By Blake Tommey
When Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Lynn and Mike Hutchinson moved to Togo in West Africa, they invited the women of their small fishing village to gather for a conversation. “How can your community have life more abundantly?” they asked.
Without hesitation, the 16 women in attendance reached a consensus: “Our children are sick and they’re dying too young,” they said.
The Hutchinsons know the dreadful toll that malaria, malnutrition and poor medical care take on Togo’s children, especially upcountry from the more developed, coastal capital of Lomé. After all, Togo consistently ranks within the top 10 poorest countries in the world, depending mostly on subsistence farming, Mike explained. Further inland, people still reside in mud huts and live without electricity or running water. Unemployment is ubiquitous. Nevertheless, the Hutchinsons weren’t interested in what the Togolese lacked, but what strengths and solutions they already possessed.
Mike prodded further.
“Well, how could we find a solution to that?” he asked.
“Development, of course,” they said, referring to the way many Western organizations have built wells, latrines or solar panels without giving ownership or instruction to the Togolese. Consequently, many projects created by white Westerners—or “yovos” as they’re known in West Africa—now sit in disrepair across the country. “You can build us a hospital,” they insisted nonetheless.
Despite support from the CBF Offering for Global Missions, the Hutchinsons had neither the funding nor the medical expertise to build a hospital; so, they challenged the women to return with another answer. The women emerged a week later with a new solution: “If you could only get us a couple of doctors and build a small clinic,” they said.
“But who will pay for the electricity?” Mike asked. “Who’s going to pay for the medicine?” Once again, he challenged them to regroup and devise a plan that belonged to the village, not to missionaries or foreign aid workers.
A week later, the women returned with a radically different solution. “Our streets are dirty,” they began. Indeed, the village shared its sand streets with chickens, goats and all manner of garbage. People swept out their houses and even dumped human waste onto the street. “The problem is, our kids are walking in the dirty streets and getting sick; so, we’ve decided to form a street-sweeping club,” the women said. “Everybody has a broom and we already sweep our homes every day.”
The following weekend, nearly 65 women, along with the Hutchinsons, took to the streets and swept up the accumulated trash. Better yet, they continued to sweep every Saturday at 5:30 a.m. and to meet afterward for discussion. At these meetings, each woman contributes a bar of soap and 25 cents to a collective pot. Then a winner is picked by drawing names. The woman who wins the 65 bars of soap then sells them on the street, generating income for her family as well as promoting better hygiene.
The street-sweeping project soon spread to nearby neighborhoods in Lomé, where the American Red Cross took notice of improved sanitation and reproduced the project on a national scale. Today, the entire country of Togo celebrates a “Sweep the Streets” day each year to promote better public sanitation. And it all began by focusing on the strengths of one neighborhood, Lynn said. Every community can have life more abundantly, she explained, but first they must believe in their own God-given assets.
“Transformational development doesn’t start with scarcity or lack, and this is important here in West Africa because there are so many needs,” she added.
“Over time, the Togolese have come to believe that they have nothing. In fact, traditional aid agencies have offered help only to communities that can demonstrate sufficient lack. That’s understandable, of course, but also quite discouraging. Our work, rather, focuses on what people have, on what resources are present. What natural resources or groups live in the community? What do they have to offer? Maybe a neighbor is an expert in raising sheep or teaching French. Everyone has something they can share with the community.”
These became the founding principles of Togo House, which the Hutchinsons created in 2013 to empower the residents of Lomé to find transformative solutions within themselves and their community.
“We call it home-front development,” Lynn said. “And we want to teach people that they have God-given assets and resources.”
With support from the CBF Offering for Global Missions, the Hutchinsons and their Togolese neighbors are forming together to create summer kids’ camps, build handmade furniture, host English and French classes, make batik clothing, facilitate leadership training, make fresh compost and just about anything that uplifts and empowers people, Lynn added. That’s the point of Togo House, she said. “It belongs to the neighborhood.”
Togo House quickly built on the success of the street-sweeping club by engaging other adult professionals, many of whom possessed a niche skill or enterprise they could share with neighbors. A local furniture maker hosted a workshop on how to make a wooden dining table.
An expert in batik, an Indonesian cloth-dyeing technique, hosted an instructional seminar for 15 women, two of whom started a batik business. Others learned to weave baskets from old prayer mats or to bake cupcakes using local papaya, all of which generated new businesses and income.
Bruno Zonvide, Togo House’s first director, says he became most passionate about the composting and gardening initiative. Prior to meeting the Hutchinsons, Bruno was immersed in horticulture, but only at the behest of his father, who forced him to sell plants on the roadside for almost no pay. That’s where Bruno met Mike Hutchinson, who gave him a new job as their household director and guide. When the Hutchinsons founded Togo House, Bruno became an easy choice for director, Mike noted, learning how to create a budget, recruit volunteers and publicize events.
Bruno also committed to learn about composting and fertilizer. The problem was that most Togolese were paying expensive prices for Chinese fertilizer, which would inevitably wash out of Togo’s loamy soil. On the other hand, local fertilizer, made from compost and manure, is cheap, sustainable and holds inside the soil, Mike explained. Bruno began producing his own compost at Togo House as well as hosting expositions for local gardeners and farmers, who grow tomatoes, lettuce and eggplant across Lomé. Each attendee received a Moringa plant in return. Today, Bruno’s neighborhood is covered in Moringa trees and he continues to sell compost and ceramic planters for a living. He says Togo House helped him discover courage, not to mention supporting his wife, Fafa, and their two children.
“In the past, I suffered a lot. I knew I could do something, but I couldn’t afford to develop my ideas,” Bruno explained.
“Today, my life has changed. I learned a lot with Togo House—patience, courage. I am passionate about the garden too. Michael and Lynn showed me that I’m able to do something, that I have intelligence. They helped my family in all things. Even if my children are sick, they are present. I am grateful to them and to CBF, and I say thank you to God. Every day I wonder what would I do if they were not there.”
Youth and children were clamoring for projects as well, including language classes and a summer camp. First, the Hutchinsons helped them start weekly English, science and art clubs, some of Wilfried’s favorite activities at Togo House. When Wilfried first attended, he would often reveal alarming information about his home life during class, such as how he hadn’t eaten in more than a day. Eventually, the Hutchinsons discovered that Wilfried’s father had abandoned his family; so they began offering him meals in exchange for small chores.
Before long, Wilfried and his friends, Abel and Armel, were volunteering to become counselors at Togo House’s summer camp for middle schoolers, despite being too young for the role. Mike eventually succumbed to their pitch. “Wilfried turned out to be my best worker,” Mike said. “These friends knew they had a capacity and could handle leadership at camp, even when I didn’t. Plus, they did a great job.” Wilfried, Abel and Armel even created a skit to accompany the end-of-camp Bible study, which became a smash hit among the campers. Now a junior assistant, Wilfried loves to help prepare and lead at Togo House, perhaps more than even learning or playing games, he added.
“Togo House helps us understand English or other languages,” Wilfried explained. “Sometimes we even do art and learn how to do things we do not know. When we come to Mr. Michael’s house, we make cakes and other things to go to Togo House to celebrate. That’s why we come, to help and prepare things.”
Each year at summer camp, 20 middle-schoolers gather at Togo House Monday through Thursday for games, cooking and Bible study. Bruno even leads the middle-schoolers in a cheer based on their theme, love. “I am love,” they say in unison. “I am love at Togo House, but I’m also love at home. I’m love to my neighbors. I’m love when people hate me.” Weeks after camp has ended, you can still hear the cheer echoing through the neighborhood, according to Mike.
In 2018, financial gifts from across the Fellowship not only made summer camp possible, but also funded the purchase of Bibles for each student to use and take home. These contributions, as well as the CBF Offering for Global Missions, continue to sustain the work of Togo House and the Hutchinsons’ long-term presence. Of course, Togo’s children and adults alike must discover their own beauty and strength, Lynn explained. Years of Western aid and loans have failed to help the people of Togo develop independently or transform their communities. But when we form together on equal ground, she said, we take part in the abundant life that Jesus speaks of in John 10.
“Jesus said, ‘I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly,’ and this sense of abundance is what we want people to know about,” Lynn said.
“We want people to see the abundance of the gifts God has given them, but we’re also not alone in that work. We have churches in the United States who pray faithfully for us and support our work in Togo financially. The Offering for Global Missions makes it possible for us to be present here in Togo, to partner with our neighbors at Togo House, to go into villages and meet people who have never heard of Jesus Christ and who live under fear and oppression. Your gifts allow us to share God’s love while bringing about transformational development here in Togo.”
Watch a video story about the Hutchinsons’ ministry in Togo below:
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This article appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.