Archive | June, 2014

Soap Bubbles and Birr – Income Generation for HIV+ Women

23 Jun

There is a group of women that get together every two weeks to sit, talk, make toys for sick children in the hospital, learn about health issues, and create beautiful scarves, baskets, and other items for sale. These women are all HIV positive.

The handicrafts they make either go to a local NGO store as income for their family, or as donations to orphans living within the hospital compound. While they are making these items, they catch up on each other’s lives, talk about health issues, and about living and coping with HIV.

I have worked with this group off and on over the past year, and they finally asked if there were any other products they could make for the store. What could I teach them that would diversify their products and make them unique? I thought back to our Environment day at Camp Glow last year and remember the girls loved learning to make soap!

So after talking with the NGO, the women, and some tourists, artisinal soaps sounded like it would fit for both the women (easy to make) and their customers (who doesn’t want herbal soaps?). I am lucky to be in a town with a tourist economy. Honestly, locals would not buy cute, herbal soap. But foreigners do!

So I brought in my resident experts: Ag/Environment volunteers Ronny and Kirsten, who had lead the soap making activity last summer. With my organization/logistical work, and their knowledge we put together a 2 hour soap enhancement for income generation training.

Kirsten talking about how the different herbs affect the body.

Kirsten talking about how the different herbs affect the body.

While we can’t actually produce soap here (lye is incredibly difficult to find), we can do “soap enhancement.” Taking basic soap, melting it down, and adding different herbs for different features. Bad circulation? Try cinnamon or black pepper. Want to exfoliate? Add salt, sugar, or something very available here – coffee grinds!

After explaining the purpose of different herbs, we went through the process of how to cut, melt, and then add the ingredients to be set in a mold. The women were able to choose their own “recipes.”

Ronny helping with grinding the herbs

Ronny helping with grinding the herbs

shaving down the soap for easy melting

shaving down the soap for easy melting

Using the Kindu Trust stove to melt the soap and add ingredients

Using the Kindu Trust stove to melt the soap and add ingredients

Getting the temperature juuuuust right, or knowing when to stop adding water simply takes practice. We left all the equipment, herbs, and extra soap for the women to try over the month. We also went in to packaging and labeling techniques for the store. The women were already trained on basic financial planning – to sell their baskets and scarves they have to make a item list of individual cost. Here’s what came out of the molds the the first time (to be carved and packaged later):

different mold techniques and sizes - this batch was a cinnamon, black pepper mix

different mold techniques and sizes – this batch was a cinnamon, black pepper mix

Income generation does not have to be starting a company. One person, learning a skill, and marketing that skill is enough to generate basic income. Here we diversified a product base, but income generation schemes can be as simple as jewelry making to as complex as setting up a mill or breeding goats for sale. For many HIV positive people, especially women, they must be able to support themselves or make their own money since after diagnosis the availability of work drastically decreases. Basic IGAs (income generating activities) improve the livelihoods of people who want to more than simply survive their illness.

The Group

The Group

The training/planning team

The training/planning team

 

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When It’s Hard

19 Jun

The past few weeks have been hard. Yes, no water and electricity hard. Yes, harassment hard. Yes, procrastinating on my thesis hard. But those are normal. I’m talking one of my best friends going home hard. Two of my other best friends encountering one of the scariest moments of their service hard. And having moments where all you do is count the months, days, and even minutes down hard.

It’s hard because these things aren’t happening to me. If I actually sit and think about my past few months, some amazing things have happened: friends from America visited, my sitemate got engaged!, I was in India for chrissakes. But coming home to a lot of uncertainty, melancholy, and old fashioned frustration brought me down fast. And now I feel guilty for feeling blue, which also makes it hard.

It’s hard because I can’t talk about it here. Events that have unfolded that caused some of our best volunteers to choose to go home were out of their control. They were political, and violent, and scary. And because they are political, and violent, and scary they are secret and we are told to keep it so. I had grown used to daily life, and I forgot how close to the edge this country can be. And then we go back to daily life- so quickly, nothing happened, don’t talk about it.

My town was “unaffected” by some of the larger issues. That’s why I’m still here. But protests still happened, bullets still flew, and people still died. Over a housing issue. Had those other events not happened, would the police in my town have been so quick to pull triggers? Had a student not been killed last winter, would our town’s university joined in? Is there a point to asking hypothetical questions? Not really, so we go back to daily life – so quickly, nothing happened, don’t talk about it.

When I lived in Jordan, I worked at the Center for Defending the Freedoms of Journalists. A mouthful, I know. But it was about giving people the right to mouthfuls. We worked to defend freedom of speech. Remind politicians what international laws they had signed. Represent journalists in court. And encourage good journalism, reporting on the issues. I personally worked on putting a grant together for election coverage training. But, y’know, that’s the Middle East. There’s an election coming up here next year. But I’m told I probably shouldn’t mention my former job.

One of the projects I’m most proud of has been setting up a student newspaper at the university. It’s really more of a literary magazine, with student and administration submissions. It is nowhere near objective or free, the administration must approve each and every copy, but at least it’s one space where students can submit at least fiction and basic events coverage and start to think about how powerful information can be.

As volunteers we love the communities we are in. We have created friendships and working partnerships that only living somewhere for two years could forge. Clearly we want our towns to be stable. But being American, you get caught in a philosophical hard place. One of the Peace Corps goals is to share American culture – what is more American than free speech?

But it is hard. And the more it goes on, it makes it hard to care. I wasn’t born here. These aren’t my issues. Keep your head down, your job is health and behavior change. Stick to hand washing. Stick to HIV testing. Stick to girls empowerment? Stick to leadership skills? You see how this could grow sticky.

So I stick to two years. What I can do, I’ve tried to do. What I can’t do, I’ve tried a little to do. But then I can leave. My neighbors can’t. So I get it, change is slow. It’s hard. But when it’s hard, we go back to basics. Work with young girls, work with health, work with education. If these things grow, so will the number of people willing to engage the tough issues.

 

 

 

 

 

More Day Trips from Gondar, and My 100th Post!

16 Jun

Recently some friends visited me and I finally crossed those elusive random touristy things off my Gondar list. Here are some awesome trips you can do within 1 day from my site.

1. Simien Mountain Trek.

Last time I did the Simiens was for the Big Kahuna – Ras Dashen. This time, it was a short jaunt to Sankober (the first camp) with lots of selfies with the baboons along the way. This trip was much cheaper, shorter, and had a lot more monkeys. And per usual, the Simien views were amazing.

well, it was a little foggy at first

well, it was a little foggy at first

but the views got better

but the views got better

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so many selfies

so many selfies

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2. Boat Trip on Lake Tana

Just 3 hours south of me is Bahir Dar, the regional capital and city on the south of Lake Tana. A boat ride is cheap and fun, and if you time it right you may be able to see some hippos! People usually do the boat tour to see churches and monasteries around the lake, but having lived here long enough to know they all look the same we crossed our fingers for the wildlife. There was also some great bird watching. The best time to go to see hippos is around 4pm or so, when they come up to eat and it’s not so hot.

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These kids lived on an island in the lake. Coming home from school, this traditional papyrus boat takes them across twice a day.

These kids lived on an island in the lake. Coming home from school, this traditional papyrus boat takes them across twice a day.

 

3. Blue Nile Falls.

This was a big tourist check. I had planned to go with my family back in December, but flight schedules and the promise of a dry riverbed dissuaded us. I was skeptical if the falls would be impressive so close to the end of dry season, but we saw something even cooler. With the heavy rains over the past few weeks, in the 30 minutes or so that we were at the falls we actually saw them grow! The river visibly swelled minute by minute. I will definitely have to return in September when the falls are at their full force.

We arrived the local way, which was much cheaper. Most hotels or tour companies will sell you a driver for multiple hundreds of birr per person. We simply went to the bus station and caught a big bus for 14 birr per person to Tis Abay (the village that is a 20 minute hike from the falls). This was great, until on the way back, an axel broke. We caught a ride the rest of the way on a tuk-tuk type truck. Super uncomfortable, but I sorta feel like the boys enjoyed their Type 2 fun (at least there was a great story.)

Keith, John, and I at Blue Nile Falls

Keith, John, and I at Blue Nile Falls

The suspension bridge that you have to cross

The suspension bridge that you have to cross

Willy Wonka Chocolate River much?

Willy Wonka Chocolate River much?