Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Let’s Build Some Capacity Around Here.

This week, Linda and I have been attending the annual VSO conference in Juba.  I say ‘annual’, although this is the first such conference since the programme started just twelve months ago.  The hope is that it will be the first of many, as VSO expects to be in this country for the long haul, not just for a year or two.

So far there are just over 40 volunteers in the country with another batch arriving in February to bring the eventual number up to around 70.  The programme is divided into three sectors, Education, Health and Governance and Gender.  Why the third sector is called ‘Governance and Gender’ I don’t really know, since the gender issue is just as relevant to those of us working in Education and probably to those working in the Health sector.  The often quoted statistic that a young girl in South Sudan today is much more likely to die in childbirth than complete Primary education shows the dire state of both sectors when it comes to looking after girls.

All of the Education and Health volunteers are working within the Government structures.  However, the ‘Governance and Gender’ people are all assigned to local non-governmental organisations, (NGO’s), which is lucky good for them, since anyone who has any initiative and drive usually gravitates towards the NGOs because the pay is better, the frustrations fewer and there is usually the funding available to do the work in hand.  One of the biggest frustrations of working in a Government Ministry is the almost total lack of funds.  “We can’t visit that school because there is no money for petrol.”  “We can’t run that workshop for Headteachers, because there are no funds to feed or house the participants when they get here.” “We can’t print this letter because there is no toner in the printer and anyway, there is no electricity because there is no money for fuel for the generator.”  Sometimes you just want to bite the table!

The main thrust of the VSO programmes, in whichever sector, is ‘Capacity Building’, in other words strengthening the organisations, be they Government or NGO, by improving the knowledge and skills of the people working within them.   VSO’s slogan is “Sharing Skills, Changing Lives”, which, in many ways, sets us apart from most of the other NGOs, because we have nothing to give away, no vehicles to donate, no money to fund anyone’s projects.  All we have are the skills and experience we arrived with.

So what is “Capacity Building”?  Well, what do you want it to be?

So far we have been involved in:-

  • Demonstrating how to write a work plan for the coming year;
  • Showing how Microsoft Word and Powerpoint work;
  • Checking public examination papers and advising on corrections to the initial drafts;
  • Advising  on report writing;
  • Proof-reading documents and correcting the English;
  • Working with senior staff on drafting policy documents and job descriptions;
  • Guiding staff on data analysis and presentation;
  • Training teachers in modern teaching methods and the use of available teaching resources;
  • Working with staff on how to write a funding proposal to a potential donor;
  • Advising directors on the management of staff
  • Training school inspectors in classroom observation.

Nothing that we have done in the past five months is going to transform anything in the near future.  A well know development expert once wrote that development  was not a matter of constructing huge buildings or funding impressive projects.  It was a matter of “small steps and little pushes.”  Well, we are still here and still pushing.

I am reminded of the old saying “The Impossible we can do straight away, Saving the World might take longer!”


Gratuitous Butterfly

Gratuitous Butterfly

T-Shirt of the Week # 8

T-Shirt of the Week # 8

Coffee Ceremony

When we first arrived in Rumbek, we thought there was nowhere in the market to get anything to eat at lunchtime.  Gradually, we discovered little eating places, hidden away, usually in corrugated-iron shacks in odd corners around the place.

Many of these ‘restaurants’ are run by non-Sudanese, either Kenyans, Ugandans, Ethiopians or Eritreans.  Family and clan loyalty amongst the Dinka, and enmity to other sections even of the same tribe, are so strong that it makes it very difficult to run a successful business and be a decent member of your family or clan at the same time.  If a fellow Dinka turns up for a meal and has no money, how can you refuse him?  After all, he’s either your cousin or your uncle or your brother, isn’t he?  And if he’s not your brother, he’s the brother of someone who knows your brother.

A foreigner will find it much easier to show  you the door, if you try that trick.

So, last Friday, Linda and I decided to go for lunch in a little Ethiopian place on the edge of the market.  We sat in the tin shack, with the heat radiating through the corrugated iron roof and walls,  on the cheap plastic Chinese chairs and ordered our usual plate of ‘njera’, which looks like a large crepe bandage with different types of sauce on it.  It doesn’t sound very appetising, but tastes delicious.

We were half-way through our meal, (eating with our right hands, of course), when a young women came in with an armful of bright green shredded plastic, which had obviously been used as packaging for something or other.  She spread this on the ground, (note: ground, not floor), in the corner, so that, with a bit of imagination, it looked like a small piece of lawn.  She placed a small cardboard box on the ‘lawn’, and four or five little bowls on a tray on top of the box.  In front of the box was a small clay incense burner onto which she sprinkled something that filled the air with a mysterious, but very evocative smell.

She then brought in a glowing charcoal burner on which she placed a small frying pan full of raw, ie white, coffee beans, which she proceeded to roast right in front of us.

Having roasted the beans, she went on to pound them with a pestle and mortar.  The aroma of roasted coffee mingled with the smell of the incense and filled the shack.

Anyway, having ground the roasted beans, the young woman produced an ornate, though badly cracked, earthenware coffee pot and boiled up the coffee, fanning the charcoal all the while with a small metal tray. After what seemed like an age, she carefully poured the coffee into the little bowls, added an unconscionable amount of sugar and served it to us, with a tray of popcorn.

The whole process must have taken about an hour.  The coffee was absolutely wonderful.

During the time that it took to produce the coffee, the restaurant had filled up with people, all men.  Linda must have felt like an endangered specie.

Having drained our little bowls we thanked the young woman as profusely as we could, given that neither of us spoke a word of the other’s language.  I then went over the young man who was running the place and asked how much I owed him for the coffee. (We had already paid for lunch before the coffee ceremony started.)

“No, No,” he said.  “This is for me.  You are our guests!”

Guess where we’ll be having lunch next Friday!

Nomination for Fine Face of the Year Award

Nomination for Fine Face of the Year Award

Cattle Camp Boys

Cattle Camp Boys

In Rumbek you often sees young men dressed like this in the market. These two are carrying sticks. Sometimes they carry spears. We asked one young man if the spear was for hunting animals. “No!”, he said emphatically. “It is for killing my enemies!” Ho hum.

The Best Bedtime Game since S…udoku

The Best Bedtime Game since S...udoku

This is the latest line of defence in our endless battle against mosquitoes… and the most fun. You charge it from the electricity (when it’s on!), wave the racket around until you hit a mosquito, at which point it makes as satisfying ‘crack’ as the little b………… beastie fries. It’s our equivalent of a Nintendo Wii game and just as good exercise.

Who’d be a Boy in South Sudan

Dinka boys, especially those who are uneducated, are brought up in the cattle camp to be cattle herders and warriors. Most Dinka girls are brought up to be providers and carers and above all, mothers.

For boys, there is an important ceremony, when they are about twelve or thirteen years old, which involves the cutting of stripes across the forehead and around the head. The Dinka around Rumbek usually have six concentric rings, (see picture below), but other sub-clans have different scarring patterns. The cutting is done by an elder of the community, with a razor blade or a sharp knife, at a ceremony with other boys of the same age, so-called ‘age-mates’. The boys must show no fear before the ceremony, nor must they react to the pain while it is taking place.

Once the cuts heal, the boy is left with deep scars that signify his membership of the clan and his passage into manhood. From that time onwards, he cannot be asked to milk cows anymore, because that is a job for women and children. He has shown how tough he is and that is supposed to embed itself deeply in his character. He will have a life-long set of scars and a life-long affinity with the other boys who went through the ceremony at the same time.

Some years ago the Government banned the practice of scarring, but news of the ban has yet to reach Rumbek and we regularly see young boys with complete sets of scars, strutting around town. Over recent years, however, more educated people have started to regard scarring as a sign of a primitive society and are turning away from such practices.

I don’t expect them to disappear any time soon.

Nomination for Fine Face of the Year Award.

Nomination for Fine Face of the Year Award.

Whatever you do, don’t tease him about his feather!

T-Shirt of the Week #7

T-Shirt of the Week  #7

Recognise the models?

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