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Interview: George Snyman, founder, Hands at Work

05 June 2015

'We look back and say we were at our happiest when we literally had nothing'

There were three waves of the AIDS pandemic. The first wave was when people got infected, called the invisible wave. The second wave was when thousands of people started dying. The third wave is what Hands at Work is involved in now, caring for the orphans that were left behind.


Our initial response was just very local, in the villages near by, where we saw many young people dying in their huts with no help. There was no medication, and people were completely overwhelmed, especially in the villages. Carolyn and I just started going to the villages, finding these people. We connected with a few local Christians, and we literally just washed people, we carried water for them, we prayed for them. We buried them and we comforted their families. That was all we did for a number of years.


Now we work in eight countries: Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, and South Africa. We find villages in these countries where there's no support for the children. These communities are dysfunctional because of poverty, AIDS, and war. The children are completely off the ladder. They've got no choices, no hope.


What we try to do is build a little box that these children can get on to - and when they stand on their tippie-toes and reach as high as they can, they might get on to the first step of the ladder. We do that through three essential services: food security, basic health, and education. The local believers visit the children daily in their homes, supporting them and encouraging them. We built this model on local-community ownership.


We partner with international churches to support us. Many of these partner churches visit us every year, and spend time in the villages. They're a huge encouragement to the local believers when they visit. We invite people from all over the world to come and work with us. None of them get paid.


Working with the poorest of the poor is the major focus for Hands at Work. So we find the poorest villages, sometimes deeply rural, sometimes the slums in Lagos, sometimes the war-torn areas in the villages surrounding Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We are laser-focused to work in villages that we call "the bottom billion", where nobody earns more than a dollar a day.


There we find the most vulnerable children, and we start at the bottom. If you start any higher then you will exclude: you cannot lay a foundation and then go underneath afterwards. So the majority of our energy and resources just goes into trying to keep people alive.


Once we manage that, we try to build capacity in them, and to bring healing and hope into their lives. Typically, the villages consist of grandmothers, a few mothers, and just a large number of children, of whom many households would be child-headed.


We're not specifically saying that we're only responding to AIDS, although it started as a response to the AIDS pandemic, which left a massive hole in Africa. I'd definitely say that, in the majority of the places where we work, the AIDS pandemic had the biggest impact on the people's poverty.


I believe passionately that Africa doesn't just need England - but England desperately needs Africa. People who come to Africa will say to you that there is a very thin line between Africa and heaven. Faith is so raw, so authentic here. Grandmothers walk on water every day to provide for the hordes of children in their huts.


I spend about five months a year outside Africa: challenging churches, universities, and radio stations. My heart is burning as much for the young people who are lost in a culture of consumerism and individualism as it is for the orphans in Africa.


When I'm in Africa, my absolute favourite time is when I go into a community. I normally stay with the grandmothers. I sit around the fire with them and I listen to their wisdom, and I just appreciate it so much, because they teach me life and they stir up my faith.


I also spend a lot of time with African leaders, and I love living life with these men and women. I believe the only legacy we can leave behind is sons and daughters. Nobody's going to remember you for a fine sermon, or whatever.


I'm known as Brother George. Yes, I'm just a brother. Well, I've got an IT background in software development; I studied theology, development, and business; but I believe you will find human wisdom in much better places than in a university.


This is the 21st year, this year, and I'm overwhelmed with God's goodness and provision. I'd be a liar if I said to you that I have done everything right. I haven't. We had no clue how to do it. I wasn't prepared to live in a middle-class house with a picket fence and go to work and come home and buy new gadgets. I wasn't going to waste my life like that. I couldn't. It was less of a gamble for me to go out and to have no security than it was to have all the security in the world with no real purpose in life.


We look back and say we were at our happiest when we literally had nothing. There were times when we didn't know where the next meal would come from, and they were the times that my children remember with fondness.


I started a long journey from deep shame, from my own culture, and my own background. It was like I had a huge stone around my neck. But I discovered life and purpose and freedom in Christ. I learned that I am from another Kingdom now: a new culture, and a new citizenship. This not only set me free, but it gave me the opportunity to rebuild. Today, my family looks like the United Nations. We not only embrace diversity, but we love it. God has given me sons-in-law, and daughters from different nations and cultures. It's a wonderful reward that I have received.


God's given me a heart for the global Church. I love the silence and discipline of an Anglican church. I love mid-morning prayers when the bell rings, and there's mass, and they intercede for missionaries. I love the depth of the Word from the Baptist church. I love the vibrant worship of Pentecostal or Charismatic churches. I love the Catholic churches' ability to bring Christ into justice and their life of simplicity and their reflections. I think I was in a box in the beginning, but I've grown a lot in seeing God in the wider Church.


In the beginning, I was angry. I remember when I held a child who died of hunger, and my own Church was busy building a new building. But I had to learn that it's just where people are.


I want you to go and see the problem - without trying to solve it - and to go home and consider the difference between the child that you met and your child. It's just where they were born. This will compel you to do something.


I love the old hymns. When I need to hear God, or I have to really work, I put on hymns and organ music. I also love the sound of a church bell. We don't hear church bells in Africa any more.


Nothing makes me angrier than indifference. People wasting their lives. I go to many funerals: people die a lot in Africa. Today was one. I know how precious life is. I also know how fragile we are.


Children in Africa make me happiest. Or when I see a smile, when I see a hope flicker in a granny's eye. When I see the reality of Christ's love drop in the heart of a volunteer. When I see different people coming together for a purpose bigger than themselves. When I see them shedding all the layers that have covered their eyes. It makes me so happy. I love it when I see this.


The grandmothers out of Africa influenced me definitely the most. Their faith, perseverance, love, and ability to survive when nobody else can survive. Just to be in their presence is a major inspiration.


I pray most for people in Africa. I pray for new leaders. I pray for the Church. I pray for our children as they come through a rough phase of history, that they will be different - not self-centred but amazing leaders.


I love picking people's brains, especially people who have achieved things, visionaries, or people who have seen a lot. I'd choose someone like that to be locked in a church with.


George Snyman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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