Looking Up From Down Below

Janet and I adore being grandparents. Six months ago we were blessed with our fifth grandchild, and the first in 12 years. What a delight it is to celebrate each new adventure, each new wonder, each new victory for Laith. (His name rhymes with “faith” and is Arabic for “lion”—so of course Grandma feels compelled to buy every piece of baby clothing she finds sporting an embroidered lion.) Seeing him discover how to use his hands as tools the past few months, grimacing when he nearly turned over but then rolled back…then finally made it. Everyone in the family loves these little triumphs and new frontiers.

Why is that? Somehow we put ourselves in a baby’s shoes. We accept infants “as they are”, and if we have eyes to see it we can appreciate each infinitesimal new step, celebrating its newness, not depreciating its smallness.

I just had that same experience, sitting on an airplane heading up the California coast while reading a report from West Africa. What a joy it was to “appreciate the newness” of their progress. Yet I also sighed, wondering how many others would miss it, “depreciating its smallness?”

The report was about a fascinating innovation with the anything-but-fascinating name “Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration”. An Australian missionary who now works for World Vision discovered it 25+ years ago. The idea simply is that areas experiencing terrible deforestation can be reforested without planting new trees! It turns out that the stumps of harvested trees still have roots which send out new shoots, from the trunk and through the ground, maybe 20-30 shoots. If properly cared for, these shoots can become large trees far quicker than new seedlings because of their pre-existing root system.

Today half the farmed land in Niger, West Africa is using FMNR, and countries all throughout that region are adopting the practice. Even better: it requires almost no money or outside help beyond a little technical coaching, and farmers adopt it on their own from seeing its impact for their neighbors.

The report I read was full of quotes from local villagers, chiefs and FMNR volunteer trainers, and I realized that if you and I went to visit there, these are the kinds of things we’d hear…or we might miss, due to their profound “smallness”:

* “They used to tell us to plant trees [seedlings]. They would bring them out; we would plant them and the trees would die. These (shoots) are coming up themselves! It’s cooler already and the winds are not as strong and the soil remains moist for longer. We are already beginning to see changes such as improved crop growth.”

* “Grasses have also returned and so now there is fodder for our livestock. The animals used to have to walk so far and risk being stolen. Now there is plenty of grass nearby and they do not wander. Also, it used to be that if we took our animals to the market, they were so skinny that buyers didn’t even want to look at them. Now, they bring good prices.”

* “A wide range of non-timber forest products can now be found after almost becoming locally extinct. Talensi region has a rich diversity of edible and medicinal plants. Children are eating wild fruits and selling some, and they buy text books with the proceeds. The children used to walk long distances in order to collect this fruit and this was a big concern to parents. Now the fruit can be found close to home.”

* One day a fire broke out and the chief saw it from his bath. His only thought was to save the trees, so he ran to the fire wrapped in his towel to put it out. Seeing their chief doing this the whole community was compelled to run to his aid. After just 1-2 years we are already seeing differences. Bare spaces are hard to find. Attitudes have changed, especially towards fire. Today the community members are very keen to prevent and stop fire. We envisage that within just a few years we’ll have a forest and all its benefits.”

* “The arrival of FMNR in my village has enabled me to fulfil the meaning of my ceremonial name, which is ‘Tintuug Lebge Tii’, meaning ‘the small shrub becomes a tree’.”

When at our best, we celebrate others’ small victories. We recognize that in our offspring these small victories will lead one day to major changes. Lord willing, Laith will eventually learn to walk, to talk, to learn, to invent, to provide, to love God and his fellow neighbor.

In the same way, even though we can almost hear our naysayer instinct cry out, “These people are still absurdly poor by my standards” while reading each quote above, these seemingly small victories can lead to major changes. For instance, in Niger, over five million people have doubled their family income, just by growing these tree shoots! Last year, World Vision won an Innovation Award for FMNR from Interaction, a US-based consortium of international NGOs that seeks to affirm and disseminate best practices.

I met a couple last month who helped finance the powerful documentary “Born into Brothels.” The storyline is simple: cameras were given to children whose mothers work in brothels in India. Through the camera lens, we get to see the world from their viewpoint, looking up from down below. If we as viewers can see life as those children see it, the directors understood, we can more truly understand their challenges, the deficits they face, and their enormous victories in what we might otherwise call the smallest things.

Laith is almost always looking up from down below. Yet I love to get inside his head, to empathize, and to celebrate what for him is massive progress. Without question, anything and everything we ever “accomplish for God” must look the same to him as our grandchildren’s progress looks from our adult perspective. Yet, I don’t believe God scoffs at our human attempts, though to him they are infinitesimally small baby steps. No, God instead rejoices: he knows what we can become.

He looks up from down below with us. Through our camera lens. And he calls us to do likewise.

And, as the very first psalm reminds us, it’s alot more fun to rejoice with those who rejoice than to sit in the seat of scoffers.

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