Archive for July, 2009

A look at the summer lives of four undergrads working on an environmental development project with the Foundation for Ecological Security.

Friday, July 17, 2009: Cribs: The Village Edition

Alice 1This week marked an important occasion: we moved into a village about 2 hours away from Udaipur and began working on our project. FES has asked us to make an assessment of one particular region with the eventual goal of developing a relationship with those communities and implementing environmental projects there. Our work this week mostly consisted of holding meetings with community members (all men) to create a map of the community’s resources and to get a general overview of life in the village. The meetings went well, although it can get really frustrating to watch people have an animated conversation in an inaccessible language and have to keep interjecting “what did he just say?” or “can you ask this?”. It’s hard not to feel like things would be much easier for everyone if the white girl in the corner with her notebook and expression of earnest confusion would just go sit in the jeep and eat biscuits. But we persevere, and so far the work is going well.

The living situation in the village is also better than expected; we have electricity (and a generator that helps protect against the frequent power outtages), running water (this one is actually pretty iffy, there have been some close calls with the toilet), and meals are provided. It should be mentioned that Asha is hands-down winning in terms of food consumption in India. This thoroughly endears her to every person who has cooked for us, and makes some of us look really bad. Skipping a meal is absolutely out of the question here, and people look shocked and a little frightened when one of us says that we’re not hungry. We’ve figured out a variety of ways to cope though (see Alice’s post on tiffin removal techniques).

The next two weeks will be similarly scheduled, with us “in the field” for the majority of week days and returning to Udaipur close to the weekend, so we won’t be close to a computer to update the blog frequently. We’ll update as much as we can though, and wish us luck seeing the solar eclipse on Wednesday!

Friday, July 24, 2009: “This is Truly A Most Auspicious Day”

Alice 2I managed to declare this phrase immediately before stepping into a large pile of cowshit in the middle of the street – but truly this week has been a little of the magical as well as mundane.

The “auspicious day” in question was the 22nd of July and our musings on it’s significance were largely due to the solar eclipse which Lizzy valiantly woke up at 5:30 am to run outside to catch only to return to bed defeated five minutes later declaring it was too cloudy to see anything. However, that was just the beginning.

Later on in the day during a village exercise in a place called Jakara Lizzy and I attempted to befriend a group of teenage girls. While at first they were painfully shy, as time went on we tried asking them questions that had been translated into Hindi for us by one of our colleagues, and we soon began to laugh together over our complete unintelligbleness (although it is quite possible they were laughing at us). They even taught us a game which involves picking up stones, similar to jacks, and at the end, as you do, we took a group photo with a goat.

That night we visited the house of our driver, Sunder, in the village which we were staying in. The house was made entirely of mud/clay and had an indoor stove which smelled amazing but made my eyes water the entire time. His 100 year old grandfather was there, we drank buffalo milk (delicious!) as well as something very akin to vomit that I made the mistake of taking seconds of to be polite. As we left an electrical storm lit up the entire sky, at times making the night look like daytime and sending clear lightning bolts across the sky into the forests and hills beyond.

Then, naturally, came the cowshit – sending me reeling hysterically holding on to Ari trying to scrape it off as we all just stopped and laughed at the general absurdity and irony of the proclamation I had just made.

As well as just the fact that, well, shit guys, we are in India.


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ShobaHampered by the complexities of working in a foreign country, an unknown language and an often alien culture, I found weaving together my picture of the work of the Veerni Project was similar to the process of creating the intricate quilted wall hangings made by the women of Rajasthan – a process in which the final design appears only slowly. My first priority was to develop a thorough understanding of the NGO I am working with, its strengths, weaknesses, needs and capacity.

Veerni works with six rural villages in the Jodhpur region of Rajasthan, India. The team helps to provide health and nutritional care, economic empowerment and education to the women and adolescent girls, and raising awareness of key issues such as malnutrition or domestic violence in the whole community. They run sewing courses to provide women with a means to generate their own income, provide literacy centres for girls who will other wise not attend school, and also fund a hostel in Jodhpur, where 85 village girls are able to benefit from improved health, nutrition and most importantly, a full time education.

Fifteen weeks seemed like ample time from my home in London, time that has now become compressed as I have realised the complexities of development work, even within my own small role. What has gradually emerged from the patches of quilt is a possible synergy between Veerni’s groundbreaking work on nutritional supplements, designed and patented by the nutritional team, and their less developed programme on skills training for income generation. An in-depth survey of the villages, their current nutritional habits and awareness and receptiveness to the idea of new income strategies, could assess the potential to initiate a women’s cooperative to produce the Veerni nutritional supplements. Ideally, this would provide employment and income to the women involved as well as easily available low-cost supplements to local families. This synergy of increasing women’s ability to nourish themselves and their families while developing their self-respect and status through income generation appeals to me. However, it is only by asking the women themselves that I can discover if such a project is viable in the hard grind for survival that characterises their day-to-day lives.

Rajwa_womenThese women are the human capital that is so often wasted in an area that has some of India’s lowest female literacy rates, female to male sex ratios and health indicators. And yet behind the gloomy statistics there lies a wealth of potential. Conducting interviews of some of the girls attending the Veerni hostel I met Shoba Choudhary, a seventeen-year-old from Rajwa village, who has been at the hostel for one year. Rajwa suffers from all the blights on women that plague one of India’s most underdeveloped states: the female literacy rate is 3.69% and the village population is 580 women to 611 men, clearly showing the number of ‘missing women’. Yet despite being married at eight, and now under pressure from her fellow villagers to give up her education and return to her family, Shoba displayed a quiet but impressive confidence and self-knowledge. ‘Education is a girl’s true friend’ she said, and talked of her ambition to attend college, pass the tough civil service exams and work for the government of Rajasthan. Only time will tell if Shoba can overcome the pressure from her village and achieve her ambitions, but her intelligence and maturity are a sign of the immense human capital Veerni is working to cultivate.

Back in Rajwa, as I observed the field staff and the women and children they worked with, the most powerful images were sensory: the vivid pink of the women’s head veils, the Indian sun baking the almost barren earth and dullness of malnutrition in some of the children’s coal-lined eyes. I understood nothing of the Mawari spoken, but what I could appreciate was the respect felt for the Veerni field staff. The men listened when they spoke and the women slowly pulled back their veils in their presence. This respect, and its fruits in terms of the true community engagement and trust it indicated, was a better introduction to the work of Veerni than any annual report or flashy website. It was also a crash course in the patience required for community development; a patience that does not come naturally to most Westerners, perhaps especially those who want to ‘make a difference.’ I may have emerged from the first phase of the internship process, but the real challenge, to develop a little of that patience, dedication and humility, is only just beginning.

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June 30:: Kindness of Strangers!

Angello 1I realized today that I have four weeks left of work and at least four projects I’m trying to complete. The workshop I have planned is going to be on July 16th and I’m hoping that everyone in LUGADA pitches in for a successful workshop. The purpose of the event is to strengthen LUGADA’s revolving fund and teach the loan applicants how to manage a loan and when to take the loan. We’re going to give a repayment schedule and show how to write or describe a business proposal. There are tons of logistical problems, like the transportation stipend (do I give it beforehand, so the attendees can afford to travel to the site, but risk that people will forget to show up? Or do I give it once they arrive, risking that some people won’t have the 1000 shilling for travel?), the cultural obsession with food, and wondering if everyone will show up.

I chose the time of 10-5 for the workshop, trusting that no one will arrive until at least 10:30 and we won’t start until closer to 11:30. This way, we avoid having to give morning tea and can give only lunch. We’ll give a late lunch so we won’t have to give afternoon tea and can have only a water break around 3 o’clock. I’m trying to maneuver the workshop to be cheap because I have only 400,000 shillings to work with for the entire day. A friend rented me her conference hall for only 35,000 shilling and we have an expert coming to speak for 50,000. I have doubts about his expertise, but he comes with high praise from other sorts. Anyway, he knows more than I do.

Of the remaining funds, more than 60,000 shilling will be a transportation stipend so that attendees can travel the 4 kilometers to the workshop site. More than 100,000 shilling will be for lunch and the remaining money will go to purchase notebooks and pens for the attendees, as well as packets of information. I estimate that 30 people will attend and there is really no room to be wrong: I can’t really afford more attendees but I can’t exclude any LUGADA members from attending!

My facilitator in LUGADA gave me a terrific gift yesterday. Most group members have given me welcoming gifts of bananas, jewelry or fruit. Florence and her family adopted me and gave me a new name. I am now introduced as Sarah Angello Namugerwa and I am a member of the monkey clan, one of Uganda’s 53 tribes and the most prominent in Buganda, where I live. (Side Story: my monkey-clan grandmother, Jjoja Francis, rejoiced when I told her my dad in America found a new job. She told me she had been praying for him every day and how is the rest of her American family?)

Every day, LUGADA has more great ideas about how to improve the Nyendo-Ssenyange community. I think we have twenty project ideas for the upcoming months and years and I wish I could watch them all come to fruition. Some of the ideas are enormous (Community Clean-up: Paving the main streets in Nyendo to prevent sicknesses that come from inhaling dust) and some are small and manageable, like computer literacy and empowerment training. I’m teaching computer literacy to anyone who asks. I’m teaching my two brothers typing and I’m teaching others Microsoft Office Tools and basic Internet skills.

I love comparing our skills sets here in Masaka: I can teach computer literacy and lead empowerment training, but I needed my host mom to show me how to peel a jackfruit and my colleague Maria is teaching me about medicinal herbs. My brothers are around my age (Ivan is 17 and Brian is 20), but we have very little knowledge in common. Neither of them has ever read a book, but they both have incredible knowledge of plants and basic science…although Ivan curiously asks for my help every night with his homework.

Tonight is a LUGADA meeting where I will be surprising St. Ignatius Primary School with an enormous bag of donations. The husband of an acquaintance flew into Uganda and brought several bags of school supplies, but didn’t know where to donate them. I met his wife at a café in Masaka and she asked me if I had any use for a bag of school supplies: I didn’t expect these supplies to actually show up at the FSD! I wish I had a name or an address where I could send my thanks and pictures of the kids using the books and supplies.

St. Ignatius Primary School, where I volunteer and work with LUGADA, has absolutely nothing. They lack everything except students. 507 students, 8 teachers. 1 desk for every 9 students. No books. No pencils. No running water.

At least they have some pencils and books now! I can’t wait to distribute the supplies. I just finished writing a grant for St. Ignatius: while donations are used up and disappear, funding for the school will enable them to find their own supplies and develop the building to provide a safe and educational environment for the kids.

July 6:: Sarah V. Nile: A Draw

Angello 2I had the intention of conquering the Nile this weekend, but after 3
days of adventures getting to Jinja, rafting the Nile, making endless puns about the Nile/denial, returning to Masaka and still, after 3 days, coughing up the Nile River, I concede a draw.

The day I went rafting had an inauspicious start. Our bus was so late that we didn’t have adequate time for a full safety briefing. Our guide, Charles the Prince of the Nile (not Prince of Denial. The joke really, really does not translate between English and Luganda), began our session with the following: “Okay, so we have no time for safety briefing. So we will learn as we go, yes? Yes.” Our first rapid was a
Cat3, then a Cat5 and then….well, I speak enough Luganda to recognize certain words. So when Charles stared at our raft and then shouted Luganda gibberish and the word kwabaka, I was incredibly concerned. Tesia, Zach, Jenny and myself shared a Look.

Kwabaka: Luganda for to burst or explode.

Our boat was punctured when we hit the rocks on a Category 3 and Prince bluntly told us the raft would not survive the next Category 5. His bluntness, Ugandan sense of humor, lack of concern for our nerves would cause problems throughout the day but I was definitely somewhat concerned with our imminently capsizing raft. We got out and carried the raft for a bit until we met the replacement. So a sunken raft started the day.

Prince motivated us through fear and used his authority to terrify us all day. Examples? During lunch break, we removed our lifevests and helmets to float in calm water. Suddenly, Prince jumps up. “QUICK EVERYBODY LIFEVESTS ON, GET DOWN GET DOWN GET DOWN WE ARE GOING TO DIE.” We immediately drop everything and cower for our lives. No rapid. Calm water. Example 2: Zach jumps off the raft during a calm stretch to swim. Mid-jump, Prince yells “NO! DON’T! THE CROCIDILES!”

No crocodiles.

“Prince, what happens if we swim right instead of left in this rapid?”
Laughter. “Then we can’t save you, see you in Egypt.”

The worst joke by far was that it was his second day as a guide. He had us all going with this one until he slipped by mentioning he had been a guide for over 5 years. By the end of the day, Prince proposed to me and I accepted, attracted by the title of Princess of the Nile. Prince has offered 50 cows or the cash equivilant to my father. I told him my father would probably prefer the cash (2.5 million shilling!), but he’d have to negotiate the details with my very American father. So this situation is pending.

I do owe Prince an enormous debt of gratitude. When we faced Silverback, the biggest and strongest Cat5, I panicked. Silverback is over 150 meters of double category 5 rapids colliding in deep water, surrounded by jagged rocks. You can only see the white caps of the rapids. Before the first drop, we were all regarding the intensity before and I just started screaming. There were only two sounds: the rush of the rapids and my terrified shrieks. I’m ashamed to admit that I abandoned my post and ducked for cover, gripping the safety rope and quaking with fear instead of paddling like a team player. Prince had no sympathy for me. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? PADDLE! PADDLE NOW, YOU SCARED MZUNGU!” The “scared mzungu” comment snapped me out of terror and I picked up my paddle and managed to stay on the raft and paddle. Of course, when we finished navigating Silverback, we realized we had lost one of our rafters and had some random guy on our boat, but we quickly did an exchange and found her.

Angello 3There were so many awesome and terrifying moments: when we rafted Bujogali Falls, I misinterpreted “DUCK AND COVER, GET DOWN GET DOWN GET DOWN” for “Wow, this is a gorgeous waterfall. Look around! Absorb the moment!” and for that, I got an awesome shiner from smacking my face into an oar. My position at the back of the raft meant I spent a lot of time flying into the air from the impact of waves. At The Bad Place, I sailed right out of the raft, over the top of the raft and somehow landed in front. The Bad Place starts as a Cat6, so we had to carry the raft over that and then relaunch into a Cat5. So I was petrified that I was going to drift back into the Cat6 or over to the falls: I managed to grip the front of the raft and Jenny summoned inhuman strength and hauled me over the front while steering through a Category 5.

But despite a minor sprain and a dozen bumps and bruises, I had an
awesome time and I think I’m going again in two weeks.

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