Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Live and Learn

For the last five days, the members of BeadforLife have been attending an Entrepreneurial Training here which will prepare them to start their own businesses once they graduate from the beading program after 27 months. The purpose of BeadforLife is not to create an army of beaders but to help women access a permanent exit from poverty. Each week, when they sell their beads, 20,000 UGX (Uganda shillings) is put into a business account for them. Upon graduation, they receive those funds plus a business grant from BeadforLife which totals about 800,000 or around $550. The skills they learn in this training include market research, financial resourcing, budgeting and finances, advertising, and record keeping - all on a micro level. Last Friday, the participants were issued a 20,000 loan each, the equivalant of $13.00, to start a practice weekend business. On Monday, they repaid the loan plus 1,000 UGX interest and reported back on their profits or losses. As they sat in small groups discussing their experiences, I listened to them describe the businesses they had undertaken and how much they had made.

An older woman named Teddy had bought a fish for 10,000 UGX, roasted it, cut it into 16 pieces, and sold each piece for 2,000 for a net profit of 21,000. Another woman bought fishing net, sewed it into body scrubs for the shower, sold them in pretty packages of 12 at the market and made a profit of 60,000! My personal fave was the woman who bought goat heads, cooked them, and sold them for twice what she had paid. I have to say that when I asked her what she had sold and she replied "Goat heads," it took me a millisecond to regain composure, but I think it went unnoticed.

The photos accompanying this post reflect the spirit of our "graduation." Laughing, singing, dancing, praying, and lots and lots of uulating - quite the celebration. When I see how much pride and hope they bring to their efforts, I wonder how and if we can transfer this spirit to self sufficiency programs in the U.S. I also get a little embarrassed in their midst at my own total lack of business sense. I think I would be more like the male beader we have in the program who bought meat for his business, gave it to a friend to sell, got the meat back after the friend failed to sell it, and ate it all himself.

Yesterday was an adventure as well. I visited St. Barnabas school where we are paying school fees for nine students. There have been complaints from parents and students that the children are not getting a good education, that they are not given any books, that they are sent home if they don't have a broom or plate, and that they are not allowed to ask questions in class. I should add that the secondary students board at the school, hence the need for brooms and plates....I guess.

When we arrived, we were greeted by the school administrator, headmaster, lead teacher for the secondary school and another teacher of some sort, all males. Paying school fees for nine students brings out the big guns apparently. They were very earnest about their teaching and after an hour or so of reassuring us on the excellance of St. Barnabas, we were given a tour of the facilities. The science lab was shabby but functional as far as the untrained eye could tell (there were test tubes and bottles of scientific-looking stuff sitting around); the computer lab had students actually working on computers; and the library, which was perhaps the most dismal place of all, had the books and the librarian safely protected from the students by a wire-like cage. Then we visited the primary school starting with the first-graders. As we entered the class, they leapt to attention in their classically Catholic school uniforms and recited carefully, "Welcome to our visitahs. We are the Bananahs. Just peel, and peel, and peel, and eat!" This little chant was accompanied by suitably adorable choreography which made the Bananas, in my opinion, the clear hit of the day. I'll admit, the Mangoes and Apples gave them a run for their money but I believe the school tour guide would be well-advised to skip the academic falderal and just bring on the Bananas.

Besides dealing with an out-of-control kitten (he got his head stuck under the bathroom door when I put him there in "time out" for ankle-biting) and a brief but intense case of homesickness on Tuesday, I am healthy and well and loving my life. Wishing you the same...