Wednesday, 24 June 2015

23. Full Stop.

Back in 2012 when our adventure began the plan was to spend 2.5 years in Africa – six months in South Africa and then two years in Zambia. That 2.5 years started January 2013. The astute among you will notice that 2.5 years ends in June 2015…

We came here to be part of the J-Life international team – starting in South Africa as we learned the ropes, got to understand how the organisation worked, were trained on the J-Life ethos and material, and got stuck in where we felt we could be of help. The original six months turned into nine months for various reasons and during that time we really became part of the J-Life family. We left SA in tears, very sad to be leaving the community we had quickly come to love, but excited by what Zambia had in store.

Our time in SA left us with twenty months in Zambia. Our main remit was to help the J-Life leadership in Zambia to complete the construction of the training centre and to get it up and running. The idea was that the centre would be used for both ministry and income-generating purposes. 

When we arrived the structure of the building had been completed, but there were a number of significant issues that needed solving before we could realistically allow visitors to stay there in any comfort: our earliest (non-human) visitors needed exterminating, the electricity needed running 2km from the substation, the incorrect plumbing pipes needed replacing, a kitchen needed fitting, storage
needed creating, and the whole place needed decorating.

We had a mammoth task and with no finances to sort it, other than what we could raise, it felt like
a mountain to climb. I confess that for the first 6 months I (Claire) broke down in tears pretty much every time I went there. Jason always describes his life as like driving through fog: he worries about things when he hits them. The Training Centre project made me wonder if it wouldn’t sometimes be easier to live like that…

But as funds from our social enterprise Jireh Crafts ( came in, and our first team in February came to help get some bedrooms up and running, things began to take shape. And over the last 20 months with a lot of hard work, frustration, sweat and tears together with 5 amazing teams the place has been transformed and word is beginning little by little, panono panono, to spread. We’ve started taking bookings for and interest is increasing. Not only that but it is being used much more for J-Life purposes now and this will only grow with time.

The electricity is now ALMOST in – the poles are up and the equipment is on site, it just needs final connection. OK so it’s 4 months late (and not quite there yet), but the end really is in sight.
The grounds will hopefully be transformed in the next few months as the J-Life new country leader (Joe) has managed to secure some free assistance in landscaping it. The potential for the centre is emerging and will continue to do so as Joe takes J-Life Zambia to the next level.

It’s not, by any means, been totally successful. For example, a shop we started on site was losing money so we had to close it. But that’s part of the learning process. Joe’s desire is to build a house so that he can move there with his family. Once that is achieved then the shop could re-open under his management – proving not just of benefit to the local community but also a fund raising initiative for J-Life.

Jireh crafts continues on making good quality greetings cards, bags and tableware and we’re actually delighted that one of the Jireh ladies has been able to do a nursing course at college – the fees for which have been supported by Jireh.

So where does that leave us. Well our 2.5 years in Africa came to an end in June 2015. So by our original reckoning we were due to come home, for good, just about now. It’s causing me to reflect even more on our journey over the past few years. It’s certainly not been easy or straight forward and sometimes it has been painful, but I think that we can say that we have achieved what we set out to do, learned a lot more about ourselves, learned to rely on God a lot more and made lifelong friends in the process.

We love J-Life, we love the people, we love what it stands for, I hope we always will.
But as we mentioned in our previous blog we aren’t going home, not yet anyway. Mechanics for Africa has seen to that one. We are really enjoying it here, even if it is incredibly hard work. But this isn’t a blog about Mechanics, I want to leave that for future instalments (

Overall this blog is a thank you. To all those who have visited, prayed, called us, and financially supported us over the last 2.5 years. We will never ever be able to know who all of you are and we can never ever, genuinely thank you enough.

Full stop.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

22. Mr. Stonier is my father.

People have started calling me Mr. Stonier. I don’t like it.

Mr. Stonier is my dad. “Mr. Stonier” is a hereditary title that can only be passed on after the current holder has passed on. Which is some time in the distant future, all things being well. Plus it sounds old. I’m too young to be Mister anything: I’m only, what, thirty…umm…seven? I think. Ok, maybe I am old. When you start having to work out your own age you are by definition old, but still. Mr. Stonier.
You see: completely different.
This is a new thing to me. Where I come from, people are generally on first-name terms. I was even on first-name terms with a previous Managing Director. Though, actually, he called me James for nearly 5 years, because I didn’t correct him the first time and then kind of lost the opportunity to do so without looking like a dork. But you get the point. In British culture we’re more familiar. Respectful, but still familiar.

So I've never been called Mr. Stonier before, and the epithet feels a bit like a hat that’s two sizes too big. But, nonetheless, people have started calling me it, and that’s because somebody, possibly after a momentary lapse of reason, has seen fit to make me the boss of something.

The hat is part of the package.
We said in the last blog that we had some news to share. That was quite a while ago, and we’re only just sharing now because for the past three months we have been almost unbelievably busy. For those who care and follow our blog, I’m sorry that it’s taken this long to write.

Round about August a couple we know announced that they were leaving the ministry that they had set up 13 years before, Mechanics For Africa, and asked us if we would take it on. We said no: we were heading back to the UK in less than a year, why would we want to do that? But the seed had been sown.

Essential mechanics tool
Jump back a few years to Johannesburg airport, after a short-term stint with J-Life. I made the mistake then of joking to my friend that I could go work for J-Life for three years. Unfortunately, God overheard and took it to be a verbal contract. Earlier this year we made the same mistake, when we said we would be willing to consider staying in Zambia, but it would have to be for something big. Will I never learn to keep my fool mouth shut?

I said it needed to be something big. This is that big something.

Mechanics For Africa is a training college for underprivileged young men and women, teaching a diploma in Motor Vehicle Engineering. We have 70 students over two years, a 2 acre site, 13 staff, and a commercial workshop. In 13 years, the college has trained over 200 people, and from what we know, most have gone on to disperse all over Zambia into good jobs.

Halfway through a ground-up rebuild
We mainly teach Mechanics, but what sets us apart from other technical colleges is that we also teach ‘life skills’ – communication, conflict resolution, interview skills, CV writing; we teach computing and first aid, and bring in experts to teach nutrition and sexual health. Being a Christian college (although people of all faiths and none are welcome) we also do bible studies and small group work. 

If that wasn't enough, over the 2 years we give the guys a grounding in agriculture too. It’s a busy timetable.

And we have a good reputation in Zambia: I heard a story which went something like this – a major trucking company down south in Lusaka wanted some mechanics, so the boss asked around and found that the best mechanics came from the Copper Belt. So he travelled up here and asked around the trucking companies and found the best mechanics came from Ndola. So he came to Ndola and asked around the trucking companies, and found that the best mechanics came from Mechanics For Africa…

Now I’m sure the size of that metaphorical fish has grown with the re-telling, but it seems that we do produce really good mechanics here. In the second year our students go on industrial placements for six weeks at various big companies in the area (mines, hauliers, that kind of thing), and a good chunk are retained full time as a result.

So we started to get a bit excited about the idea of running the place. The previous leadership couple did an amazing job, building a top-tier college from nothing, and so we were inheriting a great legacy. Running it would put us back into the world of business, it would give us something that we could really get our teeth into, and it would tax all our skills to make it work even better. Plus, and here’s the spiritual bit, we began to believe it might just be where God wants us – the timing and skills fit, and our feeling about the place seemed spot on.

We love J-Life, let that be understood. But as the main J-Life training centre gets ever closer to completion the main phase of the J-Life work was beginning to tail off and we weren’t filling our time. It did give Claire time to focus more on Jireh Crafts, but even with that we’d started to feel like we weren’t making the most of the commitment people had made by supporting us to come here. Mechanics came at the right time for it to be a plausible option. When we started negotiations with the trustees of Mechanics we said that the first “non-negotiable” was that we had to remain involved with J-Life Zambia, and we are, though in an advisory role at the moment while we are working some things out with immigration. We’re running the discipleship training using the J-Life material under Mechanics, so as far as J-Life is concerned nothing much has changed. And, as our J-Life director pointed out “You were going home next June. This way we get to keep you in Africa.”

So it was a bit of a head-trip for us. To switch our mind set from “going home in 10 months”, to “staying at least another 2 years”, was the most difficult part. But our families have been incredibly supportive.

So at the beginning of September, after being interviewed by the UK trustees, we were handed the keys to a technical training college. Claire is the business manager and I am the Principal. When I find out what that means, I’ll be sure to let you know.

The past few months have, therefore, been a roller-coaster for us. The position with Mechanics comes with a house on the site, so we had to move home, but since that move put us 50 metres away from some of our closest friends here we’re quite happy about it. 

Our boys get to roam freely about the site, and Emmanuel the college administrator lives here with his young kids, plus our friends’ boys as well, so ours get home from school and then we don’t see them for two hours as they play.

There's probably a child in that tree.
And apart from the site there’s the work. Having come from the world of business, we did kind of miss the pressure of the workplace.  Day-to-day I am involved in the running of our workshop and I deal with the academic side of things. Claire handles all our finances, and HR issues. Together we work with the trustees on setting the strategic direction for the college.

Head lecturer, Mr. Lungu.
Our staff are awesome. It’s been a massive upheaval for them – there has never been a change of leadership in 13 years so it’s taken some adjustment. They have been incredibly welcoming. As we adapt to running a business in Zambia there’s so much we don’t know, but there are 13 people who work here and at least one of them will always have some helpful advice for us.

Just a few weeks ago we held a ‘vision day’ where we pulled all the staff together and got them to work in focus groups to define the principles and vision of the organisation. Afterwards Desmond, our gardener, took us to one side and thanked us for the opportunity to contribute. He said in all his years of work nobody had ever asked his opinion on the running of something. He's one of the stars actually.

The kind of thinking whereby all staff are invested in the success of the business appears to be counter-cultural here in Zambia. But being counter-cultural is something of a defining characteristic of Christianity, so we are embracing it wholeheartedly.

Jesus turned culture on its head: he scandalised people by talking to prostitutes and, gasp, women. He put children in pride of place at his gatherings. He invested in uneducated fishermen, and stooges of the Roman Empire. He said “whichever of you wants to become great must become a servant, whichever of you wants to be first must be last”. I never want to hear our staff say “I’m just…the cook…the guard”. Desmond is not just the gardener: he is a servant of the living God, working for the Kingdom.

There’s often this tacit assumption that missionaries exist to take Christ someplace foreign…but that’s such a dumb way of thinking. Christ has always been here. We’ve just come to join in with what he’s already doing.

So, am I Mr. Stonier? I suppose I must be.

The 2nd years after their final exam.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

21. How can I bless you today brother?

I have a friend here in Zambia who always answers the phone by saying "How can I bless you today, brother?". It's brilliant, so I've started doing it myself. The reaction is great: invariably there's a few seconds of silence followed by a tentative "hello?", to which I reply "Yes, how can I bless you today, brother?". There is then another few seconds of silence and a "Jason?", to which, if I can keep a straight face, I reply "Yes, how can I bless you today, brother?". Ok, by this stage I accept it's getting a bit childish, but it amuses me and that's the main thing.
The thing is, behind my childish humour there is a serious point: usually when people call you up, in some way they need something: a conversation; to find out if you're free to visit; to see if they can borrow your nail gun to impress a lady with their manliness; you know, the usual things.
Christ said that the two most important things in life were to love God and love people. As Christians, if we're not loving people we're missing the point. Of course that means we also have to let other people love and bless us: sometimes we're the friend carrying and sometimes we're the friend being carried. So to say "How can I bless you today?" is actually a really awesome way to start a conversation.
And, as well as a neat social commentary, it serves as an introduction to two teams we hosted recently.
Hosting teams is a weird thing: you can't say they are ‘just’ coming to do manual work because, frankly, labour is so cheap in Zambia there's no point shipping white people over from the UK to do it, and simply doing this is actually denying work to those local people who could. And it's definitely not a holiday for either us or the team because it's not even remotely relaxing. So what is it? Simply, it is a time of blessing. Blessing them, blessing us, blessing others.
We've had two teams in the last month. Now, as an example of blessing, the second team stayed with us for two weeks in the rural area. On the Sunday we went to a local village church. Half way through we were asked to give a short message and sing a song. Nothing much. But after the service people were hugging us and shaking our hands, saying how much they had been blessed by the visit of the Muzungus, and the pastor took me aside and told me how much we had lifted them by our visit and asked if we would come often. They were truly, genuinely appreciative of us visiting them.
You could ask why that is, and I don't honestly know. Maybe a part of it is that people recognise the effort that the team made in travelling to Zambia; possibly a part of it is that they don't get many visitors of any kind. I asked around and the opinion among my black friends is that they were just pleased that white people would want to have fellowship with them (an opinion which in itself makes me very uncomfortable). But whatever, they really appreciated the team's visit.
The two teams we hosted in the last month were very different from each other. The first team was an old work colleague of mine, Jack Kiely, with his partner and his daughter. I met Jack a few years ago while I was away on a training course. He describes himself as a loveable Irish rogue, and it is just about the most fitting description I can muster. Before meeting him, I always thought Father Ted was just a comedy show; Jack was the man that made me realise that it is actually a documentary.
Father Jack                                Jack Kiely
Jack asked if he could come and do some work for us in Zambia. Of course we said yes, and so in July he arrived with his family to spend a week with us.
During the week we did a lot of practical work: Jack's partner Judith and daughter Nic painted hallways and tiled bathrooms, while Jack and I cut holes in walls to fit windows in two formerly very dingy corridors. We also lifted and fitted a huge, 6-metre wooden beam, which must have weighed 300kg. Now I am known as a bit of a maverick, but I was also a safety engineer for years and so I always have an eye open for danger when working. But I confess I was a bit concerned that we wouldn't be able to get the beam lifted in the presence of Jack and his Big Safety Hat, especially since my best plan was to build a giant stack of bunk beds and get some big guys from the village to lift the beam up on their shoulders.
Not an actual villager
My fears were heightened when Jack stood staring at the wall and shaking his head for twenty minutes, but when he finally came up with a plan involving ropes and pulleys and A-Frames and (I was disappointed to note) not a stack of bunk beds, it all went incredibly smoothly. Just six of us lifted the beam up to 2.5 metres and installed it in about an hour.
Jack and his family were great, hard working and skilled. We were sad to say goodbye.

And as they impacted us, I like to feel we impacted them, too. For one thing Jack had never eaten a banana in all his 52 years. Now, if there's one thing that is amazing about Zambia it is the bananas, and so we convinced him that the time was now, the place was Zambia, and the banana was no longer his nemesis. He managed two bites. We were proud of him.
The start of a beautiful friendship
Then two weeks after Jack's family left, the next team arrived, led by one of my closest friends, Jeff. Jeff is an awesome guy, and we have spent the last12 years continually being mistaken for the other. It seems nobody over the age of, say, 50 can tell us apart. When I was an usher at his wedding, even a couple of his aunts mistook me for his brother.
Jason, Jeff. Or Jeff, Jason. It's hard to say.
So, naturally, we were excited about this team, and they were awesome. Jeff we've discussed, but the rest of the team were almost unknown to us. Amy, I met briefly a few years ago, Gian similarly I spoke to a time or two in church, Carol (Gian's wife) and Sarah were complete strangers when we met at the airport but quickly became family.
A delayed flight led to them arriving in Zambia a day later than planned which meant that the team had to hit the ground running, straight to the training centre to live for two weeks in the bush. The first week was DIY time: the team painted the corridors, shelved out the store, built a table-tennis table and a volleyball court, and helped erect a mountain of bunk beds. The week ended with a day where we invited the villagers to visit, play games, buy clothes, chat, and be tested for reading glasses.

But the main reason for the team coming was the following week, where we hosted a camp for 40 orphan teenagers from a partner ministry a couple of hours away (

The kids were all between 12 & 19 years old – a tough age range to cater for. For months before the trip, the team had been planning the camp and, wow, it showed. The theme of the week was the "I Am’s" of Jesus; looking at the places where Jesus says "I Am…the light of the world…the bread of life…etc.". To kick things off on the first evening, we told the story of when God used burning shrubbery to tell Moses to call Him "I AM".

We're fairly sure Moses didn't have to douse HIS bush in petrol.
As the kids arrived one was heard to say "this week is going to be so boring". By the end of the week they were crying because they didn't want to leave.

Days were full of interactive teaching, sport, games, activities, and all of it fun. It's no easy task to run a camp which is equally great for a 12-year-old and a 19-year-old, but the team managed it. In fact, Daniel joined one of the groups of the younger kids and he thoroughly enjoyed it too (he's 6). 
Teaching through the medium of rap and interpretive dance. You saw it here first.

Along with the teaching we played a lot of sport: volley ball; touch rugby; football; table tennis, and did some awesome activities: bottle rockets, loom bands (a massive hit), flag-making…actually so many I can't remember them all. The kids jumped straight in with everything, and they behaved impeccably.
Human table football, and water-balloon trampoline.

Bottle rocket challenge, and just throwing water at teenagers.
On the last day the "I Am" was "I Am the way, the truth, and the life.". Jeff's illustration was a treasure hunt, where the kids had to follow clues. To start, each team had to pick one of three clues. The clues had the kids running all over the place: for one the kids had to find me hiding out in the bush and say "Are you Jeff?" to get the next piece of the puzzle, and one particularly memorable moment was when a team who had to "Find the woman who leads the drama and say 'Chicken' to her" found me and said "Chicken". "Am I the woman who leads the drama?", I said. "Yes", they said. To be honest I don't know what my takeaway from that is. I'm still processing.
The point was that two of the starting clues led you on a path to nothing, but one led to Christ. On the false trails, the final clue invited you to start again, illustrating that in life people go wrong but can always start over on the right path. It worked brilliantly.

The competitive extreme knitting was also a big hit.
The final activity was The J-Life Olympics, where the kids had to do a number of team building activities. It made me realise how much love these kids had for each other: One of the activities was 'crocodile pit' where the teams had to all jump over a 2.5-metre-wide ‘pit’. Daniel, who was part of one team, couldn't do that, so one of the older boys put him on his shoulders and made the jump. They won the 'team spirit' award just for being awesome.
It was just an amazing week, all thanks to the team. We came out of it with some great new friends, and the school has booked again for next year. We also came out of the week with some new skills in running camps, and learned a lot about how the centre operates, what works, and what doesn’t when it's full of people.
And we came out of it incredibly blessed. Blessed to be part of something cool, blessed to have made new friends, blessed to have spent quality time with old ones.
Some people are resistant to short-term mission. They say it blesses the people who go far more than the people who receive, and often that is true. But we are genuinely privileged to have hosted the teams we've had this year. I go to the training centre and people in the village ask when the next team is coming to visit (and it’s not because we give stuff away for free, because we rarely do). I meet a member of the village football team, they ask me to give their love to Steve Perring, who sponsored them with a football strip. I meet the village headman, he tells me (again) what a difference our visitors have made. Our teams have been awesome.
How can I bless you today brother? Let me count the ways.
In other news, things are changing for the Stoniers in Zambia. Our next blog will go into this more, but we have been asked to take on responsibility for another ministry here in Ndola. It is a technical college which trains under-privileged kids in the City & Guilds diploma in motor engineering. We’re going to be running it in addition to our J-Life work, and are really excited about the prospects for both ministries. We'll tell you all about it next time.

Monday, 9 June 2014

20. Standard Standard.

The caretaker at our J-Life Training Centre is a lovely Zambian called Peter, he’s sharp, hard-working, and a really nice guy. But he speaks almost no English at all, I mean, why should he: he’s a rural guy in rural Zambia. I kind of feel that it should be up to the visitor to the country to learn the local language rather than relying on everyone else to speak ours. Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that one of the only words Peter knows in English is ‘standard!’, and by it he means ‘wow!’.

So a few weeks ago, after a team from the UK had blessed us with two weeks of incredible skill and energy, I found Peter wandering round the centre pointing at things and saying “Ohh, Standard! Standard!”. “Kitchen! Standard! Standard!”, “Pa painti! Standard! Standard!”.

And I found myself thinking, “You know what, Peter…this is beyond standard. This is extraordinary.”

You see, when we planned the work for the team, our aspiration was to take the kitchen from being a bare room with a badly-fitted sink resting on some blocks, to being a room we could actually cook in. I thought it was going to be tight to get that done in two weeks.

So what we wanted was a kitchen, maybe a painted kitchen at a push. What we got was above all our expectations:

The kitchen is completely built with finished terrazzo work surfaces, tiled splash-backs, a new serving hatch, painted walls and floor, and fitted sink. It looks amazing, in fact far better than this early photo shows.

The team also painted and shelved the pantry; converted, painted, and shelved a store room to turn it into a new shop; fitted the bedrooms with rails and curtains [ed – task 1 so they could sleep with privacy]; re-wired all the South African plugs to make them Zambian compatible; fitted two electric showers; painted every door-frame and window-frame; painted the courtyard walls; and, in between all that fun, supplied & fitted 200 pairs of reading glasses across two locations, and sold 500 items of clothing for 20p each as part of our plan for engaging the community with the building. And, of course, woke up a dignified and respected team member by throwing a cockerel into his room, because, well, if you had a dignified and respected team member and access to a cockerel, what would you do? Exactly.

I can’t say enough how amazed we were at the energy the guys brought. On the last day, it came to be that the kitchen really needed one more coat of paint. At this point it was 8pm, we were shattered, and the guys had to leave the centre at 9am the next morning, so I said we should leave it at that. The patriarch of the team, Alan, or Papa Al as he became known, said “No, we want to finish. I will be up at 6 tomorrow morning”. And, sure enough, at 6am the next day, four of us were in the kitchen finishing it off. That’s the thing about a team – you spur each other on. In those two weeks we achieved more than I could have done in six months on my own.

Of course, the practical work was great, but it was only a small part of the whole reason for the team coming. With the reading-glasses clinic and clothing sale, our aim was to really place J-Life within the community we serve.

We’d advertised an afternoon of activities in advance and on the day we had about 300 people arrive , first in ones and twos starting from 7am, then building up through the morning until we had a big crowd waiting for things to start. Some people walked 15km to get to us, and all we were doing was selling clothes and fitting glasses. I can’t imagine walking 15km to a jumble sale, but  many people in rural communities really, really, need  basic things like, simply, somewhere to buy clothes.

So we opened our doors just after lunch, and the team together with the Zambian J-Life leadership marshalled the crowd, letting 20 people in at a time to buy 5 items of clothes each, and for the next 3 hours people patiently waited their turn, bought their five items, then rejoined the back of the queue to start again. It was amazing, a great atmosphere of fellowship and chatting and singing.

Those needing reading glasses formed another queue and were served by three stations with a tester and translator at each.

Two of the most heartwarming stories were a woman early on who left us with new glasses and a huge smile excitedly telling everyone that she would be able to read her bible for the first time in five years, and later a young boy who was extremely short sighted and really needed prescription glasses, but whom we gave a pair of strong reading glasses to and who went from being able to read almost nothing with the chart held to his nose, to being able to read the bottom line at arms length. Those two alone would have made the enterprise worth while. Over the two days of eye tests (one at another location the previous week) 200 people left with glasses, which means that 200 people can now read or do close up work much more easily than they could before.

A few days ago I stopped in the village to chat to the Head Man, Mr. Shibemba, and he was saying that they feel transformed: people are acting with purpose in the village much more than they did before. How long this will last we don’t know, but if we are able to continue to develop the centre as an on-going community resource then perhaps it can. We certainly hope so.

I’m sure many of you will have at least heard the Bible story  of the feeding of the 5000: a large crowd of people had been with Jesus all day as he was teaching, and as it came towards evening the disciples realised that the people hadn’t eaten and it was now too late to send them down to the corner shop. They held a whip round, and it turned out that only one boy out of the thousands had thought to bring his sandwich box. Inside were five small bread cakes and a couple of sardines.

Jesus took this tiny offering from a young, unimportant, and un-named boy, and used it to feed the entire crowd until their bellies were full and they groaned that they could eat no more.

You see, that’s what God does: He takes the meagre offerings we make and he multiplies them past anything we could do ourselves. He took our few days of painting and a couple of hundred pairs of donated glasses, and used them to start a work of transformation in a rural village.

And as with so many trips like this, I think that it is safe to say that every one of the team felt moved and blessed by the experience, probably even more so than many of the individuals we met and served.

If we want to see God at work, we have to be at work. If we want to see our labours multiplied, we have to be at labour. God takes what we do and multiplies it: if we do nothing it doesn’t matter how big the multiplier, the outcome is still nothing. If, however, we do something, when multiplied by the creator of the universe, the outcome can be staggering.