Microfinance Part 1

Microfinance! Microloans! Microenterprise OH MY! The panacea to cure all poverty!   A few years back I heard about the phenomenon that was sweeping the development world, and even crossing over to the celebrity advocacy world.  Bono was calling for it, politicians on both ends of the ideological spectrum were touting it, even the gorgeous sweetheart, Natalie Portman, is a ambassador and spokeswoman for a microfinance organization. The idea is simple.  Give a small loan to the poorest of poor that fall through the financial cracks of commercial banks.  Some people are so poor that they are incapable of manifesting adequate collateral, and are thus deemed too risky and too much hassle to be the recipient of a loan.  Long story short, along came the Bangladeshi economics professor, Muhammad Yunis. He created an experiment and used his own cash to issue loans to women entrepreneurs on a tiny scale. Yunis found it was a huge success, and started the Grameen Bank. He would prove to be the pioneer and trailblazer that would kick-start an explosion that would result in millions and millions of loans being issued in slums and villages on every continent.

There are many different variations to administer microloans, but most lenders follow a few tenants. Loans are typically given to groups.  Groups can range from as small as 5 people to as large as 30.  The group all pays at the same time, and if the group defaults on the loan, then they will not be issued any further loans. If one person is unable to repay her share then others will pay for her. This creates a group liability because nobody wants to pay another persons’ burden, the group will create a peer pressure effect where they will do their darndest to make sure every member holds on to their end of the bargain.  The group will also support and encourage each other by giving advice, bouncing ideas off each other, and cultivating friendships and community.  Lending organizations love giving to groups because it shifts the burden of administration largely to the groups.  It is so much easier for a loan officer to visit a group of 15 people once a month, than to make 15 individual trips to 15 people.  It is also necessary to lower administrative costs because often times loan officers have to spent a lot of time and resources to travel to remote villages to collect loans.  Also, with giving to the poor, they are often instructing undereducated and at times illiterate people, so the loan officers have to spent costly time to educate them on business and budgeting concepts.  As previously mentioned, poorer people also have more risk, and lending organizations turn to group liability to help absorb the costs of missed payments.

It is also estimated that some %90 of all loan recipients are women.  Women are the backbone of the developing world’s culture (just like my mom and wife have been the solid bedrocks to my life. Amazing women, straight up).  They work the fields, earn the wages, and take care of the family.  They are also typically the most fiscally responsible of the two genders.  Unfortunately they are not who hold the power in relationships.  Men so often hoard money for their own pleasures, and if the woman objects, they run the risk of being abused verbally, physically, and even sexually.  Many microlenders give to women with the social goal to empower them, but also because they many times have the best rate of repayment.

It’s easy to see why microfinance became all the craze.  Repayment rates for many organizations were better than some commercial banks, so it appears to be self-sustaining. Conservatives love it because it’s a “hand up, rather than a hand out”.  People are able to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps.  Liberals also love it because it has huge potential to be socially empowering to woman, and many social programs can be enacted concurrently to disbursing loans.  Stories after stories of success were highlighted where women were able to lift themselves up out of poverty.  Woman would buy a sowing machine with their first microloan, and then in subsequent loans would build a business and employ multiple other woman.  People gobbled it up. Huge aid organizations and tiny NGOs alike designed and implemented programs.  Governments, philanthropists, venture capitalists all threw huge amounts of money at this miracle cure to poverty.  The end to material suffering was over!

Wait a second. Time out.

Solving the world’s greatest problem couldn’t be that easy, could it?

Let’s look at it this way. Are you an entrepreneur? Do you even aspire to own your own business? Would you be willing to take out a loan to do this?  Some of you would obviously answer yes to this, but I personally have no desire whatsoever to do what it takes to launch my own business.  I definitely don’t have the know-how to manage people, suppliers, budgeting, marketing, and all the other myriads of aspects of running a business. Even if I were to have all that knowledge and drive to succeed, there’s still the chance that the business simply won’t work.  The fact is, not every person is meant to be an entrepreneur.  All these microfinance organizations put out these heartwarming success stories. That’s awesome. There are truly remarkable stories coming out of microenterprise and I want to celebrate that.  The problem arose though because the movement in large part grew on anecdotal evidence rather than hard quantitative, randomized study that shows causation.

The pristine and promising name of microfinance eventually started to take some hit in the last few years for a number of reasons.  Just as there were heart-warming stories of success of the loans, eventually the gut-wrenching stories of failure emerged.  It’s hard enough hearing stories of people stuck in poverty, but when they are pitched deeper into poverty through the debt they take on, it can be truly demoralizing.  It cannot be understated that taking on debt is a huge risk.  This is especially true for the poor, who have many less buffers from shock than we do.  When school fees take up well over %50 of you income, when war, famine, or natural disaster strike, when easily treatable diseases become life threatening, or when an irresponsible husband siphons money for alcohol, even the most prudent and savvy business person cannot cope with such a razor thin line of disaster.  The microfinance name also took a huge hit when stories came out of India that the pressure of debt became so great on some that there became repeated instances of suicide.

In addition to the horror stories mentioned above, peoples’ attitudes began to cool toward microfinance when for-profit lenders saw the economic bubble growing in the microfinance industry. Instead of benevolent organizations such as Muhammad Yunis’s Grameen Bank, some predators came looking to make profit.  I am not saying that all for-profit microlenders are swindlers and cheats, because they are not, but it muddied the waters. In fact some large nonprofits opened themselves up to public investments and gained for-profit status.   In some countries, just like with our current financial crisis, there was an oversaturization of lenders that were pushing bad loans on people, many people became multiple borrowers, and many people defaulted on their loans and the bubble burst.  All of these issues converged and critics started to paint microfinance to be glorified payday loan sharks; usury at it’s finest.

So hold on.  At first it was a cure, now it’s a curse?

In reality, microfinance is neither.  Under the right circumstances loans can be a great and empowering thing, but under the wrong circumstances they can have disastrous consequences.  Diligent researchers are exploring when it is successful and when it is not.  It is important to have a balanced view of the subject, and to maintain an open, yet critical framework.  Child Voice has tried microfinance with some of their former graduates with mixed results.  Brad, another intern and I, have the pleasure of exploring what worked, what didn’t, and how we can improve upon the program.  This blog is too long, so I will post another blog soon and I will let you know what we have been up to!  I will just say, it has been truly inspiring to learn of the stories the girls have gone through and are continually facing. STAY TUNED!!

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Art Therapy Session: Fear Balloon

As many of you have probably seen in pictures and video, this week for Art Therapy we blew up balloons and had the kids identify one or several things they are scared of to draw on the balloon. I love the extent to which they get immersed in their drawings. There are some really incredible artists!

We explained to the kids that this would be an exercise to help them understand we have some control over what we fear. Then they got to run around and stomp on the balloon, destroying their fear. They loved this. We loved it. We went over 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of instruction” and prayed together asking God to give us peace and comfort when we are confronted with things that scare us.

If any of you are wondering what the kids drew, I’ll indulge you. There were pictures of snakes, elephants, lions, dogs, ghosts, witch doctors, soldiers, guns, fighting, and even a few cars. Oh, and I can’t forget that there was one Godzilla.

It was a great week and things definitely went more smoothly than last week, but I thought I would share a few things I’ve learned as an Art Therapy intern.

Things get lost in translation: At one of the schools we are provided with a translator and at the other we’re totally on our own. Last week at the school with a translator the boys and girls were in separate groups, but both were given the instruction to create a timeline of important events in their life. The boys did this. But for whatever reason all the girls drew pictures of churches and/or their mothers. We have no idea what happened. At the school without a translator we did our best to slowly and simply explain that they were to draw their fears or things they were scared of on balloons. A few minutes into the activity we noticed they were drawing things like chickens, flowers, food, etc. I managed try and redirect them by acting out/using the example of a snake and then I think they understood but…

Don’t use examples: Then there were snakes on every balloon. Not that snakes aren’t scary, or common here, but it doesn’t give us much to work with when it comes to sharing time.

Get used to being a spectacle: I don’t know what I was expecting. A classroom? An office space? A cleared spot of land? Well, we take to art therapy sessions in a grass field or spare hut/gazebo thing where LITERALLY hundreds of children who were not selected to be a part of the art therapy group (Oh how I wish we had the manpower and supplies to work with all the students, but there are 800 of them) crowd around and watch. It’s only a little bit distracting…

Don’t ask for privacy: We told our translator to kindly ask the onlookers to leave so the kids could have some privacy during the session. The translator said something in Luo to the masses and then we observed some older kids out of nowhere pick up sticks and begin whipping people with it as everyone ran away. Oops. Didn’t mean to inflict violence on anyone (not that anyone appeared hurt)! But I didn’t see anyone draw a person with a stick on their balloon, so it must be a cultural thing.

I would write about what Clayton is doing, but he would do a much better job of explaining it, so once he’s recovered from his sinus cold (not fun or expected, but he’ll take it over malaria) I’ll bug him to write a blog.

We LOVE our team, continue to believe in the incredible vision and work of Child Voice, and are committed to finding more ways to serve the community here and immerse ourselves in the culture during the day. We love and miss Gateway, all our friends, family, and co-workers back home! We’re thinking and praying for you.

 

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Mama Cecelia

Cecelia was born in 1966, making her the same age as my own parents. She was married and pregnant with TRIPLETS when the LRA attacked her village and captured her husband. Four months after delivering triplet boys (oy!) she heard news of her husband’s death. As a single twenty-year-old mother of three boys, the hospital director where she delivered sort of took Cecelia under her wing, but sadly passed away from Ebola years later. Cecelia worked as a teacher and choir director most of her life and eventually remarried and had a daughter, Mercy, with her second husband. Her second husband died of Malaria. Widowed twice, with four mouths to feed, Cecelia eventually found work as a matron and nurse at Child Voice. Today she oversees “our girls” (Concy, Grace, and Vivian) who help cook, clean, and look after us. Her daughter is still in high school and her triplet boys are all finished and hoping to get sponsored for a college education (which I calculated to be just over $300 each per semester. I didn’t bother mentioning it costs us about $15,000 per semester at home).

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Cecelia loves to sing and dance for us and tell us stories. On scorching hot afternoons, I love nothing more than to sit and listen. Here is one of my personal favorites: One time Cecelia had just bought millet flour and was carrying it on her head as she walked back home. A military man began to chase her so she turned around and threw the millet flour at him (which could very well have been 50 lbs). When he came after her again he tackled her to the ground. At this point she was not far from her village and screaming for help. Wrestling with the man, she “bit his finger properly!” and when villagers came to assist her the man ran away. Needless to say I am in awe of this woman’s strength. She’s become Saint Cecelia to us. Really, all “our girls” are saints and we’ve been incredibly blessed to have them around every day to laugh and share life with.

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Yesterday the girls showed Megan and I how to do laundry like real Acholi women. Which apparently means you put so much detergent in the water that your clothes make a crunching noise when they’ve finished drying. As long as our next lesson isn’t how to butcher and cook a goat, I think I’ll be okay.

On the agenda for this week: Art therapy continues and we’re excited about this week’s activity (one, because it’s cool and two, because we wrote out instructions/lessons plans for the translators so hopefully that saves us some precious time). Clayton and Brad will be testing the sanitation of water wells and continuing their microfinance research and work.

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The 411

This was one of those weeks where lots of things went wrong. A truck tire came off its axel. A boda tire went flat. Twice. Boda drivers were 30 minutes late and we missed our art therapy session. One of the schools forgot about our therapy session and didn’t have anything ready for us. A driver got in an accident twice this week and was fired (everyone was okay). One driver accidentally walked through a window and got all cut up. People were getting sick left and right. And so it goes.

But as the Lukodi Primary School headteacher told us, “It is all to be expected.”

There’s part of me that’s like, “No. It is not expected. Where I live people are on time or they get fired. If you say you’re going to do something for someone, you do it. If something goes wrong, you work as hard and fast as you can to fix it and move on. If you can’t make it, you call.”

You would think after all of my experiences in third-world countries the time- managed, fast-paced, and task-driven American in me would have diminished. But the residue is there.

For those of you that want to know what we’ve been up to lately: On Tuesdays and Thursdays myself and two other interns (Matt and Megan) go to the Lukodi Primary School and on Wednesdays and Fridays we are at St. Martin’s Catholic School. Over the course of those four days we meet with 48 students ranging in age from 10 to 17. The schools have identified these students as the most severely traumatized or war-affected. For most of them, we’re discovering this means they’ve lost one or both parents along with a host of other issues like abuse from extended family, demonic episodes, and depression. We meet for one hour, which is barely enough time to even begin processing their work, but it’s all we get. So, while this frustrates me, all I can do is hope that the creating process itself is therapeutic and aiding them in healing or just simply distraction.

Clayton and another intern (Brad) have been helping map out and get measurements of the layout for the new center. But mostly they’ve been focused on researching microfinance and drawing up a plan for implementing a microsavings program for Child Voice. This week they met with an already established microfinance program to talk about potential partnership for the entrepreneurial girls who graduate from the Child Voice and would like to, or qualify to, take out a loan.  Next week they hope to interview former Child Voice graduates who received loans in order to find ways to enhance and implement a new microfinance program.

Overall we are adjusting very well. Personally, I hardly notice when there are 50 flies on me at once. I can ride a boda sidesaddle like a real Acholi woman. I take cold showers like a champ. I can eat mystery chicken parts without caring. I love the people we’re becoming friends with. I love coming home with red dirt caked all over my face and hair. I love watching these amazing kids create art and pray it’s helping them in places I can’t see. I love watching the village people garden, build and prosper. I love going to church under palm leaves. I love ending every day by reading what Jesus has to say and talking about it with people of all different backgrounds and opinions. I’ve done this stuff enough to realize I’m in a honeymoon phase and in a couple more weeks you’ll probably read the hurts and struggles instead of the romanticized ramblings. But I love where God has us. With all its challenges and conflict and joy and potential. Thank you to everyone who has supported us in getting here. We are unbelievably appreciative. 

Some of the art therapy drawings, “Life Lines”:

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Babylon

When the people of Jerusalem and Judah were in exile in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote them this letter containing the Lord’s instruction. I imagine these people waiting for guidance on how to get out of this situation. I imagine them waiting for justice, ready to righteously resist their Babylonian oppressors.

But this is what the letter said.

 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:5-8)

 So not only is God not coming to rescue them. He’s telling them to get comfortable. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Well, at least for the next 70 years. After 70 years is up, then God promises to bring them back to their home, “For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11).

 I think about how many times I’ve seen that verse slapped on bookmarks, journals, posters, and pamphlets. It’s a great verse- don’t get me wrong. I just find it ironic how out of context it usually is. No harm will come your way because God’s got this shiny, awesome plan for your life.

 But if you read the verse in it’s context, you realize that God is saying this to people who are probably hearing His “plan” and considering finding a new God.

 I think we can all relate to the exiles.  I watch Plan A and Plan B circle down the toilet, along with backup Plan C and I explain to God about how much easier my life would be if He would just let me keep one of my strategies. But no. God’s plan prevails. So, I complain about how I’m responsible for this thing and people are depending on me or about how nervous people get when things are out of control. My faith-wrestling comes in waves and in weeks, ceilings and stares, and a host of unanswered questions.

But God is radical. He can’t be tamed. He can’t be put in a box or fit in a brain. He has these outrageous and incomprehensible ideas. According to this passage, personal peace and prosperity is the result of giving oneself generously in service to others. Here, Jeremiah essentially foreshadows the teachings of Jesus, who called His followers to seek their ultimate good—the kingdom of God—by seeking the good of those around them. Jesus said His followers must be generous to those who steal from them (Luke 6:29-30) and pray for those who oppose them (Luke 6:28). So, for the exiles in Babylon, seeking the peace and well being of their oppressors and praying for their enemies would actually be establishing the kingdom of God there.

I think about my Central American brothers and sisters who are deported and dumped at the border and live with our friend Hector in Reynosa because they have no money or means of getting to Guatemala or El Salvador or wherever they may have come from. I think of the Congolese and Sudanese living in IDP camps in Uganda because of war in their countries. I think of the LRA that come out of the bush and want amnesty despite the atrocities they have committed. All these people who aren’t where they want to be.

But God says: Live. Prosper. Plant. Wed. Make babies. Even if you aren’t where you wanted to be. Love. Serve. Pray. Give. Even to the people who have robbed, raped, murdered, and harmed you.

What kind of strength did it take the exiles to do those things God asked and to believe peace would come from it?

 Do we think faith can be had without a fight? Or trust given without a cost?

 What kind of hope in God does it take for a woman with HIV, a sick baby, and a crippled hand to look at me and say, “Some answered prayers come slowly.”

 Here we are at the edge of Babylon. Here we are staring at the journey ahead. Before the plan is revealed, before the waters part, before the breakthrough. And the question is there: What will you choose to believe? 

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Meeting (another) Concy

I will never forget meeting Concy. She was the first Child Voice graduate I had the pleasure of getting to know, and her home was the first Ugandan residence I had been invited into. I had been told that Concy came to Child Voice as a child mother from an abusive home. Now she and her daughter, Presca, live safely with her aunt and uncle. Since Concy graduated from the program, she has been using the knitting skills she learned to make school uniform sweaters. Concy brought out this huge, intricate knitting machine and set it on the table in the living room. She began to show us how she threads it and makes the sweaters that sustain her income. I don’t know how kids wear these heavy wool sweaters in the scorching hot Ugandan sun, but apparently there is a large market for them.

Concy, like many of the Child Voice graduates, is supporting herself and her daughter all on her own. She earns enough money to send Presca to school and even pay for medical bills. Presca has an eye condition and recently suffered from a severe burn to her hand. Concy beamed with pride that she was able to pay for Presca’s hospital visit and treatment. I am not a mother, but I can imagine how great it must feel to not worry over providing your daughter with the care she needs.

I loved getting to hear how Child Voice changed Concy’s life and gave her the skills she needed to launch and market this thriving business. She hopes to purchase her own knitting machine as she’s renting the one she currently uses. From what I could see, I don’t think it will take her long to get there. It was so cool to see her happy, healthy, and hard at work

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Affirmations and Realities

Anybody who knows me knows how much I love Africa. At times it’s all I think about. My days off of work I scour the internet looking for blogs, academic journals, anything that I can learn about the politics, culture, or development of Africa. That being said, in the build up prior to leaving for Uganda I wasn’t feeling the excitement I felt I should have considering that fact that I was fulfilling the biggest dream that I’ve had for the past 5 years since taking Modern African Civilizations my freshman year at Central. I wasn’t feeling giddiness or even nervousness. I was so entrenched in the pattern of work and play in Des Moines that I couldn’t get my head around the idea that I was spending the summer in one of the most traumatized regions on the planet. This numbness I was feeling terrified me and started making me question my motivations and reasons for doing this internship.
I felt this way for months and months until I actually landed in Africa. Seeing that God had so clearly tattooed on my consciousness for my whole, albeit young, adult life thus far dissolved any indifference I had been harboring as easily as the equatorial African sun vanquishes clouds at midday. The second I hit the tarmac in Kampala I had such profound swells of affirmation that my fascination and passions in the abstract IDEA of Africa was instantaneously replaced with a tangible love for the reality of Africa. Here’s what I wrote in the very first journal entry I made:
I’m here now and I’m ALIVE. I’m affirmed in loving the IDEA of Africa for so long, and have started to love the gravity, the reality of Africa. This love will grow and it’ll surely be tested, but I love where I’m at now. Thank you Lord, for the love you have cultivated in me these past few years. I ask you humbly for more! 5-17-12
I truly believe that God is trying to teach me to love Africa like HE loves it. I’m as culpable and dysfunctional as any other human, however, and this will constantly be a refining process, but I really desire for myself and Taylor’s compassion to converge with Jesus’ compassion in Spirit and in Truth.
As I previously mentioned, I’m growing in love for the reality of Africa. The reality of Africa, however, is very difficult. Not even a week being here passed, and we were confronted with how complicated and slow-moving development is. We’re in Northern Uganda at the start of rainy season and during a torrential downpour the roads to Lukodi, the site of construction for the new Child Voice center, are utterly impassable. Not only that, but if you are already in Lukodi during a storm, work is impossible because the building materials—soil, sand, and concrete—are unusable if they get drenched. We’ve also run into huge schematic realities. For instance, it has been the task of us interns to triangulate coordinates on the property to map out where the clusters of huts will be. This seems straightforward and easy enough, but this terrain is a step below uncleared bush, with grasses chest high, and trees in the way. Additionally, we do not have a tape measure long enough to reach the points so we’ve had to purchase local twine and tie them together and measure them out to the appropriate lengths. Within these constraints we’ve essentially wasted 3 days of work and have still not pinpointed the first area of construction. That’s the reality here. It moves at a crawl, and you have to constantly go back to the drawing board.
As if the contextual limitations weren’t enough, I’ve also been struggling internally about my vocation this summer. As I’ve mentioned I’ve been helping with construction of the new center. Here’s my dilemma though. Thus far I’ve been helping with the manual labor of making bricks. I’m not averse to hard physical work, but anybody can do what I’ve been doing. In fact, if I were to be replaced by a local person, he would be paid and that would help his family AND the community. It makes me feel useless because I have no specialized skills that can add value to ChildVoice’s operations AND I’m keeping a local guy from having a job.
These are the realities of my situation right now. I’ve voiced my concerns and struggles with Conrad, the leader of ChildVoice, and he assured me that my problem solving skills and different perspective will be invaluable to the construction of the center. Also, I’m going to partner with Brad, another intern, in evaluating the microfinance project and finding ways to improve it and possibly at a savings aspect as well. This I’m very excited about, as I’ve been interested in microfinance for a long time. . There are a plethora of obstacles, and an abundance of uncertainties, but I came here to be a servant, and here’s my chance to. Tay has shared the stories of girls who have gone through the program, and I’ve met so many that have experienced the worst imaginable Hell in the bush, and yet after going through ChildVoice have found renewal and most importantly hope. I will do all I can to help get the center up and running, so that more women can find this restoration, even if I have to shelf my pride and ambitions to “be useful”. Please check out this link and consider giving in order that the center can be constructed, and the women can return to a place of refuge and growth. http://childvoiceintl.org/construction-begins-on-new-lukome-centre-in-uganda/

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Meeting Rose

There she was, this woman who was only an 8-year-old girl when she was abducted by the LRA. This woman who had lived in the bush for the majority of her existence. This woman who has shared a bed and two children with one of the world’s most hunted men. And there she was, just sitting on a wooden stool in a tiny brick room smiling as she put rolls of dough into a boiling pot of oil. The insanity and complexity of her background combined with the simplicity of the moment made her all the more breath taking to me.

Her name is Rose and today she is a 24-year-old mother of two little girls and a Child Voice graduate. She works for a very sweet couple that owns a bakery in Gulu. This couple had nothing but good things to say about Rose and her hard work. She bakes over 1,000 doughnuts a day and sells a dozen for 1,200 shillings (50 cents).

Rose was one of the Child Voice graduates to receive a micro loan. Her hope had been to open her own bakery, but she took two jobs to pay off the loan in a hurry and didn’t end up using it to start her own business. Conrad, Winnie, Megan, and I sat with Rose outside her place of work as she opened up about her life. She told us that she’s happy and enjoys the work she is doing. She hopes to save up enough money to purchase a hut of her own and get another loan to buy an oven for herself so she could sustain her own business. She is earning enough money to pay for her daughter’s school fees all on her own. She repeatedly remarked how thankful she was that Child Voice gave her the skills to help her stand on her own two feet. She couldn’t describe how much it meant to not have to beg for money to send her children to school.

Rose’s children are living with her parents until she can pay for a place for them all to live. Rose told us that the situation at home is not good. She visits her girls on Sundays after church, but is anxious to have them with her again. Please pray that Rose’s business continues to flourish and that she can start a home with her children soon.

Rose is our age and has faced far greater challenges in life than we probably ever will. I’m sure her journey will continue to be full of them, but it was amazing for me to witness the difference this program had made in her life and see that she is equipped with the faith, determination, and skill set to push through whatever comes her way. 

*Rose was abducted by the LRA in 1996 when she was only 8. During her time in the bush, she was selected to be one of Joseph Kony’s wives. Kony keeps about 30 wives and 10 “senior wives” (his favorites). Rose and another senior wife, Lilly, were captured in the Congo in 2010 by the military. Child Voice was contacted and both girls entered their program. The girls remain close friends and room mates to this day

 

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Meeting Concy

Nustled back in a little array of huts Concy lives with her husband and two week old daughter, Kathy, (who Conrad had the privilege of naming after his wife while we were visiting!). We were invited into their home and we sat arm to arm in this cramped little hut. Concy brought out her little one for all of us to hold. She has ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes. She is perfect. But I couldn’t help feeling a pang of sadness as I awed at this amazing creation.

You see, Concy came to Child Voice as a HIV positive child-mother. At 19 years old, Kathy is her fourth and only living child. Concy lost her third child, Sunday, while she was at Child Voice and it was obviously an incredibly difficult time for everyone involved. I can’t imagine burying three babies before turning 19 years old. 19! And despite all of this heartache, Concy smiles and laughs and is creatively marketing her own business alongside her husband, James.

Upon graduating from the program, Concy took the sewing skills she learned and went to work making bicycle seat covers. As I observed her peddling away at her sewing machine, I learned that she is the only one who supplies these covers in Gulu. Since bicycling is a main form of transportation, they are doing extremely well for themselves. Concy and her husband produce 100 bicycle covers a day and 500 a week. Local bike repair shops sell the covers for 1,300 (54 cents) shillings and they make a 50 percent profit.

Concy told us about how Child Voice had helped her grow as a woman. She was thankful for the friendships she had made there and the valuable skills she learned. After purchasing a few bicycle seat covers from Concy, we said goodbye. As we drove away, I prayed that Concy’s baby would thrive and overcome her odds of contacting HIV. I prayed that Concy wouldn’t have to endure another heartbreak. And I thanked God that I had the opportunity to meet her and that her business has taken off in an amazing way.

“He heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3. Isn’t that the truth. 

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Sunday Bloody Sunday

Sunday morning we were at the Lukodi Church. The church used to meet at the Child Voice center and welcomed four or five hundred members each Sunday. Since the center was handed back to the government and the new one hasn’t been built yet, the Lukodi Church meets in a small shaded area in a building made of branches and some thatched roofing. There were a handful of attendees who welcomed us graciously and insisted we sit on the chairs instead of the benches. It felt silly to be treated like such celebrities but I had to remind myself I would extend the same hospitality to visitors at home. As I watched these people worship God with their singing and dancing I kept pinching myself to make sure I was actually there. That Sunday marked the 8th anniversary of the Lukodi Massacre and here were these villagers bringing their coins, or produce if they had no money, to the offering table and praising Him despite the darkness that is their past. I’ve heard horrific story after horrific story and literally can’t comprehend how these people remain strong in their faith. Conrad (the founder of Child Voice) told me a story of a woman who witnessed her husband being murdered by the LRA and then the LRA forced her four sons to rape her before abducting them. She lost everything. And even years later her response is, “I stay close to Jesus because he’s all I have left.”

This week I’m going to be trying to capture some interviews with Child Voice students and graduates so that supporters back home can hear their stories and how Child Voice has impacted their lives. It’s not easy to ask these girls to reopen old wounds in front of this little flip cam. They don’t have to, but they also understand it helps raise awareness and financial aid for the organization that supports them.

I just don’t want any of these beautiful, precious ladies to think we’re plucking their stories to wear around our necks like some trophy. And this isn’t about my research project or my degree. It’s not ME. MINE. I. I never want their pain to be a picture for my slideshow or have their home feel like a tourist attraction. Its possible I am way overanalyzing this, but that’s how I feel. It’s one thing to read the stories out of a book and another to look into the eyes of the story teller. Like walking on glass. 

It is easy to see how Aid and ignorance has brought ruin to this place. We, as Westerners, might come to give, but we can also come to stake out our destiny. Ours is a history of dominance. Always the explorer, the colonizer in our blood, and it is hard to run away from when we’ve been so “blessed”. We come with our visions and strategies, our opinions and ideals, and without meaning to, we impose them. We think we know the way and we think we know how to do it better and more efficiently then the next person. And it comforts me to know that Child Voice recognizes this and does everything in its power to NOT follow those footsteps. All the staff here is local and they give local people jobs and truly take into consideration what is best for the girls at their center. Also, I’m not saying Westerners aren’t capable of shedding new light onto something or having good ideas. The depleted and dependent often need a helping hand, but we also need to empower and not overpower. But I’ve seen what a huge transition some of these girls have made and they are really healing and pressing forward. It’s remarkable and makes me so proud to be a part of the work that is being done here.

I will post some of the stories as I have the privilege of hearing them and please pray for these girls who have been so gracious and vulnerable to share the pain of their pasts and the hopes of their futures with us. 

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