A simple question ...

Something strange is happening in Guinea-Bissau. Amidst the cocaine-trafficking drug lords that are overwhelming a corrupt and broke government, debilitating poverty that forces many families to spend almost a month’s wages on a bag of rice, and preventable yet deadly diseases that are keeping the average life expectancy below 50-years-old – amidst all these problems, a handful of people and organizations are being drawn to a country that is literally a speck on the map. They are asking a simple question: Is there still hope for Guinea-Bissau?

I met many of these people during my two-month trip to West Africa in April and May. They are a diverse assortment of foreign and native business-people, missionaries, expatriates, and non-profit managers who – for one reason or another – have decided to invest in Guinea-Bissau. In a country where big government donors and governmental organizations like the United Nations are struggling to have a lasting impact – and where large religious humanitarian groups like World Vision, World Relief, and Compassion International have yet to establish a presence – it seems there is a community-development vacuum, if you can call it that. And God is using ordinary people to fill it.

Take Richard Kagel and Armindu Barbosa, for example. I happened to meet them while visiting one of many islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau in mid-April. Richard owns a laboratory in Santa Rosa, Calif., and was visiting the country with his laboratory manager, Armindu, who was born in Guinea-Bissau. For years, Armindu had told Richard about his homeland and the challenges it faces. Finally, this year, they were able to travel there so that Richard could see Guinea-Bissau for himself.

They spent two weeks talking to government officials and learning about the stark realities in Guinea-Bissau: sporadic electricity in the capital city, wells tainted by sewage, hazardous disposable batteries littering the streets. Now Richard wants to start his own nonprofit to help Guinea-Bissau. He’s rallying his church to make it happen.

Then there’s Tiago Sampalo, a 51-year-old Guinean who was forced to immigrate to Portugal four years ago when his wife became ill. The father of five says his heart is still stuck in Guinea-Bissau. He’s started a small nonprofit called Abokunos (in the native Creole language, this means “You and Us”). It helps provide seed money for people who want to start their own business in Guinea-Bissau.
Tiago, who I met while I was in Lisbon, is also working with another organization to ship goods to Guinea-Bissau to help provide nonprofits and churches in his homeland with the resources they need to do be successful. After chatting with Tiago for a short hour, I could tell our visions were aligned. “I can’t stop,” he said. “I have to help my country.”
Then there’s Randy Williams, an African-American from Illinois who I met at a church service in the capital on my last day in the country. It was Randy’s second visit to Guinea-Bissau and he had just helped deliver a container of goods for local churches. He said he’s still trying to figure out exactly how he can help the country most effectively, but it was clear his heart was invested in Guinea-Bissau. “I just want to help any way I can,” he told the church congregation.
There are others, too. A Christian missionary couple from Nigeria that has started a primary school in a small town in the northern part of the country; a missionary from the Caribbean who is starting a small English school in the capital; a young couple from America who are helping develop a vocational school in Bissau that teaches students music, computer basics, English, French and sports. The list goes on.
The stories these people have are not unlike Martha Reynolds’ story. She visited Guinea-Bissau in the late 1990s twice before realizing the need to invest more in this small, out-of-the-way country. That’s why she started WAVS. Now we are finding others who are venturing into Guinea-Bissau, convinced that they can give the local Guinean leaders the help they need to bring about lasting change for their people.
The future is a bit murky, but it’s certain to be an exciting journey. I’m glad to be part of it. And I’m glad you’re a part of it, too.