A different way to keep girls in school

A different way to keep girls in school

When we listen to the needs and solutions of the community, instead of providing our own answers, we sometimes hear something we wouldn’t expect. Such was the case of Hope for Relief Organization in northern Malawi. They want to help more girls stay in school and instead of providing new classrooms or school fees, their solution is to provide girls with cloth feminine pads. Having the reusable pads means that the girls don’t miss school during their menstrual periods. A simple solution that I would not have considered a year ago!

Sarah Simwaka, age 13, is in 7th grade at Phalasito Primary School. She is one of 1,282 girls who have each received at least ten feminine pads (called “fem pads” in Malawi) from Hope for Relief.

An orientation at Phalasito primary school shows the girls how to use and wash the reusable fem pads.

The road has not been easy for Sarah. “I am a second-born daughter in a family of five. My father died when I was six years old and mother died when l was nine.” Sarah and her siblings are now being raised by her grandfather who provides food and a place to sleep but cannot afford their education costs. Sarah used to do small jobs to support herself. “Each time after classes, l used to go to the nearby forest and fetch firewood. l would sell that to get money for pads, school uniform, and school supplies. Thanks to Hope for Relief Organization, now I am free.” Sarah is now happily attending school.

She is one of 1,282 girls who have received fem pads from Hope for Relief.

In addition to the fem pads, Sarah also receives emotional support through Hope for Relief. She told one of the Hope for Relief counselors that her family was hoping to arrange a marriage for her, so that they could get the dowry. The legal age of marriage in Malawi is 18, so it would be illegal for her to marry now. The counselor encouraged Sarah to report any marriage arrangements or family challenges to the school leaders. The head teachers, who are respected and have influence with community members, have promised to watch out for Sarah.

SIA is very honored be part of this holistic support of girls in Malawi. By listening to community solutions, we are supporting simple and innovative ways of empowering girls.

Tanya admiring some of the fem pads made by Salome in Malawi.

Tanya meeting with Richard and Hastings, two leaders of Hope for Relief. The organization is youth-led!

 

Beyond Grants: Rebuilding After Conflict

Beyond Grants: Rebuilding After Conflict

Rebuilding a life and a community after years of conflict, violence, and trauma is no easy task. The pain doesn’t go away immediately. The healing doesn’t happen automatically. Those who remain must figure out the way forward.

The Spirit in Action Small Business Fund (SBF) is helping with this rebuilding, with more than just cash grants. Naomi Ayot is the coordinator for SBF in the Kole District in Uganda. This is where the Lord’s Resistance Army abducted girls in 1996 and years of conflict broke up families and forced people into refugee camps. Many of the families in the area are missing family members, with many women now in charge of running households.

The Small Business Fund provides grants of $150 and business training. And it also is providing psychological support through peer support groups and encouragement.

Members from different SBF groups meet to discuss their businesses and lives.

Turning Lives Around

Imat Milly is the main breadwinner in her family. During the peak of the conflict with the LRA, when it was no longer safe to stay at home, her family moved into a camp for Internally Displaced People. When the violence ended, they settled into a grass roofed house.

Now, with their successful farming business – growing food for sale, in addition to home consumption – they have built a iron-roofed house!

Imat Milly proudly stands next to her new house.

Imat has also bought a plow, so that they don’t have to plow by hand anymore! They are producing better quality and quantity of crops now. They have even adopted a five year-old girl and paying for her school fees. This generous act of caring for children in need is just part of rebuilding community after conflict. 

“She thinks her life has really turned around,” reported Naomi. The sentiment is perhaps understated, but the satisfaction and joy in Naomi’s voice told me just how big this change is for Imat and her family.

Thinking Beyond Basic Needs

I wrote in April how Samsa used the profit from her agricultural business to send her daughter to pre-primary (nursery) school. When I met with Naomi in May, she told me again how much that meant to Samsa.

When Samsa’s daughter finished the school year, the school had graduation and Samsa was so proud to see her daughter receive the honors and be able to move onto primary school! For this community in rebuilding mode, education has not been a priority. However, Naomi reported that part of the success of SIA is that our program, “helps them think beyond basic needs to think about education.”

Naomi Ayot is the wonderful SIA Small Business Fund Coordinator in Uganda. She mentors others with passion and skill.

Counseling for Healing

In addition to these business successes, Naomi and her team on the ground in Kole District have created a spiritual counseling group, for anyone in the community who wants to join. SBF members and those who have not yet been chosen for grants come together to share about their challenges and to motivate each other to move forward. When I met with Naomi in May, she told me that these groups were helping to reduce domestic violence and levels of alcoholism in the group members.

SIA is on-going,” says Naomi. “It not just a one-off project. This encourages teamwork and cooperation between families.” Rather than competing against each other, SIA SBF groups are working together, sharing their grief and joy, and helping to rebuild their community in the wake of conflict.

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Today’s story of Small Business Fund success in Kenya is about more than monetary success. Sister Magrina, who received a Small Business Fund grant in 2014, is using her success to encourage and empower women in a very rural, isolated part of Kenya.

Mike Hegeman, SIA Advisory Board member who traveled to Kenya with me, wrote about the inspiring life of Sister Magrina. The following is excerpted from his sermon, “Our Uncommon Life.”

I recently returned from spending six weeks in the developing world, in countries such as the Philippines, Malawi, Ethiopia and Kenya. And in each place I encountered common people of faith living in uncommon ways.

One such person was Sister Magrina. It took us several hours to reach her, down a winding highway from the lush, fertile highlands of northwest Kenya, into the arid and seemingly desolate lowlands of the Rift Valley, an hour’s journey down a shockingly bumpy road, then a twenty minute hike into the brush, all to find a woman dressed humbly in a blue habit and shod with a worn pair of laceless sneakers, sitting under a tree in the limited, but much desirable shade, holding in one hand an outdated cellphone and in the other a bunch of rocks which she would throw one by one to keep the birds out of her withering crops.

Sister Magrina, Dennis Kiprop (SIA-SBF Local Coordinator), Mike Hegeman, Ursula, and her daughter, Chebit, on Sr. Magrina’s farm.

Sister Magrina is a nun with degrees in counselling and addiction therapy, who had given up the “comforts” of her highlands home to come live among the poor of this most forgettable village on the edge of nowhere. Just a smattering of mud huts and farms, with no running water and no latrines; only a paltry stream to water the vast desert valley.

Sister Magrina had come here to plant a farm, not for herself, but to have a reason to be closest to some of Kenya’s most vulnerable people. Here in this village spousal violence is rampant, alcoholism legion and malnutrition ubiquitous. Sister Magrina sits by her crops, and when women of the village or children wander by, she invites them to sit and pass the time of day. She listens to their woes, how evil has befallen them and scourge has come near their tents. She quietly teaches them about ways they can support themselves when their husbands are off drinking and neglecting support for them and their children. She teaches them how to grow kitchen gardens and about helpful hygiene techniques. She encourages the children to stay in school.

Women and children who pass by Sister Magrina’s hut are greeted and welcomed over for a cookie.

She is the presence of God’s love in that place; the God who promises to be with us, is present in that place through a sister willing to live in a mud hut, drink from a simple stream, and hope to teach people to create a sustainable way of living for themselves.

Love is Warm Coca-Cola

Drinking warm coca-cola and eating cookies with Sister Magrina in Kerio Valley, Kenya.

More than anything else, she teaches them about love, and thereby teaches them about faith in God. Sister Magrina says, “In this place, I am not a Catholic; I am not a Protestant. I am one who comes in Christ’s love to make a difference; I have come to a place where no one else will come…to be among God’s people…even if they don’t know yet that who they are.” Sister Magrina lives a pretty uncommon life. Her work bears witness to God’s salvation, God’s delivering grace.

When first we came upon Sister Magrina, we were strangers. Yet, she set out burlap sacks for us to sit upon the dusty ground. Warm Coca-Cola appeared, along with some fruit and crackers. We fellowshipped in the dappled shade, still sweating, and we listened to an uncommon woman, express her uncommon faith, embodying hospitality to strangers…with children in her lap and at her feet.

Sister Magrina shows Tanya her beans and watermelon plants. The crops are dry-farmed, relying on rain.

Grants underway and I’m on my way!

Grants underway and I’m on my way!

We sent out the latest round of grant funds last month and the community projects are already well underway!

Women’s Group Curio Shop

The women of the Namaiyana Women’s Self-Help Group completed their roadside jewelry shop just in time for tourism season! This was the first major construction project undertaken by these women, who are jewelers and members of the Samburu tribe in central Kenya. The first SIA grant was not quite enough to finish the shop and so they asked for a small additional grant to be able to add the final touches. Just a few weeks after receiving the additional $500 grant, the building is ready to go! Look how beautiful it turned out! Supporting these woman was definitely a “smart risk.”

Poultry House Construction

The folks at the Matungu Community Development Charity were eager to get started! Soon after receiving the grant funds they were already hard at work building the new poultry house in western Kenya. Community members worked together to make the bricks and built up the walls. Group leader, Vincent Atitwa wrote, “The poultry house is under construction and in particular we are working hard to lead families and community out of malnutrition and poverty once more.”

They hope that the building will be completed by June 1st. They already have a supplier for the chicks and they will have them delivered soon. The profits from the poultry project will serve as a loan fund for the table banking and low-interest loan program!

I’m on my way!

I leave today for a month-long trip in eastern Africa. After a short vacation, I will meet with all the SIA Small Business Fund partners for a conference and training workshop in Malawi. We will have coordinators from Uganda, Kenya, and Malawi there to discuss and evaluate our program. The manual is printed and ready to be packed!

I’ll try to share my experience with you along the way and post what I can here on the blog, and on Facebook and Instagram. Thank you for your prayers!

A good harvest in Uganda

A good harvest in Uganda

When Samsa Ogwang applied for the Small Business Fund (SBF) program, she and her family were not doing well. Naomi Ayot, Spirit in Action SBF local coordinator in Uganda, found that they did not have a lot of variation in their diet, and that they were unable to improve their quality of food. They were also sleeping on floor mats, another indication of poverty.

Naomi chose Samsa’s family to receive the $150 SBF grant so that they could improve their farm and take the first steps towards prosperity. With the grant funds, Samsa purchased improved seeds, including maize (corn), simsim (sesame seeds), and sunflower seeds. Along with other SBF groups in her rural village of Amukugungu in northern Uganda, she also bought a male and female pig.

Samsa planting cassava in her fields in Uganda.

One year later, she reports that the crops produced a good harvest! She and her family harvested 363kgs of maize, some of which they sold for 31¢/kg, and some of which they delivered in-kind to cover school fees for two of their children. Additionally, 284kgs of sunflower sold for $20, and the sesame seeds brought in $65.

She had to sell the pigs when there was an outbreak of swine flu, and for the pair she collected $90. (All this from a $100 grant!!) Samsa saved some of the money earned from the pigs and plans to buy a new set of piglets this spring.

This business has meant a great change in Samsa’s life! She feels content that the project has improved the standards of living and the status of her family in the community.

Money for Education

Through this grant, Samsa has supported four of her children to continue attending school! Enume will be joining her senior year of high school. Akello is excited to start her first year of technical school studies. Ocen graduated from nursery school last year and will be starting 1st grade soon! And the fourth child, Apio, will be continuing elementary school.

In the planting season that starts this month, Samsa plans to add to the diversity of her crops by planting cassava, soybeans, and green beans. The group also has the goal of acquiring oxen and ploughs for tilting the gardens, to help improve the quality of the crops. Without the oxen, they have to plough the fields themselves.

Overall, Samsa and her family are grateful that they have achieved an improved standard of living. They are able to meet more of their basic needs, and also can hire day-laborers to help with the harvesting!

Samsa with her harvest of sesame seeds!

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