, who was working on his MBA at the time, had the idea to incorporate friendly competition instead. As I shared earlier, the results were dramatic and immediate, with groups planting nearly four times as many trees the following year.dsc_0844.jpgDSC_0713.JPG

dsc_0816A trophy, some tools and some recognition have created genuine excitement. There are several awards for every district. There are individual awards and group awards, awards for the best composting and most trees planted, and even awards for people who have persevered in planting trees in drier more challenging climates. Thirty-four in all, starting with certificates, and then awards that included tools like hoses and irrigation equipment. Each was greeted with joyous dancing and celebration. Often times group members would come running from all over the crowd before uniting in celebration in front of the stage.dsc_0802.jpg

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Then finally the grand prize trophy. The group ENJOM from Siha took it home this year.dsc_0920

dsc_0957Almost ten hours after the initial parade the celebration was drawing down. The gospel singers and choir members were still singing and dancing up on the stage, being filmed by a drone, as we made our way to the exit. Each of the savings groups was finding their own busses, and based on previous conversations, each was leaving with a renewed commitment to win the grand prize home next year.

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Party in Sanya Juu (part 2)

The closer the parade got to the soccer field, the more enthusiastic the marchers became, racing each other to the front of the group. I glanced behind me and was inspired by what could be almost called a movement – six thousand people brimming with excitement to celebrate what they had accomplished. It was all security could do to keep those of us in front from being overrun by the jubilant crowd behind us.

DSC_0583.JPGAs we entered the field and were seated near the stage, Richard kept grinning at me, knowing some of the surprises to come:

  • The opportunity to review a drill team from one of the schools that we serve

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  • The duty of officially cutting the ribbon to open the farmers market while being filmed by multiple local television stations

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  • The chance to watch at least a half a dozen well-known Tanzanian gospel artists perform, led by Rose Mhando.

At last it was my turn. I have heard that as a Christian I should always be ready to preach, pray, or die at a moment’s notice, but I didn’t have to hesitate. There was so much to be said to these amazing people, who had paid their own way from all over northern Tanzania to be there. Their accomplishments were truly inspiring.

Matthew 13:31-32 came immediately to mind when I remembered the humble beginnings of the work. In that passage Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, which, though it is the smallest of seeds, grows into a tree and provides nests of birds. Everything about this program had started small. Forty-cent shares in savings groups had somehow grown to be 1.2 million dollars, and catalyzed the use of savings groups in all of our programs. A few halting attempts a setting up tree nurseries had grown into a voluntary reforestation effort that had planted 8.2 million trees.

The most fun part was telling them, that while around the world poor farmers are blamed for deforestation when they clear land for agriculture or cut trees for firewood, in Tanzania, farmers aren’t the problem, they have become the solution!

The thousands of Floresta savings group members sat with immense patience through my speech and several others and finally an extensive fundraising campaign led by a celebrity comedian and preacher.

I don’t speak Swahili, but he was funny, even filtered through my translator (my friend, Bobby, the proprietor of my favorite place to stay in Marangu, the Babylon Lodge). Of course, he took advantage of my presence to go off on a long tangent making fun of Americans, to the amusement of the assembled crowd, before hitting me up for a contribution to the cause. He then went individually to the pastors and business people in attendance, putting each on the hot seat as he publicly asked for a contribution to the work of Floresta.

Sometime in the mid-afternoon we at last got to the part that the people had come for – the announcement of the 2107 award winners.

To be continued…

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Party in Sanya Juu

While driving from Moshi to Sanya Juu, Pastor Mosha, our Tanzanian board chairman briefed me on the event. “We expect 7000 people to be there. Six thousand Plant With Purpose/Floresta participants, and hundreds of business people, pastors, government leaders and others.”

While the dusty highway towards Arusha is always busy, today it was choked with traffic. “Those busses are all carrying Floresta savings groups to the event.” Sure enough, I noticed all of the passengers were wearing Floresta polo shirts or caps.

We drove in silence for a few minutes before he spoke again. “Did Richard [our local director] tell you about the problem with the guest of honor? He had an emergency and had to cancel. So Richard and I thought that since you were here, you could fill in.”

“Um, okay. Does it involve a speech?”

“Yes but it only has to be twenty to thirty minutes, since they know there was an emergency. I can give you a copy of the bishop’s speech to give you some ideas. It is in Swahili, but your translator can help you with the main points.”

In 2013, Richard, the new director of Floresta Tanzania, had an idea to spur tree planting and program participation – friendly competition. At the time we had 140 savings groups participating, and the first year of intergroup competition, participants went from planting 400,000 trees to planting 1.4 million. Savings group participants have planted at least 1.5 million trees annually and the awards celebration has become a part of the annual calendar ever since. Although I had seen photos, this was the first opportunity I had to attend one.

It should also be noted that those trees are planted on a voluntary basis. As much as possible we have resisted paying people to plant trees, instead promoting agricultural techniques that incorporate trees on farms, and encouraging communities to undertake their own reforestation projects to restore their watersheds – and take home the annual trophy.

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The soccer field in Sanya Juu was still empty of people when we arrived, but thousands of lawn chairs covered it, set up under elaborate tents, with a colorful stage and enormous sound system at one end. Along another side, vendors and farmers cooperatives were setting up booths with farm tools, tree seedlings and organic vegetables.

A half-mile away we encountered a formal procession of farmers marching towards the venue led by a brass band. I was told that part of my duty, as guest of honor fill-in, was to lead the parade, so I joined Pastor Mosha and other local board members right behind the band.

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dsc_0577To be continued…

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