Vigilante Kindness: Tomatoes, Hippos and String

“Is there anything you need for the classroom, Mr. Martin?” I looked around the room and immediately thought of half a dozen things off the top of my head. Chalk, chalkboard erasers, pencils, paint, books, bookshelves, crayons. And then there were the bigger things like electricity and running water.

“Thread,” he replied with his constant smile.


“Or string.”

My puzzled look gave me away.

“I’ve made posters, but have no way to hang them from the bricks and the room is bare. If I had thread or string, I could string it along the walls and hang the posters.”

That afternoon I set off with my trusty boda driver, Denis, in search of thread or twine or string. At our third store we found string for $4,000 shillings, roughly $2.50.

That night as I laid in bed, I couldn’t help but think that if someone had asked me the same question about my classroom, I would’ve rattled off a lengthy list of items I “need”, but all Mr. Martin wanted was string.

A few nights ago, I was listening to a TED podcast featuring Ernesto Sirolli, an Italian missionary. The talk is titled, “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen.” In the talk, Mr. Sirolli tells the story of a mission trip he once took to Africa to teach a village how to grow Italian tomatoes. They brought the seeds and planted the tomatoes and the tomatoes grew to be the size of softballs, but the villagers seemed unimpressed and uninterested in growing tomatoes. The Italian missionaries couldn’t understand the complacency of the villagers when the tomatoes grew so beautifully lush. The night before they were to harvest the tomatoes, a pod of hippos lumbered out of a nearby body of water and ate the tomatoes and tomato plants. Every. Single. One.

The Italians were shocked. The Africans were not. They knew the hippos would come.

Ernesto Sirolli’s point was this, when we assume we know the needs of others and don’t bother asking, we will likely miss entirely an opportunity to truly help. Mr. Sirolli is still a missionary, but he no longer travels with his own agenda. He picks a place and then talks to the locals in bars, restaurants, churches, etc. and asks them how he can help. Then he does something revolutionary: he listens and makes a plan from there.

This TED talk continues to strike a chord with me because I returned to Uganda with a plan and when that plan fell to pieces at my feet, I was left wondering why I’d returned at all. I can’t count how many times I’ve asked, “God, what exactly am I doing here? What am I going to do for almost five weeks?”

Because I’ve been relieved of my own plan, I find myself thinking about tomatoes and hippos and asking people questions like, “What does the school need?” and “Is there a specific student in need and how can I help them?” and “Do you need anything for your classroom?” and “How can I best help you?”

And then I’m doing the exquisitely hard thing: I’m shutting up and straining to listen.

The beautiful thing is that, you-you vigilantes of kindness, are also listening and watching for opportunities to genuinely help.

So far you and I have:

  • purchased school uniforms for two students who don’t have functioning families to pay for such extravagances
  • purchased 4 piglets to help Denis raise pigs and earn money to return to school
  • purchased a set of school textbooks to be kept in the school library for students who can’t afford books
  • purchased 2 rolls of string for Mr. Martin to hang his teaching posters
  • purchased a mattress and mosquito net for a student without a bed

And that’s just the beginning. I can’t wait to tell you about the other projects in the works.

The stripping away of my original plan is still painfully raw. I’d like to say that I’m over the disappointment and that I’m done being hurt, but the truth is I’m not. Thankfully the truth is also that there is blessing in this stripping away, blessing in the terrifying willingness to be vulnerable and ask God, “What am I doing here?”

Though I’m the one giving, or giving on your behalf, I’m really the one on the receiving end because the lessons I’m learning are priceless.

Mr. Martin has been working tirelessly to string posters in his classroom and it looks great. Now he teaches from all sides of the room, using each wall and each poster to educate his young learners. I’m so glad I didn’t barge in with armloads of ideas on what I thought he needed when what he really needed most was simply string.

I’m terrified that I’ll return home and when I touch down on familiar ground I’ll forget what I’m learning here. So if you see me with a bit of string wrapped around my finger, it’s because I’m remembering Mr. Martin and Ernesto Sirolli. I’m trying to remember to ask first and then act. I’m trying to remember to shut up and listen. I’m trying to remember that God’s plans are so much better than mine. I’m trying to remember not to plant tomatoes for hippos.

2 thoughts on “Vigilante Kindness: Tomatoes, Hippos and String

  1. Chris

    What a great life lesson! I too often make the mistake of thinking my idea is the best or only solution. It’s amazing how people want in proportion to what they have.


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