Monday, December 21, 2009

Uganda: A Banana Republic

According to Wikipedia, Banana Republic is "a pejorative term for a country that is politically unstable, dependent on limited agriculture (e.g. bananas), and ruled by a small, self-elected, wealthy, and corrupt clique." On all accounts Uganda seems to qualify, but at the moment let us focus on the second definition.

Agriculture is the most important sector of the Ugandan economy, as 89% of the population is rural. The sector accounts for 51% of GDP, 90% of exports, and employs 80% of the population. The country is blessed with a good climate and fertile soils and the agricultural sector has the potential to feed the country, to supply food for the regional market (Uganda is often referred to as East Africa's food basket), and to act as a powerful engine of growth. But bananas -a staple food and export- are in trouble. Bacterial Wilt (or BXW) hit Uganda in 2001, destroying most plantations and causing losses of an estimated $35m (sh57b). "BXW is the most serious threat to banana production in East Africa,” says Wafa Khoury, a plant pathologist and agricultural officer in the Plant Production and Protection Division of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s commitment to grant $74,000 to sponsor a planned Pan African banana conference in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa is being praised by African banana farmers, despite the controversy surrounding the foundation's spearheading ($30 million endowment) of Africa's potentially devastating Green Revolution. In a Sept 2009 article in The Nation magazine Raj Patel warns us of past Green Revolution destruction...

"Beyond the massive displacement of peasants, the Green Revolution wrought other social damage--urban slums sprawled around cities to house displaced workers, pesticide use went up, groundwater levels fell and industrial agricultural practices began racking up significant environmental debt."

Read more about BXW and Banana Wilt in the Crested Journal.

And the Gates Foundation's Green Revolution in the The Nation article.

...and let us know what you think.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

PF Holiday Cards Now Available

Greetings!

Project FOCUS is selling handmade holiday cards this year as a social entrepreneurship project to support our work towards sustainable development in Lyantonde, Uganda. Photos of the cards are below.

Card packages are being sold for $12.95 per package of 10 cards (5 of each image, photographed by Project FOCUS member Gloria Bernard). Each 51/2" x 41/4" card, printed on recycled paper, contains the simple message of "peace" inside, with plenty of room to include your own message. Printed on the back of each card is a photo description and how this card benefits the work of Project FOCUS.



Cards may be purchased by check or credit card.

* Checks may be made out to Project FOCUS and mailed to our office (1618 W 17th St, Unit 2R, Chicago, IL 60608).
* To pay by credit card, please click here and you will be taken to our paypal account.


If you have any questions, please contact Rhea at rhea@projectfocus.org or 630-310-0964.

Happy Holidays!

With Gratitude,
Project FOCUS



This photo, taken in Lyantonde as children returned from school and ran to greet an unfamiliar face, captures the energy and curiosity of the Lyantonde youth.


This photo was taken outside of Prince Primary School in Lyantonde as children gathered for a game of Duck Duck Goose before one of Project FOCUS’ art therapy classes.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Ugandan 'Anti-Homosexuality' Bill

There is an alarmingly violent bill that is currently being debated in Uganda and we wanted to share this information.


The bill that was introduced by David Bahati, a Ugandan member of parliament, criminalizes homosexual acts "with penalties ranging from up to 10 years imprisonment for single acts of homosexual sex to life imprisonment and the death penalty for a category of crime labelled 'aggravated homosexuality.'"


Instead of addressing the conditions that are keeping so many Ugandans in poverty, this bill has made a scapegoat of Uganda's LGBTQI community and anyone who supports that community.


Here are some of the penalties that Bahati's bill includes:

  • The death penalty is mandated for HIV-positive people who engage in sex with people of the same gender.
  • There are threats against any Ugandan media organization that allows LGBT Ugandans to air their views or publish press statements.
  • The bill would criminalize organizations providing health information for men who have sex with men.
  • The bill criminalizes homosexual acts, with penalties ranging from up to 10 years imprisonment for single acts of homosexual sex to life imprisonment and the death penalty for a category of crime labeled 'aggravated homosexuality'.
  • The bill calls for Uganda to withdraw from all international treaties and conventions which support the rights of lesbians, gays and bisexuals
  • The bill introduces extradition arrangements for Ugandan citizens who perform 'homosexual acts' abroad
  • The bill includes legal penalties for people who fail to report alleged homosexual acts or individuals and institutions that promote homosexuality or same-sex marriage to the authorities.
  • Article 13 of the bill calls for up to seven years imprisonment or a monetary fine for any person or institution believed to be promoting homosexuality. Business and NGOs convicted of promoting homosexuality are liable to be de-registered.
  • Bahati’s proposed bill also supports stigma and discrimination against HIV-positive people
  • The bill requires employees and managers in institutions who are aware of the sexual practices of their colleagues to report them to the authorities.

For more information about the bill check out Human Rights Watch.


You can take a look at the actual bill here.


To take action you can join the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) and speak out against the bill.


Stopping this bill from passing needs to come from Ugandans. However, we can share our support for the LGBTQI community and for human rights for all. The Uganda that we know is a community of acceptance and support...and this bill is far from that.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Internet Café Fundraising Campaign

Internet Café Fundraising Campaign


$12,000 Down. $13,000 To Go.

As Project FOCUS is working on fundraising for a Lyantonde Internet Café, we want to keep you updated on our progress. Over the past couple of months we have raised $12,000 towards the café, as well as enough money to send our long term volunteer back to Uganda to implement the café through a different campaign.

Here’s the breakdown of donations we’ve received/been promised thus far:


$5,000 – Canaday Foundation Grant

$5,000 – Individual Donor

$2,000 – Individual Donor


TOTAL: $12,000


Thank you for your continued support! You can view more information about the Internet Cafe Development project, as well as a proposal and budget here.

Also, thanks to all of you who came out to our Funky Buddha Event on October 15th! We raised $600, which will pay for most of Grant’s flight ticket back to Uganda, and we had an amazing time.







Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tonight! Project FOCUS Party and Birthday Celebration for Harishi & Jonathan!

Peace!

Come cut a rug with Project FOCUS on
Thursday, Oct 15th @ the Funky Buddha Lounge to celebrate Harishi and Jonathan's Bdays.

Funky Buddha Lounge
728 W GRAND AVE
Chicago, IL

IMPORTANT: YOU MUST SAY "PROJECT FOCUS" AT THE DOOR for your cover to benefit PF and to receive a discounted cover charge.

Check the dope music lineup:
9-10 -
DJs David Marques, Naomi Walker and Serwin Avid spinnin
10-10:20 -
Bollywood battlin - an Indian Music Remix Contest
10:20-11:05 - Rebel Rhythm Collective [Afro Jazz Band]
11:05-11:30 - Live Hip hop
Collabo featuring: F.E.W. collective + Stick & Move Dance Crew + Soul MCs
11:30 - 12:30 - DJ
Sidewords

COVER: $5 BEFORE 10:30, $10 AFTER.

Come early! Dance late!GET ON THE GUEST LIST: info@projectfocus.org

Thursday, September 24, 2009

This Saturday 9/26: Pizza/PBR/PF Love

Join us for Pizza+PBR+a Project FOCUS presentation with a screening of our radio documentary and promotional video. Our presentation will introduce the details of our latest project - a solar-powered, internet cafe in rural Southwestern Uganda. As our close friends and members of the PF community, we value your feedback and your questions. We're asking for your help to brainstorm, create, and execute an innovative, grassroots campaign to make this project a success!

with love,

Project FOCUS


Saturday, September 26, 2009
5:30pm - 8:00pm

Project FOCUS Office
1618 W. 17th St. Apt 2R
Chicago, IL

Monday, September 7, 2009

Drought and Environment by Ahabwe Mugerwa Michael (ICOD)

Between the months of June and September `09, Lyantonde experienced a more severe drought than in the recent years. There was no rainfall received throughout the month of June, July and August, and temperatures increased by 0.3° centigrade leading to drought and loss of crops in over 99% of rural households and death over 50 cows due to lack of water and pastures.

Geographically, Lyantonde district lies in the dry cattle corridor; a dry zone with savannah grass lands, thorny acacia shrubs and many semi arid zones that produces more cattle and cattle products than other areas in Uganda. There is a popular tale in other parts of the country that milk flows in village footpaths of the cattle corridor. However, during the month of June to August, milk prices rose from Uganda shilling 300 per liter to 900 per liter whilst a liter of milk in Kampala rose from Uganda shillings 1000 to 2000. Such price increases have had dire effects on other sectors and livelihoods both in rural and urban areas of Lyantonde.

During this period, water sources dried out. Lyantonde town council whose population is over 15000 people has remained with only two functional bores and with no running water. The price for a 20 liters water can has risen from Uganda shillings 200 to 1000. Reynolds Construction Company; the company contracted to construct the Kampala – Mbarara road intervened by bringing in two water tankers to collect water from Lake Kacheera which is 22 kilometers from Lyantonde town. The area member of parliament also donated 200 bags of maize, 50 bags of beans and a water tanker to help the famine and drought affected people. Boba-boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers changed business from transporting people to fetching water from distant sources because of the high demand and price.

Like famine, water and milk shortages in Lyantonde have their root in environmental degradation. The National Forestry Authority estimates that Uganda loses 80,000 hectares of forest cover annually; 730,000 hectares are lost to rapid tree cutting on private land while 7,000 hectares are lost in protected areas like forest reserves. On private land, trees are cut to meet demand for forestry products and clearing of farming land. In protected areas, encroachment and related activity is eating away forest cover as an estimated 350,000 encroachers open settlements, gardens and forage for survival. In Buyaga forestry reserve in the north east of Lyantonde district, encroachers have cut down all trees and vegetation for charcoal burning, settlement and farming. Such deforestation has led to erratic rains, prolonged drought and receding water levels.

Lyantonde district has always developed environment action plans but little has been done to implement the plans. For example, in 2006, Rakai Community Based Aids project liaised with Lyantonde Town Council to plant trees along streets. Over 300 trees were planted in town but less than 30 are surviving. Local leaders attribute this to ‘inadequate funds’ to monitor the project progress. In most developing countries’ towns like Lyantonde where corruption has eaten through all sectors of public service provision, inadequacy of funds to monitor an important project like the above is always reported but there can never be funds inadequacy to pay staff and politicians travel, feeding and sitting allowances! Perhaps, these heartless corrupt public officials need to learn that when they inhumanly steal public funds, they push the poorest to attack nature for survival; and once natural endowments succumb to the pressure, the consequences are disastrous to both the rich and the poor.

Investment in environment protection is the cheapest project to undertake for either the poor or rich. In a rural area like most of Lyantonde district; one can begin with turning their leaking or worn out water can into a trash bin, deposit all trash in it, recycle or burry if they have to, to maturing a fruit tree and giving the seedlings to the neighbor and in a few years, a greener, fresher and pollution-free environment is built with its benefits of more rain and less effects to the ozone layer. I think every one needs to start working towards restoring the natural beauty of places like Lyantonde. One other way would be intensifying initiatives like tree planting campaigns, environment policing to enact environment bye-laws and establishment of communal tree nurseries. This would check the downward movement of the Sahara. I think Lyantonde will be the next Sahara if nothing is done; local leaders have done more talking, they need to translate their talking to real action.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

DROUGHT HITS LYANTONDE: Prince Primary Students Affected

Lyantonde district lies in the geographical Ankole – Masaka cattle corridor; a dry zone with savanna grass lands, thorny acacia shrubs and many semi arid zones. The district is usually hit by severe dry spell between June and September. The average annual rainfall is about 750mm to 1000mm and the annual maximum temperature is about 29 degrees centigrade. There has been a drastic increase in temperature in the district leading to severe drought, which is attributed to encroachment on fragile ecosystems of wetlands, bush burning and deforestation. Drought has also led to drying up of open water sources and over 70% of boreholes.


The district has two rain seasons; the 1st runs from March to May and the 2nd from August to November. At the beginning of this years 1st planting season, local community-based organization ICOD distributed free planting seeds to vulnerable households, Prince Primary School and three farmers groups to build their capacity to produce enough food for their communities and sustain themselves. However due to severe drought, all beneficiaries lost their crops making them more vulnerable. The most affected are child headed households, orphans families and Prince Primary students, many of which come from extremely vulnerable situations. Local government records indicate that over 95% of rural farmers also lost their crops to drought.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Look. Watch. Listen. - LA Exhibit Update

A Creative Collaboration of Art and Community

Host: Phantom Galleries L.A.
Location: Long Beach, CA
Date: July 18-24th





Exhibiting in the tabula rasa of Southern California, Project FOCUS embarked on an evolutionary tour that began with a 4 day journey across the united states and a plan to create an experiential multi-media art exhibition that provided the audience member with a lens from which to view Prince Primary School and its surrounding community. Upon reaching our destination, we realized that we had our work cut out for us. 5000 square feet of gallery space stared down at us while a sort of sinusoidal array of emotions rushed through our veins. Humbled and anxious, we forged through with the help of Liza Simone at Phantom Galleries L.A. and many others, creating an impressive exhibit. The 7 day show embodied progress and offered us the opportunity to solidify a presence in Long Beach.



While short on resources, we were able to connect to several community members and inspire productive conversations. A generous amount of people at the show have expressed interest in a Los Angeles based Project FOCUS where we will be able to pool new energy and resources. We found that when it comes to work that is critical of injustice; people (the community) tend to engage the show on an intimate level. Even though we are addressing serious issues and attempting to combat social apathy, it was important to "seduce" the audience in a formally aesthetic way. This was a successful moment for us; the exhibit was nothing short of stunning and felicitous for the evolution of Project FOCUS.




Much love to those who attended the event and especially those that volunteered their time and resources to make this a successful show. 100% of the money raised throughout the exhibition did go toward the development of Prince Primary School.

A special thank you to Deborah Diesel at Sepulveda Building Materials for hooking us up with a pallet of bricks for the duration of our show, and Winter Byington at Apple for donating ipods for the audio installation.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Back from the farm with a lot of homework to do....

After leaving a utopia like Quail Springs, settling back into a city like Chicago will have its challenges, but what I took with me most from the 4 weeks worth of workshops was that the folks there are more committed to people, than any dogma or movement philosophy.

I am having troubled mustering up the words to explain the whole experience. I learned more in a month then in the rest of my days combined about nature and its intricate and intuitive intelligence. I learned (even just for a moment) to actually open up and see what was happening around me, and I did a shitload of dishes.

I did self-evaluations, community development project presentations, and conflict resolutions exercises. I designed a music and yoga studio for the desert with passive air-conditioning that was shaped like a banjo, and I made what I am sure will be lifelong allies. I'm certain that many of the principles of permaculture will benefit the work of Project Focus and the work in Project Focus.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chicago Global Donors Network Profile

The Chicago Global Donors Network, an organization founded with a mission to increase knowledge about and resources directed toward international philanthropy and to deepen its impact, has highlighted Project FOCUS in a Donor Profile.

"Our vision is to build an ever-expanding, vibrant network of institutions and individuals who believe that an inter-connected, equitable world is in the best interest of all humankind. Towards that end, CGDN seeks to create a community of giving that builds upon the knowledge and resources of donors who are young and old, beginning and experienced, rich or poor, US- or foreign born alike. Our common purpose is to work together to build a culture of giving in order to improve the quality and condition of human life."

We are happy to be a part of that community!



Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Reflections by Rhea

In three words, Project FOCUS’ mission is to Educate, Inspire, and Empower. But when I sit back, exhale, and really think about our organization, one word stands out the most: Community.

That is what drew me to Project FOCUS, it is what keeps me inspired, and it is what makes me proud to be part of this group of people.

Everything that we do is with communities, not for communities. Everything we do is with the intention of empowering people to create their own change, both in the United States and in Uganda. We work to build sustainable relationships that lead to sustainable projects.

Too often communities are lost within the grand scheme of international development. Organizations forget that the people who are the most capable of developing long term, sustainable solutions are the people who actually live in the communities themselves. They forget that U.S. solutions cannot be applied to Ugandan problems. They forget that endless grant money, a bottomless pit of inspired volunteers, and even the best intentions are pointless without community involvement.

We are different, and that is what I love about Project FOCUS; our relationship building, meaningful conversations, honest friendships, community partnerships, equal collaboration, and long term solutions.

Project FOCUS is not always the most efficient organization. We do not have the most experience, and we certainly do not have the most funding.

But what inspires me about this group is the process we choose to follow. The intentional, well thought out, endlessly discussed decisions that are always made with the Ugandan community at the forefront of our minds.

What inspires me is the people within the communities that we support and are supported by. Inspired, visionary individuals throughout two countries who are actively looking for ways to shape their lives, to come together and change systems bigger than themselves. To change mentalities; to impact their communities; to create their futures.

-Rhea

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Permaculture Update

Permaculture: an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies.

As you may remember, Grant is taking a Permaculture course this summer in California. Here are some of his reflections over his experience so far:

Hello from the farm! It has been an incredible journey so far. The days are filled with a mixture of classroom talks, on-site "practical" adventures, my work-trade chores (I am paying a small portion of the tuition through jobs like clearing campsites, harvesting juniper trees for fence posts for the tomato garden, fixing the classroom roof after hard winds, etc), amazing organic meals and equally amazing company. The information flow has been dense and captivating, but thankfully the philosophy of permaculture is more about seeing a situation from new eyes, than memorizing characteristics of plants and animals (research is still imperative). It is about looking deeper and observing the intelligent functions of all aspects of nature and trying to mimic those symbiotic relationships while working to restore all that we have destroyed, and maintain what we have left.


The principles of permaculture apply to all the movements we are a part of, and so many of the situations that occur in nature reflect the human drama. Diversity is a key component in permaculture - the more diverse a system is the more mutually beneficial relationships there will be to feed back to the system. But as we are learning, diversity only truly works when the system benefits all its participants. Another important principle is to "obtain a yield". This reminds us that any system we design should provide self-reliance at all levels - including ourselves. So take care of yourself!

Huge thanks for your help in getting me here!


LA Closing Party - Friday, July 24

Friday, July 24
8 PM - 12 AM
Phantom Galleries LA, 170 The Promenade North, Long Beach, CA



Project FOCUS and Phantom Galleries L.A. would like to invite you to our closing event, where we will be celebrating the connection between art and sustainable development. Join us in our efforts to rebuild Prince Primary School in Lyantonde, Uganda.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Common Threads - Boston

The month of June was an exciting one for Project FOCUS in Boston. Thanks to the fabulousness of Annie Newbold and David Craft at Gallery 263 (gallery263.com) we were able to open a show featuring our beautiful HIV/AIDS quilts from Lyantonde, Uganda. These quilts represent a culmination of our “Common Threads” project, which focused on AIDS education and dialoguing through group art-making. The opening of Common Threads on Thursday June 11th was attended by about 30-40 people. The intimacy of the gallery space provided opportunity for informal conversations/discussions about our work and I was able to form many positive relationships. The night ended with an audiovisual slideshow of images from Uganda and a brief explanation of why we chose to focus on one region (Lyantonde District).


A week later, on Saturday June 20th, I was joined by my cohorts Danny Yang and Gloria Bernard to host a “Meet Project Focus” event. Danny presented an articulate and professional powerpoint about the origins of Project Focus and the details of our upcoming project to create a solar-powered internet café in Lyantonde. Danny’s words prompted a really thoughtful question and answer session afterwards and I was so grateful to have the support of my fellow PF friends!


During the process of planning, organizing and implementing the various events for this show, my mind was drawn again and again to the memories of my time spent in Uganda. Missing the smiles of familiar faces, the sights and sounds and cultural eccentricities I had come to love and even adopt as my own. I thought of my personal friendships from my time in Lyantonde and I hope I was able to somehow portray the reality and beauty of these people’s lives through this show.
- Madelene

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

PF Spotlighted on Synchronized Chaos Magazine

Sychronized Chaos, an interdisciplinary art, poetry, literary, science, nature, cultural issues, and travel writing webzine, has spotlighted Project FOCUS and our Los Angeles Exhibition.

"The brainchild of an international group of contributors and volunteer editors/creative facilitators. Inspired by the mathematical concept of chaos theory, the study of how to effectively model and predict the behavior of systems which seem random, but are in fact highly influenced by initial conditions not yet fully understood." More About Synchronized Chaos

Thank you to Syncronized Chaos and Creative Facilitator Christina Deptula for bringing more awareness to our projects and for the ongoing support!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

PF Featured by The Green Grocer

The Green Grocer, a small grocery store in West Town that is committed to selling both organic and local products, has recently committed to donating a percentage of their monthly profits to small non-profit organizations in the Chicago area who are working to make a difference in the world. The kind and cheerful owner, Cassiee Green, approached Project FOCUS (whose members shop there frequently) and offered to feature us as their month of July recipients.

If you buy your groceries at the Green Grocer in the month of July, the benefits are enormous! You'll get great quality food, you'll be supporting local farmers and food markets, you'll help the young Green Grocer's business boom in an economy that has made it difficult for the little guys to survive, AND your favorite organization, Project FOCUS, gets a cut. If that isn't enough incentive, you should know that they love to give out free samples of new products as you shop.

We hope to bump into you in the produce section!

Green Grocer
1402 W Grand Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
(Corner of Grand and Noble) Phone: (312) 624-9508
Fax: (312) 624-9509
info@greengrocerchicago.com


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Internet Cafe in Lyantonde - Global Giving

The Internet Cafe will offer the community in Lyantonde, Uganda affordable access to the internet. The proceeds from the cafe will provide financial support for a local, community-based primary school.

You can become a project donor through our page at global giving.



Access to current information in today's competitive world is imperative for community growth and development. More than 2.5 billion people live in rural areas of developing countries where access to communication is severely limited due to availability or affordability. In rural Uganda, most teachers, students, farmers, business owners, and health care providers work without access to technologies that can transform their lives and work in simple yet profound ways.

The internet cafe, consisting of 8 solar-powered computers, will be managed by a Ugandan community-based organization that will also offer classes to familiarize new users and students to information technology.

Project FOCUS Community Dinners: Fridays 6:30 - 9:30 PM


what?


the community dinner provides a space to share food, ideas, conversations, stories, and passions.

why?

because in light of our economic recession which has exposed us to the consequences of self-interest and individualism, we chose to build community.

because in contrast to the condo developments in pilsen and around chicago that have destroyed existing communities and replaced them with personal balconies and their grills, we chose to build community.

because we're tired of walking around the city with headphones on, closed to the diverse world around us, physically close but distant in every other way.

who?

artists, writers, dancers, social activists, teachers, young professionals, and students.


where?

an old theater converted into a Project FOCUS work and living space. 1618 W. 17th St. Chicago, IL - a few blocks from the 18th st. pink line stop.

when?

friday's 6:30 - 9:30 PM.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Project FOCUS Los Angeles Exhibit, July 18th

Saturday, July 18th
6 PM - 10 PM
Phantom Galleries LA, 170 The Promenade North, Long Beach, CA


Project FOCUS + Phantom Galleries LA would like to invite you to our Los Angeles Premier where we will unveil the artwork generated by the people of Lyantonde and Project FOCUS artists in an effort to educate and inspire audiences. Project FOCUS will be fundraising for a sustainable development initiative in rural Lyantonde, Uganda.This multi media exhibit features photography, digital arts and video, writing, fabric collages, painting, interactive installation, reaction art, and more.

This multi media exhibit features photography, digital arts and video, writing, fabric collages, painting, interactive installation, reaction art, and more.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Lyantonde Internet Audio Documentary

In rural Uganda, most teachers, students, farmers, business owners, and health care providers work without access to information and communication technologies that can transform their lives in simple yet profound ways. An Internet-cafe in Lyantonde, Uganda is designed to provide public access to vital information at an affordable price, allow for new computer and Internet users to familiarize themselves with the benefits of I.T., provide the space and equipment for the production of community-driven multi-media projects, and provide an income to financially support Prince Primary School. Project Focus is currently working with ICOD and Inveneo to establish the first Internet cafe in Lyantonde. Below is an audio documentary created to highlight the need for Internet in Lyantonde in the community's own words.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Permaculture

Permaculture: an approach to designing human settlements and perennial agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in the natural ecologies.

I’m freakishly excited because this summer I get to take a course in the California desert on permaculture - or permanent agriculture - meaning sustainable systems of agriculture that reduce reliance on damaging industrial systems of production and distribution. This is the future for lasting development solutions needed in communities like Lyantonde, and will greatly improve my understanding of issues the community members are facing. The course also focuses on the ins-and-outs of sustainable aid (i.e. working with cultural diversity, conflict resolution, etc). I couldn’t think of anything more fitting to prepare me for the trip back post summer fundraising.

The courses are developed by Robyn Francis, a permaculture designer with over 25 years of experience in rural and urban community development all over the globe. The action takes place in Quail Springs California. Quail Springs’ site is a 450 acre spring-fed canyon in a high desert, semi-arid landscape, at 3,800 feet elevation (about 3 hours from L.A.). I’ll be camping on the site for the duration of the courses and when I’m not participating in classes I’ll be gaining extra experience thru hands-on labor in the work/trade aspect of the program.

The diversity of these courses are for anyone working in community development in any setting, and I advice you to check out the website at ... quailsprings.org and direct your questions the wonderful Kolmi at info@quailsprings.org

Join me!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

State House

Bitone graced the states house in Entebbe on sat morning, performing for Uganda's own, president Museveni, and Burundian president Pierre Nkunziza. Nkunziza was visiting the pearl for 3 days, and Bitone helped send him off in style.

The performance was short and sweet (maybe 3 minutes) but Museveni spent a considerable amount of time talking with the kids afterwords, asking them each their name, age, and place of birth.

I was honored to shake his hand (sorry no picture), and he gave me about 8.5 seconds of his time to explain what I was doing in Uganda, and the work of Project Focus. The fact that PF is based in Lyantonde (very very near to where the big guy hails from) didn't hurt, and I was able to get him some PF literature. The security at statehouse was no joke and at first they weren't going to allow me to take any photos or video of the performance, but as soon as I dropped the names of some Lyantonde restaurants and businesses on the soldiers to prove myself, we got on just fine. Nepotism doesn't seem so bad when you're on the right side of it.

The kids were elated, and they are in the process of writing some personal reflections on the day for there own blog (bitonetroupe.blogspot.com), so keep an eye out. This is definitely the direction Bitone wants to be heading into, and the folks who arranged the show also promised future bookings for state diners and government functions.

A professional photographer from the New Vision newspaper took a few snaps for the whole Bitone crew with the president, and hopefully I'll be getting my hand son those soon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ankole Spirit World

The mighty spirits of the Ankole people are partial to 3 offerings: milk, millet, and money. That’s what our tour guide told us as we trudged from prayer site to prayer site to pay homage to the ancient Chwezi (demigods) of Bigobyamugenyi in Sembabule, a village about 2 potholed and dusty hours from Lyantonde by motorcycle. Allegedly my knees graced the same grass and dirt alters frequented by president Museveni (which didn’t stop my pasty neck from burning, but did sharpen my secret hopes of one day becoming a bush-war hero).

We hoofed past trails that if taken would trigger your eternal disappearance, deep empty pits where the sounds of ancient drums are said to be ever-pounding, and a grass mansion that a spirit couple telepathically commissioned the care-takers to construct for them and their set of dybbuk-duo twins. Michael and I took the journey with 3 other Ugandan tourists - technicians from Kampala enjoying a day off from erecting a mobile phone tower nearby. Together we would enter each site – first removing our shoes – and kneel down to sprinkle millet seeds and coins over banana leaves and pray to those who protect and bring prosperity to believers.

The air was the freshest I’d smelt since Mt. Elgon, and all the walking and “praying” gave me time to dwell on recent events and positive-but-unexpected changes that have jolted me out of routine that I was unconsciously falling into here in Uganda.

After some discussion its been decided that I will return to the states for the summer to assist in some fund and morale raising, visit mommy-dearest (she’s coming off shoulder surgery – too much rugby), take a sustainable aid course, and eat 1000 burritos. Project Focus has decided to first conquer the internet café and other smaller projects in Lyantonde to garner a network of development partners, donors, and project-implementing experience before tackling the construction of a school. The café will start extra income flowing into the school, allowing us to establish a solid financial system on a smaller scale before the large amounts of money that come with construction will begin changing hands. This is the right move, but will present a healthy challenge in trust-maintenance among the relationships we’ve built in the Prince community over the past few years. The school management committee (who represents the guardian community) is now onboard, so all that is left is convincing the parents that when the rain descends, the floods come, and the wind blows, theirs will be a school that was founded upon a well-planned rock and not upon the rushed and poorly thought-out sand.

Branco – the Bitone founder and director – has been awarded an illustrious Fulbright scholarship to complete his masters degree in music from a university in Connecticut. This is great news for the long-term stability of Bitone because it will secure him a fulltime position at Makerere University (where he is now a part time lecturer) when he returns to Uganda. His shoes will be hard to fill at the center, and the kids (and me) will hate to see him go, but it will also help to spread some of the responsibilities out so Bitone becomes a more manageable and effective organization whose fate is not hinged on one man. Speaking of president Museveni; Bitone also scored themselves a performance arranged by the bigwigs we traveled to Ethiopia with, at which they will be sending good ol’ Yoweri off from the state house (Uganda’s version of the white house) and then Entebbe airport when he goes to who-knows-where to do who-knows-what. These are the high-profile performances Bitone’s talent deserves.

A little over a week ago I hosted two volunteers (Brian and Alexis) who are touring around East Africa doing third-party analysis of projects that have received funding through an organization called Global Giving. Most of the money Project Focus raised for the materials used in the Ugandan art programs was collected through Global Giving’s online donation services, so the two came to check out the impact of those programs and see what we are up to now. I took them to Prince so they could interview some students and staff about the “Story Ki?” project, and hear about our plans for the future.

I left the room to allow the students to answer freely, and the feedback was better then I would have guessed. Being here and focusing solely on logistical-type aspects for the past 8 months has dulled my right-brain wherewithal, and that day reminded me of the fact that this all begin with children whose lives and creative capacities were forever opened up by art, and that this is something we really need to continue. You can read their full review of our visit to Prince at... ggcommunity.tumblr.com I also took them to my favorite Lyantonde prayer site “the rock”. We disregarding the threats I received last time I was there by a rifle-wielding vigilante security guard posing as a police officer. He said that I would be arrested if he ever saw me there again. The sunset photos we got would have been worth a night or two in the Lyantonde clink.
After Michael and I left the spirit grounds we made a stop at a compound that would rival the Bush family ranch. This was home to a young women who has been coined “the holy one”. In her, the spirits from the other sites often take refuge to escape the trials and tribulations of the celestial space. Photos were not allowed there, but the holy one has built herself a nice little empire from a herbal medical product line, and happened to be out of town overseeing her new church in Kampala. Apparently on certain holidays you can find her parking lot full of the Benzes and Range Rovers of Kampala’s finest coming to seek blessings. I searched the labels of as many of her oils and solutions as I could to find a cure for the hatred of onions, issues with fundraising, or lack of college degree, but to no avail.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

It's only been 7 months and I'm out of titles

April has been the fastest month of my life. All month I was doing one of two things; either recording interviews for an audio documentary on access to safe water, or planning the Prince Primary fundraising bonanza with the rest of the committee. Both required me to constantly be out in what snazzy NGO folks call “the field”, which really means you are visiting peoples homes – usually rural and poor. The term irks me because they are just that - peoples homes. Anyway, I was fully immersed and my eyes and relationships were opened up further. I’ll wait until I get a chance to edit the audio to touch on that, so we’ll just chat about the Prince event.

The fundraiser was Friday, April 24th, purposely coinciding with the regular end of the term celebrations. We held a community auction in hopes of making some of the money back that the school lost due to the UNEB business. Trying to cut planning costs at every possible turn, we pounded the red-dirt roads and went home-to-home invited folks and asking for donations of food, woven goodies, art, goats, etc to be auctioned off.
Then we hit the district offices to invite as many hotshot politicians as possible to buy up all the auction items. The community gave an incredible effort, filling up a classroom with bunches of bananas, watermelons, sugarcane, and a few plump goats. The planning committee made up of guardians, teachers, Meddy from ICOD, and a white guy also put there hearts and backs into the days leading up.
African time was in full effect. The guest of honor was the district chairman, and he was five hours late. Culturally nothing can really begin with out him so that means we all waited (not that he was the only one late.) Once we got rolling the festivities went really well save a few bumps in the road. We ate, listens to politicians, watched the Prince kids shake out some traditional dances, tried to outbid each other (maybe about 8-10% of the guests have money for this kind of thing), and planted some tress.
A little money was raised, some big promises were made to myself and the headmaster regarding political help for the project, we danced and laughed, and it didn’t rain. I personally made some bad judgment calls in terms of penny-pinching and perpetuating the lop-sided dynamic between the people with and the people without. I re-realized that cost-cutting usually only affects those who already don’t have – and can be disempowering and disrespectful to the people who really deserve it.
This thing is tricky; there are by-products of culture that no one would argue need changing (poverty, corruption, etc), but most people - even the oppressed - scoff at the idea of challenging those traits inside of the culture (gender imbalance, subserviency, false sense of superiority, etc).

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Prince Primary

There’s a lot to be excited about right now, and a lot of work to be done. A while back I told you about the UNEB scandal and the trouble it caused in the community. Of course things didn’t stop there, but of course we are doing the best we can to turn trouble into something that will make us stronger.

The rumors that ran thru town were enough to scare a substantial amount of families away from either continuing with their kids at Prince, or enrolling their new little ones in the baby classes. Around 40 students were lost this term. You add that to the 10 or so students who are retaking Primary 7 at an 80% discount and you have a serious financial crisis at Prince Primary. The teachers salaries were not being paid as a result, and they were understandably upset enough to call a meeting and request some action to be taken. Their original approach was to ask PF for money, but that is simply not possible at the moment, as our bank account resembles the pot at one of my 6th grade poker games (we mostly played for gummy sharks), besides being very out of alignment with our goals. So the conclusion we came to was to role up our sleeves and have a good old fashion community auction. The next step was to have a meeting with the parents/guardians of Prince and to get them on board. Thankfully this was not that difficult. At the parents meetings we held elections to create a committee to plan and execute the event (including 2 students!), discussed which district politicians and community bigwigs to invite, and set a fundraising goal (12 million big ones). The date is set for April 24th and the planning is moving along. I will be doing a documentary video on the planning process and its culmination to give a deeper look into the way the Prince community works together when times get tough.



We also finally started the “Citizens of the World” pen pal program at Prince which is taking place with 2 elementary schools from St. Paul, Minnesota. Each Prince student in Primary 6 and 7 received 2 letters, one from each school in MN. The program explore themes like identity, value, and social responsibility on levels ranging from family to global. The Prince students also created a committee to facilitate their end of the program, and their reply’s are in the mail. Prince has a blog where you can read more about Prince students, the pen pal program, and check out some samples from all three of the schools student letters (very soon): princeprimary.blogspot.com


I also will be doing audio recordings of some of the students reading their letters, and incorporating them into the coming Prince doc video.


There are pictures from the community meetings but as you could imagine they are not so fun so this is a picture of the Prince students spreading "traditional cement" on the classroom floors a. It's cows sh*t mixed with a little mud.



Bitone also has established their own blog: bitonetroupe.blogspot.com and will be using it to create more personal relationships with a children’s choir from Los Angeles, CA. The 2 groups of kids will also be exploring similar themes to the “ Citizens of the World” program, but instead of sharing thru letters, they will be co-creating music over the internet. The blog will feature short personal backgrounds of each of the kids, along with the progress of the music collaboration and anything else that comes up at the center... and the documentary video I put together featuring footage from our trip to Ethiopia.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lyantondepalooza

So it’s been a while since I last wrote. I haven’t been lazy, just absent minded about blogging. I’ve finished 2 audio documentaries (Prince Primary and Lyantonde vs. Internet Pt. 1), finalized and received the blueprints and bill of quantities for the renovations at Prince Primary School, edited a Bitone documentary video (already accepted at Sundance and Cannes), held the second Project Focus Uganda board meeting, celebrated my 37th birthday, started the Prince Primary pen-pal program, moved places in Kampala, took the bus to Rwanda to refresh my expired visa and explored 3 mind-bending genocide memorials... and some other busy-work, but the only thing I feel like telling you about is Lyantonde concert number 2. Last time I told you it was the duo Radio and Weasel, this time it was Weasel’s older brother and rival – the self-proclaimed “heavyweight” – Chameleon. Chameleon can’t catch a break lately. I haven’t really kept up with the tabloids as much as I should but I know that he slept-walk off of a 2nd story balcony in Tanzania and broke both of his ankles, had a bad car accident and got roughed up by some thugs. He was in the paper a few weeks ago leaning on a cane while handing out money to traders to help rebuild Kampala’s biggest market – Owino – after a devastating fire. Maybe it’s all lies for publicity, you couldn't pay me to care, I just know Lyantonde was bubblin. I’m not sure why I am so moved by these concerts but I’ll try to paint you a picture.


Imagine a back lit outdoor stage with massive trees hanging over both sides, the silhouetted branches broken up by stacks of slightly mismatched speakers ascending up to clearest night-sky on the planet. Next to the stage is an incapacitated petrol station; the outside walls lined with peeling coca-cola advertisements, English football posters, and NRM campaign flyers dating back two decades. The empty station finds life during the concert, serving as the main bar, but there are many tables scattered around selling single-serving bags of gin and vodka. Behind the stage the artists congregate before and after they go on. I didn’t make it backstage but I heard Coldplay and Nas were around. There is one band for the whole night. The horn players were both dressed like Jermaine Dupri, but as repetitive and one dimensional contemporary Uganda pop seems to my foreign ears, this band had a range, blessing us with Al Green, Stevie, and Bob Marley covers in between artists.


The chairs run out fast and most people bring their own stools from home but loose them half way through the opening acts and clear the rug for some cuttin. I think this is really why I love these shows; I get to dance with the butcher (and his wife), waitresses, shoe polishers, restaurant and shop owners, mill-workers, hair-dresses, and everyone in between with no thought or mention of our positions on the hierarchical totem pole. I know this is the same reason everybody loves a celebration, but it seems different here. I’m not completely sure of the extent that people here really identify with those roles anyway; it wouldn’t surprise me if it were just my perception. All I know is people get nutty to live music, and there isn’t much that I like better then bumpin asses with a big bad Ugandan woman in a gomesa. Because of the single-serving bags of gin and vodka, the repeating drum pattern, and my bad Luganda, all the songs ran together for me by the time Chameleon came on, and I found myself in the middle of dance circles defying the whiteness of my pelvis. “Muzungu! Omoni Okuzina!” -- “Whitey! You can dance!”
Now it’s the next day and I’m staring down the barrel of my to-do list. Thank God for Chameleon. Thank God for fun.

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