Once upon a time there was a traveler who walked all day without food and arrived at dusty village; two rows of small stone and mud walled houses with broken tiled and tin roofs each side of a stony potholed dirt track. It was hot in the early afternoon and the village smelled of charcoal fires and cow dung. The villagers sat on split log benches pressed hard against the walls of the houses or squatted in the pools of shade under the few trees in the central common near the village well. The flies were thick and tried to find moisture in the corners of the kid’s eyes and mouths and around the goats that looked for the last blades of grass and weed. Into this village the hungry visitor made his way.
The first person the traveler met was a women walking with two small children and when he approached they clutched her skirt and moved behind her peering at him around the folds of tattered fabric. The traveler said, “Mother, I am hungry, can you spare a few mouthfuls of food?” But the woman said, “We too are hungry uncle and no one here has any food to spare, I can’t even properly feed my own children.” The traveler knocked at the door of one hut and then another but the villagers who came to the door said the same. The visitor was travel-weary, tired and hungry he took rest for a while under one of the trees.
In the cooler part of afternoon he went to where the well was and spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard through the whole village. “I see everyone is hungry, and so I am going make a big meal and feed everyone, please come and join in the feast, this evening we will all eat well today.”
The visitor asked for the biggest pot in the village and someone brought it, he asked for some fire wood and the kids collected what they could. And the man asked the children to fill the huge pot with water and he then put it on the fire. And when the water was boiling he took out a large polished stone from his bag and announced. “I will now make stone soup!”
After some time the visitor took out a spoon from his bag and took a mouthful of the steaming liquid. “Ah it is coming along well, I think it just needs a little salt, can anyone spare a little salt?” and someone brought some. And the pot bubbled and the villagers chatted amongst themselves and waited expectantly. And the visitor again tasted the liquid. “Oh wonderful” he said, “Its coming along well, all we need are one or two onions, can anyone help with two onions?” And the onions were supplied. And so the soup bubbled and every so often the visitor would taste the broth ask for one more ingredient, one time carrots, the next potatoes, and the next some chili and the next some corn and finally a chicken.
And when the soup was ready everyone had more than they could eat and there was plenty left over.
(The story of Stone Soup has no known author, is apparently some hundreds of years old and is retold in many countries in many forms, from nail soup in Scandinavia, to Axe soup in Russia)
After telling this story I ask participants, what they think this story is about. And someone generally says , “It shows how when everyone works together there can be more than any one person working alone.” And typically everyone nods. And I ask what else? And sometimes someone will say something like “The traveler had to trust and believe that the villagers had it within them to respond, otherwise all they would have had was hot water with a rock in it and the visitor would have to run for his life. “
And that to me is the is the wonder of this story, that a visitor to a community would be prepared to risk himself or herself not based on a belief that their job was to be an expert or to own a success but to take a risk that other could be shown they have the answer. To have faith in the possibility that ignited belief in one person might be the beginning of fire and change a world. And this is unlikely to ever happen through a log frame for soup or a professional Power Point presentation, or some action learning or evidence building activity.
The shadow in the story is the voice of the skeptic, what in fact is the traveler really offering? We all have our own answers to this but certainly he is offering his belief in people and he is trusting in peoples curiosity to take a leap of faith towards something, in this case a never before heard of soup. There is a magic in this and he is the catalyst of it. And the magic is performed through the courageous belief of the traveler. Of course he is hungry for a result and keen to meet his own objective to eat a meal. He is not a neutral player. And neither are we as development professionals. We all need each other and the leap of faith taken by the communities we work in, to succeed.
The traveler holds a vision, he cannot be sure how the soup will progress or what the community will be able, or prepared, to offer. And yet in the story, as in life, something can manifest from very little.
It is also significant that the traveler is the only one who is potentially putting his life on the line, he has more to lose than the villagers. They are only offering what they can actually spare. The traveler like the development professional is offering himself, his credibility, his future in that village, perhaps even his life; he is raising hopes with no certainty of the outcome.
Yet by his faith alone, in himself and in the community as not being different in essence from his own character, humility and brokenness, he is able to build and generate the trust that brings about something none of the participants could have done on their own.
In the international development context, my view is that this story is more about the courage and unshakable belief needed by development professionals than it is about communities being able or obliged to work together.
Jock Noble March 2014.
Jock Noble is the Lead or World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.
© Words and pictures Jock Noble: Original pictures by the wonderfully talented Armenian Artist – Anna Avetisyan