On a recent visit to Ethiopia with Christian relief agency Tearfund, award-winning pastry chef and chocolatier Will Torrent got more than he bargained for when he was challenged to a bake-off (of sorts). It involved cooking over an open fire, fermented pancakes and heartfelt stories that would change his perception of church and fellowship forever.
By Will Torrent
Sweat dribbled down my face as I carefully poured a white doughy mixture onto a hot stone plate. Like so many times while baking, I had dozens of eyes on me. But today was different. For starters, my surroundings were worlds away from my well-stocked and fitted British kitchen or the cooking show sets I’ve had the privilege to work on. I was in a remote Ethiopian village, standing over an open fire in indescribable heat. Above me, a straw canopy. With no extractor fan present to lessen the smoke and fumes, I had to muster every ounce of manliness to stop my eyes from tearing.
Adding fuel to the pressure fire, so to speak, was the fact that this was my first-ever attempt at making a traditional Ethiopian dish – a fermented teff flour pancake called injera. I was warned they can be rather tricky to get right.
Baking under these circumstances was most definitely not for the faint-hearted.
Despite my obvious discomfort and the imminent threat of me shedding a couple of (smoke-induced) tears, I felt an enormous sense of achievement as I served my humble attempt at injera to one of the village elders. Instead of my usual repertoire of delicate bakes and beautifully crafted chocolate creations, I had managed to produce something that closely resembled a local Ethiopian delicacy while baking over an open fire using an ingredient I’d only ever heard of.
At that moment, I was as far away as I’d ever been from the world’s finest kitchens and ingredients, surrounded by a crowd of people whose language I couldn’t understand. Through our baking that day, however, we had somehow managed to connect. Food, like music, is a universal language spoken and understood by anyone with a stomach and an appetite!
As a round of applause and good-hearted laughter erupted among the onlookers, I suddenly recalled the apprehension I had felt when Tearfund – a Christian relief and development agency – invited me along to this Horn of Africa country as part of their Give Like Jesus campaign.
Despite the obvious sense of adventure that accompanies any trip to this beautiful continent, the only reference point I had was dire images portrayed in the media – desperate poverty, sad groups of people and scenes that would move even the most rugged of men to tears (myself included, of course!).
My apprehension, in other words, had very little to do with the more extreme stereotypes associated with Africa, such as armed militia and disease. In addition to the media’s version of Africa firmly set in my mind, which can never serve as adequate preparation, was a little voice reminding me of the experiences my wife and some of my best mates had during their respective trips to Africa. They said it changed them forever.
But instead of believing my experience would be similarly life-altering, I had serious doubts that despite calling myself a Christian, my heart would be moved by the trip, that I would return a changed man.
Questions kept milling around in my mind. What if everything I expected to see – slums, poverty, disease and hardship – did not spur me onto some level of elevated understanding and compassion?
And then a still small voice – what if it did?
Despite my initial apprehension, I knew that nothing would deter me from visiting Ethiopia with Tearfund. It was the opportunity of a lifetime to go deeper than most tourists and visitors to this beautiful part of the world would ever venture.
The purpose of my visit with Tearfund to Ethiopia would be to see first-hand the impact of an initiative that was started in Ethiopia a decade ago – so-called ‘self-help groups’. From humble beginnings, this microfinancing initiative has evolved into a social movement that not only helps to eradicate poverty but has also brought about social change. When the programme began, there was only one group with 18 women. Today there are more than 18,500 groups with 330,000 members.
When hearing the words ‘development’ and ‘microfinancing’, however, I couldn’t help but be tinged by a degree of scepticism – not helped by the stereotypical images of Africa that clouded my thinking prior to my visit.
Nothing could prepare me for what I found instead.
A few months later, stepping off the plane with Tearfund in Ethiopia, I quickly realised that absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the heat. It was like stepping into a furnace. “How do people live here?” I wondered.
After spending a day or so settling in, we set off to a remote village where I would experience my baptism of fire in terms of Ethiopian cooking – quite literally!
Following my aforementioned successful ‘initiation’ into Ethiopian cooking, I was invited to sit in on a self-help group meeting. Like other self-help groups, the one I visited gave its members valuable skills when it came to financial know-how, the setting up of bank accounts and starting small businesses. Members took turns sharing their incredible stories with me.
One woman’s story stood out – that of 39-year-old Amarech, mother of seven. Desperate circumstances forced Amarech’s husband to leave her and the children to find work as a migrant worker in South Africa. She was left raising her children alone, and the region’s erratic weather patterns further compounded the already dire circumstances.
When Amarech heard about the self-help group, she realised that she had nothing to lose and decided to join them. As a first principle, she was encouraged to save two pence a week to add to the self-help group savings pot.
Somewhat perplexed, I remember thinking – what on earth can you buy with two pence these days?
Well, Amarech will tell you that as a group they started saving the equivalent of two pence per member per week. A few months later, with support from the self-help group, she was able to start a small business, of which the income eventually allowed for her husband to return. They were now earning enough through her business for them to be a family again.
But here’s the clincher: despite these obvious benefits, Amarech and the other group members told me that it’s not all about the money.
As much as members are focused on developing sound financial discipline, they all say the real benefit and the reason they can no longer imagine life before the groups was the social aspect, the sense of belonging, the strong bond they had with each other. Before, they told me, they didn’t really know their neighbours, but because of their weekly meetings, relationships in the community have greatly improved. In addition, their membership and engagement with one another grew their confidence, and as a result, relationships with spouses and their children also improved.
Amarech told me that when she built a new house for her family, the members of the self-help group collaborated and supported her. They helped fetched water for the builders, and brewed coffee to fuel their energy supplies. Her self-help group members no longer feel like friends – they’re family to each other.
As I sat there listening to Amarech, I thought how differently we view our social networks in Britain. I guess the closest version of a self-help group some of us will attend is our church’s home group. But how involved are we in each other’s lives? And how committed are we to offer our shoulder to cry on or help in times of need to our home group members?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has at least used the lame excuse of “I’m really busy at work” to stay home instead of making the effort to fellowship with my home group and show real interest in their lives.
My earlier scepticism regarding relief work was slowly but surely evaporating in the warmth of the self-help group discussion, in their honest and truthful testimony of the impact the self-help group has had not only on their community but also on so many others. When you hear the words ‘relief agency’ you think of a van going in handing out food, water and clothes, but there was something else and far more powerful at work here.
Granted, during desperate times, emergency funding can become absolutely critical. Especially now, when an estimated more than 10 million people in Ethiopia are being affected by drought. It is for this reason that Tearfund recently launched its Give Like Jesus campaign, but it is interventions like these self-help groups that ultimately keep people on their feet once emergency interventions have helped them back up again.
The knee-jerk reaction to witnessing hardship like I did in Ethiopia would be pity, but instead I felt incredibly encouraged and inspired by the people I met and by the stories they entrusted to me. The visit also changed my perception of Africa specifically, and demonstrated the incredible power of fellowship and genuine interest in our fellow human beings.
Self-help groups are supported by churches, but members of all faiths are welcome to attend. Just thinking of our own church set-up in Britain, I was struck by how many opportunities we miss to involve others in our walk with God. Church is about so much more than the preaching that happens from the pulpit – it’s in our everyday interaction with each other, it’s in loving and forgiving those who cross our path, in going out with mates for a beer.
I guess I’m a good example of someone who perhaps does not fit the mould of stereotypical manliness (if ever there is such a thing!). I think in most people’s minds the baking world should be dominated by women, yet here I am spending my days as a pastry chef and chocolatier working on delicate intricate creations, tasting chocolate and sweets, experimenting with different flavours and desserts. Yet I also like watching football, fast cars, and enjoy having a beer every now and again.
My visit to Ethiopia and my open fire (cooking) baptism inspired me to use teff flour to tell the story of Ethiopia’s people and the incredible hardship they’re enduring with so much resilience. And so, a few weeks ago, at a big Christian festival, I found myself once again attempting to make injera with teff flour, but the scene was slightly different this time. A cool English country breeze was blowing, I was using an induction hob, and not too far from me, a health and safety officer was keeping a watchful eye on the procedure.
Representing Tearfund, I had the opportunity to share Amarech’s story with hundreds of festival-goers, and afterwards to give them a taste of injera. I went to Africa thinking I had something to offer, thinking my skills could somehow make a difference to the people there. What I realised instead was that the true recipe for hope was to be found in the weekly gathering of thousands of self-help group members, in the sharing of their fears and dreams, in the forming of bonds between friends that come to resemble family. Now, if only we can import that kind of thinking to Britain.