Monday, October 4, 2010

daily grind

I have been in Mukono for about two months now, and it finally feels like I have a home here. I am settling into my community, and work is starting to take shape. I realize that I haven’t talked much about work up to this point, and large part of that has been because I haven’t been anywhere long enough to actually figure things out well enough to write about it, but I think it’s finally time.

The best way to describe my role here would be to say that I am a micro-consultant. Once a week, people come to my counterpart, Margaret, and me with a veritable laundry list of issues. They come as orphans, widows, victims of HIV / AIDS / malaria / malnutrition / domestic violence. Some are physically or developmentally disabled. Some have almost no education. Some are just looking for a handout. So, every Monday we hold a group session where we hear from and speak with anywhere from 10-40 people about their stories. They may come asking for school fees, for food, for land, for just about anything, but in the end it always comes down to one basic thing. Money.

Everything Margaret and I do the rest of the week stems from that. One of the first things we do is to go through and verify each person’s story by going to their home for a sort of surprise inspection. If it weren’t for the fact that I get to walk through some beautiful areas in a tropical climate, this part of the job would be completely without reward. Only two things can happen once we actually arrive at the person’s home. They are either as impoverished and desperate as they said, or they lied and are trying to exploit us. Either way, it is usually a bit of a downer.

Before my arrival, the Catholic Church, backed by 4 Italian nuns and their benefactors from home, used to simply verify the situations of those who came asking for help and then start giving them the money/land/house/food they had asked for. When Italy was hit by the global economic crisis, the nuns remained but the funds dried up. That is why they brought me in. My main task here in Kisoga is to devise and implement programs to economically stimulate the people in need. This is what takes up the bulk of my time, and it is by far the most challenging aspect of my work.

Currently, my organization is running three programs to boost individuals’ incomes. The first is my counterpart Margaret’s project which targets mainly healthy young men and women. It is a community garden in which we have bought a large tract of land and divided it up to allow people to stake their own plot, come and work the land themselves, and keep all of the food/profits that they earn. Margaret, another coworker, and I even go help them work the land once a week. I once had a laugh with my friend from back home because her mom was under the impression that I was hacking away at the bush with a machete all day. Well, that’s pretty much exactly what you will find me doing every Tuesday now. Despite having had a lot of interest in this project initially, turnout has been beyond poor. Of the 30+ people that have shown interest, only 3 people have shown up to work, and of those, only one does so on a regular basis. It’s really disheartening to see, but at the same time it’s fairly understandable. Where is the motivation to work on a farm for years to pay for your house when my organization just built your neighbor one two years ago for free. People either don’t understand or don’t believe us when we tell them that that money is no longer there. The following is a conversation I had with a local woman just yesterday on my way to work:

Her: You have not yet come to build me my house. I asked a month ago, and still you have not come.
Me: I’m very sorry, but, as we told you, we don’t have money to build houses. You have to come to one of our programs and earn the money.
Her: But my husband died last year of AIDS.
Me: That’s terrible. I’m so sorry, but the money just is not there to build any more houses.
Her: - And I have nine children, and the three oldest removed me from the house because I have AIDS.
Me: I’m sorry. There isn’t any money right now, but -
Her: - And now I have to care for the other six children and I have no food and no money and no house.
Me: I’m very sorry, but we don’t have any money, but if you follow me to my crafts group and you work hard you will definitely be able to make enough money for your family.
Her: Why don’t you give me money? Some of my children are even having AIDS. Isn’t my story sad?
Me: It’s very sad. We still don’t have any money though.
Her: I will go to where I stay now and wait for you to come build my house.

The second project I am involved in is Sister Judith’s, my supervisor. Backed by one of the few remaining Italian benefactors we have left, we are starting up a vocational school to train young people in sewing and tailoring. My role here relates pretty exclusively to the budget. I was told outright that I was chosen for this role not only because of my financial experience in my past life, but because of the experience I had at my first site and my unwillingness to bend on certain issues. This has made me a bit of a lightning rod, as some of the outside experts that we have brought in have already let me know exactly how they feel about me and my tight control over the project’s budget. This doesn’t sound like much fun, but I know I have the support of Margaret and Sister Judith and I am glad that I can contribute something.

The final project is a crafts group made up of some of the women of Kisoga. Within my organization, we say that it is “my project” but the truth is I only asked the women what they wanted/liked to do, set up a few ground rules with them, and they have been running with it ever since. It is more theirs than mine. The basic idea behind this group is that these are women who have specific ideas on how to sustain themselves; they just need a little help to get there. The solution is to create handcrafts to sell where I have found a small market for them in America. The crafts are a means, not an end. These women know they cannot hope to continue to export handmade crafts for the rest of their lives, so we have planned out with each woman a way to take the money they earn and turn it into something that is sustainable for them in the long run. So far we are only working on paper bead necklaces, and the women are still learning, but we hope to soon have enough ready to ship to America where my Mom and Aunt Elle have very generously agreed to sell the necklaces in their salon and send every cent of profit back to the women here. The group is footing the cost of all of the materials and shipping themselves. Each necklace takes an incredible amount of time and attention to detail. I feel like these are very important things. They are working so hard and investing a lot of their time and what little money they have into their own futures. They are not looking for handouts; they are just hoping to catch a break. When they have earned enough money, the idea is that they will “graduate” from the group, take the money they have earned, and begin to work on the plan we have set up together. If you can read between the lines, it is probably fairly obvious that this is the project that I am the most excited about, and I feel like we have a real shot at being successful for these women.

So that’s basically what I do these days. I’m fairly busy right now, but I know that as my projects mature my part in them diminishes so I’m always looking for new ideas. Until then though, I’ll continue to hammer out the numerous kinks and try to keep the updates coming on the successes and failures of my current projects.

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