Thursday, 23 April 2009

When life knocks you down

(I was travelling when this event took place however it is vividly recorded by my colleague Laurie whose words and pictures I borrow here).

I was working in my office this afternoon around 2:30 pm when the skies suddenly turned black and the wind started blowing hard enough to bend the palm trees on our compound. We have seen this quite a bit over the past couple of weeks as we are entering the rainy season and have been told by the locals that the strongest storms tend to be at the beginning of the rainy season (mid April) and toward the end of the rainy season (mid Sept). We have discussed how closely these storms resemble a hurricane back home (Florida), but everything we read prior to coming to Africa indicated that Africa does not have hurricanes.

The only difference between the storms we are experiencing here and the hurricanes back home is the length of the storm. The storms we have experienced so far only last for about 45 minutes and then they are gone. They arrive without much notice and in that brief period of time do a tremendous amount of damage to homes and businesses throughout the community.

I was looking out my office window admiring the strength of the storm when all of the sudden I saw red and white mangled pipes tumbling down onto the compound wall and roof of the main house where our office is located. It didn’t take long to realize it was our 140 foot mast that we rely on for our internet access.

The next stop for the mast was the office of the Director of Schools and then directly onto a classroom full of students. There was only about 40 feet of the mast remaining after hitting the classroom and it landed on our neighbor’s roof, splitting the roof in half. All of this damage and no one was injured.

The mast is critical to the organization as it provides internet access to clients of the Foundation and a means of revenue to help support our social service programs. One of the profit centers at the Foundation is an internet service provided known as Zittnet. The loss of the mast results in lost revenue, which results in reduced social service support to many of the people that have come to depend heavily on this little rural NGO that serves the community.

Speaking of the community, it was only a matter of minutes following the storm before the community was rallying around to help assess the damage and clean up the aftermath of the storm. All of this while sharing stories of how the storm damaged their homes by peeling off roofs, knocking down walls and sending trees tumbling on top of their homes. It also managed to peel the roof off of the primary school across the street from the Foundation.

It was an amazing thing to watch everyone rallying together and sharing personal stories of the severe damage just minutes after it occurred. There was a tone in their voice and a determined look about their faces that assures me this is a temporary set back in their lives. They didn’t waste any time asking why or discussing what they lost in the storm. They have no idea how they will pay to repair their homes or the local school, but they know they will do what needs to be done to keep families in their community safe and to keep the kids in school.

When the mast hit our office, I screamed to let John (Executive Director) know it had fallen. He immediately ran out into the storm to make sure no one was hurt. After about 10 minutes of assessing the damage to the facilities, he returned to the main house and announced that fortunately no one was injured. He quickly turned to me and said this is simply an opportunity to get a stronger mast and re-locate it to another area. I smiled at him knowing that like many of the homes destroyed, there was no insurance coverage to help cover the cost to purchase and re-locate a new mast or to repair the damage to the buildings.

I simply do not see how the Foundation can absorb this cost without it having a severe negative impact on the social services it provides to the children and families in our area. What I do know is that there is an abundance of strength and determination that drives this organization and that NOTHING will stop them from impacting lives in their community.

I have always believed that when you get knocked down in life you simply pick yourself up and keep on going. We have come to realize that this is a way of life for the people in Nigeria. They are constantly picking themselves up and putting the pieces of their life back together again. They refuse to quit. You cannot help but to admire and respect their strength and determination.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Organisational Development

On Monday morning this week a selection of Fantsuam Foundation’s beneficiaries were invited to participate in the first part of an Organisational Development workshop. They were asked for their hopes for the future of the organisation which varied from: “Move everybody in Kaduna State to higher economic levels like the US” (if only they knew) to: “Become the greatest organisation in Nigeria and the whole world”.

This workshop was the conclusion of the first part of VSO’s Organisational Development process, an intense, detailed and participatory process designed to build VSO’s programme partners into world class organisations. The Monday morning with beneficiaries was followed by two days with Fantsuam staff, where we were asked to score every aspect of the organisation. This scoring followed on from five busy months of analysing every part of the Foundation – document, skills and IT audits, interviews with staff, volunteers, funders, board and beneficiaries, undertaken by an OD team of Fantsuam staff. During the same time each department has developed comprehensive and realistic budgets and workplans.

This huge effort has been driven by Laurie, one of my fellow VSO volunteers who arrived at the same time as me, almost six months ago. Staff from all levels participated in the workshop including John and Comfort, the Program Director and General Secretary, microfinance field officers, ICT teachers, nurses from the health clinic and local volunteers from all parts of the organisation. This process has highlighted the organisation’s strengths, its weaknesses and areas needing most urgent attention. That can be for another day.

Laurie leading the OD workshop with staff and beneficiaries: what she has achieved in this six months should be the benchmark for VSO. I think everyone in Fantsuam is excited about where she can help take us.

At the end of the three long days, all participants were asked their greatest learning from the three days. Fantsuam’s program director John Dada, the inspiration behind Fantsuam Foundation said:

“When I’m introducing Fantsuam Foundation and describing its programs, I sometimes ask myself whether everything I’m saying about all of our programs is really true on the ground. From what I’ve heard in the last three days it really is. Before this week I thought that FF was on the right track: after the workshop I know that FF is on the right track.”

We returned from the workshop on Wednesday afternoon and I was immediately (and unexpectedly) asked to attend a microfinance loan disbursement to new clients in a Hausa/Fulani community in the countryside beyond Bayan Loco. On Thursday too I was asked to meet new clients in Kanem, a small cross-country drive away on the other side of the river from Kafanchan.

During the workshop we had covered the values and vision of Fantsuam. Not all staff knew that they existed. Only a few (but still a number) could recite the vision in full. But recitation is nothing compared to action.

As I was going through the pictures I had taken on these disbursements on these two days only, I recognised these values coming through. And I know it’s not just in microfinance.
As I came to write my blog this morning I was really struggling with how to write about the last week and get to include the pictures. Unpurposefully many of the pictures reflect Fantsuam's values. An opportunity to show-off the Foundation and my pictures - forgive me!

Non-partisan, non-religious, non-discriminatory
Despite strong religious convictions in the area, Fantsuam remains strictly non-partisan and serves, and is welcomed equally by Muslim and Christian communities, all tribes and clans, Arsenal or Chelsea supporters.

Muslim women (and an Arsenal supporter) in the Hausa- Fulani Dangoma community.

Men and women clients come together in the Kanem community of the Bajju clan. Diversity in Fantsuam Foundation’s staff and beneficiaries

Community oriented
Field officer Sarah mobilises clients in her parents’ local communities

All disbursements are made within the communities – so we can understand the needs and challenges of the communities and they can know us. Fantsuam’s integrated programs have grown steadily by responding to community needs. During the workshop we discovered that our weakest programs were always those suggested by funders. The enduring services are those requested by the communities we work in – whether IT training, health services, HIV/AIDS counselling and support or support for children’s rights.
Fulani men old and young congregate around Dangoma’s market square

Local children process locust bean in Kanem: many of Fantsuam’s clients are involved in processing locust bean or making daddawa (‘local Maggi cube’) from locust beans. Much of the yellow fibre within the seed pods is currently wasted. Fantsuam is hoping to work with VSO and other partners to look at developing the market in the food industry for this useful and nutritious plant.
Children winnowing (I think) the locus bean from the sweet sticky yellow fibre within the pods of the locus bean tree (right)

Accountable and transparent
As with all financial transactions, paperwork is rigorous however Fantsuam field officers and their colleagues ensure that obligations are fully understood.

Team spirited
Following the Grameen microfinance model, all disbursements are made to groups of clients who guarantee one another so that both clients and staff are working as a team. The Fantsuam disbursement team including field officer, cashier and driver work closely together and enjoy each others’ company. This team spirit can be seen through all departments within the organisation.

Participatory and Inclusive
The community leader and centre chief speak at all disbursements and encourage other clients within the centre to ask questions about any concerns they have.

Flexible and hard-working
When I came in this morning (Easter Friday) to upload my blog I met one of the field officers waiting for a repayment from a client. The client was late and she asked if I could receive the payment if the client arrived later. The field officer was leaving for a disbursement and later today she would be visiting one of her local villages for mobilisation before joining her family to start working on the farm now that the rains had come.

I call that flexible AND hard-working!

Fantsuam is still only half way through the organisational development process but it has come a long way in six short months. With Laurie in the lead and the staff, volunteers and other stakeholders of Fantsuam living and working by those values, at least some of the time, I think Fantsuam really has a chance of making its vision:
"To be recognised as delivering a successful and replicable model of integrated rural development in Nigeria through its work with local communities in Kaduna State,"

....and perhaps even fulfilling our beneficiary's dream to "become the greatest organisation in Nigeria and the whole world".

Send Forth

One of the most frequent excuses for a party in this part of Nigeria (and possibly all over Nigeria) is the ‘Send Forth’. Where in the UK you would have ‘leaving’ or ‘going away’ parties, the celebration here is sending the person forth to their next challenge. Usually held by a father for a soon to be married daughter, I was fortunate last Sunday morning to attend the Send Forth blessing of Monday Daniel, one of the longer-term local volunteers at Fantsuam, who is leaving to find work in Kaduna, the big city to the north of us.

The blessing was held in the Calvary Baptist Church in Bayan Loco. This will have been the forth church I have attended in Nigeria. The first three being our large local ECWA (Evangelical Church of West Africa – biggest business around here), Kagoro’s small ‘Christ the King’ Catholic Church, the large St John’s Catholic Church in Kachia.

The church is just round the corner from Fantsuam Foundation in Bayan Loco, and reflects Bayan Loco in many ways. It is certainly the simplest church I have visited in Nigeria with no altar pieces or attendants, but that may be more to do with the Baptist denomination than anything else. However the mud floor, unfinished walls and windows and make-shift benches were typical of Bayan Loco.
The congregation gather outside the church, and members of the choir sit on benches donated by members of the community and proudly bear their names.

Monday urged me to take photos of the event and despite my reluctance to ‘snap away’ during the service I was encouraged to do so. The church was clearly segregated: men to the pastor’s left, women in the middle, and children seated quietly on the right. After the opening address (in Hausa) a number of women, many carrying their children, took their places on one side at the front of the church behind an array of bongos, and other percussion instruments. I guessed this was the choir.
The children's section with 'mummy' in charge on one side and the choir on the other

My neighbour had let me know that all visitors attending the church would be asked to stand up and introduce themselves and we prepared a short speech in Hausa on the drive in:

Na ga shaiku a chikin sun a Jesu (I greet you in the name of Jesus)
Sunana Cicely, na zo da ga UK. Ina aiki a Fantsuam Foundation (My name is Cicely, I’m from the UK and I work at Fantsuam Foundation)

This effort was well received and I (and the other newcomers) were warmly welcomed.
The tune of the opening hymn (the introduction hummed by the pastor) was very familiar to me, however I had to consign myself to humming along as it was sung in Hausa.
Shortly afterwards, a group of children, led by Monday himself did an excellently co-ordinated musical tableau at the front of the church. I’m afraid I can’t tell you the story but it was animated, tuneful and thoroughly entertaining.
Monday leads his band whilst the children enthusiastically act out the story

Readings were made by members of the congregation Monday’s blessing was introduced.

Monday first stood up and gave an eloquent and emotive speech. All of those attending the church on his behalf were asked to join Monday and the pastor at the front of the church whilst presentations were made, including the pile of his IT certificates that he has received whilst studying/volunteering at Fantsuam. These were to be the tools with which to found his new life.

I'm invited to the front of church with Monday's other friends
Monday re-receives his ICT training certificates
Once seated again the pastor gave a short sermon and another, very ‘British’ hymn was sung (no swaying in the aisles and clapping, as I have become accustomed to in Nigeria) and in under two hours the service was over.

We met outside the church for some official group photos and to wish Monday well on his way.

His first challenge on 'going forth' will be the Bayan Loco roads in the rainy season.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The promise of rain

After a day of everyone complaining about the unbearable heat, at 4.15 yesterday afternoon the sky over Bayan Loco turned black (well actually the muddy brown of a local sewer) and the wind whipped up.. Not the gentle breeze that we’re used to but a vicious swirling wind that was throwing so much debris around outside that it looked (and sounded) as though it was raining, before any precipiation actually arrived. Then we heard the first solid, and intermittent drops of rain which suddenly accelerated into a tropical downpour which quickly became, for a European such as myself, frankly a bit scary and reminded my fellow Floridians of hurricans back home.

However looking around my office to see my colleagues carrying on as usual as the shutters were flung back and forth in the wind, the rain being blown in all directions in thick sheets through doors and louvred windows, I realised that this was just the start of things to come.

One of the Peugeots gets a good wash as the palm trees outside the compound are whipped up in the blustering wind

Puddles quickly grow - and make a surprisingly good mirror for the Main House itself.

(And then I realised that my camera battery had expired... no more pictures I’m afraid.)
By leaving time (17:00) things had quietened down enough to tackle the journey home although I was distressed to discover that the car’s previous occupants, unsuspecting of rain, had left the front passenger seat window open. I had to ask Mr Shinggu to stop the car 200m down the road so I could move into the back seat as my back, which on previous days would have welcomed the cool of a wet seat, became clammy and honestly, just a bit itchy as moisture on the aged velour seats exuded an distinctly soupy liquid.

Driving home we noticed 100s (probably 1,000s) of ripening mangoes scattered on the ground; we tried to dodge puddles which cunningly disguised the depth of ruts on the mud roads, and we watched the neighbourhood pigs scrabbling delightedly in the puddles and drains as the hydro-phobic (I have since learnt) goats took refuge under cover.

We had to take the cross-town instead of usual cross-country route home to avoid bogged roads but nonetheless some streets looked as though a mini-hurricane had hit, with branches torn from the trees and a few tin (here known as ‘zinc’) roofs vying from freedom from the walls below.
Governor Sambo’s huge billboard at the NEPA roundabout was firmly blown over as the iron supports buckled (luckily onto the roundabout and not the road) whilst the one of the seldom-used barriers on the railway crossing was bent right over across the railway tracks.
However we were happy – the rain had come to break the heat. We’d seen the clouds menacing over Kagoro Hill so were anticipating both the carnage and the cool that we would encounter once home.

As we turned right past the seminary into Kagoro we noticed a distinct dryness – there were no puddles and little evidence of gale-force winds.. It seemed the storm had passed our village by. Although there still was a slight coolness in the air it was not the distinct chill (perhaps a slight exaggeration) that accompanies a really good downpour.

For once sitting in our front room as opposed to our back porch on our return (Victoria had thoughtfully rescued our deck-chairs before the advertised rain failed to appear) we decided to go and visit our neighbour Mrs Aka’ahs who runs a small NGO in the village and has a regular ‘children’s hour’ between 6 and 7pm on Tuesday evenings.

A bench was provided for us whilst the 25 or so small children sat on mats on the driveway. After one had offered to say the opening prayer (the Lord’s Prayer – recited almost word-perfectly by children from ages of 2 – 10) they waited expectantly for Mrs Aka’ahs story-telling to begin, as it duly did.
As night began to fall, distant forked lightening lit up the sky and the (very) occasional droplet again hinted at the promise of a proper rainstorm. But nothing was forthcoming and Mrs Aka’ahs was able to complete her parable (we understood kings, meat, flowers from the Hausa but unfortunately can’t fill in the rest) and hand out sweet puff puffs (like small donuts) to the eager, but relatively orderly line of children.
Being asked for a comment in conclusion, all I could think of was the thunder-storm clap. I have discovered that ‘energisers’ and ‘themed claps’ are a big part of NGO meetings which also come in very useful when entertaining children.

The thunderstorm claps starts with the first drops of rain as everyone lightly taps their forefinger on their palm. Slowly the tempo increases with two, three fingers on the palm as drizzle crescendos into a tropical rainstorm (full applause) that concludes with a single loud thunder-clap at the end.
It may have been the nearest that Kagoro got to rain yesterday but we were still grateful for the evening cool. We all slept well last night.