I asked if I could see the pot, and the chief brought it out from the back of the hut.
It was dull-gray metal, about gallon sized, with a tight-fitting lid. But that’s not what I noticed first. It was the chain, wrapped in spirals around it, held tightly by several locks. One pot held all the hopes of this Ugandan village.
It was a money pot, a bank at the most rudimentary level. Each member of the village regularly tries to add a few cents to the pot, with amounts carefully noted in the large notebook the village elders keep. If a nickel remains from buying seeds, it is sacrificially added into the pot for the village. From the-pot-with-chains, as it was simply called in Ugandan, village families could draw a small short-term loan. A few dollars, perhaps for a widow to buy flour for baking bread to sell, or for a new mother to purchase a bolt of fabric to sew shirts for the market. In a village where people bought tonight’s dinner with the money they made a few hours earlier, the-pot-with-chains offered new possibilities for tomorrow. A chance to get ahead a bit, or to feed a child when rains had closed the market. To overcome a year of poor crops. (More about this village here).
All that it takes to turn a life around is an opportunity.
Sitting on a plastic chair over a dirt floor among the village leaders, it moved me. It was a tender reminder of people working together for their common good. A lesson we in the self-centered, independent west have often forgotten. With Jesus as our example, the Bible teaches,
“Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” – Philippians 2:3-4, Message
There was more for me to learn from the-pot-with-chains. I was quietly asked if I would like to see the money inside. Choked with emotion, I nodded. An elaborate ritual unfolded. Each member of the circle was in turn offered the pot, and declared simply, “Let it be open.” When all had agreed, several elders pulled keys from their pockets, and one by one, unlocked the chains. Ugandan shillings and coins were poured carefully on a tray, worth about two hundred American dollars. An amazing sum because it was their money. Collectively gathered and chaperoned. Belonging to all, and for the good of all.
As the money was counted, the notebook checked, returned to the pot, and the chains and locks added, I asked, “For how long are the loans given?” I was told that loans came due in a month or two, payable without interest. And then came the exclamation point. An elder spoke, “We are careful with loaning this money. If someone does not pay back their loan, all the village must come together to repay it. The family who has not paid the pot is forgiven, but they must work hard to regain the village’s trust. We are all responsible to pay the debt, so that the-pot-with-chains remains full. We are one village.”
Even in failure, it is one village. Interrelated, not just individuals worried about only their own lives. The-pot-with-chains preaches a lesson worthy of learning. In success or struggle, we are God’s children. We are on the same bus. We are all in this together. We are connected.
In 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to remind us of this:
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.