Wednesday, November 15, 2006

An amazing sight

Kids at school in Rubura
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

Note: I have one minute of battery life and in an internet cafe. Will have better access tomorrow.

6:48am - Wednesday, November 15th

Yesterday was an incredibly busy day. We arrived into Bugabira (a commune in the province of Kirundo) to meet with the mayor and to witness the seed distribution program. It was an unforgettable sight. CLICK HERE to see a picture I took at the distribution. As we were driving to the mayor's office, we noticed this steady stream of people walking the way we were driving but it wasn't until we got closer to his office that we realized what was going on. Over 6000 people were convening at his office to receive maize and sorgum seeds to plant for the upcoming season. When our trucks had carefully navigated the crowd, I got out of the truck and saw just how massive this assembly was. We met with the mayor who explained how the distribution would occur and the logistics of the operation. He also gave us an overview of the needs of his community.

There are 74,248 people living in Bugabira with about 351 people per square kilometer. There is a near total lack of wells, and most people are going to the nearby lake to collect drinking water, causing disease. There are only 3 health centers and 14 schools for this entire population.

In this community and many like it, there is just a massive need for critical infrastructure. I have begun to formulate some strong opinions about infrastructure projects and in a separate blog entry I will provide my opinions which might influence a new policy for certain projects on our site that try to fundraise for infrastructure.

The mayor couldn't meet for long as he had to supervise the seed distribution program. It was an amazing process to witness. Community leaders present the list of the farmer's in their area that will receive seeds. Then, one at a time, each community leader calls the name of each farmer on a pre-written list of names that the mayor is given. The farmer steps forward to identify him or herself and the mayor then crosses that person's name off the list. Once all names have been accounted for, the mayor gives the community leader their allocation of the seeds. This entire system is designed to prevent fraud and is the reason why more than 6000 people were present at the distribution. Amazingly, the entire distribution only takes about 3 hours to complete.

These seeds will yield crops in January and February and then, the farmers will plant new crops in February but harvest will not come until June. It's during these months that people are the most food deprived. While some NGO's will step-in, I am seeing that even the World Health Organization is lacking sufficient funding and resources to cover all the hunger crises'.

After meeting with the mayor, we drove to a much smaller community called Rubura in the province of Kayanza home to about 11,000 people. In this community, it has one of the highest land density ratios in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. The average land density is about 280 people per square kilometer but here it was over 450 people per square kilometer, the highest density in sub-Saharan Africa. In this commune, I was there to see the local medical clinic and maternity clinic. I was appalled at the lack of resources. For this entire community of 11,000 people, their only piece of medical equipment was an old rusted microscope. They have no medicine, no nothing. The maternity clinic is similarly ill-equipped. I asked the rather obvious question of "well how do you treat the really sick" and the answer I got back, very matter-of-factly: "we don't." Well then what do you do? I stammered. "We hope their death is quick," was the reply.

Further sea-sawing my emotions yesterday, as I walked out of the the ill-equipped maternity clinic, school was letting out and I was immediately greeted by dozens of school-children. The kids were so happy and excited and curious about the Muzungu's (a Swahili word meaning "person of wealth") and when I stopped to shake the hand of a few kids, this surge of kids reached out, each wanting to shake my hand. To greet and shake the hands of near a hundred kids was at least presently indescribable. I feel this need to dispel the cyncism that might arise for some readers when I talk about these kids' enthusiasm and happiness, especially after I've just finished describing the condition of the clinic. Maybe somewhere this cynicism is seeping into my thoughts as I try to recollect my day yesterday. It's easy to dismiss the kids' interest in me as hope and expectation that I can help, that I can give them something. And of course, they are obviously not without that hope. But it was clear to them that I had nothing to give other than my being with them. So I just played with them, trying to talk to one another, holding hands, and playing around with my camera. I just felt this incredible gratitude for their hospitality and generosity.

But then remembering the building that hopes to grow into a true clinic, capable of doing more than just receiving patients, I become lost again, switching from heart to head, looking for the answer. And, strong opinions are coming to me. For example: At dinner last night, I asked John why Unicef had provided notebooks and pens to the kids but not textbooks. Apparently, the government is responsible for this and while the Ministry of Education has ordered the text-books, they have not yet been printed in Nairobi. Currently there are about 5 or 6 textbooks per class (the average class being about 40-50 kids). So an idea I floated at dinner which seems to make some sense is to negotiate a text-book "loan" program. Approach the government and say "look, I'll provide these text-books today to ensure that the classes have adequate resources but only on the basis that you will give me back the same number of text-books and other resources I give. When the government makes good on the terms and provides me the books, they take those books and give them to another class and so on." The books that are repaid are either donated to other schools or loaned on the same basis. It's just the beginning of one of the millions of ideas floating around my head that I intend to crystalize in the next few weeks.

Maybe I'm being arrogant or naive but those who know me know that I can't be here without at least trying to apply my brain to the problems I witness. Everywhere I go, I see opportunity. I see all the conditions needed to make long-lasting, sustainable change, mostly in that the people I'm meeting here on the ground are so knowledgeable, organized, passionate and intelligent.

I will say that when I'm back in Vancouver, I will want to apply a new criteria to anyone who submits a project proposal at GiveMeaning to build a school, a clinic or any other kind of critical infrastructure anywhere in the world: It's simply not good enough just to build the place. If you're going to build it, don't leave it until it's got what it needs to be able to properly serve the community. Every budget for an infrastructure project should have included the required monetary resources to purchase at the very least the basic necessities for that service to properly function in the community. I see it as the only responsible thing to do.

On a personal note, I miss home a lot right now. The cell phone card that I had bought to stay in touch with my family isn't working and there just isn't a place to buy another SIM card. I listened to one of Jessie's songs on iTunes this morning, a song I've listened to thousands of times before but today, her voice was just different. Further away. Tomorrow, we will reach the capital of Burundi. Hopefully I'll be able to sort out the phone and internet situation.

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