We’ve all heard the following verse: Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for life.  We are living in times wherein those who can are supporting both sides of the verse to assure that people are strong in the short term and to teach them to flourish in the long term.

The world is a challenging place, and – thankfully – there are many terrific organizations that work to help more than 925 million people (according to the WFP) meet their critical day-to-day needs. Where would we be – as a global community – without the local work of Operation Food Search and Food Outreach, and the global work of groups like UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP)?

Long-term success in the war against poverty and hunger likely happens a little bit differently. That’s why I’ve asked my friend and mentor, Chuck Hirsch**, to be a guest contributor. Chuck is a member of the development board of a St. Louis-based organization that works to empower those who can change the future’s course. His insight and passion for this effort perhaps will inspire each of us to get involved with movements that touch our hearts and appeal to our sensibilities.

So please, check out Chuck’s blog entry – Fasting for Africa – and imagine how many more will eat when more people have the opportunity to fish. That’s what it’s all about at Eat It, St. Louis!

Fasting for Africa

It’s been a few years since I last traveled to South Africa, but I still clearly remember the combination of anxiety and eagerness I felt during the weeks leading up to my visits.  Each and every time, I was anxious about the differences – the exotic food; the diseases that are too common there and unheard of here; the sadness of the shanty towns that line the highway between the Cape Town airport contrasting with the modern downtown hotels; and the mysteries and dangers of the “bush,” where we would get within a few short yards of lions, leopards, Cape buffalo, rhinos, elephants, hyenas, jackals, and more.  And I was eager to see once again some very wonderful people – both old friends with whom I worked and new friends who always seemed eager to welcome and embrace visitors to their beautiful country.

I think about those wonderful people a lot when my wife Becky and I fast for Africa.

Becky and I are both members of the development board for MicroFinancing Partners in Africa (MPA).  This is an international organization headquartered in St. Louis, founded and directed by Sister Toni Temporiti.  Sister Toni’s clear and well-focused vision for her organization is “the eradication of extreme poverty in African communities through microfinancing.”

In the slum of Mathare in Nairobi, Kenya, MPA founder and president Sister Toni Temporiti and executive director Heather Cammarata meet with Lucy, one of the original 50 street beggars who helped found one of MPA's partner organizations, Jamii Bora. With a small loan from Jamii Bora, Lucy started a business selling porridge and worked her own way up to providing her family with a modest home, regular meals, and an education.(Photo courtesy of Heather Cammarata)

Microfinancing is an economic concept that is essentially built upon providing very small loans to people who run very small business operations.  MPA generates funds that are then provided to a number of different microfinancing projects – including a soy milk project in Tanzania, small business groups in poverty-ravaged areas of Kenya, and family dairy operations in Uganda.  (You can learn lots more about these projects at MPA’s Web site.)

The common theme that ties all of MPA’s partners together is expressed well through the MPA value statement:  “People have the right, the will and the capacity to direct their own future.”

I suppose it’s the “business person” in me that finds MPA’s approach to helping people so appealing.  This is an organization made up of people who truly want to help others, while fully understanding that the best way to help people is to give them a real opportunity to help themselves.  These monies that MPA provides are loans,  and with all the organizations with which MPA affiliates itself, the requirements for those who want to participate in the programs are well thought out and demanding.  Those who receive microfinancing support must have a business plan; they must work with others in developing and executing the plan; they must develop the discipline to stick with the plan; and they must ultimately be responsible to themselves, their families, and their business partners in repaying their loans.  With that approach, I believe, the dignity of the person is honored, true life lessons can be learned, and true change can take place.

Polina, a member of the Bukoba Women's Empowerment Association in Bukoba, Tanzania, demonstrates how tasty the soy milk is that is made as a part of the group's income-generating activity, harvesting soy beans and converting them to soy flour and milk. (Photo courtesy of Heather Cammarata)

MPA and its partners are made up of a lot of people who share that belief in the value of microfinancing as a great way to honor people while attacking the problem of poverty, and I think a lot about all of the members of the MPA team when my wife Becky and I fast for Africa.

The fast itself is one of the tools we use to raise money for MPA.  This year, we’ll be fasting 36 hours.  The fast starts at 9 p.m. on Thursday, October 20, 2011, and ends at 9 a.m. on Saturday, October 22, 2011.  Those of us who fast ask family and friends to support us with a donation to MPA, and if you’re so inclined to help out, you can do that through the MPA Web site as well.

Obviously, fasting for 36 hours is not a huge deal, especially when one considers our standard of living in contrast with the poverty and hunger that so many of our African brothers and sisters deal with every single day of their lives.  Becky and I have found, though, that even though it is not a huge deal, it is indeed a big enough deal – and a discomfort of large enough proportions – to help us put our own lives and the way we spend our time in a little bit clearer perspective.  It helps us see the world and feel the world from the point of view of those people we are hoping to help, and it helps reminds us of how blessed we are.  We both believe that with great blessing comes great responsibility, and feeling a few hours of the hunger that so much of the world lives with every single second of their lives is a good reminder of how important it is to help how and where we can.

Noline, a farmer in the Cow Project in Masaka, Uganda, who has just installed the biofuel system at her farm, shows how much her cow enjoys the caliendra grass. With the biofuel to operate a hotplate and a light inside the home, Noline says that she appreciates being able to feed her children something warm before sending them to school. (Photo courtesy of Heather Cammerata.)

Of course, there is plenty of poverty here in the United States and there are plenty of good causes that need good people to support them.  And believe me, I commend all who are doing charitable work.  It’s hard for me to explain exactly why I find MPA’s work in Africa appealing enough for me to work and fast to support its efforts.  No doubt it’s because I’ve been there and seen first-hand the kind of poverty MPA is working to eliminate.  No doubt it’s also because I love the part of Africa I visited and was charmed by the life-loving people I met.  And no doubt it’s my practical side that says the right approach to helping people is to help them help themselves.

But there’s one thing more.

Becky and I have four young-adult children who are inheriting a world that is much smaller in so many ways than the world we were in as we began our married lives.  Call it “post 9/11” or whatever you would like, but these days there is little doubt that whatever happens across the globe affects our personal lives here in the Midwest more quickly and more dramatically than ever before.  In short, our neighborhood has expanded, and so our responsibility to be good neighbors to all those around us has just been scaled up.

I have to laugh at myself as I share all these feelings about MPA and the reasons I fast.  I laugh because it’s pretty typically “American” — long-winded and full of introspection.

To illustrate how an African might sum up the same feelings in a more succinct African manner, I want to share one final note.  After one of our trips to South Africa, Becky and I were at the Johannesburg airport and found a card that captured in a few short lines a great deal of the emotion we’d felt on this beautiful trip.  We bought the card, brought it home, and framed it.  It now has a prominent place on the wall of our breakfast room, and the sentiment sums up well why we believe so strongly in MPA and the fast for Africa that supports it:

“Animals with spots and stripes and horns and big teeth . . . all together in the sun and in the rain . . .”

*Man, in this context, is all humanity. As you’ve read, women are pretty good at catching fish. 

**Chuck Hirsch is an experienced publishing professional, with a long career in business-to-business media.  He is the president of Hirsch Communications Consulting, LLC, which provides consulting services to the life, health, and financial services business. Chuck’s firm specializes in helping companies and wholesale organizations in these businesses better attract and communicate with the independent producers they want and need as their representatives.  In addition, he is Contributing Editor and writes a monthly article for one of the nation’s leading business-to-business magazines for financial services professionals.