Monday, June 7, 2010

Spurts of Productivity

Week 1 Re-Cap with Mike's Story at the End

So the past few days show quite the bifurcation in the process of 'getting things done' in the culture of a developing country. One day you do everything, the next day you do almost nothing. Sometimes we plan and work hard, other days we sleep – unlike Western culture, there is no hurry! Time is seen through an entirely different cultural lens.

Monday was productive. My first day of work, I was over at the farm at 7:30 to sit in on a staff meeting, which was very interesting to hear. They spoke a little bit in English, and I understood there was some argument over a part of the farm, and that someone was not fulfilling their responsibilities. I am very surprised to hear the problems discussed so publicly, in a culture where criticizing someone else can be an insult to their entire clan. Next I had a long discussion with Paul, my supervisor, about my experience in community agriculture, and what I wanted to be able to see over the next two weeks to develop a project proposal. Things are certainly in the works for a youth development/entrepreneurship/scholarship savings-type program, and after visiting several of the adult training groups tomorrow, I have no doubt that the youth can be involved (many children now are losing their mother and father to AIDS, so connecting them to mentors who can teach them life skills and business skills is very important!).

Madame Stephanie is such a community elder, with a farm behind her home, she uses her living space and a small building next to it for a nursery. She is the leader of a small group of about twenty women, who gather every two weeks to share their stories and support one another. They each bring the equivalent of about $5 to each meeting, and collectively vote on which one of them will receive the pool of money (for a project or improvement, or if one of them is struggling). They have, in essence, begun their own informal microfinance initiative!

Anyways, I worked in the field for a bit with Charles and Winnie, to show them I also knew how to use my hands. The sun was at full strength, and within 15 minutes I was about ready to pass out. I pushed on and completed the raised beds we were digging, and even through the gloves I had blisters! My shoulders were also burned. No matter, pain is good – with the pain I can show I have worked hard with my head and my hands.

Monday afternoon I went with Agee, a Japanese volunteer (here for 2 years) with an international sustainable agriculture network. He is doing experimentation in Permaculture (basically growing plants and raising animals using methods found in nature) with raising chickens, and growing rice alongside Tilapia and Catfish. We went and visited the site he is doing his experiments on, it is the Ssenya Fish Farm about 10 km away (the motorbike that took me there ripped me off! Charged me 5000 shillings, about $2.50, for a 10km drive!). Anyways the fish farm is the largest producer of catfish and tilapia in all of Uganda! We went right in and met the executive director, Paul Ssenya (another Paul!). Paul is such a nice man, with many motivations to train the community and help the local economy. He is so intelligent with his local business, and is always thinking of ways to train other farmers better methods to raise their income – what an inspirational guy. We visited his rice experiments, and he told me that the region of Uganda, the low-lying areas, either in swamps or alongside rivers, are IDEAL for permaculture rice-fish farming. Some of the most ideal land in all of Africa. . Agee is with a Japanese gov't sponsored agriculture program that is bringing rice-growing technology to Uganda, Sudan, and a few other surrounding nations. Very exciting stuff!

Anyways with all of these ideas floating through my head on how my project could connect with what Agee is doing, and with youth development, I finally met my host mother that evening, Madame Josephine Kizza. She has such a presence! Everyone kneels to her when they see her, showing respect (they say 'Eradde nyabbo,' which basically means 'respect, Madame.')

Josephine and I talked into the night about my story and experience, and her story as well. We talked about the fish farm, the opportunity to train Masaka farmers in better ways to raise their income, and to involve the youth (who cannot afford school) in these new projects as well.

Tuesday's activities, however, were a bit on the unproductive side. I did some digging in the morning, waited for a few hours for Richard to take me to some of the school training program – that didn't happen. Had lunch, walked around the farm, waited some more, then talked to Paul, then it was 4 o'clock and I realized how little I had accomplished that day. Well as they say, TIA! This is Africa!

Wednesday through Saturday were busy with school and farmer visits, playing football (soccer) with the neighborhood kids, cooking 'Southern Fried Chicken and Black Bean Burgers (a hit with the whole family), having informal Yoga Classes (every morning now at 7:30 with my host mom and aunt, and whoever else decides to come), and leading an interactive workshop I had with the staff to flesh out some of their ideas about what “youth development and entrepreneurship” really means to them – They loved the interactive improv-based activities! We have to work on their sense of humor though, and Paul even wants me to do more improv activities to build teamwork and cohesion amongst the staff. Not to mention that the games I teach them would be great to use in the schools!

Saturday morning I went with Madame Josephine to see Mike Chiwanuka. The drive was long and bumpy. Well, most of the roads are bumpy – but we were bumping in the truck for so long, my stomach even began to feel queasy. We stopped near Rakai, about four villages out from St. Jude, and stopped at a larger intersection to ask a schoolteacher who teaches Mike where to find him. She sent a boy with us in the back of the truck to lead us there, and we bought some meat and bread to bring him as a welcoming gift. We finally got out of the truck when the road became too narrow, only wide enough for a Boda-Boda. We approached the home, and an elderly woman came running out shouting and hugging us. This is an extremely odd way for any person to act to a stranger, much less a Muzungu (Westerner). I soon realized that the woman had an obvious mental handicap, and as we approached her home she began asking in Lugandan if today was Christmas, and if we were here to celebrate with all the gifts we had brought. Mike stepped out of his small home of brick and mortar, and brought out a grain sack for us to sit on (they have no chairs) underneath the banana trees in the shade. He then began to share.

I should preface this by saying that Mike's story is incredibly difficult to tell, and was even harder to hear him say that morning. Madame Josephine even began to break down, and I just stared down at my notepad, my hand trembling, swallowing any sign of tears of remorse or guilt. Mike is fifteen years old, and stands at about 5'3, a shorter stature most likely due to years of hard work and a general lack of nutrition in his diet. Like most poor farmer children, he wears no shoes. Mike is the head of the household, with his father having died of AIDS this past year, and his mother mentally handicapped to the point that she cannot even take care of her self, he cooks, farms, and cleans with his three younger siblings. His family's land is all they have, and they struggle to find water, manure, and seeds for their fledgling crops of bananas, tomatoes, and beans. Even the land is in jeopardy of being lost, as Mike's uncles, his mother's brothers, are very desperate men, and plan to take the land that is in their mother's name when she dies. They have been coming often to the home to discourage Mike and his siblings from working hard to save the money to keep the land, and Mike has suffered from repeated physical and psychological abuse from these men. Mike has nothing, but he works for everyone. More importantly, Mike wants to make something of himself as well. He goes to school every single day, according to him and the teacher we met, arriving late because of his work at home, and leaving school early so he can come home and take care of things. I asked him if he would prefer to work full-time and save money for his family, or continue his education. He said he wants to badly to continue learning, but he is torn by the duties he has at home. Mike has no one to turn to, nowhere to go, no resources to build upon, no foundation to hold him steady. He is the foundation.

We have invited Mike to be the voice for the Apprenticeship Program, representing many youth who are in need, but who are beyond description in their determination and leadership potential. He has agreed to come to the workshop with the teachers, local farmers, and St. Jude Staff, and give comments on what incentives can motivate youth like him the best. I only hope that the program can help Mike to improve his situation, if not by helping him save to afford school and buy a new plot of land, then at least by providing community elders to support him. I find it a sad and cruel irony that in the most deprived conditions with the least amount of hope, one can find the most potential, wisdom, and strength, even in a fifteen year-old boy.

The time spent with Mike has been the most important lesson I have learned thus far, a powerful experience that continues to prove that as much as “I am here to facilitate their development,” with my project's now stated Main Goal of “Joining the needs and assets of Masaka's Adolescent Youth (ages 12-18) with the needs and assets of School Gardens and Community Farmers under an Apprenticeship Program with targeted impacts of youth leadership development, improved community entrepreneurship, farm business skills, and cooperative scholarship savings,” I have soon realized that

the people of Masaka are also facilitating a development — my own.

Work this week will be busy with budget drafting, work plan and grant proposal, a few more community visits, and of course, more Yoga. I hear the sound of children laughing outside. I think I'll go play a bit.

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