Sunday, June 30, 2013

English Class in Gihembe – Part II

The initial 10 days I spent in Gihembe Refugee Camp were long.  Our schedule was laid out well in advance with information sessions and assessments for refugees being considered for the ESL Pilot, and training for the two refugee English instructors.

The schedule was already packed without accounting for the countless logistical hurdles that came up. It was unbelievable. For instance, we hadn’t anticipated how involved it would be to sort out which pit latrine we could use so that we wouldn’t have to use the main refugee latrine in the camp, which was, well.. repulsive.  I’ve never been so happy to be able to use a pit latrine in my life when we charmed the medical staff into letting us use theirs.  We were almost displaced twice – it just went on and on. But, we persevered, and the project start-up proceeded on schedule. 

Byumba isn’t exactly a cosmopolitan center. So, the food options were limited. Even eating at the nicest hotel in town leaves my stomach unsettled. Working in the camp means you have to think ahead and have food with you for lunch. Luckily, I had brought some peanut butter and jelly from Kigali, which was good for a couple of days. Still, it gets old, and the wax paper bags just don’t do the job of keeping bread from getting stale (despite the noble environmental efforts that prompted the banning of plastic bags).

So, I was just a little hungry most days – probably nothing compared to the people living in Gihembe. And, no matter how much I tried to keep clean, the camp is unbelievably dusty. There’s no running water for washing hands. Even if people want to be hygienic, there’s no means to do so.
Children were fascinated by us, and it was a joy to reciprocate their greetings, shake their hands, help them with their basic English (they do learn English in primary school – a recent development in Rwanda). Nevertheless, “Mazungu – Mazungu!” got old quickly.

There was one particularly distressful moment when we drove out of the camp at lunchtime, which happened to coincide with when school was getting out.  As we drove through the only narrow road that left the camp, a sea of young children in their blue school uniforms were in front of us and around us – so much so that we could barely drive. Of course, as soon as the children realized there were white people in the car, they began the familiar shouting “Mazungu!  Mazungu!”, trying to get our attention.  But, many also ran as fast as they could to keep up with our car. We were terrified they were going to slip and fall and get run over by one of our wheels. One child even opened the door (lesson learned on locking doors), and it swung open and almost hit people as the car rolled forward. 

Another interesting part of camp life was the water spickets. Only twice a day are they turned on, so people line up with their empty yellow plastic containers at these critical times. The lines were long, and it was mostly women and children waiting there and carrying those heavy containers back home. Children as young as five or six would haul 5 gallon water jugs on their backs with a long piece of fabric secured around the forehead and underneath the bottom of the container to keep it secured.
Our classroom was right next to the water spickets just up a hill, and I found it fascinating to watch the rhythm of everyday life played out at the spickets. There was a Mama nursing a baby on line. She then passed the baby into the fabric sling of another woman’s back so she could return to the task at hand of waiting for water. The woman now with the baby on her back walked off.  I wondered if the woman with the sling was an Aunt or a friend or what the relationship was. The two women worked together so seamlessly, it was almost hard to tell which woman was the mother. 

For the ESL Pilot, we selected those refugees approved to resettle in the U.S. with the lowest levels of English. Out of 45 students, 7 were completely pre-literate (never had any education and couldn’t read or write even in their native language of Kinyarwanda). Interestingly, it was no coincidence that many of our lowest level students were older women – a good litmus test to show who gets left out of educational opportunities in so many parts of the world.

We had invited the “primary applicant” of any case to participate. Sometimes this was a man and sometimes a woman. It was especially enlightening to have an 83 year old woman (the oldest of our group), raise her hand during the Q and A part of our information session. She said, “I have an old man at home (meaning her husband) – shouldn’t he be here rather than me?” I responded, “But you will need to know English, too, once you get to the United States.” Amazed by the prospect that she should matter, she just laughed and laughed as if the idea was preposterous. I guess she accepted it since she had perfect attendance for all 4 weeks of class.

The class got off to a good start. There was such joy in that classroom. Students knew that this opportunity was rare and that English would be vital to their success.  They so want a good life – a new beginning. They took class seriously and found an oasis of mental stimulation, comraderie and enrichment – apart from the monotony of camp life. My background is not in education – it’s never been my issue, but I came away with a newfound appreciation for how transformative education can be.
I was able to return to Nairobi knowing that all was in place.  Of course, I also had a revived appreciation for the variety of foods I can eat in Nairobi and the pleasure of a hot shower whenever you want it. Even in Nairobi, we’re spoiled.

Just two days ago, I returned to Byumba in time to attend the last day of class. Everyone could say “Good Morning.  How are you?” – “My name is Immaculate. Nice to meet you.” Most could tell the 9-1-1 operator what their emergency was and give him an address and phone number in English. We’ll do post-class assessments over the next couple of days to really evaluate the Pilot’s impact, and then we’ll have a graduation to celebrate. Even the 83 year old woman who’s had a much harder time progressing with literacy and numeracy – she’s got a lot to celebrate. Maybe she finally sees that the world hasn’t forgotten her - that we believe in her.

The strangest part of seeing the community in Gihembe is imagining these same people in New York. It’s a different universe all together. I just hope people can see her for who she is and all she’s overcome – beyond her race or her accent. I see now how hard it would be for most people to have any clue of all that she’s experienced.  Maybe that little bit of English will be a small beginning to bridge the divide. 

slummin' it, again!

For a totally different Nairobi slum experience, Way and I took the kids to a music and art festival at the Railway Museum yesterday, the Slum Drummers were going to be playing.  I wasn't quite sure if it would be a kid-friendly event, but what the heck I thought, we'll see how it goes.

before making it to the festival we checked out the downtown market
We were probably the first to arrive at about 4:30p and they were still setting up and the organizer told us the kids would have to leave by 7pm since alcohol would be sold. After a couple minutes milling about it became apparent this whole event was going to be more of a dance / rave festival than anything else. BUT I wanted to see the Slum Drummers do their thang and I DID want to get a taste of the nightlife, even as just an observer who would have leave before the party really got crazy.

Finally after many hours of hanging out, climbing on the old steam trains, and checking out the scene, the music started and the slum drummers were the third act.  They didn't disappoint: about a minute into the video they step it up a notch with dancing...

We left Way there and he certainly made the most of it - he made new friends and had a great time - good for him!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Kibera, a visit to a slum

In my new job I am responsible for a number of administrative functions in my agency, today though I was offered a chance to experience first hand some of the on-the-ground work the agency does. A trip to the field was scheduled to see how a parenting education program is helping improve the lives of Kenyans who live in informal settlements (this is the polite term for slum).

Our destination was Kibera - which so happens to be the largest in the county. It is estimated to house roughly a half a million residents. The alleys are rutted dirt roads with open sewers where sidewalks would normally be. The houses are mud-walled structures with tin-roofs. I knew this all already from reading about it and driving and cycling on the outskirts but I had not yet been inside the actually settlements. It is not recommended to enter unless you are with locals and have an escort. There are also some slum tours but it seemed odd to do that since it feels vaguely exploitative. Going on behalf of my agency was going to be my chance.

I first thought that maybe the security issues might be overstated but our driver said before we go we would need a security briefing. At the office the agent said we would need an armed escort.  I still thought that since we are with the government maybe there was just an abundance of caution. Our first stop was the local "peace officer" where we would meet the partner NGO that would bring us to the program site. Meeting with the peace officer was fascinating, he explained that the locals do not at all trust or respect the police and actually run away when they see them coming.  His position is actually a liaison between the police and the residents.  He was born and raised in Kibera and after the post-election violence in 2007-8 his department was formed to bridge the gap between the citizens and law enforcement. Certainly it seems it has been successful since there was peace after the March elections this year. Incidentally the peace officer also questioned if we had an escort since our destination was not secure - allrighhtty then, guess we'll take the guards!
After picking up the armed escort we entered Kibera itself. The roads quickly turned into rutted paths and the density of housing and shops increased exponentially. After bouncing along for about 10 minutes we ventured down a side alleyway into the courtyard of the school where we would learn about the program. We met the facilitators and parents and heard from them how the program has impacted their relationships with their children. What really struck me was how similar their concerns were with middle-class American parents. The curriculum was designed to give them tools to communicate with their adolescent pre-teens by starting to discuss drugs, alcohol, and HIV/sex. I was thinking I hope this is offered in the US when my kids get to be 12! The parents were so thankful for the program and praised how improved their relationships with their kids were now. They also mentioned how academically their children improved as they became more responsible and listened better.
What was different between this program and what it might look like in suburban America was two things. 1) The percentage of fathers to mothers taking part was huge, out of hundreds of mothers only a tiny % are fathers. In the class I observed there was 18 moms and only one dad. Seems dads are not as present mainly because of the hours they need to work. Typically many are security guards who work 12 hours straight, six days a week. 2) Occasionally they have issues with attendance, examples the facilitators gave were because water was scarce and everyone needed to trek across the settlement to the water trucks and also when food rations were being distributed and they needed to wait in collection lines.

page from the parenting education workbook - if you don't communicate, a mud hut you will habitate!
Something else that stood out was the diversity of parents in the programs. There were both Muslims and Christians taking part and they all joined in the prayer that both began and ended the class. The day was a unforgettable experience and the perfect chance to meet Kenyans who make a majority of the population.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Way's here!

Uncle Way arrived a couple weeks ago for a summer of Camp Kenny with Matthew and Ruby. Ruby is still in school, so right now it has been Way and Matthew leading a busy schedule of baseball, chess, self-defense, drumming, writing, art/crafts, etc.  Not to mention a couple shopping trips.

We've also been keeping busy on the weekends checking out some nearby sights.  The first weekend he was in Kenya we visited a local park and a market:

Last weekend we went to Crescent Island where we went on a walking safari with zebras, gazelles, giraffes, wildebeests.  En route we stopped for nyama choma (roast meat) and fresh juice.

This past weekend the boys headed over to the arboretum. We had a great time playing ball and getting some Kenyans into the mix too.  Later in the afternoon we joined a drum circle and banged away for a couple hours.

In non-Way news, last week before Father's Day Ruby and her school had concert for daddies.
Also Matthew and Ruby's teacher Angie from the Schoolhouse is in Nairobi as an intern for Rhonda's organization.  Ruby especially has been having a ball whenever she sees Angie.
Two weeks ago I also started my new job with the Embassy.  I am still figuring things out but it has been very interesting and a new experience working in the government sector after many years in corporate life.  I thought companies had a lot of acronyms - but in government entire sentences are made up of acronyms - it is like learning a new language!
Also June and July are the 'cold' season here in Nairobi. When not at work, we're still wearing shorts and t-shirts, but many of the Kenyans are buddled up in parkas and wool hats!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Aces or Asses at the Museum

The troop and I went to the Kenya National Museum today. I'd been wanting to check it out for a while and finally there was a day with no big plans - whether it be birthday parties, rug shopping, etc.

I didn't know quite what to expect since museums in developing countries generally leave something to be desired but I was pleasantly surprised.  There were many good exhibits from skulls of early humaniods to replicas of huge elephants. The museum also did a great job explaining the history of Kenya and colonialism (did you know the Africans in colonial times had to wear metal cases around their necks that held their identity papers -- essh).

The kids were pretty entertained for the most part too.  They knew next after the museum was a neighboring small zoo featuring snakes and assorted reptiles.  After a couple hours we saw there was a cafe and that was a pleasant surprise too.  Good food in a gorgeous setting. 

The funniest part was Mr. Matthew.  I've been teaching him a couple card games lately - first War and now Solitaire.  You know how in Solitaire you have to move the aces up top, right?  So while waiting for our food he began a game and proceeds to announce to the whole restaurant that he had "3 asses up top!" The thing was he said it with such a straight face and loud, proud voice. I couldn't stop giggling for at least a minute to actually correct him - all the while him and Ruby don't have a clue what's up. Very funny.

In the same complex was the snake / reptile zoo - called the Snake Park.  The kids (and me) had a ball seeing probably at least 20 different types of snakes - vipers, cobras, black mambas, pythons, puff adders, etc.  Also on hand were some huge turtles, foot long lizards, full size crocs, and giant snails.  Good stuff!  Next time we have to go back at feeding time!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Bringing English to the Land of a Thousand Hills

Most people are surprised to learn that Cultural Orientation for refugees preparing to depart for the United States does not include English Language instruction. Most of the refugees who are resettled come from long-term protracted refugee situations. Often with no or little opportunity for employment for years or even decades, the one thing they do have is time. It makes a whole lot of sense to give refugees English BEFORE they get to the U.S.  When they do finally arrive in Atlanta or Dallas or Buffalo, they are expected to hit the ground running and get jobs to support their families within a few months of arrival. Even though domestic resettlement agencies make sure some basic English is built into their resettlement plans from the very beginning, the demands of employment and the general grind of survival in an entirely different reality don’t leave much opportunity for long term English language study.

Needless to say, there are a lot of people who want to establish ESL programs on this end of the process, and the battle to prove the efficacy hasn’t been as easy as you’d think. Thankfully, 3 RSCs (Resettlement Support Centers) were asked to conduct ESL Pilots to see how much we could increase the English proficiency of refugees approved to resettle to the U.S.  The classes are to run for 4 weeks – 15 hours per week, and they are to target those refugees with the lowest English proficiency, including those who are pre-literate and can’t read or write even in their native language. If we can show some real gains and language retention, there is some hope for establishing some basic ESL at least in more vulnerable refugee caseloads overseas before they get to the U.S.
Congolese family waiting for RSC Interviews
The start-up of this ESL Pilot has been no small feet, though I can’t imagine a more exciting and worthwhile endeavor for the long term benefit of the U.S. Refugee Program. Unlike the two RSCs in Nepal and Thailand, RSC Africa chose to run two sub-pilots – one for Somali refugees in Kakuma Camp in Kenya and one for Congolese refugees in Gihembe Camp in Rwanda. The difference being that we would recruit and train two local ESL instructors in Gihembe who are Congolese refugees themselves. Our hope is that the Gihembe model would be more financially sustainable than paying for American (or even Kenyan) teachers to work in the camps. Of course, an added benefit is to provide employment opportunities for the camp community.

After a couple of months of program development, staff hiring, logistical planning and two weeks of orientation for ESL Interns that we flew in from the U.S., I left on May 25th to launch the Gihembe ESL Pilot in Rwanda.

Arriving in Rwanda
Others had told me that Rwanda functions relatively efficiently for an African country, partly due to the authoritarian government. For instance, plastic bags are banned in an effort to preserve the environment, and noone’s supposed to refer to the “Tutsi” or “Hutu” ethnicities out loud in an effort to further national reconciliation since the genocide of 1994.  Everyone is Rwandan.  Period.

The strong hand of the government toward some idealistic goals was upfront and center as soon as I arrived in Kigali. I landed on the last Saturday morning of the month, only to find out it was “Muganda” (not sure if my spelling's correct). Muganda is a national day of community service, and everyone is expected to do yard work in public parks or some other way of helping the community. There were no cars on the road, as people were supposed to be working – not driving around. Our driver had obtained a special government permit that allowed him to drive our diplomatic mission around, but every few minutes we were stopped by police barricades, and he had to show his permit.  The police presence was everywhere.  I’m told that not everyone’s so onboard with Muganda, and it’s not uncommon for people to hide in their houses until it’s over.
Kigali Surroundings
All in all, Rwanda is beautiful. Lush greenery covers the many rolling hills.  Kigali itself is surprisingly developed with modern amenities, likely due to the influx of international aid money after the genocide. As one guide book put it, despite the irony, Rwanda benefited from development money from the international community who felt guilty for ignoring Rwanda in its darkest hour.

Our small team (myself and a very bright and conscientious ESL Intern) had a briefing meeting with organizational partners at the UNHCR office, took care of some errands and left the next morning for Byumba. Byumba is in the North of Rwanda about 60 kilometers from Kigali. The countryside is beaucolic with even more green, rolling hills. Byumba would be our base for our work in Gihembe Refugee Camp about 6 kilometers away.
Gihembe Refugee Camp

The Congolese refugees in Gihembe Camp have been there since 1997 after fleeing conflict in the Congo and then being targeted by the Interhamwe (the same group responsible for the Rwandan genocide) and surviving two incredibly violent massacres of their entire village.
The Road to Gihembe Refugee Camp
Rwanda is a welcoming host country for refugees, and this particular group is ethnically similar to many Rwandans, speaking the same language (Kinyarwanda), so social integration is relatively smooth. While refugees are allowed to work in Rwanda (not always the case, depending on the host country), getting a job is incredibly difficult and real legal integration is not possible. I’ve learned that getting sufficient water is problematic in Gihembe Camp and in Byumba in general, as the population has outgrown the infrastructure. Gihembe Camp itself, with a population of about 14,000 people, is very overcrowded.

One of the Kenyan trainers in my department once said, “The Congolese are blessed.” And, it does seem that the number of children amongst the Congolese throughout Sub-Saharan Africa is notable. Apparently it’s not just the Congolese that have a lot of children. A local officer from IOM (the International Organization for Migration) told me today that many Rwandans have purposely increased the number of children they want to have since 1994 to sort of replace those that were lost in the Genocide. Between the dense population of Rwanda itself and the continuing influx of Congolese refugees, the large population puts a major strain on the infrastructure and the soil of Rwanda.

Needless to say, with no prospects for safe return to the Democratic Republic of Congo any time soon (if anything things seem to be getting worse), one can understand why resettlement is needed for this group of malnourished, traumatized people.

Trunks in hand, full of training materials, student workbooks, electrical cords, hand sanitizer, a small amount of personal affects, we made our way to the Hotel in Byumba. We put on our fleeces and hats, as the cold chill at this high altitude was surprisingly persistent, and we prepared to explore the worksite that would be home to our English Pilot for the month to come.