Meandering again

It’s been a while…. Lots of things happening professionally, personally, all across the board, it’s been a rather eventful Spring. Except it’s not *really* Spring here in Vancouver – the weather gods have been particularly ungenerous, save for the few nice days that they kindly (and I’m pretty sure begrudgingly) bestowed upon us. 

In any case, my Google Reader is finally under control – reading (or skimming through…) the 1000+ articles that have been accumulating in there, in addition to catching up on all the reading and informing myself I have failed to do in recent times was a bit daunting, but here I am again, ready to contribute. 

Before diving back into my favorite topics, I think a Niapele update is in order. 

For the past 9 months or so – basically since the financial crisis and the resulting meltdown occured – we have seen a sharp drop in donations. Truth be told, this also coincided with Celina, my co-director, and myself getting full time jobs (girl’s gotta eat!), and we weren’t fully prepared to cope with dwindling spontaneous donations. In spite of our success as a small start-up organization (feeding 100s of kids for a school year… providing for 20+ abandoned children for nearly 2 years….. supporting a small organization for handicapped children…), we have been struggling to mobilize the funding that we would need to make all of the aforementioned projects true successes.

For instance, the School Nutrition Initiative which we ran during the 2007-2008 school year – we served daily meals to over 600 kids and 30 staff and teachers at the only tuition free school in the Buduburam refugee camp. [Note: After more than 2 years being involved in this project, I have yet to wrap my mind around the concept of private, costly education in a refugee camp as the “best” alternative for schooling for refugee children.] The program cost about $2,000 per month, including salaries of kitchen staff, and had start up costs of about the same amount (pots, utensils, stoves, renovations to the cafeteria space which we rented….). Over the course of the school year, we worked in close cooperation with the Carolyn A. Miller School, its donors and supporters, as well as with an incredible, dedicated Ghanaian nutritionist, Adam Sandow, to develop, implement and continually refine the School Nutrition Initiative. The program delivered positive results, which you can read about here.

Now, we are trying to recreate this same initiative in Liberia, where our partner, the Carolyn Miller School, is now operating out of. While a refugee camp setting was a challenging environment for us to succeed in, Liberia is a whole different story – essentially demolished by the war, Liberia is still reeling. And despite advances on many fronts, there are still some core challenges that need to be seriously taken on. Our very own – and very brave – Megan Sullivan just arrived in Monrovia to act as our Country Director, and assist our Program Manger, Henry Snyder. We are really hopeful that, with her presence, we’ll be making strides towards improving the sustainability of our partner organizations – as well as our own. 

Raising funds for the School Nutrition Initiative in Monrovia is a priority for us at this point. We’ve carried out a needs assessment exercice at the school, and we drew up a budget with them – for $2500, we can restart the program. That’s probably something we can achieve in the next couple of months – however, what’s much, much more difficult is to secure the funding to actually run the program every day of every week…. We feel that starting up the program without the guarantee of funding to make it last would be suboptimal – that goes against our principle of sustainability, and would be devastating for the school, and its students. 

So Megan is initiating a series of meetings with donor organizations and agencies at the country level – hopefully, we will be able to secure the support of a reliable funding partner for our activities. The model is simple and replicable, and by cutting costs and having a lean operation, you can feed A LOT of children, all the while stimulating the local economy by purchasing from local food producers, by employing staff for to run the program. That’s really the beauty of working at the grassroots level, with community-based organizations – with relatively small amounts of money, you can have a significant impact. 

One of my favorite new blogs, Aid Watch, ran a piece (a post?) about aid effectiveness in Nepal – excerpt:


Doing an inventory of small NGOs working in the various districts, then giving out small amounts of funding ($10,000-$20,000 a year) probably gets the most done. Skip the audits and heavy-duty report writing and verify with a small team equipped with a camera. A picture is worth a thousand words (or reports) it’s there or it isn’t and the camera tells you. NGOs with barely enough budget to survive have little motivation and opportunity to corrupt the process. They are community members themselves and the community can police its own quite effectively. Nearly anyone living in a small community in Nepal can tell you in short order who is working for the good of the community and who is lining their own pockets. Snap photos, ask the locals and you’ll know for sure that your aid dollars did something.

I feel confident about Niapele’s ability to make a difference – with Megan in Liberia, I have a renewed sense of optimism. Celina and I are also going to continue finding new ways to raise funds, and, in an effort to be transparent, I’ll be posting updates about our progress. In fact, this is part of our broader attempt to revive our online presence as an organization – new Facebook public profile, new Twitter account, and a new resolve to make things happen.

 

For those who might have missed it, here is the video that Ayoka Productions made for us last year:

 

Thinking Back

I miss thisI DO NOT miss this

I’m having some serious computer issues these days, and as I was cleaning up my hard drive, I stumbled upon something I wrote nearly two years ago, after my stint as a volunteer in Buduburam. At the time, I had no idea that CG and I were going to create The Niapele Project and that I would return there soon afterwards.

It’s interesting to see how my perception and understanding of the Liberian community has evolved – my little spiel on religion still holds true, although I’ve come to realize that while religious faith is essential to their “social contract”, it can also act as a hindrance… It’s very complicated to explain without sounding condescending – I’m not sure I can sound anything but – however, I really do believe that blind faith makes people hope and believe in unreal and unsustainable ideas. For instance, relying on God to “provide” sometimes leads to situations where individuals will not proactively seek to better their circumstances, leaving their fate in the hands of a merciful God… who, in the end, may or may not provide.

Karrus Hayes, the founder of Vision Awake Africa for Development, asked me to write this. I’m not sure if he ever ended up using it for anything… Anyway, here are some unfiltered thoughts about the Buduburam refugee camp and its community, from Feb 07:

Simply put, I am humbled by my experience at the Buduburam refugee camp. I have always cared about the fate of those less privileged than myself – that is why, throughout my life, I have tried to give back, share my knowledge and help, as best I could, people less fortunate than I am. My academic studies have been focused on international affairs, and African issues and the fate of that continent have always grabbed my attention. In 2003, I did spend 6 months studying, living and working with the disenfranchised in Cape Town, South Africa. I have also traveled extensively in the developing world, and thought I was mentally, emotionally and intellectually prepared to face the realities of a refugee settlement in Ghana. But none of my experiences prepared me for my time at Buduburam.

The first few days were dizzying. First of all, the Harmattan season was in full swing, and it made it all the more difficult to situate myself, in the physical sense, in this foreign world. Situating myself on the metaphysical level was also incredibly difficult – all of my usual socio-cultural markers were obsolete in this new world, and, in order to be able to fulfill my mission at the school, I was under pressure to quickly adapt. On so many levels, I felt challenged by my surroundings, by the people. Trying to communicate with friends and family at home was difficult, and even when I did manage to speak with them, I knew that they could hardly understand, let alone relate to, the situation at Buduburam. Quickly, I realized that the best way to integrate, or at least to feel more at ease, was to strip away all the layers of difference between me “me” and “them”, and to simply relate on a very basic human level. As difficult as it was, I found that it was only by going beyond the differences that separated us, and focus on our common humanity, that I could create a space for myself in the community. Deep down, we all share the same basic aspirations, the same fears and desires – it is only the way we lead our life which is different. And it is so not by choice, but because of circumstances.

One of the most striking dimensions of the Liberian refugee community is their unwavering, genuine faith in God. Had I been through the traumatic experiences they had been through, I would have found it very difficult to reconcile the horror that the world imposed on me and a belief in an Almighty, profoundly good, God. It was truly an intellectual conundrum for me, as well as the other international volunteers I discussed this with. In my life, I rarely use religious explanations for what is happening to me, or around me. Everything seems mechanistic, guided purely by human desires, whether good or evil. Still now, I find it incredibly difficult to understand this type of religious fervor, but I do respect it. I suppose that, in many cases, it is precisely this religious fervor that allowed people to move on, to carry on with their lives, to look beyond the past and into the future, with hope. Had I been exposed to such trauma, I don’t know if I could have continued on with my life – I would not have had the motivation, the desire or the strength. So while the religiousness of the Liberian community was – and still is – baffling, it commends admiration. The strength and hope that people have acquired through their faith is essential to their survival, to their happiness and to their well – being. For me, a jaded Westerner, understanding this is very difficult – the world we live in is a godless one, and I have always believed in the importance of separating the religious, spiritual realm of life from the political, social realm. But living among Liberian refugees showed me the crucial importance that faith and God can have in human life, and I while I do not always understand it, I respect it.

While my work at the Carolyn A. Miller School was certainly one of my most fulfilling professional and personal experiences, it was the personal relationships I forged at Buduburam which really captured my heart and soul. I met men, women and children, who had suffered trauma beyond anything I can imagine. Torture, death, loss and separation is common experience for them, and the pain which they had endured is something most of us can barely understand. Yet, so many of the people I met were generous and kind, with open hearts and minds. This is not to say that every person I encountered had a heart of gold and pure intentions – there were plenty of stories about parents beating or torturing their children, men raping girls, as well as accounts of petty crime, jealousy and gratuitous violence. However, some people I met there really showed me what it means to be a genuinely GOOD person. Mr. Karrus Hayes, whose kindness, generosity and emotional intelligence cannot be captured with mere words, was – and will remain – somebody who I look up to. This man’s compassion and true desire to better the lives of others is poignant. There are few people I have met in my life who give themselves so wholly to their causes. His dedication is an inspiration, and while I will not have the arrogance of saying that I hope to emulate him in my own life, he certainly sets the bar very high for the rest of us who wish to do some good in this world.

There are so many people whose exemplary humanity I could discuss – Regina Krangar, mother of 3 biological children and 9 adopted ones – is devoting her entire life to raising these children. Besides the admiration I have for her, she also taught me the true meaning of Love, and how this concept, which we all think to have figured out, is in fact so much more than we think. She does not raise these children simply out of moral obligation, but because she truly cares and Loves them, and strongly believes that it is her duty to bring up these children that nobody wanted. I have met so many people whose outlook on life, whose attitude and whose work really humbled me, made me begin to understand the meaning of the word “sacrifice.” From the teachers of Carolyn A. Miller who devote themselves to educating the future generation for little or no money, to the admirable work performed by the staff of the UNHCR – subsidized Catholic clinic, the people of Buduburam had a huge impact on me. I left feeling inspired and strong, re-energized, with a desire – stronger than ever – to work as hard as I can to help those who need it.

Upon saying good bye to my friend Regina, she left me with these profound and heartfelt words, which I hope you will find as beautiful as I did at the time: “A life without sacrifice is meaningless. True sacrifice requires courage and strength, it is not easy. But it is the only way to truly understand and penetrate human nature.”

Why a School Feeding Program?

Why is The Niapele Project investing in a school feeding program? Perhaps the reasons are intuitive: feeding hungry children is a worthwhile enterprise to finance, particularly in a refugee setting. It seems to me, though, that it’s important to highlight the more complex reality that lead The Niapele Project to push very hard for the creation and implementation of a School Feeding Program at the Carolyn A. Miller School.

Below is a short account of why I believe an SFP is of paramount importance – I wrote this while in Buduburam the first time around, when I was the health coordinator at the Carolyn A. Miller School, before the SFP began. It’s not necessarily the most well-written piece I’ve ever produced, but I think (hope!) it helps shed light on why this program is of paramount importance:

“Surely, the Carolyn A. Miller School is a strikingly different environment than the one most of us grew up in. Cultural, social and environmental differences aside, one of the things that strike international volunteers the most is the issue of malnutrition among CAMES students. Often, one will teach a class where a number of students are asleep on their desks. While in our countries this would be unacceptable behavior, teachers and staff quietly accept this situations – comments are rarely made, and children are rarely woken. This implicit acceptance is linked to a recognition that this lack of energy is due to a lack of food – too often, students will come to school on an empty stomach, having not eaten for perhaps 48 hours.

While this problem is pervasive throughout the Buduburam community, it is worryingly prevalent at CAMES. Most students are unaccompanied minors, whose guardians already have too many mouths to feed; or perhaps the students’ household is headed by an unemployed widow, who struggles with little to no resources. While the school struggles to make ends meet and certainly faces structural and cyclical issues, the issue of student malnutrition is high on their list of priorities. Teachers and staff are concerned that their efforts to provide education to these children will come to no avail if students, weak from hunger, are unable to benefit from what

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that there is a severe problem which calls for action. Most of the students as CAMES see education as their salvation, as their means to achieve a fulfilling life. But when one has little to no food or drink to subsist on, it is difficult – if not impossible – for these children to achieve the level of academic excellence that they are striving for.”

Teaching Sex Ed to Teenagers, my life calling?

This is an excerpt of an email I wrote while I was in Buduburam the first time, which was almost exactly a year ago. Below you will find a brief account of my first sexual health class at the Carolyn A. Miller School…. Enjoy !
im teaching health to grades 4, 5 and 6, and ive also just started a
sexual health class for grade 6. the kids in 6th grade are anywhere
between 12 and 18, and no one has ever told them anything about sexual
health, sex or anything related to that. with the prevalence of STDs,
gender based violence, rape and HIV, these kids really need to be
given proper information so that they know whats going on. its taboo
at home, and most of the kids at school dont live with their families
– they have foster parents, legal guardians or live with their
aunties/grandmas/cousins. so last week was the first class, which
ended up lasting 2 hours, instead of 30 minutes, because some teachers
were absent, and they told me to just stay in there to keep teaching.
well, let me tell you, that was the most interesting/weird thing ive
done in a long time. since this was the introductory session, we just
let the kids ask us anything they wanted (i teach with a liberian
woman, who is training to become a nurse – im getting her involved so
that the kids still have a health teacher once i leave).
sample questions:
” is it true that when boys look at pictures of naked ladies, they
have “warm feelings inside”?”
( i let the boys in the class answer that one)
” is it true that if a boy has “warm feelings inside” and there is no
girl to satisfy him , he uses soap?
(again i let the boys answer this – and i was surprised by the honesty
of their answers….) actually, at that point, their Religious and
Moral Education teacher came in to sit in on the class, and gave a
VERY detailed answer.
“how do lesbians have sex?”
” is it true that people can have sex in the anus?”
” what is semen? where does it come from?”
” if a man has sex in the anus, will he get his period?”
most of them did not know about the concept of oral sex, and they
wanted me to explain it to them…… seriously……
you get the picture – this lasted for 2 hours. this week, im gearing
the discussion towards relationships, responsibility, self-respect and
all that BS. i never thought in my wildest dreams that i would have to
talk about sperm to teen age boys.”