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Posts Tagged ‘change agents’

An Inspiring Start to My Visit with Global Grassroots’ Teams

Monday, April 25, 2016

Working for Global Grassroots this last year has been an extraordinary experience – and one that has just been ‘kicked up a few notches.’ I am incredibly fortunate to now be in East Africa, getting to better know our dedicated local staff and visiting many of our women’s teams. Most of these meetings with teams have taken place in iconic Africa settings, mats spread under large shade trees amidst thatched roof huts with mothers wearing skirts and head scarves of brightly patterned kitenge (fabric) and nursing their babies. My colleague Francis Kumakech and I began my Gulu, Uganda visits with a group named Cing Ma Wabu (Initiators).

Monday, 11 April 2016
It rained heavily for most of last night and, since the rainy season also means the planting season, everyone in the group was scattered throughout the area surrounding the village planting their crops. It took some time to retrieve some of the team from their fields so our 11.00am meeting got started just around 11.45 with five team members: Helen (Chair of Cing Ma Yabu), Katherine, Grace, Polline, and Pasca.
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Pasca, Polline, Katherine, Helen, and Grace

Cing Ma Yabu works on helping couples strengthen their relationship in an effort to reduce the divorce rate. They use drama and role playing to educate couples about such issues as sharing household responsibilities, women’s rights, and conflict resolution. Not long ago, a woman came to the team looking for help. She said her husband was not sharing in the household tasks nor was he taking care of the things ‘a man is supposed to do.’ The wife had been asking her husband to construct a door to their home; they had been living with a blanket hanging over the opening for quite a long time. In addition, he was prone to spending their money on alcohol and there was not enough left to pay school fees, so their children were not attending school.

Four team members went with the woman to her home to meet her husband, do some role playing, and mediate while the couple discussed their issues. The husband began to understand his part in managing the household and, after a few sessions with the group, there was real harmony in that home. The husband has since built a wooden door for their home and the children are back in school. The husband has been much less likely to go off drinking every day – a change that the group sees with men throughout the village since they began their work. In the last year, Cing Ma Yabu has worked successfully with 15 couples who otherwise were heading for divorce.

When they first completed their training through Global Grassroots’ Academy for Conscious Change, there were 20 members. Their success in improving life throughout their village enticed others to join, particularly some of the men and women whose marriages they helped save. They now number 40 and have set that as a cap for membership. Helen, the team’s chair, acknowledges that a team larger than that will be too difficult to manage.

Cing Ma Yabu faces two distinct challenges in their work. The first is transportation. There are few cars where they live which is approximately 20 kilometers outside Gulu along rutted unpaved roads and plenty of dirt track through the brush. Some of the couples seeking help live five or more kilometers away that the group must walk. There are those who live further out in the sub-county that the group is unable to get to.
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The second challenge the team faces can be more dangerous: when they show up at a household to mediate, the husband can be “wild,” often because he is drunk. The team knows they must tread carefully, working very hard to calm him down. Grace commented that, when that happens, “it is not fun” and sometimes all they can do is return when he is sober and able to listen and learn.

Cing Ma Yabu sustains their project by cultivating gardens for those who are either physically unable to do so or have jobs that take them away from home each day. They have managed their funds well and now have a savings account through a nationwide savings and loan association. Through this account, members can both save money and borrow funds should a need arise. Helen remarked that, in addition to seeing the impact their work is having on their community, the savings scheme is a great benefit that helps keep the team together.

A group of grassroots women with little to no education have built a strong, committed team that is bringing domestic harmony to their community, reducing the divorce rate, increasing the number of children who attend school, and improving the economic status of its members. To say I left their village both inspired and humbled is an understatement.

TEDWomen – When and how do women act?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

This month I had my first TED experience. And it was a first for TED too – TEDWomen. Whether or not we still need separate events dedicated exclusively for and about women is a debate worth having, but that I will reserve for another post.

I went to TEDWomen out of curiosity in the intersection of innovation, ideas and women. I went to engage with and to explore the diversity of who attends such events – from artists to athletes to politicians to activists. And I went for inspiration and new possibilities for collaboration. I found all of the above, but I also left embracing the paradox of discontent that comes from a gathering of still largely well-educated, privileged Westerners celebrating their roles in the world, largely without the voices of the disenfranchised. Again I am asking the question – who and where are the change agents? I found several and I found several missing.

I was deeply inspired by Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, who spoke of being both a mystic and a warrior and called on us to eliminate the orientation of “otherness”, which continues to enforce a paradigm of separation, of us vs. them. We need more examples of mystic warriors.

I was mesmerized by Joan Halifax, Engaged Buddhist and spiritual teacher, who spoke of the multiple dimensions of compassion, including both strength and a soft heart. She spoke even of the wrathfulness of compassion that does not tolerate delusion, and that calls upon us to witness and then act upon suffering in the world. Why are we not teaching our children compassion, voting on the basis of compassion, she asked. Why does compassion not drive us in every action?

And I was enamored by Caroline Casey, a legally blind elephant handler and social entrepreneur working on behalf of the disabled, who called on each of us to believe in the right thing and embrace your unique self.

During one particular session, I was delighted to sit between two significant leaders of change for women. We listened to a surprise speech by Hillary Clinton, where she proclaimed the empowerment of women and girls was a core tenant of her foreign policy. She explained that she saw it as a national security interest, because countries that embrace the empowerment of women were both more prosperous and more stable. While this is an important priority, I was dismayed that we still have to use arguments aligned with national security to uphold the human rights of women. Things have yet to change as far as needed, if that is still our primary rationale as a nation. Expressing this to my two neighbors, the NGO leader indicated her satisfaction with the argument so long as it enabled the outcome. The other, a long-time feminist activist, refused to stand during the ovation, and commented that the US was very good at putting its finger on the success of women in the world.

I mentioned to both of them that right then, while we were sitting in our comfortable auditorium in the exquisite International Trade Center, Lisa Shannon, activist for ending sexual violence in the Congo, and four other dedicated individuals were holding a 24/7 vigil for five days straight in the freezing cold out in front of the State Department. They were calling upon the administration to assign a special envoy for Congo and to work with the international community to spearhead comprehensive security sector reform to ensure the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice and women are protected. What if, I proposed, we could get a cohort of attendees, including some relatively well known women leaders, to take a quick cab ride over to the State Department and stand with Lisa in solidarity? The NGO leader responded with practical hesitation, albeit no precise objection, advising us to have a concrete call to action first. The other jumped at the opportunity to walk the walk of what we were there at TED to support, and quickly moved to create a flyer and press release, coordinate logistics, and mobilize people to respond.

As the two of us handed out notices between speakers, I was shocked when one woman muttered at me, “That’s so annoying.” Well, it’s also so annoying that women are being raped repeatedly in the Congo, I thought to myself after I recovered. I felt a momentary reprieve when later Madeline Albright declared that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” And then I recognized myself “otherizing” again.

After passing out 400 flyers, the two of us were able to mobilize just three other people to join us in a cab for a quick trip through traffic and a five minute visit to Lisa’s vigil, before returning to the evening session of speakers. I was so grateful for these four other women who felt a sense of duty and delight in responding to a simple call for action. I felt such disappointment that within a conference for and about women – where people had expressed their interest through an application process and paid thousands to attend – we could not convene more willing to take such a simple step. Then I reminded myself that we each have something we are called to do, and it is not always the same. And perhaps I should be aware of my own orientation when one declares an event on behalf of women – TEDWomen was not actually TEDWomensIssuesandActivism, after all.

As we jumped from the cab and crouched together to take a photo with Lisa and her colleagues, I felt a level of guilt sinking in my gut – what in the world did our brief action offer the cause, and why do we feel we even deserve a photo documenting our 5 minutes of attendance? Later, my new activist friend remarked with content that we have to be satisfied that for every one person that shows up, you usually reach 100 others with the message. I suppose that is the hard work of activism.

One of my mentors, a Vietnam Vet, practicing Buddhist and mind-body practitioner once told me: “It is not the magnitude of the task, but the intentions that matter most”. Joan Halifax says that we can have no attachment to outcome. The NGO leader I sat next to was willing to accept less than optimal intentions if the outcome was realized. And the activist was satisfied with the action and potential exposure, despite the outcome in numbers.

So what does really matter for change to happen? The intention, the action or the outcome?

The next day I went back to spend a few hours with Lisa and her colleagues. I asked her what she thought. She responded that she’s always been surprised by the outcome when her actions are in line with her beliefs and when she’s simply put her best foot forward. The results have always been so much greater than she ever imagined. Here, her theory was proven again. Though she was just one of five people who were camping out on the State Department steps, she had ended up getting a meeting with the head of the Africa Division later that afternoon.

I suppose the formula is different for each change agent. Certain circumstances will move us, outrage us or motivate us, often without warning. And some will not. A vision of change for the common good will likely inspire and set our direction. Our role then, I believe, is to listen deeply to identify what our most unique contribution might be. Sometimes we don’t always have to act. But when we feel we must, we must also ensure our response is aligned with our highest intentions, and double check that our intentions are in service to that vision, not our own egos. Finally, we must let go of the results. For we are just one piece of a larger landscape of interconnected parts moving collectively toward an emerging reality that we cannot yet see.

No Woman Should Ever Have to Trade Sex for Water

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Let me tell you about an extraordinary Rwandan woman and water change agent, Seraphine Hacimana, a 39 year-old mother of seven children, who I first met in 2007.  Seraphine first became aware of water issues when working on her father’s farm and fetching water as a child.  When she later married, she moved to the rural village of Gahanga, where she experienced first-hand the 3-4 hour walk women have to make down a hill to collect water from a contaminated, hand-dug well.  As with other such water holes that serve thousands in the surrounding area, it was not uncommon for the women to wait in line for hours, and occasionally fights would break out between them.  Some would even wake in the middle of the night to get to the water source first, before it got too crowded, the water murky with activity.  Walking alone in the dark, these women would face the risk of attack or sexual assault.  For others, the long and grueling return hike could further serve as a trigger for domestic violence, as their husbands waited angrily for the water they needed to bathe or for tea.

But what Seraphine was most concerned about were the women for whom this journey was almost impossible.  The women who were blind, pregnant, elderly, physically disabled or HIV + and too weak to carry large jerry cans back up the hill each day faced two impossible choices:  if she had children, she could keep them home from school to manage the task or she could pay for water to be delivered by a man on a bicycle.  Most women know how important it is to keep their kids in school.  And the latter is only an option if you can afford to pay.  One woman told us on condition of anonymity: “If your children are coming home from school and you need water to cook them rice and beans, you do what you have to do for that water.”  Women throughout Seraphine’s community were left with no choice other than to trade sex for the water they needed each day.

HardWorkers

Seraphine recruited a team of 18 other women, who now call themselves Abanyamurava or “Hard Workers”, to design their own water solution.  Of the team of 19 women, only seven are actually literate, and their leader, Seraphine, only has a first-grade education.   With a little social entrepreneurship training and a small $2600 grant (provided by my organization, Global Grassroots),  Hard Workers embarked upon a project to install two large water tanks right in the middle of their village.  The venture collects rainwater off the roof of a church during the rainy season and orders water delivery by truck during the dry season.  They purify and then sell water to those who can afford to pay, so that they may give water away for free to vulnerable women.  Now in their third year of sustainable operations, the project is serving 800-1000 people daily, and has eliminated sexual exploitation for water in their community.  With their proceeds, they have further been able to buy health insurance for women, pay school fees for local orphans, ensure girls stay in school, combat water-borne disease and even reduce incidents of domestic violence.  The women even guard the tank themselves, taking shifts in twos each night, sleeping beside the tank to ensure no one steals their water.  The project has become such a recognized value to the community that now, when a woman gets ill and cannot cover her shift, sometimes her husband will offer to do it for her.

Their influence is gaining.  Hard Workers’ project has been visited by women on the other side of the country, via a three-hour bus ride, to see how rural, uneducated women were able to launch their own water venture.  Seraphine has been invited to speak at both local meetings and on the radio about water issues.  This year, Hard Workers is expanding to a second site to serve another 800-1000 people, and men have since asked to join the venture.   These amazing women change agents, some even grandmothers in their late 70s, are now seen as the first to bring development to their community.

I have seen time and time again, in my work at Global Grassroots, that women are experts in their own experiences and know exactly what they need to do advance their lives.  They have viable solutions to those critical issues, though they also have the least access to the education, skills and resources necessary to advance their own ideas.  The issue of sexual exploitation for water is almost invisible to outsiders, so it is critical that we trust local women’s ability to identify their own priorities, and then serve as their partners while they take the lead.

I share this story for three reasons.  First, in addition to microcredit for women-run businesses, we also need more resources for micro-social enterprise, or women-operated non-profits.  As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn proclaimed in their best-selling work Half the Sky, grassroots women are the solution.  Not only can education and economic empowerment enable women to find their voice and achieve gender equality, but facilitating their work as change agents ensures they will build civil society, advance human rights and lead systemic social change too. These grassroots women are radical innovators within their local or cultural context, even if their ideas are not always new in a global context.  Unfortunately, the larger social entrepreneurship arena does not always recognize these women as social entrepreneurs.  Similarly, the international development world does not often trust that local women have the ideas or know-how to advance change themselves, thus investment in and the participation of women at the grassroots level is minimized.  I firmly believe a woman with the courage, resources and skills to advance her own solution is the greatest lever for social change in the developing world.

Second, when women have the opportunity to serve as change agents, it facilitates healing from the wounds of war and conflict.  In Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries where sexual violence was used as a tool of war, women experienced not only a terrifying physical violation, but a failure of their community to protect them.  Many of these women now not only struggle with significant post-traumatic stress, but they feel utterly devalued by society. At the same time, they are most often tasked with rebuilding civil society post-conflict.   Experiencing the success of advancing social change locally supports a woman’s sense of agency, sovereignty, dignity and power in her own life and her community.  Not only can she transform the social issues she faces (often silently), but she can also come to see that she is valued by society and has something to offer.  “Restoring the connection between survivors and their community” is one of three primary phases of the trauma healing process, documented in Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and an integral component of our work fusing personal transformation and social change.

Finally, as we can see in Seraphine’s story, water access is one of the most critical issues facing women throughout the developing world.  Ensuring women have control of and affordable access to clean water allows girls to stay in school, decreases incidents of violence, combats water-born disease, increases women’s productivity by freeing up a significant portion of each day, prevents sexual exploitation for basic needs, enables women’s change leadership and provides a means for alleviating poverty through social micro-enterprise.  Not only should clean water access be a right of every human being, but clean water ventures are an opportunity for women to ensure their equality and security in several other spheres as well.

Grassroots communities throughout the developing world, especially across Africa, are now joining this new “women for water” and “water for women” movement.  Encouraged, Seraphine and I await the day, where every woman globally may sip a cool, clear drink of water in safety and solidarity together.

To listen to Seraphine, who was just nominated for a CNN Hero Award, talk about water and to learn more about her work, go here:

http://www.youtube.com/user/globalgrassroot#p/a/u/2/gwh5WNOUEAY

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9aCDCC9nFI

http://www.globalgrassroots.org/abanyamurava.htm

I am a full person

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Today I visited one of our projects working to combat illiteracy among women.  As we walked through the busy marketplace of Nyamirambo, I was at first confused where we would find a classroom among the crowded pathways that separated stalls of fabric, shoes, buckets, jerrycans, pots and tools.  We rounded a corner and ducked into a darkened classroom in a cement building that abutted the market.  As my eyes adjusted, I saw about 30 women squeezed side by side at desks usually reserved for children.  Innocent Baguma, teacher and founder of this initiative, called “Let Us Build Ourselves” was finishing his reading lesson, as women followed along in books filled with cartoons.   

When the class was over, Innocent introduced me and invited me to the front of the classroom, as the women applauded.  I offered thanks and acknowledged the courage of these women, some appearing to be in their 70s, to make the effort to learn to read.  I then had a chance to ask them more about how the project,  just completing one year of operations in July, had begun to transform their lives. Here is what they said:

I came here with no knowledge of how to read or write….I remember before, because I had no knowledge of how to read or write, someone would write a letter for me.  But for now I am able to write it for myself. At that time I was very, very shamed because someone else could know my secret…that was very hard for me. I’m very grateful for your support in helping women in this literacy program. 

It was a very difficult period when my children would come from school and say, Mother can you please explain to me what is happening here in this homework? And I couldn’t say anything and it was very hard.  And I was in possession of a cell phone. Someone could send me an SMS message, but I couldn’t read it.  And someone could even call me and I would not know who was calling.  But now I can tell.

I am married and I have four children and a husband.  I came here with absolutely no idea of reading and writing. But for now I am very, very thankful due to our leaders who have been very patient… This project has been most helpful to the extent that we used to go to town and people would tell us where we were to stay, but we didn’t know where we were going because we had no knowledge of how to read the signs on the road.  I came here and didn’t even know how to write my name.  But currently I am able to write my name and even the name of my children and my husband.  Before I couldn’t go to the hospital or carry my babies to the hospital because I couldn’t read what was written on the papers given by the doctors.  And I had to ask my husband one day to be absent from his job to escort me to the hospital. It was as if I was not a full person, and it was very shameful.  As for now, we do not have any problems.  We can take our children to the hospital and buy medical treatment without a problem. 

I came here to sell flour.  I couldn’t measure what I was giving to the customer.  

Before people in my region didn’t respect girls and did not send them to school.  And they would say that the diploma or certificate for a young girl was to get a husband.  That’s why I grew up with illiteracy and it was very hopeless to us. Now, even our daughters have to be taken to school so that they may not face the same problems that we faced.

Girls used to pass along all their days working at home. Girls were supposed to go to the kitchen, sweep, draw water. But now we have a chance because we have been able to go to school. We do believe that young children, girls and boys, they do have an equal right to schooling.

I was so touched by the commitment and determination of this group of women.  They sat wearing eyeglasses that we had collected and sent to them earlier in the year so they could see their books or the blackboard.  I have no doubt that the gift of reading will propel these women forward in many dimensions in their lives.  Let Us Build Ourselves is not only creating new hope and opportunities for this group of women, but transforming the way in which they will raise their girls and influence other parents in their communities.


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