Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ribbon of Hope Projects

It's a delicate balance sometimes, when you are trying to support orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) and some other members of their family are even worse off than they are. Several of the guardians of the OVCs Ribbon of Hope Self Help Group are supporting face more immediate threats to their health than the children they are looking after. One mother is suffering from diabetes that appears to be very advanced. She is just recovering from TB and she has been losing her sight for some time. She is in her early twenties and is already having trouble caring for her daughter. If she was HIV positive, she could at least get antiretroviral drugs (ARV) for free. But as it's diabetes, the drugs are prohibitively expensive. Her own mother is on ARVs but she is old to be looking after a daughter and a granddaughter. The father of the child is absent.

Another HIV positive guardian is so sick that she has checked herself into a private hospital. Why she chose a private hospital when she can get the drugs for free is not clear. But she appears to be having trouble accepting that she is HIV positive and refuses to go to the local clinic, where she was diagnosed. You do hear stories of people preferring private hospitals but I doubt if this woman will benefit much from the care she gets there. And her life savings will not go too far, either. Maybe Ribbon of Hope can support one or two of her children but I think she has several others, who will all be vulnerable if anything happens to her. Her husband died some time ago, apparently of Aids.

Thankfully, some of the guardians are well enough to care for their own children, in addition to another child, usually a relative. They are all doing some kind of work but that usually involves long hours, low pay and a good chance that the employer will withhold the wages for as long as possible, months and even years. All the villages we are working in are sisal growing areas. These are vast tracts of land owned by a very small number of extremely rich business people and politicians. The villages are all isolated, several kilometers from the nearest tarred road. For people who live there, the main transport available is bicycle, motorbike, or hired bicycle or motorbike, for those who don't have their own.

We hope that each guardian will come up with some kind of income generation scheme, some way of making a bit of extra money. Ribbon of Hope will assist with loans, advice and perhaps other things. Some of the guardians already have a clear idea of what they would like to do and they have the skills and knowledge to start just as soon as the money is made available. Others are not so sure and are not quite ready. A couple of people seem unprepared to be completely honest or committed, but most had some kind of income generation activity up until the start of 2008. It's unbelievable how many people lost assets and businesses as a result of the civil unrest. Two and a half years later and many have not got back to where they were then and probably will not do so for some time yet. Some will be lucky just to get their land back but most have lost things they will never be compensated for.

After spending a few days visiting two of the villages where some of our clients live, we had to return to our fields, where the maize was in need of harvesting and the other crops, millet and sorghum, were in need of weeding. There has been terrible flooding in the last few months, since the maize was planted. Luckily, much of the maize has survived and the crop is looking good. The beans we planted between the maize plants were almost all washed away. The weeding is being done by some local people and in a few days we should have cleared the backlog and got back to the OVCs in the three other villages we work in.

I was very keen on demonstrating solar cookers and a couple of other simple technologies and I did some demonstrating a while back. But there has not been a lot of interest since. Ribbon of Hope has plenty of core activities to keep us busy and I wanted solar cookers and the like to be an additional activity that wouldn't take up too much time. I mentioned the ideas to the community volunteers whom we work with and they mobilized people. But after a few demonstrations, there were no requests for more. I'd like to do some refresher demonstrations but I'm not sure if it will be possible to drum up enough interest.

I think income generation schemes are good, especially when they work. But they often don't. Not everyone can be a business person. And as we have found from our own projects, mostly growing crops, there are a lot of things that can go wrong; too much rain, too little rain, diseases, pests, lack of market, poor infrastructure and downright dishonesty. That's why I try to persuade people to do some things that can save them money. If they spend a little less on cooking fuel, they will have more for food or other things. And you can save quite a lot, perhaps the equivalent of two or two and a half month's pay over a period of one year. I'd like to understand better why I have not been too successful in selling these technologies, which, by the way, are more or less free! It can be very hard to make money but it's not so hard to spend less.

But most of Ribbon of Hope's projects are going well at the moment. Some of the community based organizations are running themselves and we only visit now and again. One of the organizations that was doing badly at the start of the year, but turned itself around later, is now much stricter, which is a good thing. Too many times the work would be done by two or three people and the others would only turn up when the returns were coming in. A number of projects would have done well if the few workers just got on with it. But no one will work when they think others will help themselves to the results and many community based organizations fail because they are not strict enough about what people have to do in order to collect any of the group's winnings.

I think some people will do a very good job of supporting an extra child while continuing to look after their immediate family. Others may already be too overwhelmed by sickness and poverty. But then maybe we'll find additional ways of supporting them. So far, Ribbon of Hope has done very well keeping things ticking over. There have been challenges, some of which we have met, some of which have been too much. In the long run it's hard to say, but I'm optimistic about a lot of things. I'm just sorry I won't be able to stay here indefinitely to see how everything goes.


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