Friday, July 03, 2009

The Man Up Campaign

Since I left Soroti and The Goat Project, I have been working for the Man Up Campaign, meeting with local partners in Kampala, Goma, Kigali, and -- starting tomorrow --Johannesburg. These local partners are small, grassroots organizations working within their own communities, with youth, to seriously address the issue of Violence Against Women -- largely through music, dance, art, film/theater, or sports. I am inspired and motivated by the energy and dedication I see in these programs and the in the people who lead them. This may be the best job in the world! Man Up does not have its website running quite yet, but since I have been asked to explain the campaign over e-mail quite a lot, I thought I might share here a bit more about the initiative, its goals, and the plan. (Note: I did not write the following. It was created as a collaborative effort of our incredible team to share with partners and donors)

Man Up is an international call to action for young adults to eradicate violence against women (VAW) using music, sport, and technology. On the occasion of one of the largest gatherings in the world, World Cup 2010 in South Africa, Man Up will host a global youth summit with the goals of supporting organizations tackling VAW, building a network of youth advocates and defenders, and linking the efforts of small local projects and mainstream organizations with the corporate, entertainment and sports communities.

The fact that one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime is a reality that must be addressed, forcefully. This is a five-year campaign, but the rewards will potentially extend for generations. Already there's a momentum to make this happen. This campaign will succeed with the support of artists, entrepreneurs, activists, athletes, educators, and concerned citizens "manning up"-whether they are male or female-and saying that gender violence against women must end. It's not just a women's issue, it's everyone's issue. Man Up is a call to action for the next generations to do things differently.

The Man Up Youth Summit will bring together a diverse group of 200 young men and women aged approximately eighteen to twenty-five years representing 32 World Cup competing nations and 18 at-risk countries, who are committed to eradicating VAW within their communities. Summit participants will be given the tools they need-and want-to plan and execute proposed initiatives, including seed grants with the support of a worldwide network of NGO partners. A multi-functional website will facilitate communication, on-going training and global advocacy.

The Summit is action-oriented. The purpose is to help participants make their ideas into real projects. Workshops are focused on skill building and provide the participants with the tools necessary to execute their projects and be advocates against VAW. The Summit will introduce various training and teaching techniques, particularly those that address and utilize relevant cultural influences and forces, namely hip-hop and sports, both of which have been extremely successful in youth-based development.

Renowned speakers and practitioners will join the Summit to promote the Man Up agenda and offer their own experience and perspective to the youth delegates.

Following the summit, a global virtual network will launch, providing participants with training, access to experts and additional resources. The network will be an action-based advocacy hub with a myriad of tools to empower GBV youth activists around the world.

It is Man Up’s aspiration that year-by-year, through strengthened NGO (non-governmental organization) and governmental partnerships, the number of grantees will grow and that past grantees will sustain their projects with the assistance of Man Up-developed tools and resources. We hope to reconvene in Brazil in 2014, prior to the World Cup.

Man Up is led by Jimmie Briggs, a former reporter with LIFE magazine, and now a New York-based writer, teacher and freelance journalist. Over the last decade, he has focused professionally on child soldiers and the lives of war-affected children in writing for publications such as The Village Voice, The Source, El Pais, People, Essence among others. A National Magazine Award finalist and recipient of honors from the Open Society Institute, National Association of Black Journalists, Alicia Patterson Foundation and Carter Center, among others, his book on child soldiers and war-affected children, Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go To War, was published in 2005. He is a frequent speaker at colleges and universities. Briggs’ presentations on civil rights and diversity issues, human rights abuse in war-affected countries and child welfare have brought considerable attention to issues often discarded in the general media. Briggs has worked for the UN Special Session on Children, Seeds of Peace in both New York City and Kabul, Afghanistan, as well as numerous other organizations including Oxfam, Amnesty International and the ENOUGH Project. He has received distinguished fellowships for his writing and advocacy, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Vibe, Outside, and Fortune, Additionally, he has served as an adjunct professor of investigative journalism at the New School for Social Research, and was a George A. Miller Visiting Professor in the Department of African and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois: Champaign-Urbana. His next book, to be published in 2010, is The Wars Women Fight: Dispatches from A Father to His Daughter.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A Pretty Pair: Carla and Joyce

These were taken on my last day in Gulu. Carla and Joyce are a happy duo. Aren't they wonderful together?

I am in Kigali now, after a very fast few days in Goma meeting with partner organizations for the Man Up Campaign. The complexities and messiness of the DRC, the reality of being there, created a kind of static for me, and I need some time to think. We know that the greatest beauty can sometimes be found among the most horrendous pain and suffering. In Goma I was moved by very young Congolese artists, musicians, filmmakers, dancers and painters, working to actively build peace and promote art and dynamic social change in their country. I spoke with women rebuilding themselves and their communitiies after brutal, brutal rape. I met health care professionals treating the sick and the wounded with passion and grace, all while pushing hard to learn more and improve their own skills. At most moments I simultaneously wanted to leave very quickly but also stay, stay, stay much longer to dig deeper, and do more. I will write more about it soon. For now, happy pictures of Joyce and Carla. I'm off to explore Kigali before another Man Up meeting. Love to you!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Goats as a Tool for Child Protection, and the Story of Martina

Martina is 12 years old and she has epilepsy. She wears an emerald green dress, and somehow this child seems to radiate light. She is painfully shy and her cheeks blush crimson as I speak to her. “Yes,” she nods voicelessly, as I ask her simple questions. And when I move to something that requires a true reply, she looks up at me with a bright smile and dancing eyes, still silent, but answering me with a look. “Things are better now.”

For several years Martina went to school, always uncertain what the day would bring. Sometimes she would have epileptic fits, convulsing in the middle of class, or in the schoolyard in front of her peers. As her body shook, Martina’s classmates would run after her, hitting her and beating her with sticks so hard that her young body often bruised. They did this for fun and play, but also to chase the evil spirit out of her that they believed lived inside. Teachers stood back. On-looking adults did nothing. Martina said that she did her best not to cry.

Identified by TPO Uganda as at-risk, last year Martina received a goat. (If you don’t yet know about the Goat Project, please read about it HERE or HERE). TPO considers the Goat Project to be a child-protection program, and I quickly learned again why.

It wasn’t long after the goat was delivered to Martina, during a follow up visit, that the TPO counselor learned about the specific, dangerous trouble she was having at school. A team of TPO staff, together with someone from the sub-county’s child-protection committee went to visit the school. They spoke to all the school’s staff and explained Martina’s condition. They explained epilepsy medically, and the serious physical risks involved with the children’s habit of hitting Martina mid-attack, and then spoke of the emotional impact as well. They coached the school’s staff on how best to explain this to the students, and deal with questions or backlash.

And it worked. Martina goes to school now in peace. Her teachers, the students, as well as her family members all know how to help her during an attack. She says that some students still tease her, but that she doesn’t mind because everyone gets teased for something, and no one is hitting her any more. Not one single person. And then, her face lights up. “Do you want to see my goat?” she asks. It is my turn to nod. Yes, I definitely want to see her goat!

She leads me past the spacious living area, out into a field of corn and overgrowth. She leads the way, and I can scarcely see her emerald dress through the grasses that brush my forehead. And then she stops, turning to find me. “There” she points, without words, the luminescent grin returning. I look, and tethered to a tree with a long rope is a black and white speckled goat, munching happily on the greens. I didn’t know it was possible, but in a moment, Martina’s face lights up even more. She takes a few more steps and clears the way through some of the bush. There, hidden entirely in the growth, are two kids, little baby goats, bleating quietly. And I know what this means without being told: money for school fees. More goats, more babies, more money, more food, something that this child is bringing to her family, a way she is contributing to her own future. And she cannot hold the pride she feels inside. It spills out of her, into the wild grass where we stand.

What do you want to be when you grown up, I ask her spontaneously. She does not wait a moment before answering. “A nurse,” she says. “I want to help people get better and understand.”

I think that it is a fabulous plan.

(Thank you, sweet Leah, for changing Martina’s life last year with a gift of a goat. In this, as in so many other ways, you are here with us. Thank you from her, from her family, and from us. We love you.)

Photos of Martina and her goats to come once I am back home in the U.S.…

Back to the Goats

I was recently in Soroti, eastern Uganda, on phase II of my trip: 4 days working with TPO Uganda, documenting the Goat Project. In the process, my love for this program was deepened. I met with families as their disabled child received a goat for the first time, and ones who had received their goat last year and could speak to the change it caused in their lives. I talked to staff, local officials, health care workers, community leaders, family members, and children, each shockingly honest about the state of disabled children in this corner of the world, and impact and efficacy of the Goat Project. It was fast, and it was whirlwind, but it was very special. I love my work. More soon.

(Thank you, generous friends and family who donated goats for our wedding. You were here with me! I have met some of the exact individuals your kind gift has helped and I have no words to explain how wonderful this was, and how lucky I feel Minh and I are to be surrounded by you in our life.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Baby Aber's Photo Shoot

I have a zillion more of this series, but they take 15 minutes each to upload, so they will have to wait until I am back in the U.S.

hugs from Gulu!


Ten days before I left for this trip, my friend Leah died in a car accident in Ghana. She wasn’t yet thirty. She was working on international food policy. She was headed to the beach for the weekend.

I only knew Leah for a few years, but Minh used to joke that he was afraid we’d run away together, kindred spirits. To be honest, I always held pride in this little joke of his. It felt like such a compliment, every time. As her dear friend Maria said: “Leah was somethin’ special. There ain’t no more Leah’s in this world.”

And that, you see, is exactly the problem. And I can’t sort it out. I can’t wrap my mind around this absence. This fact. And yet, today, here, in this moment now, it feels so real. Too, too real. And I am so mad that I shake.

I try to imagine what she would say to me here, sitting under this mango tree, hot tears blazing down my face, children coming home from school staring at the mzungu trying hard not to make a scene in public. “But I had a wonderful life!” she would start, gesticulating with her hands, and tilting her head. “But you are in Africa! C’mon. Get up and go visit your friends, do your work. Keep going! I am fine.”

No, I say. It is NOT ok. How is it ok? How can I believe in a world where Leah is senselessly gone? Someone doing such good…real good in this world. Someone with such passion and spirit and life! How can that life be gone? And if it is, since it is, what the heck are we doing here anyway? I feel like her death is supposed to make me feel even more strongly about my work; more committed. We always talked about our work, compared our work, took turns being amazed then wonder-fully jealous of one another’s work. We complained in good humor, and dreamed in good faith. Neither Leah nor I ever knew what was going to come next, but wasn’t that the beauty of it? Leah was ok with the uncertainty and made me feel confident too, proud and more comfortable with flowing with life, asking questions without real answers, and taking risks for the beauty and humanity of it all. I sit here now, and I hate to be this way, but I don’t want to flow or dream right now. Right now I am only asking, really, what is the point?

I used to have an answer to that question. When asked about the point of it all, I pointed to my favorite, favorite quote – an Irish proverb, actually: “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live,” it says. Take care of one another, love. To me, this seemed so completely crystal clear. This was the point. But now, now….I’m honestly not that sure. God, I am angry.

In Jewish tradition, focus is not placed on the afterlife, but rather, the life we are living now. Even the Kaddish, the prayer said for the dead, speaks only of the miracle that is this world, this life. But you see, I whisper in between the lines of the Kaddish, we really need Leah back in this life. We really, really need her here. Surely, there has been some terrible, terrible mistake.

Here in Uganda, a country where she has never been and will never be, her absence to me is profound. Perhaps it is because we talked of traveling here together one day. More likely, though it is because this is a place where Life and Death are intimate partners and good friends. Here, the joy and the pain, the ins and outs of a day, they are all raw. There is no pretense of “forever.”. Everything, and everybody will one day cease, and that day…well, it could be today. I feel Leah here as I walk the path in the morning past the chickens and goats and cows, down into town. I feel Leah as the grass tickles my legs and the breeze gives a momentary respite from the searing mid-day sun. I feel her so much as I simply go about my day.

I look down. The red dust is swirling around my ankles and knees as a storm brews across town. The road is pocked with holes– the mark of rainy season – and a truck rushes down the road, like an elephant on a balance beam. Everything can be swept away.

An old woman walks past me now, hunched over a walking stick, eyes cloudy, dress to match the grasses. “Apoyo” she greets, and raises a hand. I smile and greet her in return. Three children in blue-checkered uniforms balance on the back of their father’s bicycle, returning from school. They smile and wave wildly “Muno, Hiiiiiiiiiiiii” they shout, using the word for “foreigner”. “Acholi, Hiiiiiiiiiiiii,” I offer and they erupt in gales of laughter that I have met their call of “foreigner” with the word for their own tribal identity. Six strong women turn around in passing and smile at the exchange. They are each holding a day’s worth of labor on their heads, doubtlessly walking home to bathe the children and prepare the evening’s meal.

There is something faint in the distance. Wailing. Is it screaming, even? In a moment I recognize this sound. It is the sound of mourning. Somewhere nearby, a family has lost a member. Someone beloved is gone. Yes, I want to say….yes, I understand. The void is too deep for words or flowers. I know, and I am sorry. So, so sorry.

Someone Lost A Tooth Today

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Friday, June 12, 2009

The One, Obama

As soon as I left Entebbe airport and was securely seated in the front seat of my guest house's car, my driver had one question. It had clearly been burning on his tongue since he had greeted me, 10 minutes earlier. He was having a hard time containing himself. "So," he said with excitement, "I am hearing that you are from the American capitol, Washington." Yes, I said, I live in DC. I smiled. I knew exactly what was coming next.

"How is the one, Obama?" he launched in. "Are you knowing him? Are you seeing him? He is so smart. I am reading about all Obama policy. His wife, she is also so, so smart. What is she like in Washington?”

Since arriving one week ago, it is not an exaggeration to say that I receive a version of this same, enthusiastic question at least once, if not several times each day – usually, as soon as people learn that I am from DC. I am frequently asked about the president’s personal habits, what they “take for lunch”, and, most often, about the well being of “the ones of Obama” (i.e. the family), and how they are doing.

The funny part is, I am expected to hold a knowing answer, like a cousin. I do, afterall, live in the same city.

Yesterday over lunch, a colleague here raised the O question for the first time, admitting she had wanted to for some time, but had been waiting patiently. “Well,” I told her with a sly grin, “my husband works across the street from the White House.”

“Ahh!” she shrieked. “You are not serious!!! He must be a very important man…”

In our beading cooperatives, the interest is most assuredly on our intelligent, compassionate, fashion-forward first lady, a committed mother, like our beaders. They connect with her. They love her. They want to know why I haven’t yet personally delivered one of their gorgeous paper-bead necklaces to Michelle Obama, perhaps over tea. They have spent hours imagining which of their creations would best compliment her neckline, her coloring, her style. “But you live in Washington! So close!!” they say with exasperation. “You take it to her house.”

I explain that it is much more complicated than that, but that yes, I would also love to see Michelle Obama wearing one of their necklaces, elegant paper jewels made from the rubble of camp life, made from the hopes of women who are just now, 20 years later, reconstructing their lives and returning home after so much war. Too much war.

People ask about Obama here, and they smile. They connect. They understand Hope, and as they rebuild their homes, they are beginning to believe in Change. And, they think, maybe their dreams are possible, too. After all, somewhere out there, far away in America, is that one, Obama.

The closest we get to knocking on Obama's door is advocating to our government on behalf of the voiceless. Check out this year's Lobby Days, and come to DC or write a letter to your representative.