Interview with Country Director George Gitau

Interview with Country Director George Gitau

By: Contributed by Gideon Vink and Sidney Muisyo   |   Posted: July 09, 2004

Burkina Faso Country Director George Gitau discusses the challenges and successes of establishing the first West African Compassion office.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is George Gitau. I was born and raised in Kenya and am currently working as the Country Director in Burkina Faso.

Why is Compassion starting in West Africa, and why was Burkina Faso chosen to be the first West African country to work in?

Compassion has been greatly blessed by the Lord, and as the organization grows, the Lord has led us to consider growth in Africa beyond our current area of operation - the East Africa region. Simultaneously, since 2000, churches have requested Compassion to work in West Africa to facilitate their work in this area. Burkina Faso was among those who really wanted to see Compassion start operations here.

This is also a very needy area as related to poverty statistics and the Human Development Index (HDI). Compassion has a criterion (Compassion Expansion Index (CEI)) for selecting new areas in which to administer benefits. Prior to Compassion's entry, we did a survey of five countries: Burkina Faso, Ghana (where Compassion now has operations), Togo, Benin and Niger, which revealed that Burkina Faso needed our immediate attention. In terms of economic factors and the HDI, Burkina is ranked 159 out of 162 countries, which is quite low. This led Compassion to determine Burkina Faso would be a good entry point to target the poor children of West Africa.

The country ranked last in school enrollment, literacy, and per capita GNP. Nearly 65 percent of the population lives on less than $1 (US) per day. Due to poverty levels and lack of opportunities, a high percentage of child workers migrate to neighboring countries such as Cote d'Ivoire for employment in menial jobs. In most West African regions, children as young as eight are taken from the rural areas to towns and cities to become domestic workers. Many work over 12 hours a day and are subjected to extreme mental, physical and sexual abuse.

The country offered great ministry opportunity for Compassion, and the body of Christ was excited to partner with us. There are few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Burkina Faso.

Tell me about the president of Compassion, who had this particular vision.

The President of Compassion, Wess Stafford, was actually born and raised in a small village in Cote d'Ivoire. As he grew and saw many children die of hunger, disease, and other preventable causes, he knew eventually he would do something that would cease children's suffering. The Lord gave him this ministry of Compassion, and it has always been his wish to return and help West African children.

What can you tell us about the state of children in Burkina Faso? How much would that be different from your own country, Kenya?

Children in Burkina Faso are forced to work as laborers, face deprivation of education and basic health care, and are sexually exploited and abused. Many children work as domestics in the agricultural or mining sectors. Children are widely employed in family subsistence farms, in the traditional apprenticeship system and in the informal sector. They are used as market traders, child beggars and prostitutes.

Burkina Faso is a source, transit and destination country for internationally trafficked children. Trafficked Burkina children are destined for Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria to work in the cocoa plantations. Unlike Burkina Faso, Kenya does not experience child trafficking as the government has enacted laws to protect children against abuse. Kenya passed a children's act in January of 2001, and Compassion Kenya was instrumental in accomplishing this.

What response have you had from the churches in Burkina Faso regarding the start of Compassion?

The response has been great! There is a very strong evangelical movement (the Federation of Evangelical Churches and Missions (FEME), with the Assemblies of God as the majority). This body represents all the evangelical churches in Burkina Faso.

The church is very excited about the prospect of having Compassion International work in Burkina Faso. They have worked hard to ensure a smooth entry into the country, and the process of locating partners has been quick. We have already had invitations from churches in many distant rural areas of Burkina Faso.

How does the selection process take place and by which criteria?

The project management committees - not Compassion - select which children to help. We partner with the local evangelical churches, and the church establishes the committee selected from church leaders. Compassion provides guidance to the project workers regarding the framework of the selection criteria, enabling them to contextualize it to their environment. Since the church is a strategic institution, they know who are the neediest of the needy children in their community.

What are your memories of the registration sessions?

I attended many sessions and always observed the parents' commitment, love and hope for their children. The parents believe that their child will get help and will be in a program where they will hear the Word of God, attend school, and have a safe haven. Additionally, they know their child will have access to a center where they will receive attention and assistance with their homework. Many parents have expressed that the Compassion project is a dream come true.

How was the starting up period?

Establishing a country office is similar to building a house. It is imperative to construct the foundation well. As I know I won't be here forever, I plan on training many nationals to manage the office after I am gone. Establishing a country office is also similar to being a pioneer, as you face many unknown factors and must innovate as you go along.

What are your immediate goals in terms of opening projects, registering children, etc.?

Since my arrival here in January 2004, we have established an office and hired several staff who are assisting in ministry preparations. Simultaneously, we are working overtime to cast Compassion's vision and share God's word with Burkinabe children. To date, we have started 10 projects with 1,400 sponsored children. We will register 4,000 children before June 2005, and plan to venture out of Ouagadougou into smaller cities and rural Burkina Faso. By the end of June 2006, we plan to sponsor another 6,000 children, with the hope of eventually sponsoring at least 20,000 Burkinabe children.

You will become one of the biggest nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) around. Why so ambitious?

We see the need and believe in what we are doing. And if it has to be done, it has to be done well. So why not come in and ensure we reach the largest number of children in the shortest period of time possible? These are our plans and we know the Lord will execute them for us. We will accomplish this with the Lord's blessing, and that's why we are so ambitious.

How are the churches picking up the Compassion activities? Are they eager to work with you?

The churches invited us to Burkina Faso and are really committed to Compassion's ministry. I am amazed how quickly they picked up the child ministry program and owned Compassion's vision. We have observed their commitment of resources to ensure this ministry is successful.

What challenges have you come across that are specific to the region?

Forty-five percent of the population is Muslim; the other 45 percent believe in traditional religions (Animists). Of the remaining 10 percent, 7 percent are Catholics and 3 percent are evangelical Christians. We assist all children: Christians, Muslims, animists, etc. In terms of partnership, however, we work only with evangelicals. We don't want to arouse any animosity, so we must be sensitive as to how we approach the ministry with which we are going to partner.

There are similarities with a number of other countries in our programs, but you cannot approach each country with a "cookie cutter"-type process. It is imperative to have a learning posture and look at the context of each country. In the future, if we are going into other neighboring countries, we will be able to say, "What did we learn in Burkina Faso? How can we apply some of those lessons in this part of the world which is West Africa?"

Additionally, begging is deeply rooted in life here and as we venture into child development programming, this will be an issue as we try to teach self-reliance.

Tell me some more about the activities in the centers.

Our operations are still in the beginning stages. We ensure children come to the center, hear the Word of God, and are ministered to by project social workers. Much effort has been made to ensure these children attend the centers' program days, that they are fed, and that the social workers listen to their needs. We plan to have medical checkups for the children and ensure they receive homework assistance, that their school is not interrupted, that they may obtain school uniforms, and gain employable skills at the center. Our aim is for them to become responsible and fulfilled Christian adults.

What is your wish for the children in the programs?

My heartfelt wish is that they can grow in the Lord and participate in the Lord's blessings. My prayer is that they grow in stature and wisdom just like Jesus Christ, and become fulfilled and responsible Christian adults.

Do you consider yourself a lucky man to do this?

I am really thankful to the Lord giving me this opportunity to come and be part of this ministry. To be able to observe the first child being registered by Compassion Burkina Faso - that was my best day! My prayer is that the Lord can keep me, so that I may return eventually and see these children be pastors in their own communities, accountants in corporations in Ouagadougou, teachers in their communities, and decision makers for their families, communities and country.

Do you have any prayer requests that we can share with our sponsors?

  • Pray that we can sponsor as many children as possible within a short time.
  • Pray for Burkina Faso so that the country remains stable.
  • Pray for all the churches that we will be preparing for initial partnership.
  • Pray that we be blessed of the Lord so that the ministry picks up quickly.

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