Good Afternoon from Rwanda!
We’ve been living in Rwanda for about a week now, and have learned a lot about Rwanda as a whole, including the Kigali and Bwiza communities, each other, our coworkers and ourselves. A few members of our team were excited to blog about the trip on their individual blogs, so we will be keeping interested parties posted on our trip through these avenues in the future. The addresses for those blogs are listed below. Thank you for your support and we look forward to continuing discussions with all of you beauties when we see you next.
The Nourish-UNC Rwanda Team
We’ve been here for just one week, and I have been amazed by the culture we’ve experienced during this short time. This weekend we got to go downtown where the main road is blocked off to traffic, and is where many Guatemalans go to do their everyday shopping. The streets were filled with street performers and artisans trying to make a living. There were musicians, techno dancers, clowns, caricature artists, and handicraft artists hoping to make some income in addition alongside the many stands full of clothing, food, and other items. We also got to go to the local zoo which cost about 25 quetzales or a little over 3 dollars for adult admission.
When we got back to work, we were able to go on our first house visits to see what the daily life of an average “Treasure” was before starting our first workshop. Casa de Alfarero called the people who scavenged in the dump “Treasures” rather than scavengers in order to give them a sense of dignity, and to reinforce to the treasures that they were not beneath anyone. We are all equal in the eyes of God. In stark contrast to our lighthearted weekend, the three houses or shacks we visited set a more serious and emotional mood among all of us.
The first house we visited was the home of three generations of women: Virginia, Blenda, and Ruth.Virginia was the mother of of Blenda and the grandmother of Ruth, who appeared to be only 3 or 4 years old. The tiny home (maybe 10′ by 10′) consisted of metal and cardboard walls, an un-level dirt floor with one bed, a small tv, and bags and bags of recycled goods from the dump. Outside the shack was a small grill for cooking, and a rampant population of houseflies. Like most other families in this community, this family consisted of single mothers and their children struggling to sustain themselves. All of the people in this community were also living in fear in of being evicted for squatting, or living on government property without paying, and were very aware that this eviction could happen at any time.
Virginia faced mobility problems due to incorrectly prescribed medicine after a stroke, resulting in paralysis until she received the correct medication. Once she received proper treatment, she was able to rent a wheelchair weekly in order to go to Casa del Alfarero to attend workshops. The doctor recommended physical therapy and for her to remain active, which is something she struggles with today. She shared with us some of the difficulties she faced when she was paralyzed. Her daughter would prepare her food for the day before leaving to work in the dump, and little Ruth would spoon feed her. As she told us this story I could see the love that was present in this family as little Ruth hugged her grandmother tightly while recalling these tough times.
I really appreciated how all the families we visited were so open, raw, and willing to share their life story with us. They showed us the jewelry they had made from recycled goods such as plastic bags, posters, and aluminum cans. They were able to sell their jewelry in order to make a small income in addition to what they made from working in the dump. Part of our funds raised for this project will help workers like Blenda and Virginia who want to start a small business. These businesses include not only those who make jewelry, but also to those who are taking workshops to learn skills as a cook and beautician. We will be giving workshops to the people in these classes as well as starting a “Phase 2” workshop for those who were taking the entrepreneur classes on how to start up a business using the same core steps we used in Nourish to start Ventures.
For our first lesson with the Beauticians we gave a presentation about our project, who we were, and the contingencies of the class. It was fun preparing a small introduction about ourselves in Spanish and showing pictures of our own families in order to create a relationship with the people. We asked questions in order to gauge where they were in the process of creating a business in order to prepare lessons at the correct level for each class. The attendants of our class were very receptive and participated in sharing some personal stories as well as sharing their business experiences.
In future our workshops we will teach a lesson from our book we are creating, and receive feedback to improve our project for future use to those who want to start a microenterprise, and as a reference for those who are currently in the process. We will also facilitate activities where the Treatures can apply the lesson that they learned and work as a group, which many have trouble or very little experience in doing.
We still have our first lessons to give with the Jewelry Making, Cooking, and Entrepreneur classes, so we are hoping they go as well as our lesson went today. I am so excited to continue working on this project, and to be used as resource for this group of people. I feel that I am learning from them as much as they are from me, and cannot wait to see how everything progresses.
Even as I begin to adjust to life here in Honduras, every once in awhile I catch myself and realize that my surroundings, my activities, and experiences everyday here are unlike anything I would be able to do anywhere else. Whether it be the beautiful mountain drive to the hot springs, being able to navigate my way to the best local Pupuseria (a great local food we´ve discovered) from anywhere in the city, or learning a Honduran perspective on both US and Honduran politics. I think slowly the comfort zones of everyone in our group have expanded and will continue to do so as we continue our travels and eventually find work and friends in Yorito. Despite minor setbacks like attempting to navigate a bathroom in complete darkness (due to occasional power losses) and a general lack of clean clothes, we´re still foraging ahead and loving every minute of it!
The fourth Nourish-FIPAH partnership project wrapped up at the end of July quite busily and quite well. The last days in each location (Yorito, Yoro and Jesús de Otoro, Intibucá) were spent finishing the final classes and workshops, preparing resources to leave behind for future English classes (see below!), making diplomas for students who participated, and saying teary goodbyes to friends in the community, FIPAH staff, and the youth we worked with all summer.
A lot of the busy final moments were spent making sure that after we left, the infamously difficult English classes could continue at least a little more smoothly than before. The two main problems with English classes in the education centers (at least as we saw them) are that the teachers speak at most only a little more English than the students (making pronunciation a real bear), and that the books provided come with very little explanation or translation and generally make no sense. So, the Otoro team set to work recording a pronunciation CD to leave behind with the facilitators (education center teachers), including the songs that were a real hit in all their classes. Meanwhile Ms. Asia Morris, our Postcards for Progress ally in Yorito, logged many an hour with a laptop on the table and Hi, Honduras (the aforementioned textbook) on her lap, translating the entire 7th and 8th grade editions (six books in all!) We hope that these resources can be useful to students facilitators, and that in the future we can build upon them more to make the English classes more sustainably successful.
Two days before the group’s departure from Honduras, the nine of us said goodbye to our respective lovely host towns and met up on a bus to La Ceiba, the city where we started our trip and where FIPAH’s national administrative offices are. Although Ceiba has a lot to offer in beautiful beaches, snorkeling, hiking, and zip-lining, the team, being the Diligent Dilcias they are, spent all of Thursday in the FIPAH office with the general administrator, Fredy Sierra, for a series of very fruitful conversations about the project, where it was successful, what we learned, and how we can improve it next year.
The definite consensus was that what was most important and fun for us as team members were the relationships we developed over the course of two months – with the students, with our host families, with the FIPAH staff, with the kids we played soccer with. Fredy made the point that one of the greatest impacts of the project is having a group that comes back each summer to support the youth programs and participate in the exchange of ideas and worldviews. Solidarity between the Nourish students and the FIPAH youth, more so than the English classes, computer workshops, and agricultural work, is what this project is about. This makes for what on the surface looks like somewhat of a contradictory position on the continuation of the project. On the one hand, one of Nourish’s core values is sustainability, so there’s something a little discomforting about a project whose success is to an extent contingent upon its repetition each summer. But on the other hand, coming back is fundamental to what has made this project so successful. It’s in the Nourish team’s return each summer that the relationships are made stronger and the solidarity that is the greatest strength of the project is demonstrated and reinforced. I guess another way of looking at it is that the fact that there are always students interested in returning, and that FIPAH always eagerly invites us back, is in itself evidence that the project is sustainable.
So, a huge thank you to all of Nourish’s coordinators, members, and supporters for making the project happen; to the 2011 Nourish team for the work and the fun; to FIPAH for being so welcoming and supportive; and most of all to the FIPAH youth for sharing with us their communities, their work, and these two months of their time.
Business continues to go swimmingly. We completed the construction of the animal feed cooperative and have since moved onto the second major portion of the project – the family gardens. As students, we’ve excelled at this since a lot of it largely involves us simply tagging along with Pattanarak and learning from the daily operations of a successfully established local grassroots NGO. Each day, we venture out to a different community along with a few members of the Pattanarak staff and a pickup truck bed loaded with seedlings, compost and hoes. In the mornings, we typically go to a primary school or daycare center and split our time teaching and playing with the kids, and planting with them. After lunch, we truck along to a pre-designated village community, and spend some time getting to know various villagers and exchanging questions and nuggets of culture between us. Then, we split up and each accompany a family to work with them in developing their own backyard garden, finding ways to optimize the space they have and helping them to plant a diverse crop. Some of the popular varieties spanning both annuals and perennials are Thai chili peppers, Thai basil, lemongrass, papaya, green eggplant, string beans, sweet potatoes, and probably a few others that I’m forgetting. Our experiences vary from day to day, but it’s been wonderful to work alongside and converse with some of the community members. It’s difficult and oftentimes frustrating to communicate across the language barrier, but we try our best to come up with meaningful questions to ask and to share elements from our own lives with them, and we always find that they are nice beyond all reason in return. One woman at the last village we visited said to Alisa (who was translating for us at the time), “You have kind hearts and you are all very cute.” So kind. Our hearts, I mean.
Craving more of the juicy trip details but too shy to ask? Check out the personal blogs that three members of our group have been keeping (and probably updating more regularly than this one).
Bryanna — bryannacarol.blogspot.com
Celia — tellingtimeinthailand.tumblr.com
Anyways, time for bed! It’s been raining pretty consistently for the past three days and we’re hoping it doesn’t flood. Maybe it’s my overly cautious personality but I for one am not taking any chances; I’m going to bed in my swim trunks.
Today, as we returned from a visit with a local NGO focused on public health, Ajaan Somphon summarized the most important part of the first half of our project: “See,” he said, “it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You keep adding pieces to get the whole picture.” The Pattanarak staff members, especially our supervisor Ajaan Somphon, are extremely dedicated to our learning. In addition to showing and explaining Pattanarak’s initiatives, by translating savings group meetings, giving us a tour of their model gardens, etc., Ajaan Somphon and the other staff members help us learn about the situation of the people who have been displaced from Burma.
Our formal education began with Ajaan Seri’s presentation on our first day here, which explained the challenges facing the Karen and Mon people living in this area. We focused on the issues that deal with our construction and gardening projects: the historical, legal, and cultural factors that threaten the food and financial security of the border communities.
Other learning takes the shape of cultural experiences. Each Thursday morning, for example, we wander through the fish stalls and clothing shops in the weekly market, looking for our favorite fried dough with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. We brought breakfast to the monks at the village temple on a Buddhist holy day, and we play volleyball with the Pattanarak staff and children at our village’s school.
Most of our learning, though, comes from simple conversations. On our second day here, we visited the headmen of four villages where we’ll be gardening. We’ve also visited two primary schools, the staff of Pattanarak’s drop-in center, migrant workers who attend Pattanarak’s AIDS/HIV trainings, an NGO focused on public health, and dozens of strangers whom Ajaan Somphon has marched up to and drawn into conversations. Each of these conversations and experiences gives us some insight into this community and the challenges the Karen and Mon people here face. Now, after three weeks of gathering information and perspectives, a picture of Sangkhlaburi is starting to come together.
These visits and interactions have sparked dialogue within our group. Last week, at the Pattanarak drop-in center on the Burma border, Ajaan Somphon set up a meeting with migrant workers from Burma. The Thai military turns a blind eye while these workers cross the border in the morning to work in factories in Three Pagodas town, and go back to Burma at night. We met with them when they came to the drop-in center for HIV education. Ajaan Somphon and the Pattanarak staff generously arranged a conversation between the eight of us and twelve people from Burma. Though we were interested in their perspectives, and grateful for the opportunity, many members of our group felt uncomfortable with the structure of the interaction. Our questions had to be translated twice, from English to Thai and from Thai to Burmese. We didn’t want to be intrusive or offensive, so we stuck to questions like, “how long have you worked in Thailand?” and “where do your kids go when you go to work?”. We stressed that they could ask us questions, too, but they learned our ages and not much more. We left the drop-in center feeling pretty uncomfortable, like we’d put those people on the spot…that it was an intrusion rather than an exchange. We had an honest conversation with Ajaan Somphon about that visit, expressed the conflict between our curiosity and discomfort, and reached no real conclusion…
For me, on top of these sensitivities about being outsiders, there’s the emotional dilemma of becoming more and more enamored by this community as I begin to understand the problems it faces. The magnitude and complexity of the issues we’re beginning to understand don’t sit well with the kindness and light-heartedness I’ve been so impressed with, or the incredible beauty of this place. As I hear more about public health issues, legal and political marginalization, and the lack of food security, I feel simultaneously closer to and more distant from the Karen and Mon people in Sangkhlaburi.
We’ve had some good moments, though, when these questions seem irrelevant. We’ve been working hard on the pig feed co-op, and this week we worked not only with Pattanarak staff and construction workers from the community, but also with women who are members of Pattanarak savings groups and part owners of the co-op. Getting dirty and exhausted with the staff and community members is rewarding and incredibly funny. We laugh a lot about the amount we struggle and sweat compared to the cool competence of the tiny women in their 60’s. Also, the construction workers who are about half the size of the guys on our team have at least double their strength. Although I didn’t witness it, I heard all about one of our tall, buff team members falling into the river when he tried to pick up a sack of rocks. Phi Joda, a middle-aged man who’s about five feet tall and extremely muscled, cracked up, threw the bag over his shoulder, and marched easily through the current. On Wednesday, on a break from work, the women shared their pomelo and friend bananas with us, and Alisa translated a conversation about our purpose in coming to Sangkhlaburi. The women nodded acceptingly.
Check out Pattanarak’s new Facebook site for pictures from the last three weeks: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Pattanarak-Foundation/162469630486806
Our experience in Jesús de Otoro has been a bit different than that of our companions in Yorito. We spent the first week going with the FIPAH staff to various surrounding communities to do work – planting lettuce and corn, harvesting broccoli and cauliflower, and meeting with government officials to negotiate for a FIPAH bean contract. We had quite the time racing up and down mountains in the bed of the truck, hiking up even further on foot, and then trying not to fall down an almost vertical plot of land while chopping broccoli with a machete.
After our first week of adventure we settled down into our teaching schedule. Well, “schedule” as defined by our FIPAH coordinator Omar, who will occasionally, give a 20-minute warning before swinging by our hotel for the day’s mystery activities. While that’s a bit of an exaggeration, we do have a pretty unpredictable schedule. We plan our teaching schedule a few weeks at a time, and it is highly subject to change. We generally take day trips to nearby communities and overnight trips to the two “Campanarios” higher up in the mountains. There is no electricity or running water in the Campanarios, but almost every house has a car battery and a converter so they can charge their cell phones and power the fridge. Pretty cool, although it’s a long trip into town to get the battery recharged. What’s really cool is the house with a solar panel on the roof to recharge their battery system.
When we’re not teaching English in the surrounding communities or teaching computer classes in the FIPAH office, we might be out climbing the 1600 meter peak of San Juanillo, answering some questions on FIPAH’s Otoro Radio program, or attending a Honduran wedding. Of the above activities, we were surprisingly most helpful at the wedding. We woke up to a text from Omar saying that he was coming by a half hour early so we could help dress the groom, Lupe (the FIPAH employee who took us to harvest his broccoli and cauliflower). We raced up the mountain in the truck and jumped out at Lupe’s house. Omar supplied the tie, Zan tied it, and Andrea, Kristin and Avani surrounded Lupe and pinned his flower, straightened his coat and tie, and had him looking professional within minutes. We piled in the back of the truck with Lupe’s extended family (the bride and groom got to ride inside) and headed uphill to the church. When we arrived, Zan was notified that his iPhone qualified him as the official wedding photographer, and he was posted at the front next to the ring bearer and the priest. The wedding lasted a couple hours, and afterward everyone went back to Lupe’s place for delicious pork, rice, and tamales.
We’ve had a great time so far, and we’ve felt quite privileged to be included in the local events. The classes are going great, and we recently met with the president of the FIPAH youth committees about a project to do with our funds. Their needs were pretty simple – a table for their computers, a whiteboard to plan on, and a small, bio-diverse plot in each community for new crop strand experimentation. They seem just as excited about it as we are, and we’ll let you know how it goes.
It’s tough to have language classes once a week for seven weeks, coming out of nowhere and ending as abruptly as they begin. This year our English classes are supposed to culminate in some sort of final evaluation or exam of our own design that will be worth 25% of each student’s grade. But how to meaningfully teach a language when total class time will never exceed fifteen hours? The students get English class year round, but the facilitators who teach it don’t themselves speak English, and the books they’re given are such a joke as to be hardly worth the trees chopped down to make them (in my opinion). Our classes are entirely apart, based on what the students express interest in learning and what we think is important to know about our native language, but the follow-up to the classes we give is negligible. It’s easy, I know because I’ve done it, to fall into a what’s-the-point-then attitude about it all. Surely some English class is better than nothing, but considering how much English will in the end be taught and retained and be of use to the students, is it worth all the effort put in by the students to trek all the way to class, by FIPAH to host us and arrange our transportation, by us to come and organize and teach these classes?
This is damn frustrating to think about, but also not the whole story. It can’t be, or else no one would make the effort; the students wouldn’t make the trek, FIPAH wouldn’t host us, we wouldn’t come here to organize and teach. There’s a lot of value in the classes, but I think the bulk of it lies elsewhere. Somewhere beyond conjugating regular verbs in the present, or maybe somewhere between everyone’s showing up each week and playing soccer together after class. What that value is exactly I don’t know; it’s got to be different for everyone involved but even for my own part I have a hard time talking coherently about what this experience means to me. If this project is going to continue in years to come, which I hope and expect it will, vale la pena, it’s worth the trouble, to have these discussions, to articulate those things which are the most valuable and important, and rework/remodel/reframe the project’s goals and structure with that in mind.
No conclusion here, there’s still a lot of questions to be asked and thinking to be done. I just want to wrap up this post by saying how very lucky I feel to be doing this all again. Even the downest, most frustrating moments here have been a pleasure, because of the people around me and because of the boatloads I’m learning. Here’s to three more short exciting weeks.
P.S. Mary and Zan tied the baleada competition with an even 20—we’ve got two new Yorito legends on our hands!
The eight of us have spent the first week getting to know Pattanarak’s projects, goals, and staff. Seri, Pattanarak’s founder, gave us a formal presentation and introduced us to all of the staff on the first day. Since then, we have spent some time learning basic Thai from Ajan Som Pon to increase our communication with the staff. After these lessons we change into work clothes to begin mixing cement with piles of dirt from the river to form a concrete path to replace the current dirt path that floods daily. We do this work with many of the Thai, Karen, Mon, and Burmese staff members. Between our few words of Thai and their few words of English we managed to form an assembly line (better known as “ZIG ZAG!”) After passing hundreds of buckets of concrete we completed the path and began to focus on our next project, the animal feed co-op. The animal feed co-op will help people who attend trainings about raising animals for food or sale of the offspring have access to animal feed at an affordable cost. That’s all for the first week, but keep your eyes open for details about our most recent work!
We arrived in Yorito 15 days ago. It is beautiful and green. Even the people here are uncommonly gorgeous. There are hilly green mountains in all directions. Dirt roads, roosters, motorcycles, skinny dogs and horses, beans, baleadas, and pepsi. These things are everywhere and there is little else.
After several plane and bus rides, we drove 6 hours squished in the back seat of Ernesto’s truck. “Neto” loves to sing. He made us all sing with him and alone, throwing his fist backwards at us for a microphone. He really let loose to “Let’s Get Physical” and “Red Red Wine” and belted it out to Christian Rock, thumping his chest and pointing up at the sky etc. He had an endless supply of rompecabezas (riddles) and trabalenguas (tongue twisters) jokes, sayings–crude and otherwise.
The day after we arrived in Yorito was the town’s 122nd anniversary. Every year, the town band starts playing at 3am and it plays for most of the night. Sarah warned us, but it was terrifying still. It was spooky music—upbeat and eerie like something out of a scary part of Dumbo. That afternoon, everyone in Yorito was at the soccer field watching a game. Within a few minutes, Asia had at least 15 kids playing pattycake, and Shalini was jumping rope competitively. We were also included in 3 legged, sack and egg on a spoon races.
We have had one week of teaching English and computers for beginners. This year, we are traveling to surrounding communities to teach—Pueblo Viejo, Higuerro Quemado, and Victoria. The communities are higher up in the mountains—each with more fantastic views and less access to resources. On Thursdays, we get a little taste of a home stay, spending the night with families in Victoria, so that we can teach on both Thursday and Friday. The drives are as scenic and bumpy as they get—really, really bumpy and really, really beautiful. Also new—we have a beginner’s English class full of police officers who store their guns and handcuffs at the back of the room when class begins. The outline for class did not change—they, too, were made to yell the alphabet and vowel sounds to practice pronunciation and were taught “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to learn the parts of the body.
Dinner is a highlight that cannot go unwritten about. Every night, we get baleadas and fresh juice from Doña Francisca. We love Doña Francisca. She is like the town mother and her corner is a night hub. We sit on plastic stools while she makes tortillas over a rudimentary grill. This ritual is essential to our experience here. On Wednesday we will have a baleada eating competition; loser buys. Everyone thinks that Mary will win—including Akhil and Sarah who are competing against her.
Sorry for the late post! We have been kept very busy and flop into bed tired each night. There is still so much to process and cover in this bloguito. Until next time… CARIÑOS! Mary