Blossoming of Bougainvillea…8 Years in the Making

Ethiopia_2012_flowers

by Jean Shin, Volunteer

Traveling light is something I know a few things about—or so I thought. Repacking my backpack in Addis Ababa for my 2nd attempt to enter Denan, I had to pause and think what I really need on a daily basis. Sticking to my strict rule of whatever-doesn’t-fit-into-this-one-bag-comes-out, I was able to hop onto the plane with a light carry-on—and huge anticipation.

Looking down on the changing landscape, from lush high mountains to arid terrain, I could sense that we are getting closer to the lowland of Ogadan, the ethnic Somali region of Ethiopia. Seeing the excited face of Dick Young, the Founder of The Denan Project, as we flew over the Project’s horseshoe-shaped hospital compound that’s clearly visible from above , I knew there awaits something special, something that came to be…against all odds.

The ride to Denan after switching from plane to car in Gode kicked off with a roadblock. My heart sank when our two vehicles were stopped by the army, and we were asked to wait until the following day. Half-heartily refusing to accept that I’m the curse (as I wasn’t able to enter the area in 2009 due to rebel activities in the region), I felt so relived when we were able to zip through the gate the following morning. With Denan still 90 minutes away—and our ambulance convoy out of sight, Dick had asked Mukhtar Adem (Head of our local partner OWDA) to stop the car to get closer look at one of the refuge camps that weren’t there when he passed by 3 months ago. As the people (mostly all women except one man and children) gathered around us, I started to crisscross the camp not knowing where to fix my eyes at…hundreds of temporary huts (only about 4 ft high, not even big enough for me to stand up in) with no trace of food or water. As we learned that these are the people who lost everything, including their livestock, to the rain/flood that followed the disastrous, record-breaking drought of the last season, I couldn’t help but feeling the wicked hands of the mother nature.  As we are leaving them, following Mukthar’s advice not to send our water truck and Plumpy’Nut to them as our resources are committed to the people of Denan, and there seems to be a UNICEF medical vehicle visiting them on a weekly basis, I was beginning to feel the weight of the decisions we make…and the responsibilities of having the choices to make.

Being a day late (with no way to communicate the delay to the hospital), our arrival was met without the jovial excitement I often saw in previous reports, much to my relief. Then there was…a sight that even Dick had never seen before: bright colors of bougainvillea and green leaves hugging the dusty, brown walls of the compound! When we later learned that one of the Elders had donated the seeds (quite pricey in that part of the world) and planted the greens without even being asked, I could sense that things have turned the corner…and began to come to its fruition, quite dramatically.

The marathon of meetings that followed our lunch (yes, they killed a goat for us) was nothing short of eye-opening for me. On a personal level, my biggest concern up to that point was the possibility of not being able to communicate with them in the usual way I connect with people (trying to understand their intent, and the reasoning behind what they are saying). It took only a few minutes into our meeting with the disabled group (who paid back their micro loan ahead of schedule and saved their profits) for me to realize how silly I was to expect anything other than a real dialogue, a fully articulated exchange of thoughts and sentiments dotted with a sense of humor that’s universal in English and Somali! Detecting the same connection and warmth on all the faces I was greeted with, including the hospital staff of 40 men and women (who voluntarily put aside 2% of their salary to fund expenses for transporting patients they cannot treat in our hospital), I felt the close proximity to what surrounds us…the basic necessities of living with what surrounds us…and the desire and will to go beyond the limits of what surrounds us.

Being awake at 4AM listening to the ever-so-vocal donkeys, and counting the countless stars directly above me, I waited for the sun to come up to my right with sleep-deprived-yet-invigorated eyes. The same rhythm of the morning, but never a same day: accompanying the doctor during his morning rounds and seeing mothers with mal- nourished babies; surveying an abandoned health facility in nearby Burqayer for possible expansion; walking to the riverbed to catch up with the women and children of Denan who make the trip twice a day to fetch water; sitting with the Elders trying to work out a financial arrangement for the use of the tractor, and so on.

Among all those unique encounters, there is one thing that compelled me to raise my hand for an immediate action. Having canceled the water pipeline inspection schedule due to rebel sighting in the area, we went over to the school where the project has been providing supplemental financial help for hiring and training qualified teachers. Having seen pictures of empty classrooms with no desks and chairs, I was glad to see students sitting on their chairs and listening to the teacher. But as I was walking around the school, my heart was getting heavier. From the corner of my eye, I see military personnel with guns walking around, and the skinniest cows I’ve ever seen chewing paper on the ground having nothing else to eat. Clearly not the kind of educational environment I’ve known. And when I realized that there is only one textbook per class—and it belongs to the teacher, I just couldn’t contain myself. I didn’t know where else the kids can escape to in that environment if not to books! In my attempt to move the issue to a priority list, I’ve asked Mukhtar how his kids in the city get textbooks. His answer: I bought them for them. A failure of the state education bureaucracy, yes. But the kids need the books now, not later, right now…my murmuring continues as I’m still waiting for the cost of the textbooks to come from OWDA.

With my dusty backpack on my shoulder, and my dustier hair itching my skull, I hopped onto the plane to Addis. Only then I realized the contents of my backpack. 2/3 of what I thought was essential for my daily living were lifeless, needing batteries to be recharged. I almost forgot about them. I didn’t really need them after all. I was unplugged. And that was A-OK. I know the kids in Denan want them—they told me so in no uncertain terms. It’s their turn to play with being plugged in…Now they are ready like the bougainvillea that opened up against all odds.

Seeing the Denan Project After My Long Years at the UN

By Richard Gordon, Volunteer

In late October-early November, I accompanied Dick Young to Peru in the context of the DENAN PROJECT. The mission consisted of meetings, discussions, and ceremonies in Limatambo, the district capital, and in Uratari, where the project is based.

At the outset, I should say that I worked for the United Nations for twenty-seven years primarily doing project work in developing countries in the field of integrated rural development, a multi-disciplinary approach to confronting poverty in rural areas in such fields as health, education, water resources, agricultural development, and small-scale income-generating activities. Because of this experience, I could quickly relate to and understand the nature and activities of the Uratari project, including such important factors as the need for collaboration with and support of national, regional, and local government officials; the difficulty of recruiting qualified professional staff to live and work in remote areas; the involvement of the local community in developing and advancing the critical work of the project; and the necessity of ensuring the timely delivery of inputs.

The Uratari project has five principal components or objectives for eventual implementation: 1) health; 2) education; 3) agriculture; 4) water resources; and 5) economic development. With the understanding that the most critical need in the Uratari region was the provision of medical services which were nonexistent before the arrival of The Denan Project, the parties concerned, namely The Denan Project; Tengo Un Sueno, the local NGO which partners with Denan, the villagers in Uratari, and the national and local governments agreed that the most urgent objective was to provide a health center in Uratari staffed with professional doctors and dentists and with modern medical equipment. This health center would serve an outlying community of 23 villages in the region. The villagers in Uratari agreed to provide local labor and resources to build the health center on their own without outside assistance. The health center was accordingly built by the village and it has been progressively staffed and financed by The Denan Project. When we arrived in Uratari, the first thing that we saw was the gleaming white health center building which is functioning very efficiently as a medical service for villagers in Uratari and far beyond who come to the center for medical treatment, both actual and preventive, at no cost to themselves. Dick Young and his counterparts in Tengo Un Sueno and local government officials walked through and did a complete observation of the health center, discussing relevant matters with the medical staff, resolving some issues related to the delivery on inputs (such as the provision of a solar panel, solar heater, and a new ambulance from abroad), and pointing out a number of small problems in the building infrastructure for resolution and repair.   There was a ceremony to inaugurate a new pre-school in Uratari, attended by the Mayor of Limatambo and other local government officials. A new high school is also being constructed by the villagers. There was discussion of the eventual provision of irrigation for agricultural development in Uratari and the surrounding region. The villagers themselves, through speeches at the ceremony, as well as in conversations with the visitors, seemed both grateful and excited about the health center (we were informed that in a recent month, 800 individuals had come for treatment to the health center from both Uratari and outlying villages) and other eventual project inputs. It is evident that the creation of the health center by The Denan Project is serving as a catalyst for other critical needs of Uratari and the local community.

I mentioned above that I spent a long period of time with the United Nations working on socio-economic development projects in developing countries. In my long experience with the U.N., I have rarely, if ever, seen a more effective project than The Denan Project in Uratari. In considering the reasons for this, I have identified the following factors as instrumental in making this project so successful:

  • Dick Young, who initiated The Denan Project in a remote area of Ethiopia and then expanded the Project to Burkino Fasso, Peru, and recently to Mongolia, has mobilized a set of donors, Board members, and Committee members of highly dedicated individuals who commit their time and resources on a long-term basis to ensure that the Project will accomplish its objectives.
  • Dick goes 3-4 times a year to each project site to monitor, evaluate, and propose solutions to existing problems. This constitutes a continual and valuable empirical oversight for Utarari and the other venues.
  • Dick has managed to partner with well-established and highly effective local NGOs. In the case of Uratari, the partner is Tengo Un Sueno, run by a former UNICEF staff member who knows the developing world and particularly South America exceedingly well. Dick has also managed to establish strong working relations with both national and local government officials who participate and are intimately involved with all aspects of the project. In Peru, for example, the mayor of Limatambo and many of his staff continually visit the project and provide inputs and assistance.
  • In Uratari, as well as in elsewhere, the recipients, namely the villagers, are aware of the immediate benefits of the project for themselves (medical assistance initially) and are willing to participate in essential local tasks. In Uratari, as noted, local labor was provided gratis to build the health center and maintain it.
  • The philosophy of providing medical services gratis, at no cost to the villagers, which permits the poorest of the poor to take advantage of the health center in Uratari.
  • Dick’s philosophy in relation to the issue of ‘sustainability.’ In the UN system, as well as in bilateral aid (USAID, Canadian, or French assistance, for instance), projects are funded and implemented for a defined period of time (3-5 years, for example). There may be a project extension, but often not. A project extension has a limited time basis. Once the project is “completed,” the UN or the bilateral agency pulls out, leaving the national and particularly the local government to ‘sustain,’ often meaning ‘maintain’ the project to ensure that its accomplishments will not lapse or be frittered away. However, in most cases, because of financial and political factors, the project work slows down or even ceases altogether, primarily because the local government does not have the financial means or human resources to ‘sustain’ the initial success of the project. Dick Young’s philosophy, however, is entirely different. He has committed The Denan Project to stay in Denan, Ethiopia and in Uratari, Peru, for a period of 15-20 years. This long time horizon ensures that the immediate benefits of the project (health, education, and water in Denan, and medical services in Uratari) will be sustainable. This approach, of course, puts pressure upon The Denan Project to finance Denan, Uratari, and the other venues year after year, but it ensures the ‘sustainability,’ as well as the success of the efforts of The Denan Project for the long term.

The Ascending Path to the Uratari Medical Center

Uratari_Janet_0411By Jean Shin, Volunteer

It has already been over a week since I last held Janet’s hand saying good-bye, and watched the kids of Uratari disappear in the rearview mirror of the van coming back to Cusco—for my slow return to New York. But I can’t seem to be sufficiently afar enough to articulate my impressions of the magical place called the Uratari Medical Center. Perhaps it’s the overwhelming warmth of the numerous hands and cheeks they greeted me with, or maybe it was the breathtaking, lush landscape of the Andes after a long rainy season…no, above all, to my greatest surprise, it was the sight of bricks and mortar: a shining white building with an even shinier blue fence and door!

Having had the opportunity to hear an overview about the place from the founder of The Denan Project (TDP) Dick Young, and the local partners at Salgalu (Salvador, Clotilde, and Lourdes), and to see some pictures of the Center’s progress, I thought I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Little did I know…

The experience started to stir up my emotions even before I set foot into the Center. Taken by the breathtaking landscape above and beneath the ever-ascending path to Uratari (13,300 ft above the sea level), I almost missed the lone Quechua woman walking up the road. When the driver (the vice mayor of Limatambo) told us that she is walking to the Center, I turned around to see her—and saw what drives the volunteers of TDP. A woman in traditional Quechua garments and sandals taking brisk steps forward to reach the Center where she can (probably for the first time in her life) receive answers to her nagging health problems in her native tongue, and get the cares she needs—and even see a dentist for the first time—all free of charge.

Upon arrival at the Center, I was amazed by the sheer size and warmth of the reception from the village people, the medical staff, and the local municipal staff. And when I caught sight of the Center, I was completely awed. It seemed decidedly new and different from the mudbrick, rundown houses surrounding it. The Center stood like a shining beacon of promises kept—even exceeded. A functioning medical center with a maternity ward, a dental office, a pharmacy/lab, in-patient rooms, a kitchen, and a work-in-progress garden for medicinal plants…all built, brick by brick, by the people of Uratari with the materials provided by the TDP. Tight hand-shakes and embraces paced my movements as I navigated through the facility with awe. As I was overhearing how the community wanted to surprise Dick by putting the fence up ahead of the schedule, my heart melted with the realization that this place is so perfectly ready to create a better future.

Even with the excitements of the festivity of the 1st day still potent in my senses (my taste buds included), I couldn’t help but notice the challenges still ahead for the Center to provide higher quality of service for a greater number of people—and ultimately expand into all aspects of the five-finger approach of TDP (Health, Education, Water, Agriculture/Food, Cottage Industries). Listening at Dick’s meetings with the medical staff (the Head Doctor, Dentist, Nurses, and Cleaner, who are all hired locally and paid by TDP), the local partner Salgalu, and the mayor of the Limatambo (with jurisdiction over Uratari) for the following days, my heart became full of optimism. A sense of shared mission was apparent in every aspect: the community’s willingness to build a house for a villager who has given his house to the Center for its plans to build a preschool and a guest house; the mayor’s commitment to explore all means to secure an ambulance; the team’s plan to build a footbridge over the Apurimac River to help the neighbors reach the Center; etc.

Walking around the Center during its “normal” day, I found myself uttering a cliché: If you build it, they will come. Come, they did. A pregnant woman who just saw a sonogram for the first time; a shy boy who just sat on a dental chair for the first time; an ancient-looking woman who just found out how old she was (some of the Quechua-speaking people can’t read their own ID cards which are written in Spanish); a long line of men, women, and kids (many with their dogs) waiting patiently to register and see the doctor; dozens of school boys and men lined up in the front yard to receive a haircut by beauticians that came from Limatambo; and many more. Everywhere I turned, I could feel something real, something very tangible happening. All with such warmth and care.

Leaving Uratari, even with a plan of my return, wasn’t easy. I walked around once more with my hands stretched out hoping that Janet (who wasn’t sure of her own age, and was too shy to tell me her name until I had to get it from her friend) would show up and hold my hand as she did on the first day I met her. But no sight of her this time. Then there she was, walking right up to the van just before we drove away…Sitting in the van with my lap covered with the beautiful, hand-woven blanket I received from the Uratari women as a parting gift, I could see the threads that connect us all—all in bright colors and brilliant harmony.