Path From Poverty is an innovative Seattle-based nonprofit that’s reimagining how missions work is done. In true Cascadian-pioneering fashion, they are forging their own trail, finding their own way to reach across cultures, transforming lives and communities. While many missions organizations tend to objectify the people they help, Path from Poverty emphasizes coequal, collaborative, long-term partnership. Catalyzing cross-cultural friendships is the primary purpose and motivation for their short-term trips during which they partner with women’s groups to empower and equip them to break the cycle of poverty and live into their God-given potential.
In this article, Agnes Kioko, a Kenyan, and Boni Piper from Cascadia describe their involvement in PFP’s short-term trips. They share their experiences leading women to fully embrace an egalitarian and transformative copowerment model that disrupts the more typical top-down models of community development.
Boni: Because we want to share about the value Path From Poverty (PFP) places on authentic cross-cultural relationships, I should start by pointing out that Agnes and I are friends—good friends! Of course, as PFP leaders we have a lot to talk about and collaborate on when we bring teams of American women to Kenya. But our friendship is so much more than our work. We often stay up late into the night when others have gone to bed, just so we can talk. We get each other’s stories and make each other laugh. I’m grateful that we can connect over social media. Still, we miss each other a lot when I’m not in Kenya.
The point is, there are a lot of cultural and historical pressures in community development that work against forming real relationships; our friendship would not have been possible if Path From Poverty didn’t emphasize coequality between the Kenyan women and the American women on visiting teams.
Agnes: In the early days of team visits, I remember many things that originally were not “allowed”—unspoken assumptions that kept the two groups separated and kept both sides from forming authentic relationships. When it came to foreign visitors, Kenyans always assumed that we were not to communicate directly with anyone on the team, ever. There was to be no hugging, shaking hands, eating together or even sitting at the same table! Of course, we never slept in the same guest house or had conversations that revealed much about our personal histories. And while the Americans were given chicken to eat, it was too costly for Kenyans to enjoy. We assumed that all this is what Americans wanted—that they did not want to be close to us. That we were dirty.
Eventually these things were revealed to our American visitors, who apparently knew nothing about these unspoken rules. When we took the risk to speak up about these misunderstandings, it was a fearful time for us Kenyans. We were so afraid of what might happen! Yes, we didn’t like how we felt around the Americans, but at least we had a working partnership with a good nonprofit. What would happen if we spoke up and, as a result, had that taken away? Oh, it was such a risk!
It turned out to be a risk worth taking, though. Together, we shared our fears and concerns openly with our American sisters. We cried together over our misunderstandings and the limitations that kept us from really knowing one another. We confessed our sins against each other and offered forgiveness that was so needed.
Boni: Path From Poverty’s work in Kenya has always been plagued by the ugly legacy of colonialism. While this is gradually changing, in the early days of our work there, Kenyans were made to feel inferior, thinking we wanted to feel superior. It takes real effort for both Kenyans and Americans not to play into that legacy of brokenness. But we have learned from experience that our colleagues in Kenya are just as capable as we are—and, in fact, are more capable when it comes to guiding the work of our common mission. We have a true partnership, meaning we are equal in the governance of our common work and equal in the dynamics of our relationships. We listen carefully to each other and value each other’s opinions. Good relationships certainly take a lot of intentionality, though. The kinds of relationships that Path From Poverty makes possible between the two cultures are unusual in cross-cultural missions.
It’s worth noting that Path From Poverty was formed 20 years ago when two women, one from Kenya and one from Seattle, met while working side by side on a mission project in a third country. They realized they both had hearts for women living in poverty and wanted to respond. Together they developed an egalitarian, self-sustaining model to help women transform their lives. Today that model aims to improve women’s lives through listening to what the women themselves identify as their primary needs and by supporting their plan to meet those needs, rather than defaulting to what Westerners assume they need. This powerful distinction permeates all of our work in PFP.
Agnes: Because they chose to trust us to know our needs and the best ways to meet them, PFP began partnering with us to reach our goals. That’s the reason that, when the US PFP teams are with us, we dedicate time to helping them understand our lives and listening to them share about their own.
For example, we help them to understand that our women and our daughters walk miles each day for water that is not clean and we face violence, including rape and abduction, along the way. It takes many hours to find water and when we find it, it’s usually contaminated by cholera, typhoid, and other deadly diseases. Boiling this water may not take away all diseases and, as a result, our family members are often sick. Nearly every woman I know has family members who have died of waterborne diseases.
Since we live quite far apart on homesteads that have been inherited, building costly wells would not fulfill the need, as we would still have to walk many miles to the wells and carry the water home. Besides, the water just beneath the surface is salty, so the wells would have to be very deep and cost thousands of dollars. As Kenyan women, we discussed this problem. We asked each other, “What is our greatest need and how do we meet it?” We decided that clean water was our greatest need and the best option for us would be to buy water tanks to catch the rain at our homes during the two main rainy seasons. This was the solution that we presented to Path From Poverty’s representatives in the US. Together, we collaborated on a strategy to make it happen.
As part of this strategy, several groups of 20 to 30 women were formed in Kenya. We began learning things like effective leadership, record keeping, and improved hygiene at home. We also studied scripture and prayed together. We shared income-generating projects and began to work collectively. As our groups saved money for water tanks and, later, solar panels, PFP US raised money for additional water tanks and solar panels. We knew that if we saved enough for one tank, another would be provided by PFP US. Knowing they would gift additional water tanks and panels in this way was a great incentive for the women struggling to contribute to group savings. We continued to work this way until all the women in our groups received a water tank. This gifting model is the way the partnership has operated now for 20 years.
Boni: As Agnes explained, we do our part of the collaborative work by raising funds to purchase additional equipment. And to foster the relational context for our shared work, PFP teams visit Kenya to see the results of our collaborations and, more importantly, to spend time with our Kenyan sisters.
While we do actual physical work when we are there—oftentimes helping to build the concrete bases for new water tanks—we understand that the real value of our time there comes from just being present. We are there to love, to bear witness to the stories we hear, to affirm and empower those we meet. We are also there as learners, knowing that empowerment goes both ways. We expect that Westerners who go will be changed forever when they encounter women who are joyful and loving—even those who experience poverty and other adverse circumstances. These trips are focused more on being than doing; they are about opening our hearts to one another. It’s easy to dig a hole. It’s much harder to keep an open heart and stay attentive to God’s leading.
That is part of what PFP training is about. Learning to listen to God’s Spirit. Becoming aware of what is happening around us. Stepping into the openings for loving action that we sense are ours. The foundation of PFP rests on the belief that we are all children of one God and, therefore, we are sisters.
I recall one woman on our team, Linda, who said she was “changed forever” when she walked for water with several Kenyan women. While Linda is an athlete in great condition, carrying 40 pounds of water up a hill in the heat was one of the hardest things she had ever done. She shared, “I did this just once. When I think of our Kenyan friends doing this every day, forever, I feel overwhelmed. I walked just a mile. Some of them walk five miles, daily. It has changed my view of their world!”
Karen was also on that same team. Before she met us in Nairobi, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and ended up arriving exhausted. On her first day with the PFP women, she was fatigued and discouraged. As she told it, “Several team members came to my room to comfort me, but it didn’t really help. Then Agnes came to my room with tenderness and warmth. She said she’d heard I didn’t feel well and wanted to pray with me. She took my face in her hands and said, ‘You are my sister, and you matter to me.’ It was so authentic and went deep into my soul. This changed the trip for me and actually changed my life! I think of this interaction daily.”
Agnes: And, of course, these short-term visits change a lot of Kenyan lives, as well. During one of the visits, we were blessed to be taught by Dr. Alicia, a member of the PFP US team. She changed so many of our ideas about our own health. Women asked many questions about giving birth and keeping our babies healthy. So many babies die soon after birth. One thing we learned was that it was good to give birth in a hospital. Most of our women distrust hospitals, but she explained the many ways a hospital can help us. We trusted her because she worked with us, laughed with us, and seemed to respect us. Now, two years later, many more women are getting medical help during their pregnancies and using hospitals when needed.
One of our women, Grace, is another example of transformation. The American team members who worked at Grace’s house on that trip were eager to get to know her. They spent time hearing her story, sitting side by side, holding her hand, having tea together, and generally affirming her and her situation. You see, Grace suffered from fistula and had tried to keep it a secret. She had isolated herself because of the smell that accompanies this medical condition. She hadn’t been to church in years and kept herself apart from other women. Yet she felt safe to share her story with the visiting team members in a way she hadn’t before.
Because of that conversation, she later inquired at the hospital to see if anything could be done for her condition. The women of PFP Kenya encouraged her, supported her through her appointments, and helped pay for the surgery. A huge transformation took place. Grace went on to marry her partner in a church wedding and PFP friends put on the reception. Now, she meets with friends and has become an active member of her PFP group. Grace was able to put aside her shame and allow herself to be affirmed, encouraged, and empowered to make life changes. This huge change happened as a result of being heard without judgment.
By the time the Americans leave for home and the Kenyans return to their daily routines, most of us feel that we have more in common with these sisters than we could have imagined. We are more alike than not. We are truly sisters in Christ, and that is what defines us. Our skin color, our economic differences, our country’s values are not what really matter. We all would do anything to protect our children. We want our families to thrive. We all long to know God more intimately and to understand what God wants of us. We all want to be safe. We all want a future filled with hope. It’s a wonderful feeling to talk with our American sisters about these desires that we share in common.
When they visit, it is a gift that the American women surrender their needs to us. We have learned so much by providing fully for them. And perhaps more importantly, trust is built between us.
Boni: This is the work we’ve come to understand as the most important work of our short-term visits—the work of cultivating authentic relationships. It is always our common prayer that, as we work together in Kenya, we will be able to maintain our commitment to Jesus and to what we believe he asks of us.
Agnes: I always emphasize to Kenyan women that we must remain open and willing to share our true thoughts and feelings in the experience of working together, and to be bold and honest about our hopes for transformation.
Boni: And I emphasize to US women that there is never a time to presume that we know more than Kenyans do about their circumstances—and that we as Americans must always be on guard against presumptions of superiority.
Only by continuing to foster such mutual openness and trust can we continue together the good work that the Lord began. May God give us strength for the work ahead.