Tuesday, September 5, 2017

To Grant or Not To Grant

Apologies on apologies for the long delay in writing a new blog post. I'd been warned that this would happen... that throughout my service I would end up blogging less and less. I still have many topics and ideas I want to share/document and it's been harder and harder to prioritize blogging. So here I am, making this a priority... one post at a time. 

I've been trying to write this particular post for almost two years now. I never felt like I had enough information to do it justice. Writing about something that is constantly changing and developing lead me to procrastinate. Now as I look at having less than a month left at my site the pressure is on.

My favorite little man and my hardest goodbye


"You will never solve the problem of poverty by giving people money - you must teach people to fish." - Ernesto Sirolli


About 6 months into our Peace Corps service, back in February 2016, my cohort of volunteers attended a week long workshop called Product Development and Management (PDM). We were encouraged to bring a counterpart from our community that we planned on working with to implement different projects. 

The workshop concentrated on how to plan different projects as well as how to apply for a grant through Peace Corps to get money for the project. Peace Corps' grant policy tries to ensure the projects' sustainability (PC Buzzword!) by requiring a 25% community contribution for every project. The community contribution looks different for every project and generally involves discounted or donated services or goods. The idea behind this being that if a community is contributing at least 25% into a project then they are committed to seeing the project through and the community becomes a stakeholder in the project.

Almost immediately I realized that I'm conflicted on how I feel about grants. I've seen grants used effectively when focused on capacity building; whether in TOT (Training Of Trainers) workshops or youth camps focused on the acquisition of skills such as GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and BRO (Boys Respecting Others). However, things start to get muddled for me when grants are used for starting income generating projects or constructing infrastructure. I've been specifically working with my organization on starting an IGA (Income Generating Activity) so before I delve into the particulars on that I'll express my unease in using a grant for building infrastructure specifically for schools.

A number of volunteers use grants to build classrooms, libraries, kitchens or community centers for their schools. At first glance this seems like a great use of a grant. When a school has over 100 students crammed into a classroom it seems like a no brainer to use a grant to build a new classroom. My concern is that the schools, or Ministry of Education, should really be paying for these things. I worry that in some ways we create a dependence on Peace Corps and grants because we're giving the Ministry and schools a way out, because if they don't prioritize it and do it then a PCV will get so fed up with conditions that they'll take matters into their own hands. . . That being said, I do understand that it's not that simple. If a PCV doesn't build a classroom it doesn't mean that the Ministry will step in the following year and spend money on whats desperately needed and the students will still be the ones who are ultimately suffering. Which, in a nutshell, is why I'm conflicted on the use of grants within Peace Corps.

Women from the support group I work with

As a quick background, I work with a rural support group connected to the local Catholic church. The group is about 12-15 members and they work on sewing clothes for OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children) as well as holding life skills lessons every month for the caregivers and children. In Lesotho, and particularly in rural areas, orphans are often absorbed into the community by wealthier, or more established, community members or the child's extended family.

When I first arrived in my village, in July 2015, I spent at least the first 3 months at site meeting with my organization every weekday and sewing with them while they chatted in Sesotho. I often had no idea what was going on, and while it was really difficult at the time I realize now how important that initial period was. The group was able to get to know me a little bit better and we all slowly learned to trust each other.

With one of my favorite women that I work with
Also the counterpart I took to the PDM workshop

My first dress. . I've gotten better I swear!

After a few months of awkward sitting around and sewing, and wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into, the support group started approaching me about ways for the group to make money. When the group needed new materials for sewing it had to come out of their own pockets, and they were also looking for ways to give monetary support to the caregivers for food, clothing, and school fees for the OVCs. 

As soon as we started talking about possible IGAs (Income Generating Activities) in the area the group expressed interest in starting a poultry project, specifically a layers project to have eggs to sell in the community. While this was a seemingly simple decision for them it started a difficult process for me. I was looking at a couple different decisions on how I could best help the group to make their ideas a reality. 

If I applied for a Peace Corps grant my organization would have enough money to start a poultry project, and by the time I left my community there would probably be an income being generated for the caregivers and support group. However, I had misgivings about this direction from the start. At this point I had spent about 6 months in my community trying to help everyone understand why I was there and how I could best help them. Namely, trying to explain that I was best able to help through capacity building and the sharing of skills and was a poor volunteer without any money to be able to give people. Now I was suddenly supposed to bring 5,000 USD (R64,513) into my community for a project? Ideally my organization would understand that the money was ultimately coming from Peace Corps, but would my community see it that way?

I also struggled to understand how to make the grant writing process a capacity building activity. I could bring a support group member into town to help me write the grant, though first we'd need to go over computer skills, which wouldn't be a sustainable activity when the support group members have no access to computers... Furthermore, Peace Corps grants are only accessible through a Peace Corps volunteer. If I taught the support group how to write a PC grant, it is something they would only have access to that one time. 

Instead I decided to take the long-term approach and help the support group learn how to fundraise money, focused on financial literacy lessons, and helped them to do a detailed feasibility study to make sure the poultry project could be successful in our area. 

One of the first fundraisers that we did was a game day fundraiser. We charged 2 Rand (about 15 cents) for the children to participate in the activities and then had small bags of masimba (cheeto like snacks) for sale for R5 (about 40 cents). Luckily we found a shop in our camp town that gave us donations of masimba, so that the snacks didn't eat into our profits! Most of our fundraisers looked similar, charging 1 or 2 Rand for participation and then counting on making most of our money off of the snacks. To give you an idea, we were lucky to make R150 (about $12) off of a fundraiser. 

"This shirt glows when my swag is on"


Trying to run with a tennis ball between their knees







Seeing who can kick their shoes the farthest


Wheelbarrow races!


Group Photo

Our most successful fundraiser, by far, was a raffle. We went into the camp town and asked for donations from local shops and used items from care packages that I'd gotten. We sold tickets for R1 and encouraged everyone to buy multiple tickets to up their chances of winning an item they really wanted. Fortunately, we were able to rig the system a bit so that everyone went home with something. By the end of the day we had made R300 ($23). 

My counterpart bagging the masimba


Sold these bags for R5 each (40 cents)


Brilliant way to close off the top of the bags


One of our many tables of goodies


My supervisor reading out the winning ticket number


My counterpart showing off her new blanket


New sunglasses


One of the shirts my Dad donated

When we had raised R3,000 ($230), a feat that took well over a year, we decided to buy 50 broiler chickens to further our fundraising. The broiler chickens are raised for 6 to 8 weeks and then sold for their meat.


Baby chickens!





My counterpart allowed us to keep the chicks in her house so that we didn't need to pay to house them.


They were so cute when they were babies


Getting uglier as they got older



Eventually all 50 chickens were sold off and we were able to make a net profit of R1,210 ($93). We immediately turned around and bought another round of 50 broiler chickens. 

Once we had a small business running and were making a profit we started to explore financial literacy lessons. We started with what I had thought were pretty basic budgeting lessons, and it still proved much more difficult than I anticipated especially because all of the lessons needed to be in Sesotho.

Needs Vs Wants Activity

One of our first activities was a lesson on needs versus wants. We first looked at all the things we might buy in any given month and decided as a group whether they were a 'need' or a 'want'. We then pretended that we had a budget of R2,800 ($215) a month and wrote down all of the things that we would buy (and the cost) and how much money we would save. We repeated the activity two more times slashing our budget down farther and farther each time and deciding what 'wants' we would take out as our budget lowered. We ended with a budget of R1,800 ($139).

We then turned the activity inwards and looked at our own personal/family budgets. Everyone was supposed to write down their budget and the things they buy each month. I realized pretty quickly that the activity wasn't going over well and the women seemed to be confused. So I asked if anyone was comfortable sharing their income with me and helping me to write out their budget. Just about everyone had the same income. Their income came from family members living and working in Maseru or another camp town. The income for the month? R150 ($12). I was shocked, and yet still wanted to try to go through with the activity so we started to look at what we can buy each month with that income. 

Spoiler alert: Not much. In fact, most months there isn't enough money to meet basic food needs. 

I don't share this information to try to pull at your heart strings. The group I worked with on these lessons were very upfront and frank about their income (or lack thereof) and didn't want any pity. Its a very real thing they deal with everyday and even when it's uncomfortable they're doing what they need to do for their families, each other, and their community. For more on how this culture works to support each other check out my friend Beth's blog on this topic!

It was a hard realization for me to think that I have the power to write a grant and get this poultry project up and running quickly. I have the power to immediately help these women to make a livable income each month. And I honestly believe that while that would immediately help alleviate problems, it wouldn't be a sustainable solution. I had to, again, make the decision to take the long, slow, and at times tedious route. 


Broiler chicken Calendar


Budget for the Broiler chickens
Net profit of R4,000 vs Gross profit of R1,210

After looking at a personal/family budget we moved on to looking at a budget for a business. Luckily, we had 2 different budgets that we were able to look at. We could look at the small broiler chicken project that the group had been dealing with so far and we could look ahead at the layers project that the group would eventually be starting. 

Explaining the difference between gross and net profit proved difficult, and I was grateful that we already had two rounds of selling broilers under our belts before we tackled this concept. It was much easier to explaining looking at a budget when I could ask direct questions about how much we spent on different commodities and how much we sold each chicken for.


50 layers vs 200 layers

When we looked ahead to the layers project we compared the difference between having 200 layers versus only having 50 layers. First we looked at the expenses and potential gross profit for each option. At this point in the activity I asked them which amount of laying chickens they would prefer. Most of the women expressed that they'd rather have 50 layers because the expenses were less and they would still make a gross profit of almost R19,000 ($1,462) a year. Then we looked at net profit for both options and I repeated the question. Suddenly the net profit of R3,042 ($234) for 50 layers didn't look nearly as good at the net profit of R15,321 ($1,180) for 200 layers. 

This activity helped to drive home the idea that in order to have a successful business of chickens laying eggs we'd need to have at least 200 chickens. Luckily, this was a great segue into looking into a detailed feasibility plan. In order to make sure that our area could support a project of 200 chickens. 


Details of the layers project

The feasibility study took a couple weeks on its own to complete. To start we needed to determine if our area could support a business of 200 layers. The support group was tasked with talking to shops and schools in their area to determine how many eggs are currently being sold. Then see if the shops and schools would be able to buy their eggs from our business. Luckily, it was determined that the area could support as many as 300 chickens!

We also looked at the nitty gritty details of the project to make sure everyone understood how much work it would take to get a project like this off the ground. We contacted local businesses to get quotes for the cost of materials, as well as a quote for building the house for the chickens. The support group looked at the operating costs of the business and determined how much of a net profit they would need to make before it became sustainable for them to pay themselves as workers, as well as how many workers would be necessary to keep the project running. 

Ideally, the support group will use this information to start the poultry project they've been dreaming of. And the hope is that if this project falls through, they'll be able to use their skills to do a feasibility study for their next idea for a project. 

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have less than a month left at this site. As I leave my organization, they have currently raised about R10,000 ($775). Which is a mind blowing amount of money for a rural support group! Especially, when I think back to how we started fundraising with activities where we were lucky to raise R150 ($12). 

My hope is that my site will be replaced with a new volunteer. In an ideal world I would hope that the new volunteer would continue to work with the group on fundraising and avoid the use of a grant. However, at this point I think it might be more beneficial to the group and the volunteer to apply for a grant so that the volunteer can be around for at least 6 months to help the group to start their fledgling business and help them to tackle any problems that arise. 

So maybe it's not grants that I'm against... It has more to do with the timing of grants. It's easy to feel pressured to utilize a grant as a PCV. Many of our schools and communities assume that getting a PCV means that they'll be getting money for a project of some kind. During a PDM workshop for another cohort, a friend of mine overheard someone questioning why a PCV wouldn't use a grant. Implying that if we have the opportunity to help our community by contributing $5,000 to a project why wouldn't we jump at the chance?

Ultimately, I think there is a time and a place for grants and with some work and a lot of thought I think they can be utilized effectively. I'm grateful that Peace Corps provides us with the opportunity to understand how to write grants and the ability to help our communities in this unique way. 


One of my favorite pictures; myself walking with the women of the support group


"Change in the societies at the very bottom must come predominately from within; we cannot impose it on them." - Paul Collier

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Village Christmas Story

More and more it's been hitting me that someday soon I'll be moving out of my tiny village that has become my home.

Sometimes that looks like tearing up as my neighbor's baby shoots me a huge grin and waves "bye-bye".

Sometimes I find myself almost crying from smiling so hard after walking home from the shop where bo-ntate reminded me that I am indeed a child of this village. 

Other times I sit for hours with my cat on my front "stoop" watching and listening as my village goes about their afternoon activities. 

Anticipating this impending goodbye and knowing that someday I'll look back on all the experiences I didn't participate in, I decided to spend the Christmas holiday in my village.

Christmas Eve started bright and early when Moiki came Koko'ing at 5am. Yelling "Nthabi are you sleeping?" over and over again until I replied that I wasn't sleeping (anymore) and allowed him inside.



Mokopu is so interested in this tiny human.

Making banana bread was significantly harder with a little "helper" running around. So I kept sending him on little errands, like going outside and picking apricots from the trees behind my house. 



This boy melts my heart

Biting into each apricot until he reached the pit and then moved on to the next one. 

"Coloring" in the sun

Clearly exhausted from that early wake up




This little boy is without a doubt the person I will miss the most when I leave my village. Watching him grow up has been one of the most rewarding experiences. I wish everyone in my life could meet him and get to know him like I have. 



Two huge loaves of banana bread to share

I knew that Christmas would be a time for eating, drinking and sharing food with others so I decided to buy a broiler chicken to cook for Christmas dinner and share with others. 

For a few hours I shared my house with my Christmas dinner.

Mokopu didn't know what was going on. She stalked the chicken for awhile until she got bored and went back to her box in the window. 

As soon as the two girls that live behind me heard that I had a chicken in my house that I was planning on slaughtering, they ran right over to help. And of course turned it into a photo shoot session! After helping me to slaughter the chicken they promised to return early the next morning to help me clean and prepare to cook it. 



Look at that blood splatter!






Almost looks like it could have come from a grocery store...



This little helper

Eventually it became clear that the girls would handle the chicken duty if I could entertain Moki







Unfortunately the guts of the chicken don't come tied up nice and neat in a little bag.





Cleaning the intestines out

I love this girl!
Only a Mosotho would think that this is a great time to pose for a photo.

I somehow failed to take a photo of the cooked chicken, but it was delicious! Everyone that stopped by my house was given some chicken and rice to eat. I saved the banana bread to give to my host mom, my neighbors, my supervisor, my counterpart, and Ntate Retselisitsoe; the people who are always looking out for me and making sure I'm happy and healthy. 

When I wasn't entertaining guests in my house I was out wandering around my village. I was never able to get far before I was ushered into someone's house to be given food or drink or until a child came running up to me to show off their new outfit, or to grab my hand and lead me to meet a new relative that was home from South Africa for the festive season. It was an incredibly warm feeling to hear everyone introducing me as their sister or daughter when explaining to relatives who I was. 

I wish I had taken more pictures throughout the day! 



Ntate Retselisitoe (in the plaid shirt)







Prior to joining Peace Corps I worked in wilderness therapy for a few years and spent Christmas in the wilderness with clients twice. Christmas in my village reminded me a lot of those two previous Christmases. In both cases the day wasn't focused around presents, trying to make sure everyone was happy, or making sure everything went smoothly. Instead Christmas was spent making the best of the situation and spreading love and friendship with those around us. 

In my village Christmas day was a time of cheer and love, everyone running around the village checking in on others and sharing food. Recently in teaching bo-mme financial literacy I've become painfully aware of how little money most of the people in my village make. And yet I was welcomed into everyone's houses with open arms. Always given huge plates of food with the choice pieces of meat...

In America Christmas sometimes has a way of feeling forced, because we know that Christmas should be a time of family I think we try to schedule family time and it leaves us all feeling slightly uncomfortable and unsure of how we should conduct ourselves. We want everything to go perfectly and smoothly from gifts, to meals, to photos... We spend weeks trying to find the perfect gifts for each other and then stress about: 
Will they like the gift?
Did I spend too much?
Too little?

As much as I missed my friends and family over this holiday season, it was also refreshing to spend the holiday in my village. I love how Basotho take any opportunity to celebrate with good food and drink, how they ensured that everyone was fed meat on Christmas even if they didn't have enough money to buy it themselves, and how they made sure that I was included and felt their love and friendship throughout the day. 

In wilderness therapy I was lucky enough to be welcomed into the family that the groups of clients had created for themselves. This year I was able to look around and recognize that my village has welcomed me into their family and it's an amazing feeling that I wish I could properly share with everyone.

Holding the baby of a couple whose wedding I attended in my village last winter.

Abuti Hlompha; his name means Respect


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!