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Archive for March, 2011

Change Agent Profile: Perpétue, People of Love

Thursday, March 31, 2011

by Christina Hueschen

On her family plot in Rwanda’s Kamonyi District, Perpétue grows cassava, soy, bananas, beans, sweet potato, and mangos. And papaya – lots of papaya. Each morning she rises, washes her face, checks on her animals, cleans her house, grabs a hoe, and heads out to the fields.

Perpétue’s days are jam-packed with farming and domestic work. “When I have a little free time,” she adds, “I practice the consciousness practices that I learned from Global Grassroots’ training, and I help my grandchildren with those practices. They like most to lie down and practice breathing, but their second favorite is stretching their arms as part of yoga.”

Perpétue lost her husband years ago, but she has seven children, many of whom have families of their own. She looks the part of a grandmother: the smile creases around her eyes and the dusting of moles across her cheeks are clues to her cheerful warmth. Her most important piece of advice for a child or grandchild: “To be honest – using truth in anything, in whatever she does.”

Perpétue has thick, powerful hands, which she crosses in her lap – left clasped over right wrist – whenever seated. She believes in hard work. Unless she is upset about something in particular, she enjoys her daily labors. “[As long as] there is nothing hurting my heart and making me feel bad, I just feel good about any task.”

Last year, Perpétue took on a big, new task. As one of the team leaders of People of Love, Perpétue is working to bring a clean water access point to her community in Kamonyi. Water access – supplemented by the team’s educational campaigns on gender-based violence law, gender equality, and nutrition – will reduce domestic violence, keep more girls in school, promote gender-equal families, and increase female participation in community affairs and development.

Giving up her usual daily tasks to work with People of Love has been tougher than Perpétue anticipated. When the team gathers to work on the project, they are neglecting their responsibilities at home and in the fields. “We are going back home without any income… Nothing replaces our time.” But the sacrifice is worth it to Perpétue. She explains that she and her team are looking forward. “We believe in many changes in the future. That’s why we are still motivated. Also we’ve learned a lot from Global Grassroots.” Perpétue smiles. “We want to use those skills to change the future.”

Her fellow community members share her hopeful vision: irrigated green vegetables growing on the mountainside, not just in the valley, and even in the dry season; no more malnutrition; enough produce to sell some extra at the market. Everyone is happy about the water project, and that fills Perpétue with joy. Even the kids are talking about it; they will no longer have to miss mornings at school to trek down into the valley to collect water.

“We realized that if we have water, the children can attend school on time,” Perpétue says. “And we realized that the biggest problem in our community that women face is not having access to clean water.” She explains that currently, water scarcity is a trigger for gender-based violence in her community, where women spend a huge portion of their time and labor fetching water. “Women face domestic violence because they didn’t accomplish their responsibilities, their tasks, at home. Women are staying behind in development. They don’t have opportunity to participate… in whatever things are happening in their society or their umudugudu or their community. They feel like they have to spend all their time on water – they are late in anything – because of the scarcity of water.”

A clean water access point will change Perpétue’s own life in many ways. She will be able to improve her hygiene by washing her body and clothes regularly. Her cows will get water more than once a week. She will grow crops in the dry season. “I will be able to do things quickly,” she explains, “because water is the main trouble point for everything happening in farming.”

But mostly, Perpétue talks about the impact of water access on the collective “we” – the women of her community. ‘We’ will have the opportunity to participate in local assembly meetings. ‘We’ will no longer suffer from miscarriages during the uphill struggle from valley wells or streams. “Everything I mentioned – the struggles women face that I mentioned above – will be changed in the future.”

Perpétue is a change agent with a resolute belief in her theory for social progress: “if we have water, we can remove many obstacles that stand in the way of women and allow us to move forward to where we want to be.”

Teaching Basic English to Vulnerable Women

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On Fridays we explain independent clauses, but on Mondays and Thursdays we taught (until recently) an entirely different kind of English class.  We traveled to Gisozi, the site of one GG project started by Evariste in 2008.  The Community Vocational Training School teaches tailoring to vulnerable women (widows, orphans, and prostitutes), and in October we attended the graduation of this year’s class of 24 women, many of whom are using this marketable skill to leave prostitution or free themselves from dependence on an abusive husband.  At the reception, we were drinking Fanta and eating bread when some of the women asked Evariste if we could teach them English.

Rwandans celebrate most occassions (at least weddings, graduations, & birthdays in our experience) by sharing Fanta and some bread. On the left is Evariste, who founded CVTS after being trained by GG and receiving seed-funding for the project. On the right is our Country Director Marlene, and the far left is a graduate who no one realized sneaked into the picture :) 


A few days later, Christina and I said yes.  Although we receive at least two requests per day for English lessons (taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and teammates are all eager to keep pace after the country’s 2008 shift from French to English), we decided that this class fit with our project because it could improve the graduates’ employability.  If a tailor can speak enough English to take measurements of and negotiate with tourists and ex-pats, she or he will be quite popular.  (Everyone knows Josephine, the go-to English-speaker in our market.)  So, we agreed to a month-long class, thinking that was enough time to teach some occupational English.

Teaching women who have never been to school is not as difficult as I anticipated.  It took a long time for the one or two illiterate girls to copy from the board, letter by letter, and the general pace was pretty slow, but most of them grasped the concepts the first time around.  They are very eager learners.  They took notes on everything, and somehow, between sewing, cooking, and caring for their families, they always found time to do the homework.  No one complained about writing on their laps while perched on wooden stools and chairs that collapse without warning.  For good lighting, they dragged the one-legged blackboard out onto the front porch of the school.  We hadn’t quite figured out yet how to prop it up and on the first day of school, it may or may not have careened forward onto me mid-explanation of ‘I am’.  A blackboard falling from the sky was a first in all my school experience, but some things are apparently international: the know-it-alls sit in front, the shy ones never raise their hands, and there was a class clown, Josiane.  Looking back, I’m impressed she let that blackboard incident slide… by the end all someone has to do was accidentally say “I am a boy,” and she had the female offender collapsed in giggles.  The laughter would die down until someone piped up, “Are you a boy?” and we all deteriorated again.  Our classroom management skills may be lacking, but it’s ok—they’d mastered interrogatives!

We teach an English class twice per week to vulnerable women who learned to sew as a way to a better life. With basic English, they will (hopefully!) get more clients and have a better chance of landing a steady job with a cooperative. Our classroom was outside on the porch of the sewing school, since there is no electricity inside. The blackboard is missing a leg, chairs often collapse, and neighborhood children eavedrop outside. 

Water and Women’s Disempowerment

Monday, March 21, 2011

Global Grassroots works with several teams of change agents here in Rwanda who fight for women’s rights, security, and health with one crucial tool: providing safe, closer access to clean water.

The relationship between clean water and health is straightforward, considering the multitude of water-borne diseases found in much of the world.  The impact of a safe, closer access point on women’s security is equally clear when one remembers the dark, early morning hours that women spend in the process of collection and when one listens to stories of sexual assault faced on this journey.  But the link between water scarcity and women’s disempowerment is even more fundamental.  Perhaps that is precisely why it is so often overlooked.

Water is humanity’s most essential need, and access to safe water is one of the greatest challenges faced by the developing world.  In many societies, the consuming struggle to provide, every day, a community’s primary life need – water – falls to the female sex.  The result is gender imbalance on a massive scale.  When a community saddles one gender with a tremendous burden that is both laborious and domestic, those two adjectives come to define how both men and women perceive a woman’s sphere and duty.  That discrimination is pervasive; it disempowers women as citizens and as individual minds.

When the task of water provision is perceived by women and men as a female responsibility, that assumption defines gender roles in a community.  Water is a part of everything domestic: drinking, bathing, cooking vegetables and grains, growing gardens that prevent malnutrition disorders in children, washing clothes, keeping a home clean, and preventing disease.  A woman who chooses to attend an evening local council meeting “should” be walking hours down the mountain to a stream with her female neighbors to provide for her family.  Water “should” be the first thing on her mind when she wakes up and when she goes to sleep.  Water is what she must worry about when she considers her children’s health or her relationship with her husband, who may strike her if he comes home to a late or uncooked meal, unwashed clothes, or empty jerry cans when he wanted a bath.  In theory, therefore, a woman’s role is defined as domestic.  But her domestic role is not only the result of theoretical conceptions of duty; it is also established by example.  It is difficult for her and for her community to be open to women’s civil participation or partnership in decision-making when, in practice, she has always needed to spend six hours a day fetching water.

Water can never be plentiful enough, which means that a woman’s responsibilities are by definition never completed.  Her time is, without exception, never truly her own.  Her participation in development, in community affairs, or in building or re-building outside of her individual home, is therefore impossible.  She is disempowered by her community’s greatest act of discrimination: the designation of its most essential daily struggle to the female sex.

What’s an Indefinite Article, again?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Part of our project involves teaching English to the Global Grassroots staff.  Every Friday morning from 9-11:30, we convert our living room into a makeshift classroom where we explain the finer points of English to Marlene, Daphne, and Daniel.  Or try to.  I’ve been speaking this lovely language of ours for 23 years, but I have no idea why I say, “I will raft the Nile.” but not, “Last weekend I swam in the Lake Muhazi.”  I live by Lake Erie, Christina lives by the Pacific Ocean, on the planet Earth. Whyyyyy?

“Sustainability” was the first word of our fellowship proposal titles, and we’re teaching these classes to make Global Grassroots’ work sustainable.  Ideally, someday in the future, the Rwandan staff will write their own grant proposals to international foundations (or even future Rwandan foundations!).  Better yet, they will fundraise from Rwandans themselves, just like right now we fundraise from Americans.  Gretchen, the founder, talks about our ‘exit strategy’ because Rwandans should build Rwanda.  As a Rwandan friend put it, they just need help right now from America, the UK, etc. to jump-start their development.  And part of that help includes teaching English, the language of global communication, according to Rwandans.

So, we continue editing translations, clarifying the difference between effect and impact, and explaining why we use semi-colons.  They ask questions like “When do you say ‘think of’ versus ‘think about’?” and I admit I have no idea.  Christina and I have no formal ESL training and do not pretend for a second that we are qualified to teach.  It doesn’t seem to matter to our staff.  They show up every Friday and pour over exercises we’ve designed based on a few textbooks and ESL websites.  They wait patiently while Christina and I debate whether you ALWAYS need a comma before which… I feel like I should know this stuff. While they are eagerly perfecting their third language (Kinyarwanda, French & English), we’re slowing learning about our first.

Every Friday from 9-11, the GG Country Director and two interns (one was missing this week) come to our house to refine their English.

When a Ugandan woman offered me her child

Saturday, March 12, 2011

This is a post I wrote back when we went to Uganda, but never got around to putting it up!

“Husbands,” she said. “That is our biggest problem.” They give their wives a meager allowance, beat them when there isn’t enough food, and beat them again when they ask for money to buy more food. An Acholi woman recently described this cycle when we attended a meeting of her women’s association under a tree in Lira, Uganda. In Pader and Kitgum – towns further north and more affected by the war – women complain of HIV contracted through rape by the rebel army, the struggle to feed their illegitimate children, and the stigmatization they face from families who feel angry that their daughter served the rebel cause, even if she was abducted and forced to kill or be killed.*

“Can you give us money for school fees?” they asked us. “We have all taken in orphans, but we can’t afford to pay their school fees.” Christina and I explained the Global Grassroots model of giving money to support sustainable social ventures instead of individuals; in other words, no hand-outs. But they really wanted a donation. We’d been warned about this ‘Dependency Syndrome’ in the north: after living in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps where their every need was provided for by NGOs and there was no real need to work, some people are struggling to adjust back to normal society.

“We try to hold a training and I’m in the middle of introducing myself when someone says, “What are you giving us? Food? Money?’ “No, I’m giving you training’”, explained an NGO leader in Kampala, betraying her frustration. When the women in Lira tried another tactic and asked me to buy an overpriced, unattractive and unfinished pot, I stared at the lumpy clay and sloppy silver paint and tried to remember that some of them had probably lived over 20 years in the camps. They knew life could be sustained entirely by foreigners. I didn’t want to think about their children who were born in the camps and denied the experience of witnessing people working to support their families.

“What would I do with a pot like this?” I tried logic.
“Plant something.”
“How will I get it back to Kigali? It’s bigger than that child!” I tried logic with a bit of humor.
“Carry it.”
“It’s too big! And I don’t really like the color. If I take this pot now, you will find it on the side of the road in two kilometers.” I was straightforward, and they laughed again, finally accepting defeat.  We continued talking: about the war, the poor planting weather and finally our social change model and the conditions of women in Rwanda.  Two women, Josephine and Betty, spoke directly to us in English, indicating a decent education.  We acquiesced their requests for photos and stood up to go. But they couldn’t help one more appeal.

“Please, can you help us pay school fees? Or do you know a donor?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
A small boy, breast-feeding from one of the widows, was thrust towards me. “Will you take the child?”
I smiled. “Well, it’s either the pot or the child, choose one!”
They laughed. “The child! The child!” We all laughed, somewhat anxiously.

The next day, typing reports in a coffee shop in Kampala, my phone rang. “Hello?” It was Josephine, one of the English-speaking widows from Lira. She had bought credit for her pay-as-you-go cell phone to call me and wish us a safe journey to Rwanda.

“And tell the Rwandan women we say hi! Please send them our best wishes.”  Mixed in with their offers of pots and orphans and the undeniable burdens carried by women after the war was an interest in a sort of cross-cultural friendship. They were calling me because they felt a sort of kinship with other female victims of war. Or, depending how cynical I’ve become, just because they wanted to practice their English.
*Visit this link for more information about the LRA’s war in Northern Uganda. http://www2.invisiblechildren.com/history-of-the-war

One of the women we met in Lira, Uganda. Many of the women adopted orphans after the war and have children of their own, and they struggle to pay school tuition for all of them. I'm not completely sure, but I think I might have been able to take this child home...

Uganda: Snapshots

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

We covered a lot of ground in Uganda: Entebbe, the Ssese Islands, Kampala, Jinja… then up north: Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Lira.  We met with two dozen Ugandan individuals and organizations involved in social entrepreneurship, women’s empowerment, or trauma healing.  The following are visual glimpses of a few of the organizations we met and a few of the places and people that made us marvel.

Kalangala, on the Ssese Islands. The Ssese Health Effort for Development (SHED) advocates for the most vulnerable members of the islands' population. Their current focus is on economic empowerment of marginalized or HIV+ women. SHED were amazing hosts, and Caitlin and I loved our time in this beautiful environment, learning about SHED's tremendous diversity of initiatives.

SHED helped build the fish-drying racks in this fishing community. The racks now belong to a group of community women identified by local leaders as particularly vulnerable.

Rapids on the Nile! Near Lake Victoria, the Nile's source. This photo comes nowhere close to conveying the real violence, power, and size of the river.

The Nile at sunset near Jinja, Uganda.

Gulu town at sunset. The round, thatched homes are characteristic of the northern region/"Acholi Land." During the many years when this region was ravaged by the LRA, masses of "night commuters" (rural children afraid of abduction into Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army of child soldiers) slept on these "urban," slightly safer streets every night.

Hearts with a Safe Harbor works with at-risk youth in Gulu District. Here, one youth group performs a traditional Ugandan dance.

Another youth group dances! Drummers are just out of sight.

A home in Kitgum, another recovering region of the north. This morning, a women's group that is part of the grassroots organization Live Again is learning to build fuel-efficient stoves from termite mud and sawdust. The cost of firewood is prohibitively high in this area. The group plans to share their new knowledge with several of the other Live Again groups, who will in turn teach women in their communities.

This "self-help" group of women is supported by CRO (Child Restoration Outreach) of Lira. Members contribute a very small amount of money each week that, when pooled, provides one or two women the capital to start a small business or other economic venture. Next week, it's someone else's turn. The women pay back the loans after a month with interest, so the group's collective capital continues to grow. Some women's groups take on social initiatives, too, like combating the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS victims.


Our friend and driver in the north, Joseph, stops to buy some chickens on a roadside in Lira, northern Uganda.

A dormitory at the Pader Girls Academy. Pader District was horribly affected by the north's decades of civil war. Pader Girls Academy provides a high school education or vocational training in tailoring or catering to girls whose schooling was disrupted by the war. Most students fall in these categories: teenage mothers, orphans, child heads of families, and formerly abducted girls who were given to Kony's soldiers as trophy "wives."

Happy International Women’s Day! The 100th Anniversary

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

In 1910, the First International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen created International Women’s Day, which wasn’t designated as March 8th until 1977 by the UN. (Ok, so the ‘100th Anniversary’ claim is suspect, and was possibly used last year as well, but everyone here is still excited.) My waiter at breakfast wished me a Happy Women’s Day, and a motorcycle driver shouted well wishes after me as I walked down the street in Kampala. Unfortunately, the sentiment was probably the same as when motos SSss at me every other day of the year, which our Rwandan male friends claim are all for men. “I don’t know why you need a special day for you, unless you’re admitting that the other 364 are for us,” Marlene’s husband told us.

Nonetheless, Women’s Day is a big holiday in Rwanda and Uganda (and an official public holiday in Afghanistan and China among others, according to Wikipedia). Some businesses are closed, organizations host special events, and articles about female empowerment run in the government paper.  The Director of the Center for Gender and Cultural Development is hosting a celebratory breakfast at her home this morning, and we are speaking at a conference on gender research and activism this weekend.

In a country where we spend our days hearing stories of discrimination, gender-based violence, and inequality in educating daughters vs sons, formal support for women is encouraging, but according to our teams, not yet enough- that’s why they keep calling us! In the meantime, I’ll continue arguing with Marlene’s husband, laughing along with Elvis at the supermarket because I insist on carrying my own jug of water to the register, and wearing long skirts to frisbee before changing into shorts and running alongside teammates who inform me they’re going to marry three wives. …And then I intercept his pass and all is right in the world.

Women who are widows, orphans and former commercial sex workers lining up for the group picture at the 2010 graduation ceremony for the Community Vocational Training School, a social venture that receives GG seed funding and training. CVTS teaches the women how to sew so they can support themselves.

Driving from Jinja to Acholi Land

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Post was a bit delayed because there aren’t many internet cafes up north!

After taking a weekend break from meetings to raft with some friends at the source of the Nile, Monday morning we met our driver and the 4×4 we rented to drive North, the area where we hope to identify new change agents among the victims of war violence. The driver estimated it would take three or four hours to get there, and the distance was “over 200 kilometers.” (Key word: over.)

Welcome to the concept of African Time. As our co-worker Marlene explains to us, time is “kinda flexible.” I shouldn’t be surprised when my frisbee teammate tells me he’ll be there in five minutes and shows up half an hour later. I’ve grown wary of trusting estimates like that. Once, Marlene told me that if we left for a field visit at 9, we would return by 2. “The bus is 2 hours, and then it takes thirty minutes in a car to get to the village,” she explained. Doing some quick math, I deduced if we finished by 2, we would spend exactly zero minutes at the site. So, with a knowing smile, I accepted her time estimate, and shared her amusement when we missed dinner at 6pm.

African Time prevails in Rwanda, and apparently Uganda as well. We had estimates of three or six hours for the 200+ or 350 km trip to Gulu. We would be flexible. After three hours, Christina and I pulled out our laptops to type some reports, and as we approached hour four… POP. Metal grinded on pavement and our driver Joseph expertly maneuvered the car to the side of the road. The back tire had blown out, the entire tread peeling off in protest of the 100+ ºF temperatures and the friction on even hotter pavement. We weren’t very surprised, given four straight hours on the road. According to the estimates we were almost there. But alas, across the road from our lopsided vehicle loomed an ominous sign: “Gulu 250 km.”

“Joseph, is that sign right? How far to Gulu?”

“Very far. What did the sign say?” Then, “Yes, that sounds right.”

“I thought you said 200 km… What were we doing for the last four hours?” Christina nudged me and I stopped myself, sharing her  defeated laugh. Thirty minutes later we were underway. I called our Gulu contact to reschedule our afternoon meeting. “No problem!” she said. “Don’t hurry! Just call when you arrive.” We were meeting on African Time, which was good since our journey took seven hours, including the tire blow-out, a lunch stop to bargain for some mangoes, and the traffic (a big problem in Uganda, especially where two major roads meet). And, like she suggested, we didn’t hurry. She was doing some business in town when we arrived— the system works when everyone is on it.

Uganda Update: Meetings…

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

… have been amazing.  It would take dozens of pages to record everything we’ve learned thus far about Uganda and the gender and development work being done here, plus our evolving thoughts on where and how our programming is most needed.  I’ll try to share some anecdotes that will give you a glimpse of how things are going.

After our magical visit with SHED on the Ssese Islands, we headed up to Kampala and paid a visit to the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) headquarters.  UWONET arose from the 1993 East African Women’s Conference held in Kampala.  Director of Programs Betty Kasiko explained UWONET’s structure: they’re an umbrella organization built of district-level women’s networks and encompassing associations like the Center for Domestic Violence Protection and the Association of Women Lawyers in Uganda.  UWONET has a myriad of programs and activities: capacity building and networking, research and policy advocacy, ICT support, institutional strengthening, financial support and grant application facilitation.  I hope that Rwanda will have its own RWONET someday.  UWONET connected us to several new potential partner organizations in northern Uganda and agreed to help distribute applications for our Academy for Conscious Change when we begin work in Uganda.

Full of new ideas and plans inspired by UWONET, we headed toward downtown to meet Rosemary Nyakikongoro, who was recommended to us by Global Grassroots’ former program associate Gillian Porcella as an expert on gender work in Uganda.  Rosemary worked for many years at Action for Development (ACFODE).  She picked us up, and we headed to dinner at the colorful Nanjing Motel.  In the car we found out – we’re talking with a newly elected MP of Uganda!  In fact, Rosemary just found out about her victory and is coming straight from a celebratory rally.  She plans to continue championing women’s rights and women’s involvement in leadership from within parliament.  Rosemary is fast-paced, passionate, and seems to know everyone involved in gender and development in Uganda!  She gave us advice about working in post-conflict areas of Uganda and provided additional contact information for potential partner organizations and advisers.

Next stop: Jinja!

Over Monday morning breakfast, we were chatting with a couple in our Jinja hostel about Ugandan cell phone rates and smoothie flavors when we mentioned that we worked for Global Grassroots.  “Oh, of course we know Global Grassroots,” they told us.  They turned out to be the representatives for Global Giving – a wonderful website that connects social projects and donors – in East Africa.  Caitlin and I have helped some of our Global Grassroots teams develop and maintain profiles on Global Giving, so meeting them in person was fun.  They were rushing off to do a training in the area, and we were rushing because the (incredible) founder and director of Jinja’s St. Francis Health Care Services was about to pick us up in the parking lot.  In between scarfed bites of baked beans, we compared notes on our exit strategies after an incubated social project has become a sustainable, impactful organization in its own right.  They offered an email contact to ask for training materials to help get more of our teams on their website.  I jotted it down.  Life is just perfect sometimes.

Faustine Ngarambe founded St. Francis Health Care Services 12 years ago, and St. Francis currently serves more than 10,000 HIV/AIDS patients and their families.  Their holistic approach to HIV/AIDS care, advocacy, and social support is incredibly innovative, and they’ve achieved great success and recognition (www.stfrancishealthservices.org).  We visited the library, teaching vegetable garden, and colorful dormitories at Omawana House, their child rehabilitation center.  Faustine took us to see the site of one of their grandmothers projects – support networks and community income-generating projects for grandmothers who have lost their children to AIDS and must now care for their HIV-positive grandchildren.  We admired the pigs, vegetables, and nearly completed chicken coop.  We also talked with Faustine about his partnership with Lenny Williams of Mandala House, who will visit Uganda soon to train the St. Francis counselors and other staff about healing through yoga practices.  We hope to partner with their yoga trainees to provide follow-up support in trauma healing and personal transformation for our Academy of Conscious Change partcipants (i.e. our social project team leaders/change agents.

Next, the long drive up to Gulu!  Updates on meetings in northern Uganda to come.

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