Friday, April 15, 2016

Seeings Little Rock through children's eyes!

As we told you in previous posts, Carol Falk took her family to Little Rock. Following are the impressions of two of her grandchildren and what they have to say about their visit.

First there is Alex's story:

Alex Falk with Little Rock preschooler
My name is Alex Falk.  I am nine years old and I live in the U.S.  I recently visited the Little Rock School.  I think it is amazing how this school can bring education to their students of any age.
For example I visited a class with eighth graders.  For some of them they’re here because of a physical disability.  They are here because other schools may have rejected them because of their disabilities.  But Little Rock is open to everyone!

Alex with cousin, Heather and Little Rock student
I also think it’s amazing how the school makes sure nobody feels mistreated because of their looks or how they interact with other people.
Seeing this school has changed my life because seeing all these kids who have barely anything at home have so much at this school.

Then there is Patrick who had this to say:

Patrick with Little Rock  friend, Lulu 
My name is Patrick Falk. I’m 14, and somehow I got lucky enough at this age to take a trip to Kenya with my family. On the second day of the trip, we went to the Little Rock School just outside of Kibera in Nairobi. Being in an environment with these children, some of which wouldn’t have been accepted into other schools, was just incredible. The students were all bright and happy, and so excited to share their education with us. They loved to take photos and exchange stories, and they were all so open and kind. My cousins, my sister, and I made quite a few friends, from toddlers to students in our age groups. 

Lulu likes Patrick's glasses
Little Rock welcomes children with open arms, regardless of family situations or disabilities. Seeing these kids come out of poverty at home, eager to learn and discover, was so inspiring. It is so, so important to help children around the world get the education they deserve, and Little Rock is taking a big step for Kibera. This experience has been life changing, and I am so thankful that I got to visit the school.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Beth Falk's Impressions of Little Rock!

Beth Falk with Little Rock pre-schooler

Our family's visit to the Little Rock Inclusive Early Childhood Development Centre in Nairobi was, without question, life-changing.  I think we all had a year's worth of life lessons in a single day.

I'm not certain I even have the words to describe Lilly Oyare and what she's accomplished. I'm in awe of what she has created for the Little Rock children in the midst of what could be impossible obstacles. Little Rock is such a beautiful respite for families who live in a kind of poverty that's difficult for most of us to fully comprehend.  The school is bright, clean, colorful and safe. It's clear that the children are loved and respected, and that they've learned to love and respect each other in turn. As a parent, I was deeply impressed by Lilly and her staff's recognition of all of the components of a good education, from nutrition to giving the kids opportunities for simple play and movement before asking them to concentrate on academics. The occupational therapists on staff spoke with real passion about their work, and it's clear that the team understands how critical that work is to the children who need OT. I wish some of the schools in the U.S. showed that depth of understanding of child development, and that kind of commitment to the value of education.

Kids in Kibera

Of course, we loved all the children, and our kids did, too. It was very difficult to get them to leave after so many hugs and so much laughter and shared play. The fact that children from different sides of the world could sit on the ground together and play “Duck, Duck, Goose” or color and play with stickers together made us all feel good. Our 14-year old was deeply affected by our home visit in Kibera. I think we're all experiencing a complicated mix of feelings from sadness to great hope after what we saw. 

I understand better now, John and Judy, why you've been compelled to continue this work, and I hope we'll be able to do more to support it. Our kids had lots to share with their classmates at home, and still talk about the friends they made at Little Rock. I hope that sense of connection and friendship will stay with them, and that they'll find some ways to support the community there.

Beth Falk

Friday, April 8, 2016

What a life altering experience!

Carol with Little Rock mom and her daughter

This February, I wanted to celebrate my 70th birthday by taking my family on an extraordinary trip.  For me, Africa became a magical place when I visited with my brother for the first time last year.  For John, this was primarily an EPN business trip with one of the important destinations being the Little Rock Inclusive Early Childhood Development Centre in Nairobi, Kenya.  I had met its founder, Lilly Oyare, when she visited the US the year before, and was anxious to see the school.  For me, the rest is history; I was hooked on Little Rock.

Little Rock kids

Eleven of us, ages 7 to 80, shared the most amazing experiences, but I think it was our day at Little Rock that set the tone for the rest of our African adventure.  My four grandchildren were enthralled with the kids, hundreds and hundreds of smiling, laughing, running and jumping kids who greeted them with open arms. On our way to Little Rock, we had driven through the main street of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, and my grandchildren were aware that this slum was home to most of the Little Rock students.  In the afternoon, when we had planned a walk through Kibera, the three girls refused to join us protesting they were having just too much fun at the school.  Somehow, a day at Little Rock infuses one with joy, and hope, and happiness.

Carol's grandkids with Little Rock friends 

My grandchildren were no exception.  They talked about that day for the rest of the trip, and always with love and affection.  The rest of our time in Kenya was fabulous, but as we were waiting at the Nairobi airport to start our homeward journey, I asked what was the highlight of their vacation.  Almost in unison, they replied, “the Little Rock School”.   Today, we still talk about the Little Rock School and how they might be able to raise money to help their new friends.
For me, returning to Little Rock strengthened my commitment to EPN, to the Little Rock School, to the EPN sponsored Little Rock Scholars Program, and to my wonderful brother John who is really making a difference. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Off to Africa!

Hi All --

This is John with a quick note.  I'm headed off to Africa for 2 weeks -- 5 days in Benin with the Songhai Centre and 8 days in Niger with Dov Pasternak and the Farmers of the Future project.  You'll remember Father Godfrey Nzamujo, founder of the Songhai Centre, and Dov, father of Farmers of the Future, from our EPN Hero series.  I'm delighted that Peter Wentworth, our newest EPN board member, is joining me in Niger.  With all his international experience and keen insight, Peter added real value on last year's trip to Rwanda and Kenya and I look forward to his contributions in Niger.

EPN's key project in Benin is the Songhai Women's Capital Fund. The fund provides low interest loans to women graduates of the Songhai Centre to start their own agricultural ventures. Currently 25 women participate in the program.  Results of their ventures have been mixed so we're anxious to identify ways to improve their success rate.  We'll be combining site visits with internal discussions to hammer out a specific plan of action.

Father Godfrey, John and Judy Craig with Songhai Women

In Niger the focus is Farmers of the Future. We're wrapping up the pilot phase of the project. Our original pilot villages are at a critical stage. After three years of training and technical support we are withdrawing backing from the women's garden associations to determine if they are ready to truly be independent and self-sustaining. At the same time we're finalizing plans to open a 5th site.

          FOF Woman Farmer in the Tree Nursery

It will incorporate all the learnings and best practices gained from years of testing to create a showcase for Farmers of the Future and demonstrate what it can achieve. Finally, we'll be meeting with several organizations to explore potential partnerships to begin scaling the program.

Should be a great trip!!  I'll provide updates from the field, internet connections permitting. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Niger: A great place for EPN to work

As I mentioned in the previous post, John will be traveling to Niger in the upcoming weeks to visit the site of the Farmers of the Future. Niger is one of the world's most challenging places to live, economically speaking. But when it comes to reducing extreme poverty, Niger is a great place for EPN to work. Here’s why.

Niger: Quick Facts

Population: 19,113,728 (2014 census)

Capital: Niamey

Bordered by: Nigeria, Chad, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Libya (a pretty neighborhood these days)

The Great Mosque in Agadez, Niger

  • Aïr mountains (a cooler region with altitudes over 1800 meters)
  •  Ténéré desert (where temperatures often exceed 122 F)
  •  The W National Park (home to buffalo, hippo, lions, antelope, and elephants) 
  • The Great Mosque in Agadez (mud-architecture with 27-meter minaret)
  •  Neolithic rock engravings – some in museums, others left in remote areas

Ténéré desert - sand dune between Fachi and Bilma, Niger

Languages: French (official government language), and 5 main local languages: Hausa, Songhai, Fula/Fulbe, Kanuri/Beri-Beri, Tamasheq/Tamajaq 

Motto: “Fraternité, Travail, Progrès” which means “Brotherhood, Work, Progress.”  

Geography & Climate
Niger is the largest country in West Africa; to give you a sense of its size, its area is just under two times that of Texas. It has one of the hottest climates in the world, and as such has been nicknamed “the frying pan of the world.” Over 80% of its land is covered by the Sahara Desert, and only 0.02% of its area is covered by water. 

People & Culture
Over 90% of the population is Sunni Muslim. Some of the people are nomadic or semi-nomadic, following ancient grazing routes.

Subsistence Farming
The vast majority of the population of Niger survives by subsistence farming, which means that they only raise enough animals and grow enough crops to meet the family's needs. Women are often left for long periods of time while their husbands look for work in town centers or graze the herds. In their absence, the women farm the land and care for children and elderly relatives.

Cattle, sheep, and goats are the main herds that graze the land, and millet, sorghum, and cow peas are important agriculturally. But when the rains are poor, people really struggle. Rainfall has been decreasing over the last 50 years and severe droughts have led to pronounced food shortages as recently as in 2005 and 2009. Agricultural experts are engineering crops that will grow quickly to take advantage of what rains do fall.

The more fertile land in southern Niger, near the Niger River
While most of the land is too dry to grow crops, Niger’s southeast and southwest corners have more fertile soil. In the southwest lies the Niger River Basin, which Niger shares with eight other countries. The Niger River supports farmers, cattle grazers, and fishermen from all these neighboring countries, and it is thus a very fragile region. In order to preserve it, they have developed one of the world’s most progressive river management systems: The Niger River Basin Authority, whose responsibility it is to ensure that the Niger River’s resources are used judiciously and that it benefits the local communities.  

Farmers of the Future
Perhaps you remember reading about our EPN Hero, Dov Pasternak?  Dov lived in Niger for 10 years and has worked with thousands of rural farmers in the country.  For all the challenges they face, Dov describes Nigeriens as some of the most kind-hearted people he has met anywhere in the world.  And Dov has seen a lot of the world!

Farmers of the Future nurseries - Niger
Dov is the father of the Farmers of the Future project, and has developed a range of techniques to grow hardy vegetables even on severely degraded land. He’s helping Nigeriens rethink agriculture, to view it as a business and not just a means of survival. Using irrigation to grow and sell high value vegetables, farmers generate significant profits which they can use to purchase essentials and raise their standard of living. John will be visiting Niger in March along with Dov and reporting back on the progress with the Farmers of the Future program. 

The need is great in Niger, and EPN is making great gains there. Stay tuned for more!

For more about Niger, check out these articles and websites: 

The World Bank: In the Niger River Basin, Countries Collaborate on Hydropower, Irrigation, and Improved Water Resource Management (March 2015)

Our Africa: Niger (SOS Children's Villages)

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Niger: the worst place to live. The best place to work.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2015, when life expectancy, education, and standard of living are taken into account, Niger is pretty much the worst place to live. These dimensions are used to calculate the Human Development Index (HDI), and last year, Niger ranked dead last: 188 out of 188.1

HDI was developed in 1990 by Mahbub ul Haq, a Pakistani economist, and his team of developmental economists. At that time, monetary measures like GDP were being used to evaluate a country’s development, but many people, including these economists, found that the human element was missing from these calculations.

HDI attempts to measure the richness of human life. It gauges human opportunities and choices using calculations across three dimensions. The first is health, based on life expectancy at birth. The education dimension measures the schooling obtained by adults aged 25 years and more and expected years of schooling for children. Finally, the standard of living dimension is measured by gross national income per capita. 
To put this all in perspective, consider that the 2015 report ranks the United States at number 8 and Canada at number 9.  Niger has been ranked last for 3 consecutive years, and has always been among the lowest-ranking countries in the report.

Farmers of the Future - Niger
While Niger may be the worst place to live when it comes to HDI, it is most certainly one of the best places to work when it comes to eliminating poverty. John is planning a trip to West Africa in March, where he’ll be splitting his time between Niger and Benin. In Niger, he’ll work on Farmers of the Future, and in Benin, on the Songhai Women’s Capital Fund. You can read more about these projects by following this link, and also find notes and photos from John’s travels in upcoming blog posts.

Farmers of the Future nurseries - Niger

In an upcoming post we’ll look beyond Niger’s dismal HDI to explore the features of this country and point to opportunities EPN is creating there. John says it’s nicknamed “the frying pan of the Sahel” – and there’s got to be a good story behind that!

1Interested in reading the full report? Click here: 2015 Human Development Report

Monday, January 4, 2016

Signing in!

Hi EPN blog readers! I’m Jen, the newest member of EPN’s communications team. I’ll be bringing you EPN updates and stories, and continuing on in Jonathan & Dexter’s fine work. I especially loved reading their EPN Heroes series – they really captured the ingenuity, compassion, and hard work of these amazing Heroes. Thanks for the engaging reads, Jonathan & Dexter!

Posting great blog content was only part of what these guys did, though – Jonathan & Dexter also gave EPN’s website a major overhaul. It’s visually appealing, navigable, and full of great information about EPN – but don’t take my word for it – check it out for yourself if you haven’t already!  Hats off to you, Jonathan & Dexter!

Anna (right) and me (second from the right) with our
 fellow graduate assistants, Rachel and Lori, at VCFA 
And so now, a little about me: I am from Ottawa, Ontario, and I discovered EPN’s work when I met Anna Drury during my studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA).

I have a background in psychology and environmental sciences (BSc), education (BEd), and creative writing (MFA). I’ve worked as a chemistry lab technician, elementary school teacher, and college professor. Today, in addition to my job with EPN, I work for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and write children’s book reviews for a number of Canadian publications. Children, literacy, innovation, and education are my soft spots, and that’s why the work EPN does resonates so much with me.

I’m very excited to work with EPN and look forward to engaging with you online, too! Never hesitate to leave a question or comment – I’d love to hear from you!

Until next time,