A new opportunity for Kanamb Village, Uganda

Jamie Meyer – volunteer, Jan 11 2015

Just a few days ago I was cursing someone under my breath as I hurriedly made my way up the escalator from the underground, as god forbid they hadn’t moved to the right.

Today, I’m in Jinja, Uganda, where I’m volunteering for the next few weeks with Lively Minds. An absolute contrast to the hustle and bustle of London, where I’m now adjusting to “African time”.

For those unsure, Lively Minds are based in both Ghana and Uganda, where they set up early year play schemes for children 3-6 in remote, deprived villages by training local mothers themselves to run the programs. Ensuring they are sustainable and ongoing, with lasting benefits for the entire community.

During my first morning briefing we hear from Grace and Selma, two of the local team members, who have a lead on a potential new play centre location in the village of Kanamb. During the day while we’re out in the field visiting established centres, Joshua contacts the head of the village to arrange a community meeting.

The next day we take the hour long drive via 4WD, passing local villagers along dirt roads as they make their way to a water supply, or to the market where they may try to sell some fruit.

The sheer amount of village huts and locals we pass along the way is quite shocking. In my naivety I had expected a much smaller number of villages around Jinja, each with a small population. The team gives me an understanding of the hundreds of villages, sometimes with thousands of people living within each. Only now to I begin to understand the scale of the issue we are trying to tackle in Uganda alone.

We arrive at the village of Kanamb to see a group of locals have already gathered under the shade of the trees. Around 40 men are seated on wooden stools in a circle, with 10 or so women sitting on the ground to the side of the circle with their children. We are welcomed to the circle and offered a stool, which we take up but ask to expand the circle to include the women. We communicate that we also want to speak to the women of the village and numbers are low, so following the okay from the village head, one of the women runs off to gather more mothers from their homes. Slowly another 20 or so women wonder over to join the meeting.

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I am surprised to see the structure of the meeting, which has a dedicated chairperson and leads with a prayer and welcome from the village head. The men explain they have three big issues in the village; the first being a lack of clean water, the second being no work or money, and the third being almost no access to education. They know little about the program so far, but are hoping we can help with one of these issues. I look around the group and can see so much hope and optimism in their eyes, that it really chokes me.

The news that the men are already mentioning education is a really good sign – in some of the villages, it has little value and the team really has to push to put it on their agenda. The men and women clap and cheer in agreement to show their support for a better future.

Grace, Joshua and Selma do a superb job of introducing the program, explaining the value of education and how much we would love to work with 30 women volunteers to run the educational games for the children of the village. I introduce myself with the entire two words of Lugandan I have learned so far, leaving the remainder of my intro to Grace to translate for me. I let them know I am honoured to be welcomed into the village and how much I am looking forward to working with them. They give me a welcome clap and cheer, along with a nickname for me in the local language which translates to “princess” – I try not to take offence of being called a princess!

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To understand the village further, we ask the group some questions in the local language: “How many of you have a paid job?” zero movement from the floor, as no one amongst the 70 strong currently have a paid job. Apparently not uncommon as there is so little work available – the sugar cane fields and selling fruit at the market are amongst the most common.

“How many of you here can read?” A few hands start to go up, with around 9 men and 2 women able to read. “What are the causes of these challenges?” Grace encourages the women to speak up, saying she really wants to hear from them – in Uganda, the male dominates the community and rules the family, meaning it is very common for women to shy away from voicing her opinion. A few hands start to go up, explaining that money, distance, chores at home and the fact that their parents did not value education, are the biggest factors.

This leads to the question of “Do you want your children to have opportunities that you didn’t have as a child?” there is agreement amongst both men and women.

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Selma demonstrates one of the games that will be used in the play centre – a basic shape puzzle (if you are a kid of the 80’s, it is similar to the red plastic ones that were passed down to you from your siblings or cousins)! She calls upon some volunteers – two men and a woman to see if they can place the shape in the corresponding hole. None of them can do it. Infact, they look incredibly blank as they take their time trying to figure it out. I ask the team later if they were joking – unfortunately not. I am embarrassed that I had even taken my early years education for granted.

The visit has been a success when they invite us back the following Tuesday, where we will hopefully be greeted by some eager volunteers who will begin to learn the games. The women will then spend two hours a week over the next eight weeks learning the program before they graduate, signalling they are ready to teach the children.

We leave the village feeling good and I congratulate the team on their efforts. I am confident we will match their hope and optimism, with a great program that will provide lasting benefits for Kanamb village. So excited to work with these women over the next few weeks and see the transition they go through!

Tuesday 12/03/2013

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First day in the field. After a 1 hour motorbike ride (always appreciated by a former pony-express Vespa courier like me) we reached the village of Gundaa with the mission of establishing a reading scheme at the local school. Session 1 went quite smoothly: both kids and teacher seemed to be very supportive and interested in the project. Once again I was amazed by the degree of discipline and attention displayed by african pupils. No spoiled brats here for sure! I don’t know about the rest of Europe, but I can easily say that the main
concern of italian primary school teachers is to keep the kids relatively quiet (my teacher overcame the issue by implementing a regime of terror that made the khmer rouge look like a band of teddy bears in comparison). Nothing of the kind here: religious silence interrupted only by whispered answers to direct questions and big curious eyes all around you.
My main contribution to the day’s activity was a story-reading demonstration. I confess I had to struggle to keep reading rather than throw away the text and perform a vaudeville version of  “Little Red Riding Hood” featuring cancan dancing wolves, rambo-style woodsmen, half-digested grannies and so on.
But since all was about the importance of reading, I tried to kill the little natural-born italian comedian in me and did my best to stick to reading. The kids did not display any evident sign of boredom and that made me feel quite happy! In the afternoon I started my Dagbani lessons, but I think I have a psychological advantage over english native speakers here: when I speak english I don’t feel like I’m imposing my language, because after all the effort I make to speak is not different from the one locals make.
After work I’ll try to find a place where I can watch the champions league match Barcelona-AC Milan: even if I can define myself a hardcore football aficionado, tonight I’ll surely pay more attention to the local audience rather than to the game itself.

Sunday 09/03/2013

DSCN0019Reached Tamale after a confortable trip from Accra: today I’ll take it easy. First impressions are quite positive: Ghana looks like what I hope other african countries I visited will look like in 10-20 years from now. The only problem is the heat… snow was still melting down when I left Italy and now I need to carefully plan each and every movement of my body in advance to save some energy. I guess I will get used to it in a couple of days, but today i’ll mainly hang around at the Lively Minds headquarters, drinking huge quantities of cold mate and reading a book about the war between whites and reds in 1920 Siberia (they surely had no heat-related problems). I am also quite satisfied with the first night spent in Tamale: not a single mosquito bite, not a single mosquito in sight! For that, I have good allies: a mosquito net in wonderful conditions covering my bed, but most of all spiders and lizards strategically placed between the windows and the anti-mosquito grids (after a few trips in the Amazon region I learned to mistrust accomodations deprived of such friends). Tomorrow I’ll visit the office and start my training.
I am so happy I’m going to work for human minds, rather than for human bellies. In post-war Angola my job had to do with food-aid programs, a one-way ticket to a world of corruption, injustice, greed, frustration and impotence. When Alison told me ‘no need to bring pens and stuff, we don’t do handouts’ I thought that Skype should really consider adding a little “hug” button !

Settling in at Lively Minds

Sitting here in my room in the Lively Minds house in Tamale, life is calm. The bustle and stress of my normal everyday life seems to have disappeared and instead has been replaced by relative peace and the occasional sound of a goat bleating. Things seem to move at a different pace here, almost as if time has slowed down. Everything takes far longer than ‘normal’ and I’m slowly growing accustomed to waiting over an hour after I have ordered food for it to arrive. Travelling anywhere, even down the road seems to take much longer and I’ve learnt that patience is the key. This is Ghana.

 

I’ve been volunteering with the Lively Minds team in Ghana for about two weeks now and it has been an incredible experience. During the week we travel by motorbike (or motion-sickness inducing tro-tro) to two remote communities about an hour away from Tamale. Within these communities we are setting up a play centre to be run by the local women, and a reading scheme to take place in the local school. Arriving in these communities is an experience in itself. As soon as the kids see us, they rush out to greet us and we commonly find ourselves trapped in a throng of excited, smiling children wanting to say hello. Disentangling yourself from this commotion can be rather tricky, especially if they notice you have a camera. Endless posing for the camera ensues until one of the locals chases the kids away so we can start our work.

 

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Hayley, International Volunteer

Working in the reading scheme can be challenging because not all the children understand English very well and prefer to speak in their native Dagbani. Despite this, it’s amazing how much you can get across through simple actions and pointing. Spending time with the children is rewarding, but my favourite part of this trip has been interacting with the women in the play centre. These women have never been to school, are illiterate, and cannot speak English, which provides certain challenges when it comes to teaching them how to teach games. Additionally, in these remote communities, the roles and opinions of women are not held in high regard and women generally don’t speak in community meetings in the presence of men. As an Australian women who has always spoken up and been listened to, I find this incredibly frustrating.

 

Despite these obstacles, once you remove the local men from the equation it’s amazing how much you can teach through simple gestures and pointing. The excitement in the room amongst the women is contagious, and you really do get the sense that you are doing something positive for the community. Gradually the women are coming out of their shells and starting to realise that they can be influential, important members of the community. Slowly slowly my frustration is abating as these women grow more confident and I really hope that by the end of my time here I will have seen a calculable change in these women and that they truly are more empowered than they were when we arrived.

 

Jarigu Village (session 2 Meeting with women volunteers)

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This was an intensive but extremely rewarding meeting!  Following the meeting with the elders at the beginning of the week when we sought permission to set up the play scheme in the village, we asked for a minimum of 24 volunteers to make the scheme working.  When we arrived we were greeted by over 30 women and the community hall quickly became quickly packed with excited young and very old women keen to hear more about us.

The objectives were clear.  We were trying to get the women to see the importance of education, play and volunteering and to disperse any local taboos they were accustomed around volunteering their time.  They are expected to teach their children through play for 1 hour per week and volunteer for their community for a period of two years for free. It was important to establish how many women attended the first community meeting and whether they heard about us from others in the community.  This was an important indicator to assess whether they were forced Kipilo and Jarigu 053to attend the scheme.

The women were divided into groups and asked to participate in discussions.  With the help of Alhassan’s translations, I was able to ask simple but effective questions of these women.  What surprised me was how difficult they found to understand  why playing games with children was beneficial to children’s growth and development and all in the community.

The discussion was lively and each woman was keen to be heard.  David, the manager skillfully geared unravelled the key concepts at the heart of Lively Minds and introduced them to women volunteers.

John is observing the teams from the side

As an international volunteer and a woman, I felt I had an important role to play for Lively Minds in educating these women on the importance of play and education in their community especially for young girls and women, who seemed to be at a clear disadvantage.

Children are observing their mothers participating in the training

One answer, in particular, stuck with me because of the way one lady responded. “The programme must be good because you come from Europe to be here with us” she said.  I explained that we were here together because we collectively believed in the wellbeing and development of children, through education and play.  They understood me and I felt satisifed to play such an important and positive role.

We left on an upbeat note; with hope that these women will return truly believing in the roles they could play as Lively Minds volunteers in their communities.

Kpilo School reading scheme (session 2) – “The Noisy Little Farm”

school and villages 057 Today we arrived at the school to show the children the benefits of good reading.  The aim was to reinforce drama and audibility in story telling and to make reading fun and interesting for younger readers.

When we arrived, the school was full of children, with headmaster present but no teachers.  We learned that the teachers went into town to collect materials for the election campaign however we were expected to continue with our training.  Classrooms were full of children, with very young ones seated at their desks and older ones keeping the school running.  The children were extremely excited to see us and many have already got to know my name, I heard “Jadzia, Jadzia, good morning Madame Jadzia” everywhere. One girl walked up to me and with a serious face and asked to carry my bag into class.  Childen were so good here and I felt so rewarded to be with them.

I peeked into one of the classrooms and saw one young boy standing up and reading aloud numbers 1-10 in English from the blackboard.  I was extremely impressed with how keen these children were to learn, however I later found out that these pupils did not understand what they were actually reading as everything was based on repetiton and often teachers did not have a full understanding of all the materials.

The pupils we were visiting werschool and villages 022e much older, P5 and P6 pupils.  We were there to train them so they could read to the younger ones in P1 and P2.  David, the project manager, explained to children why we were here.  We emphasised the techniques of good reading by demonstrating to children how to read well.

The story, which I read to children this time round, was about a “Noisy Farm”.  The children were mesmerised by the story, the book was interactive with sounds and the children enjoyed pressing the button, to hear the sound of a tractor.  They giggled and laughed.  I laughed with them too and was very happy.  We broke them up into groups and asked school and villages 044a child from one group to tell a story to the rest.  We staright away could see two brighter children, which could read well but were in the younger group and lacked confidence.  The point was to get the children to read out loud and to interpret their stories in imaginative ways using pictures even if they could not fully underestand the translations.  A very shy boy stood up and started to read alound a story of “The Gingerbread Man”.  He was one of the youngest boys from P5 and this book was one of the hardest to read.  I was astonished how well he could read despite being the youngest in the class.  I praised him for his reading and encouraged him to use dramatic techiques to tell the children the story.  He was so pleased tschool and villages 015o be able to show me and his collegues what he could do and to be praised in front of the younger ones.

I was extremely proud of what Lively Minds was doing here.  At the end the visit, children understood what we asked them to do and despite the lack of teachers at the beginning of our session, the visit went well and was well recieved by the children and the headteacher.  We knew we still had some work to do and I could not wait to return!  All the children did not want to let us go but waived goodbye to us for now and anticpated our next visit.

Kpilo School – Reading Scheme (session 1)

school and villages 020Early start to the day, the objective was to visit Kpilo School to set up a Reading Scheme for children in Primary School stages 5 and 6 and get them to read to younger children in stages 1 and 2.  We wanted to get the children to understand the  importance of reading and the difference it can make at home, school and whilst travelling to them and their families.  The key message was to train the children how to read in a special way, which is fun and interactive so they could also read to the younger children and enjoy reading themselves.

We were already made aware of the sensitivity of introducing such schemes into schools and the interaction with the local teachers who often worry about being undermined or criticized.  It was very important to us to get the teachers on board with Lively Minds.

Today was a lot cooler; it was the time of Harmattan blowing from Sahara.  On the bike again, we whizzed passed clay hut villages, with many children smiling and waving, women going about their daily business, carryinschool and villages 030g water, food or cleaning rice.

We arrived there early and were greeted by the School Headmaster and his teaching staff.  There were only 6 teachers for the entire school, they seemed nervous about meeting us. We introduced ourselves and met the full staff. We explained the value of Lively Minds and that it was there to support the students and staff, adding value to teaching and learning, not substituting it.  It was nice to be greeted by teachers.  The children were waiting in anticipation for us to arrive.  In total, one class consisted of 48 children; only 4 girls were present. This reinforced the issue that Ghana faces in relation to education and participation of young girls and women.

school and villages 041My task was to demonstrate that reading could be fun and interactive.  Equipped with a children’s reading book entitled Hippo’s Day I read the story to the children, often making them laugh through my imitation and facial expressions.  It was great to see that every one of them was listening.  They enjoyed the demonstration, the story telling, which engaged their imagination.  Translating the story into local Dagbani helped them to be more receptive.

We promised to come back the following day with more stories.

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