A Discussion With Ari Johnson, Co-founder and Co-Executive Director, Project Muso, Mali

With: Ari Johnson

December 1, 2008

Background: Ari Johnson, co-founder and co-executive director for Project Muso, started the organization in 2005 to address poverty and health issues in Yirimadjo, a small village in Mali. The Project Muso approach emphasizes solidarity with the poor, and addressing the root causes of poverty. Two of its initial programmatic focuses are malaria prevention and women's education. The later program includes a microfinance component which, at the time of the interview, had enrolled 247 participants and had a zero percent default rate. Johnson talked about how his faith as a Jew informs his work with Project Muso, which also employs Muslims, Christians, atheists, and people of other faiths.

We have heard about Project Muso in Mali and the unique work that it does from many different directions. How did it begin?

Project Muso began in 2005, as a collaborative project of a number of young Jewish alumni and students of Brown University, together with friends and colleagues in Mali. They included medical professionals, educators, and graduate students. Through our relationships with each other, we realized that we shared a common vision for extending the scope of health interventions and getting to the root of crises that affect the world's poorest communities. That meant getting to the roots of crises that lie in poverty itself, and taking integrated approaches to addressing poverty and disease together. That is a vision that we shared from the beginning. That vision has underlying it a common understanding of the necessity of working in partnership and solidarity with the poor, rather than for the poor. The vision is about working in partnership with poor communities, the communities facing the most dire poverty and huge injustices of our world, to address those injustices and try to bring some healing to them.

On a pragmatic level, we started with a needs assessment in 2005. In the winter of 2005, we assessed several potential sites where we might start working. We chose a site (Yirimadjo, Mali) and did a fairly extensive needs assessment in partnership with the communities where we were considering working. We identified the perceived and actual priorities of the community. We identified a particularly vulnerable area in which to start. We began working with a partner, Tostan (an NGO based in Senegal), to train a community action committee, a group of local leaders and activists in the communities where we were working, who were committed to researching, identifying, prioritizing, and then developing solutions to the crises their communities face. That training happened shortly after our needs assessment, in late summer 2005. Following that, we launched a women's education program, a women's non-formal adult education program, in partnership with The Malian National Directorate for Basic Education and Functional Literacy, World Education, and the Center for Health Education, Information, and Communication at the Malian Ministry of Health.

We opened four classes in 2005 that launched the women's education program. In 2007, we launched our microfinance program, out of the recognition, emerging from our partners in the community, that there was a dearth of microfinance institutions that were reaching the poorest, and that many of the women that we work with did not have access to credit or microcredit, despite there being microfinance institutions in the areas where they lived. Some of the barriers to access include high interest rates, lack of capital, and a need for further skills training. We developed a program to fill that gap. We have 247 participants, and to date we have a zero percent default rate. This is in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day. All participants have gone through financial management training, and the mutual support and accountability structures we established have helped.

When did the focus on malaria emerge?

We recognized with all of this, that there was an enormous gap in what we were doing, and that was, health services were not accessible to a very large portion of the population, because of a number of barriers, and that malaria in particular was taking a serious toll on our participants and on their families. It's the number one cause of illness and death in Mali. We saw that there was a need to create a more complete approach to improving health. We really needed to take on building better health care systems, particularly for the poor. We've launched the Community Based Malaria Program this past September. Before that we created a Malaria Prevention Program, in which women participating in our education program organized mass bed net distributions at sites throughout the community, accompanied by one-on-one trainings on bed net use. They also did theatrical performances to teach about bed net use. Later in 2007, our team that had been doing those distributions hooked up with the Malaria No More distribution campaign to help support their efforts in the Yirimadjo area where we work. Some of the nets that we have distributed were funded by the Sukkathon to Fight Malaria, an event young Jews have organized in cities in the U.S. and Israel around the Jewish holiday of Sukkhot.

Fast-forwarding again, we've just launched this Community Based Malaria Program to integrate better malaria treatment delivery in a way that strengthens the health care system as a whole. We are attempting to systematically identify and remove the barriers that women and families face in accessing quality health care for malaria, and to achieve the national malaria control goals that Mali has committed to. There are many barriers to achieving high rates of early treatment of children. We've designed a program around three strategies:
1) Community Health Worker active case finding and outreach to diagnose and treat simple pediatric malaria cases in the home
2) removing financial barriers to care and
3) building the capacity of the government primary health care system, which includes construction, renovation, equipment, and clinical team training.

We've been identifying the blockages that have been preventing people from accessing malaria care and removing them through these three strategies.

We work in partnership and in solidarity with the community, and work for the priorities and needs of the community, that we identify together. We identified as partners the major barriers to improvement in health and well being. We did not come in with a premeditated, singular goal, that we were going to impose upon those areas.

What role does your faith play in inspiring your work?

To slightly clarify, the Project was started by a group that was composed of Malians, who were Catholics and Muslims, and Americans, who at the time of founding, were Jewish alumni and students at Brown. Our organization is not a religious organization, in that we have no intention to limit our work to people of a specific religion. The last thing we would ever intend or want to do would be to impose any of our religious convictions on anybody we work with or for. Since the founding, the American team has expanded considerably, and now includes Christians of many denominations, one Buddhist, and several team members that are not religiously affiliated. I would say that, each member of our team shares a common vision that I have described to you, of working for social justice, in solidarity with communities living in poverty, and to address the urgent crises of poverty and disease that communities in Mali face. We share a common value of the essential human right to access health care. We have common values. Each of us comes into the work with our own spiritual path, from our own path of values and convictions that led us to this convergence of shared vision. I can speak to you about how my religious and spiritual practice as a Jew led me to this point.

Just before I became involved in Project Muso, I realized something about the Jewish institution of Tshuva (English transliteration), which can be translated to mean “return” or “atonement." It's why Jews go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and it is also a year long and a life-long journey of bringing healing to one's self, to one's relationship with others, and to one's relationship to the world and to G!d. I realized, just before I started getting involved in PM, that tshuva was not just about figuring about what things I had done wrong, and making reparations about that. It was about, just as much, what I had not done. The injustices, the suffering, that has existed and continues to exist around me, that I had the power and the capacity to heal or to fix, and that I had not. I realized that I was responsible for that. There's a Jewish teaching that if on Shabbat, you pass a building that's collapsed, and you don't know if there's anybody trapped inside, but you think there's a possibility that somebody might be inside, you need to go clear the rubble to find out. Normally on Shabbat somebody would not be able to [do work, such as to] remove the rubble, but in this situation Jewish law obligates us to, in a way that transcends those other laws, to clear the rubble until we can confirm that there's nobody who's trapped in there who's in danger, and to find and help anyone who could be in danger inside. We have an obligation to do that. It has nothing to do with whether we collapsed the building. The building is collapsed and I'm standing next to it. At some point in my life I realized I was standing next to a lot of collapsed buildings. I had a responsibility to do whatever I could, however little or much that might be.

While I was living in Mali, there was an observant Jewish population of one to two that I was aware of, including myself. Sometimes my partner Jessica Beckerman was there at the same time as I was, and perhaps at various points there was one or two Jewish volunteers besides us. I would say it is a remarkable aspect of our organization that many people involved in our project, are actively moved by their religious and spiritual practice, and are actively practicing. This includes participants in our programs—these are people who are included in our view of who the Project Muso team is. I would say that many of the members of our team, American or Malian, many of them are coming at it as people of a great religiosity and devotion to their spiritual practice. I recently came back from my third stay in Mali, which lasted from July 2007 to July 2008. Now I'm working on Project Muso in the States while continuing my training at Harvard.

I have had the enormous pleasure of experiencing and practicing Judaism in Mali. While in Mali, we live with Malian families in the community. That means that there's a lot of exchange that happens. We do not separate ourselves from each other. When I practice Judaism, my observance of Shabbat, my daily prayers, or my observance of my Jewish holidays, those things are integrated into that context. It's a very powerful experience. One of my partners, Jessica, and myself were in Mali for Passover. We got to make Passover Seders, and there were over 30 people attending each night. We were the only Jews there, and it was a great experience. We had the opportunity to have great discussions about the links between the story of Exodus and the themes of slavery and oppression to the issues we were all dealing with together. Jessica and I were a bit nervous about it, because we didn't want to suggest that we were proselytizing. After the first day we spoke with one of the matriarchs, who was there at this Passover Seder. We asked her, “Nana, was that OK? Did people think we were trying to convert them?” And she said, “Of course not, Ari. I am a Muslim, and I love being a Muslim. If you were to ask me if I'm going to become a Jew, I would say, ‘No, I'm a Muslim.' You were present for our Hajj feast, so of course we would be present for this day for you.” There are things happening like that. For me, Jewish law dictates three daily prayer times, Muslim law dictates five. So many of the people we work with are devout Muslims, that things really stop at prayer times. We have prayer breaks during most of our classes, so that whoever wants or needs to pray can go and pray. In many ways, it was easier for me to practice Judaism in Yirimadjo than in many places because prayer time was built into the daily routine.

I would say that there may be religious organizations which do engage in development work and humanitarian aid work and charity for the purpose of advancing religious values or religious agendas. There are certainly interfaith organizations that do service work for the purpose of supporting and nurturing interfaith understanding. Our organization is something of an inverse of that. There are many members of PM who come to this work with a certain imperative and inspiration that derives from our religious practices and our spiritual practices. But we engage in this work together, we find this point of convergence in this work. I think there is something that is added, that is gained, coming at the work with those kinds of values and that intention. And in the process of doing the work, there is an enormous amount of interreligious/interfaith exchange that happens, and cross-cultural exchange that happens. But I wouldn't say that we're doing it primarily for the sake of that exchange. We're doing this because each of our religions and values instills in us an imperative to be working to correct these injustices and inequalities.

Are we a religious organization? I think that's a hard question to answer. I think many members of our team would say no, because of certain assumptions that might come along with that label. I think that the vision and the values that I expressed to you earlier are ones that we all share, all members of the team share. We've come to those common values from different directions, but have often come to those values from a deep spiritual practice. The intensity of that intention carries through in our work. I would be remiss that if I didn't emphasize the very strong culture of openness and mutual engagement that we have on our team, and particularly in Mali. In the areas where we work in Mali, everybody blesses each other in the same language—Christians, Muslims, Animists. People have a common language of blessing each other. As I mentioned, there are opportunities and breaks for people to pray in that work. There's an affirmation that is important, but they aren't creating a structure for interfaith interaction. It isn't that we organize prayer services or interfaith prayer services. It's a situation where each of us can be practicing our religion or our tradition in a way that nurtures what brings us into this work.

I think that we have a very significant agenda. We think a lot about why we're doing what we're doing, and the values that must define what we're doing, and our team talks about it a lot. That's a core that binds us together. A real openness that binds us to anyone who is interested in engaging in that mission with us, including if they don't identify with a particular tradition or background. We have members of our team that are not identified with a religious denomination as well. We do have those values that bind us together, and that really define this work, and how we do this work. We have a spirit of openness and engagement.

To the extent that anything we can do will be helpful to other people, we're very happy to be sharing what we're doing. We've been doing that to some extent through our work with TBFF and Malaria No More a little bit this year. I am not qualified to speak about the underlying reasons of interreligious tensions around the world. From my personal religious experience, when I see such conflict, I ask myself, “What's the healing that's really needed there? What's underlying this? Where is the underlying suffering that is yielding these difficulties or this conflict? What pragmatic steps can we take to establish this healing, to heal that brokenness?

What can you tell me about the partnerships that have formed around Project Muso?

The partnership with Tony Blair Faith Foundation is relatively new. The TBFF began late last spring. One of our volunteers made contact with them at a conference about Jewish engagement in issues of global health and poverty that happened in Israel last spring. We began speaking with them about what we're doing. Their foundation has a vision of supporting and facilitating people of different faiths around the world to work together towards achieving the Millenium Development Goals. They saw that we happened to be an organization composed of people from several different religious practices and backgrounds, engaging in just that, working together towards achieving the MDGs and rolling back malaria. Our relationship began there. We're still talking about different ways to work together. We provided some materials to them about PM and things we have done. They've asked us for some materials, some examples that might inspire other people. We've provided a case study on one of the bed net fundraising campaigns for Project Muso, the Sukkathon to Fight Malaria. They've given us a grant to support our work and invest in it because they would like to be able to share this kind of work with others who might be interested in doing similar work.

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