“I am Beautiful”

That’s a wrap! Here are some of the highlights from the last week:

Learning a few songs!

Learning a few songs!

We went over the message of the “I am Woman” song by Helen Reddy again. When I asked them what the song hoped to convey, all of them screamed “woman is strong!” Then, we went over another song called “I am beautiful” by the talented Christina Aguilera. This song speaks to how one is beautiful regardless of what everyone else thinks. She sings that words shouldn’t bring anyone down, and being strong will allow one to withstand any hurt. I found the song empowering and the kids loved this song as well! That they were understanding the messages was wonderful. We emphasized if all of them wanted to become doctors, teachers or dancers, they need to be strong and remember that they are capable of beating all odds.  

Teaching them the songs. Here, I'm with Ms. Vanaja

Teaching them the songs. Here, I’m with Ms. Vanaja.

At another session, I gave them English -Kannada dictionaries. The moment I gave it to them, I saw their eyes light up! All of them knew how to use a dictionary, but had never had any of their own. If they are reading something, and they don’t know the meaning, all they have to do is look it up. I gave it to them, hopeful this will be one way of empowering them long after they graduate from the school and start their own journeys. All the kids are curious and bright, and with this tool, they will be able to grasp even more English. Knowing English can help them get a job, converse with others (India is the second largest English speaking country in the world), and be financially independent. 

Hopefully through letters and phone calls, the kids and I will keep in touch. I’ve seen the kids open up so much during the past three weeks. I am hopeful of  bright future for each of them. Yesterday, I had a meeting with Ms. Sumedha, of Whitefield Rising, to discuss the sustainability of the project. In the next few weeks, Whitefield Rising, a volunteer organization that works closely with schools in the area, will establish a support system for these girls with other NGOs, doctors, and law enforcement. At the grassroots level, inviting professionals like Sinu Joseph who helped me with the project, will get the kids to open up even more. In the end, these girls will have the opportunity to choose a life they want to lead — that is true empowerment. 

The kids showing me their  dance for India's upcoming Republic Day.

The kids showing me their dance for India’s upcoming Republic Day.

Thanks once again to Macalester IGC for this wonderful opportunity! I’ve learned so much from this short project and can’t wait to come back again to do more with these wonderful kids. Now, off to the US for another busy semester! 

– Shruthi

El Fin..

I can hardly believe it, but this morning I left Llano Bonito. My portion of the project has come to an end, but in reality it is just getting going! I worked in the greenhouse this weekend and things are looking really good—It is amazing how much the plants have already grown. Even things that we planted as seeds are already peaking up through the soil. My host sister has promised to keep me updated with photos of the progress, so I will be up-to-date on the status of our plants.

Some of the women of PROAL

Some of the women of PROAL

Greenhouse

Greenhouse

Greenhouse progress

Greenhouse progress
Our plants!

Our plants!

Lettuce looking good

Lettuce looking good

The difference a week makes! New lettuce plants on the right.

The difference a week makes! New lettuce plants on the right.

Cucumber sprouts!

Cucumber sprouts!

Last week, I helped out during PROAL’s shampoo-making process. The women produce shampoos using plant extracts and sell them to support the group. We planted several of the plants used to make the shampoo during the project. The shampoo process is pretty simple, but fairly time consuming, as all of the components have to dissolve together, and must be stirred by hand for quite a while in order for this to happen. Later, when it came time to bottle the shampoo, I was reminded of my inexperience as a shampoo-maker. I managed to get more shampoo outside the bottle than inside…Regardless, it was a learning experience, and really neat to see one of the ways PROAL uses the plants we are growing!

Plants for shampoo

Plants for shampoo

Making plant extract

Making plant extract

Making plant extract

Making plant extract

Shampoo-making

Shampoo-making

PROAL's shampoo

PROAL’s shampoo

Bottling shampoo

Bottling shampoo

Bottling floral essences

Bottling floral essences

Tomorrow I leave Costa Rica and head back to the US; I have a quick turnaround and start classes at Mac on Monday. It was hard to say goodbye to Llano Bonito and my family there, since I never know when I will see them next. Fortunately, I am much more hopeful this time that I will be able to return at some point; when I left the first time, I didn’t know if I’d ever be back, but now that I’ve returned once, I am confident that it will happen again (and again, I hope). The people of Llano Bonito were, once again, fantastic. I truly feel at home there, and that is entirely due to the welcoming nature of the community, and of course of my family. I left with the words of my host dad, that I am “una verdadera hija mia” (like his own daughter). I hope that the work that we did will positively contribute to the community, as I believe it will. The women of PROAL seem pleased with the work that we did, so I am content. I am already looking forward to my next visit, though now I’ve been spoiled and can’t stay for less that three weeks without feeling rushed!

A huge THANK YOU to Macalester College and the IGCSC for this opportunity. It was fantastic!

“I am Strong, I am Invincible, I am Woman!”

Another week flew by! Some highlights from the last week:

I invited expert Health educator and founder of the Mythri initiative, Sinu Joseph to one of our sessions. She is a wonderful person who has committed her energy and talents to educating girls about being girls. During the session, she asked the kids to raise their hands if they had already attained puberty — six girls raised their hands shyly. As a warm up to the session, she started talking about her experiences with getting her period for the first time: she thought she had hurt herself on seeing the blood. She told them that she had thought that men wore sanitary napkins too! The kids thought she was hilarious and related to the naivety and cluelessness of her experience.

The girls who had attained puberty shared their stories about how they got their first period. Some of them were at school when it happened, some taking a bath when it happened. Sharing their stories about their first period was a way to tell the girls that getting their period is their special and unique moment and instead of being ashamed of it, they should be proud.

Asking questions, and getting the right answers

Sharing with the group!

Sharing with the group!

Sharing with the group!

Sinu’s Mythri initiative had made an extremely informative video module in Kannada (with English subtitles) that talks about the common myths and misconceptions, biological basics and hygienic practices regarding menstruation. We screened the half hour video for them using a portable projector and a white sheet. The kids really enjoyed the videos and had many questions to ask. It was nice to see them share their concerns like: what do I do if I don’t get regular periods OR is menstrual blood impure blood? At the end of the session, Sinu urged the girls to share what they had learnt with their mothers and sisters and carry it forward. I told the girls to document whatever they learnt in the journals I had given them, and add any questions they have.

Working closely with these kids, it was obvious how bright all of them were. These kids are so impressionable and receptive that they are ready to learn any knowledge that comes their way. At another session, we had a “Dream Day”. We asked every girl to stand up and tell us what they wanted to do with their lives. We got 5 doctors, 6 engineers, 3 school teachers, and 4 dancers/musicians. I asked them how they plan to accomplish their goals: they said that they had to finish high school and college for a better life. We emphasized that they could  do anything they wanted as long as they worked hard, were determined and had ambition. If boys can do it, so can girls. The kids heartily agreed. One even said, “I will finish school because I can!”

j

“Dream Day”

We summarized the session with asking them what they had learnt. One resoundingly common theme for them was that it was important to take care of themselves. I asked them if they had talked to their “amma-s and akka-s (mothers and sisters)” about the session. They said they had. I told the girls they should talk about these things with their loved ones to spread awareness within their community. We even touched upon the recent rapes that had occurred in New Delhi and one girl said that she had heard about it. I couldn’t tell if the others had heard about it as well. I decided that “rape” was a discussion topic for another day.

j

Learning the song

We even listened to a motivational song “I am Woman” by Helen Reddy” in one of the sessions. In many ways, the song related to the themes we have been covering in our sessions. This song is about women can be strong and invincible. I went over the meaning of the lyrics with the kids and the translator helped me explain some phrases they didn’t know. At the end of the song, the kids knew the chorus and were humming it happily. The chorus had three critical lines: “I am Strong, I am Invincible, I am Woman!” They were eager to learn more songs like it. By the end of the session, whenever we asked them a question or asked them to answer their own questions, they all said “…because I am strong…” Those words can pull anyone out of dark times and help propel them towards greater things. That they were saying those words themselves was heartwarming.

h

Getting volunteers to read different lines of the song

One more week and then I’m back to Mac!

Project in Full Swing!

Wow, the first week of the project really flew by! Of course, there were minor hiccups here and there, but in the end it has been one great learning experience. With every passing day of the project, I am constantly expanding the scope of the program under the umbrella of empowerment. I’m tailoring the project as I understand what teaching techniques and topics work and what don’t as I get to know the kids better. They are all so eager to learn and I’m really lucky to have such a bright, lively and attentive bunch. At the end of week 1, I gifted the kids a small journal. They asked me why? I said “to share your thoughts, experiences and questions because what you have to say is important.”

A note I wrote in their journals.

A note I wrote in their journals.

The school (Ramagondanahalli Government school) I teach at is a Kannada (the vernacular language) medium school. I’m familiar with the language, and the kids can speak English to an extent. However, I was sure that having a translator would keep the message intact and allow the kids to be comfortable receiving a message they can understand fully. Now, I have a translator, Ms Varaja who is a part time teacher at the school. She has committed to staying back after school to help me.

The kids!

The kids!

Everyday, I continue to emphasize that our  biological changes make us, girls and women, beautiful. As a result, we should be proud and confident. I explained that women everywhere in the world experience this unique process — girls in America, and down the road all go through similar challenges. I told them about my experience with it, and how I experience cramps, and headaches with every period. I wanted to create an environment where they could all share.

I’ve been doing a lot of activities with the kids. One time, I asked the kids to draw some injustice they see in their lives or environment to get things going. They went around the circle explaining what their picture was. One girl Priyanka, explained her picture: it was a girl who was walking back from school and was taken into the woods and raped. the girl was some relative of hers and that she had even seen the body. She said this with a sense of nonchalance and even shrugged at the end. It was like she had been so hardened by circumstances in her life. It was empowering and emboldening to see them sharing these intimate details with me. It reminded of what a wise soul had once told me: “It’s times like these when we as women come together and become  open with each other. I think this is what empowers us and makes us stronger.”

Doing the activity.

Doing the activity.

Another activity included the kids writing sentences in English or Kannada that described a situation related to their environment and them being girls. How do they precisely articulate the gendered discrimination and injustices happening around them? The sentences included strong words like ‘shame’ or ‘torture’. They see these situations as painful, irritating and potentially harmful and not something they should be subject to.

During the last session of the week, we had a question and answer session. I asked all the kids to tell me some question or situation that they want to share. The questions and situations included: why do men stare at us, why do they whistle at us, why do they touch us, why don’t brothers touch their sisters, what if an elder man touches me, I’ve seen an older man touch his young daughter, a random man hit me on the road. We had to coax some kids to share and when they did, it was like something heavy tormenting them inside was pouring out. One girl even broke down because she couldn’t share something that was eating her inside. I could tell it was really hurting her because she found it hard to share. She was obviously going through something really tough. I tried my best to answer them in a helpful manner and direct them to people who had more experience than I do.

Question and Answer session with Ms. Varaja.

Question and Answer session with Ms. Varaja.

Question and answer session with Ms. Varaja.

Question and answer session with Ms. Varaja.

A meeting with renowned Bangalore based lawyer and former UNICEF consultant, Ms Divya Mundkar was eye opening. Her advice was simple and helpful. Education is the best way to empower these young girls. Their survival instincts will supercede any other desire to learn and open their minds to world around them. A lot of them drop out because they have to support their families. Making sure these girls stay in school till they graduate will ensure that they can have a fair shot at life and remain economically independent when they are married. That will ensure long lasting empowerment.

All in all, it’s been an exciting and tiring week. I can’t wait to get started on week 2! I’ll keep all of you updated. Stay warm!

– Shruthi

Seguimos! The Project Continues…

We’ve made huge strides in the past week! On Monday my host parents and I were all over La Zona de Los Santos—We drove into San Pablo, San Marcos and Santa Maria in search of materials for the greenhouse, plants etc. [Hanging with those two is always a riot; I have found that Ticos (Costa Ricans) generally have very good senses of humor. My host family in particular is hilarious & loves to laugh, which is one of the reasons we get along so well. Not to mention during this trip, we were seated shoulder-to-shoulder across the front seat of a pickup truck, and I had to lift myself up for my host dad to put the truck in reverse! It was a silly day.] We ended up going to two coffee cooperatives in the zone to buy materials, as they are great resources for agricultural products. CoopeTarrazú is the largest cooperative in the area, much larger than CoopeLlano Bonito, where I worked last semester. We also went to CoopeDota, which is one of the most well known cooperatives in the area. In addition to the co-ops and a few other stops, we went to a beautiful little plant shop in San Marcos, where it was cool, shady and smelled great. They sold all sorts of flowers, trees, herbs and other plants.

Centro Agricrícola--buying soil & plants

Centro Agricrícola–buying soil & plants

Mami Olga happy with her finds

Mami Olga happy with her finds

Plant shopping

Plant shopping

Lovely plant store

Lovely plant store

We bought the plants, seeds, hoses, plastic and other materials that we needed, getting ready to do more work in the greenhouse. During this week we re-lined beds that were in bad shape and my host dad brought out his tools to remake a few beds that had started to decay. We added new, fertile soil to the old beds and watered and watered and watered. We also started planting, filling most of the beds with peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, cucumbers, rosemary, etc. A few beds remain unplanted, but we are hoping to add a few more types of plants in the next week or so. All in all things are looking really good! The women of PROAL had their weekly meeting this week, for the first time since before the holidays. I’m looking forward to joining them next week when they make shampoo, one of the products they sell to support the group. I will get to see the process and how they use the herbs that we are planting!

All cleaned up & ready to plant

All cleaned up & ready to plant

Planting lettuce

Planting lettuce

Little lettuce

Little lettuce

Planting cilantro seeds

Planting cilantro seeds

Cucumber seeds

Cucumber seeds

Lots of water for the new plants

Lots of water for the new plants

Papi Otto repairing some beds

Papi Otto repairing some beds

Lining beds

Lining beds

Looking good

Looking good

In non-project-related news, the summer fiestas in Llano start this weekend and people are very excited! The soccer field in the center of town is slowing being converted into festival grounds, with a stage, food stands and all. Soon I’ll know what all the fuss is about! Also, this week I paid a visit to CoopeLlano Bonito to see everyone I worked with last semester. I was sweetly surprised to see that the poster I left, with all of the results of my research, was still hanging aside the front door. My mentor at the co-op, Jorge, asked that I come back one afternoon so that I can hangout in the processing plant and see the rest of the process as harvested coffee comes in. It has been truly wonderful to come back to Costa Rica and have everything feel so familiar. This experience is different than the last, but it is so nice to arrive and know people, places, etc. and to have them recognize me.

Last spring, with my research poster & co-workers

Last spring, with my research poster & co-workers

That’s it for now, but I will keep you all updated. Sending sunshine to all of you in the North!

-Justine

” getting in touch with what made me”

I really did not understand the term “cultural shock in your own country” until the 20th December 2013.  Having been away from home for nearly one and a half years nothing would have prepared me for the sight of my lovely kingdom in the sky as Lesotho is called.

At the border post I was welcomed by the sight of crowds of busy people. The noise, the hooting of buses, street vendors persuasively encouraging me to buy the products, jobless young men begging for some cash, I knew I was home.  Let me skip over the warm welcomes, and tears from family and friends overcome by the joy of celebrating the so important religious holidays with me and move over the poultry farming  project which is part of my live it fund!

Two years ago, having  completed my IB diploma at a United College, I took six months off volunteering with a foundation that catered for orphans and vulnerable children in Lesotho.  Being part of the foundation changed my life tremendously urging me to continue on with my passion of social work. Above all, I was deeply touched by an orphanage home which took care off HIV and AIDS orphaned kids. At Mac, when I heard of the live it fund! I could no think of anything other than the place which had made believe once more in humanity.

When I left home, the orphanage only took care of 60 or so kids and was struggling a lot with keeping with the daily operating of the home. This is why I opted to do a poultry farming project as a source of income which would be fully operated by the kids themselves.

Arriving at the orphanage on the 6th of January. I was overcome with joy. Though not all kids had come back from visiting their relatives for holidays the few I have met made my heart melt. Their transformation that I had long hoped for was there, all the signs of despair and feeling of not being unwanted that had become a familiar sight two years ago were all gone. I saw hope for survival people willing fight whatever labels people had put on them to be their own individuals!

Doing the Work!!

Though I was impressed by the new infrastructure of the new home and the fact that they had relocated away from the “city”(many would not consider the previous housing situated a city but it is to me), I was torn by the fact that may kids  had not returned and time was flying by. I had to reschedule my timeline.   Instead of starting off with the kids, I had to start with the people who I was going to work with.  We recalculated the  costs, after the people from the Agric college suggested new methods for raising the chickens. The building with I was promised is perfect was labeled imperfect by my expects and is now going under reconstruction. I have since ordered all the materials needed and I am undergoing training with minister of social welfare about the language I should use when addressing the kids (this was not in my agenda)

However, as of today everything seems to be going in place and Monday the 13th is the big day, I will be meeting all my angles and friends. As for the small delay in updating the blog and failure to have media in the posts, it is all because of the relocation of the home to a rural place. As I type, I am at a small internet café with limited network but I promise to have everything in due time. I am looking forward for the weeks ahead and hoe all the readers will stay with me in the journey.

From the deep mountains of Lesotho, hope you are having great holidays!

Hola y Bienvenidos: J-Term Live It! in Costa Rica

Hola y bienvenidos! After a day of travel last Sunday, I have found my way back to my Costa Rican home.

First, an introduction! I am Justine Decker, a senior geography major and biology minor from Waukesha, Wisconsin. Last spring I studied abroad with ACM’s program in Costa Rica, and spent two months in a rural zone working on an independent research project at a local coffee cooperative. I ended up in Llano Bonito, a rural mountain town south of San José, surrounded by coffee farms on all sides. During my time in Llano I was lucky enough to be taken in by a host family native to the zone, which has adopted me in as one of their own! The whole community welcomed me during the two months I spent with them and were a huge help in the success of my project during study abroad. Their hospitality and kindness was more than I had ever anticipated, and when it came time for me to leave, I knew I’d be back at some point.

Familia Durán Corella

Familia Durán Corella

A=Llano Bonito, Costa Rica

A=Llano Bonito, Costa Rica

When I came across the opportunity for a J-term Live It project, I immediately thought of Llano Bonito. If there was a way for me to contribute to my adopted community, I wanted to do it! I immediately sent a message to my host sister, a 24-year old art teacher at the local high school, explaining the possibility of a project and asking for her advice. What sort of project would be feasible given the time/budget constraints, and what would the community like to see? She responded with total excitement and several ideas. Together, and with advice from my host mom, we decided on the project now underway.

Los Santos, CR

Los Santos, CR

Here’s the run-down: For my Live It! project I have returned to Llano Bonito to collaborate with an organization in the community, called PROAL Holo-Salud, to expand their initiative of growing organic produce and medicinal plants to be used by the community. Herbal medicine and home remedies are an important part of Costa Rican culture and are depended upon and utilized by many people, especially rural populations. PROAL focuses on improving the health of the community using a holistic approach, addressing many aspects of life (deemed ‘holo-salud’ in Spanish). The organization is made up of a group of local women who define the organization as: “an association that promotes a new paradigm of life based on ethics that involve respect, responsibility and solidarity in social relationships with nature.” They focus much effort on medicinal plants and natural products. More recently, PROAL has begun to establish gardens and greenhouse space to grow organic produce. My host mom is a member of the organization, and I visited often during my two months in Llano.

PROAL

PROAL

PROAL

PROAL

Llano Bonito is fairly isolated; it is located about one hour by bus, 30 minutes by car, from the nearest city, San Pablo, which is where residents must conduct much of their business, including banking and shopping. Agriculture in the area is dedicated to the production of two cash crops, coffee and avocados; few other vegetables are grown. Therefore, in order for residents to purchase vegetables and greens, they must travel a significant distance. Additionally, produce available at markets in the zone is often grown with the use of many harsh chemicals.

For this project, I will work with PROAL to establish organic vegetable gardens from which they will sell produce to convenience stores (‘pulperias’) in town, as well as directly to residents, providing accessible, safe, healthy food to local residents. To do this, we are going to expand the greenhouse that already exists and plant vegetables in unplanted beds. I will also repair portions of the greenhouse that have been damaged by wind. I plan to establish additional beds outside of the greenhouse, on the property owned by PROAL, where I will plant a variety of medicinal plants that will be used by the women of PROAL to treat local residents.

PROAL's Greenhouse

PROAL’s Greenhouse

On our first day working, Kari (my host sister), Olga (my host mom) and I visited PROAL to take a look at the status of the greenhouse and grounds. As you can see from the photos, the greenhouse beds were in rough shape. The next day, we spent time cleaning up the beds, removing dead plants, emptying beds that need to be repaired and turning the soil in others. Things are looking much better already!

Greenhouse: Day 1

Greenhouse: Day 1

Greenhouse: Day 1

Greenhouse: Day 1

Soil -en las manos de Kari

Soil -en las manos de Kari

Greenhouse: Day 1

Greenhouse: Day 1

Greenhouse: Day 1

Greenhouse: Day 1

Kari turning soil

Kari turning soil

Cleaned beds

Cleaned beds

Cleaned beds

Cleaned beds

Emptying beds

Emptying beds

Mami Olga & I emptying beds

Mami Olga & I emptying beds

A side note: the coffee harvest is under way in the area! When I was here last the plants were in full bloom, and now the fruit is ripe and ready to be harvested. Bushes full of red berries are all over town. Coffee farms in this area are located on extremely steep slopes and the fruit must be harvested by hand. Families and migrant workers cover the mountainsides during this time of year, harvesting from the farms—very difficult work. Something to remember next time you are enjoying a cup of coffee!

Coffee-covered mountainsides

Coffee-covered mountainsides

Coffee ready for harvest

Coffee ready for harvest

Happy New Year to all! Hasta la próxima vez—Until next time!

-Justine