Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Meeting, Maize, Maternity, Margharita

Today started slowly. The weekly staff meeting called for “10:00 am sharp” didn’t start until 10:45, which was actually less late than other meetings we’ve had, for whatever that’s worth. Staff meetings are laden with formalities: the administrator, Brenda, calls the meeting to order and thanks everyone for coming, then goes over the agenda. This is now the third staff meeting I’ve attended, and the agenda is exactly the same every time. After this introduction, there is an opening prayer. Today Brenda put me on the spot and asked me to lead the prayer. I tried to think of a Hebrew prayer that would be appropriate for the occasion that I could translate, but nothing came to mind. I fumbled something about thanking God for bringing us to this day to do the important work of development, equality, peace, and justice, for all the resources and abilities we have, and for giving us the opportunity to partner with the divine in repairing the world. Everyone said “amen” so I guess it went over ok. 

The meeting proceeded with reports from the chair (Caxson) and the program officers (Denis, Moses, Ramazan, Joan (actually an intern, and pronounced Jo-ann), and Christina), followed by a review of the last meeting’s minutes, “reactions and way forward,” and closing. Again, it is the exact same routine every time. A sign-in sheet is passed in which we each write our full name, title/role, gender, and signature. Even if people are missing, the facilitator still says that “all Secretariat members were present.” Suggestions are made for corrections to the previous minutes, which may or may not get recorded in the notes for the current meeting. Everyone formally thanks the person who spoke before them before offering their own remarks. Within all this formality, I have noticed a conspicuous lack of eye contact. Even when addressing the group, oftentimes the speaker will look off in the distance or just keep their eyes on the paper in front of them. Long silences occur frequently. The peculiar culture of these staff meetings continues to flummox me.      

Later on, Moses (who sometimes goes by Willy, haven’t discovered why yet) and I got back to work on a proposal for an income-generation project proposal. We’re applying to the German Embassy for a small grant to purchase a maize mill and construct a building to house it in a rural village. This village hosted many IDPs during the height of the LRA conflict, despite already limited resources. Though all the IDPs have left, the village is still recovering from the intense strain. Because returned IDP communities have received lots of attention and support from NGOs (local and especially international) and some government programs, those villages are now in better shape than this host community, which was actually spared from damage during the conflict itself. So, this community, Aluka village, has significant unmet need – income generation from a local maize mill business could substantially improve their situation. I’ve been geeking out on creating a theory of change for this project and getting into the details of project design, including identifying indicators for success to be utilized in future monitoring and evaluation. So far this has been the best part of my job.

Moses is the finance person so he’s tasked with figuring out the budget for the project. To do that, we needed info on the cost of running a maize mill. And it just so happens, that right on the same plot of land as our office, there is a maize mill (which I never noticed before – nor did I notice the sign for it across the road). The owner, a young woman named Susan, sat down with us to talk shop. (Presumably) her children were milling about (ha, get it? milling!) curious to catch a look at me. I’d wave at them and they’d giggle. Eventually they made their way closer to me and one was bold enough to touch my skin, pet my hand, and poke my rings. Sometimes I made funny faces at them and waved more, but mostly I tried to pay attention to the conversation with Moses and Susan. And then, when they least expected it, I’d reach out and tickle the kids to their great delight. Eventually they’d burst into peals of laughter even before my fingertips reached their dusty bellies.

After gathering the info we needed (how many workers does she employ, at what wage/benefits and how many hours; how many kilos of maize can the mill grind per hour; what is the charge per kilo; total monthly costs, etc.), I asked to see the mill. For a couple of weeks now we’ve been working on this proposal and I’ve had absolutely no idea what a maize mill looks like, how it works, how big it is – nothing. I’ve been picturing something like a grist mill on a waterfall with abig wheel spinning. Well, spoiler alert, that’s not at all what a maize mill looks like! It is much much smaller. What was most remarkable, though, was that absolutely everything in the building was covered with some kind of flour-paste-dust-web. It almost looked like dough had been thrown all over the place and then dusted with more flour. And it smelled like dough, too, all just from the mass quantities of corn flour processed there.  I’ll try to post a picture of it soon, but in the meantime here's an approximation.

When we got back to the office, we ran the numbers and found that even if our project only operates at 40% capacity, the village could net almost ten million shillings within three years, which is really wonderful and would make a huge difference in their lives. They’d be able to afford school fees for their children, access private health services (government clinics are notoriously bad), purchase more resilient housing materials, and so on. Testing the various contingencies of the budget made me realize I actually did gain some new skills from agonizing over cost-benefit analysis spreadsheets in my first semester “Analytical Frameworks for International Public Policy Decision-Making” class. Go figure. (Thanks, Professor Gideon.)

Meanwhile, at the end of the staff meeting, Jannet asked to enter into the official minutes her congratulations for Moses on becoming a father once again on Sunday! I knew that Moses’ wife (incidentally, also named Janet) was VERY pregnant, but I had no idea she was so close to delivering. I didn’t hear anyone else at work talking about a birth, at least in English, and Moses never mentioned it yesterday or this morning. This is particularly strange because I stayed late at the office last night with Moses during a thunderstorm. His kids kept on coming in to talk to him and/or shyly look at me and wave. I pulled his daughter Mercy onto my lap to color on my desk while Moses told me the story of uncovering the circumstances of his father’s death (a story for another post). His son Daniel kept trying to take the pen so he could draw too. All this family time and talk, and no mention of a brand new baby. Curious.

Anyway, Janet lives in a hut behind our office/house with their family and often brings food to the office (fruit, roasted maize, porridge) or brings me lunch. I’ve never asked her for this and sometimes I feel guilty taking it because she already has four children and limited means; I feel bad taking away from her family’s food, especially because I can so easily buy my own. But my coworkers have told me that this is her way of making me feel welcome, so it’s ok for me to take it; in fact, it’s important that I accept it. I’ve been thinking that I should pay her, but that seems awkward. I mentioned this dilemma to a Peace Corps volunteer, Rachel, I met in town last week. Rachel suggested bringing groceries/fresh produce to her instead, and asking her to show me how to cook. I loved this idea, and actually mentioned it to Janet on Friday. She laughed and I wasn’t sure if she understood… and then today I found out she was already having contractions when that conversation took place.

After Moses and I finished at the maize mill, I asked if I could meet his baby. He led me to the hut and then disappeared back into the office before I even realized he was gone. (Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever really seen them interact. Hardly ever with his kids, either.) Within the hut, which was much more spacious and bright than I expected, Janet was sitting on the floor, wearing the same dress she usually does, washing clothes and sheets by hand. If you didn’t already know she’d just given birth, you’d never be able to tell from the scene. She got up to get me a chair. SHE, who just gave birth, got ME, a fully capable individual, a chair. Besides the washing, she also had a pot of cassava boiling on the charcoal stove in the hut (which gave off lots of smoke, apparently not of much concern). I asked to see the baby and she brought out a completely wrapped bundle of blankets with a two-day old boy inside. He has lots of soft black hair, light brown skin, an impossibly cute chin, and teensy tiny fingernails. He stayed asleep, stirring a bit, raising one arm above his head. I held the baby for a while, kvelling and just marveling at his miraculous tininess and his mom’s strength and energy.

Janet explained to me and another visitor, Harriet, that she had been in labor for three full days. Moses, however, was in “the village” (which I think means his home village, (where I visited a few weeks ago for a traditional marriage ceremony!) but I’m not sure). Eventually she went to a neighbor for help in getting to the hospital to deliver, and traveled there by motorcycle. The image of a woman in labor on the back of a motorcycle is rather astonishingly amazing to me. Luckily, she made it in time – she was admitted Saturday night and the baby was born Sunday. Moses did not return until after the baby was born. They still have not decided on a name.

With all the latest hoopla back home over whether or not women can have it all, here in front of me was a Ugandan woman who is right back to running her household without a moment’s pause. More and more I’ve been thinking that our Western luxuries have weakened us. We don’t get nearly as much use out of our bodies as people do here. We rely on machines and technology and external resources, rather than our own physical selves. Women here strap their babies to their backs with large pieces of cloth (no strollers), balance significantly large and heavy items on their heads (no roller bags), and ride a bike (very few cars) all at the same time. Hand-washing (no washing machines) and hand-grinding (little pre-processed food) actually take a lot of muscle. Men push massive loads on bikes, wheelbarrows, you name it. Perhaps it’s just the spaces I frequent, but I rarely see such demonstrations of brute strength at home. Toddlers ride on the back rack of bikes, just holding onto the end of the seat. I think that toddlers might even start walking sooner here, just out of necessity. I’m not advocating for putting small kids in unsafe situations, but I wonder if we Westerners tend to coddle children more than is really necessary? Are the material solutions to our perceived problems actually burdening us even more? Are we just lazy and looking for excuses? No disrespect at all to any parents out there, I’m just struck by the self-sufficiency and resourcefulness I’ve seen here. Interesting contrast to ponder.

I definitely want to see more of this baby, and I’d like to bring a gift for Janet and Moses. Any suggestions, readers?

One other highlight of the day came when I started being a Jewish mother to Caxson. He has "flu and cough" and sounds awful. He hadn't eaten anything all day so when another one of Moses' kids brought us lunch, which Janet (wife, not coworker) cooked, I insisted that he eat. I also explained that since my family all works in health and medicine, I feel authorized to dispense medical advice, so I insisted that he take two panadol/tylenol too. After he ate, he said, "Jocelyn, thank you for encouraging me to eat. Otherwise I would have not known that this food is so de-li-ci-ous!" And so I kvelled some more. 

Today’s events ended with a goodbye dinner for Jasmine at the nearby Margharita Palace Hotel. Under the light of CNN International on the wall-mounted television, we toasted our Smirnoff Ices and wine to this time we’ve shared in Lira as the Fletcher Foursome (well, one honorary Fletcherite) and wished her well on the next phase of her summer adventure.