A Partnership for Empowerment
Words by Judy Wu Dominick
Photos by Daniel White
In a remote village in northern Uganda, a man named Michael worked as a bricklayer to support his family. But a disabling back injury abruptly ended his income, forcing his children to work for food. Desperate, he prayed for God to make another way. In 2008, staff workers from an organization called Food for the Hungry (FH) entered his village and introduced themselves. They informed the villagers that they were living on fertile land, then offered to teach them how to use it. Michael jumped at the opportunity. He started out planting a few trees but progressed to planting orchards. Today, in 2018, Michael trains and employs a whole team of people who tend his sprawling plantation on which he keeps honeybees and grows fruit-bearing trees, trees for lumber, a large variety of vegetables, and seedlings that he sells to local growers. In a village that once eeked out scarcity, Michael created a thriving local economy and a job market.
Since 1971, FH has been entering places of extreme hardship and empowering vulnerable communities to develop and implement solutions for their own transformation. Its holistic approach is what attracted the attention of Grammy Award-winning hip-hop artist Lecrae when he was researching ways to fight global poverty in 2014. It reflected deep personal beliefs he and his wife Darragh had developed while ministering in Binghampton, a disenfranchised community in Memphis.
Entering into a partnership with FH, Lecrae had a specific vision in mind: to focus on a specific area and follow its progress over time. He chose a cluster of communities located in Kole District in northern Uganda, a region still struggling to rebuild after two decades of insurgency that displaced much of the population, devastated families, and destroyed infrastructure and services. Lecrae introduced his fans to FH during his Anomaly tour in 2015 and began inviting concert goers to help him build up the communities in Kole.
At that time, the Kole field office had only eight staff workers serving a mostly rural population spread out over four hundred square miles. But in the three years since Lecrae and FH launched their partnership, the Kole office has increased its staff to eighteen, three thousand children have been sponsored, school enrollment for girls is up, and crop yields have improved. Daniel C. White, FH’s Director of Artist and Speaker Relations, says, “These are tangible examples of what can happen when an artist partners with a community and commits to walk with its people until they’re no longer living in extreme poverty.”
In June 2018, Lecrae traveled to Kole for the first time. His mother, Ormie, accompanied him, as did his friend Kareem Manuel, who went to Kole in 2017 and is FH’s spokesperson on Lecrae’s tours. Over the course of five days, FH staff introduced them to teachers, mothers, school children, farmers, and entrepreneurs in various villages. Lecrae reflects on the intimacy of the experience: “I felt so privileged to be invited into people’s homes to hear their stories. They’ve experienced so much pain and suffering, but also resilience and rebuilding. I saw a lot of parallels between their stories and mine. Hearing about how they overcame insurmountable odds strengthened me. It was powerful.”
One of his favorite memories was getting to meet Michael. “Michael’s story,” says Lecrae, “shows that God has already put the ingredients in and around people to do incredible things, but that they might need a little help connecting with their potential. The resources we provide can help them become all that God created them to be—the best version of themselves right where they are.”
Lecrae believes it’s important for Americans to let go of the idea of western exceptionalism. “I appreciate the way FH cultivates indigenous leadership. I watched the way the Ugandan staff worked in the villages. They were courageous, kind, hands-on, and effective. They broke all kinds of stereotypes in my mind.”
As it turns out, Lecrae and his traveling companions challenged some stereotypes too. “There was a teacher at one of the schools,” he recalls, “who had never seen black Americans—only white American missionaries. She was mesmerized that my mom, my buddy Kareem, and I were there. It helped me realize how unique our presence was.”
He goes on to say, “I think because so much of the African diaspora in the U.S. has been cut off from our heritage, many of us don’t feel connected to the African continent. And because we’ve experienced centuries of injustice and economic marginalization ourselves, a lot of our focus is on securing equal rights and fair treatment. Rightly so. But in some ways, we’ve gotten so caught up in trying to keep up with our white counterparts that we don’t realize what we already have compared to people who make $50 a month. I saw it so clearly when I was in Kole. So, an important question for us is, ‘How can we use what we do have to serve others abroad who have far less, even as we’re engaged in a fight for justice or equality here?’ And if we’re giving to the kind of work FH does, it’s not charity; it’s an exchange. Giving connects us to people who have a lot to teach and give to us in return.”