When People Reach out to Help their Neighbors...
Syndicated from rosemary.substack.com, Jul 07, 2024

7 minute read


... Miracles happen serendipitously.

Today, when so much in our world seems so uncertain, I want to share two stories of neighbour to neighbour development that I have long treasured. These are stories of people who reached out to neighbours, even on the other side of the world, and people who developed practical food solutions that their neighbours happily adopted.

These two stories are my lodestone for practical, neighbour to neighbour, solution-focused, low cost, caring international development. Though Jeff Lohr prefers to call it a story of how some ordinary Joes helped some other ordinary Joes in another country.

Mr. Jeffry’s Third World Machine Shop

Jeff and Linda Lohr were living in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, in 2007, when a young Ghanaian carpenter named Abubakar Abdulai emailed to ask if he could join Jeff’s woodworking school.

Abu, volunteering at an orphanage near Cape Coast, wanted to start a woodworking program to help children learn how to make a living. Woodworking machineswould let him complete in 90 seconds what takes 90 minutes by hand.

At that time, Jeff accepted 10 students eight times a year into his competitive six-day master class, attracting beginners and professionals from all over North America and as far away as India and Sweden.

After much back and forth, the Lohrs, with the help of friends, family, former students and a local US immigration attorney, raised money for travel costs and obtained a visa for Abu. He arrived in April 2008 on a three-month scholarship to train with Jeff and live in their farm home. 

The Lohrs had a plan to train Abu on Western woodworking machinery and then ship whatever machinery they could afford to Ghana. But, as they learned more about rural Ghana, they soon realized this wouldn’t work. The machine tools Jeff used in Pennsylvania were expensive, bulky, and wouldn’t work in rural Ghana’s power grid. 

So Jeff took Abu to Home Depot and asked him to point out materials and tools he could access in Ghana, and that led to the creation of what Abu called “Mr. Jeffry’s Third World Machine Shop”. 

This hand-held circular saw and router, mounted in a precision hardwood table, could perform all the functions of a sophisticated table saw and planer, at 10% of the cost. It could run off a generator. And except for the saw and router and a few accessories, it could be built entirely of materials readily available in Ghana.

Abu took the parts of the first one back to Ghana to use as a template for building others. The plan was that under Abu’s guidance, two teams of carpenters would build two machines each month, with the “most honorable” carpenter being given the machine his team produced as a loan until he could pay back the total cost per unit (about $600) in order to keep it. 

But their practical outreach wasn’t limited to carpentry. Linda had learned that despite growing a lot of food, several million Ghanaians were malnourished, especially during the dry season, because they had no way to preserve the harvest. Abu was fascinated to learn about preserving, which was unknown in rural Ghana.

Linda, who grew up learning to preserve food, created a video demonstration of basic home canning techniques for Abu to take back to Ghana. She sent 20 cases of canning jars to start the pilot program. 

And, to support Abu’s work in Ghana, the Lohrs created a US nonprofit organization, moringa community.

Jeff says everyone involved understood it was a cooperative effort between Americans and Africans. “We are a world community. We’ve gotta be friends with the world. And if you don’t give to others, you’ve missed the meaning of life.”

As he boarded his plane home on July 19, 2008, carrying a laptop computer and Power Point projector, Abu said to Jeff and Linda, “Now let me show you what I can do. You will be surprised.” 

Back in Ghana, Abu visited many villages before he met chief Nana Kweku Adu-Twum, in Breman Baako. In September 2008, its chiefs and elders provided nine acres of land and granted permission to harvest four trees to build the first training center. 

By early October, Abu and his volunteers began clearing the land. Because hauling everything by hand over a small stream was time-consuming, the Ghanaians engineered and built a cement bridge, entirely by hand, with women carrying bowls of cement on their heads. And when it became clear a truck was needed several people in the US contributed $8,000. 

The blocks to build the training centre were handcrafted. Local children collected the stones to make up the blocks, and the children and their mothers hand-crushed them.

In January 2010, Abu installed the metal roof on the building, and stuccoed the exterior walls. The next month, Jeff came to help finish the interior and set up the machine shop at the new training center.

Jeff had drawn up the plans for the moringa shop using particleboard, which Abu could get in Ghana. But it turned out that buying it in Ghana was not at all like in the USA.

‘You go to the city of Takoradi and pick from particleboard that’s been salvaged from demolition projects. What the sellers have available is confusing for an outsider, to say the least. One has no idea what most of the material is or where it came from. It’s hard to know what shape it’s in, and how much it’s worth.”

Now the Moringa Community School of Trades in Breman Baako, Ghana, teaches woodworking, fabric arts, and food preservation to rural Ghanaians. By 2015, it had trained 45 boys and 61 girls. It had 35 staff members on and off with the school since the project began, eleven of them paid staff. 

Moringa had sponsored many community public works projects. “We have built bridges, fixed roads, repaired buildings all with volunteer local labor that we feed. in exchange for the work.”

“The concept here is not charity,” Jeff said. “It’s just helping them help themselves. This is just regular Joes trying to help other regular Joes in another country is what it is. Education is really the tool for getting peace in the world in my mind.”

“If you have an ability to help someone, it’s wrong of you not to do it,” he said. “And what is discovered through that is a joy to give. It went from me just trying to help one African out to us trying to help a whole West African country. It just took a hold and kept on going.”

Mrs. Letela Inspires School Gardens

Molly Letela inspired the creation of school gardens all across Lesotho.

She was principal of a school where children were coming to school so hungry they couldn’t pay attention in class. Starting a school lunch program wasn’t an option, as the communities didn’t have much food – that was why the children were hungry.

However, all around the school, there was a lot of empty land. The parents were farmers. And there was a home economics class in the school.

Mrs. Letela was a wise woman. She didn’t immediately say “let’s start a project to grow food at the school” . Instead, she gently floated the idea, one parent at a time, as parents came to the school to get their children. Parents talked among themselves about the idea. And when she felt the time was right, Mrs. Letela held a meeting.

She knew that to feed the students, the parents would have to farm differently. They would need to grow a number of crops in a year, not just one. So she found a small NGO in South Africa that worked with the farmers to teach them organic farming methods, basing the teaching on what they already knew.

In less than two months, the parents had begun farming around the school; the home economics class was cooking meals using the vegetables they grew; and the children, with a full stomach, were able to learn. Not much longer after that, neighbouring communities began to come and visit, to see this miracle for themselves. They learned how to do it themselves, and went home and started farming at their schools.

Soon, without any outside support except for the initial expertise of that one small NGO, 58 more schools had such programs, and within a few years, 200 more did as well. And the farmers, seeing that it was possible to grow a range of crops, changed their farming practices at home as well, so food security improved in the community as a whole.

So what was the secret? 

  • Firstly, Mrs. Letela’s low-key approach meant the parents felt they had come up with the idea themselves; they ‘owned’ the project, and this made it sustainable. 
  • Secondly, she understood the need for specific expertise that built on what local people already knew. 
  • Thirdly, she saw a problem as an opportunity for growth and change. 
  • And lastly, she looked around for solutions and resources that were locally available.

The Community Development Resource Association in Cape Town (which shut down several years ago) called this strategy “horizontal learning”. Neighbours learning from neighbours is sustainable in a way that doesn’t happen when experts come in from outside. It addresses a number of problems at one time with locally available resources. It doesn’t need outside aid funding. And it is extremely effective.


Rosemary Cairns explores how local people identify and solve problems and share their solutions worldwide. She highlights such upstanders through her blog, Hopebuliding, and her newsletter, Seeing Like a Local. Rosemary holds a Master’s in Human Security and Peacebuilding, has been an election administrator in Canada and an election observer in Africa and eastern Europe. Through her extensive peacebuilding career, she's worked in and evaluated a wide array of international development projects and community development activities. She's also a mother and grandmother who strives to engage the world from the lens of seven generations in the future.

4 Past Reflections