It takes a village

Catherine Clarkson is a long-term volunteer with Hands at Work in Africa. In 2010 she chose to leave her comfortable life in the UK to come and serve and live with the Hands at Work community near White River, South Africa. After three years she continues to learn about what it is means to live a life of servanthood. This is her reflection.

There is an old African saying: ‘It takes a village to raise a child’. I can report the truth of this, at least in my limited experience. Our communities across Africa are over-burdened and overwhelmed by the sheer number of orphaned children and of their deep needs. I have come to realise that the answer for the most vulnerable children is not a sponsorship scheme or even the resources from external sources, but a locally-owned, locally-planned and locally-executed approach. Africa’s future lies with its people. For them to stand up and be counted, to raise their voices above the chaos and to make a difference will ensure the sustainability of this beautiful continent. Of course, I passionately believe that others are called to join in this story and to give a ‘helping hand’ to lift up our brothers and sisters, that is why I am here, doing this work, …and, of course, there are many organisations that exist to provide direct funding and services to children, doing a much needed work – but I no longer believe that this is the only answer.

I’d like to share with you a story that challenged me deeply. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a group of local men (Care Workers) were showing our Hands at Work Coordinator, Erick, around their community and they came across a boy who was dying. Severely malnourished and suffering from acute malaria, the boy had perhaps hours left to live. Erick struggled hugely to see a precious child suffering in this way, and enquired about what could be done to save him. The local Care Workers looked at each other and drew a blank – they saw the situation, felt compassion, but had no idea of how to respond. As poor men themselves, they had no resources to get the child to a clinic and no medical experience either. Erick desperately wanted to do everything he could to immediately save the boy, but, for the sake of the future of the community and the boy’s future too, he chose not to. He spoke directly and strongly to the Care Workers: ‘If you don’t come up with a solution, this boy, your child, will die.’ Then he bit his lip, said a silent, desperate prayer and left.

When I first heard this story, I felt a whole mix of emotions: sadness about the situation that is more common than I wish it was, fear, frustration.

Faced with the imminent reality of losing a child, the Care Workers came together and formed a plan to get the child to the clinic. It involved a wheelbarrow, the physical strength of them all to push in relay and the combined resources of many people. The boy lived.

Reading this story over and over, I realised that beyond the obvious truth that the Care Workers needed to take ownership for the situation themselves, there was another truth. The scale of suffering in Africa is extraordinary. Every single day 6000 children lose their parents to HIV/AIDS—that’s 180,000 per month. Brutal abuse, rape, torture, kidnapping, child soldiers and poverty are all around and it’s tough to even comprehend that there might be a solution. The truth is that it makes me fearful to even hope that there might be an end to the suffering. But one thing is for sure: the answer, deep down, and long-term, does not stand with me or with any single organisation. The response and the hope for tomorrow lies with the people of Africa. We, as Hands at Work, are called to play a privileged role today in lifting the arms of our brothers and sisters. We can teach, build, capacitate, encourage, strengthen, guide, equip, challenge, correct, suggest and support the work that God has called us to today. But the answer still lies much more locally than I will ever have the privilege of living. It takes a village – in all its richness, complexity and diversity – to raise a child, not only capable of living tomorrow, but of thriving and of giving back to the next generation.

Our Hands at Work community has a saying of our own: ‘we are’ before ‘we do’. We hold on to the truth that it is not, first and foremost, about what we have to offer and what skills we bring, but it is about who we are, as Christ-filled, compassionate, humble and meek people, that really makes a difference. I will say it again just how honoured I am to be a part of Hands at Work and to be learning more about who I am and what my place is in the world today. 

Read more on Catherine’s blog: