• David Cusimano

Hope and Purpose and Human Flourishing in Uganda, Africa

Our story is not one of the familiar messaging we hear from various aid organizations and charities that, when pieced together, gives the impression Africa is an entire continent of starving children and desperate people who are helpless and dying unless we rush to send money.

On return from our recent one-week trip to Uganda, my fellow travelers and I have a unique story to share.

They are the protagonists of their own entrepreneurial growth stories, and they seek people like you and me to invest in their success.

Instead our story is one of hope, purpose, and human flourishing. It is a story of over 100 women we met with in the slums of Kampala who, despite their material depravity, have smiles, hopes, and dreams for their families. They laugh, joke, work, and get frustrated just like we do. They are the protagonists of their own entrepreneurial growth stories, and they seek people like you and me to invest in their success.

We traveled to Uganda to explore frameworks through which three organizations—Jumpstart Africa, Hope and Purpose Ministries, and PartnersWorldwide— might promote flourishing for the poor of Uganda. Jumpstart Africa is a Ugandan microfinance organization headquartered in Kampala that seeks to help women through its mission of “upholding the dignity of the human person through investment, business, and work.” Hope and Purpose Ministries is a New Orleans-based Catholic ministry with preaching activities in the United States and multiple African countries with a mission to “participate in the New Evangelization through preaching, teaching, and the use of excellent media initiatives and by offering hope and purpose to all individuals through encouragement and knowledge sharing.” And Partners Worldwide is a global non-profit that seeks to fight poverty with business.

Eric Wingerter, Jake Ohman, and David Cusimano with the Jumpstart Africa Staff

In preparation for our visit, the Ugandan founder of Jumpstart Africa, Fred Mawanda, recommended we read When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. The authors of the book describe lessons learned from decades of working in development both abroad and in the United States. They are careful to emphasize the difference between relief, which involves handouts and is appropriate during natural disasters or war refugee crises, and development which, through the Catholic principal of subsidiarity, requires a deeper, direct relationship that commits to building local capacity. Applying relief measures when development is warranted usually has disastrous effects.

The book spends its first 100 pages explaining the new direction many charitable organizations are pursuing which is one of partnership rather than paternalism. It also explains that, while we often singularly focus on material depravity, poverty takes many forms, such as poverty of spiritual intimacy, poverty of being, poverty of stewardship, and poverty of community - each of which have their roots in disordered relationships with God, ourselves, and our communities.

The effects of the fall on our relationships with God. Adapted from Bryant L. Myers, Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1999), 27

Often those who are materially poor can teach us much about our grappling with the spiritual and community poverty that is so prevalent in wealthy economies. Corbett and Fikkert remind us that the goal is “not to make the materially poor all over the world into middle-to-upper-class North Americans, a group characterized by high rates of divorce, sexual addiction, substance abuse and mental illness. Nor is the goal to make sure the materially poor have enough money.” Instead, “Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.”

As someone who has studied economics and visited developing economies for several years, I was eager to experience the continent of Africa. I was amazed that despite an almost complete lack of city infrastructure, local markets were bustling with activity. Even people with nothing more than a shack and some secondhand sheets to sell were proud of their work and their business.

A woman poses with Eric and David, proudly displaying the inventory of secondhand bedding she was able to obtain through a microfinance loan. She seeks another, larger loan to grow her business so that she can send her kids to school.

I was also amazed at how almost all of the owners of each of these tiny businesses said they needed the same thing: working capital. Even at their micro stages of commerce they could benefit from bulk discounts by growing their inventory.

A woman in front of the inventory she was able to add to her shop because of a microfinance loan

Woman after woman explained to us that before they had received a Jumpstart loan their supplies prices had been higher and they hadn’t been able to earn enough to feed their children or send them to school. Understanding this, they were requesting additional, larger financings so that they could strengthen their business margins, move beyond pure daily subsistence, and start to save enough to buy a house.

Eric and David converse with members of a borrowing group about how they have benefited from microfinance and what they aspire to with their families.

These women who live without plumbing or electricity and bathe with a bowl of water and a sponge aren’t self-defeated or asking for pity or handouts. Instead they aspire to build their businesses so that they can buy houses (about USD $3,000) for their families. (I contrast this to my world where I become frustrated when my XM radio loses its signal. Amazing.)

A typical scene in the slums of Kampala

As we reflect on our trip, we are excited about the foundations God has allowed us to play a part in establishing. We are also thankful for the lessons the Ugandan women have taught us about being joyful in the face of adversity and persistent in the midst of any circumstance.

As we plan the next steps for a joint venture between the three organizations we have four objectives: 1) adding a biblically-based entrepreneurial training program that teaches the importance of entrepreneurship as part of the natural law God has created for us, 2) growing the loan portfolio by raising additional funds, 3) investing in upgraded operations software for the loan qualification and administration, and 4) arranging savings groups to grow local capital so that the entrepreneurs can combine their savings with external injections from the United States and put their money to work for them to reach their savings goals more quickly.

We ask for your continued prayers for the people of Uganda and for the wisdom of those working to help their businesses grow.

David Cusimano

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