Monday, May 16, 2011

People You Should Know: Akera Emmanuel

Akera Emmanuel is the office manager at Cornerstone Children's Home and one of the founders of an organization in Nimule that presents community health training all around South Sudan. He is an unrelenting supporter of the Arsenal Football Club. Akera is also a good friend, someone I feel proud to know.

I first met Akera in 2006 on my first trip to Sudan. He was a 21-year-old who was in the familiar predicament of coming of age and the foreign predicament of living in a country experiencing peace (or at least a lack of armed conflict) for the first time in years. I remember him from that time as a young man who projected great self-confidence, despite an uncertainty over where that confidence came from that left him hesitant and a little uncertain of himself. He was never without a camera, having figured out that he enjoyed photography and could make a little money at it by shooting portraits or sometimes just being at the right place at the right time and capturing a moment someone might want to remember. In hindsight, I recognize what a unique and bold act this was: at the time, people with cameras made the Southern Sudanese authorities very nervous. It was impossible to know who might be a northern spy come to scout out potential targets for future hostilities. But Akera trusted the depth of the relationships he had developed in his community

The Sudanese civil war was an experience that shaped him in ways deeply social and personal. Most profoundly, from boyhood he was without his father - an army medic who was posted away from his family for years at a time. Akera developed an unbreakable bond with his mother, crediting her for making him who he is today. Despite a disability which has left her with a severe limp, she worked - often doing manual labor - to put Akera and all of his brothers and sisters through primary school.

Akera wanted to continue with his education, but his mother found herself unable to support his dream. Furthermore, the village where he was raised lacked a secondary school, so at the age of 16 he moved to Nimule and found himself independent and alone.

With little economic activity in Nimule, Akera took up one of the most physically demanding jobs - one of the only jobs available - making bricks. The work requires literal mudraking to mine the materials, and then working a blazing oven in the already blazing sun. It pays very little, bricks selling at 5-10 for a dollar. Akera woke early in the morning every day, worked 2 hours making bricks, left for school (often imploring the headmaster to give Akera just a few more days to pay his school fees), returned back to the mud fields to continue with the bricks, and then made his way to the small house he rented when the sun went down to do his homework by kerosene lamp light. During school holidays he worked from sunup to sundown in the mud fields or found construction jobs when there were any to be found.

Akera finished in the top division of his class every year (except, he admits ruefully his third year - when he dropped into the second division). He finished his Ordinary Level academic work and continued on to his Advanced Levels, where he continued his daily grind and continued earning top division grades.

Akera doesn't have a hint of disdain or resentment for his absent father, his mother's disability, or how hard he had to work to complete secondary school. In adulthood he has built a relationship with his father, he takes pride in now providing for his mother as she provided for him, and he continues to dream of one day going to university...for now, though, he is content. He's an acknowledged leader who is rooted in his community, a trustworthy and conscientious worker who can balance the demands of multiple responsibilities, and a happy newlywed. He has found a balance that I still struggle to understand: he gets things done, all the while infusing his life with rich relationships.

You can stop reading here, but I want to brag about Akera little bit - about accounting and stuff. Read on at your own peril:

A few weeks ago, we hired a new administrator at Cornerstone Children's Home - Harriet Rose. Months ago, when we first arrived, I had designed a new accounting system for the home that involves a paper record of all debits and credits and a ridiculously complex Excel spreadsheet into which those records are entered and then tracked by date and category. 

Within a couple months, Akera had learned Excel and taken on the data entry. While we were away in March and April, he took over purchasing - and kept flawless paper records in addition to electronic ones. But that's not exactly what I want to brag about. 

A week and a half ago I asked Akera to show Harriet our books to help her get acquainted with how we record all of our transactions. In my mind I meant for him to show her our paper records just so she could begin to see that we have a few different accounts, and then I would train her on what goes where, how we categorize expenses, how our spreadsheet works (she, too, had never used Excel before). 

An hour later I returned and found that Akera had Harriet at the computer entering transactions into Excel...and doing it perfectly. 

I know bookkeeping is mundane. When you have delusions of grandeur about transforming the world - or at least some part of it - very rarely do those delusions involve paperwork and financial records. Still, there's no way to describe the swellng I felt in my chest when I came upon that scene. 

Akera Emmanuel - he's good people. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

On Growing Up

February 24, 2011
Last summer, as we were preparing to move here, we received an email with the names and ages of all of the children who currently live at Cornerstone Children's Home, and we were stupefied: half of the children were over 15, some of them over 18, and a few of those over the age of 20. "Why are they still living in a children's home?" we thought to ourselves. 
You may think this thought makes us terrible people. While you may be able to find damning evidence of our terribleness, let me argue to you that this thought should be inadmissible: 20-year-olds are not children - especially here, it's not uncommon for one so old to be married and even have children. A 20-year-old who lives with children, in a home whose rules are geared toward children - and is therefore treated as a child - will act, inevitably, like a child. 
The number of ways in which a 20-year-old is not a child are myriad - the impulses and desires felt, the capabilities acquired - and at some point those differences are so manifest that they simply cannot be ignored. A 20-year-old who is treated as a child will one day have an abrupt awakening to the fact that childhood is, in fact, gone. And what then? Will the 20-year-old no longer child be able to support shimself or have any sense of how to spend money wisely? Forgot about day-to-day living, what about making big life decisions wisely?
When we arrived, we found that the situation was as we had feared: the older children bristled against the rules and had grown accustomed to having everything done for them. And they expected that the status quo would hold forever; with no exit plan the children were becoming a bit hopeless themselves. The staff feared the children were becoming lazy and spoiled. 
But what can you do with 33 teenagers/twentysomethings and 4 staff (not to mention the remaining 27 children)? To start with, you hire more staff. 
For about 4 months now, we have been working on a program to give our young adults the skills to reintegrate into their families and communities and be able to provide for themselves. The center piece of the plan is an after school work program that will build vocational skills, starting with agriculture. 
We have spent hours dispelling the myths that we are chasing them away and reinforcing the idea that we want the best for them. We have assigned each of them a staff mentor to guide them through the process, and we have given them a month to prepare and get used to the idea (in hindsight, that also meant that we gave them a month to disseminate misinformation among themselves. Oops). 
That's how we ended up with 30 boys & girls one day swinging hoes, digging up rocks, carting manure, and laying bricks to build a chicken coop. At first, many of them were resistant - like most people they fear change, and they fear the unknown. I'd love to say that they all came around and realized that this was going to be totally awesome. That wouldn't exactly be true, however. But here's what is true: they worked, and they worked together in teams, and they worked hard, and when the time came to call it a day a handful of them weren't quite ready. It was only the first day; starting something is often much easier than maintaining it, but it felt good to at least start it. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A home apart

I find it hard to describe the feeling of being both a part of and apart from the same thing, but this is the moment that brought it most vividly to life inside me:
I am sitting in an office where we keep all the toys, games, and medicine for the kids. We call it the POD office (POD, as in Parent On Duty - "who is On Duty?" the kids ask with a special emphasis on the capitalized words).
The POD office is in a building on the north end of our four acre compound, and the room that has become the POD office was chosen for that function because it allows the P who is OD to look out over the entire compound as it slopes down from the office.
So I am sitting perched on a hill that affords me not only a view of our compound, but a view that stretches out for miles. I can see the clouds in the sky and she shadows they cast on the trees and hills in the distance. The foreground is composed of children at plag (at the moment football and Connect 4), the middle ground a mixture of green-roofed trees and thatch-roofed huts, and the background a mix of the tans of land and the greens of the bush leading to four hills that descend in height, one to the next, as I scan from left to right.
So I am sitting looking out over this as I read a back issue of The New Yorker on my iPad.
We are home yet not home; it feels more like home than it ever has before - I move as a warm knife through butter rather than as a chainsaw through a redwood trunk - still it presents me with these marked juxtapositions that remind me that I both belong and stand out. The really cunning trick that I need to learn is not how to make myself fit in more in order to feel at home, nor is it to carve out a little niche of deep familiarity where I can feel at home. It is to feel at home in standing out.