A story of lifting African children out of poverty

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Barry Childs believes “poverty is created by humans and can be eradicated by humans. Its eradication is not a gesture of charity but an act of justice.”

A native of Tanzania, Childs has worked for nearly a quarter-century to solve the problem of extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. He is founder of Africa Bridge, a sustainable, cooperative agricultural model for transforming rural villages.

“This work is not simply ‘charity,’” he says. “It’s a proven community-led model that could redefine ethical development in Africa.”

Childs, a Fairport resident whom the Beacon profiled in December 2022, has now written a book to tell the story of Africa Bridge and share its model. “And the Children Shall Lead Us,” written in collaboration with Philip Whiteley, a British business journalist and novelist, was published April 8 by Breakthrough Book Collective.

The book, he says, in part describes “a journey back to my childhood and its impact on me.”

Childs grew up in Tanzania following World War II, part of a white British colonial family. Later, in his corporate career, he traveled widely, but never back to Tanzania.

In 1998, Childs returned there for the first time in 35 years. He was struck by the poverty he’d never been aware of as a child. The experience fueled a desire to “do something”—though at first “I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do (or) who I was going to do it for.”

In 2000, he launched Africa Bridge. Since then, the nonprofit has enabled more than 10,000 children to escape extreme poverty while raising the economic prospects of more than 70,000 people through projects in nearly 40 villages. Without a large capital investment, it enables communities to make the transition from subsistence agriculture to a sustainable, entrepreneurial economy.

“At Africa Bridge we do not do handouts. Hence, we are not creating dependency,” he says. “We are helping villagers to lift themselves out of poverty.”

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu praised Africa Bridge’s work. In 2005, he wrote: “I was moved when Barry Childs spoke to me some years ago of his dream to help children orphaned by HIV/AIDS and their families in Tanzania. By helping the most disadvantaged, Africa Bridge performs much needed divine work, letting the poorest of the poor know they are loved. There is no higher calling.”

Childs wrote the book for a general readership but also hopes it draws interest from foundations, community development professionals, academics and “high net worth individuals interested in an innovative approach that has potential to be a low-cost game changer in poverty alleviation.” It is available, in digital and paperback editions, on a range of platforms including Amazon, Kobo, Ingram, Walmart and Barnes & Noble. Book signing events are planned in Rochester and other cities including Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Childs. His responses follow:

ROCHESTER BEACON: Why did you decide to write the book?

BARRY CHILDS: Ten years ago, one of my grandsons would ask me to tell him stories about growing up in Tanzania. So, I started writing a book about my childhood experiences. As the book started taking shape, I realized that the concept of Africa Bridge was grounded in these experiences. The more I wrote the more I came to understand that Africa Bridge was an outcome of all my experiences, childhood, family, education and business. During this process I decided to write two books. The first focused on Africa Bridge, describing how it came about, the model for poverty alleviation and the impact it has on vulnerable children and their families. The second book will be centered on my adventures in every aspect of my life. The second book is for my family and may or may not get to be published.

ROCHESTER BEACON: The title is “And the Children Shall Lead Us.” Could you explain what that means?

Barry Childs

CHILDS: The seed for Africa Bridge was planted when I was six, after I had an encounter with an orphan child. That seed lay dormant for 50 years until I returned to Tanzania in December 1998, 35 years after leaving there. During that visit I wondered what had happened to the children I played with. I was 55 at the time and since the average age of a Tanzanian at the time was 48, I realized they had probably had died in their villages, in poverty. I reflected on why it was that I at the age of 55 was in fine health, enjoyed a comparatively luxurious lifestyle and had traveled all over the world. Was it because I was smarter? No, I came to the conclusion that it was just dumb luck. I was born into a family which had the resources to feed, clothe, educate and provide health care. It was then that I decided that I would retire from my business career and devote my time to trying to even the playing field for vulnerable children living in poverty-stricken rural villages in Tanzania. It is children that led me to this decision. It is these children who have nothing, yet have the capacity to dream, to sing and to laugh who inspire me. It is amazing what you can learn if you take the trouble to listen to children.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Since its launch in 2000, Africa Bridge has experienced both notable success and difficult challenges. What key lessons have been learned?

CHILDS: I have learned so much from the journey of Africa Bridge. Some overarching lessons are the importance of showing up, blending the soft skills with the hard skills, being respectful and learning about the strengths in others. When I am first introduced to a community there is skepticism. White people before me have been and gone. I kept coming back and continued to try and figure out what needed to be done. Soft skills such as listening, showing respect of individuals and local culture, knowing when and how to challenge the status quo are absolutely critical. Every community, no matter how destitute, has strengths. Success depends on leveraging those strengths. Hard skills are equally important, such as basic accounting, evaluating results, developing contractual relationships and basic meeting skills.

Other lessons are, for example, that handouts do not work in the long run, they create dependance whereas a hand-up has the possibility of creating a sense of achievement and pride. Giving valuable assets to groups does not work. It is more effective to give these assets to individuals who are then held responsible for them their care and contractually bound to pass on assets to other individuals in their cooperatives.

ROCHESTER BEACON: You have talked about sharing the Africa Bridge model. Do you think the model—or elements of it—would work in a community like Rochester?

CHILDS: The model is designed to work in tightly knit rural agricultural villages living in extreme poverty. Where the villagers have a basic understanding of agriculture and where in the absence of any social security, community members take what care they can of each other.

Hence the basic mechanics of the model would not work in an urban setting. However, many of the principles would be transferable, such as:

■ Starting with a structured process of intensive listening to all sectors of the community.

■ Focusing on economic activities that are designed to generate monetary and social outcomes.

■ Prioritizing hand-ups over handouts.

■ Stipulating that we only work with groups that are made up of at least 50 percent women.

■ Instituting clearly defined measures of success and independently evaluating them at key milestones.

■ Defining the key responsibilities of all parties involved and making them binding through written contracts.

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “A story of lifting African children out of poverty

  1. Thanks for the article about Barry Childs and the creation of the Africa Bridge program to help people in Tanzania improve the quality of their lives. The article is a good example of solution focused journalism focusing on what works to produce positive outcomes instead of what’s terrible and heinous in the world around us.

    The old saying, “If it bleeds, it leads” is not true of the Rochester Beacon. The Beacon’s focus on problem solving activities that produce good results is a huge contribution to our media environment. Learning about such activities contributes to thoughts and feelings of hope, confidence, and agency.

    Thanks to Paul Ericson for a great article!

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