Friday, 30 July 2010

"The House that Jack Built"

Well we actually did it. Not long ago I wrote a blog entitled ‘Screen Saviour’ about the Fantsuam Academy’s forthcoming computer training course for the visually impaired. Last Saturday three blind students sat and passed the online Computer Certificate exam. The first three visually impaired students to do so in Bayan Loco. Probably the first in Kafanchan and very likely the first in southern Kaduna State.

Fantsuam Academy has already migrated its Certificate exam on an online learning platform (Dokeos) which meant that no special arrangements had to be made for visually impaired to take the exam once they were familiar with JAWS screen reader software.

(Left) The three students concentrate hard whilst taking the exam.

Their efforts paid off as they proudly (and delightedly) hold up their certificates.

But, like the house that Jack built, there’s a lot of people, from across Nigeria – and the world - that have been involved in getting to this stage.

An initial workshop on inclusion by VSO volunteer Monique Beets, currently serving at the Demonstration School for the Deaf in Kaduna, encouraged VSOs to consider which groups were currently actively excluded from their programmes. This gave me the idea of ensuring the visually impaired were included on our computer course.

Monique at the VSO North West Patch Meeting held in Jos last November, in the days VSOs were allowed in Jos.

A Small Grant from VSO UK gave us the resources to start. Another VSO colleague, Paul Wildenberg, put me in touch with his mother who works with the visually impaired in Holland.

Industrial action at Paul’s partner organisation in Yola in the far east of Nigeria coincided with our JAWS training course so Paul used the downtime to visit Kafanchan to see the training for himself with a view to starting a programme in his own state

Paul’s mother gave me the contact of another former VSO Nigeria volunteer Jan Bloem who now works in Holland for Freedom Scientific, publishers of market-leading JAWS screen reader software.
Left - meeting up with Jan at the VSO office during his flying trip to Nigeria

Below: visiting Jan's former colleague Scholastica (left), manager at the JAWS-equipped Computer Resource Centre at the Ministry of Women Affairs in Abuja.

Jan put me in touch with Danlami Bashru of the Anglo Nigerian Welfare Association for the Blind (ANWAB) who generously donated five JAWS licences which meant that we didn’t have to spend the whole of the VSO ‘small grant’ on software but could pay for expert trainers, Braille books and scholarships for students.

My Kagoro friend Jonathan introduced me to his former Gindiri classmate Obeya who introduced me to his current University of Jos colleague Femi Oridupa who’s a JAWS expert. Together Femi and Obeya trained not only our visually impaired students but also Fantsuam Academy instructors who will be able to teach the courses in the future.

Meeting Obeya for the first time with other former classmates of Jonathan at Gindiri School for the Blind in Plateau State

At Fantsuam Foundation Academy staff John Iruaga and Kelechi Micheals helped the course get off the ground whilst Academy instructors Keziah ad Fidelis learnt themselves how to use, and train JAWS.

The Fantsuam JAWS team, left to Right: Fidelis, Obeya, Peter, Keziah, Stephen, Jonathan, Femi and John

So this is the start. But where does it go in the future?

The good news is that Femi was recently elected Class President of the University of Jos’ Special Education Department, the first handicapped student to stand for, let alone win such a post. He aims to make computers accessible to all visually impaired students in Nigeria by 2020. He might just do that but he’s going to need help.

Obeya is already involved with a NGO helping the handicapped in his home state of Benue when he’s not at University. Obeya’s still trying to get his hands on his own laptop computer so that he can really learn JAWS well but in the mean time, he’s spreading the word and focusing on getting to complete his Special Education degree.

I heard yesterday that Jonathan will be returning to Secondary School on 12 September with sponsorship from the State of Kaduna to help him complete his schooling to give him a chance at further education.
I would like to think he’ll be one of the students working towards Femi’s 2020 goal in years to come. He hasn’t his own computer but is planning to spend as much time as possible using the JAWS computers at Fantsuam until he can get hold of one of his own.

I wonder who’s going to manage his football team – Rock United whilst he’s away at school?

Jonathan – I hope you’re reading this!

Jonathan (back row, 3rd from right) with his Rock United before a game.

Stephen and Peter are due to be enrolled on Fantsuam’s Computer Diploma course and at the Kafanchan Rehabilitation Centre where Stephen and Peter work, Fantsuam has already delivered microenterprise training to 20 children and adults and, as a result, a second loan group is in the formation. It may not be computers for all, but it’s definitely empowerment.

But for me one of the greatest achievements of this course has been the impact of ‘mainstreaming’. Because of discrimination and stigmatisation of handicap in Nigeria, the visually impaired are rarely seen except perhaps begging being led by a small child across the streets of Kafanchan or any of the country’s other towns and cities.
For the last four weeks, all the staff, students and other beneficiaries of Fantsuam have become accustomed to having Femi, Obeya, Stephen, Peter and Jonathan around at Fantsuam. Seeing them walk confidently across classrooms or the compound sometimes with a guiding stick, sometimes without.
We’ve spent years in the West learning that the handicapped are just ‘normal’ people. The process is just beginning here in rural Nigeria.

Hopefully our story at Fantsuam is just a small part of the tale that realises Femi’s dream that all visually impaired university students will have access to computers.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dreams of Leaving

Now here’s a question for you:

Who do you have most sympathy for: someone who you think (by your standards) should be feeling sorry for themselves, or someone who just does feel sorry for themselves, whether you think they should or not?

This is a question that occurred to me during the VSO Leavers’ Forum which I attended this week. Yes folks – it’s almost time to leave Nigeria.

It was during one of the sessions about ‘reverse culture shock’ and the process of moving ‘home’ that this thought popped into my mind. VSOs are encouraged to embark on a process of Global Education, that is, to raise awareness about development issues. To be prepared to deal with and discuss different attitudes constructively.

Leavers’ Forum: eleven of us will be leaving in the next six months. It’s not easy to contemplate. Leaving our lives here and going back to lives – and hopefully jobs – back home.

I constantly struggle with the whole goal of ‘development’. So many development projects – invariably dictated by the ‘West’ - seem to be trying to achieve a brand of economic advancement that we have seen back at home. Infrastructure, material goods, health care (oops America), TV and the like. These are things that are valued in the west and therefore we feel that people who don’t have these things are somehow to be pitied and every effort made to give them those things.

So you see a mud hut, a half naked child covered in dust or a disintegrating wall and think ‘poor people’.

It would be impossible to think the people living in the house on the left are more in need of our sympathy and help than those in the house on the right...

But I think it’s such a pity that the west has got so tied up in material, physical value that it really has lost the value for the human things in life. How much is it worth that a four year old can walk a kilometre to school alone every morning (and back) without a care in the world? That goats, chickens and other assorted livestock can wander the streets unfettered without their owners fearing they may be taken (a public flogging is quite an effective deterrent for anyone caught stealing a goat as we discovered last week). That, in communities where poverty is extreme, people will regularly give the very small amounts that they have in order to help someone whose need they perceive to be greater than their own. That communities, families and children can amuse themselves perfectly well without books, TV, or Sony Playstations.

So which kids do you think are generally ‘happier’?

The UN’s Millennium Development Goals measure ‘poverty’ and under-development by how much money someone makes each day or whether they are ‘employed’.. Whether or not children ‘attend’ primary school and whether they can read. Whether there are the same number of women as men in ‘waged’ employment.

Why doesn’t the UN put more value on humanity? On family life, farms, learning about life. Are these things so worthless?

All life is valuable. And when you don’t have material things, the human side becomes so much richer. And what really should be more valuable to us humans?

Unfortunately the west has already done the damage. Countries like Nigeria have the worst of both worlds. Their wealth and materialism in the cities is reaping the same destruction on human values as they do back home and the urban influence is seeping back into the villages and undermining the precious ‘traditional values’.

I’m pretty sure it won’t take me long to settle back into a materialistic lifestyle: I’m already looking out for a good job (and if you think that’s a hint, it is) that will keep my car running and my gym subscription paid. But I’m not looking for a job in ‘development’.

Somehow I feel that by taking a job in the UK in ‘development,’- the agenda of which seems to be driven almost exclusively by the Millennium Development Goals - I’m somehow saying that my way of life is better than those of the communities we’re developing. That I should be feeling sorry for them because they don’t have what I do. And that I should therefore be working to give them what I have instead of placing a greater value on what they have.

Now don’t hit me for this – but let’s consider colonialism. That was (often but not always) bringing better education, healthcare, infrastructure and standard of living to colonies in order to benefit the colonialists. And frankly I think it worked (value for money-wise) a lot better than the billions that are pumped into development initiatives each year, ostensibly just to help less developed countries develop themselves.

Discussing colonialism with citizens of some former colonies. The difference in Canada was that the colonials never jumped ship and left the colony to itself. Look where it got poor Canada

Having said that though, ‘development’ is changing. Fantsuam is working on two DFID sponsored projects that use local participation to decide what communities want in terms of improved education and healthcare. Let’s hope the funders really listen and give the communities want they want: not what the funders think they should want or think they should need.

This is where VSO is so incredibly valuable. Its model as an international volunteer recruiting agency is pretty unique. Unlike the Peace Corps or equivalents, VSO volunteers come from all over the world. From India, East Africa, Philippines, North America and Northern Europe. Sure we’re bringing skills to partner NGOs across the world that need those skills but VSO isn’t really telling anyone what to do. It’s not saying my way is better than yours. And whose way would ‘mine’ be anyway? It’s not about sympathy. It’s not really even about ‘development’ in donor context.

As VSO themselves say – it’s about ‘Sharing skills and changing lives’. Sharing everyone’s skills and values and, in the process, changing everyone’s lives. I hope for the better.

(Right) 11 VSO volunteers from Kenya, Canada, Uganda, USA, India, Ireland and the UK get taken out for a ‘farewell’ dinner by the VSO Nigeria programme staff.

Now whether that all means that I’ll be feeling sorry for the international footballer who’s in rehab because he can’t take the pressure of money and fame... I’m not sure. What I can say is deep down inside, I’m sure he’s more troubled than many of my neighbours here in Kagoro. So – who deserves my sympathy more?

I’d suggest that footballer applies to VSO but he’d probably get rejected.

(Left) We felt it too as this Returned Volunteer fought back the tears as she described the feeling of leaving your placement, knowing there’s a good chance you’ll never see most of the people there again.