Love, Ethiopia

Since mid-August, I have been living and working in Ethiopia. The INGO I work for, CRS, is leading a Development Food Security Activity (DFSA), funded by USAID Office of Food for Peace. Our partners are Mercy Corps and the Ethiopian Catholic Church Social & Development Commissions of Harar and Meki. The DFSA supports the Government of Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) which aims to improve and sustain food, nutrition and livelihoods security of vulnerable households and communities.

Lucky for me, I spent some time visiting project participants, to document how DFSA interventions were making a difference in their lives. Below are brief accounts from those visits.

SEDIMENT STORAGE DAM

IMG_1662

Among the core objectives of the CRS-led DFSA is to:

  1. Support the construction and rehabilitation of structures that strengthen community watersheds, and
  2. Promote water and soil conservation practices which farmers can utilize on their own land to increase productivity

Umer Mohamed, age 45, is a resident of Kurtu Kebele in the Dire Dawa Administrative Council. He lives with his wife and five children. Umer’s community previously suffered from heavy flooding, loss of fertile land and lack of water. Over the years, the community contributed to constructing check dams, hillside terraces, soil bunds and other conservation structures to address these issues. In April 2017, residents of Kurtu Kebele began the construction of the sediment storage dam in the Gara Lekole sub-watershed. The dam slowed the flow of runoff, increased silt deposits upstream, improved infiltration of water into the ground, raised the water table and increased groundwater discharge.

The sediment storage dam allowed for springs to develop and increased groundwater discharge even when the river runs dry.

“Getting water in this sandy river bed was very difficult, especially during the dry season. After constructing the dam there is now more water and I am using it for irrigation. I am also growing different crops such as tomatoes, sugarcane, coffee, papaya and orange to conserve soil quality. Because of the dam I now have enough water to irrigate all my crops.”

-Umer Mohamed, age 45, Kurtu Kebele, Dire Dawa

Papaya grown with irrigated water

Umer Mohamed shows me how he is intercropping papaya trees among his staple crops to sustain the soil quality and improve his income. Umer’s farm is fed by water captured from the sediment storage dam.

LITERACY CLASSES

Shunkaa Calii ALP 3

Shunkaa demonstrates her literacy skills by writing down a neighbor’s phone number.

Shunkaa Calii, age 50 from Arsi Negele Woreda (Gubeta Arjo Kebele), is the primary caretaker of her family, including five children and her husband. Shunkaa, an uneducated farmer, struggles from drought, degraded land and limited access to agricultural inputs, tools and trainings for improved production and income.

One of the DFSA’s objectives is to organize farmers into livelihood groups and train them to run their own savings-and-lending program where members contribute money into a fund from which they can borrow. With access to funds, farmers can invest in things like improved seeds, technologies and livestock to raise their income.

Shunkaa is a livelihood group member, but felt she lacked the skills to take part in discussions. At the start of the program, she could not read room numbers at the clinic, signs on the road, write down phone numbers, her own name, or record her weekly savings in livelihood group meetings. To ensure that people like Shunkaa get the support they need, DFSA provides financial, material and capacity building support to government-run adult literacy classes.

Shunkaa successfully completed the six-month adult literacy class in June 2018. It has served as a confident booster and encouraged active participation, including in savings-and-lending activities. Shunkaa explained that before the adult literacy class, there were at least two barriers for her in the livelihood group. One was that she was illiterate, and the second, a woman. Taking part in the class made her realize how important it was for women to know basic reading and writing.

“Before, I would go to meetings to present myself and never talk, because as an illiterate person I did not have the confidence. I felt I had nothing to contribute. Now, I even state my opinion in front of male members. Illiterate women always struggle for their rights and are excluded in decision-making. Education is important for all community members, but for women, it is like an eye.”

-Shunkaa Calii, age 50, Gubeta Arjo Kebele

Amina Shankur, age 26, Wahil Kebele

Amina Shankur (age 26), leads the class in reciting the alphabet.

The literacy class is taught by facilitators from the same or neighboring community, and are familiar with the people, language and culture. Bedri Kedir, age 22, is a facilitator from Dire Dawa, Wahil Kebele, and is helping her elders learn basic math, reading and writing.

Bedri has observed significant improvements. In a six-month period, she saw her students go from having no knowledge on how to count, tell time, add and subtract, to now being able to count their family’s earnings, note contributions to savings-and-lending groups and record savings. Their ability to budget not only improved participation in groups and increased confidence, but their husbands now entrust them with money and record-keeping.

According to Bedri, for a community like Wahil Kebele, that is a big deal. All her students can now write their names, the alphabet, read short messages and make purchases independently. For example, when purchasing shoes for their children, her students would measure the size using a string and take it to the shopkeeper who would then use it to determine the size. They had no understanding of shoe size numbers. Now, they can be told a number, understand what it means, and read the number on a shoe themselves. Something as simple as that has been life-changing for her students.

Graduation Day Wahil Kebele

Bedri with her students on graduation day.

“These community members raised me. Now, I must help them improve their skills in basic math, reading and writing, so that they can do simple tasks independently. I can see that they are happy. They are even more respected now in the community and in the home.”

-Bedri Kedir, age 22, Adult Literacy Class Facilitator, Wahil Kebele

IMPROVED COUPLES’ COMMUNICATION LEADS TO STRONGER PARTNERSHIPS

Kelil Safina TFH 1

Safina explains the lack of trust in discussing finances prior to the training and improvements since completing the Faithful House Program.

Safina Worja and Kelil Mohamed were married seven years ago when they were just 15 and 18 years old, respectively. From Arsi Negele Woreda (district), Boku Wolda Kebele, they have two children and are participants of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace funded Development Food Security Activity (DFSA) led by Catholic Relief Services/Ethiopia (CRS) – a program that seeks to improve and sustain food, nutrition and livelihoods security.

The DFSA uses CRS’ Faithful House Program (also known as Islamic Family House) to provide a safe environment for couples to discuss their relationship and enhance joint decision making. Since January 2018, 889 couples and 154 religious and opinion leaders have participated in the program, and through improved communication, women have increased their ability to make meaningful decisions for the household.

When asked to introduce themselves, Kelil began first, not by introducing himself, but his wife. He mentioned her shoe size and waist size, that she likes potatoes and cabbage with injera, and loves meat and milk.

Before participating in the training, their relationship was stressed and Kelil spent very little time at home. However, as he observed the rise of divorce in his community and its negative impacts, he was hesitant but willing to participate in the training. Previously, village elders and friends intervened when there were problems. Now, he and Safina use the communication tools learned to resolve issues among themselves.

Initially, elders were slow to approve, as it is a big cultural change. For instance, one can see in the body language that couples are more affectionate- sitting close while talking, and at times, comforting and embracing one another. According to the Kebele Manager, however, religious leaders have communicated their interest and observed that trainings are in line with Islamic teaching.

“By talking to my wife, I realized how much work she had at home. I started to share more of the responsibilities with her, bringing water, cleaning the home. I even began to leave the mosque early and my friends teased me. I told them I needed to support my wife at home.”

– Kelil Mohamed, 25, Boku Wolda Kebele

Husna Shebrahim, age 27, and Gamedi Dhabi, age 35, are an example of a couple whose marriage was saved by Faithful House. Before the training, they were on the verge of divorce and Gamedi was planning to take a second wife. Married for 12 years and with six children, a divorce would have been devastating for their family.

“We were fighting all the time, yelling at each other, sometimes even using our fists. Our eldest son would cry, would have trouble sleeping. I did not know what to do. After the training I see that my wife loves me very much. We discuss our problems peacefully now, and I like to spend more time at home taking care of the children, even cooking. I do not want a divorce, and I definitely do not want a second wife.”

-Gamedi Dhabi, age 35, Boku Wolda Kebele

With more couples improving their communication through the Faithful House Program, DFSA hopes that they can work together in joint decision making to improve their food and livelihoods security.

Husna Gamadi TFH 1

The Faithful House Program has saved marriages, including the marriage of Gamedi Dhabi and Husna Shebrahim, now very happy and committed to the well-being of the family.

Empowered

Jimmy

This is Jimmy. I met him when I visited the BidiBidi Refugee Settlement in Yumbe District, northern part of Uganda. Jimmy is a refugee from South Sudan. He came to Uganda with his mother, wife and children to escape the civil war. Jimmy used to work for the government in South Sudan when civil war broke out and he became a target for opposition forces.

By September 2017, the refugee population in Uganda had reached over 1.35 million people. 82% are women and children.

children

I don’t think a lot of people know much about Uganda, or can even point out the East African country on a map. To be honest, even I didn’t know much before working here. When we think of refugee-hosting countries, most of us probably think of high-income, western nations. Not a developing country like Uganda.

Uganda is the largest refugee hosting country in Africa and one of the largest asylums in the world. Data from UNHCR shows that most of the 3.2 million who were driven from their homes in the first half of 2016 found shelter in low- or middle-income countries. Uganda is one of those countries.

Uganda’s progressive refugee response plan has taken the approach that allows relief and asylum to (for those coming primarily from Burundi, DRC and South Sudan), while also planning for long-term stay. If refugees want to go home, they are supported. If they want to stay in Uganda, that’s okay too. Most want to go home, and will only stay if there is no other option. Right now, for many, the latter is the case. The Ugandan government has also taken the approach to involve refugees in the planning and management of the settlement. This means that people like Jimmy work with NGOs like CRS, to ensure that all people receive the services they need when it comes to food, water, shelter, protection and health.

Jimmy is a translator for CRS and helps us to conduct community meetings and coordinate activities with community hygiene promoters (South Sudanese refugees trained by CRS) and workers (comprised of both Ugandan and South Sudanese folks) helping to construct shelters.

Talking to Jimmy, he told me that at first it was really tough for him. He felt defeated. Meeting him now, with a big smile on his face, I could never tell. Jimmy is a natural leader. Watching him play with his children, I was touched to see him in high spirits. Actually, a lot of people were in high spirits. I shared my thoughts with Jimmy, that it was an inspiration to see people who had gone through so much be so positive, strong, working hard. He let out a sigh and told me that it had been a journey. It wasn’t like this at first, he didn’t know if he and his family would survive. Uganda has given him hope, has raised his spirits. He went back to South Sudan recently, thinking that he would prepare for his family’s return back. After seeing the conditions, he believes he will stay a while longer. The work he is doing here, to keep the community together, safe and healthy, has helped him a lot he says. He likes being part of the process, it is empowering to know that his voice, concerns, are heard and taken seriously.

teachers

These guys are teachers, most of them South Sudanese. CRS is constructing primary schools in the settlement as there is already limited space in Uganda’s schools. 

The Ugandan people have been very kind. As a way to prevent tension between communities, it is mandated by the government that 50% of all aid go to supporting the refugee settlements and 30% to the host community (the Ugandan people). This is a major factor for the peaceful integration of refugees in Uganda.

It was a privilege for me to meet Jimmy and experience the kindness of the Ugandan people.

I am currently working with the CRS/Uganda Emergency team to develop a strategy to position ourselves for future funding, so that we can continue to provide quality services to South Sudanese refugees and Ugandan host communities. CRS is doing some really good work in agriculture & livelihoods, shelter and sanitation & hygiene. I hope to share some more details on that in the near future.

Thanks for reading!

 

Improved and Transparent Water Services for Rural Tanzanians

IMG_4123

I was posted in Tanzania for about 10 months. CRS, the NGO I work for, had a project that was in its final stages called the Revolutionizing Remittance Recovery in Water project, or R3W. It was funded by UKAID Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF). I had the privilege of visiting the project site in Karatu, Arusha, in the northern part of country to document results and prepare some final reports for the donor. We were also in the process of developing a business model to attract private sector investors for scale-up.

What was exciting about R3W was that it was the first project of its type in Tanzania, as is typical of many HDIF projects. In partnership with the Diocese of Mbulu Development Department and Grundfos LIFELINK A/S, CRS changed the game of rural water supply with R3W, by introducing an innovative technology to improve revenue collection for community-owned water supply organizations (COWSOs).

Before R3W, all water points looked something like this:

post water point

People would fill up their buckets and then pay the water vendor hired by the COWSO. There was no formal method of record keeping, so sometimes vendors would hike up the price to pocket some extra cash. For communities paying on a monthly basis, sometimes the water user’s records would not match with the vendor’s, resulting in arguments and creating a situation that was difficult for the COWSO to manage.  Any water spilled meant water that was unpaid for. For operation and maintenance, COWSOs rely on revenues collected, so losses in revenue meant that when there was a technical issue, they sometimes didn’t have the money to pay for it, leaving customers without service, sometimes for as long as weeks. Additionally, since the water source was from a river, the supply would significantly decrease during the drier parts of the year. COWSOs would ration the supply, allowing collection for just a few hours, from morning to midday. This created long waiting lines, tension among community members in a struggle to get the water, and in general, water shortage. Women, primarily responsible for fetching water, suffered most.

R3W was designed for better management through the introduction of the AQtap, which is designed by a water technology company, Grundfos.

The AQtap is a dispenser that supplies water using a prepaid smartcard (like an ATM machine) and records all transactions using an online Water Management System (WMS). It also tracks any malfunctions in the system and send alerts directly to the COWSO’s WMS Administrator via SMS. There are several benefits to this system, some of which include a) there is a set price that cannot be altered by using a card, b) users can track their spending, c) COWSOs can track how much water is collected and the amount owed d) improved revenue collection, meaning that there was money for the COWSO to use for repairs, e) instant notifications of any malfunctions improved service delivery. In short, it was a much more efficient and transparent system.

To ensure there was a reliable supply of water, CRS used private funds to construct a borehole to ensure that water would be available throughout the year, including during the dry season.

One beneficiary said, “There is a huge difference from the postpaid system used before R3W. Before, I had access to water only until 10am, and there would be fights among community members because of the long queues. Now, water is available all day and there is no jam. We have come up with a rotation system whereby each person can only fill up six buckets at a time. There are less fights because we are no longer concerned that the supply will cut off or that vendors are pocketing our money”

IMG_3808

Getting people to buy into the technology was not easy though. That’s where our local partner, the Diocese of Mbulu Development Department came in. They have a great relationship and respect within the community and were able to help CRS sell the idea. People told me that at first they thought it was weird to use a card to collect water, that it was impossible, a sort of magic. With training and sensitization, it changed people’s perspective. It was now cool to be a cardholder and cool to be part of this new, innovative approach. Other communities who didn’t have the system are now demanding it.

IMG_3792

A lot of hard work went into this project from all partners involved. My colleague and R3W Project Manager Ephraim Tonya, had long discussions with me about the many challenges and lessons learnt. He is especially happy that it has helped the women in the community.

woman

With a loan from banks or the government, the COWSOs that were trained in R3W now have the capacity to install and operate more AQtaps on their own, and can pay back the loan within 5 years. CRS hopes to provide support to more COWSOs in rural areas where the AQtap can be a durable solution to better water management.

IMG_3771

Ephraim (far right) and I with COWSO members. Yes, I am tiny. 

secondary water vendor

This man uses his prepaid card to fill up buckets of water and then sells the water to neighbors at more than double the price. Same with the guy below. 

picture

AQtap

Disclaimer: This blog and its contents is the personal view of the owner and is not an official publication of CRS.

My World This Week: Early Childhood Development in Tanzania

thrive1

Not only are these kids ridiculously cute, but they were my world this week. In Tanzania, 270 children under 5 years old die every day. The major causes of death are pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea. These deaths could be easily prevented if mothers and caregivers were equipped with the knowledge for proper infant and young child feeding, and sanitation and hygiene practices. Furthermore, in a society where going to the doctor is not common practice, the illnesses go untreated, or are treated too late.

The parents/caretakers of these children have received education in early childhood development for the past one to three years. Like them, I learned so much this week about the critical actions parents must take in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life to ensure that they grow up healthy and ready to succeed in life. My job was to document the changes we’ve seen in the community as a result of the educational programs and write what we (the development community) call “Success Stories.”

This post is NOT a success story, but instead a personal account of three things I saw and learnt along the way so you guys can rest assured that I don’t spend all my time in Tanzania laying on the beach. The “success stories” I’ve written will be published later on, after formal review.

Growing up in the United States where healthcare (for the most part) is above average, services are available anywhere at any time and there is universal access to education, there are several practices that seem “common sense” when it comes to taking care of an infant. It’s so commonplace that it’s easy to forget that in a different environment, these same practices could be novel ideas.

In the Mwanza region of northern Tanzania these include, but are not limited to:

  1. Hand-washing after handling or coming into contact with animal and baby faeces.

In tight spaces, it is common to find animals in the same space where children play, dishes are washed, water is kept etc. Basically, there are no physical barriers. In an environment such as this, mothers genuinely do not know the connection between exposure to animal faeces and diarrhoea. Furthermore, baby faeces are not considered to be dirty. When I asked why, I was told it was something they’d never thought about. They were used to the children “going” wherever, and then cleaning up after them. They washed their hands yes, but not as thoroughly as they should have and didn’t think twice about it. It was interesting for me to hear, because something that seemed so obvious (as a function of the environment I was raised in and education I received), was not at all obvious to them. It also reminded me that to solve development problems, you really have to step out of your head, forget about everything you know, and see the world through someone else’s perspective.

For this reason, the education they receive includes hand-washing at critical times to prevent illnesses.

thrive2.jpg

Let the animals roam free…or not. Also…those rocks are pretty cool right? Mwanza is known as the “rock” city because of them. 

2. The importance of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of a baby’s life.

This was a difficult one to get mothers to do. It was extremely hard for them to accept that their baby needed nothing else but breast milk, and that even giving them water was not a good idea as it could cause diarrhoea and reduce the amount of milk the baby drank. As someone who is not in the medical field and who has not birthed a child, I didn’t know the why behind exclusive breastfeeding. After consulting the World Health Organisation (WHO) website, I learned many important facts about exclusive breastfeeding that is also part of the curriculum these women receive:

  • Exclusive (not inclusive) breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants. It provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life
  • Breast milk promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases.
  • Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, and helps for a quicker recovery during illness

Remember I said the leading causes of death was diarrhoea and pneumonia? Exclusive breastfeeding is the single best thing women can do to protect their baby. Exclusive breastfeeding has literally saved lives in these communities, and the people will tell you so. Below is a photo of a couple I spoke to who have two other children. They said they had never undergone exclusive breastfeeding before, but with the newborn they agreed to try it and noticed a clear difference. The newborn does not fall sick and seems much stronger and healthier compared to his brothers when they were infants. They regret not exclusively breastfeeding their other two children.

IMG_0951

3. Children need to play.

Duh right? Not really. You won’t find toys in most homes and most people do not think it essential that their child have play time. In an environment where people struggle to buy soap for hand-washing, play materials are considered a luxury. However, after learning about how play helps with brain development, the women in the community committed to creating toys out of local resources. When speaking to community health workers, I was told that before they would not see even one play toy in the home. But now, at least for women who are participating in the educational sessions, they always carry at least one toy in their purse for their child, and have others at home.

IMG_1004

Toys made by women in the community from local resources. 

IMG_1074

This is the first time kids in the community have an official playground. 

For my Gainesville people, imagine growing up without a Westside Park, or a Kids Space. Imagine a world where kids are discouraged to play. Watching these kids play was the highlight of my week, and made me reflect on the injustice that millions of kids face when they are robbed of their childhood rights.

So there you have it, a quick snapshot of some of the things I’ve been working on and experiencing in Tanzania. Stay tuned for the Success Stories as you’ll be introduced to some great people, including the community leaders who have helped change their neighbours’ lives for the better.

IMG_1068

You’ll hear more about these ladies soon. 

JOB SEARCH

After spending 3 years and 4 months in the Peace Corps in Mexico, I joined Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in August this year. CRS is a non-profit NGO that works in emergency response and relief, agricultural livelihoods and health (including water supply and water, sanitation and hygiene-WASH) in the poorest countries in the world. I am currently working in CRS Tanzania.
Looking for the source of my bread and butter after the Peace Corps was a long process. This post is to share experiences of my job search to help others in their’s. Talking to people, getting tips, and researching how to job search made a difference for me, and hopefully this information can be useful to someone.
Disclaimer: This is not professional advice. Different things will work for different people and across professional sectors. I would love to hear how the job search was different for you.
Tip #1: Go general, but then prioritise.
Some people told me to go for whatever I could, while others told me to narrow the search. Both were good advice. I started off going for anything related to  environmental/community development. There were tons of opportunities. This approach helped me to get an idea of the job market, what applications looked like, and to practice applying. Eventually, I realised that I needed to reflect on what I really wanted and narrow the search. Applying is time consuming, so once you have an understanding of what you really want, it’s best to focus your energy on a limited number of opportunities rather than spread yourself thin. Job hunting is like a job in itself, so you have to prioritise your time, especially if you are already at a full-time job like I was.
Tip #2: Understand that political and economic factors will affect your job search.
This is obvious, but it’s important not to get bogged down by things that are out of your control. As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), we get priority for government jobs. Similar to army vets.  I was planning to use my non-competitive-eligibility status to land a  US government job with the Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service or USAID. I was supposed to finish Peace Corps service in 2016 (right before the presidential elections), but I extended a third year. All my PCV friends who did end their service in 2016, and applied for government jobs, got the job. But since I extended my time in Mexico a third year, I finished in the summer of 2017. In January 2017, Donald Trump became president, and the jobs that I wanted were suddenly not available due to hiring freezes and budget cuts. I had to shift my focus to the non-government sectors. The non-profit sector, and CRS, was NOT my plan A. Some people have asked me if I regret extending a third year. To be honest, I did. But, if I had the opportunity to go back and do things differently, I would NOT do things differently. Now that I lived that third year in the Peace Corps, I can’t imagine my life without it.
Tip #3: Read What Color is your Parachute? by Richard Bolles and refer to chapters as needed throughout the job search.

This book helped me to think about what I wanted in a job and identify what made me stand out as an applicant. It helped me to refine my resume, highlight important skills, knowledge and attitudes, and give an effective interview. It was recommended to me by a friend and colleague and is a great resource.
Tip #4: Estimate that it will take at least 1 year to get the job you want.
Apply for the job 1 year in advance, because it could really take that long. Especially when it involves an overseas post, there are administrative things that have to be done like processing VISAs, medical clearances and security background checks. I submitted an electronic application to CRS in July of 2016 while I was still in Mexico. I was invited for a video interview in October 2016 and a language test in November (applicants have to be fluent in either Spanish, French or Arabic). In February 2017, I interviewed face-to-face at CRS headquarters in Baltimore. I was officially notified that I’d gotten the job in March 2017, but the actual start date was in August 2017. So you can see, it literally took a year from the date applied to actually start the job. Also, it was a relief to have a job already lined up after service.
Tip #5: Apply for the job you care about even if you think you are not completely qualified for it.
Like many people, if I read a job description that I felt I wasn’t 100% qualified for, I wouldn’t apply. My dad encouraged me to go for it and assured me that I was good enough, but I brushed off his comments, thinking he was just being a dad. He is also the kind of dad that tells his kids when they’re 5, 7 and 11 years old that they should publish their books and sell their artwork. A couple of years ago I talked to a guy from USAID who advised me to read a book by Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook) called Lean In, and basically told me the same thing my dad was trying to tell me. He said, “Don’t hold yourself back because of perceptions you have about your abilities. Accept the challenge, and you’ll get more offers than you can handle and discover you can do more than you give yourself credit for.” I read Lean In. Sheryl pointed out that as women, we often hold ourselves back from opportunities because of things that haven’t even happened yet (personal life goals such as marriage, raising a family, fear of not being able to balance etc) or lack of confidence in our abilities. One statistic she reported really stuck with me. She said that women apply for jobs they think they are 100% qualified for, while men apply to jobs they think they are 60% qualified for. So, I took her lead and started applying for jobs I felt I was 70-80% qualified for, including CRS. Long story short, if I hadn’t been confident enough to go for it, I wouldn’t have the job I do now. And by the way, I am kicking ass.

Image result

Tip #6: Be patient and don’t give up.
Finally learning to listen to my dad, he told me something that helped me during times of frustration during the job search. He said this, “Good people will always find work. If one opportunity doesn’t work out there will be another. Think of all the people in this world who haven’t had the same quality education as you, life experiences and network. If YOU can’t get a job, where is the hope for the rest of the people? So just relax and don’t let that stress cloud your focus.”

 

Learning by Doing

This is one of my favorite environmental education projects. I worked with this very participatory, small middle school in Metztitlan. I say small, because there just 11 students and two teachers. The students are from grades 6-8, but really they are all in one class together. This year,  we built a school garden together with native cacti species. It was great fun and a great way to teach students about how to take care and protect cacti in their community. They will be responsible for taking care of the garden and training future students. Parents participated as well.

IMG_3634

This photo was taken prior to planting. The students and teachers did all the work in clearing and preparing the ground. Cacti actually grow well in rocks, because their roots spread out horizontally instead of growing deep into the soil.

 

IMG_3667

IMG_3668.JPG

We laid out the cacti before planting to get a feel for what we wanted the garden to look like. All plants were purchased from a local greenhouse and NOT extracted from the wild!

IMG_3682

Father and daughter plant a cactus called “organo dorado” together.

IMG_3683

As you can imagine, handling cacti can be very painful because of their spines.  Using cardboard, we created our own tongs-like apparatus to avoid having to touch them directly.

IMG_3698

IMG_3702

My boss and I plant a cactus called “liendrilla.”

IMG_3703

 

IMG_3674.JPG

IMG_3675.JPG

Parents were a great help that day. And yes, people do carry around machetes. 

IMG_3713.JPG

All done.

IMG_3725

And of course, we ended with comida (food).

IMG_3733IMG_3736IMG_3737IMG_3742

 

 

 

 

Girls from Mesti go running!

6 days before the 5k marathon I am freaking out because after a couple of months of organizing to bring 13 people with me, 5 have just dropped out and I have a feeling that a couple more may follow. Money has been donated and cashed, bus tickets have been purchased, marathon tickets have been purchased and hotel reservations made that can’t be cancelled.

It all started back in 2014 when as a new Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Mexico, I learned about the program called Mariposas: Mujeres Cambiando el Mundo (Mariposa means “butterfly” in Spanish, and mujeres cambiando el mundo means “women changing the world”). Mariposas is a non-profit organization to help girls from rural communities in Puebla, Mexico, pursue their professional dreams by going to college. The organization was started by a former PCV, Tessa Eckholm. Each year there is a week-long camp where girls from different communities attend at no cost of their own, and learn about topics such as mental and physical health, environmental stewardship and professional development. It’s a space for them to network with girls from other communities, share ideas and dreams, and learn something that they can take back with them to their community. The girls that attend this camp are offered the opportunity to apply for scholarships to attend college.

Former PCV, Jesi Friedly, was in charge of organizing the camp during my first year as a volunteer. She asked me if I would be able to help and give an Indian dance class. I happily agreed. During that week I met so many wonderful girls and my admiration for the Mariposas organization began.

zumba camp mariposa

This year, another former PCV, Elena Neibaur, organized a 5K marathon, followed by an eco-fair in Puebla, to raise money for the Mariposas organization, and invited me to bring people from my community, Metztitlán, Hidalgo. I work a lot with women and thought that this was the perfect opportunity to support an organization with a mission I feel strongly about, reconnect with some of the girls I met during Camp Mariposa, and promote healthy activities among the women in my community. Since I am an environmental educator, I also decided to bring women from my office to give a recycling workshop in the eco-fair.

Poster

Since the expenses would be paid for by donors, it was an opportunity for women in my community to travel to another state, see new things and experience something different, something positive, with no major cost to them. The easiest part of it all was raising money, and I thank all off my friends and family who donated to give these women such an experience. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, I did find 5 people for the empty spots!

pre-run

Me and the girls (and Goyo) up early in the morning ready for the marathon.

calentamiento

New stretching/warm-up moves to add to the book!

20170604_080754

These girls are in the Mariposas program. I met them two years ago at Camp Mariposa.

my mom joins us from India

My mom and I, representing the Gator Nation 🙂

 

post run

We did it!!

ecofair 4

After the marathon my coworkers give a workshop on creating picture frames out of used magazine paper.

eco-fair 6

Mariposa girls teach the public about composting.

with mariposas

Group photo with the Mariposas.

Social Service in Mexico and Environmental Education

In Mexico’s universities, each graduating student is required to complete a 3-month period of social service with an institution of their choice. There are benefits for each party-the students get real life experience which can help them in landing a full-time job, they develop professional skills, gain insight into how things really work outside of a classroom, and have an opportunity to contribute their knowledge and skills. For the participating institution it’s basically free labor. In the office that I work in (CONANP, Mexican equivalent to US National Park Service) we’ve had some students come through and do some interesting projects. Depending on the topic of their project I sometimes work closely with them.

Monse came to us in the beginning of the year and proposed a plan to work on environmental education. Like all plans of young, energetic people, it was rather ambitious. My colleagues and I worked with her to bring her ideas to life, and her final project ended up being a series of educational activities designed around teaching primary school children about local biodiversity.

In the beginning of the year our office got a letter from an elementary school teacher, asking us to visit them so that their students could interview us and learn more about local conservation efforts.  We did that interview and from that day were requested to do educational workshops/lectures with the school’s teachers. Since my colleagues and I were busy with other ongoing projects, we proposed to Monse that with our support, she could take responsibility of fulfilling this request. Below are photos from Monse’s project.

Thanks Monse for all your hard work, and to the participating elementary school in Tlatepexe, Metztitlan, Hidalgo for their interest. Thanks also to my colleagues Pablo and Daniel who helped in the implementation of the activities.

IMG_3305

The protected region we work in, The Metztitlan Canyon Reserve, is home to more than 300 species of birds. Monse gave a presentation to students on the topic and then had the students create drawings of birds they have seen themselves in the area.  

img-20170314-wa0017.jpg

Elementary school children are my favorite age group to work with. Them and women 60+.

IMG-20170314-WA0006

IMG_20170307_113439

Hanging up bird feeders in the school.

 

 

 

 

IMG_4899

Taking to students about the environment and the 60+ cacti you can find in the region. 

IMG_4913

Students observe up-close endemic species of cacti. 

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Becky, Indian Dance and Uganda

So, this is pretty cool. I taught a former Peace Corps Volunteer, Becky Roberts, Indian dance. Specifically, Bollywood style and bhangra. She then taught her community members in Mexico and afterwards took it to Uganda. She recently shared some photos with me of her performances with community members in Uganda and it brought a big smile to my face. Hope it does for you too.

IMG-20170316-WA0001IMG-20170316-WA0000IMG-20170316-WA0003