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Archive for April, 2008

I came to Udaipur, India with FSD to work as a teacher in a small school for poor children, called the Talent Academy. I was told that I would be working with the school’s English teacher, helping supplement conversational English lessons. I have previously worked teaching art to elementary school students in the U.S., so I thought I could teach some art classes as well.

Talent AcademyWhen I started at the Talent Academy, my supervisor told me that the English teacher was on vacation and would be back in few days, so I began teaching on my own. I worked with about 120 students daily, in sections of ten students at a time. In the mornings I worked with the seven year olds, and in the afternoon I worked with eleven year olds. For my first lesson, I had planned to have my students draw their favorite animals. I thought this was a good lead-in to learning the names of animals in English. I had assumed that, since the students took English class, they would know enough English for us to communicate, but they didn’t speak any. It was incredibly frustrating to realize that I was unable to communicate the simplest of ideas, like “favorite animal” or “draw this” or “sit down and be quiet.” By the time the fifth graders arrived, I was tired enough to let them play “English” hangman for the whole afternoon. Everyday since the first, they have begged me to play hangman again.

The English teacher never came back from vacation. I had no idea how to teach English, especially considering how little Hindi I knew at that time. When I asked people for help, I got the same explanation again and again of “lesson plans.” There seemed to be a pervasive conception that if I planned my lessons the night before, my students would understand it. I was given the English course reader to study, a grammatically incorrect English book that taught sentences such as: “He is a simple boy,” “This is a red color,” and “He is a playing cricket.”

ClassroomI decided to focus on the art lessons, since I’ve been told art is a universal language. The biggest challenge with the art classes was convincing the kids to draw from imagination. Previously, they had been taught to copy from a book. Whenever I asked them to draw something, they asked me to draw it on the black board first (“madam, banaona!”). Then they would copy it line for line. So I had them draw themselves, their families, their homes—things that held personal, individual, and specific meaning. It was exciting to watch them experiment, and to watch them find their own style. For the first time, their drawings emerged completely differently from their neighbors’. When I was younger, I watched the Sound of Music and wondered how it was possible for a whole family of children to simply not know how to sing. Teaching my art classes, I felt like we were truly starting from the very beginning, and I was Maria von Trapp Meets India.

At one point, I brought in some American children’s books that my mother sent me from home. When I showed them to my students, I realized that the books were a complete novelty to them. I also realized, though perhaps I should have noticed before, that my students had no free access to story books.

Students at Talent AcademyWhen I was a child, I didn’t enjoy school, and I spent most of my time reading. Part of the reason I loved to read was that, in those moments, I got a chance to be elsewhere, to escape the things in my life that made me unhappy. When I showed the books to my students, I spent a lot of time explaining the pictures—a merry-go-round, a circus, an ice-skating rink—things that I took for granted in my own childhood. In a lot of ways, my students have a more difficult childhood than I had, and it upset me that they didn’t have the opportunity to escape the realities of their own lives the way a child can only find in a book. I decided to apply for a grant to open a library at the school.

Sometimes while I’m teaching, I try to remember my own student teachers, and I barely can. When I began teaching, I thought it would be a miracle if I could remember everyone’s name. Now I can’t imagine forgetting them. It’s strange to think that I’ll only be a vague memory to them soon. I asked my mother to send me some of my favorite books from childhood for the library. Those books were so important to me as a child that leaving them here feels like leaving a part of me. I doubt that my students will think of me when they read the books, but they might think like me, get excited about the things that excited me, love the things I loved, go the places I went. I think that opening the door to reading, which is in some senses opening all doors, is the most important thing I can give them.


All photos by Inga Peterson.

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Welcome To BuwaiswaThis is my 9th week of a 10-week internship here in Jinja, Uganda. I am mostly working on my final reports, which involves the exciting task of organizing receipts, tallying them up to make sure all the numbers add up and making sure we haven’t overspent. I am also spending this week making sure that implementation of the project I’ve been involved with is near completion.

I’ve been placed with the Organisation for the Good Life of the Marginalized, or OGLM, which works mostly with marginalized women and children. I spent the last 9 weeks working with grandmothers whose grandchildren have been orphaned by AIDS. Most of them live in the village of Buwaiswa. After doing a needs assessment involving 20 grandmothers, we discovered that most of them look after about 4 or 5 grandchildren and don’t have enough income to properly feed or clothe them.

Buwaiswa Grandmother & Grandchild We’ve been working to increase their incomes by getting them involved in income-generating projects. Most of the grandmothers have wanted to start projects but don’t have the capital to do so –- they don’t have the collateral that would allow them to borrow at reasonable rates. The goal of the project is to give the grandmothers low-interest loans for all the inputs they need as well as training sessions in any skills they might need to run the projects successfully. To begin with, we have focused on two groups: a group of 6 grandmothers is going to start an agriculture project in which they grow and sell crops (beans, maize, groundnuts) and a group of 4 grandmothers is going to start a paraffin/kerosene (a resource used for light in rural Uganda) project in which they sell paraffin to the rest of the community. The idea is that the funds from their repaid loans will be recycled as new loans to new groups of grandmothers. The project has received a grant of $498.45 from FSD to fund the initial loans for the two groups. OGLM has funded of group of 8 grandmothers who will be running a village kiosk.

Buwaiswa Orphan GirlOGLM was supposed to receive a $150,000 grant from the Ugandan Government in November 2007 for its microfinance program. It still hasn’t arrived and no one seems to know when it will come, so for now the microfinance program will be limited to the FSD and OGLM funding mentioned above. Lack of a constant flow of funding and a failure to plan for reduction or cessation of funding seems to be one of the major challenges faced by organizations here. It has certainly been a source of frustration while I’ve been here. Other frustrations (that are now funny in retrospect) include not having electricity at the office for the first 3 weeks and people turning up for meetings 3 hours late on at least 2 occasions.

Paraffin GroupWhile we were out visiting the grandmothers yesterday we managed to get the kiosk group to agree to buy their paraffin (for re-sale) from the paraffin group. We anticipated there would be concern and disagreements over the price at which the kiosk group would buy the paraffin. To our surprise, the two groups quickly came to an agreement on the price. No, the major concern for the two groups was who would provide the 20-liter container in which the kiosk group would need to transport the paraffin! We had also provided some notebooks to the groups to encourage them to keep records of their sales and had asked them to bring the books to the record-keeping training session yesterday so we could evaluate their progress. When we asked the agriculture group why they hadn’t brought their books, they promptly responded by asking us how we expected them to keep records when we hadn’t given them any pens!

My host family has been great. Both my host mum and host dad are high school teachers, but my host dad is an avid environmentalist and runs a (plant) nursery out of his back yard. I pretty much live in a forest–he’s planted trees and plants everywhere. It is very beautiful though. My host parents have 3 girls (10, 8 & 2) and look after about 7 relatives who are between the ages of 15 and 23. All the girls sleep in the main house where I am, while all the boys sleep in a smaller house on the property.

Below are some excerpts from a diary I’ve been keeping with observations and stories about life with the family:

Sunday February 24th.
Samuel (not his real name), a neighbor, took me for a four hour hike this morning. I think it might have been punishment for revealing that I was a Manchester United fan. He is a Chelsea fan. Almost every Ugandan Samuel is a passionate supporter of English football (soccer) teams Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester United. Samuel is currently training to be a teacher at a teachers’ college in Gulu, northern Uganda. He says it takes about 13 hours to get there by public transport. The school year started about 3 weeks ago, but Samuel is still at home because he can’t afford the trip to Gulu. He would like to work odd-jobs to raise the money to go, but he can’t because when he’s at home he has to take care of the family’s only cow. He doesn’t feel he can leave the task to his mother, though it’s not entirely clear who looks after the cow when Samuel is at school. Samuel doesn’t really want to be a teacher. He would like to join the army. It pays much more and it would give him tremendous pride to serve his country he says. Samuel says he’s a patriot and he would never want to leave Uganda.

Tuesday February 26th.
I had my first chat with Janet, my host family’s 10 year old daughter. I asked her how school was and if she had any homework. School was fine and she did have homework – she had to read four pages about Uganda’s leaders. She read about ‘some who were already dead and some who were not dead.’ Janet says she enjoyed learning about her country’s past and present leaders. I noted to her that I was feeling a little cold and asked her if she was feeling the same. She said not. Janet lost her school sweater back in P3 (Grade 3) and hasn’t had a sweater since. She’s in P5 this year. At first, she did feel cold on the early morning walk to school. Once she got to school, she would have to ask her friends if she could wear their sweaters for a bit to warm up. On some mornings she would wear a ‘jacket’ on her walk to school, but she would have to take it off when she got to school because it isn’t part of the uniform. Now the jacket is only useful for keeping her dry when it rains because, she says, not having a sweater for the last three years has meant she has ‘gotten use to the cold and [doesn’t] feel it anymore’.

Friday March 7th.
My host family’s house, built just under a year ago, is set back from Victoria Road, the street they live on. You can’t see the house from road because of all the trees and vegetation Charles, my host dad, has planted. Closer to the road is their old house where the boys they look after now live. Behind the new house, and partially visible through a thin but dense row of trees, is a cluster of mud huts and houses where one of Charles’s older sisters and her family live. Charles says his sister was supposed to have trained to be a nurse, but ended up as a housewife with a ‘useless’ husband and is now partially supported by Charles. She would have trained as a nurse, but Charles’s father refused to pay a bribe that the head of the school demanded to guarantee her a spot. Charles’s father was a magistrate at the time and as a magistrate, Charles says, he was “too principled and too honest to pay a bribe as little as 100 shillings.”

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Boniface Kawiiso (far right) meeting with Promic clients to discuss loan repayments.When one considers the challenges associated with managing a micro-credit program in a widely dispersed rural community, it is apparent that resources are often strained. Boniface Kawiiso, a long-time employee of the Jinja Diocesan Development Coordinating Organization (JIDDECO), was serving the role of the deputy director of the Promic Program, the administrative assistant, the loan officer, credit officer, the trainer, and the primary consultant for an outside Savings and Credit Cooperative. The JIDDECO Promic Program serves groups of women in Uganda with microcredit loans. When Boniface was the sole employee for Promic, it was unrealistic to facilitate a micro-credit lending program across 19 diverse communities. As a result, many savings groups lacked proper contact information, the assistance that they needed to successfully manage and repay their loans, and the guidance to properly allocate group loans.

FSD Intern Will Perreault worked with JIDDECO during his internship in Jinja, Uganda. His first experience in Uganda was to situate himself in new surroundings: “As the rooster crows (well, cocks… the word rooster makes everyone laugh, given that the combination of vowels and consonants is not all that typical within Lusoga), I open my eyes to a new day in Uganda. I look out my window through a field towards Lake Victoria, ultimately spilling into the Source of the Nile. Other than a nearby factory, I can also view Tanzania and Rwanda. Not bad.”

Will Perreault pictured in middle with Promic Women\'s Savings group.His second experience was working in a new community with an NGO, where he recalls learning about microcredit on the ground: “Graciously, I was welcomed into the 19 Promic women’s groups’ hollowed out brick churches, open air community centers, and dirt-floored homes. I had asked how Promic could better serve their needs. Unfortunately, many of the groups seemed to be voicing the same frustrations with Promic as well as their own businesses. Continually, clients failed to repay their loans, were given additional loans (by predatory lenders and well-intentioned groups alike) and subsequently grow more and more in debt. To avoid giving those who are unable to repay loans future loans is not simply a matter of tough love. Like so many of poverty’s symptoms, the majority of the reasons why people are unable to repay their loans are so preventable (if not curable). It was very discouraging to hear the stories of increasing debt, failed businesses, and the minimal contact they had had with my host organization and their peers – whether in the form of monitoring, assistance or encouragement.”

After gaining familiarity with both his surroundings and his host organization, Will’s work with JIDDECO led him to help develop a database to track the microcredit loans of the Promic Micro-Credit Program. Together, Will and JIDDECO created and implemented a Project Monitoring System and Evaluation Database. With the database, JIDDECO is able to better equip their clients to repay their loans, ensure that program resources are utilized efficiently, and measure the performance of their loan allocation program to truly target marginalized populations in immense need. Through Will’s creation of client loan portfolios, a centralized collection database and a regular monitoring and assistance program, JIDDECO reaped a higher rate of return on their loans.

Improved Feed/Seed being allocated to farmers in Bufuta Village must be paired not only with the tangible output of improved feed, but resources in capacity building to train clients in the creation of their own feed.With the generous financial support provided by over 50 friends and supporters, Will was able to train staff members in utilizing the database system, gather data on the allocation of over 500 previous loans in 19 different communities, and meet with community members to hear about their challenges and successes. Will was able to measurably improve incomes for women in rural communities through these partnerships, as well as help equip them to build their micro-businesses and self-confidence. In the words of Boniface, “[By] facilitating the establishment of a database, JIDDECO now knows all its clients’ characteristics by name, type of enterprise, the loans applied for and amount, repayment schedules, the interest charged and their saving culture. Through the loan portfolio ledger, JIDDECO has strengthened its group lending scheme using group consent forms, individual loan tracking/monitoring, and is simplified for better loan management and client’s business growth.” Thanks to Will, the microcredit effort in Uganda can continue to grow.

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Since the end of January, I have been working as an FSD intern in the community of Villa Elisa, a small neighborhood on the outskirts of La Plata, Argentina. While Villa Elisa is a vibrant community full of culture, it is also a perfect example of the challenges that Argentina faces today. On my walk to work I pass wealthy, gated communities that give way to rows of makeshift homes on trash-lined streets. The lack of opportunity leaves most members of the community rooted in their current socioeconomic position.

Woman working in sewing cooperative at Arco IrisI am currently working for the Arco Iris Community Center located in the heart of Villa Elisa. I assist the center with everything from teaching, mentoring, and fundraising to serving the children lunch. This community center provides daily meals and activities for over 90 children, ages 2 to 14. They also support microenterprise development for parents and young adults, and capacity-building workshops that give individuals the skills they need to pull their families out of poverty. A source of hope, inspiration, and opportunities, Arco Iris makes the best of limited resources while facing constant challenges.

Grounds outside Arco IrisRecently, heavy rains plagued La Plata and resulted in a series of flash floods throughout the surrounding communities. Villa Elisa, with a low relative elevation, dirt floor houses, and no drainage system, suffered the worst. In many areas, the water level reached chest-high and homes were evacuated while the water washed away and destroyed possessions. I arrived at Arco Iris the morning after the floods to find the entire facility covered in a 3-inch layer of dark black mud, the refrigerators and freezers broken, the boxes of recently donated clothing soaked in muddy water, the sewing equipment damaged, and the majority of the books and art supplies completely ruined. Alongside the teachers and community members I spent the next two days cleaning out the entire facility. Families slept in the community center for the next week while they tried to salvage what was left of their homes.

Both the government and the press were slow to respond. Coverage of the floods was restricted to the city center and the government offered no assistance to the poorer neighborhoods. The people of Villa Elisa reacted by taking to the streets. They used road blocks and bonfires to cut off the two major roads that connect La Plata to Buenos Aires, effectively choking a major artery (I was forced to walk the 4 miles to Arco Iris). There was no satisfying conclusion to the incident. The roadblocks disbanded and mattresses were eventually distributed to the area, but Villa Elisa is still recovering and the people still feel unfairly neglected.

Besides natural catastrophes, Arco Iris´ lack of security remains the principal challenge that hinders its growth and expansion. Located in a marginalized neighborhood where drug use and theft are common, the community center is exposed to thieves and vandalism. At night, youth drink and participate in high-risk activities in the unprotected, trash-filled, and weed-infested yard; during the day, overgrown grass hides broken beer bottles and drug paraphernalia. Dogs roam the area where the children play, bringing in garbage and disease. Underutilized, contaminated, and dangerous, Arco Iris’ yard exists as a constant reminder that the center currently lacks the infrastructure and resources to serve the community to the best of its ability.

Children playing at Arco Iris.Along with Anne DeLessio-Parson, an FSD field director, we have designed a project to construct an enclosure – a protective, secure fence – that will allow Arco Iris to improve and expand the activities it offers. Surrounded by a well-constructed fence, Arco Iris will be able to (1) create a garden that would supply the children with fresh produce and make the center less reliant on other sources, (2) construct a playground and soccer field for the 90-plus children served, and (3) ensure security for the valuable baking and sewing equipment. A fence, while simple, is an important step for a rural community to build a more sustainable future.

To see pictures, a thorough breakdown of the project’s goals, and ways in which to donate to Arco Iris please visit the blog at: http://arcoirisproject.blogspot.com/. We are still short of reaching our necessary funding so please feel free to send the link to anyone you think might be interested in donating. Thank you!!!

Elliot Watson
elliwat@gmail.com

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“Over the past 7 weeks I have seen first-hand not only the fear of discrimination for a positive HIV status, but also the reality of this fear. It’s everywhere. I see it in the patients’ eyes when they describe that they have recently been fired simply because their boss suspected that there was infection nearby…sometimes in the partner of the employee. I hear it in the interviews that I am holding with patients to better know their needs…they speak of the fear that they live with, for if anyone found out that they were positive, they would be treated poorly. Sometimes their own family members– flesh and blood– don’t even know. And I feel it too. I feel it in the air when I tell someone where I work. When the letters even leave my lips– HIV– I see the confused look come across their faces…the palpable level of discomfort is incredible. Do I have HIV, they ask. Could they really be talking to someone with HIV? What if they catch it through the air that we’re sharing?”

FSD intern Trey, halfway through his internship in Argentina, was working actively to address the pains of this reality. Trey recognized in his community a need for knowledge and empowerment–knowledge in the community about HIV, its transmission, and its reality, in order to reduce the stereotype against HIV-positive individuals, and empowerment of those individuals already infected so that they could, as he put it, “begin to live with HIV rather than die from it.”

photos on display.

just a glimpse of their story...

Trey met this challenge with a documentary photography project that utilized the Photovoice method–that empowered individuals within the community to use photography to tell their own story, rather than to have their story be told for them. The clinic with which he worked, el Centro de Referencia de VIH/SIDA (HIV/AIDS Reference Center), served approximately 820 HIV-positive individuals in the greater La Plata area of Argentina. Trey’s pilot program took a focus group of 8, each of whom was given a camera for a week to take pictures that documented their lives following the theme “what does it mean to you to live with HIV here in La Plata?”. The group participated in workshops that allowed them to discuss this theme with each other and to reflect on the project they were undertaking. After their photos were developed, they displayed a selection of them in an exhibition within the community, so that others could attain a deeper understanding of the lives of those with HIV and begin to see them as humans and neighbors rather than as the face of a disease that no one wanted to “catch”.

Cecelia looking over her photos with LucianaTrey tells the story of Cecilia, an Argentine who “suffered not only from HIV, but also toxoplasmosis, a dangerous disease which attacks vital organs. With no use of her right hand and the mindset of a young child, Cecilia brought light to the darkest of rooms with her contagious laugh and her compassion. Regardless of her personal situation, Cecilia has the ability to detect someone else’s pain and focus all of her energy on caring for that person in any way she can. When I left Cecilia, she was still taking pictures with the camera given her as a participant in A Través de Nuestros Ojos…despite the fact that she stated in one of our reflection workshops that she couldn’t take pictures because ‘neither her arm nor brain worked.’ Just a few minutes later, Silvia shared a picture taken of her by Cecilia…not only one of the most beautiful pictures of the project, but also one of the most profound.”

The true project directors... (L to R) Silvia, Paola, Cecilia, [Trey,] Diego, The community members who viewed Trey’s exhibition were profoundly influenced. One, Marcelo, wrote “I have seen in these photos PEOPLE like us, who have AIDS…But before all, and after all, PEOPLE—and as such we should treat them.” Another, Gloria, wrote that “An image is worth more than a-thousand words—this exposition confirms it. There are no differences—within, we’re all the same. Congratulations to all who participated.”

Thanks, Trey, for the life you brought.

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