Tag Archive | educate

Woman of Uganda: A Banda Bikes Assessment

Even though it was back in June, I still remember the familiar smell of burnt charcoal that filled my lungs as I stepped off plane and reacquainted myself with the beautiful land of Uganda.  It had been over a year, but I was finally back.   After a 27 hour journey, including a 12 hour layover in rainy London, the boldness of the Ugandan landscape was ever more stunning.  The lush leaves of the trees, the vibrant greens of the grass, and the incredible shades of reds and browns that blended into the soil all reminded me why Uganda is called “Africa’s Pearl”.   Upon arriving in Entebbe International Airport, I searched for my name in the sea of hand-written, cardboard signs welcoming the arriving passengers.   Through my blurred delirium of exhaustion, I finally found a sign that read: “We Welcome Song”. Jackson, my driver, greeted me with a smile that seemed all too familiar.  Of course!  Jackson was the same man who drove me from the airport just one year before.   But this time we weren’t strangers, and we happily caught up with our lives as we drove the 2 hour road to Jinja, Uganda.

With only seven days in-country to conduct a feasibility assessment for Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project, I made the best of the little things that would have otherwise driven me crazy – the scorching heat, the lack of clean drinking water, and most of all the aggressive mosquitos.   Those trivial things didn’t matter this time.   I was here for Banda Bikes, a Vort Port project which aims to train local Ugandans to build and sell their own bicycles constructed from locally-sourced bamboo.  Through these bicycles the endeavor hopes to provide disadvantaged populations, particularly women, with greater access to food, water, employment, education, healthcare, and ultimately a greater quality of life.   But in a country that continues to face strict gender norms, such that women are frowned upon for riding bicycles in some regions, implementing this project does not come without its fair share of obstacles.   Still, the benefits of providing bicycles to a community are astronomical, including the potential to increase a household income by 35% or more. [i]

Lukaya Village. Tree of Life Ministries school performance.

Throughout the 4 schools, 4 community-based organizations, and 8 village centers visited, every day was a new adventure.   While in Kibuye Village with Sharon Nyanjura, founder and director of Arise and Shine Uganda, community members shared their dreams of one day learning to build their own bicycles through the project.   Over and over again, the voices of villagers were translated to me, “we are here for you, we will be waiting for your return”.   Although words between us were rarely exchanged directly, our long glances to one another shared the same message, webale (thank you, in the local language).   “Thank you for allowing me into your community”, something I would think to myself throughout my entire journey.

With the support of Real Partners Uganda and Trees of Life Ministries in Lukaya, Uganda, I met brilliant students who shared their dreams of being doctors, lawyers, nurses, pilots, and teachers.   Among them was Iesha, who recognized the value of a bicycle.   She shared with me, “a bicycle is important to me because everywhere I can use a bicycle.  If I had a bicycle, I would use it to fetch water.”  Iesha was one of many female students at Trees of Life Ministries who could envision the asset of a bicycle in her life, despite the opposing gender norms of females riding bicycles in the surrounding community.

For decades it has been recognized by USAID and organizations alike, that women are a force that can transform an entire community.  We also recognize that “countries and companies will thrive if women are educated and engaged as fundamental pillars of the economy”. [ii]   Women continue to have incredible influences on their families and communities, both in developing and industrialized countries, yet the gender gap in equality persists around the globe, including Uganda. [iii]   With the hope of addressing gender inequality with the Banda Bikes project, the voices of women throughout the villages became louder than ever.

Song meeting with the women of Lwanda Village.

In Wakiso District with Katongole Issa of Nansana Children’s Center, I met a single-mother, Fausta.   With her husband having passed away years ago, she is now burdened with raising four children on her own.  With Fausta as the sole financial provider for her children, every day is a struggle.   In a small room which served as the living room, bedroom, and dining room for the entire family of five, I sat with Fausta as she shared her many hardships.   When sales at her potato stand are low, she may make as little as $0.42 a day (US currency), which is the entire cost of her journey back home.  On those rough days, Fausta brings no income home to support her family.

Despite my familiarity with living conditions in the developing world no article, textbook, or lecture can ever prepare someone for the pain and emotion evoked in the eyes of one who actually lives it.   It took a good measure of effort not to shed tears for Fausta as she shared her daily struggles with me.   Fausta reminds me of my own mother and the challenges she faced raising me and my two siblings alone.   Still, two words make the difference between Fausta’s story and that of my mother’s – Government Assistance.  For Fausta, and single-mothers like her, government assistance is a rarity in Uganda, almost non-existent.  I asked myself, “who is here to help these women?”  Across the globe the majority of those living on less than $1 a day are women, regardless of hours worked.   The opportunities for women to earn a living consistently fall short of their male counterparts. [iv], [v]

Nevertheless, as Vort Port International’s Banda Bikes Project further develops, we have in mind the amazing women throughout our partnering communities.  The project will continue to recognize the gender gap and aim to create opportunities for women to learn about, be involved, and eventually build their own bicycles just like their male neighbors.   Until our next visit to Uganda, I will remember fondly the children at Trees of Life Ministries who shared with me their aspirations, and the inspiring people in Lukaya who are waiting for our return.  But most of all, I will often think about Fausta and her beautiful children who remain resilient through their daily struggles, happy and hopeful to have learned about Banda Bikes. The Ugandan communities have helped me recognize the incredible opportunity that exists when local people are provided with support to make a difference in their own communities.  It is their motivation, endless hope, and inspiration which continue to drive Banda Bikes and the people of Vort Port International.  Until my next visit – webale.

Nansana Town. Song with Fausta, children, and friends.

This blog post was written by Song Nguyen, a member of Vort Port International and the project director for Banda Bikes.


[i] Sieber, N. Appropriate transport and rural development in Makete district, Tanzania. Journal of Transport Geography, 6(1). 1998.

[ii] Hausmann, R., Tyson, L., Zahidi, S. The global gender gap report 2011: Insight report. World Economic Forum.  Available at:  http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_Report_2011.pdf.

[iii] USAID. Gender equality and women’s empowerment. Retrieved from: http://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment.

[iv] Murray, A. F. From Outrage to Courage. Common Courage Press. Monroe, ME; 1998.

[v] United Nations. Gender and Human Development. Human Development Report. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1995/chapters/.

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Earth Day – The Big Picture

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In May of 1969, pilots Eugene Cernan, John Young and Commander Thomas P. Stafford set flight in the 4th American manned flight into space.  Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the moon landing to come, a test of low approach orbit to calibrate the descent guidance system to within 1-nautical-mile needed for a landing.  The ascent module, the vessel two astronauts lifted off in after visiting the lunar surface, was short-fueled on purpose for this particular mission.

“A lot of people thought about the kind of men we were” pilot Cernan said.   “ ‘Don’t give those guys an opportunity to land, because they might!'”

The crew maintained their mission and flew several successful test orbits around the moon.  The mission insignia was that of a large, three-dimensional Roman numeral X sitting on the moon’s surface, in Stafford’s words, “to show that we had left our mark.”  The mark they made, however, was more profoundly felt on their home planet Earth.  Apollo 10 carried with it the first colored television camera into space.  Some of the images displayed the whole of the Earth, all of its round glory in the blackness of space.  The pictures brought back from this inspired period of explorers sparked a broad public fascination with the bigger picture of things.  The long and timeless dialogue about human life grew broader and more vexing in 1969, spurring incomprehensible thoughts and dreams about the grand uniqueness of Earth in its vast loneliness of space.  For John McConnell, the pictures encapsulated a vision of one singular home that every human being must share.  After seeing the images in print that year, McConnell suddenly had a visual brand that represented every social and environmental cause he ever pursued.

John McCollen was born in 1915 in Davis City, Iowa, but didn’t remain there long.  His evangelical parents traveled about, their family living out of a modified van.  Despite the lack of structured education, the vagrant boy showed early promise and visited libraries regularly across the country, from the Southwest desert to the snowy Great Lakes region.  Early in his adult life, McCollen served as business manager of the Nobell Research Foundation in Los Angeles.  The laboratory responsible for developing thermosetting plastics hardly seems like the humble beginnings of Earth’s most prolific advocate.  Still, his interest in religion, science, and peace propelled him to seek solutions as his concern for ecology grew.  Even during his time at the Foundation, after greatly considering their impact on nature, the team successfully developed plastics made from walnut shells.

John McCollen made a Roman numeral X of his own on October 31, 1957, just a few weeks after Earth witnessed its first artificial satellite, Sputnik.  McCollen wrote an editorial for the Toe Valley View entitled, “Make Our Satellite a Symbol of Hope”.  The article called for peaceful cooperation in the exploration of space in the wake of domestic violence and international tension.  The small-town editorial from North Carolina was reprinted in hundreds of newspapers across the country and led to the founding of the Star of Hope organization.  The foundation aimed to engender international collaboration in space expedition.  After moving their publication to California, McConnell and his editorial partner, Earling Toness, urged the White House to sponsor a joint venture with both American and Soviet astronauts.  President Kennedy supported the idea and, later, President Nixon obtained agreement between the conflicting nations.

McCollen went on to lead a multitude of social causes and ecological movements in the decades to come.  The tall, enthusiastic man directed the efforts of Meals for Millions, feeding thousands of starving Hong Kong refugees.  He worked tirelessly on the Minute for Peace program, a radio broadcast that collected conversations and interviews from some of the world’s brightest and powerful advocates of peace and diplomacy.  As concern grew over the mistreatment of lands and oceans, he conceived the idea of Earth Day.  It was proposed at a UNESCO conference in San Francisco to be held on the vernal equinox, a time when the sun is shared equally between the Southern and Northern hemispheres of the planet.  Not long after, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson began promoting an annual Environmental Teach-In, and proposed it be celebrated around April 20.  McCollen and Senator Nelson vied against one another for control of the event, and confusion over a decided date carried on for over a decade.  Still, the two entities progressed forward to make many contributions to the annual celebration.  McCollen created an Earth Day Flag to represent all peoples, a silk screen of white (clouds) and blue (ocean).  The original flag had no forms or colors to represent land, territory, or borders.  But then, flipping through the pages of Life Magazine in 1969, McCollen saw the profound images taken from space, as though the moon itself aimed a camera at Earth and snapped a mug shot for us all.  A new Earth Day flag was created using the image of Earth as seen from space, and it is still flown today when Earth Day is recognized annually at the U.N.  It is the only acknowledged flag that represents all people of the world.

After taking time to be with his wife, Anna, and their two children, the self-educated man from Iowa (and everywhere else) formed the Earth Society Foundation.  The organization was put in place to promote the Earth Day Flag and, more importantly, the Earth Trustees.  The idea came to McCollen while sitting in a restaurant in Texas, and he immediately transcribed the idea in writing.  Upon a used placemat he decreed:

Let each person choose to be a Trustee of Planet Earth, each in their own way, seeking to think, choose and act in ways that will protect, preserve and increase Earth’s natural bounty, ever seeking fair benefits for all Earth’s people and for its creatures great and small.

– John McConnell, Earth Trustee Challenge, early 1970s

It is likely that John McConnell is not a household name today, nor was his name back then.  Yet, his message is farther-reaching than most, having rallied family and friends, educated thousands of students and fellow citizens, enlightened senators and representatives, allied with U.N. members, and challenged world leaders to do better by their people and environment.  Today, John McConnell is well into his 90s and is still a restless advocate for environmental awareness and care of our planet.  He and his wife, having spent the majority of their marriage in Brooklyn, NY, later moved to Colorado.  Anna insisted that her husband walk a quarter-mile every day.  Most days, McConnell sits at a small desk in a second bedroom they made into a quaint office, working on the computer and telephone 4 to 8 hours a day in order to further his message.  Days before his 90th birthday in 2004, at the start of an interview with his biographer, McCollen prayed.

“Dear Heavenly Father, we pray that, as I reach near the end of my sojourn here, whatever your mission for me is that I might clearly understand how I can make a difference in changing the global state of mind and providing a way to continue the human adventure.”

We all would do well to remember John McCollen, not for an annual day of awareness and appreciation, but for his unending effort to preserve and protect the little dot in the cosmos we all share and call home.  Let Earth Day be not just a passing day of environmental awareness or beautifying the Earth.  McCollen’s concern for the Earth was not just on Earth Day, but every single day.  Let this day act as a reminder of the continual, long-term efforts needed from every global citizen.  Let this day be one to inaugurate new Earth Trustees, become one yourself, and enact individual resolutions to change our daily habits for the betterment of each other and our planet.  It is important that, on this day, everyone take a step back and look at the bigger picture, as John McCollen once did, and carry it forth everyday thereafter.

Patrick Kwiatkowski

Vort Port International, Media Director

Teach For India is recruiting full-time teachers…

…to help educate India’s youth.

Here’s the rundown (via ThinkChange India):

THE CHALLENGE: Today, millions of low-income children in India do not have access to the same quality of education as their wealthier peers.  As a result, more than one in three students will drop out of primary school before the fifth standard.

THE MOVEMENT: Teach For India is a nationwide movement that aims to end this educational inequity by creating a powerful force of leaders in many sectors who will advocate for educational opportunity for all children. Check out the video of TFI here.

TFI Fellowship: We recruit the most outstanding college graduates and young professionals to teach full-time in an intensive leadership development program. It is a full time and competitively paidfellowship program with many prospects and further opportunities to develop a great career. Find out a ppt attached with this mail for more information

WHY YOU: To create this leadership force, we recruit only India’s most outstanding college graduates and young professionals, from all academic majors and careers. We look for people like you who live for a challenge, who excel academically, who believe India can be a better nation for all its citizens.

WHY NOW: Teach For India is currently accepting applications for its 2011 Fellowship. So, are you ready for a challenge?

VISIT www.teachforindia.org TO APPLY

TED Talk: The child-driven education

Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" experiment.

If you’ve never watched a TED Talk, you’re missing out on some very inspirational and innovative thought leaders tell the stories of their research and experiences all over the world.  I watched this one over the weekend and decided it greatly relates to the mission Vort Port is currently taking part in.

The speaker is Sugata Mitra, and he spends a few minutes talking about the educational effect that computers have on children. His research is simple: put computers in front of children and see what happens. In a lot of the cases, the children have never had the opportunity to handle a computer before, but they still learn within minutes to play games, look information up, and thus, become empowered. There are some very interesting results to Sugata’s studies. But enough from me! Watch it:

This is the very reason we’re trying to bring computer labs to rural villages in India. IT is a very big industry in India, but still the people int he smaller villages have never touched a computer. By providing a solar-powered computer lab, we’re giving these small villages a chance to compete for the IT jobs in the bigger cities, thus improving their own and their families lives.

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