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Give them the tools

PUBLISHED: 10:58 21 June 2016 | UPDATED: 12:12 28 June 2016

John Fowler at Tools With A Mission.

John Fowler at Tools With A Mission.

An industrial estate in Ipswich is the hub of a charity sending recycled tools and equipment to communities in Africa. Georgie Russell meets the people behind Tools With a Mission

Richard Laflin painting a shovel at Tools With A Mission.Richard Laflin painting a shovel at Tools With A Mission.

The retired priest, John Fowler, refers to the Suffolk village of Stoke-by-Nayland as his ‘spiritual home’. It is where he and his family have lived for the past 43 years and where he served as curate at St Mary’s church. But when he first heard about a small Ipswich-based charity called Tools With A Mission, it was his African roots that compelled him to volunteer.

Tools With A Mission – or TWAM – is a Christian charity that collects unwanted tools and sends them to sub-Saharan Africa. During the 1960s, John saw for himself how much of a difference such equipment can make. At the time, he was working as a financial secretary for a mission hospital in his native South Africa, having taken a break from his 12-year career at General Electric in Cape Town. He recalls sitting in on eyesight-saving cataract operations that simply would not have gone ahead without the use of imported machines. Now, decades later, he helps ship the machines out there.

TWAM sends two containers of equipment a month, primarily to Uganda and Zambia. On average, that is 28 tonnes of tools – sewing machines, spanners, school computers, bicycles, walking aids, you name it, all donated at various collection points across England. Volunteers transport them to TWAM’s warehouse on the Hadleigh Road Industrial Estate in Ipswich and there they are sorted, cleaned, repaired and eventually packed up into containers. Chief executive officer Mike Griffin says the charity’s ethos is to support people already working on the ground.

“We are not a western charity going in,” he says. “It’s more about local people helping local people.” TWAM works with over 400 small charities and church organisations in Africa, many of which run training programmes such as mechanics courses or dress-making classes. They send TWAM a tool ‘wish list’ via email and the process of sourcing the tools and preparing them for re-use gets underway. Once a shipment is deployed, people on the ground in Africa, known as ‘partners’, receive the containers and distribute the goods.

Jean Deguillaune at Tools With A Mission.Jean Deguillaune at Tools With A Mission.

Mike Griffin only took up his position as CEO in May and is yet to travel to Africa. He says the Suffolk end of operations can often feel like one big logistics exercise. When he looks at one of the carpentry kits, ready to be shipped, he says he can often fall into the trap of just seeing a box. His longer-serving colleagues, he explains, see more than that. They see a person, a family, a community.

One single carpentry kit can help more than 50 people. As soon as a newly-trained carpenter receives one, he can start making furniture and support his family. He can also support his wife’s family. If his brother comes on board as, let’s say, an upholsterer, he can start supporting his family. Together, the two can then trade their goods with another family, who might perhaps be rearing chickens to produce and sell eggs. One simple kit can be responsible for kick-starting local enterprise.

Gardening tools, that might otherwise have been left gathering dust in Suffolk garden sheds, are invaluable for subsistence farming. John recalls a group of people at a day care centre in Port Elizabeth having such a successful food growing programme they produced a surplus and were able to supply a local supermarket. Similarly, sewing machines can offer women, often grandmothers, or ‘Go Gos’ as they’re known, the chance to make and sell school and domestic uniforms. As John Fowler puts it, “the tools restore dignity”.

When asked how rewarding it is to be involved with TWAM, John’s initial response is simply “Wow”.

Brian Cutler checks a compressor at Tools With A Mission.Brian Cutler checks a compressor at Tools With A Mission.

“The people are so appreciative,” he says, something he finds humbling. John started his lay ministry in Stoke-by-Nayland in the late 1970s before being ordained and becoming a priest in 2002. He is as committed to his local community in Suffolk as he is to the villages and townships of his homeland.

“You can’t change the world”, he says “but if you can improve it, do it.”

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