Archive for September, 2008

Upon arriving at my new home, my supervisor and I were taken by my host father to inspect the field. Though I could not understand all that was being said, I caught his motioning to the distance, pointing to bare patches of earth surrounded by maize, and the word “Ndovu” – Elephant. The subject of my internship was self evident that day, and is still an all too common occurrence. That is, the human-elephant conflict.

My host father still sleeps outside at night, as well as many farmers in the community, watching for elephants. This despite the establishment of the Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary in 1994, aimed at reducing the conflict and increasing revenue to the community through tourism. Coupled with the post election violence that has caused a sharp decrease in tourism throughout the country, Mwaluganje is facing difficulty in both its primary goals. It has been my hope while I am here I can help to help alleviate these difficulties.

I first identified that Elephant Dung Paper Project could be enhanced as a way to raise revenue and awareness of the sanctuary. To accomplish this, I have worked on improving the quality of the paper, arranged for the art club of the local primary school to decorate the notebook covers, and have made an informative stamp to go along with the products. I hope then to market the paper products to tourist shops and hotels around Mombasa.

A project to address the more pressing issue of stopping the crop raids by elephants is also under development. As has been done in Southern Africa, chili peppers can be used to ward off elephants. By informing and assisting farmers in how to grow and use chili peppers, we hope to create a project sustained for and by the local farmers. An additional benefit to this is the prospect of developing the peppers into a cash crop for additional income.

One farmer, Hassan, tells his story, common to so many others in the community. While he sees the importance of the elephants, it is difficult for him to value them himself. He, as well, spends his nights in his field, keeping watch for elephants, hoping to scare them away before any destruction of his maize, and livelihood. When presented with the chili pepper proposal, he is very receptive and hopes it can one day benefit him.

I am glad to say that we have been finding similar support throughout the community and surrounding areas. We have been able to recruit the aid of the district’s agriculture technicians, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, Camp Kenya, and Laikipia (a wildlife reserve in central Kenya who initiated their own chili pepper project a few years ago). We have also recruited five willing farmers to participate in the trial phase of the project, who are eager to plant their own peppers and try the various ways to use them to ward off elephants.

And may one day the farmers of Mwaluganje get a good night’s sleep.

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Being in the midst of my internship with the Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP), I am settling into the rhythm of life in Western Kenya. Located just inside the forest, KEEP shares a plot of cleared land with the Kenyan Forest Service, a handful of monkey researchers, and several other community-based organizations. KEEP was founded by a group of forest guides, who recognized a growing need to educate the local community about conservation and sustainable use of the forest and its products. Since its beginning, the organization has expanded to include several income-generating projects, including a tree nursery, butterfly farm, and bandas for ecotourism.

Walking into the forest from the surrounding homesteads, you pass through a buffer of tea plants designed to prevent further encroachment into the forest. Once you get under the canopy itself, the temperature drops almost 10 degrees and the humidity climbs to the point where you could probably swim as easily as walk. The air is filled with bird and monkey calls, along with the occasional crow from a rooster.

One recent change within forest communities in Kenya was the adoption of a new Forest Act in 2005. Through conversation with KEEP members and local community members, it became apparent that additional education and training on the act was necessary to communicate the rights and responsibilities outlined by the new law. Before the 2005 Forest Act, the most recent law was developed in 1968 and ignored many of the needs and knowledge of local communities. The new act attempts to correct these problems, and integrate local residents into forest management.

The need for education about the new forest laws (even among the rangers) was illustrated one recent morning. Kakamega Forest is home to several primate species, among them the Blue Monkey, Black and White Colobus Monkey, and the Red-tailed Monkey. Several weeks ago, a young boy was walking along the road leading from the highway to KEEP, when he spotted a blue monkey and decided to spend some time looking at it and following it through the forest. Within a few minutes, several forest guards came along and tried to arrest the boy for walking through the forest and observing the monkey. Thankfully, other community members were around and convinced the guards of their error. When even the rangers are not completely aware of the new regulations, there is certainly a demand for additional trainings!

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On the first day of my internship with CEPAC, my supervisor, Dr. Saúl Yustón Demarchi, took me to a barrio called Tolosa, which is located about half an hour from the center of La Plata, to show me how the organization addresses health needs in marginalized communities and to explain a concept I have been curiously exploring since that day, health politics. Dr. Yustón began by stating that ‘in order to have optimal health, you need good politics; that is, good economic politics for good health politics.’ Now it would seem like common sense to see that governmental investments are necessary to provide “beneficiencia” – the same opportunity to health for all – but lack of funds and political corruption here in Argentina has consistently shown that achieving “beneficiencia” is far from real. In the consultorio (small neighborhood health clinic) of Abasto, where I work, I have witnessed how past political exploitation has led community members to become skeptical of outside interventions, even NGOs. Last year, CEPAC conducted a health needs assessment study in Abasto to present to the government program ARCOS, which then provided the funds to establish the consultorio and pay a few doctors to serve there. Unfortunately, in the past six months, political conflicts have stalled aid going to public health programs such as ARCOS. As a result, doctors’ salaries were cut in half and medicines and medical equipment have been slow at arriving. Speaking with Dr. Yustón, Dr. Liliana Alberino (the general practitioner at the consultortio), and some of the community members of Abasto, I have become more familiar with the idea of health politics and what happens when it fails.

When the consultorio was established last year, the people of Abasto were excited to finally have a place to go for their primary care needs; before, many were going to the hospital, where they would have to wait for hours before they could be attended to. The consultorio was promised to be equipped with essential medical instruments and a monthly supply of medicines. The medical equipment has yet to arrive and medicines are low in stock, if they haven’t run out already. Dr. Alberino described the situation in the following way: ‘The medical equipment I use at the consultorio I bought with my own money; if anything breaks, I can’t afford to buy a replacement nor can I expect anyone [the government] to supply me with one anytime soon.’ Last week, due to state funding constraints, her salary was cut in half, forcing her to cut down her hours at the consultorio in order to work at the hospital to earn a salary she can live off of.

Dr. Yustón explained to me that when investments are made to provide communities with essential resources, such as health clinics, many times they are made with the motives of receiving national recognition for such actions – this is known as “principio de descrecionalidad.” In the case of Abasto, a consultorio was established and funded with government money. People were grateful and saw the action as a good sign from the political end. Unfortunately, assistance to the facility has not been consistent since the new government changes (six months ago). Today, the same pink building [consultorio] sits on the grounds of Abasto, but inside, things are slowly disappearing – from medicines to doctors. In the end, the ones who suffer the most are the community members. One Uruguayan woman described the situation with a story: when her four year old child suffered a dangerously high fever, she had to take him in her arms and walk three hours to the nearest hospital because she didn’t have a peso to take the bus and it was the closest place to her that had doctors and the medicines to help.

When economic politics are unstable, health politics suffer, and the consequences are felt by all, doctors and community members alike. It has been a true learning experience for me to witness first-hand the realities of health politics in Argentina. I have been exposed to much of what I had only read in books on community development, particularly, on how the third sector (civil associations) addresses community needs when all else fails, including politics.

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The Beggar Children

We ten interns had more or less just landed in Uganda. We had stayed a night in the capital city of Kampala, had driven in excruciatingly slow traffic to Jinja, and had been attending cultural orientation for several days. It was Day Three, and we were touring Jinja on foot.

Imagine. A parade of mzungus meandering around downtown, fingers pointing, and heads on swivels. With stomachs full of matooke and rice, we took our time digesting as we strolled along the broken sidewalk. Shopkeepers called out, hoping that their wares could draw our attention. Boda-boda drivers offered us rides on their bicycles or mopeds. A third group called us too. Three small children, around five or seven years old, quietly implored, “Sirs, 100?” They were asking for a meager 100 shillings, and we had just spent 8000 on lunch. Surely we could spare the equivalent of 6 American cents.

Before we could respond, our program director shooed them away in their native language. Many were heartbroken. I know I was. Here is a little kid, malnourished and poorly clothed, and all he wanted was a nickel. That’s not too much to ask. I could have tossed him the coin and moved on.

But, as our program director explained, it is not about the amount of money. It is the principle. FSD teaches that you can only effect serious change by striving for sustainability. What will that boy do when we leave? Who will care for him then?

It was only the third day, and I was already being taught how to rationalize away the most vulnerable members of society.

Causes, Direct and Indirect

As an aside, I would like to present a brief summary of some history that has been imparted on me by a few Ugandan friends.

There is a region in the northeast of Uganda called Karamoja. For several years, it has been stricken by famine, destroying crops and driving families from their farms. Many families fled from their hunger and came to stay in Jinja.

For almost 20 years, President Yoweri Musevini’s army, the Uganda People’s Defense Force, has been fighting rebels in the North, the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA has, over recent years, lost popular support. As a result, they have resorted to abducting children as soldiers. Rather than risk abduction, many families have taken their children south, and some too have taken up residence in Jinja.

Due to the myriad of issues that arise when one doesn’t know the language or the layout of a new region, many adults had trouble finding reliable work. Many of them went to the streets to beg for help.

The beggars who had children with them were given more money than those without children. The children who were without an adult received even more. Some adults, recognizing this, sent their children into town to do the begging while they farmed at home. The beggar children were born.

Not too much later, a lady from Switzerland was in Jinja to do some work and she too was heartbroken by the position that these children were in. She understood that you cannot simply give money to the little kids, so instead, she decided to feed them. Every day, she bought them a simple lunch and fed the kids.

However, what originally appeared beneficial proved to be harmful. More children heard about this and came into town. They skipped school to get the free lunch, and they begged the rest of the day. Unwittingly, this well-meaning woman had made the situation worse. It got so bad, in fact, that several local NGOs grouped together and asked her to stop buying the lunches. She stopped.

Is it sustainable?

Sustainable development is the very center of FSD’s mission. With every action, we must ask ourselves if we are promoting something that is sustainable. What incentives are we creating in our aid efforts? If we do something that encourages less local involvement, less accountability, or less empowerment, we are doing our jobs wrong.

When I first saw those beggar children downtown, I wanted to give them money. I wanted to buy them food. But I know that I won’t always be here to do that, and they will be right back where they started.

What is the sustainable approach to getting these kids off of the street? Get them into school? Economically empower their parents? I am not sure I could tell you.

But maybe the first step is to really pay attention to them. Tossing money at them and hoping that they disappear is the exact opposite of actually paying attention to them. Instead, I’ve been trying to talk to them. To make them feel valued for something other than their sad situation. To at least put a smile on their face. After all, they are only kids.

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