Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Room of One's Own

Apologies upfront for what is becoming a sort of obsession I'm having with Virigina Woolf. And while that may drip with a sort of pseudo-pretension, go with me on this for a minute.

When I was preparing for this month long African sojourn, I happened to re-read "A Room of One's Own". It got me thinking about the plight of women in Africa. While it's true that Woolf was writing about the literary pursuits of privileged women, there is something incredibly moving to me about the simplicity of that sentiment. Taking some liberty with her thesis, it struck me that the impoverished people of Africa, especially the girls and women who have been so marginalized culturally, have very little opportunity to break out of the cycle of extreme poverty. They don't have the basic supplies of food, shelter and, with the AIDs epidemic, the familial structures to survive. Taken literally, they don't have a room of their own. Without a "room", there is no hope.

I am moved and inspired by an African proverb (that was quoted in the wonderful book by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wundunn called "Half the Sky"):

You educate a boy, and you're educating an individual. You educate a girl, and you're educating an entire village.

Which brings me to the projects I will be working on this week:

The first will be working on AMF's school project at Ngungugu Primary. We are going to be making over one classroom and will conduct some home visits of the students to encourage attendance and try and motivate and help where we find families and kids who are unable to attend. (A lot of the children are left to stay at home to work or they can't afford the very minimal cost of attendance. We are going to try and encourage school participation because, at the very least, the school can provide the one meal a day most of these kids will have. Also, it is customary that families only send the boys to school and we are going to try and increase attendance for girls.) I am going to try and take before and after pictures at the school to give you an idea of the impact of the make over.

One of the biggest issues facing Africa today is the education of girls. As Lawrence Summers wrote when he was the chief economist of the World Bank:

Investment in girls' education may well be the highest-return investment available in the developing world. The question is not whether countries can afford this investment, but whether countries can afford not to educate girls.

The second project I will be working with 25 of the women who have received loans through the Microcredit Program established through AMF. I will conduct in-depth interviews to gather statistics about their living conditions, current incomes, generation activities, monthly budgets, needs of families, etc. This will help in refining the program and focus on where the program is effective and where we need to make adjustments.

In "A Room of One's Own" Virginia Woolf writes:

Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man, at twice its natural size.

I am so interested to see up close and on the ground the impact and workings of these microcredit programs which are transforming villages across Africa and other developing countries. They are exclusively for women who for centuries were not able to own land or have bank accounts, etc. These incredible programs are helping to finally bring commerce and a sense of security and livelihood for so many women.

And, finally, my favorite quote from "A Room of One's Own":

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

I have often enjoyed that quote as it relates to my life - just this past weekend I dined very well in NYC at The Waverly Inn, Balthazar, and Telepan.

But I'm certain this quote will take on a much different meaning to me this week when "dining well" is something that is relative, to say the least, in the extremely impoverished village of Thika.

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