Africans’ joy ‘transforms’ social action director

Kent Ferris demonstrates the use of a tip-tap hand-washing station outside an Arbor Loo (latrine) in Tanzania.

By Kent Ferris

I recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia and Tanzania. The trip, organized by Catholic Relief Services, was designed in part for diocesan social action directors from across the U.S. to see firsthand how local people around the world benefit from the generosity of Catholics in our country. 

The other reason for the trip was to grow in solidarity, to support the life and dignity of each person all around the world.

Before leaving the U.S., our group met in Baltimore. One speaker told us that the experiences on the trip would come at us fast, as if we were “trying to drink from a fire hose.” I found it to be an accurate analogy. I took a lot of notes, and with a little reflection, here is what I found most memorable:

We visited several water and growing projects far from major towns. With every visit, we were warmly greeted and the villagers explained their projects with great pride. The programs enable them to have clean water, improve basic personal hygiene and increase the variety of their diets, which in turn leads to added income and better school attendance for their children. The local folks had every reason for pride of ownership. CRS was making sure that development partnerships provided a “working with,” rather than a “doing for,” approach. 


We also visited places where emergency relief work was occurring. We made two visits to homes operated by the Missionaries of Charity. Thousands of men, women and children, the destitute and dying were cared for with great love and respect. We saw the large supplies of rice, beans, lentils and cooking oil from USAID, which enable the Sisters to provide nourishment for all they serve.

In the women’s section of the compound, amidst cleaning activities and medical treatments, I saw three frail young women sitting next to each other on a bench.  Actually, they were leaning against each other, not speaking. They were clearly comfortable being so close to each other and were supporting each other, literally and figuratively. These three women had been shown love and respect so that they could in turn do so for each other. At that moment, I was convinced I was in the presence of the Holy Spirit, a God-with-us, a God-with-all-of-us.

On the last day of the trip, we had the opportunity to meet Askofu Mkuu Josephaat L. Lebulu, Archbishop of Arusha, Tanzania. He spoke of the positive relationship his diocese has with CRS, both locally and nationally, a sentiment we heard in each diocese we visited. And he spoke of the larger sense of mission. “The Church has to be involved in justice and peace. The Church has to be missionary to be a Church; it has to be outward; whatever we have received, we are called to share.” He added, we “…have to make it a better world for all, not just for Catholics.” 

Visually, the thing that surprised me the most throughout the trip was the volume of foot traffic along highways.  I remember thinking, “Where are all these people walking to?” They were walking to the village to buy food or to school or with their animals.

The enormity of the poverty is unsettling as is the fact that so many people, particularly the sea of humanity in the cities, have no access to appropriate sanitation. Raw sewage is put into streams as common practice because there is no infrastructure to handle human waste properly. So many individuals live on the street that they go unnoticed. Projects CRS assists with help for proper sanitation in outer-lying villages but not in the cities, to my knowledge.

Most unsettling was the confirmation that U.S. legislation requires American food aid to be in the form of U.S. crops, not money. Excess commodities, bought by the U.S. government and given as food aid in countries like Ethiopia, have resulted in Ethiopian farmers being without markets for their own crops. Food aid is not opposed. It is only when there is plenty of food in one part of the country that foreign aid being added becomes difficult for Ethiopians to understand. The European Union has discontinued the practice of aid in kind, going the route of money aid exclusively. The issue is then what balance is best, how much food aid and how much money aid to provide to countries in need. Where this can be addressed is in the next U.S. Agriculture bill.

I learned a lot on the trip. I thank God for this incredible experience and my brothers and sisters in solidarity who live thousands of miles away who shared their boundless joy and hope for life. It truly has transformed me!

(Kent Ferris is social action director for the Diocese of Davenport.)

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