17 Nov Community Development in South Africa
Empowering Changemakers in the township of Soshanguve
We arrived in South Africa nearly three years ago filled with good intentions to make a difference. We had followed a sense of calling and found ourselves living and serving in the township of Soshanguve. Our organisation InnerCHANGE has small non-denominational teams in cities around the world who are seeking to live incarnationally among the poor and disenfranchised. We are a family whose lives are bound together by common rhythms, commitments, and values. Together, we seek to draw the marginalised into meaningful relationship with their Creator, bring holistic transformation in our communities and follow Scripture’s injunction “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” [Micah 6:8].
I soon learned that moving into the neighbourhood and building relationships is painfully slow. The fact that our skin colour is different from the rest of our community presented both an opportunity and a challenge. Our choice to live in the neighbourhood spoke of prophetic solidarity. But the colonial and apartheid history weighed our actions with potential meaning. If we give financial assistance, are we creating dependency and unrealistic expectations? If we are leading rather than following are we fulfilling unhelpful stereotypes? I longed to be busy, and doing ‘meaningful’ things. I threw myself into our neighbourhood kids’ club, and our other team activities. We found ourselves hanging out with a group of teenagers every weekend. We surveyed our community, asking how we could serve them.
Then God nudged our team and my question changed, instead of asking how I could serve, I asked how could our community serve themselves? What assets are already here that we can encourage? We invited our neighbours to partner with us in our different ministries, and to dream up new ideas. I realised I was not the only one wanting to be busy and find meaning. In fact sometimes my sense of importance and desire to serve denied others the opportunity to give back; I needed to move out of the way. Having recently become a parent, I also knew that I couldn’t be as involved as I had been.
One week there was a new older face at our teenager’s group. Loatile had heard some of the girls talking about our group, and wanted to get involved. As we talked afterwards and shared our stories, she spoke about her desire to see girls growing in self-esteem and making good life choices. We’re both so grateful for the friendship that has grown: she has found a team to help her to put these dreams into action, and I’ve found a new collaborator to connect with and love our teenage girls.
These days our team is in a supportive season. We have local apprentices who we are mentoring, including Loatile, and they are the ones leading kids club and our teenagers group. As one friend told me ‘I always knew I wanted to help, but now I know that I have something to give’.
Although nurturing these relationships has been slow, we’re excited for the future. Our friends are becoming community change agents, wanting to serve their own communities through bible studies, kids work and sports ministries. At the end of this year, we’re moving back to Scotland and are planning to move into another deprived area. It’s hard to leave people that have become so special to us, but we know that there are many capable hands and hearts here. I continue to be convinced of the power of mutual relationships to create change. I hope that next time, as I seek to get to know my neighbours, I will be looking for opportunities for all of us to serve and change the community together.
Debbie is originally from Scotland and has been living in South Africa with her wee family for the past three years. Prior to this she was a social worker, working with children and families. Debbie and her husband write about community, simplicity and learning to live as contemplative activists at Hope Breathes.