Solidarity helps us to stay in touch with what matters
Every night of my trip to Benin, I took the time to sit on a veranda outside my bedroom in a soft armchair, probably sent over in a container from a French Emmaus community. It smelt old and musty, but by the end of the week it was like a comfortable old friend. I put my feet up and reflected on the things I had seen.
I was in the country to attend the annual board meeting for Emmaus International, as one of 24 representatives from across the world. The place that we were staying was rural, the electricity intermittent and the water a cold dribble, but the people were friendly and welcoming and the fresh fruit wonderfully tasty.
The decision to hold the meeting in Benin was to enable us to see for ourselves the Lake Nokoué project - the biggest programme of work ever undertaken by Emmaus International - which will provide 65,000 people with clean drinking water.
In the past, local people have had very little option other than to devise their own solutions to poverty and they have become very adept at doing so. However, through funding and assistance from many European Emmaus groups they have also created farms, training centres, waste processing units, palm oil production plants and mutual health schemes.
As we were shown a water tower built by Emmaus, we were surrounded by hordes of children, grown used to western visitors coming to see their wonderful new building. The poverty was very real, with naked toddlers scrabbling around in the dirt with dogs and piglets. But the women were resplendent in brightly coloured skirts and tops with amazing patterns woven into them and the men - who were dressed in shorts and European football shirts – told us that they made a living from fishing. Although they sell their fish at the market in Cotonou for around €5 per kilo, they can't afford to eat it themselves. It was an enlightening day to see how far they had come, and yet how far is still to go.
Despite this reminder, it was heartening to see the difference we can make through our solidarity activities – particularly by holding our solidarity sales. While we all experience difficulties from time to time in the UK, and may become despondent, it is important to remember that the sales that we will hold throughout the country on 17 May really do help. Amongst many other projects, they will provide the funds needed to continue the training for Lake Nokoué people to run their projects once Emmaus steps back.
This idea of independence has always been intrinsic to the Emmaus model, and hopefully means that the programmes that Emmaus has established will continue to thrive where others have fallen by the wayside. Instead of just providing the tools, we are also giving people the instruction manual and the spare parts as well.
This trip really reinforced for me why our role in Emmaus International is so important and the difference we make, and I hope it helps you to understand your role too. Those shopping with us, those working in our shops, those supporting the sales, you are all essential to helping Emmaus thrive.
Our ability to see the bigger global picture, means that those little children currently playing in the mud will instead grow up knowing how to maintain a supply of clean water and flushing toilets. Instead of being laid low by waterborne illness, they will enjoy the time and good health that they need to build more enterprises and find their own solutions to poverty.