Finally. After nearly a year, here’s my first try on ze blog at answering the much-asked question: “So…what is it that you actually DO there? Like, work.”
I haven’t made any serious attempt to write about this yet because whenever I try, the answer itself contains so many questions. And then it grows extremely long-winded and circuitous.
That said, I’m giving it a shot now. Please forgive the length.
Peace Corps Uganda places its volunteers with local organizations. Ideally these host organizations provide PCVs with their primary work (as well as their housing), and, if there’s time, the volunteer can undertake secondary projects in the community.
My host organization is called CHDECO, short for Children Development Co-operation. CHDECO works “to promote and ensure the rights of orphans and the most vulnerable children through a holistic intervention which emphasizes education, vocational, and life skills training for self-sufficiency.”
The organization was formed in response to a very real and widespread problem here in Uganda. Between poverty and war and AIDS, children have lost parents on a massive scale. While Uganda’s approach to dealing with the AIDS epidemic has been held up as an example in the international arena, the virus continues to have widespread effects that are felt most acutely in border areas. Here in Tororo, CDC figures still site infection rates at approximately 28 percent among adults. Every day, I interact with many adults and children who are living with HIV.
According to published estimates, around 14 percent of Ugandan children have lost one or both parents. This is in a society where a big family is the norm. And by big I mean that the AVERAGE woman gives birth to 7 children in her lifetime. Families of 12 or 14 kids are not at all unusual. Plus, many men have multiple wives, meaning that 20-some kids can share one father (which is largely still synonymous with breadwinner here– not that women don’t work very hard; their work is just largely not given monetary value). Most of the country’s population lives in rural areas where the family members engage in agriculture for survival. So you can begin to imagine what happens when a parent dies.
Many orphans are abandoned or left in the care of relatives who are too often not financially or otherwise equipped to deal with another child’s physical, emotional, and educational needs. Orphans are incredibly vulnerable to physical mistreatment, sexual exploitation, child labor, neglect, and psychological abuse. Many times they drop out of school because they cannot pay the required fees.
So CHDECO endeavors to lighten the burden placed both on the children and on the guardian. The organization currently supports around 300 orphans and other vulnerable children. This support is given in such a way that children may stay with relatives in the community instead of facing the isolation and stigma often experienced by children in orphanages. CHDECO assists with school fees, scholastic materials, vocational skills training, nutritional support, assistance in accessing health services, and some provision of basic household items. CHDECO staff conducts school and home visits to provide psychosocial support. Children also attend recreational events organized by the CHDECO during their school holidays.
Where I fit in.
So that’s what CHDECO does. But what is it that I do as their Peace Corps volunteer?
My work is, most simply, to work with my Ugandan counterparts to see how CHDECO can improve. So far, this means working to do the following:
decrease the organization’s dependence on outside funding
increase participation by kids and their guardians in organization decision-making
decrease dependence of kids/guardians on the organization by providing them with income generation activities so that they may become self-sufficient
improve record-keeping and efficiency at the organization with computer training
train kids in skills that will help them to become better students, healthy citizens
CHDECO’s work is possible, in large part, thanks to donations by generous individuals and organizations from abroad. This makes CHDECO and, by extension, the orphans it supports almost completely dependent on outside funds for survival. Programming control lies partially with external forces.
For example, if PEPFAR (President Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, an incredible initiative which, no matter what you think of Mr. Bush, is helping a lot of people around the world) is not renewed before March of 2009, 175 children who currently receive support through CHDECO will be abruptly cut off.
Another example of why dependence on external aid is problematic: When a child turns 18 years old, he no longer qualifies as a child according to USAID. And yet, in many cases, children dropped out of school for a number of years after the death of a parent. CHDECO supports some of these children so that they can return to school, but more often than not they cannot yet be self-sufficient at the age of 18. The organization cannot, in good conscience, abandon all children who are 18 and above. Many of these individuals need an extra push past the age of 18 to complete their education or receive vocational training.
It’s always difficult to explain to an orphan that he or she cannot continue at school due to funding agency decisions or political priorities on the other side of the world, and yet this is the reality faced by many organizations that are doing good work. In addition, chasing after outside funding (writing proposals and fulfilling various donor requirements) tends to eat up time and energy that could be used in actually delivering services to community members.
In order to lessen CHDECO’s reliance on external funding sources, I have helped the orgainzation establish a poultry project for making local income. Land, labor, and many other inputs were provided by the organization and community members, while the remaining funds came from one of CHDECO’s international donors. Work at the site began in August 2007, and structures for housing 800 chickens (600 layers, 200 broilers) are now complete. Chicks should arrive within this month, once the buildings are connected to electricity.
On the land that is not used by the buildings, we planted some crops, that are selling generate income and giving to some CHDECO families that require nutritional support. I helped digging in the field at one point, which everyone found hilarious. I’m always happy to entertain.
One of the challenges I found upon arriving to work with CHDECO was that organization staff was largely designing project proposals in the office. The writing of these projects, which were meant to transform the lives of children and families, did not include said children or families in the design process. Essentially, the organization was relying on a top-down approach because it was convenient. Children and families were geographically dispersed and not organized amongst themselves. Many times there were various unforeseen challenges when it came to project implementation.
In order to address this, the organization called area meetings with CHDECO children and their guardians in December. There, we conducted a participatory needs assessment exercise so that everyone, including children themselves, could contribute their answers to the question “What are the most pressing problems facing children in our community?” From there, groups brainstormed possible community actions that they could take in order to solve the problems.
In addition to the needs assessment, each area meeting elected leaders to the CHDECO Children’s Advisory Committee and the CHDECO Guardians’ Advisory Committee. I helped conduct leadership training for both the children and guardians in January, and each comittee has now held its first two meetings. The committees are involved in ongoing discussion both with CHDECO and with their communities as to how we can work to improve the lives of orphans.
I have particularly enjoyed working with the children’s committee. Chlidren here are not often encouraged to speak up and offer ideas, but this group is opening up and has already offered some really creative suggestions for how they can help themselves and how CHDECO can support them. It has been rewarding to watch them work and grow.
Teach a Man to Fish…er, Pig.
In addition to making income on the level of the organization, CHDECO is working to see that children and guardians get training so that they can generate some income on the household level in order to become self-sufficient. We are in the early stages designing a piggery project that will give families new skills so that they may rely less on the organization for support.
Those of you who know me probably laugh at the idea that I would teach anyone computers. And yet, here I am. Any computer knowledge is incredibly valuable here.
Literally minutes ago, a stranger in the internet cafe asked if I’m a wizard due to my typing speed. My Microsoft Excel skills (which any American employer would probably deem negligible) provoke requests for lessons.
Anyone who says that computers are not “appropriate technology” for Uganda clearly forgets what life was like before computers. Whereas in an American office, an employee would open up the database file, click a few buttons, and print out a list of clients or tasks in three minutes, my coworkers still spend hours and days compiling the basic lists and paper files they need to do their work. The new system that I am developing will save them hours of tediousness, freeing their time for work in the community.
This is the work I enjoy most. When the kids CHDECO supports are on vacation from school, I get to spend time with them. They teach me lots of new things (how to dance, lyrics to Luganda pop songs, what stupid mistakes I still make when I speak Dhopadhola) while I teach them what we call Life Skills.
Many HIV prevention programs are very good at giving people the information they need to make informed decisions. As a result, people are becoming more and more aware of the facts about HIV and how they can protect themselves. Yet, this knowledge does not necessarily lead to behavior change. Even if a young girl knows that sleeping with an older married man who offers to pay her school fees in return will put her at risk for HIV, she often lacks the skills to actually take the safest path. Even if a wife knows that her husband is cheating on her and is afraid that she will get the virus, she does not have the power or ability to negotiate condom use. The knowledge is there; certain “life” skills are missing.
So this explains the approach. While I do give lots of basic information about HIV/AIDS, I mostly do exercises with kids that give them a chance to learn and practice skills like decision-making, negotiation, goal-setting, and assertive communication that will enable them to protect themselves when they face a risky situation.
Back in September, I did a public speaking exercise with a group of 12 girls, and it was amazing. They started off covering their mouths when the spoke, looking down at their shoes. They were literally inaudible as they said their names during introductions. By the end of the day, they were laughing loudly and making goofy presentations for one another. It seems simplistic, but I do think that sometimes just giving them the chance to practice audibly saying “no” or demanding to be heard makes some difference.
With another group, I had the kids draw “life maps” that they used to describe their goals for the future, and we discussed what they can do to make sure they stay on the road they have planned.
As time goes on, I am doing more of this work. I have most enjoyed getting to know the kids. By becoming friends along the way, I hope I can teach at least some of them that respecting elders does not necessarily need to mean fearing them.
So there you have it.
There’s my lengthy summary of the work I’m trying to do in Tororo. That said, accomplishing all of this work involves lots of small things (eating absurd quantities of millet bread, hours of waiting, attempting to speak Dhopadhola, attending family functions, getting peed on by babies, greeting absolutely everyone all the time) that at first glance don’t appear to be directly related but are probably the most important of all.
I definitely still have plenty of questions about what I’m doing here. I’m just getting more comfortable not having all the answers.