Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blogging Marathon: Chapter 2. Computers!

OK, I was going to write about my backpacking trip on the Otter Trail, but that really needs pictures, and for some reason, I can’t upload pics. Other people can, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but it is. I just spent an hour in Blogger Help and all I got was “It works in Firefox.” And to that, I respond, “No it doesn’t.” But no one seems to hear me, or they don’t answer me if they do, so I’ll move to another topic.

And that topic is the surprisingly fun world of computer teaching. I have mentioned that I’m working on a computer manual for my organization a few times. MONTHS ago. I haven’t been very motivated, and have the easy excuse that my supervisor, Mma Legodi, keeps interrupting me with new tasks. Tasks that are much more exciting than writing a computer manual. But since we want to start teaching this for real in January, I needed to finish the manual and pilot test it, since I’ve never taught computers before. So, after bribing Nathan with promises of Battlestar: Galactica, we were able to get the manual into a decent draft and I was able to start the pilot-testing process.

Now, technically, the computer classes are part of a bigger job training curriculum for the youth and unemployed in Makotse Village and the surrounding areas. After doing a needs assessment (the technical term for talking to people about what they need), MWC determined that job creation is a very important component to both poverty reduction and HIV prevention. Our ward has about an 85% unemployment rate, and after MWC, the local mine is the biggest employer. Oh, and the government. There are government jobs in Lebowakgomo about 5 km away. And the unemployed, especially the youth, have a lot of time on their hands. Which puts them at risk for unhealthy behaviors. And poor health and poverty are a vicious cycle, so we do what we can to get people jobs to keep them out of trouble, keep them healthy and rise out of poverty.

The job skills training would be multi-faceted. Makotse Women’s Club has a bakery and a food garden (soon to include hydroponics if all goes according to plan) so there would be a technical component. Then, computer skills. Then, entrepreneurial skills like marketing, budgeting, and record-keeping. I think this is the most important component. Makotse Village is never going to be a hotspot for employment opportunities, so creating your own opportunities will have to pick up the slack.

To be honest, I’m a little iffy about the training. I think it’s a great idea, but there are so many factors affecting unemployment beside a lack of skills. It’s a long-term project, so I probably won’t see the impact, but at the same time, computer skills certainly won’t hurt anything and will help make people more employable. And at the very least, those working at the office will learn touch-typing which, I’ve come to realize, is probably the single most important thing in using computers well. Touch-typing may very well be my legacy. Now that’s something to put on your tombstone!

Blogging Marathon: Chapter 1. Cape Town, Women & Historical Background

First, before I start rambling on and on, a bit of background on my life in Africa. It’s relevant! I promise!

In 1993, I did an internship in Tanzania at the Tanzania Media Women’s Association, a fabulous organization that was at the forefront of women’s rights in Tanzania. They opened the first domestic abuse shelter in the country, they built latrines, and they had fashion shows to celebrate being a woman in Tanzania. They also did a lot of networking and were active both in the international and the Pan-African movements. While I was there, I noticed that a lot, if not most, of African women’s organizations were in South Africa. This was at the tail-end of apartheid, and women were a part of the resistance from the beginning. This was something that was encouraging when I got the Peace Corps invitation to come here: there is a long history of movements and NGOs and I was going to be a part of that history.

However, Peace Corps volunteers aren’t sent to the places with this history, the history of organizing for justice and human rights. There are many reasons for that, the biggest being that those organizations don’t need volunteers, while NGOs in the rural areas, in the neglected parts of the country, are just getting on their feet and can use some support. These are the organizations that started after the end of apartheid and their purpose is different from those that developed earlier. Obviously, they aren’t advocating for the end of apartheid. Instead, they provide community services like home-based health care, training, HIV prevention, micro-finance, etc.

But, another interesting thing about the NGO situation in South Africa is that, even though they are Non-Governmental Organizations, they get a lot of money from the government (in fact, they are now known as civil society organizations, but old habits die hard for me. You will see NGOs in this blog). They are seen as a tool to create jobs, not just provide services. So, you get a lot of people who start NGOs for the money. Not everyone, of course, but enough for it to be an obvious pattern. In fact, Makotse Women’s Club is the largest employer in our ward. All of this to say that I’ve seen a lot of organizations created out of greed, not compassion, and it gets frustrating and depressing after a while. These aren’t necessarily the organizations we volunteer at. MWC certainly isn’t like that. But it’s sometimes difficult to find the passionate people who attracted me to this field in the first place.

Then, you travel to another part of the country. Cape Town, for instance. And you feel like you’ve gone to another country entirely. And if you go there for a conference on women’s rights in development, then, all of a sudden, you’re surrounded by passion. Passionate women doing amazing, amazing things all over the world.

So, that’s what I did. I volunteered at AWID’s “The Power of Movements” conference doing rapporteur work, so that the content of each session could be published on their website. Everyone was wonderful and the volunteer organizers gave me sessions focusing on Africa and South Africa, as I requested. Which led to a four-hour session on reinvigorating the women’s movement in South Africa (the link goes to the report I submitted to AWID). This was a practical session about next steps and we ended up creating a listserv to keep in communication, a press statement protesting some of the more flagrant violations of women’s rights in the government, and a vision for a national women’s movement to speak for all of South African women.

So, this is all very exciting and inspiring for me. But it keeps getting more exciting. A few weeks after the conference, AWID sends out a call for proposals for projects that developed from the conference, projects that strengthen the power movements, which is exactly what we’re doing. Due date: December 15.

Now, in South Africa, the whole country basically shuts down for the holidays, starting mid-December through the second week in January. People who work in Jo’burg go home to their villages and spend a few weeks with their families. People with more means go to Durban and spend Christmas and New Year’s on the beach (it is summer here, after all). So, we have the potential to kick-start our national women’s movement creation, but no one except the Peace Corps volunteer, with no family in the country and no social life, to work on the proposal.

And that’s the story of how I’m helping to start a national movement in South Africa. And I couldn’t be happier.

Of course, I’m not doing it by myself. There are several others collaborating with me. And the due date’s now December 22, so that’s helpful, too. But, it just makes me think about the cycles in life. Fifteen years ago, I was discovering the strength of South African women while working in Tanzania. Now, I’m working with that strength first-hand. Life is truly amazing.

Blogging Marathon: Introduction

Once again, I’m sitting here with too much to write about and not enough time to get my thoughts on paper, so I’ve dedicated this weekend to be a blogging marathon. I think a lot of why I want to write so much now is to remind myself what an amazing life I’m living, even though the day-to-day can get mired in frustration, loneliness and isolation. But I only feel that when I’m focusing too much on what I believe is missing. In reality, I’m missing nothing. I have a loving family, fabulous friends, amazing co-workers and South Africa as my teacher, reminding me that it doesn’t matter what life does to you, but what you do with your life.

OK, before I start sounding like a Hallmark card, it’s time to move from sappy sayings to specifics, but I really don’t know where to start. Do I write chronologically and begin the intriguing tale of Makotse Women’s Club’s hydroponics project (still in process)? Do I start with the present, which includes computer training (FINALLY) and the year-end celebration at MWC? Or with the women’s conference I went to last month and all the inspiration I got from that? Or my amazing backpacking trip along the South African coast with Jaceson and Virginia, where we saw dolphins, humpbacked whales and more ocean sunsets than you can shake a stick at?

Well, the goal is to write about all four, so I guess this is the prelude, the tantalizing appetizer to the up-coming four-course meal. Enjoy! More to come…