Sunday, February 15, 2009

This, my Valentine’s Day post, sends love to all of you out there who have been sparked by interest in life here. I’m just back from a few days in Gbonkolenken, where several initiatives made possible by many of you are coming into fruition and I want to fill you in on some of them.

Goats. Over the past two years a number of schools and individuals have contributed money to the purchase of goats to generate income for community schools. I don’t think, though, that I’ve ever described just how this works and how the schools and communities benefit. On Monday I will go with our “goat project” person on a seven mile trek into the interior of our chiefdom, to purchase 16 young female goats which are destined for several of our schools (we’ve also purchased goats in Gbonkolenken). This purchase benefits the tiny, remote communities that provide the goats and otherwise struggle to find a source of cash. The receiving schools, which have built pens and fenced enclosures for the goats, will generate enough income per goat through sale of the kids to pay fees for students who could otherwise not attend school, buy chalk for the year, have the local carpenter repair or build desks, or contribute to a multitude of other needs. Each school has developed its own implementation plan based on local realities and many intend to increase their herd to expand the income they can generate. Usifu, the local volunteer math teacher, is designing math lessons for the schools to be carried out in relation to this project. I’m dreaming of creating a children’s book about the connections between children here and there through this initiative. The benefits to community, students, teachers, and schools are exponential.

Seeds. In most communities, it is the women who are ultimately responsible for finding the money needed to send their children to school. It is also the women who struggle to provide nutritious food for their families. Many women meet both of these needs through communal or individual planting and harvesting groundnuts, some of which are sold to pay for school and other costs and some of which are kept to serve as the base for the protein-providing groundnut soup that’s so often eaten here. This year we are able to provide at least six women’s groups with the groundnut seed they need to provide education and food for their families. Each bushel of groundnut seed we provide (all locally purchased from other women’s groups) should generate four bushels of groundnuts, enabling women to keep one for future planting, share one, and still have two to sell or consume. Thank you Aunty Iffat!

Health. In my last post I wrote about death and illness. I’m happy to report that both chiefdoms have made great strides in addressing education-related health issues. This week we’ve started discussing and implementing a teacher and student health program that will enable students and volunteer teachers to receive free health care at the community clinic and, in the case of teachers, to access information that will allow them to teach their students about health issues related to local conditions. At the same time it looks like we’re finally very close to being able to purchase a vehicle to be used for transporting health emergencies from villages to the clinic or to hospital, both thanks to the support of kind donors. Overcoming these two key health hurdles, user-fees and lack of transportation, will, I hope cut down on the despondent posts that sometimes sneak into the blog.

Peace Education. The benefits of the teacher workshops continue to be evident in many corners. This week, during a workshop in Makonkorie, one teacher thanked me by saying that up to now, teachers have been teaching by essentially bullying children, especially when they make mistakes. He said that knowing that it’s OK for teachers to let children make mistakes…that this is what helps them grow and learn… is the best gift he’s received in years of teaching and will radically change the climate in his class, a sentiment echoed by many others. At the same time, teachers from many of the communities around here continue to fill the library each day for the free daily computer lessons given by Kouame and Mabinty.

Youth Employment. This past week the youth groups of Mapaki, Rosanda, and Gbonkolenken have been burning the midnight oil to complete and submit funding proposals for youth employment projects designed to enable rural youth stay in the villages. While only 3 or 4 proposals from across the country will be selected, we are all hopeful that, given these groups’ new access to technology (all applications had to be submitted electronically), they at least stand a good chance of being considered.

School Construction. The people of the community of Mathombo, which was largely destroyed during the war, have also been burning the midnight oil as they have performed the miraculous feat of constructing a wonderful new six-classroom building in record time with little funding in place and through their own labour, usually working nights as farms need preparing and tending during the day. They are as surprised by this turn of events as we are, telling us that they never dreamed that we would be the ones to facilitate this construction as they had been promised help so many times in the past from so many, none of which materialized. A huge thanks goes to Sherry of Green Solutions and Rand of Newport Sports for making this dream a reality.

Connections with all of you. The school twinning connections have been very moving and sweet this week, as we continue to share and respond to the letters and drawings that were brought by Hetty and Thomas. While the student letter exchange begins to wrap up soon, we might move into a teacher to teacher connecting phase, as teachers here are very motivated to connect directly with teachers there. If anyone out there is interested in being part of this, please drop me a line. Thanks!

And talking about sweet, the Stone Soup cooking club seems to be heading in directions of its own and this weekend I was delighted with foofoo with fish sauce and pepper soup, a welcome diversion from the usual day’s fare. I’m waking now with the scent of the fresh basil growing just under my window (growing next to the two pineapple plants I put in today) and the ability to boil water for “tea leaf” in the morning. With the volunteer teachers in Gbonkolenken, we’re making plans for a “Stone Soup” get together where we’ll cook and celebrate our achievements and share a calabash of palm wine and probably dance into the night. Despite its sometimes unfathomable pain and hardship, life’s sweet side is so very easy to celebrate here. I hope you all find ways to celebrate this day also.

Photos - Friends in Gbonkolenken Chiefdom reading letters from friends in Canada