Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Old Man and the Referendum

Old men are a rare sight around here - a seventy-year-old must have
survived no fewer than four major wars, two likely as a combatant and
two likely as a refugee. The old man that shows up at our compound now
from time to time, even considering the scarcity of the elderly, is a
sight to behold.
I don't know his name; it seems no one does except him because
everyone refers to him either as The Mose (which means old man) or The
Old Man. Even when he introduces himself by name, the name slips
immediately from the hearer's ears. There are men here in their 30s
and 40s who remember the old man from their youth, men who consider
him like an uncle or a mentor, who never refer to him by name but
speak of him reverentially.
His head is bald save for a tuft of brittle white hair above either
ear, and he wears enormous bifocals as thick as glass bottle bottoms
with a frame often held together by electrical tape. He requires the
use of a cane to walk, his left leg always held completely straight -
and even then he is only capable of a few short steps at a time. He
smiles often, revealing a mouth that is well on its way to
toothlessness.
When he opens his mouth to speak, though, he speaks with a crisp
patrician diction whose unparalleled enunciation catches the ear. He
was likely educated in a British system, long before conflict took
hold of his country and rendered harsh judgment on the educational
infrastructure.
I have heard him speak because he has taken to moving from town to
town and from church to church within each town to stand before as
many congregations as he can every Sunday until the referendum to
plead for peace. Dressed in gray flannel trousers, an open collar
shirt, and a navy blazer, he pushes himself up on his cane and turns
to his audience. He has three pages of notes written in a clear hand,
and before he speaks he begs the assistance of the pastor and declares
without shame that he can't actually see what he has written, so the
pastor will have to feed him his lines.
The first line reads, "Tell them their God is with them."
The pastor whispers to him, "Tell them their God is with them."
The old man's voice resounds, "Your God is with you!"
It continues on like this for three or four lines, but then something
happens. The prompts from the pastor act as a spark and enkindle the
passion inside him, and he begins to string together line after line
of rhetoric about the value of peace in times of conflict, about the
democratic process, about the role of citizens, about the many things
that the South Sudanese have to be grateful for. There is a
translator, as there always is in official meetings in a country where
the people speak dozens of different languages, and this translator
struggles to keep up with the old man as he speaks, but the old man
never falters and from time to time corrects the translator with a
more apt turn of phrase.
He closes by reminding the people that they had another opportunity
for freedom fifty years ago, an opportunity that was squandered by
rampant fear-mongering andgreedy tribal chieftains who colluded to
sell their birthright. He calls to their attention the tragic number
of lives lost because of that folly, and he asks that those lives
would be the payment rendered for this generation to taste freedom.
Then he thanks the people, and - with every bone in his appendages
quavering - lowers himself back into his chair.
Later he'll ride as a passenger on a motorcycle - one hand clutching
his cane the other holding on to the bike - to the next church or a
radio station or anywhere that he can speak his message. Late in the
evening he'll eat with his hosts if food is offered, and he'll wait
for someone to offer him a ride home. He might not be noticed for
several hours because he sits with great contentment, but in time
someone will say, "Get the motorcycle keys, so I can take The Old Man
home," and into the night he'll disappear.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bedtime Stories

Lately we've taken to the time-honored tradition of reading bedtime stories to our younger children every night. We have this great edition of Peter Pan that has illustrations on every page, and it's already a familiar story because they've seen the movie, so the kids absolutely love it and have taken to the time-honored tradition of pleading for just one more chapter every night.

Sunday night, after promising to come read to them, I went into the office where we keep the book and was unable to find it. Unable to face the kids with no story, I made a snap decision that we would make up our own stories together. I asked one child to pick an animal, another to give the animal a name, and a third to come up with a description of the animal. At various junctures in the story, I would pause and ask them, "what do you think happened next?" and whatever they said became what happened next.

Without further ado, I present to you the story of "Tima, the Zebra who Urinated Inside":

Once upon a time, there was a zebra named Tima, but Tima wasn't like other zebras: Tima had a magic tongue, and when her tongue touched water it would turn the water into milk. Tima was so lucky because she always got to drink lots of milk.

One day, Tima drank a big barrel full of milk, and drinking all the milk made her so tired at she went into her house and fell asleep. While Tima was asleep, the clever hare came and put a lock on her door so that she couldn't get out. When Tima woke, she found she was locked in...and what was worse, she had to urinate.

Tima called out, "help me please. I'm locked in my house, and I have to urinate!" But no one came, so she waited, but still she had to urinate so badly that she called for help again and again no one came. Now Tima was beginning to have a pain in her stomach from needing to urinate, and she knew that if she didn't urinate soon she might explode. She decided she would have to urinate inside.

So she did, but then she found she had a new problem: once she started urinating she couldn't stop. Soon the urine was up to her ankle, and she was still urinating! She called for help again, "will someone please come open the door?" but still no one came, and now the urine was reaching to her knee. She kept calling for help, and no one kept coming, and the urine kept rising higher and higher - to her waist, then to her shoulders, and soon she was swimming to keep her head above the urine.

And then Tima remembered her magic tongue. If she could turn water into milk, maybe she could do the same thing with urine. She thought, 'should I touch my tongue to the urine?' and because she was about to drown, she decided she had to. So she stuck out her tongue and touched it to the urine, but of course the urine didn't turn into milk, because only water turns into milk. But you know what the urine did turn into? Soda!

Tima remembered that she had a bunch of bottles in her house, so she dove into the soda, found the bottles, and began to fill them up. Then she took the bottles of soda and sold them.

And to this day, every time Tima urinates, she does it into a bottle and touches her tongue to the urine to turn it to soda. And now Tima is a very rich zebra.

The End

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Massive Failure: Who is Responsible?

(Sorry, loyal readers, I have been forbidden from posting video of the bull butchery for fear of crazy animal rights groups boycotting our site. Instead you're getting another post about education)

I know that nearly all of our posts are about the triumphs and travails of running a home for at-risk children, so I probably should remind you - as I often have to remind myself - we're not actually here to run a children's home.

My most recent, and one of the most forceful, reminders of why I am here came a few days ago as I was going through a filing cabinet trying to figure out which files I could move into storage to make room for some new files (I know, life in Africa is so thrilling). One of the files I came across was full of school results from last school year for our kids (the school year here mirrors the calendar year). Of course I was intrigued, and of course I pulled the file out and began going through it.

The first exam result was for a very clever boy here, kind of the Sudanese Charlie Brown. His aggregate score was 205/400. There at the bottom were the headmaster's comments: "a very good boy. Recommend to promote to p.4 [the next grade]."

The next files were for two more of our boys, one who I know can't read, the other who can not only read but is also a math whiz and recently schooled me in Connect 4 (badly... 2 out of 3 matches... My head was spinning when he finished with me). They finished, respectively, 38th & 39th out of 202 students in their class, one with an aggregate score of 105/400 and the other with 99/400.

Both students failed. At that point I asked one of my colleagues - a former teacher - what the cutoff was for passing. "Fourty percent," he replied. "But if enough students don't reach it, they may drop it as low as twenty." I can only imagine the look on my face, because he took one look at it and said, "You're beginning to understand how terrible things are here." 

Now, if I assume that everyone above the boy who finished 38th passed (which I don't know, but what I'm about to say would hold true even if it wasn't the case), that would still mean that over 80% of a fourth grade class failed.

In the case of failure that stunning, no matter where that failure takes place - whether in a school in Africa or America, for instance - I don't think anyone involved can avoid some of the responsibility. Clearly there's a problem with the system, because even Superman wouldn't be able to effectively teach a classroom of 200; clearly there's a problem with the parents, because no parents should tolerate paying to send their child into a classroom of 200; clearly there's a problem with the teachers, because even in a classroom of 200 kids 160 of them shouldn't score below 25% on their year end exams; clearly there's a problem with the curriculum, because any curriculum that yields such dismal results isn't effective for the population to which it's addressed. Seriously, spread the responsibility around - let no one avoid taking some share of it and doing something to change it the next time around... With one notable exception: the kids themselves. They're in school because they are learning how to learn. If they fail at such an early juncture, then I don't accept that they're failing.

As parents, the directors of this home accepted responsibility for their part and did something: they sent the kids to a different school this year, one that caps class sizes at 65 (yes, still a little high, but progress in the right direction), and already the results are showing. In the second term, my math whiz/Connect 4 General scored a 76/100 on math alone - over 75% of his aggregate score for four subjects in his previous school. He confirmed for me that the new school is better, and the other kids have echoed him. The discipline in their new school is stricter - if students arrive after 8:30 they're sent home - and the teaching is better ("the teachers come every day, and they always have a lesson ready!" a group of boys reported to me). I'm pleased with the improvement.

And I'm still troubled. I'm troubled because I have kids who I see study for hours a day to pass their fifth and sixth grade examinations, only to return with aggregate scores under 100/400. The former school pissed me off because students who were capable weren't learning; the new school doesn't piss me off, it just has a glaring flaw in it that students who have been poorly served in the earlier grades have no opportunity for remediation. I don't want to tell my kids, "don't bother studying - you can't read, so you're going to fail. You may as well go kick around the football."

All of this brings me back to the fact that I'm not here to run a children's home. When we first arrived, I was ready to dive in to educating the children and teaching literacy - I even diligently performed literacy tests with all 60 kids and used the results to break them into small single-gender groups based on ability level. And then the reality of running a children's home slapped me in the face and reminded me, "I'm a gargantuan task that you have to make some progress on first. Let me give you some 80 and 90 hour work weeks so that you don't forget it."

Sarah and I began digging in to the operations of the home. We streamlined the financial system, we hired someone to work as a full time parent, and we rewrote job descriptions for some of the other administrators to better take advantage of their abilities. Last week, we left for the entire week... And nothing fell apart. We realized, "hey, we don't have to solve every problem that comes up. We can and should let our colleagues feel the weight of responsibility for some things, and then they'll contribute to solving problems too."

So now I have overhauled my weekly schedule to include a few blocks of time every week for teaching literacy. I know exactly what I want to do, exactly how I want to do it, I've designed the structure to accommodate it...and I'm terrified to start. It's a lot like the nervous fear that I felt as I stood outside my classroom before going in to teach my first lesson on my first day as a teacher, that fear of the inevitable and the unknown. That, mixed with the fear that as soon as I start this some crisis will arise in the home and I'll be pulled away, leaving my dream abandoned again. Nonetheless, this morning I gathered my resources together to put the finishing touches on my first few lesson plans. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On Losing Things

Before moving from Denver to Nimule Sarah and I got rid of a lot of our possessions. Our furniture, our dishes...our cat. Sarah, who used to own a women's clothing boutique, liquidated her wardrobe. I learned from the experience of watching item after item go out our front door, never to return, that as much as I'd like to believe I'm not materialistic, I had formed an attachment to an awful lot of material things, and I didn't realize it until I was watching them all go away.

But then we squeezed what was left into a few pieces of luggage and came here, and I thought, 'At least that's over. What else could we possibly give up?' but I found that I became very possessive of what few things we did have, constantly locking drawers and keeping an eye on the door to our house if it was ajar; then I found that it didn't matter. We began losing things - an iPod, a knife, other assorted knick knacks. Mostly they were things that were pretty inconsequential, but to me the knowledge that it didn't matter how much we gave up because we could still lose more was at once disheartening and liberating...but mostly disheartening. It was a constant reminder of the loss of so many small conveniences. When you lose a (fill in the blank with just about any noun) in Sudan, you can't very well just replace it.

There were certain big things I was determined not to lose or let walk away - chiefly my computer, my kindle, and my jeans. The past tense isn't appropriate here, because I'm still bound and determined not to lose those particular things.

Before long, though, I stopped caring about losing little things, accepted it as part of life, and figured we could just adapt and carry on.

And then I lost my wedding ring, and somehow I was caught off guard by just how greatly it affencted me. I saw my naked hand and knew simultaneously both that the ring was gone and that this kind of gone was the permanent kind. I turned into a whimpering child, a deflated balloon. Orphaned children saw me and took pity (they even organized to walk the path where I seemed to have lost it and scour our house from top to bottom in search of it. When that came to nothing, they began trying to form bits of whatever they could find into a suitable ring for me, again to no avail because I have fingers far too fat for a Sudanese child to conceive of).

My wedding ring is basically a $40 hunk of metal, but unlike every other possession I've ever had - whose true value only became apparent to me when the object was no longer mind - that ring was symbolic of something. It meant something to me; unlike other possessions which often construct our identities, my wedding ring always reminded me of my identity. It had a weight to it that I actually had to adjust to when I first started to wear it. It required me to adapt in the most basic and mundane human behaviors, like clapping my hands or drumming on a table out of boredom. The ring did not itself bind me to Sarah, but it was the most visible reminder of that bond.

It has been four days since I lost my ring, and I still find my thumb gravitating to the base of my ring finger seeking the shape of it. I walk the path where I lost the ring at least five times a day, and every time I find my eyes scanning the ground alongside it searching for what I know I won't find, reminding myself that the rain has probably washed it away or a goat has eaten it but still failing to convince myself to stop looking.

It's just another object, I know, but losing something that costs so little but means so much leaves me feeling so vulnerable and powerless. I begin to imagine losing not the object but the person, my worst fears playing themselves out in my mind, and before long I'm thinking, 'why on earth did we come here again?'

But in our marriage vows, Sarah said to me, "I vow to choose the opportunity to do something great over our convenience and comfort." I remember standing with her at the altar, listening to those words, and thinking, 'this is absolutely the woman I want to spend my life with.'

And our life right now is frenzied, unpredictable, exhausting, and stressful. And our marriage is regularly strained, and we often feel the acute loneliness of being so visibly different in a culture that tends to encourage conformity. And I think sometimes we probably ask ourselves if this is the kind of opportunity that we were looking for. And it's funny the things that confirm that it is: letting a seven-year-old girl fall asleep in your lap when she's sick, helping an eight-year-old boy pick out his clothes for the day, watching a ten-year-old who has never experienced rain gutters before dance under the gutter spout during a downpour, explaining the concept of parallel lines to a twelve-year-old, sitting on the veranda with a group of teenage girls who want us to sit and listen to their laughter and their songs (and eventually want us to sing songs of our own to each other, and we oblige).

There are moments when the loneliness arises from the fact that there are so many people we love with whom we want to share in these unique moments.

But for now it's the two of us, and in some sense it will always be just the two of us. Ring or no ring. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fun with fire and other good toys


Evenings are my favorite time of the day around here. The sun instead of scorching, in it’s usual style, paints the sky in the most beautiful colors in all directions here. It is a rare time when the kids are occupied and content, knowing it is too late to ask for new games or anything that must be purchased and too early for medicine or study materials. There is always a group playing football at the center of the compound just outside the office door, and a group playing games around the steps and a group gathered around the kitchen waiting for dinner. I love sitting on the steps at this time watching the sky, playing games or seeing who will win the soccer match today.

I stepped outside yesterday to take it all in when my attention was drawn to a reflection of the orange sun in a patch of grass across the compound. This reflection came in the form of our 11 year old queen bee, Kasara, and her bff, Lilly, sparing with large branches of fire while the grass lit up below them. As they were jousting their weapons of flame, about 4 of our youngest daughters were dancing and jumping in the sparks and smoke.

Awesome.

Just as I am about to run as fast as I can to strangle Kasara, I realize I have left a three year old in front of my computer as well as two other kids in detention with all our valuables in the office. After shooing everyone out and closing the office door I rush outside and am stopped by a truck full of men and our friend Pasquali . I politely say excuse me “I just need to stop something”. The truck full of men got a good laugh at the frantic white woman running across the compound, but I was too busy trying to remember if I learned anything about burn wounds in the first aid book I was reading earlier that day and imagining 6 year old Nonyo’s blue dress going up in flames.

This is how it went down:
Me: “Kasara! Stop what you are doing right now!”
Kasara : “We are putting out fire”
Me: “Really, cause this is how you put a fire out” as I quickly smother and stomp the branches and grass
Kasara : “We were just playing with fire” she says indignant and confused

That’s right, just playing with fire.

I will add this to the list of things our children think are perfectly good toys. This list includes aerosol cans of bug poison (most fun to try to smash open with rocks!), razor blades, sheets of plastic tied tightly around their necks and over their heads, rusty nails and rusty machetes (really anything that could cut you and give you tetanus is a wonderful toy). I have seriously taken all of these things away from our children.

Miraculously we haven’t had any children die or even that seriously injured and in my book that is a win. I have seen some toe nails ripped off, but who needs toenails anyway?


Friday, October 8, 2010

Welcome Home

When you tell 60 children who have sent their entire lives living in mud huts that they are about to move into the brand new house, the construction of which they've witnessed slowly come together over the course of five years, they will not immediately be inclined to believe you. They will, in fact, come up with all kinds of reasons that they will not be able to move into the new house.

There are no bed frames, no mattresses, no sheets, and no curtains - they will point out to you, and at the time of the pointing out they will be right. What's more striking are the things that they don't point out - all of the rooms that won't be occupied aren't yet painted, none of the hallways are, the multiple-purpose room is entirely unusable. The kids couldn't care less about those things; they know the purpose of a house: the house is to live in and sleep in, to gather in a room with your closest friends and share secrets long after you're supposed to be asleep. It's to have a place to put your action figures where they can be prominently displayed. What they know is that a house doesn't have to be perfect to be home...but it does have to have beds and mattresses...and by the way the rooms aren't big enough to hold the number of beds we are describing to them, in case we hadn't noticed.

And then on one magical day, perhaps not the exact day we had expected but within two days of that day, a large truck arrives carrying 60 mattresses - the fat ones, not the thin ones - and just a hint of disbelief is carried away in its newly emptied bed. Later the same day another truck offloads wooden bunk bed frames and carries away an even greater load of disbelief as the children realize that this plan we've been describing to them, right down to the fact that they'll each have their own bed with their own brand new mattresses - will actually come into being not just someday, but someday soon.

We even bring them in and show them exactly which rooms are their new rooms, and before long the new roommates have formed together into a cleaning crew, removing every hint of dust or dirt from floors, walls, doors, and windows. Gone is their disbelief, now entirely replaced by eager expectation. Mori speaks almost no English, but he finds the words to narrate to us which bed every boy in his room is going to sleep in, and walks around for two days telling everyone willing to listen, "Ocira sleep up, I sleep down" except the down part is so full of expectancy that it comes out "dowwwwwwwnnnnn."

Of course African transport isn't exactly synonymous with reliability, and we find ourselves waiting on those curtains and bedsheets - the ones we bought all the way in Kampala, Uganda (eight hours away by bus). For some inexplicable reason when the purchasers arrived here on a bus with the curtains, the bus operator refused to open the cargo hold and continued on to Juba, Sudan. The next day they forgot to load them on to the next bus. The day after they remembered, but the bus broke down. Each day at least a dozen children ask, "will today be the day?" and we wearily shake our heads.

After waiting three days, we decide that curtains or no curtains it's time to move. A house doesn't have to be perfect to be a home, and the anticipation and excitement for this particular home have become palpable. We had hoped to move over the weekend, but instead we greet the kids as they return from school on Monday afternoon and tell them, "as soon as everyone in your room has their belongings packed up, come to the church, and we'll bring you to your new room." General pandemonium ensues, with children throwing whatever clothing, shoes, and special items they own into an assortment of bags, luggage, and cardboard boxes. Despite the dirty, sweaty nature of the task before them, many of them put on their nicest clothes, some even donning ties to mark the occasion. Some sit silently in the church with their belongings awaiting further direction; some are balls of frenetic activity, bouncing back and forth from one place to another to make sure everything they have is really there.

Soon the members of an entire room are assembled, and they look at us imploringly, and we know that the time has really come. We gather them together for a photo, and then they pick up their bags and walk together the 200 meters from church to house.

If the sun weren't shining that Monday it wouldn't have mattered, because the grins on the faces of those children as they moved, room by room, into their new house, would have illuminated the whole of south Sudan.

Many of the youngest children have spent their entire lives sharing a mattress with someone, and the first thing they do in their new rooms is climb into whichever bed has become their own, though it seems unlikely that they'll easily be able to fall asleep there that first night, so overcome are they with excitement.

One group of boys immediately decorate their room with whatever bits of fabric they have around, and as I come down the hallway they welcome me to their room and explain that it is already the smartest room in the house.

I ask Saidi to show me his new room, and he sets off five paces ahead of me, moving with a determination that is only softened by the bounce of his shoulders and his wide angle smile. As I enter, there amidst his brothers he throws his arms open, turns to me and proclaims, "We have waited five years for this house. Now we are here, and it is so good. This is my room, and it shines! God bless this house! Thank you! You are welcome."

Days here are generally long, are often wearying, and tend to produce the most unexpected challenges. On days, however, when I get to stand in the middle of a milestone in life for the children we are here to serve, all of the hours, all the fatigue, all the difficulty recede into the darkness; joy rules the day. And so it is. 

video

Friday, September 24, 2010

Things I urgently feel you should know:

·         One of the cooks here has a young daughter. Her name is Kevin. I don't know why that is; it just is. Sometimes you have to accept that.
·         Two weeks ago we were in a 2.5 hour meeting with the engineer in charge of our new building to renegotiate a labor expense (long story short, the original bill of quantities is for his crew to do all the interior prepping and painting of the ceilings and walls, they are now only prepping, thus a new, lower price needed to be reached). This meeting began at 8:45. At night. But we negotiated a new price. We even wrote it up a memorandum for his home office informing it of the method by which we agreed on the number.
·         Today the engineer informed us that as they have done the work, the new price was too low.
·         I will not renegotiate the price.
·         This is not because I am a hard ass but because I haven't had a meeting with the engineer that has been shorter than 2 hours (the aforementioned meeting was meant to last 15 minutes), and I don't think I can summon enough determination to do another meeting so soon.
·         There is a cow chewing on her upraised hind leg outside my door as I'm writing this.
·         There is often a cow outside my door.
·         As an American in Africa, I think I'm contractually obligated to make a mention of something called a jacaranda tree (or maybe a bush?), but I have no idea what this tree (bush) is. Obviously.
·         Sarah has begun cooking. Three of the last four nights she has prepared food for our administrative staff.
·         Dishes Sarah has prepared: Indian eggplant, curried okra, spaghetti with tomato sauce.
·         Sarah is cooking using a wood fire. The food doesn't reflect that massive limitation at all. In fact, I'll probably regain the 5 kg I've lost since we've been here sooner than later.
·         While I was working in our house and Sarah was on our back porch chopping vegetables with two of our girls, 12-year-old Lily Jane and 13-year-old Muja Joyce, I overheard the following exchange- Muja: My mother used to make this... She was so happy. Now she died. Lily: My father died. I cried and cried. There was a short pause, then Lily began laughing, Muja joined and they went on with chopping.
·         More than anything, exchanges like that are why I'm so happy Sarah is cooking. The girls love to cook with her, and they haven't had someone here to act as their mother since, well, ever.
·         I took Lily to the hospital the other day for a case of stomach cramps.
·         We were at the hospital for four hours, I kid you not.
·         While we were sitting in the open air waiting room, under the tin roof, with the paint peeling off the walls, the hospital employees brought out a TV and put on a DVD.  It was completely surreal.
·         Uploading photos takes forever here, so I can't show you the million cute, wonderful, or brilliant things that the kids are constantly doing.
·         Not numbered among those million things are the kids who became so excited about moving into their new home that they stayed home from school today to help us paint.
·         They made this decision without our information or consent.
·         We did not let them paint.
·         Also, we couldn't send them late to school because students who arrive late to their school are sent home.
·         That policy doesn't make sense to me either.
·         Numbered among the million things is the handful of 6-8 year old girls who crowded around an old mattress that they had laid out on the ground, and when the mosque next door to us began the call to prayer repeatedly knelt down, pressing their faces to the ground, calling out "Allahu Akbar," and giggling like banshees.
·         I'm not sure our neighbors like us.
·         Except Sylve, who is constantly stopping by and is constantly drunk. She likes to steal our sugar when we're not looking. She also like to throw rocks not at but in the general direction of our children. She also likes to threaten to beat them. And to randomly break into screeching, wailing sobs. And to stand in rooms where our children are trying to study and yell very random things such as, "Organization Airport!"
·         There's a long story behind why she yells things like that, but it'll have to wait.
·         We've tried to be patient with her, but we're getting to a point where we just can't have her around. We've set boundaries with her (like, "don't come here when you've been drinking"), and she's ignored them. She's becoming increasingly agitated and stubborn lately. We've had long discussions about what to do and settled on ignoring her.
·         If you have ideas for how to convince 60 kids to ignore the drunk lady who is standing in front of them saying, "Organization Airport" and cursing their (deceased) mothers, we are open to hearing them. 

Things I urgently feel you should know:

·         One of the cooks here has a young daughter. Her name is Kevin. I don't know why that is; it just is. Sometimes you have to accept that.
·         Two weeks ago we were in a 2.5 hour meeting with the engineer in charge of our new building to renegotiate a labor expense (long story short, the original bill of quantities is for his crew to do all the interior prepping and painting of the ceilings and walls, they are now only prepping, thus a new, lower price needed to be reached). This meeting began at 8:45. At night. But we negotiated a new price. We even wrote it up a memorandum for his home office informing it of the method by which we agreed on the number.
·         Today the engineer informed us that as they have done the work, the new price was too low.
·         I will not renegotiate the price.
·         This is not because I am a hard ass but because I haven't had a meeting with the engineer that has been shorter than 2 hours (the aforementioned meeting was meant to last 15 minutes), and I don't think I can summon enough determination to do another meeting so soon.
·         There is a cow chewing on her upraised hind leg outside my door as I'm writing this.
·         There is often a cow outside my door.
·         As an American in Africa, I think I'm contractually obligated to make a mention of something called a jacaranda tree (or maybe a bush?), but I have no idea what this tree (bush) is. Obviously.
·         Sarah has begun cooking. Three of the last four nights she has prepared food for our administrative staff.
·         Dishes Sarah has prepared: Indian eggplant, curried okra, spaghetti with tomato sauce.
·         Sarah is cooking using a wood fire. The food doesn't reflect that massive limitation at all. In fact, I'll probably regain the 5 kg I've lost since we've been here sooner than later.
·         While I was working in our house and Sarah was on our back porch chopping vegetables with two of our girls, 12-year-old Lily Jane and 13-year-old Muja Joyce, I overheard the following exchange- Muja: My mother used to make this... She was so happy. Now she died. Lily: My father died. I cried and cried. There was a short pause, then Lily began laughing, Muja joined and they went on with chopping.
·         More than anything, exchanges like that are why I'm so happy Sarah is cooking. The girls love to cook with her, and they haven't had someone here to act as their mother since, well, ever.
·         I took Lily to the hospital the other day for a case of stomach cramps.
·         We were at the hospital for four hours, I kid you not.
·         While we were sitting in the open air waiting room, under the tin roof, with the paint peeling off the walls, the hospital employees brought out a TV and put on a DVD.  It was completely surreal.
·         Uploading photos takes forever here, so I can't show you the million cute, wonderful, or brilliant things that the kids are constantly doing.
·         Not numbered among those million things are the kids who became so excited about moving into their new home that they stayed home from school today to help us paint.
·         They made this decision without our information or consent.
·         We did not let them paint.
·         Also, we couldn't send them late to school because students who arrive late to their school are sent home.
·         That policy doesn't make sense to me either.
·         Numbered among the million things is the handful of 6-8 year old girls who crowded around an old mattress that they had laid out on the ground, and when the mosque next door to us began the call to prayer repeatedly knelt down, pressing their faces to the ground, calling out "Allahu Akbar," and giggling like banshees.
·         I'm not sure our neighbors like us.
·         Except Sylve, who is constantly stopping by and is constantly drunk. She likes to steal our sugar when we're not looking. She also like to throw rocks not at but in the general direction of our children. She also likes to threaten to beat them. And to randomly break into screeching, wailing sobs. And to stand in rooms where our children are trying to study and yell very random things such as, "Organization Airport!"
·         There's a long story behind why she yells things like that, but it'll have to wait.
·         We've tried to be patient with her, but we're getting to a point where we just can't have her around. We've set boundaries with her (like, "don't come here when you've been drinking"), and she's ignored them. She's becoming increasingly agitated and stubborn lately. We've had long discussions about what to do and settled on ignoring her.
·         If you have ideas for how to convince 60 kids to ignore the drunk lady who is standing in front of them saying, "Organization Airport" and cursing their (deceased) mothers, we are open to hearing them. 

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A little historical reflection

Activity here slows down infrequently, but when it does I tend to find myself confronted by a couple glaringly obvious truths:
1. We live in Sudan.
2. Life in Sudan is quite different from life in America.
And usually those two truths beg the question: What on earth are we doing here? If I have enough time before the frenzy of activity resumes, I spend an awful lot of time pondering that question. People's decisions and actions are propelled forward by their beliefs, values, and ideals, whether consciously or subconsciously. I think it's safe to assume that a person who moves across the globe is acting consciously, but some days I have a very hard time pinning down exactly what were the beliefs, values, and ideals that brought me here.
Should the time before I'm swept up in the needs, desires, and whims of 60 children really stretch on, I usually find myself thinking about St. Benedict - not the present Pope who I find pretty creepy and who isn’t a saint (sorry to any devoutly Catholic friends I might have), but the Italian monk who started monasteries all over Europe during the Dark Ages.
A quick historical refresher: after the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476AD, most of Europe devolved into chaos due to the absence of any coordinating central power that had enough authority to ensure order. It was a time of regular warfare, high poverty, appalling lack of education, and, for most Europeans, general misery.
Benedict's rather revolutionary idea of the time was, "what if authority could be used not to force people into a certain course of action but to mobilize people to improve their own lives and communities?" So was born the Benedictine monastery - usually a few acres of low quality land that Benedict and his order worked over diligently until it became useful for producing food and raising animals for both food and clothing. On the same grounds the Benedictines built a church, a school, a community meeting hall, a library, and a guesthouse for the weary traveler who managed to survive the widespread banditry on just about every road.
The monastery was more than self-sufficient; in most cases it produced an abundance of food and materials that could then be used to enrich the larger community.
Benedict was a guy who looked beyond the prevailing survival mentality of his time and tried to imagine how the world was meant to be. Then he set about trying to transform his world to more closely resemble the ideal that he held in his heart, what he thought the kingdom of God that Jesus spoke about should look like.
It is no accident that I find myself thinking a lot about St. Benedict, I suppose. I think about him when I look at the soil Sarah is preparing for planting and the skeleton of a structure that is slowly becoming a chicken coop. I think about him when I walk through the village not too far from our home in the middle of a school day and see scores of school age children who aren't enrolled in school. I think of him when the women's savings group meets on the veranda of one of the buildings on our compound.
I feel both uncertain about and uncomfortable with the proposition that I should be one of the people who seek to affect transformation in this community. I don't know what it says about me that I moved across the world to help transform one community and left behind another that was also in need of transformation. Here I find myself, though, and as Sarah and I delve deeper and deeper into our new community, I find that my heart bonds to it more and more. And the needs here are great, so I end up asking myself a lot, "do I believe in something worthwhile and valuable, not just for me, not just for people like me, but for all people?"
And then a bleeding kid interrupts me with eyes imploring me to dress his wounds.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Now Hiring

Cornerstone Friends made three Sudanese hires this week! We’re so excited about the people we are working with to begin our programs. I thought I would tell you about them.

Mandela Joseph

Mandela came to live at Cornerstone Children’s Home a few years back when he was 12, he was living on the streets at the time, finding work when he could. He left the program a few months ago when it became clear there was not much more the home could do to for him. Seth and I were very sad to hear Mandela was not living here anymore, as we both have a strong fondness for him despite (or maybe because of?) his moodiness and sometimes difficult personality.

He’s been showing up here every evening for the last week, wanting to take his anti-depressant medicine and wondering if there is any way for us to help him get into a trade school. Unfortunately he is illiterate and so trade school is not possible right now. We came to a new agreement that Mandela can work in our agriculture program and join the tutoring groups Seth is beginning next week.

I genuinely enjoyed working with Mandela today , digging and preparing the soil. I hope he shows up tomorrow.

Joska

About 8 months ago we got a very sad and heavy call from our friends here in Sudan letting us know one of the best and brightest girls at the home was pregnant. The director of the home found out because one of her sisters became afraid Joska was going to the witch doctor to try and terminate the pregnancy.

It amazes how nine months and child birth can change a girl’s heart and now Isaiah is here and couldn’t be more loved or adored. Unfortunately, the reality of her situation remains the same. She and the father can no longer go to school, he is not working and they are living in poverty.

Seth met with Joska to test her literacy level and she will start tutoring our small kids next week. We have plenty of willing free babysitters for Isaiah and for $1.50 a day we hope to create opportunity for him, Joska, and the kids she will teach to read.

Aturus

Aturus lives here at the home, he came to me the other day and said he was very interested in planting food and raising chickens. We made a plan for the chicken coop and by that afternoon he had purchased materials and dug the holes for the posts.

Aturus is about 18 a freshman in high school (or senior one as they say here) and reading at maybe a third grade level. He is just the kind of kid for whom we want to create opportunities.

Yesterday Aturus and I put together the beginning of our chicken business plan. We expect it to recoop our start up costs (about $150) and turn a profit in 5 months. Aturus will receive a percentage of the profits and the rest will go towards funding the home. We’ll keep you updated on the progress!

The internet is not letting me post pics at the moment but if you get on our Facebook page "Cornerstone Friends" I'll put some there.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Report on Literacy/A Report on Illiteracy

Born out of my conviction that you often have to know the severity of the problem before you can start to address the problem, I spent a large chunk of time putting each kid who lives in the children's home through a simple literacy test. My intent was to discover how fluently they read - you'll see that I paid absolutely no attention to comprehension, and you'll hopefully see why I made that decision initially. I also should disclaim that I'm trying to create an approach that can be reproduced by an African teacher with very few resources and many students in his or her class.

Be forewarned: this post reveals the full extent of my dorkiness, particularly when it comes to data. Proceed at your own caution. If you came here for my glib assessment of life in rural Africa and the accompanying anecdotes, I'll be back with more of that soon.

First a word about methodology, and I'm offering this mainly because I'd love to hear from others about how this methodology can be improved, where it is lacking, what it overlooks, etc. Here's how I tested the kids:
·         Before we came to Sudan I stopped by Bookies, Denver's finest educator bookstore, and picked up five editions of the DK Reader series, each of which was rated at a different reading level - all the way from a child who is still learning to read up to a fully independent reader. The total cost for all five books was $15, making it replicable for others trying to reproduce this system.
·         When I met with each child, I had them start with the lowest book and read the title. If they were able to, I moved on to the next level and had them do the same, until I came to the highest level book of which they could read the title. For a few of them, you'll see on the chart below, I had them read a couple different books in order to get a fuller picture of their abilities. This was the most subjective part of the process; for many children I could tell from listening to them read for two minutes what they were capable of and where they struggled, and for some I needed to see them attack more difficult material to see what they would do.
·         I then had the child read to me from that book for two minutes. During that time I kept track of how many mistakes they made in reading, and at the end I tabulated how many words they had read total, and divided by two to find their average words per minute. Both words per minute and mistakes are recorded on the table.
·         In general, I was looking for the level where the child was pronouncing 80% of the words correctly.
·         While the child read I was primarily listening for the following things: phonetic awareness, familiarity with simple & complex vowel sounds, ability to divide longer and more unfamiliar words into chunks, ability to read with expression.

The full results are below, but I want to draw your attention to a few things:
·         Age doesn't necessarily correlate with their progress in school. Because of the instability in this region, many of the kids have been in and out of school for a long time, and this has seriously impacted their progress.
·         To read the notations for their year in school, know that the system is divided into three schools: nursery school (which has 3 years), primary school (which has 7 years), and secondary school (which has 6 years). A student marked p7 is in their 7th year of primary school, "s" is for senior, and "n" is for nursery.
·         You'll notice a handful of kids who seem to be reading at a remarkable rate but with a similarly remarkable number of mistakes. Those children, without fail, are not actually reading - they just have incredible memories and have memorized a ton of sight words and are using that knowledge bank to guess at everything else.
·         You'll notice an even greater number of kids - 23 to be exact -   who have only a 0 in the first column. Those children, unfortunately, are completely illiterate. Some are in nursery school, so it's not too shocking, but many are in the middle and upper levels of primary school. Most of them can recognize all the letters in the alphabet, but they have no ability to put those letters together to form words or even identify the sounds each letter should make. These are the children I'm most concerned about.

Alright, have a look at the data. If you have thoughts, share them in the comment section.

Update: So, Blogger isn't super kind to this table - you can highlight it within the browser to see all the data.  You can also copy it and paste it into something that makes it easier to look at.  I'd do it for you, but be thankful that I get internet at all here - let's not ask too much.
Age
School Year
Pre-1 WPM
Pre-1 Mistakes
Level 1 WPM
Level 1 mistakes
Level 2 WPM
Level 2 mistakes
Level 3 WPM
Level 3 mistakes
Level 4 WPM
Level 4 mistakes
20
s4








107
5
20
s4








82
6
16
s2




70
15
81
22


19
s2


48
13
48
19




18
s1


39
22
34
17




17
s1




96
26




17
s1






79
14
80
8
17
s1


39
7






17
s1




49
9




19
s1




40
9




19
s1




32
11




18
s1




58
14




17
p7


48
9
37
7




16
p7


94
15
61
16




17
p7




64
7
58
14


16
p6




58
8




15
p6


44
16






15
p6




60
13




17
p6


36
12






13
p6


20
13






15
p6


60
18
36
21




15
p6
0









14
p5
35
10
28
23
26
18




14
p5


43
41






14
p5
26
8
20
25






14
p5
0









14
p5
0









15
p5


37
41






15
p5
0









16
p5
32
8
26
18






15
p4
0









15
p4
0









14
p4


18
13






11
p4
23
8
23
16






13
p4
0









15
p4
0









11
p3
0









13
p3
0









13
p2
0









13
P2
19
6
18
9






11
p2
0









10
p2


21
7






8
p2
15
13








8
p2
0









14
p2
13
9








11
p2
0









11
p2
0









7
p1
0









15
p1










10
p1










8
n3
0









6
n3
0









5
n2
0









6
n2
0









4
n1
0









15
p4?
0










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