A vision for Africa: An interview with Sidney Muisyo

Talking with Sidney Muisyo, the Vice President of our Africa region, is like having a waterfall of wisdom wash over you. He has a Master’s degree in Leadership Studies and is working on a doctorate in Organizational Development and Leadership. But more than that, he grew up in poverty himself and has a passion for equipping the Church in Africa to be a light. Muisyo has been with Compassion for 15 years, and we sat down to talk with him about his vision for his continent and the Church.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m the regional Vice President of the Africa region. I have three kids. I’ve been in Colorado Springs seven years and with Compassion 15 years. I started at Compassion Kenya as the communications specialist. Then I was the sponsor donor services manager, and then the country director. I have a undergraduate degree in Communications, and a masters in Leadership Studies. I’m currently doing a doctorate in Organizational Development and Leadership.

Do you believe you believe working at Compassion is a calling?

For a lot of people who work at Compassion, the call comes before they join. For me, the call came as a process. Before I joined Compassion, I was in the corporate sector in advertising. I was working seven days a week, and I was looking for something with more margin. My wife and I had been praying that I would find something. I had been a client services director, and I had paid my dues to get there. So joining Compassion was a sacrifice on many levels.

But when I went to the field as a writer and saw the kids we were helping and tasted the poverty, that is when my call to the ministry came. Everything I had sacrificed for the job, like the pay and the prestige, faded into the background. If I could use my skills to help a child in need, that would be a worthy call.

I remember one time I was at a child registration in eastern Kenya. There were a limited number of places available, but it seemed like the entire village had shown up. They were all needy and in tattered clothes. You could see their health wasn’t good, and they were all hoping for one of the few spots. Everyone, the mothers, the children, were expectant and hopeful. It was like they were waiting to find out who would win a lottery.

One woman whose child got registered in Compassion started singing, “Jesus has remembered me and visited my home.” I wondered, “What kind of ministry is this that makes this woman equate it to Jesus coming to her home?” This helped affirm my calling to the ministry. I don’t mean that lightly. The agency that I had been working for in advertising had offered me a partnership. That’s what you work your whole life for. But it didn’t help people’s lives, nor my life, in the way this ministry did.

You mentioned that you tasted what poverty was like when visiting Compassion centres. What was your own childhood like?

I grew up in a poor family, so I know what poverty was. I know what it is to go to school and get kicked out because you didn’t pay your fees. You wait for months for your mom to make the money so you can go again. I know what it is to not know what you will eat next. What it is to live on just potatoes—the cheapest food you could get. I hate potatoes to this day. You wear shoes that are so worn, your feet show through the soles. I know exactly what poverty is.

But when I entered Nairobi and started working, I entered a glamorous world. Many of our clients were international banks and large consumer brands. It was fast moving, and you lived an alternative life. Field work meant going to safari reserves and doing a photo shoot at a luxury tented camp. So I no longer encountered poverty on a daily basis. If you’re living in Nairobi, working for those companies, rubbing shoulders with CEOs, you don’t know what poverty is.

But looking back, I also realized that my family was never really in extreme poverty. There was always hope. There was hope of food and schooling. In extreme poverty, there is no hope of those things. I had never encountered this kind of poverty before.

Compassion Africa serves more than 675,000 children living in extreme poverty. What is your vision for Africa?

First, we want to equip and mobilize churches to protect children and provide meaningful opportunities for them to escape poverty. That’s the core of it. I envision a network of churches passionate about children in poverty, and that passion translated into really practical and transformational routes for children and caregivers to come out of poverty.

And second?

Second, our vision is that churches are on a maturing journey of their own. So often the churches we partner with are themselves poor, and more so at the institutional capacity level. For sure, these churches are rich in passion and vision, but we recognize that these churches need to be on a development journey of their own. And I must say that this developmental journey is mutual—Compassion, too, is on a learning journey. How do we increasingly become better partners to local churches?

Most of the pastors in Western countries have at least a university degree along with some seminary or Bible training. In our context, that’s not common. Most pastors are lucky if they made it through high school. They are passionate, but sometimes they aren’t as knowledgeable of in depth theological studies. They need development to match their zeal.

There are so many resources that our African pastors lack. They might have five to 10 books on their shelves. They maybe haven’t learned about administration or finances. Some of the more established denominations offer more training. But for most of other churches, they don’t have those resources.

Through Compassion, churches are increasing their confidence to minister to children and call on other resources besides Compassion. The outcome is a renewed narrative of hope across Africa with the church at the centre of it all.

In this issue of our magazine, we’re talking a lot about innovation. In what ways is the Church in Africa helping communities innovate to solve their problems?

Often when we think of innovation, we think of technology. But in the social space, the Church is innovating. Most African communities have a rite of passage when boys and girls become adults. Some of these have not been biblical, such as female genital mutilation. Our church partners have reinvented these to create biblically based rites of passage. That is social innovation where it didn’t exist before. And of course, rites of passages are core to identity formation, so these new rites of passages are helping create a new identity of what it means to be a Christian in an African context.

Another innovation is community savings and loan schemes. Caregivers of Compassion beneficiaries form groups of up to 50 people. They receive training and hold each other accountable to save an agreed amount regularly. The pooled savings are available for lending to members at reasonable interest rates. This has enabled low-income households to mobilize savings, access affordable credit and improve their economic well-being. In addition, these groups have tremendous social and spiritual value—inclusion, psychosocial support and discipleship.

Young people are also being developed in their skills and knowledge. They are enabled to develop skills such as computing, they can attend technical vocational training, they can grow as leaders and they can learn entrepreneurship.

What do you want Canadian Christians to understand about the Church in Africa?

We need to have a balanced picture of what God is doing in Africa. Yes, there is need. Yes, there is poverty. Yes, there is suffering. But out of that, the Church is shining. Africa has one of the youngest populations, and we are unleashing a new generation of young people growing in the Church. The Church is relevant in Africa. It’s right in the midst of the African reality, so there’s a vibrancy that is in the Church and through the Church. Sometimes I liken the African Church to an African market. It’s a beehive of activity. Sometimes it might seem like bedlam, but there is a vibrancy and focus. That’s a story Compassion has helped to build—where the Church is light, it is salt, it is relevant, it is hope and it is creating a balanced narrative.

You mentioned what the African Church is gaining through Compassion. What do you think we in the West can learn from the Church in Africa?

One of the greatest gifts the African Church has to offer the world is hope. What does hope look like? The gift of hope is found in contexts where you desperately need it.

The African peoples have suffered from different deprivations over the centuries, but out of that has come a beautiful gift of what it means to have hope. Hope can grow out of a genocide. Hope grows out of situations where God seems absent, where there is deep suffering. It’s one thing to ask where God is out of your abundance, but it’s another thing to ask where God is through intense suffering. It produces something different—a joy that is beyond the circumstantial.

Hope—and the joy that springs from it—is a gift. It shouldn’t be seen as need. The African church is in need in many ways, but the need is not a curse. It’s actually a grace. The giver and the receiver have something to give to each other. While the African church has been open to receiving, I wonder if our brothers and sisters in the West are also willing to receive from the African Church.

How do you think those of us living in the West can best receive from the African Church?  

Of course, because of distance and culture there’s a limit to how much you can receive. But if you could receive in the sense of being open to learn, you could learn the gift of community. Culturally, Africans are very communal. They don’t do life alone. They do life as a community. Sometimes I feel that in itself is a gift and closer to the biblical ideal. In a lot of the Scriptures, “you” is not individual, it’s the plural.

One of my biggest shocks in living in the U.S. was when a colleague’s relative passed on. We were asked to give the family privacy. What? What is privacy in the time of suffering? What is privacy in grief? You don’t grieve alone. You are not private in your grief or in your sadness. You need community. The community shows up. Every African culture shows up. Why? Because it’s not you alone. That sense of community is very powerful. Even when we suffer, we rejoice together. That’s where joy is. Joy is not private; it’s a communal gift. That communality is something the Western Church could receive and learn.

What other ways can we receive from the African Church?

Have you ever thought that maybe part of the blessing you have is because someone somewhere is praying for you? Once I visited a Compassion Child Survival Program in Rwanda with some colleagues. The mothers had powerful testimonies as widows of the genocide. When we were leaving, they asked to pray for us. Now remember, these are poor people. They are widows. They have gone through incredible suffering in the genocide.

You know what they did? In their prayers, they literally cried out to the Lord, tears streaming down their faces, thanking God for the ministry of Compassion and the blessing. I left there thinking I think the reason this ministry has received favour is because the poor call out to the Lord on our behalf. We work very hard and try to have the right processes and programs. In the end, we have been such a blessed ministry because God answers the prayers of His people. Does the Western Church stop to think maybe the blessings we have received are because we have other parts of the family thanking God and praying for us? The poor and needy cry out to God on our behalf. It’s so humbling.

Is there anything you would like to say to our Canadian supporters?

I would not be an African or a Christian if I didn’t say thank you. The partnership of the Church in Canada helps us to help restore the dignity of the local church in Africa. The Church was always called to be a light and a salt. Poverty is a darkness. Our ministry provides a light. Poverty is decay of society and individuals. Your partnership allows us to help the Church truly become the Church and the antiseptic to the decay of poverty.

With dignity restored, we are helping build the capacity of the local Church. This has an impact beyond its walls to the community. We equip the Church to provide community leadership and build local alliances for ministry. We help them to mobilize their local resources, no matter how scarce. Also, we are building the unity of the Church I Africa. Through Compassion, we’re no longer seeing the strong division of denominations. I was in Ethiopia, and leaders from every single denomination in Ethiopia were there in the room, unified around the cause of children. So often people speak of Africa and the division in the Church. They don’t see the unity that is just phenomenal, and it’s often because of this shared vision. I have seen it firsthand. Child ministry brings them together. There are fellowship and networks in places where they never existed before.

Written by: Amber Van Schooneveld

Amber Van Schooneveld is the Managing Editor of Compassion International's blog.