The weak made strong – girls as agents of peace in South Sudan

By Candacia Greeman of South Sudan who is working as a teacher/teacher mentor with MCC at the Loreto Girls Secondary School. Candacia shares a powerful story of hope in advance of Africa Day on Thursday, May 25.  She also supplied the photographs.

It can be hard to have hope for South Sudan, and even harder to have hope in South Sudan. Daily news reports featuring the world’s newest country are filled with words like famine, civil war, rape and genocide. But that is not the whole story. In the midst of the political and economic turmoil facing the country, pockets of hope exist.

At the Loreto Girls Secondary School (LGSS) in Rumbek, a rural region in South Sudan, MCC is helping young women to promote peace in their communities through the Loreto Peace Club.  This is one of many peace clubs across Africa supported by MCC, and is based on the girls’ experience with the Peace Club Handbook produced by MCC Zambia.

These girls represent one of the most vulnerable populations in South Sudan. They are at-risk for early/forced marriage and pregnancy in a country where a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to complete primary school. As the situation in the country deteriorates, these girls are more likely to be forced into marriage to improve the family’s economic condition through their dowries. In spite of these daunting odds, they are actively working for peace while pursuing a secondary education.

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Peace Club member speaking to local women about conflict resolution

Some sources of conflict/trauma in my community are misunderstanding, revenge [killings], elopement of girls and tribalism. [Through peace club activities] I have learned about how to stay together, how to be generous, forgiveness and reconciliation. During this term, my brother and sister [who are older than me] quarreled at home and they even swore not to forgive each other. My sister decided to run away so I started with her, telling her the importance of forgiveness. Then I did the same with my brother. They listened and now they have forgiven each other. –  Elizabeth, LGSS student

While at school, the girls receive training in peace building, conflict resolution and trauma healing. Using this knowledge, they facilitate outreach events to the local community with a focus on women and children, groups that are usually excluded from decision-making during conflict. The peace club hosts an annual Peace Day celebration for local primary school children, an event filled with sports, dancing and music. For older students and adults, a solemn evening Peace Concert is held to reflect on the lives of those lost to conflict and to encourage discussions on peace in the community. The club also facilitates cultural presentations for the community that use drama, poetry, song and dance to explore topics such as revenge killings and blood feuds and forgiveness.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students

When someone was killed and it was not we who were responsible but our houses were burnt, I was there all alone. I am the only person in my family, everyone is dead except for my brother who takes care of me. [Through Listening Circles] I have learned how to open up. If you have stress, whatever has happened to you will not go away. Now that I have come here, for a while, the stress has gone away. It is forgotten. I also learned how to approach someone if I have stress, how to share. It [Listening Circles] has given me hope that somebody somewhere cares for me to invite me to come to this. It will help me to survive. After it [the burning of the homes] happened, the school gave us food but now they also give us help for our heads. – Mary, local woman from Rumbek

After a workshop on trauma healing in 2016, the Loreto Peace Club members were inspired to share the strategies they had learned with other members of the community. In response to an incident of inter-communal conflict, the club started Listening Circles,a rapid response trauma support resource. Listening Circles were held to help local women who had been forced to burn their own homes by armed groups, and to provide grief support for primary school children after the loss of their schoolmates. They comprise groups of 5-20 participants with 2-3 facilitators depending on the age and/or gender of the participants. Participants form a circle or semi-circle and are guided through a range of activities focused on trauma healing for 45-120 minutes.

Peace Club members facilitate Listening Circle for other secondary school students_2

With the knowledge I gained in the [trauma healing] training, I was able to help in conflict resolutions. For example, during my holidays, I was assigned as peace mobilizer in which I approached and talked to some elders about the long conflict between two clans of Pan-aguong and Pan-awur in Cueibet. With the knowledge I have gained I was able to convince the elders and the youth and now they are living in peace. What I was telling them were the dangers of revenge killing and dangers of conflict .I detailed to them until they all understood the fruit of living in peace. This was in January 2017.  – Jennifer, Loreto Peace Club member

The Loreto Peace Club members are selected for membership based on an interest in peace making or prior involvement in conflict at the school. During their participation in the club, many girls report on their personal growth and their efforts at peace building not only at school but in their home communities as well. Driven by the credo, Peace begins with me, the Loreto Peace Club members exemplify the strength and resilience of the South Sudanese people.

They are a source of hope for South Sudan, and a reason to hope in South Sudan.

Loreto Peace Club members

Loreto Peace Club members

Climate change and hands of resistance

By Rebekah Nimtz, an MCC Service Worker in the cross-roads, bread-basket city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. This post is part of a series by MCC Latin America and Caribbean (LACA) on climate change and food security

Several years ago in Bolivia during the rainy season I noticed that a drip bucket in my house was nearly overflowing when I returned from an annual absence of a few weeks. The next year I was surprised to come back to find it only half full. The rainy season had begun a month late. This past year it began well over two months late. On the south side of Cochabamba, in migrant zones where many kids I work with live without running water, even the cacti appeared to be drying up. Bolivia continues to experience the effects of its worst drought in almost four decades and the highest recorded temperatures in the past ten years.

The drought on the ground

The drought on the ground. Photo by Edgar Chuquimia.

El Niño and climate change are credited with playing the major roles in  weather fluctuations, in a country whose ecosystems the UN considers some of the most vulnerable worldwide to the effects of global warming. Late rains have made only a dent in lost reserves, which hovered around 8% capacity, with a reservoir in the governing capital of La Paz at only 1% at the end of last year. This lack of water caused President Evo Morales to declare a national emergency in November. Friends in the city of Cochabamba weren’t as startled by the state of the emergency as those in La Paz, as rationing of water in Cochabamba is the norm. This past year Cochabamba only received, on average, water via the municipal water company, SEMAPA, a few hours once a week.

In the region of Mizque, 160 km outside of Cochabamba, adaptability to the effects of drought depends on whether one lives closer to the village, with more access to an irrigation system and agricultural machinery, or half-an-hour further out in the mountains, where one’s livelihood is more dependent on cultivating corn and raising cows, goats and vicuñas.

Jaime Pardo works for OBADES, the social arm of the Baptist church in Bolivia. MCC partners with OBADES in its work with locals in Mizque on food security projects such as irrigation systems, greenhouses, and crop diversity. Jaime shared that in early 2016 the rainy season not only started late, but was cut short when the rains stopped in March, leaving already planted corn unable to reach maturity. By the end of the year there was no more pasture left for livestock. Animals had to move around for hours in search of first water and then food, complicated by the drying up of once full rivers. It was a bit easier for the goats, who would eat anything within sight, even plastic. Jaime commented that the image seared in his mind of this past year is of skin-and-bone cows wobbling down the mountainside as though drunk, trembling and barely able to stand. As for their owners, without water to sow their crops, the only option has been to leave for the city.

A corn crop unable to reach full maturity

A corn crop unable to reach full maturity. Photo by Jaime Pardo.

A vast number of farmers have also left Bolivia’s already dry southeast Chaco due to the unprecedented rate of cattle deaths, the region’s primary income. Lake Poopo in the western part of the country completely dried up at the beginning of 2016, not only due to drought,  but also water deviation for mining. The Uru people, who lived off the lake for centuries, have long since gone, along with their way of life. The swell in already exploding urban populations exacerbates poverty and puts greater demands on failing infrastructure and local municipalities to implement solutions.

In rural and urban areas alike, communities have plead with the government for assistance, with the repeated loss of crops resulting in economic ruin for families. Some irrigation and groundwater projects have come about as a result. Nevertheless, even the breadbasket of Cochabamba unprecedentedly began importing food from neighboring countries. Outdated infrastructure exacerbates the problem with up to 50% losses of water in some places within pipes and distribution networks. Privatization is an option, but faces opposition for often failing to reach city outskirts and municipalities. The Misicuni dam and hydroelectric project of Cochabamba, underway since 1957, is a set-back filled effort of 10 private local and international companies that is only now gradually approaching completion. It was originally planned to give water to 400,000 people in a city with now closer to a million inhabitants.

Meanwhile, deforestation of the northern Amazon, in Bolivia and beyond, inhibits the flow of humid air and rain to the Andes. Hydroelectric projects damage the river arteries of the jungle and affects the natural water preservation cycle. Damaged water cycles leave torrents of rain that show up late, to destroy crops at the time of harvest and cause catastrophes with flash-flooding, as opposed to the gradual, soft rains of days gone by. The need to address emergency situations means that working on root causes turns into a catch-up game for a government that is already behind on developing prevention and relief plans for a problem long foreseen.

Bolivia has accessed, however, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN’s green fund for a “My Irrigation” program to assist in rural areas. The construction of grain storage plants are underway. Experts emphasize the need for long term water shortage plans such as dikes for water storage, preservation and education initiatives, and continued efforts to renovate outdated water distribution systems so they can be ready to carry, for example, the water now beginning to finally gush from the Misicuni dam project.

Elizabhet Trujillo of the community of Totorani harvests drought resistant maca

Elizabhet Trujillo of the community of Totorani harvests drought resistant maca. Photo by Edgar Chuquimia Ramos.

The small, hopeful steps of local communities across the country, especially alongside governing bodies, are prevailing against the obstacles, even if those steps begin as little more than drops in a dry bucket. The community of Villa Vinto, not far from Mizque, in partnership with OBADES, is enlisting a Peruvian model in the creation of artificial lakes and dykes to capture and store rainwater. With municipal government offers of new farming tools as prizes for the best efforts, the project is hoped to spread to communities throughout the entire region. Mizque continues to produce drought-resistant maca, which in addition to being a delicious superfood, reaps greater economic benefits than typical potato crops. The persistent well-digging of colony Mennonites in Durango on the border with Argentina has allowed them to grow crops in previously declared agricultural dead-zones. If a drop of water can carve out a canyon, the small efforts of hands working together might be able to eventually fill that canyon with more water for the future.

 

What’s fair about fair trade?

This weekend I will be celebrating World Fair Trade Day on May 13 and Mother’s Day on May 14. The combination seems very appropriate, as it was my mother who introduced me to the world of fair trade over 40 years ago.

In fact, the woman who started the fair trade movement in North America was also a mother.

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler

Edna Ruth Byler was an MCC volunteer and mother of two who, while accompanying her husband Joe Byler on a trip to Puerto Rico in 1946, visited a Mennonite Central Committee project that taught women living in poverty to sew.

Recognizing the need for a new market for their beautiful lace products, Edna Ruth agreed to purchase some of their work to sell back in the United States, using the money from those sales to buy more products. Eventually, her work grew into Ten Thousand Villages, which is now the oldest and largest fair trade retailer in North America.

In some ways, it feels like fair trade has always been a part of my life, as for many years my mother sold fairly traded products out of our home. This was a time when SELFHELP Crafts of the World, now known as Ten Thousand Villages, was just becoming established in Canada, and there were few stores and festival sales, so the organization depended in large part on volunteers who sold product out of their homes. People would invite neighours, friends, family, and acquaintances to their house to learn about fair trade and to buy a gift.

My mother explained to me that selling the jewellery, cards, baskets, wooden boxes, ornaments, candle holders, tablecloths, napkins and other items handcrafted by people from countries around the world—and stored in our guest room—would help children in those countries go to school.

As someone who loved school, I couldn’t imagine a life without that opportunity. When the boxes were opened for people to shop, the guest room was transformed into a magical place where beautiful items were passed around and interesting stories were shared.

Ten Thousand Villages logoThanks to the creativity, initiative, and hard work of Edna Ruth Byler, the option to buy fair trade handicrafts has been available to North Americans for over 70 years. And today there are far more fair trade products, including food and clothing, available than ever before across North America and Europe.

I sometimes wonder, though, how most of us understand the concept of fair trade. What makes it fair and why isn’t all trade fair?

Fair trade is a both movement and a business model. It is defined as trade in which fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries—fair prices that adequately reimburse producers for the cost of materials and time spent making or growing the product.

The ten principles of fair trade focus on dialogue and building long-term relationships. They talk about transparency, accountability, capacity building, respect for the rights of women and children, safe working conditions, and environmental sustainability. In comparison, other trade and business models seem to be mainly about the rights of corporations and are concerned more with profits than people.

Rabeya Akter, Shuktara Handmade Paper Project, Bangladesh

Rabeya Akter at Shuktara Handmade Paper Project in Feni, Bangladesh.

However, people are at the heart of fair trade, and most of the producers or makers that Ten Thousand Villages works with are women, many of them mothers.

For those mothers, employment with a fair trade organization means income for regular meals, sturdier homes, school fees for some or all of their children, and access to medicines if someone falls ill. Flexible hours also mean mothers can be home with their children rather than spending twelve or more hours a day working outside the home. Women are provided with training opportunities, encouraged to participate in savings programs, and be financially independent.

This weekend, as we celebrate our mothers and the ways they have shaped us, we can also help to shape a better world through our consumer choices. Indeed, economic practices that place people first are a powerful way to change the world.

by Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office.