Monthly Archives: July 2012

A Humbling Abode

Bosco is the Child Voice driver. He is a short, brown, smiley man that has taken Matt, Megan, and I out to Lukodi every workday these past few months. In the short time I’ve known Bosco, I’ve noticed that he is known and loved by everyone in the village. Our truck or van is always packed full of people on the way back into Gulu because Bosco insists on giving everyone a ride. Bosco also has the worst mumbling problem I’ve ever heard, so most of the time we have no idea what he is saying. However, this has just turned into one of his many endearing qualities. He is a devout Catholic. He adores his children more than anything, goes on rants about how much he hates cigarettes, and really loves his Pepsi.

On Sunday afternoon we were invited to Bosco’s home for dinner. Which was a huge deal, as I can’t imagine he had much money to host all of us. He picked us up in town and was unbelievably giddy. Just adorable. We met his beautiful family and then sitting in his hut, we drank sodas and talked while waiting for the food to come. I had a lump in my throat already, overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality. I had never felt so honored so be given a Fanta in my entire life.

That lump in my throat only grew larger as Bosco opened up about his life (I’m not sure if all these details are perfectly correct, but I’ll do my best to remember). Bosco’s mother was an Acoli woman who married a Kenyan man. When Bosco’s father was traveling from Kenya to see them in Uganda he was shot and killed by soldiers during the days of Idi Amin. Bosco was only two years old at the time. When Bosco was five, his mother died of illness. His widowed grandmother raised Bosco and his three siblings. In 1994, he moved to Kampala. Having never been educated, he worked in a factory and saved up enough money to put himself through driving school. He worked as a driver for the Spanish Consulate for a few years and then moved his family back to Gulu. In 2010, he was hired as a driver for Child Voice and that year his youngest child, a two year old, fell into a pot of boiling water and died from the severe burns. Bosco has every reason to be a jaded, broken, man. And yet, he sat there talking about how God was such a good father and I was just beaming looking at this life Bosco had made for himself. He has a home, he provides for his grandmother, wife, three children, two nephews, and a cousin, he sends his kids to school, and everyone seems healthy and happy.

Then came the food. Oh my gosh. There was as much food on that table as there is at Thanksgiving dinner, if not more. I think we were all sweating from eating so much, but I stuffed my stomach until I literally thought I would burst. I paid for it later, but it was all worth it.

After dinner, we said formal thank you’s to Bosco, his wife, and his grandmother (who, by the way, is ancient, but still strong and kickin’ it). His grandma insisted I greet my family and friends in America for her. Bosco told us how honored he was to have us come to his house. He said in all his life he has never had “bosses” come to see his come and family. At this point, we began to pray before leaving and I couldn’t hold the lump in my throat any longer. The tears started flowing. I was so humbled by Bosco’s life and touched by the kindness and hospitality of his family. I’ll cherish that experience for as long as I live. 

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Clayton and I with Bosco
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Today was the last day at Simprosa’s. The girls drew a hope/dream of theirs on in the sketchbooks we gave them. This is Alice. Her dream is for their business to grow, to send her children to school, and for her children to know much about God.
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Baby Naomi just couldn’t stay awake for the lesson.

 

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Microfinance Part 2 (What I’ve been up to all summer!!!)

            What do you do if you went through hell and back living in the bush with the LRA? What if after being reintegrated to you home community, you make less than a dollar a day and every single shilling you earn and food you eat comes from your garden? What if you are the only income earner in a household that includes your child, 4 brothers, and their 5 children.  It is on your shoulders to garden the fields, run a bakery business, make sure that 6 children’s school fees are paid each term, and 11 mouths are fed. What do you do? What do you do if you are taking care of infant twin boys, their two older brothers, and two additional children from your former co-wife that is no longer in the picture? You are trapped. These are the true stories of former ChildVoice graduates Scovia, Stella, and Mercy.  I have spent the summer hearing these and other girls’ stories, and trying to come up with a plan to help them help themselves out of the trap that war and poverty have ensnared them in.

            Last summer, CVI gave out 7 microloans ranging from $40-$80.  Some women repaid the loans in full, some partially repaid, some didn’t pay back a single shilling, and even one girl had the supplies she bought the loan with stolen.  It has been Brad (another intern) and my mission this summer to find out what worked, what didn’t work, and how ChildVoice can make improvements to the program to give the best chance for the girls to start and maintain a successful business, while ensuring the best chance for ChildVoice to recover payments.

            It has been an awesome experience creating surveys to interview the girls who have received loans.  We constructed an extensive questionnaire that targeted the positive/negative aspects of the loan process, got a breakdown of household income and living expenses, identified the availability and prevalence of savings among the women, and gauged the interests in potential new financial services that could help the girls all in order to paint a complete financial portrait to move forward. We interviewed in Gulu, 30 minutes away in the village of Lukodi, and even two and a half hours away in another district altogether.  It was very eye opening and humbling to sit down and talk with the women in their own villages and to get an idea of the economy of village life for many women.

            In my microfinance blog post from about a month ago I talked about the principle of group liability whereby a loan is given to a group (usually women) and if a member misses her payment then the rest of the group is liable for her share or else they will be disqualified from future loans.  The purpose of this method is to shift the burden of administration and liability to the group rather than the lending organization. This helps trim costs and mitigate the high risk of lending to the poorest of poor.  While interviewing the loan recipients, we also visited local and international microfinance institutions in Gulu to see how they ran their operations, but also to see if they could be potential partners to issue loans to ChildVoice graduates. 

            These microlenders utilize the traditional group loans, and because of that we decided to implement our own individualized loans for a couple of reasons.  The biggest reason for doing so is simply geographical: the girls are scattered around northern Uganda and the ability to meet regularly as a group would be much too impractical. The most successful groups are made up of people from the same village, and there is a fundamental element of trust and cohesion that acts as a natural screening process to weed out people that would hold the group down.  The other reason we moved away from the standard group model is because ChildVoice is not and never will be a financial institution.  The purpose and mission of ChildVoice is to restore and to renew women who have been broken by war.  ChildVoice exists solely for the aforementioned Scovia, Stella, and Mercy and girls like them.  This is by no means a blanket statement for all lending institutions, but I get the impression that many exist for the bottom line rather than the welfare of the recipients.  They take a hard line stance and measure success in repayment without regard to the psychological impacts on the women.

            With that being said, we’ve added aspects to the program that we hope will help mitigate the risk.  We feel the most important aspect is compulsory savings.  Whatever the loan amount is, let’s say 100,000 Uganda Shillings (about $40), the girls have to save up 25% of the loan, which in this case would be 25,000 UGX (about $10).  ChildVoice would keep this money in a safe, and if the women pay back the loan on time then they get the savings back in full, but if they default (after 4 months) then ChildVoice will retain the savings as collateral.  Balancing grace and firmness is a delicate dance, but we feel like the compulsory savings is a far more compassionate action then humiliating the women by confiscating property or taking legal action.  Additionally, it promotes a culture of savings that is sorely lacking in the region.

ChildVoice has a very unique and I believe exciting opportunity with their microloan program.  The girls that graduate from CVI have a profound amount of trust and gratitude toward ChildVoice, and ChildVoice has a firmly entrenched commitment to see these girls not only be rehabilitated, but to thrive.  This relationship, forged through 18 months of emotional and spiritual counseling, vocational training, business classes, and flat-out love, is something that is extremely rare in the complex and challenging world of international development. So yes, there is an extreme amount of risk in giving an individual loan to a formerly abducted girl, a girl who does not have a pre-existing business in which to add capital (a huge faux-pas in the world of microfinance), but if ChildVoice does not give this loan then who does?  How does the girl who has to support 10 others in one small hut make money if jobs are not available and she cannot save enough money to start a business on her own? ChildVoice knows there’s huge risk at stake, but if the reward is a woman lifting herself and her family up—or evening keeping themselves afloat—with dignity then they have to go for it.

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Black Marks

Two weeks. That’s all the time we have left in Gulu. Oh, how time has escaped us. There have been days that drag on forever, but the weeks have flown by. Over the weekend we had the incredible privilege of going on a safari drive where we were feet away from elephants, buffalo, hippos, giraffes, and lions. Sitting atop the van, overlooking the vast expanse that is Uganda, I was in complete awe. We also took a boat tour down the Nile River and hiked up to the top of Merchison Falls. It was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. That night we slept at the Sambiya River Lodge, which was an experience in itself. Megan and I bunked up in a little Banda and woke up at 4 AM to baboons on our roof. It was one of those moments where although we were initially alarmed and then annoyed, we just lied in bed laughing. Only in Africa, right?

Saturday we drove to Kampala and spent a couple of days exploring the capitol city before we said our goodbyes to Brad at the airport (If you’re reading this, you are severely missed). Kampala was like a mini re-introduction into our own culture. There were shopping malls, movie theaters, and restaurants that served things like Greek wraps and Chicken Parmesan. But there were also slums and kids on the street carrying scales asking if you wanted to weigh yourself for 2,000 shilling. It was very overwhelming, actually. They say for every week you live overseas it takes two to officially normalize. I don’t know how long it will take me to reach homeostasis, or rather, if I ever want to fully reach it. I don’t know what culture shock will look like for me yet. I picture 22 weeks of potential mental breakdowns in Hy-Vee and crying over hot shower water. Maybe 22 weeks of thinking things like, “WHY DO PEOPLE BUY NAPKINS?” or “I might projectile vomit on whoever is spending $1,000 on clothes at J.Crew”. I don’t know.

Alright. That’s probably enough of my personal ramblings. If you’re interested, this week’s art therapy activity went a little like this:

Each girl has a few minutes to draw whatever she would like. After a while, Megan and I asked them to close their eyes. With eyes closed, Megan and I took black markers and drew some sort of line on their drawing. Essentially, we messed up their pretty little pictures. After we let them express their shock and sadness, we challenged them to make the black mark a part of their drawing. Turn it into something. Don’t let it ruin the picture, but instead think of it as an opportunity to create something new or different.

And just like that the black lines went from being dark, obstructive, and out of place to being jump ropes, snakes, mountains, gardens, boats, hearts, etc.

Sometimes in life someone or something comes along and messes up your picture. You weren’t ready for it. Your eyes were closed. Maybe you opened up your eyes only to see that someone abducted you at 14 years old and now you’re forced into killing people with your bare hands. Maybe you opened your eyes only to see that your spouse cheated on you and ran off with all your money. Maybe you opened your eyes only to see your house burning in a forest fire. Maybe you opened your eyes only to see that the dream you were chasing is never going to be a reality. Black marks look different for everyone, but they invade all of our pictures from time to time. A lot of people let black marks define their pictures. But, like we told the girls, “You and God in you are capable of making something good and beautiful come from something that once seemed dark and horrible.”

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The Final Countdown

With 2 weeks left of this incredible journey, here’s a look at some of our experiences this summer.

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Fingerprints

Megan: “Today we’re going to have you each come up to the tree one-by-one and press your fingers into the ink pad before putting your finger prints on the tree. Your finger prints will cover the tree to make the leaves. Each of our finger prints is different. Not one is alike. Just like each one of you is completely unique, but together you each make up an important part of your school. What would a tree be without it’s leaves? What would St. Martin’s be without you?”

Translator: “Hmm. Each finger print is different? Oh yes. Well, I don’t think these children have ever seen their finger prints before but now they will! (continued translation)”

Me (in my head): “…What? They’ve never seen their finger print before?!”

And you could tell. Each kid came up and very carefully and delicately put their fingers on the ink pad, usually forgetting which one they had already stamped. They looked at their hands in wonder and gently one-by-one the bare tree on the sheet of paper became full of red and blue leaves (hey, it’s the only colors we had). It was an incredible time for many reasons. One, because these kids don’t feel like an important part of their school or important in general. But for one hour a week they get to be the center of attention and today they learned that God made each one of them completely different and unique. Two, because watching kids see their finger print for the first time at 9-14 years old is mind blowing and three, because it was pouring rain and so we got to use a classroom (I had never been in a Ugandan classroom before). 

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 “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,so in Christ we, though many, form one body,and each member belongs to all the others.We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” Romans 12:4-6 (NIV)

“For you created my inmost being;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.” Psalm 139: 13-14 (NIV)

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Memories, Masks, Mantras

We took Wednesday off from work last week to celebrate our nation’s birthday, and my own. Thanks for all the birthday wishes from home and to my team mates for making the day so awesome! We stuffed ourselves silly with french toast (“freedom toast”), pizza, burgers, and s’mores, decked every inch of our bodies in red, white, and blue, danced to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, watched Independence Day, had a badminton tournament, and my personal favorite, sang the national anthem super loud for everyone in our neighborhood to hear so they would have one more reason to think Munos are crazy. Apart from being the one who had to call my friends and family on my birthday and the lack of fireworks, it really wasn’t all that different from most 4th of Julys. It was a day of home away from home.

Last week Megan and I started writing an art therapy activity manual for Child Voice so they can continue implementing it at the center if they wish and for our activity at various places we made masks where one side was to represent your inner self and the other side what you show the world. I think we, as humans, are all mask-wearers. What is ironic is that most people have an easier time talking about their inner self than the self that they show the world on a daily basis (not that the two are always entirely different). I had a heart ache seeing that so many kids are really hurting on the inside despite their jubilant behavior around us. I obviously expected this, but I hate knowing that they don’t have the resources most of us are fortunate to have. There is no school guidance counselor or therapy clinic. I read in the newspaper that there are only 13 psychiatrists in all of Uganda. Most of these kids don’t even have a set of parents to talk to let alone a trained professional.

But my mantra is this: One. One. One. One. If just one activity in one hour on one day helps one kid, it has to be worth it. And this helps calm my anxious feelings. I like this little mantra of mine because it’s easy and simple, but “one” is a spiritual word, too. One is what God is in all His unity and wholeness. I try to be optimistic because I also don’t know, and will probably never know is what is happening inside. A lot of therapy and healing is invisible. For a while, at least. I think this invisibility is spiritual, too. When I hear, read, or see something profound; something that grabs my attention, there is often a shift that happens and God does something in me that no one else sees in that moment (unless my immediate reaction is to start crying, which If I’m honest with myself, isn’t entirely unlikely).

The highlight of the week was at Simprosa’s when sweet, brave, Judith told Megan and I that she was so grateful that we were there because the therapy has really helped her deal with her emotions and see that God is a God of restoration. It was such sweet relief to hear those words. To hear that what we’re doing is working. But I couldn’t let myself soak in that too long because it wasn’t me that was working. It was church. It was community. It was Emmanuel with us.  Maybe that is like saying church or religion is therapy, but I would dare to say it is therapy, among many other things. I read in the book Still this week, “The real problem lies not in recognizing the therapeutic balm in the gospel; the real problem is going through life thinking that the health you need can be found elsewhere.” Amen.

This week will be a shorter one as we head for Kampala before the sun comes up Friday morning. We will be going on a safari and seeing some waterfalls!!! We’re not the least bit antsy for this at all. And after that fun is done we will be taking Brad, who is leaving us Monday, to the airport. Two weeks from that day we head to Kampala again to prepare for our own departure. This African adventure is winding down, folks. Thank you again to everyone who has supported us. We are SO grateful to get to use our gifts and passions here in Uganda and will promise to make the most of these next few weeks.

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It was a happy birthday!
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Mask Makers
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Judith

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