Photos Courtesy of Kibo Group
The Kibo Peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro is one of three summits sought after by climbers from around the world. It is not the highest point, but it is the most inclined to experience change impending possible volcanic eruption. Embodying this potential for change through its shared namesake is Kibo Group — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping communities in East Africa develop sustainable solutions to issues of poverty, injustice and education.
Kibo Group co-founder and current member of the Board of Directors, Professor John Barton has spent years working alongside missionaries and investors to set Kibo apart from the religiously backed nonprofits working throughout Africa today. The structure of Kibo does not simply create potential for change — it experiences and fosters transformation. It is not focused on earning a certain percentage of funding or impressing donors with a high return on investment, but rather reaching success by using a structure that empowers East Africans to learn, work, build and problem-solve as a community.
Kibo Group started out as a solution to the injustice Barton and his fellow missionaries had witnessed while serving in East Africa in the mid to late 1990s. Barton explained the history and inspiration behind the organization. He said while hiking Mt. Kilimanjaro’s Kibo Peak in 1998, the climbing group asked themselves a crucial question: How can we continue the sustainable development work we have started?
“We had been deeply impacted by the level of challenge in a place like East Africa, the level of injustice, the level of poverty, the seeming hopelessness of the structures and systems,” Barton said.
Four years later, Kibo Group was established and received official status as a U.S. charitable organization. It currently has 16 total employees — 13 Ugandans and 3 Americans — who work closely with members of African communities to bring about positive change. This positive change stands outside traditional charity boundaries.
By applying the concept of collaboration to their core structure, Kibo seeks a deeper understanding of the relationships and forces that affect each community visited. With the end goal of establishing a lifelong creative partnership, the organization enters a community in need and asks locals what projects they deem necessary to improve their own quality of life. These projects often include water well restoration, health and sanitation education, environmental solutions and female empowerment programs.
Once a community bands together to locate the most imperative issues, Kibo steps in to help facilitate the goal-setting and planning necessary to complete the task at hand.
One challenge Kibo Group faces by working in East African countries is learning and managing the cultural nuances of each community. Since Uganda and other countries in East Africa are relationship-based cultures, the citizens place a higher level of importance on maintaining social and family life.
Due to this, an ill child takes precedence over a job, or at times a deeply ingrained spiritual belief will stop a project from advancing. Barton said Kibo Group has come to understand the root causes and beliefs that make up these cultures, and works to “attend to the whole human experience, not just one part of it.”
While a foreign organization may offer aid to one African community that has a broken well, solely fixing the well will only provide relief for a short period of time. If the well breaks again, no one in the village will have the know-how to fix it. This is part of the ongoing global debate surrounding charitable organizations today; other foreign organizations believe an influx of meals will solve hunger, or that an orphanage will give relief to homeless children. Barton emphasized how Kibo Group believes encouraging a community to provide their own solutions to local problems creates a sustainable program that can be implemented in years to come.
The steps Kibo takes to foster a collaborative community in East Africa are slow, yet deliberate. They do not promise a deadline or boast the number of communities reached. Their success stems from balancing an equilibrium of culture, collaboration and efficiency.
The Ugandan work ethic is typically much slower and more methodical in comparison to American standards. Another challenge Barton said Kibo faces is communicating cultural nuances to those outside of Africa, such as potential investors.
“You make yourself vulnerable to processes that do not match American efficiency standards,” he said.
Yet those who take time to understand the structure of Kibo Group find high levels of efficiency are often impossible when looking to uncover the root causes of community problems. Regardless of whether a village needs a well repaired or a new latrine dug, “it’s an emotional problem, it’s a logistic problem, it’s a political problem. It has to do with land ownership.” He has come to learn that East Africans believe every action that occurs has multiple reasons,” not one black-and-white cause-and-effect. This view encompasses one of the main values of Kibo Group — to view problems and solutions through a holistic lens.
When partnering with an impoverished community in Africa, Barton emphasized the need to view each problem as a whole. Kibo works to discover the underlying causes of mistrust a village may have, or why one family group does not get along with another.
The organization will get to the root of the matter and implement a plan for “community lift.” Barton explained community lift as the empowerment of all citizens in a village, not just women, men, children or a certain religious group. “We [at Kibo] want to empower human flourishing.”
When all community members come together to create a project goal, raise money to buy necessary parts, contribute time and labor to achieve the goal, and work together to resolve any issues that arise, their celebration is not for foreign companies but for themselves. This blending of idiosyncrasies and intelligence is the holistic process Kibo aims to achieve.
While Kibo maintains relationships within the community for years to come, they have provided something more valuable than money can give — the ability to change.
The current projects and programs Kibo offers to help villages deal with creating and restoring water sources, planting and maintaining Mvule tree growth, educating and empowering women, community-led total sanitation and the East Africa Experience program. For those who want to reach a deeper understanding and seek involvement with Kibo Group, the East Africa Experience program hosts foreigners, allowing them to experience extreme poverty and create positive momentum for change in Africa.
Barton offered advice for those who want to get involved in Kibo Group or any other charitable organization:“Take on the posture of a learner, not the posture of a fixer.”
Members of Kibo have found that local solutions to global problems do not come from foreign aid, but from an allocation of intellect and resources that seek to lift the community rather than fix it.
By searching for the root causes through a broad lens, the structure and success of charitable organizations can be re-established to ensure healthy sustainability for future generations. Kibo Group has embraced this structure and become vulnerable to an imperfect system; however, Barton and Kibo believe “the risks that you take may lead to failure; but if it leads to success, it will lead to true success.”
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