What Does it Mean to be a CKW?

Kenny and I had the privilege of spending some time out in the field last week – we attended a "refresher" training for CKWs in Kapchorwa, a rural district near the Kenyan border where Grameen has chosen to launch this program with 100 CKWs.  It was inspiring to meet this set of community leaders in person, all of whom have taken time away from their day to day jobs as smallholder farmers in order to help other farmers in their villages. We participated in icebreakers and other activities with the CKWs, witnessed the amazing Grameen training team in action, and took pages and pages of notes to capture all of the helpful feedback the CKWs have on our technology so far.

Sean, Grameen’s new country director for Uganda, had the idea to interview a few of the CKWs to get their take on what the program means to them. My two favorites are below. First, Badru:

And Tabitha:

I am inspired and impressed by the amazing work that Grameen and the CKWs are doing here in Uganda, and so glad I had this chance to make it out to the field and witness it in person. Training photos coming soon in a follow-up post.

Mobile Matooke

After a weekend of acclimating to Kampala, today was our first day at the office. We are spending the final three months of our sabbatical volunteering with the Grameen Foundation on their Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) project. CKW is a Gates Foundation-funded project that aims to improve the livelihoods of small-holder farmers through the use of mobile technology. Trusted community members are nominated as CKWs, and then equipped with a smart phone that contains software that will connect to the CKW system. They use the software to conduct surveys with the rural farmers, and also to disseminate agricultural information such as weather patterns and remedies for crop diseases.

We’ll be helping with the architecture and design of the system, as well as training and capacity-building for both the CKW team and developers in the Kampala area. Hopefully we’ll also have the opportunity to make a few field visits to the rural farming communities that are adopting the CKW platform.

The office is located down the street from our apartment, which makes for a simple enough commute. Unfortunately I’m spoiled from Mae Hong Son, and the fumes from the ten minute walk in Kampala traffic made me a bit light-headed this morning.

In some ways, this assignment provides an interesting transition to our “real life” back in Seattle – we’re the senior technical staff on a software project, prices in Kampala are much closer to Seattle than India or Thailand, and even the view from the office looks quite a bit like Queen Anne hill. Of course, Seattle lacks delicious mangoes,  zebras, and the Equator.

Getting a Burmese Education

Today was my last official day in the office. As we have done many times over the past three months, one of my colleagues (we’ll call her Q) and I spent a long time lingering after the lunch plates had been cleared and talking about Burma.

Q told me that when she was a high school student in Burma, she knew that her country’s educational system was broken and she wanted it to change, but her dissatisfaction with the government did not reach any further at that point. Later, when she was studying at university, her father told her that she was unlikely to learn anything of value from her regular coursework, and advised her to seek out training from a private tutor on the side. Q’s tutor was a well-informed man, and a former member of the democracy movement. Every day he told humorous stories that kept the students entertained and engaged. Only when Q arrived home after class and had time to reflect did she realize the important lessons that her teacher was relating through these stories.

Through this informal education, Q started to realize that the world outside Burma was likely quite different, and she developed a strong interest in moving to Thailand. J, a high school classmate of hers, had invited her to come to Thailand back when they finished Grade 10. J’s mother was already in Thailand and had founded an organization where they could continue their education and work for the democracy movement. At the time, Q had opted to attend university instead, but when she finished she knew that it was time to accept J’s offer.

When she arrived in Thailand, Q learned things that shook the foundation of her entire educational experience – concepts like human rights, women’s rights, and democracy. It was the first time she had ever been taught that she was afforded basic rights simply by virtue of being human, and that the practices of the  Burmese government were not acceptable. She learned that as a woman, she could take an equal role in society and that she need not be subservient to her future husband. And it was her first exposure to the governing systems of other countries, and the idea that people in other parts of the world could speak and live freely.

After completing an internship program at our organization, Q enrolled in an advanced women’s leadership course. She then returned here and took on a leadership role in our organization.

Q values the time that she spent learning with her teacher while she was in university, but she can’t help feeling some jealousy of our organization’s recent crop of interns, none of whom attended university before migrating to Thailand. Q arrived at age 25; some of our interns are only 17 when they get here, including Q’s sister, who came last year. Many of them did not finish high school. These young women have even more time to gain exposure to the world outside Burma and experience working for their community. They also have access to excellent educational programs in Thailand. On the other hand, they have less firsthand experience with life and education inside Burma, and less exposure to veterans of the democracy movement. Either way, their dedication to continuing their education is admirable, and the diversity of perspectives that they bring to our organization is a tremendous asset.

Things We Will Miss

  • Easy Thai, especially Rarn P Dam, where Kenny eats lunch every weekday.
  • Super spicy delicious Burmese ethnic minority cuisine.
  • Mango and sticky rice.
  • Now that I mention it, mango with anything. Or mango with nothing.
  • Lychees, rambutans, and mangosteens.
  • Free community yoga twice a week.
  • Riding my bicycle everywhere and never worrying about traffic.
  • The fact that the highway, which runs right behind our apartment, generally has more joggers on it than cars.
  • Our co-workers, who have also become good friends.
  • Swimming in the Nam Pai on hot days.
  • Eating delicious fruits and vegetables every day that come from our own farm.
  • Living the easy life in our peaceful town, nestled in a beautiful valley.
  • Frogs, geckos, roosters, and other fun neighbors. Well, maybe not the roosters so much. They are pretty, but it will be nice to sleep in past 5am.
  • Drawing on our software engineering experience to contribute to the fight for democracy in Burma.

Kenny biking to Nai SoiLake wat

Mango and sticky riceNai Soi

Gorging on fruitThe farm

The Next Six Weeks

We have only 10 days left in Thailand. I know it will be extremely difficult to leave. On the one hand, I do feel a bit ready to move on from our small town. It is lovely, but after three months I certainly feel like I’ve seen what it has to offer. On the other hand, it will be very hard to leave my volunteer assignment. Not that I didn’t accomplish my goals – on the contrary, the staff and I have accomplished a lot more than we expected. I just know that I will miss them horribly and I want to continue helping them work for democracy in Burma. The separation will also be a poignant reminder that while I’ve been here helping them voluntarily, this cause is their life and they can’t just leave. In fact, they can’t really go anywhere.

Here is our plan for the next six weeks. As usual, it’s ridiculous and it involves a lot of flights:

  • Thailand: We have one more week volunteering in Mae Hong Son, then we head to New York (via Chiang Mai, Taipei, and San Francisco).
  • New York: We’ll be in New York for about a week for Kenny’s sister’s wedding. We have a bunch of errands to run — AJWS post-mortem at their office, get new India visas, get yellow fever shots for Uganda, etc. — but we’ll also get to spend time with family and friends while we’re there. My parents are also coming to the wedding. I’m excited to see my Dad again so soon, and I’ve promised to take my Mom on the Jewish tour of New York (Lower East Side, Brooklyn, etc.).
  • Boston: We will have four days in Boston to visit our dear friends Julie and Damian, and their newest addition, Sophie. A few friends from Seattle will be joining us.
  • London: On our way to India for Sean and Archana’s wedding, we arranged for a four-day "layover" in London. Kenny has never been to Stonehenge, so we will probably try to squeeze that in too. It will be a weird, very first-world tourist experience in the middle of this year of Global South adventures, but hopefully New York and Boston will help with the transition. I expect that we’ll spend more money during four days in London than we typically spend in four weeks here in Thailand.
  • Delhi: Delhi always seems to be our gateway to India. Gio is meeting us, and we’ll spend a couple of days showing him the sights (and we need to take him for a celebratory meal at Indian Accent). Then we plan to make a day trip to Agra, since we promised ourselves we’d see the Taj Mahal this time. It’s going to be HOT, but I suppose it can’t be much worse than April in Northern Thailand
  • Bangalore: The main event for us in India is Sean and Archana’s wedding in Bangalore, which promises to be an all-out traditional Tam-Bram affair. After the wedding, we’re all heading to a Jungle Retreat in the Nilgiris for a few days.
  • Kampala: On June 11, we’ll fly from Bangalore to Dubai to Addis Ababa to Entebbe, in order to start our next volunteer assignment, which is a technology for agriculture project, based in Kampala.

Public Speaking and Private Emotions

The staff of my NGO asked me to provide training on public speaking, so I put together a four-part course for them. I included sections on “speaking style” – body, voice, eye contact, hand gestures – and “speaking substance” – how to structure the content of a presentation. In session III we added PowerPoint.

For sessions II and IV, each member of the staff (and I) delivered short presentations on the topic of her choice. For the first homework assignment, we gave speeches without any visual aids, and for the second we used PowerPoint. Not only did these homework assignments provide great public speaking practice opportunities for everyone, myself included, but they also created a very safe forum to discuss deeply emotional topics. At first I wasn’t sure whether I should feel guilty that three out of the six staff members ended up in tears at various points during our practice sessions. But whenever we hit an emotional hurdle in a speech, the speakers showed great composure – they stopped, took a few deep breaths and maybe a drink of water, and then continued. After each of these talks, we were able to frankly discuss what had happened with the group, and I told them how impressed I was that they were brave enough to discuss such personal topics in front of an audience. None of the later presenters were deterred by the tears of her predecessors – on the contrary, the presentations got more personal as the week progressed.

One presenter spoke about her experience giving training in conflict areas inside Burma. She had to travel through the jungle by foot with a few members of an ethnic minority army for a month, watching Burmese Army movements carefully, and often rising in the middle of the night to retreat to safer cover. One member of their party stepped on a land mine and lost his leg. My colleague’s friend dressed the wound, but he was in great pain and they heard him crying all night.

Another presenter gave a talk entitled “Why My Life in Burma was So Hard,” in which she told us about leaving her family at the age of eight to move to a city and continue her education. While there, she performed domestic work for a family in exchange for room and board. When the head of the household died she had to leave, living with other families and in monasteries over a period of 10 years until she was finally so sick and malnutritioned that she was forced to quit school and move back home. Her father has been in Bangkok as a migrant worker since shortly after she initially left for school and she hasn’t seen him since.

One of the joint secretaries of our organization spoke about the needs of poor and orphaned children in the state where she grew up, citing statistics and sharing photos to illustrate her points. She made an impassioned pitch for a free primary school for children in the capital city, and presented her implementation plan for the project.

Not all of the presentations were serious. One junior staff member (who is 19 years old!) gave a presentation entitled, “Why Have All of My Boyfriends Left Me?” My PowerPoint homework assignment was about why I think my organization should have a website (we are planning to build one starting later this week, after I give a short Web Training course).

Through these sessions I learned more about my staff and their backgrounds, and I felt that all of us became closer as a result. So it was certainly a valuable experience for me, and they’ve asked me to give them a “training of trainers” (TOT) course next week, so they can teach public speaking to their students and interns as well.

The Limitations of Eggplants

This afternoon, I helped one of my co-workers write a grant proposal for an HIV/AIDS prevention training program that she wants to conduct later this year. She explained to me that many people in the villages in Burma don’t like to use condoms or don’t understand why they should use them. As part of an HIV/AIDS training course that she has given in the past, she used an anatomically correct model to demonstrate how to use a condom. She told me that previously, an NGO had given a similar training in the refugee camps, but had used an eggplant for the demonstration instead of a realistic model.

Neither the NGO nor the trainees were thrilled with the results. One of the trainees complained that she “put the condom on the eggplant like you demonstrated, but the eggplant died and I’m still having babies!”

The Four Week Countdown

With exactly a month left to go, we’re definitely in the home stretch of our volunteer assignments. Songkran festivities will consume most of next week, so we only really have three potentially productive weeks remaining. I feel like I’ve accomplished quite a bit, but I have so many things left to do: helping the staff finish creating (and start using) the project plan for their school; developing the 2011 funding plan and tackling a few of the biggest 2011 grant proposals with the staff; a four-part public speaking training that I’ve been developing; and a few working meetings and trainings to teach the staff how to create a website for their NGO. Where did the time go?

I have enjoyed myself immensely here, and I am truly grateful that AJWS found me an assignment where my skill set has been so needed and appreciated. It’s difficult to imagine a better fit, as the capacities that this NGO needs to develop are the same activities that I practice in my job at Microsoft ever day.

One of the warnings that was reiterated a few times at AJWS orientation was that giving and receiving feedback is not easy in Asian communities, and that we would need to be careful about suggesting operational improvements because our staff might feel like they were “losing face.” It could be that this issue is more prevalent in Thai culture than Burmese, but it could not be more untrue with my NGO staff. Perhaps the fact that we are all women makes a difference as well. Contrary to the warnings, my NGO’s staff members crave feedback and are extremely receptive to learning new concepts and tools to run their organization better. Most of them are very young (the staff range in age from 18-28), and have been doing their best to run this organization without much training (only one completed university back in Burma, and a few did not even finish high school). Fortunately they’ve all had access to excellent educational programs for Burmese activist youth here in Thailand, and a few have completed internships with other organizations. They’ve also figured out, by instinct and experimentation, the basics of managing projects, including using their social networks and coming up with extremely creative and resourceful solutions to problems when resources are very limited. It’s very mature work for 18-year-olds!

I feel like my job is to tap into the talents and instincts that they already have, and offer them a few refinements and tools to make their jobs easier and help them work more efficiently. They have learned quite a bit already about project management, strategic planning, and fundraising, and we’ve been able to put some of the new concepts into practice. My biggest fear is that none of the lessons will “stick” without enough time for practice and coaching. I wish I could return in six months, like Alvin from the BBC, to check in and see how things are going.

It will be an exciting and busy four weeks. I know that I will never forget the time I’ve spent with this inspiring group of women, and I just want to give them as much as I can before I leave.

Hot or Not?

My memory of April 6, 2010 will be dominated by one thing: heat. The kind of heat that burns your nostrils when you breathe and dries your eyeballs to a standstill in their sockets.

Today's weatherThis morning I arrived at my NGO’s office at 8:45AM, just in time to run into my co-worker who was leaving for a staff meeting in Daniel’s village. I was told that meeting was to start at 10AM, everyone would be there for the day, and I should come. One small hitch – the village is about 20km away and AJWS has a policy banning motorbike rides for its volunteers (regardless of policy, there were already two riders on the outgoing motorbike). While I wasn’t expecting my morning bike ride to be any longer than five minutes, plans change.

The last time we biked to the village it took us about an hour and a half. My biking muscles are much better conditioned now, so I was hopeful that I’d arrive on time for the meeting. After a short stop for water and peanuts (a nice kosher for Passover snack), I was on my way. This time I made it in just over an hour, arriving just as the meeting began. I also arrived right after the motor-bikers, who had been heavily delayed by a huge felled tree that blocked the entire two-lane road.

During the meeting, the room got progressively hotter. Even the Asians were fanning themselves. The village had no electricity due to the aforementioned felled tree, and so our fans were kaput. Lauren just told me that she had fans today and all they did was blow hot air, so I guess we didn’t miss out too much.

At 3:30PM it was time to head back. The return route is easier and faster, with more overall downhill stretches. Not today. My return trip was close to 1.5 hours. The day’s heat was in full force, and without electricity none of the shops even had cold water. However, I was getting all sorts of encouragement from the locals – constant thumbs ups, smiles, and words of encouragement from motor-bikers and shop owners.

I arrived home exhausted, but proud of my journey and very happy that we have air conditioning at home. A cold shower never felt so good.

At least I won’t be doing that bike ride later this week. As a reminder for our American readers, 43°C = 109.4°F.


Global Hunger Shabbat

Last night, we had a special Friday meal at my NGO office to participate in Global Hunger Shabbat, an AJWS initiative to raise awareness about hunger around the world. Back when we were at orientation in Chiang Mai we received a booklet with articles and pictures for discussion, and they asked us to organize a local observance for our friends or co-workers once we arrived on site.

We decided that the event would be a fun opportunity to introduce my co-workers to challah, and to the classic Shabbat rituals of wine, candles, and family. Kenny and Daniel spent much of the day baking challahs in P Nik’s kitchen. P Nik has a big propane-powered oven, so to maximize their propane utilization they made triple the normal recipe – 11 in all! They left three loaves for P Nik to sell, and brought the remaining eight over to my office. They also picked up a huge bottle of white Italian table wine and a bottle of red Chilean wine (the best we could do in these parts), a whiskey bottle full of local honey for challah-dipping, a couple of candles, and a few Asian desserts that offered pretty good approximations of hamentaschen and rugelach!

It didn’t surprise me that the challahs were a big hit – we were a group of almost 15 people, and had no problem finishing all of them. We also polished off all of the wine, which was a bit more treacherous than we had anticipated, as a few of my NGO’s members are a hair under 18 and are still learning how to moderate their alcohol consumption. ;) The best discovery we made was how well the challah paired with the spicy mango salad that a few staff members had taught me how to make earlier in the day – yum! We made our way through some of the Hunger Shabbat content as we ate, although much of it was quite difficult for non-native English speakers to read. The photos at the back of the booklet were the most accessible tidbits for this audience, and made for some good discussion.

After we ate, one of our joint secretaries and her friend pulled out their guitars, and they started a group sing-along session featuring many of the Burmese pop songs I’ve been hearing around the office for the past few weeks. It actually reminded me of many guitar-led song sessions from Jewish camp back in the day. It was a fun celebration and the food and music were fabulous!

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi overseeing our Shabbat spread

Kenny and me enjoying challah with spicy mango salad