October 11, 2022

A Light on the Mountain

In the friends’ growing consciousness that their efforts to foster inner transformation, to widen the circle of unity, to collaborate with others in the field of service, to help populations to take charge of their own spiritual, social and economic development, and through all such efforts to bring about the betterment of the world, express the very purpose of religion itself.
— Universal House of Justice

When Rwanda lost 10% of its population, with some 800,000 souls lost in a period of three harrowing months resulting from the 1994 genocide, Chris Anderson, his family and local Bahá’ís wanted to step up and provide some sort of social services at Gatenga, a community on a mountain…but what form should it take?

The Andersons had bought land adjacent to the undeveloped Bahá’í temple lands in order to protect it, and after reaching out to people in the community, they put out a call for consultation, at which 300 people showed up. The decision was near unanimous: Gatenga was in dire need of medical services.

In his inspiring talk, “Building Community Services: Health and Education from the Grassroots in Rwanda,” Chris Anderson explained in detail how an idea to help people following a period of mass trauma led to the many services offered by the Anderson Rwanda Association – a not-for-profit organization dedicated to health, education and moral leadership – to the Gatenga community. They first went to medical NGOs for help: one donated two tents, another initial medical stock and still another helped to recruit a community nurse. Within a week it was up and running.

When the Joan Anderson Memorial Dispensary was built – named in honour of Chris’ mother – it charged 60 cents to see a nurse. This was not a money-making venture, but a means to offer space for the government to provide public services. At that time, Rwanda was in emergency mode and there weren’t the administrative hoops to go through that is today required for either construction or developing programs. Seeing a nurse in present-day Rwanda can be between $10 to $20 a visit, but the dispensary, as always, still charges 60 cents. It offers medical services to over 5,000 people a year on the mountain at Gatenga and some years delivered over 100 babies.

As a result of their grassroots efforts, the association, among others, helped to raise the number of immunized children in Rwanda from 23% to 99%. From there it grew, adding a multipurpose room that is used for vaccination programs, prenatal programs, well-baby clinics, nutritional programs and HIV programs, as well as other community services like weddings and community events, so long as there is no alcohol and no politics involved… all free of charge.

A free library was then added, beginning with books donated by his father, Ted Anderson, to whom it is dedicated. Most Rwandan schools didn’t have libraries, so this was a first, although shipping books to Rwanda was fraught with problems. Since then, more buildings have been added, including a Montessori high school, which now has over 100 students and is set to expand yet again. Eventually, the whole property could be turned over to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Rwanda when a National Bahá’í House of Worship is eventually built.

Chris is passionate about social and economic development programs, underpinned by the Bahá’í teachings on service to humanity defined by social action. He pioneered in Africa as a Bahá’í in his 20s and worked for a number of NGOs and the United Nations over several decades and has traveled widely, living in a dozen countries. His experience has taught him that those institutions can stop the bullets and silence the guns, but they can’t get people to trust each other after a deep conflict. This requires a spiritual healing process that is very complex and long-term, and beyond the short-term scope of the budgeting systems of the western world. They can turn on the lights, fix the hospitals, get the schools open and stop an open conflict, but there’s a deeper process that requires people to rely on their faith to forgive and overcome, and to move forward.

When it comes to social action, which Chris calls us all to do, there are several initial steps to be taken to determine what is needed. If you have a great idea to help your community, don’t do it alone…it’s too easy to talk yourself out of it. Consultation is the first vital step to be taken. And if you don’t have knowledge in certain areas, ask people who do know to help you. If it’s worthwhile, most people are glad to help and share their expertise. Advice is usually free, but even for a fee people will help you. And remember, we are all here to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization that will lead to prosperity, both material and spiritual.

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