This is just a brief post to go over the projects I’m working on now and the ideas I have for future projects.
1) The ICT project: I was informed when notified of my site assignment that this project was basically the reason Peace Corps sent me to Kenya (as opposed to, I don’t know, Kyrgyzstan). Yet had I been asked back in the States if the ICT4D “Kiosk” project would be a sustainable way to bring knowledge of and access to computers and the internet to rural communities, I would have had to say no. There is certainly a need in my rural community, where the only computers are a few aging ones in the schools. A kiosk with several computers sounds plausible, but in addition to the burdens of having to provide security for it, its reliance on satellite internet and solar panels would have been problematic. Anytime the satellite dish got knocked out of alignment (which has happened at the satellite-internet powered computer lab in the Youth Empowerment Centre in Webuye) or anytime a problem arose with the solar panels, it would require sending for technicians from Mombasa, on the other side of the country (paying for their transportation, food, lodging and labor costs) — pretty much the opposite of sustainable!
In addition to these difficulties, there was also what you might call a “failure to communicate” (a quite common problem, I’m finding). The CBO (Community-Based Organization) I’m attached to agreed to participate in this project because it was told by a participating NGO, Voices of Africa, that it was going to be given the kiosk gratis. Finally, at the end of October, we were informed that the CDF (Constituency Development Fund, which distributes grants for development projects from the central government to local organizations) would instead be treating it as a loan… A loan they refused to provide any details on, such as the total amount (though it was “probably” going to be “no more than a few hundred thousand shillings”), the repayment period, or any of the necessary contractual details. After conferring with a few of my colleagues who were also involved in the project, I brought the situation before my CBO and we agreed to pursue a more realistic and sustainable option — a computer lab!
We submitted the proposal for the computer lab to the CDF a few weeks before Christmas. Waiting on bureaucracies anywhere in the world is always a transcendently frustrating experience, but that’s where the project stands as of now, still waiting for the funding we’ve been told is “just there.” The proposal calls for 4 computers and a modem to start with and I have ambitions of creating a small library (Kenya is not a “reading culture,” due to high rates of poverty, so I’d like to find a way to start a book-borrowing system, perhaps with a few dozen paperback classics of world literature and popular novels). While waiting, I have trained 5 youth, who are CBO members, in software, hardware, social-media, social-entrepreneurship, and the principles of ICT4D (ICT for Development). These youth will be the operators of the computer lab, monitoring users and teaching computer classes; the goal is for the computer lab to be an IGA (Income-Generating Activity) for the CBO, as well as a source of income for the trainers. As for impact in the community, community members could obtain valuable career skills, find a market for their crops, obtain medical information, set up a Facebook account, publish information about their lives and what they know on blogs or Wikipedia, etc etc etc.
Teaser: Since submitting the application, I have been approached with a unique and promising location for the computer lab. Once I have approval from the CDF, I will post more about it, but it could be Legen… wait for it…
2) The PEPFAR project: In its origins, this project was viewed solely as an IGA by my group: a community member offered 2 acres of his land to grow passion fruit and orange-fleshed sweet potatoes on. While both types of produce are quite nutritious (especially the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are both sweeter and healthier than the pink-fleshed ones typically grown here), they would also offer the opportunity of “value addition.” Both can be made into juice, and the sweet potatoes can be turned into amaranth flour, thus providing an additional source of income. I was quite proud of my group for having the initiative to come up with the project and start implementing it without waiting for “the mzungu” to show up and do the heavy lifting. I did recommend, when asked for help finding funding for the project, that we should enlist the support of the local PLWHA (People Living With HIV/AIDS) support group, both to make funding easier and to assist a group of people often stigmatized and socio-economically marginalized. Currently we are working on a proposal for PEPFAR funding for this project, and should hopefully be approved within about a month. The first small crop of sweet potatoes has already been planted and harvested (with assistance from the Kenya Department of Agriculture, which provides free seeds of certain extremely-nutritional crops), but we await funding to make full use of the two acres.
3) Teaching LIFESKILLS classes: Three days a week, I teach LIFESKILLS class at the nearest primary school to children in Classes 6-8 (ages 10-14). I have a lot to say about this experience, so I’ll save it for another post. One thing I will say is that while LIFESKILLS is a non-graded course mandated by the Kenyan Department of Education and it is also something the Peace Corps has trained us in, the two things are not exactly the “same-same.” According to the training PCK (Peace Corps Kenya) gave us, LIFESKILLS is teaching people, primarily children, how to make healthy life decisions, most importantly how not to get HIV/AIDS. In the States, this is known as either “Health” or “Sex Ed.”
In Kenyan schools, in my experience so far and judging by the syllabus and other materials the Min of Ed puts out, LIFESKILLS includes a number of things the Kenyan government would like their pupils to know, namely: self-control, how to deal with all the various relationships (with family, friends, teachers, police, etc), maintaining positive self-image, reinforcement of moral values, and inculcating patriotism. There’s a small bit in there about resisting peer-pressure for the older kids, but that’s the main area of overlap. This is not to say that the children don’t know anything about HIV/AIDS (they certainly do, along with “knowing” a few things that just aren’t so). It just highlights the gap I’m presumably expected to fill here, to bring health information into the classroom which might be too culturally taboo for some teachers to deal with. So far, I’ve started off cautiously, teaching about “the bridge model” of decision-making, how to set life-goals, stereotyping and stigmatizing. This week’s topic will be “Early Pregnancy.” More to come….
IDEAS FOR FUTURE PROJECTS:
I’ve got a few ideas for future projects that I’ve just started working on. The local Health Centre is doing a massive anti-malarial bed-net distribution/mobile VCT (Voluntary Counseling and Testing — for HIV) drive next month which I’ll be involved with. I’d like to do some kind of “afforestation” (tree-planting) project for World Environment Day in June. Likewise, I hope to have taught enough local students and have aroused enough interest to have them form health clubs by December 1, so we can have a World AIDS Day event in my community. Access to clean drinking water doesn’t seem to be a major issue in my community, but I’m keeping an ear to the ground, just in case it becomes one (it appears that the season of the “long rains” started yesterday, but I’m not positive; if the rains aren’t consistent, drought and crop failure is a definite possibility). Finally, the owners of the school I teach at want me to put together a proposal for a dining facility for their 100+ pupils, so that’s also something you’ll probably here more about in the months to come.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned (and have been told by previous PCVs) it’s not to load up on too many projects. Two years seemed like an eternity when I first got to Kenya, but now 10 months in, I can see how little time it really is. Since Peace Corps requires our projects to be finished well in advance of our COS (Close Of Service) date, I probably have until September at the latest to begin any projects and apply for funding. Given the nature of bureaucracies and the generally slower pace of life here (as well as taking into account that there are ALWAYS complications), juggling several small projects is probably more desirable than trying to be a “SuperVolunteer” and kill myself attempting to do 80-bajillion projects. I didn’t apply to the Peace Corps expecting to single-handedly change the world. I’ll be satisfied if even one kid makes a smarter life decision because he or she knew me. And if I can teach them how to waste their time planting fake crops in their fake shambas in Farmville, well, that’ll do.