July 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Another hoists himself to the top of the swing set, where he balances along the beam and back-flips off the end.
A third takes a running start, sprints five yards and runs eight feet up the side of a concrete wall, where he flips and lands on his feet.
This is parkour, an obscure but growing sport that uses gymnastic vaults, flips and other superherolike body movements to navigate obstacles.
The sport was born in France in the late 1980s when then-teen David Belle decided to develop a Spider-Man-style activity.
Thanks largely to the Internet, parkour has taken off in the U.S. during the past decade. There’s an MTV show devoted to the sport and a first-person parkour video game called “Mirror’s Edge.”
It even has built a following in Colorado Springs, like the group that gathered recently to practice on obstacles such as the swing sets, benches, baseball dugouts and playground walls of Cottonwood Creek Park.
For some, parkour is almost like a drug — but one they use to stay out of trouble.
“The more experience you get … the less exhilaration you get, because you know you can do it (a stunt), so there isn’t as much adrenaline,” said 17-year-old Dante Grazioli, a Springs resident. “You have to just keep searching for more.”
Springs-area resident Dan Teel organized the weekend event, which swelled the Colorado Springs parkour scene to three times its usual size. Along with three friends in the Springs, the 17-year-old recently spent a week in Los Angeles with a friend who stars in MTV’s “Ultimate Parkour Challenge” show.
The young men are tapping into an international phenomenon. There are more than 350,000 YouTube videos with the word “parkour” in the title, some garnering tens of millions of views.
About 20 people meet regularly in Denver to practice together, said Will Schultz, a trainer at Apex Movement in Englewood, which offers beginner parkour classes for $155. Traceurs do not know how many people do the sport nationally.
Parkour classes are available at some Colorado Springs centers; Aerials Gymnastics held a children’s parkour class in February and will continue to offer it if there is interest, and ArtSports Gymnastics and Dance rents space to another group that teaches parkour, office workers said.
But don’t expect to see parkour taught in area schools any time soon, said Peggy Vigil, who oversees and approves the physical education curriculum for School District 11.
“If you’re jumping over obstacles and walls and things like that, there’s huge liability risks for our school-age kids,” she said.
The danger doesn’t stop enthusiasts like Justin Oakes, who said he would probably be in jail today if he hadn’t discovered parkour. Instead, the 21-year-old was at Cottonwood Creek Park, to which he drove from Oklahoma City for the weekend meet with fellow traceurs. Oakes had a DUI on his record and had been arrested for burglary before he discovered parkour. Now, he hangs out with fellow traceurs, who are usually practicing their moves.
“You get hooked to it — you can’t stop,” said Oakes. “It keeps you out of trouble, that’s for sure.”
Still, Oakes is a reminder of the dangers of parkour. When he landed wrong after a jump off a chest-high wall, he ended up with a broken hand and kneecap, and needed reconstructive surgery for a broken jaw, shattered chin and sinus cavities, and a broken nose.
But the former baseball player is back at the sport; he couldn’t give it up.
“I’ve got nothing else to do. I don’t know anything else anymore,” Oakes said. “Whenever someone asks you to go do something stupid or something, you’re like, ‘No, I’m gonna go do this, I’m gonna go do parkour.’”
Perhaps because of its Internet roots, the sport seems to attract science-fiction fans and computer programmers such as 24-year-old Andy Tran, who now teaches parkour in Alexandria, Va., and has written an article on the demographics of the sport.
“We always seem to start out as the nerdy kids who never really got much sunlight,” Tran said. “We’re big Internet nerds.”
Devoted fans say parkour is more than a sport. It’s a lifestyle, said Schultz, the trainer in Englewood. He describes it as gaining “parkour eyes” and a new respect for your surroundings.
“As soon as you really start training, you stop looking at things as things, and start looking at them as opportunities to create movement,” he said. “If I’m walking downtown, I’ll cross the street to touch a brick wall I think might be extra grippy. That’s just how it is.”
Parkour derives its name from “parcours,” French for “route.” The sport’s practitioners are known as traceurs and traceuses, French for “tracers” — people who find a path around obstacles through a landscape.
Original story posted here.
July 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Geology buffs uncover details about Colorado’s mining towns.
By Ruth Moon
August 11, 2010
VICTOR Steve Veatch knew his ancestors settled in the tiny Teller County mining town of Victor, but he didn’t know much else about the community on the south side of Pikes Peak.
So Veatch joined fellow members of the Lake George Gem and Mineral Club to do some digging.
Three hundred hours, $700 and multiple field trips later, Veatch and his club fellows had compiled a historical record of Victor which a local geologist hails as “the best single source” for detailed information on the town.
Veatch presented the research recently at Victor’s Gold Rush Days. His audience of seven watched a slide show outlining the history of this town below Pikes Peak on Battle Mountain — did you know Victor once had 37 saloons, 29 hotels, 18 grocery stores, 16 doctors and a hospital, and was the fifth-largest city in Colorado?
On a personal note, Veatch discovered that his great-grandfather was a gold miner who moved to Victor in the 1890s and mined the Elkton mine.
His grandmother remembers hearing the miners: Each morning as they set off for work, the Welsh- and British-bred men would sing ancient mining songs handed down from families in Europe. And Veatch learned that his grandfather grew up in a mining community in Boulder.
“I have mining heritage on both sides,” he said. “I was genetically predisposed to pursue mining interests.”
After the slide show, the group piled into a bus for a field trip to visit historic mines in the hills above the town.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Laura Moncrief, a genealogist from Divide who came on the tour. “So much of this gets torn down, thrown away, because there was a generation before mine that were more interested in making money and surviving.
“We’re lucky that we have some resources and are interested in this type of thing.”
The two-hour driving tour looped around the American Eagles Scenic Overlook — where a historic mining headframe and other century-old buildings tell Victor’s mining history — and past modern open pit cyanide mining operations to several of the region’s deserted mines, including the Cresson, Vindicator and Independence.
Veatch shared geology and history tidbits at each stop, often enlisting the help of 84-year-old Ed Hunter, a Victor resident who has been in the mining industry since graduating from Colorado School of Mines shortly after World War II.
“To be able to see it like this is just amazing,” Hunter said as he looked at the contrast between buildings from the old Vindicator mine and the modern mining operation. “I started out with … mine cars underground. To go to a 300-ton truck — my god.”
Victor is the second town Veatch and his team have profiled. The team’s first project started two years ago when a resident of Guffey asked Veatch to prepare a slide show on the geology of the unincorporated Park County town. He agreed and recruited fellow club members to help out.
Veatch, a part-time professor at Colorado School of Mines, taught the other project members how to do things like interview and conduct Internet research. Then off they went.
The team collected oral histories from older town residents, scoured newspaper archives for stories from the past and collected old cemetery records. They looked at old photographs and historical Sanborn fire insurance maps. Sanborn started creating detailed drawings of U.S. communities in 1867 that are now considered research tools for historians.
The team also traveled around Guffey examining rock and mineral structures. They even discovered that a spring near Guffey produces radioactive water.
The Guffey project was so popular with the team that it decided to tackle Victor, profiling it last year.
Currently, the team is finishing its third profile, this time examining Alma, a town of about 200 people near Fairplay. Again, they are making discoveries: From newspaper archives, the team uncovered the forgotten town of Timberline, which existed in the late 19th century but isn’t recorded in any history books, Veatch said.
They’ll present the Alma research in late September at Alma Community Church and at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
“I find both of these pieces very well written and accurate,” Tom Huber, a UCCS geography professor who read the Victor and Guffey project abstracts, said in an e-mail. “There is technical detail, but the pieces are both accessible to the intelligent lay person who is interested in these areas.”
Veatch said the experience has taught him a lot more than just Guffey and Victor history. He has learned about Colorado and group projects in the process.
“Not so long ago this was all wilderness, and the only law out here was provided by mining districts and miners,” he said. “It’s also interesting to learn that people from all types of backgrounds can do just about anything they want, if they’re given the right direction and shown how to do it.”
The team plans to continue adding towns to the project. It will profile another town next year, although Veatch isn’t yet sure what town.
“That will come up somehow,” he said. “Somebody will say: ‘Hey, what about this town?’ ”
Original story posted here.
July 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
By Ruth Moon
At 32, country music star Josh Turner has already made it by most people’s standards.
The singer/songwriter has sold more than 4 million albums, produced three multi-week No. 1 hits — “Your Man,” “Would You Go With Me” and a single from his latest album, “Why Don’t We Just Dance” — but Turner isn’t done yet.
“My ultimate goal is the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Turner said. “I have a lot of years ahead of me that I need to work, and there’s a lot of things I want to accomplish.”
Luckily for Colorado Springs residents, the artist’s list of things to accomplish includes a concert stop at the Pikes Peak Center today, where fans will be able to hear the gravelly voiced musician live.
Turner said he’s looking forward to playing here (and he insists he doesn’t say that about every city he visits).
“There’s a lot of great country music fans out there,” he said of Colorado. “It’s a beautiful area; we just always have a great time playing out there.”
Despite the star’s success in the music biz, he still seems down-to-earth as he jokes about the challenges of turning stories into songs and talks about coping with tough times through his music.
Question: How did you get into music as a career?
Answer: It all started when I met a small publisher here in town (Nashville) named Jody Williams, and he gave me a publishing deal and took me around to MCA Records. … I played three songs and they decided to sign me, and next year will be 10 years that I’ve been signed there.
Q: I’m always curious when I talk to musicians about how you go about writing songs and how that process works for you.
A: I’m still trying to figure that out. Songwriting is something that’s not easy, I don’t care what anybody says. You really have to put yourself in a place to allow yourself to be inspired or to be moved by an idea or a story. … I’ve had a lot of songs just seem like they write themselves, like they need to come out and you just write the words down on paper and they just keep going and everything fits. It’s a great feeling.
That’s the best possible scenario, where songs pretty much write themselves. But then there are other songs that you have to work at a little bit. There are songs I’ve written in the past that I believed in, but they just didn’t come easy, so I just had to keep working at them. Finally, they came together, and I’m glad I stuck it out.
Q: How do you know when a song is done, when it’s finished?
A: It’s just an inner feeling, an inner thought formation. You feel when it’s done. It’s hard to describe, but you can just tell. It’s kind of like when you’re cleaning the house. You could keep going for another couple of hours, but you know when that time has come to quit cleaning. You know what I mean? That’s kind of the way it is with a song. You could keep working at it if you wanted to, but you’d probably be wasting your time or probably be screwing it up or whatever. You just kind of know when there’s nothing more that needs to be done with it.
Q: What’s your favorite song you haven’t written or performed or recorded?
A: This song that I’m about to tell you is a song that I never answered this question with. And it’s not so much something that I would record myself, but as far as melody and the craft of lyrics and chord progressions and just artistic ingredients … I heard this song again last night, and it’s a song called “Misery and Gin.” When I was sitting there listening to this song, it just made me realize just how great of a song it was. It kinda gave life to heartache and pain, and, like I say, the melody and the chord progressions — it just all felt so natural. It’s just a good song to use as an example of how to tell a story.
Q: “Why Don’t We Just Dance” has been a hit for four weeks, and one review I read said you were attracted to the song’s ability to create an escapist, happy mood in the middle of difficult times.
A: I think music in general has been a form of escapism for people for a long, long time. Dating back to the dawn of time, I think people have used music to express themselves; they’ve used it to communicate with each other, but they’ve also used it to take their mind off the troubles they’re going through.
So “Why Don’t We Just Dance” is definitely one of those songs that brings people together; it makes people want to dance together, it makes people want to talk about the important things in life and forget about all the bad stuff going on in the world.
Q: What is your goal in music? You said you want people to talk about the important issues — in your music, what are you trying to get people to think?
A: I never want people to feel worse about themselves or their life after they listen to a Josh Turner record. I want them to listen to my record and say, “You know what, life isn’t so bad, after all. And I just need to look on the bright side of things, and this song really makes me feel good, and you know, I need to dance. I need to quit worrying about all this other stuff and just concentrate on the good things in life.”
Original story posted here.
July 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
By Ruth Moon
When Arthur Goss thinks about American flags, one in particular stands out to him.
He saw it on a spring day in 1945 at Stalag 7A — Germany’s largest prison camp and home to 130,000 Allied prisoners of war — where Goss was held as a POW during World War II.
The flag was hand-stitched by a skinny lieutenant POW, Goss said, who hid it in his sheets until April 29, 1945, when American troops finally arrived to liberate the camp, located about 20 miles northeast of Munich.
Goss, 88, vividly recalled Monday how the lieutenant pulled out the flag, shimmied up the pole and replaced the German flag with the American stars and stripes.
“It was not only the tanks that created the cheering – it was seeing this kid put that flag up,” Goss said. “It’s just something that remains in you – thank God you can protect your flag.”
Goss was reminded of the day while attending a Flag Day ceremony at the Pioneers Museum in downtown Colorado Springs. The ceremony, which honored military veterans and POWs, included the unveiling of another unique flag, which will become part of a new POW exhibit opening July 17 at the museum.
The flag put on exhibit Monday was sewn by Germans at Stalag Luft III, the first POW camp where Goss was a prisoner. The POW camp for airmen was located in Poland about 100 miles southeast of Berlin. This flag was used in ritual traditions such as military burials.
“Our flag is a symbol of national pride,” city councilmember Jan Martin said at the ceremony. “It’s so important today to stop and remember.”
And Goss has many memories.
A former Air Force lieutenant and pilot, Goss’s plane was shot down Aug. 15, 1944. Of the 13 planes in Goss’s mission, 11 were shot down; his plane exploded in midair, and Germans from a nearby town were waiting with pitchforks when he hit the ground.
Goss gave his heavy pilot’s shoes to a young girl so he could run, and the girl stayed by his side, which he says stopped them from shooting him and saved his life.
He was taken to Stalag Luft III, the prison camp featured in the movie “The Great Escape,” and was transferred from there to Stalag 7A with the other POWs when Russian troops began to close in on the camp.
Goss remembers eating dandelion greens and potato skins to keep from starving; while at the camp, his weight dropped from 175 to 135 pounds. The American prisoners had to use ditches in the center of camp as toilets.
He was a prisoner of war until Gen. George Patton’s army rolled through at the end of the following April.
Goss settled in Colorado Springs in 1974 when he retired from the Air Force. He donated some of his wartime memorabilia to the Air Force Academy, which is loaning the items to the Pioneer Museum for the year-long exhibit.
The flag Goss helped unveil will be on display at the museum this week, along with two other flags used to facilitate a surrender during the war.
The rest of the exhibit will feature war memorabilia – such as a set of German killing knives from Goss – along with stories from prisoners of war.
“It’s only recently these World War II vets are willing to talk, and we’re losing them at such a high rate that it’s important to collect their stories,” said Matt Mayberry, director of the Pioneers Museum. “It’s important that the current generation hear them, to use these lessons for the future.”
Goss said he has almost forgotten many of his experiences – but the memories never quite disappear. Some of the men in his airplane died, and he often wonders if he could have saved them.
“You think back on experiences like that, you worry about it. You worry about what happened,” he said. “Freedom isn’t free – you have to earn it. You see that once you’re a POW.”
July 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
While recent elections solidify liberal leadership in Finland’s state church, young conservative Lutherans are fighting to survive.
Last September, Helsinki’s Irja Askola became the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (FELC)’s first female bishop. In March of 2010, Kari Mäkinen defeated his anti-gay-marriage opponent for archbishop by 11 votes out of 1,175.
In October, a televised debate over homosexuality on the national broadcast station spurred 40,000 people to leave the FELC. This past March, Lutheran youth magazine Nuotta created a firestorm by posting a YouTube video of a girl describing her decision to leave a lesbian lifestyle after converting to Christianity.
The video prompted the FELC to recommend that funding be cut from two conservative youth ministries that publish Nuotta, said Timo Keskitalo, chairman of the Evangelical Alliance in Finland. Most Christian organizations are legally separate from the FELC, which comprises 78 percent of Finland’s 5.3 million people, but operate under it. Local church councils can cut financial support to such groups and stop hosting their events.
The controversies shocked Finns, said Hannu Nyman, a pastor with Logos Ministries of Finland, which partners with Campus Crusade for Christ. “The division between conservatives and liberals in the church became more evident,” he said. “Committed Christians have been taken by surprise at the strong liberal front among [FELC] leadership.”
The FELC has taken steps to marginalize conservative youth, Keskitalo said. In late April, the Ministry of Education announced it would remove youth training accreditation from the Finnish Bible Institute, which supported the Nuotta video. Bishops refuse to ordain young ministers who do not support women’s ordination, he said.
As a result, a growing number of independent congregations contain young families who are still members of the FELC but do not feel at home in FELC congregations.
“Older generations seem not to dare to see the fundamental changes …. They are hoping that things will turn better,” Keskitalo said. “Young people are running out of patience. The church is trying to silence and push out the young believers.”
“The church that tries to make itself meaningful by suppressing [the] openly religious, even mystical, side of Christian faith is bound to lose,” said Päivi Räsänen, leader of the Christian Democrats party. “[That's] the real reason for declining membership rates.”
Though some frustrated Finns, such as Markku Koivisto of the Nokia Missio movement, are forming breakaway denominations, Keskitalo hopes to see renewal within the FELC.
“It is very difficult to surrender the church to those who have stolen the church. It is not easy to let go,” he said. “Generations have been building this church sacrificially. Why should we give it up?”
Original story here.
July 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
There is one doctor for every 30,000 people in Niger, one of the lowest ratios worldwide.
But such statistics inspire doctors Tony Mwenyemali and Yakoubou Sanoussi, both of whom turned down lucrative job offers elsewhere after discerning a call to practice missionary medicine in Niger. Mwenyemali and Sanoussi work with Christian nonprofit Serving in Mission, which operates two of the nation’s most renowned hospitals.
For decades, Danja Hospital has run a highly effective program to prevent and treat leprosy. Soon Danja will open a center to repair obstetric fistula, an injury that can occur during childbirth.
Currently Mwenyemali, 33, is in nearby Cameroon, his home country, for additional training in surgery. “Every young doctor or young man would love to work in a place that looks attractive,” Mwenyemali said. “But I wanted to come to the place where God had called me to go.” With programs for leprosy and fistula, Danja will provide a level of medical care that is normally unavailable in rural areas.
West of Danja is Galmi Hospital, open since the 1950s and still operating in its original building. Sanoussi, 43, is one of two surgeons at the famous missionary hospital. He left Niger for medical school but chose to return and work amid the outdated surgical equipment and overflowing wards nearly 300 miles from Niamey.
“I sensed a call to be part of this work that heals people’s spiritual as well as physical health,” he said. “This is a place where people find comfort.”
Sanoussi grew up in a Christian home. When he was 16, his 1-year-old brother contracted measles and died on his mother’s back as they waited at a hospital for medical treatment. Because of that, Sanoussi decided to become a doctor. “I have had opportunities to work in other countries, but my heart is with my people.”
Each day, Sanoussi tours the 110-bed hospital. On the day Christianity Today visited, his patients included a woman whose face and body had been severely burned. “We don’t have strength to survive without the Lord,” Sanoussi said. “He gives strength to continue in spite of challenges.”
Original story posted here. This is a sidebar to accompany Pushing Back the Desert.
July 27, 2011 § Leave a Comment
On the edge of the Sahara Desert, church growth and discipleship strategies come down to one simple command: Stay alive.
The sub-Saharan African country of Niger is one of the poorest in the world. And with Christians making up less than 1 percent of the population, the survival of each congregation is a constant concern. Unpredictable rain patterns threaten what meager crops are grown. For Nigerien church leaders, “Give us this day our daily bread” is not just a metaphor.
“You find, even within church leadership, the statement, ‘Yes, God has called us. We are ministering for God. But how do we survive?’?” said Gaston Slanwa, a Cameroonian who trains church leaders in Niger. “That is the question that comes up most often.”
“We have a proverb in our language: ‘If somebody promises to give you a shirt, look what he is wearing,’?” said Nouhou Abdou Magawata, a local Christian who works with a Summer Institute of Linguistics program in Niamey, Niger’s capital. “If what he is wearing is good, then you think of him as being able to give you a shirt. If he is in rags, you won’t believe him. That is the situation we face. If you are preaching a God of love, but your God does not love you enough to give you enough to eat, what do you tell people?”
How can Christians preach a God of love in a country in which one of every five children dies before his first birthday and citizens routinely face deadly food shortages? Niger’s Christian leaders invest much hope and effort into what they call a “two-handed” approach, fulfilling material needs with one hand and sharing the gospel with the other.
“We don’t want to just throw food out at people,” said Donnie Hebert, a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) leader who works with nomadic herders in the desert terrain of northern Niger. “We can’t just tell people about Jesus and not fulfill their immediate needs, and I don’t feel you can fulfill their immediate needs without telling them about Jesus.”
Even from a distance, this dual approach to Christian outreach in Niger makes sense to economics professor Brian Fikkert, co-author of When Helping Hurts and founder of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Convenant College. During an interview about Christian methods for long-term development, Fikkert told Christianity Today, “I don’t believe it’s possible to do true development work without the clear verbal articulation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. At the end of the day, that means that at some point we are saying to people who are not Christians that in fact we have knowledge that they don’t have that they need desperately to come to grips with.
“I don’t conceive of poverty as being fundamentally material in nature alone. There are material elements, but I think of poverty differently. Human beings were created for relationship. Poverty is fundamentally rooted in the broken relationships that we have with God, self, others and the rest of creation. Poverty alleviation, then, is really about trying to restore or reconcile those relationships.”
Hardship and Fatalism
Niger, a nation of 15.8 million, has the highest birth rate and third highest infant death rate in the world. The country is one of the lowest ranked on the 2010 United Nations Human Development Index, which measures standard of living.
Just north of Nigeria, Niger butts up into the world’s largest desert. As a result, 80 percent of the land is unsuitable for farming. Dry season temperatures can spike at over 104°F. Throughout the scorched land, nomadic groups herd skeleton-thin cows and goats from watering hole to watering hole, traveling hundreds of miles in one season to survive.
In the arable south, farmers harvest meager crops of millet, corn, and other vegetables, the same kinds of crops their people have cultivated for generations. In years like 2009, one early, hard rain (or a rain that comes too late) brings a near-famine the following year.
HIV/AIDS is a smaller problem here than in other African countries, but relatively preventable diseases like typhoid ravage the population. Only 19 countries in the world have a lower life expectancy.
In Niamey, the most Westernized city in Niger, goats roam free over garbage and sewage heaps piled along the roadside. Basic hygiene, sewage systems, and Internet use are luxuries. Credible threats of al Qaeda terrorist operations in the mountainous northern region keep Western missions personnel on alert.
Besides disease and famine, internal political disputes plague the country. Niger gained independence from France in 1960, after nearly 40 years of colonial rule. Since then, uprisings and coups have punctuated periods of peaceful, democratic rule. Last spring, a military coup led to the ouster of President Mamadou Tandja. After the nation held a peaceful run-off presidential election to restore civilian rule, Mahamadou Issoufou took office as Niger’s new president in April.
One of the biggest ministry challenges is not the sporadic electricity or other hardships inherent to a developing country. It’s addressing Nigerien fatalism, the deeply entrenched assumption that nothing can change for the better, an attitude stemming from tradition, religion, and culture.
Mike Schmidt, deputy director of Niger’s Serving in Mission (SIM) branch, said Nigeriens “firmly believe what’s going to happen is going to happen because Allah has predetermined it.” The population is more than 90 percent Sunni. Clay-walled mosques with blue-tile roofs are the largest structures in many rural towns and villages.
Using the Widow’s Oil
SIM, which has been in Niger since 1924, trains local pastors in congregational and community leadership. The leaders come to SIM’s Bible school in Niamey or learn from missionaries throughout the south. SIM also operates two hospitals and an agriculture project.
Despite decades of experience in Niger, missions leaders have a sobering track record of unsuccessful efforts, including many failed attempts to teach local farmers new growing techniques. Nigerien reluctance is a form of risk management, said Jenny Aker, a Tufts University economics professor and expert on development in Niger.
“After [horrible] things happen to you, you start taking fewer risks,” she said. “Maybe you’re going to grow the crops you know work in the face of a drought. Maybe you’re going to do the things in terms of health practices you’ve traditionally done or know about.”
Missions leaders told Christianity Today that they try to work with the people to discover local solutions. “We ask questions, not propose solutions, and facilitate a process in which people discover that they already have resources to do something about their situation,” said Steve, a worker with a Christian development organization (he asked that his full name not be used). “We help them a little bit with the visioning, because sometimes you can’t imagine a different world.”
Leaders said that the community-driven approach is inspired by the story of Elisha and the widow’s oil (2 Kings 4). Elisha starts by asking questions to find out what resources the widow already has to help herself. Only after she answers does he propose a solution that uses what the widow has immediately available: cooking oil.
Together, Nigerien leaders seek their own widow’s oil. To that end, organizations like the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee often take groups of villagers to see successful projects elsewhere.
Steve’s organization recently took villagers to the southern city of Maradi, where a new way to grow crops was introduced. Peter Cunningham, a SIM leader involved with Maradi’s “Sowing Seeds of Change in the Sahel” project, has worked for 10 years to help green the Sahel, the grasslands of southern Niger. As he points out healthy acacia trees and new crop systems, he also stops to notice birds: hornbills, pigeons, and black kites. There was a time, he says, when the region was covered with monkeys chattering in mature trees. Now there is silence.
Under the new system, farmers plant around trees and rejuvenated tree stumps. Healthy trees slow the spread of the Sahara Desert. This eventually leads to larger crop yields and forest cover.
World Vision Australia’s Tony Rinaudo pioneered this technique in Niger, also called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration. The International Food Policy Research Institute highlighted the technique in its popular resource Millions Fed: Proven Successes in Agricultural Development, and the program has been slowly expanding since 1990. In some cases, crop yield has at least doubled as a result. According to Rinaudo, in the past 20 years, farmers have reforested 12 million acres of barren Nigerien land.
Reaping from Rocks
A decade ago, the area around Abalak, an ancient northern city on the edge of the Sahara, was a wasteland, covered with red sand, rocks, and thorny bushes, and dotted with nomads’ stick and grass huts. Now, thanks to the steady efforts of local tribal leaders and YWAM’s Hebert, some desert areas are producing harvests of local grains, like wild wheat, to feed people and their livestock, the main means of livelihood in the region.
The benefits of change are not hard to find. When the last major food crisis hit the country, families who had been growing wheat and banking the surplus lost many fewer animals than did others.
When Hebert and his wife, Allison, work with a new group, they direct their initial efforts at helping nomads solve problems of daily life. They explain to tribal elders their land rights and seek ways to help them reduce overgrazing, which can quickly turn arable land into desert. Hebert oversees grain banks, which maintain the supply of grain and stabilize prices during famines.
Their work is gaining international notice. In 2009, the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction recognized YWAM-Niger for its participatory community programs to improve the lives of Nigeriens in the North.
Once the local economy shows signs of stabilizing, Christian leaders start working on issues like literacy, health care, and leadership development.
Much of that is done through Bible teaching at local churches. The church here, as in much of the Global South, is growing quickly but is still very young.
“God is harvesting people here. The church is growing and membership is growing, but the maturity of the leadership is still weak,” said leadership trainer Slanwa. “It takes time for people to understand. Don’t force a child of 10 years to do what a child of 15 years should do.”
Most Christians are concentrated in a few communities around the capital city and in the south. For example, about 80 Christians in Bawada Daji, a few hours from Niamey, meet weekly for worship. But as might be expected, mature church leadership is in great demand.
Siman Assoumane, who is studying agriculture and rural economics at the University of Niamey, said, “If the one who is supposed to teach does not know what to teach, who will teach? You cannot teach what you do not know. The church still has to be trained.”
Despite the internal challenges, Nigerien Christians continue to look outward. As Joseph, a Christian in Bawada Daji, put it, “We want to bless other people.”
Ruth Moon, a graduate student at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, received a travel grant to support her reporting from Niger. John Stott Ministries has provided a grant to Christianity Today to support reporting on international issues.
Original story here. This story was the culmination of my trip funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.