Appropriate Technology in the Democratic Republic of Congo

| December 5, 2018 | 0 Comments


Mission work can take many forms and have “differences of administrations” and “diversities of operations.” Some missions and missionaries focus solely on healing the spiritual, by “preaching the gospel.” Other missions focus solely on the physical, rebuilding houses after catastrophes or sending food to famine-ravished communities. And yet others focus only on the soul, helping others deal with the emotional pain that war and trauma induce (humanity was not designed for long-term exposure to those conditions, so it strains and bruises the mind and emotions to live in them).

But the reality is that most missions have some mixture of all three. A well-rounded mission will, indeed, be concerned about the whole human: body, soul, and spirit. Just how that all balances out is part of the differences and diversities that God allows and even plans in administration. May we be careful to not criticize others whose “balance” is not where our "balance" is.

The following report comes from a small family and church mission effort, based near Lineville, Alabama. Billy North is part of a newer Anabaptist congregation there, but has been laboring for many years in the harvest field by developing, teaching, and training others with what is called “appropriate technology.” Appropriate technology is when people take what is handy and available (appropriate, in the original sense of the word, means "close by") and make something useful from it. For example, hand water pumps can be made with a piece of rope and an old tire. Extremely fuel-efficient cook stoves can be made out of an old tin can (a fistful of tiny sticks can cook a whole meal). American farmers are notorious for using baler twine as a main instrument in their arsenal of “appropriate technology!” 🙂

Armed with knowledge on how to best use local resources, the poor can avoid “welfare dependency” and an escape route from the seduction of buying expensive, foreign-made tools (which is not sustainable for poor people; they send all their profits out of the local community, to foreign lands).

Billy’s ministry may seem to put more weight on the physical needs of humanity (compared to missions that focus almost exclusively on “preaching”), but it can be a lengthy discussion (notice I didn’t say “argument”!) as to whether one can “save” people faster by preaching to them, or by helping them build a water pump from an old tire. If you show a caring spirit about their physical needs, it may open a door to their heart. As well as traveling to various countries to teach the poor ways to lift themselves from abject poverty, Billy also teaches others how to teach, with a small “school” based at his home in Alabama. Churches, universities, and missions organizations send groups to his home-based campus for training.

The Great War of Africa

In the following report, Billy tells of his experiences in D. R. Congo. The Congo is still recovering from the “Great War of Africa,” also known as the “Second Congo War,” that raged from 1998 to 2003. About half of the African nations were involved in the war, the deadliest war in the world since WWII, with 5.4 million deaths. More than half of the deaths were from starvation and disease caused by the war. Most of the fighting took place in Congo and some of the neighboring nations. Besides the deaths, 2 million Congolese fled their homes to avoid the war. Many of these ended up in neighboring nations, creating large camps of displaced persons.

While in these camps, some of the people began to dream of returning to Congo … but not just returning to the status quo of pre-war Congo. When they returned and needed to start from scratch, why not do things differently? Sometimes returning refugees find that someone has taken over their property. This creates tension, if not outright violence, between the returnee and the person who has taken over the abandoned property. So rather than go through another cycle of violence, the group planned their village for an area where no one else was living. There they could forgive the past and start anew without creating more tension.

So it was that a group of them planned a model village while still refugees. About all they had was plans and hope when the time came to be repatriated. The United Nations sent trucks to carry them back. Dropping them off in their home area, the UN gave each family a bit of supplies to help them get started.

However, the UN did something that it had never done before. For the PNE with the dream of a new way of life, the UN dropped them off in the middle of the southeast Congo bush … no toilets, no schools, no health care facilities. Nothing, but a few personal supplies. This was, as I understand it, not the choice of the UN, but the choice of the dreamers. As mentioned, the UN had never done such a thing before.

So it was that the little town of Fube was begun, in 2007. Billy’s report breaks into their story with his experiences in Fube’s newest project, the “village” of Ichande, located 13 miles northeast of Fube.

Fube with its accompanying fields, on Google Earth. The yellow line near the bottom is the Congo-Zambia border.

Billy’s report

[Note that a few editorial comments are inserted in brackets. Parenthesis are original. Minor editing has been done to the report.]

Wow! What a trip! It has been three weeks now getting back into life here in Alabama and catching up with everything since we returned. Erika [Billy’s wife] and I made an 18-day trip to the heart of southern Africa with Kiwele (some of you know him as Sabastien) Kalinde, the founder of the Congolese organization PNE (Peace and Hope).

PNE asked ADAPTech [Billy’s ministry] to come investigate the possibility of partnering with them to provide training for their people. The purpose of the trip was to investigate the indigenous development work happening there, to meet the people involved with the project, to do some development needs/resource assessment, and to teach a few classes if we had time.

I have traveled to many hard places in my life, but I can say without a doubt that this trip was the most difficult and demanding I have ever made. And yes, that includes Quesimpuco, Bolivia, in the Andes Mountains, in the snow.

The total trip of 18 days included 62 hours of air travel, >2200 difficult, overland miles in cars, trucks, buses, taxis of various sizes and shapes, supply trucks, motorcycles, and afoot. Many times our continuing on with the journey required pushing, un-sticking, re-starting, and/or repairing our means of transport.

All my life it has been a benefit to me during 3rd-world travel that I am the descendant of five or six generations of mechanics and welders. Some of those 2200 miles I spent sitting on the diesel engine of a truck, pouring the proper amount of motorcycle gasoline into the engine from a water bottle while someone else drove, because the fuel system was broken!

After six days of hard travel, we arrived in a little camp in the middle of the woods to the warmest reception you could imagine. The “camp” is called Ichande. It is the site of the new training center/model community for PNE/Fube. I cannot exaggerate how impressed we were with the work happening there.

PNE is led by some of the best development workers we have ever seen. And we have seen hundreds. The people who fill the membership rolls of the organization there are the hardest working people I have ever been associated with, and I know some really hardworking people. They live on something like a dime per day per person, but they have done unbelievable things, with almost nothing that most people would call “resources.” Their determination is unbelievable. Not only that, but it is proven. They didn’t just start up something recently and are living on the adrenaline that newness and short-lived hope brings. They started more than 20 years ago in a refugee camp.

Phase 1: Forming PNE and dreaming/planning

They began doing development work while still in the refugee camp. The leaders were very good, and the people very willing to not live like animals, and to do something better for themselves. Many of the current PNE members were born in the camp. Many of the leaders now were leaders then. They worked hard and built what became known as the best refugee camp in the world according to Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2007. [This refugee camp was one of the very few in the world, if not the only one, that was almost self-sufficient in growing its own food. And this in Zambia!]

Phase 2: Fube village

Fube town, built by hand! A dozen years ago this was pure bushland.

In order to stop the cycle of violence after the war, and instead of returning to their respective villages from the refugee camp, they decided to move to a completely empty place and build a village together. They spent nine years building a city for 15,000 people in the middle of nowhere, with virtually nothing that they couldn’t dig out of the ground or cut out of a tree. Every brick, they made and laid. Every board, they milled with a two-man hand saw. Virtually all materials, they carried themselves or on a bicycle.

And it is not just an average “third-world” town. No, it is almost surreal how clean and orderly it is! Every road built wide and straight with hoes and shovels; wide enough for two semi-trucks to easily pass, and with drainage systems to carry the water away properly. The entire town is built on a very precise grid system with space for residential, industrial, commercial, and public operations. Each family having a large property, big enough for houses, orchards, and enough garden space to grow their food.

There is virtually no trash lying around; there are no dogs making a mess; there are almost no goats, since they are kept out of town to reduce insect problems and sanitation. The families have a trash/garbage system. There are very few flies. There is a health center with a surgical wing, five primary schools, two high schools, and much more. They are some of the poorest people I have ever seen, but somehow seem to live “better”—to a higher standard of living than other impoverished people I have known.

The organizational skills and vision planning by the leadership are exceptional. In my opinion, it operates at an altogether different level than I am used to seeing anywhere. The vision there is bigger and longer and deeper than anywhere I have seen. And I know and have worked with people who do some really good work. I could go on ... I told you I was impressed!

By the way, you might be able to find the city on Google Earth. Its name is Fube, Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is in southeastern Congo near Lake Tanganyika. [Note - The town is not named on Google Maps, but can be found at (GPS) -8.043941, 30.032271]

Also, I forgot to mention that they also built all the roads to and from the town. And yes, with picks and shovels. I do not remember how many miles of roads they have built now, but the number 127 keeps popping up in my mind. I can’t remember if that is miles or kilometers.

And it’s all done with local volunteer community service. No one is getting paid.

Phase 3: Training center.

One of the main reasons for our going there was to investigate resources on their newly acquired property. Because they used the original property so well and are protecting it from exploitation by outside mining and logging interests, PNE has recently been awarded legal custody of a much larger piece of land by the chiefs and the government. I don’t think anyone really knows how big it is, but it is very large. At least 30 miles wide on the narrow side; it has not been measured. The natural resources there are impressive, and my children were excited to hear that the land is largely unexplored. It wasn’t long ago, before the war, that the area was full of the big African animals—lions, elephants, etc. Perhaps there are still some out there? [During the war, not only people suffered; the armies and people killed much wildlife for food.]

The training center portion of the land is shaped like a Christian fish. It is 3 kilometers long and 2 kilometers wide, with a long agricultural section under the length of the fish.

The 3 parts of the training center “fish”

  1. The only structure in the tail of the fish is the prayer room in the middle of the tail. They believe that a fish is powered and steered by the tail, and they wanted God to power and steer their work. So they put the prayer room alone in that section. It was the first building they built in the fish, as it is the most important.
  2. The body of the fish is where the people will live with their families while undergoing training. As I understand it, plans are to build the first 15-50 of 185 houses during the next dry season, for the first permanent residents/workers.
  3. The head of the fish is the location of the administration operations, and will be the site of an ADAPTech training center, if the Lord is willing. They have asked us to consider developing a facility and program there, similar to what we have here at home, though I think their hope is even much bigger than what we have here in Alabama; as it should be. There is hope of developing vocational schools for the trade skills, and even possibly something like an alternative, university-type school for producing well-trained development workers, to be sent out to the surrounding areas in Congo, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Our primary objectives for the trip were not to teach, but we did want to give them a taste of some of the kinds of things we taught. It was unspeakably fun and fulfilling to teach people things that would actually have a direct effect on their lives. They were so eager to learn! Since we only had six days with them, we had to limit our subjects to simple ones that required little setup and very little time to teach, build, operate, evaluate, and follow-up.

Erika taught Solar Cooking, Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS), Oral Re-hydration Therapy, and Pasteurization. I taught some health classes, nutrition, sanitation, hand washing, and fuel-efficient cookstoves. It was very exciting to see the enthusiasm with which they adopted the ideas and put them into practice. When we taught the TipTap for use as a hand washing station, one of the women said that she loved the idea, but wondered if there was anything else she could use for the container, because she could not afford an empty plastic bottle!

I built a brick rocket stove with them during a theory class. After the class they set out to build one on their own, “without the presence of the teacher.” So I left and listened from a distance. It was a great deal of fun to listen to them argue with each other and discuss how to do it. If someone offered a suggestion about how to do it that was inaccurate, the others would quickly correct him. From a trainer’s point of view, it was wild success. And they built their stove better than mine.

After building the two small stoves, they still wanted a bigger one for their large pots. I did not have such a model, so I did the math using Dr. Larry’s principles and invented a new style of stove with them. I scratched out the numbers on a brick so they could follow along with the math, and we built the best burning stove I ever made. It was the kind of thing you wish you could do every day of your life: being muddy, dirty, dusty, tired, sore, far from home … and absolutely at the center of contentment because you are in the middle of changing someone else’s life for the better. There is absolutely nothing better!

We received an encouraging word from them today. In a nutshell, this is what they said: “They have initiated projects in homes based on what we taught them and have begun the work. They will report progress. They are expecting our return.”

Untold stories

Well, there is a whole book full of things to write, but I can’t get them all in here. Other subjects could include these titles:

  • How we succeeded in being “accepted” by the people, even the skeptics
  • How we learned old lessons again about the dissemination of technology
  • How we failed repeatedly, yet were still blessed with success
  • Never take anything for granted
  • How to learn 5 languages at once
  • How the internet is such an amazingly good and terrible tool for development
  • And of course, nothing in Zambia works right [The easiest way to get to Fube is to fly to Zambia and then travel overland 1,000 miles north, crossing into Congo.]

Dreams and hopes

They want to transform their part of Africa. If you look at them on paper and measure their list of resources, it seems silly to think that these people could do much in the way of effecting change in Africa. They are poor and skinny and wearing ripped, hand-me-down clothes from somewhere/anywhere. They truly do live on hope. They have little money and few tools. They put God at the very center of their vision and direction-seeking, and they refuse to take money from organizations that will compromise their values: because they understand that what they have is more valuable than grant money.

But somehow they have turned their lack of resources into an asset.  Their vision seems so impossible that they are not hampered by doubts about their own abilities and circumstances to accomplish it. They find their strength somewhere else. And so they move, one step at a time, toward success. Somehow they have turned their limitations into resources in such a way that the unlikelihood of their vision is almost convincing evidence of its inevitable success.

So we had a very hard, but exceptionally good, trip. We accomplished our objectives, fell in love with a people, were impressed by a group of exceptional leaders, and humbled by the self-sacrifice and hospitality of a people that puts most of us to shame.

So I’ll stop for now. Pray for us as we consider the next steps.

Until next time,

Go do some good.

Billy for ADAPTech

About ADAPTech

Stated purpose of ADAPTech: To answer the call of God in our lives to serve the poor and further the Kingdom of God, by empowering the poor and needy of this world through love, discipleship, and education to overcome the obstacles to their development in Christ Jesus.

We currently do training work for other missionary organizations, development organizations, and American and international universities from several countries, through which we seek to have an influence on the Protestant and secular worlds towards kingdom-gospel principles and teachings.

We do direct development/mission/consulting work for people like those in Congo, as well as missionary families.

We do research and development of appropriate technologies and systems here on our campus in Alabama, to address specific needs in the mission field and training settings.

We focus on Discipleship, Principles of Development, and Practical Technology to spread the message of Christ, and help the poor and needy meet their basic human needs.

One of our most popular programs is WE FISHH: Water, Energy, Food, Income, Shelter, Health & Sanitation, (and most importantly) HOPE.

Billy North may be reached at:, or calling 256-252-2133

[The story of PNE and Fube is extremely interesting. PNE has some high goals, summarized, perhaps, by saying that they (all Africans) want to teach Africans how to take their local resources and build sustainable communities, without the need of foreign aid. The African’s biggest need, says PNE, is not foreign aid, but HOPE! (For example, Billy says one will be amazed what they can do with a wooden mallet and an old piece of bicycle for a chisel!) But rather than make this post too large, I may write another post with more of that story.]

~Mike Atnip


Category: Public

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