We couldn’t help but notice a small group of giggling little girls as we carried water on our heads to the worksite in the Village of Ntcheu, in Malawi, Central Africa. It occurred to me at the time that little girls everywhere seem to be the same. They huddled together, speaking rapidly in their native language of Chechewa, giggling, holding on to each other’s arms and covering their mouths to suppress their glee. Except for their bare feet and torn dresses, they could be any of our own little girls. They were there to see the “Muzugus,” the foreigners with their white skin and their strange hair, speaking their odd language. As we walked alongside the village women, the children followed us in a group off to the side. Wanting to interact with us, occasionally a brave one would break away from the group, run up to touch us, squeal, and run back.
It’s hard to imagine the circumstances of the village until you see it with your own eyes. Their homes are simple one room huts made of mud. There is no electricity and no running water. There are no toilets. Most of the people we worked with have never left their village. Most have never ridden in a car. The food they eat is prepared over an outside fire with kindling that has been gathered and cooked with water that has been carried for quite a distance.
The women are responsible for the majority of the work. You can see in the eyes of the young girls that they know with a certainly that their way will not be an easy one. When visitors come to their country, it is an amazing honor. They want to interact at any level. They want to see you, make eye contact with you, listen to you talk, touch you.
As we worked each day with the people in the village, the children continued to follow us. This was a typical scene and every day was like the day before … until Ester. As we walked back to the water with our empty buckets, a little girl broke out from the group wanting desperately to interact with us. As she stepped out, she stopped in front of us to get our attention. She said in our language, “Hallow. My name is Esta. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. I am eighty-eight years old.”
She stepped out because she wanted to interact with us. She gave us what she had even though it was a simple sentence that didn’t make much sense. She didn’t stop to think if her sentence would be perfect. She didn’t stop to think what might happen if we answered her back in our language and she didn’t have a response. She just wanted to interact and Ester knew something that we sometimes miss: sometimes you just have to step out.
A ministry was born that day. When we returned, Ester stayed in my heart. We had determined that we would take little dresses to the girls when we returned. Our mission is to distribute little dresses in the name of Jesus to plant in the hearts of little girls that they are worthy. We use the dresses as a way to get into their homes and villages to discuss such things as clean water, nutrition and sanitation, and to give them the hope that they are not forgotten.
Little Dresses for Africa has brought together church groups, community groups, Girl Scout groups and all types of humanitarian groups stretching across culture, age and gender lines to sew dresses and to help the children in Africa.
Six of us from church met a few months later to sew little dresses to take back. Someone suggested a pillow case pattern that she found on the Internet. The excuses were gone. Some donate, some cut, some sew, some organize and some go to Africa. As communities join together, lives are changed here and across the ocean as we interact through the children in the name of Jesus. At our first meeting someone asked me, “How many dresses do you hope to take back with you?” I answered, “a thousand.” That’s exactly how much thought I put into it! A thousand! When I went home that night after 3 hours with four completed dresses, and none of them were mine, I thought to myself, “I am crazy! I can’t do this.” And I was right. I can’t do this and I haven’t. God has. We continue to get contacts and interest from all denominations, community groups, Girl Scout groups, young mothers and grandmothers sewing together and all types of humanitarian groups stretching across culture, age and gender lines to help these children. Men and women from 44 states all over the United States have sent dresses and now instead of our original goal of 1,000 dresses for Ntcheu we have over 30,000 dresses distributed in ten countries of Africa.
I don’t tell you any of this to brag, although I am proud of how it’s grown. I don’t tell you any of this to pump up the egos of the people who are involved, although they are some of the nicest people I have ever met. It’s just that sometimes we have to be more like Ester. In our hearts we know we don’t always have a lot of give. If we think too long we may talk ourselves right out of it. We will come up with so many excuses. I know this more than anyone. Sometimes it seems so small what we are offering. We’re not like the ones who have given up their lives to live in Africa. We only go on short-term trips. We don’t speak Chechewa. We know what we do does not stop the rush of AIDS across that land. Although we deliver these dresses to offer hope, we know that we can’t change the social structure of the continent of Africa by honoring a young girl with a little dress. The reasons go on and on. But we want to interact, so we distribute these dresses in the only name that brings real hope: Jesus. Sometimes you just give what you’ve got and leave the rest to God. Because you want to interact with him, you just step out.