The Rev. John Naumann is retired, but that doesn't mean his work is done.

Naumann, an Episcopal priest who two years ago finished his tenure as rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Billings, now is laboring alongside Tanzanians to help them build a better future. Naumann is director of the Armani Development Center in Makang'wa, south of Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania.

He is back in Billings for a visit, to share his experiences and to raise money to continue helping the people of one of the poorest nations in the world.

Naumann, originally from Australia, still has his Aussie accent. He grew up on a farm in Bundaberg, and that upbringing has served him well in teaching others how to work the land, one of the aspects of his job in the semi-arid region where he lives,

His many years as a minister come in handy as he spends his Sundays preaching at various churches throughout the area. Naumann spent 16 years as rector at St. Stephen's, his final post before he retired in 2005.

In 1992, while living in Billings, he became acquainted with a pastor and his wife from Tanzania who came to speak at the Billings church. Out of that came St. Stephen's commitment to sponsor students who couldn't afford an education, and money to build desperately needed deep-water wells and drip irrigation systems.

In 2000, Naumann spent a four-week sabbatical in central Tanzania and the experience changed his life. He recalls the words he felt God told him during that visit: "I am planning a tree which will bear fruit."

That spurred him to help found the Armani Development Center, with help from people at St. Stephen's and others. The phrase which has meant so much in his life now is painted on a sign in front of the buildings that make up the center.

Naumann left for Africa almost exactly two years ago. Visiting Africa and living there are two very different things, he said.

"I don't think anything is what I'd thought it would be," he said. "It's more difficult and also more wonderful."

He experienced the hardships of living in a semi-arid land. Naumann arrived during a season of famine, and saw it ravage people around him.

To help villagers fend off hunger, the center would sign up 50 to 60 people, for a week at a time, to do various jobs at the center. The outreach was done in conjunction with a village committee.

"They were adamant," Naumann said. "They said 'you can't hand out food because people would become lazy. They must work.' "

The workers would arrive and be fed a small breakfast. They would work until 12:30 p.m., working on the land or making cement breaks, and then be given a substantial lunch of thick porridge and beans.

They would also be given maize to take home with them and the money they needed to get it milled.

"That went on for about 12 months," Naumann said. People came from villages as far as 15 to 20 miles away.

The center went through about $17,000 worth of maize, he said.

"It really transformed the community," Naumann said. "You saw sickly people becoming healthy. It brought them into the very heart of what Amani is all about."

He told of one woman who came to the center with her young twins.

"She was so worn down," he said. "I said to the local people 'we'll give her a vacation for a week. Let her rest.' "

The Armani Center does nothing apart from the local village, Naumann said. The people are involved in all of the decisions made by the center.

"And the Tanzanian government, through the Department of Agriculture, is very excited about what we're doing and also very helpful," Naumann said. "It's a poor country, but they'll pledge whatever support they can offer."

Now that the famine has passed, the center can focus on such programs as developing drip irrigation systems to help local primary schools grow vegetables to feed 1,000 students. Drip irrigation makes growing food easier in the dry season - the best time to grow food because of the heat and the lack of bugs.

The center also has a drip-irrigation garden with many kinds of vegetables to show local villagers what can be done.

"About three months ago we were eating 11 different kinds of vegetables," Naumann said. "When they saw how we did it, they wanted to do it."

The center raises vegetables to sell, to support the center, and also to feed workers. It also runs the drip irrigation program and an extension program.

It raises money to dig wells that provide vital water where it is needed. Amani also has extended help to a Compassion International orphanage, a center for single mothers and an AIDS services support group.

Naumann lives in a concrete block house adjacent to the development center.

"The indoor plumbing works to a degree," he said, smiling.

Every morning, about 50 people from the village gather at a large white cross near the center to sing and pray.

"It's all led by local people," Naumann said.

Then he spends the day helping facilitate the work of the center, helping people learn new skills, or heading out to meet with the village committee.

"Tanzanians are intelligent people, they pick things up very quickly," Naumann said. "And they love education. They know there's not advancement without it."

People also come to the center for help of one sort or another.

"I think that's the hardest part, when people come for help and you can't help because you've run out of money," Naumann said.

Financial donations of any amount are always welcome, he said. A donation of $500 will provide full sponsorship to a nursing school student for 12 months; $70 will pay the cost of a secondary student for a year; $200 will sponsor a local Bible school student; $750 will cover the cost of an orphan at the children's home; $30 will sponsor a worker for three weeks.

At the end of the day, Naumann isn't quite done. He often hears the noise of an approaching bicycle and visitors who want to spend time with him.

"I had about two hours to pack for this trip because of visitors," he said. "You just have to smile and be gracious."

Back in the United States, Naumann is enjoying his time of visiting with friends and former parishioners. He is trying to get the word out about the progress that has been made and the needs that still exist.

But when it's time to return to Tanzania, Naumann will be ready.

"It has become home over there," he said.

Contact Susan Olp at solp@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1281.

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