So here I am – 24 years old, the “proud” owner of two university degrees in international affairs, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my existence. The plan is to become Benevolent Dictator of the World, but that might take some time to materialize – so what to do in the mean time?
Well, I’ve co-founded The Niapele Project, with my soul sister Celina Guich. We both volunteered at the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana in Jan/Feb 2007, and since then, we’ve created a non-profit to continue our engagement with this amazing community.
I realize that saying things like “it was an eye opening experience”, or “I was profoundly moved by what I saw there”, is basically meaningless. These expressions are overused, which makes them empty shells. It’s also very easy to say something like this, but not really mean it. While my understanding of the world is by no means superior to anybody else’s (or only maybe to some people’s), I have to admit that living and working in a refugee camp, and really being confronted with the cold, hard facts of that reality was traumatic, but in a good way.
The Niapele Project is small, but it’s growing, and Celina and I are working very hard to get it off the ground and make it a respectable organization. It’s a challenge, for sure. The biggest daily struggle for the directors of a non-profit is to come up with the funds needed to actually implement our ideas on the ground. A constant, uphill fight for funding. We’ve been successful so far – $25,000 + in the last 10 months, which we are very proud of. But the money is never enough, because the needs are infinite.
For every child we feed, educate and take care of, there are 100 more starving, poor, traumatized children who continue to be victims. It’s hard. I guess we do what we can, which is this:
A School Feeding Program, which feeds 530 elementary school children on a daily basis. We do this in partnership with a local tuition-free elementary school (the only free school in the refugee camp).
When I first came to the refugee camp as a volunteer, I was the health coordinator at that elementary school (cue chuckles from people who know me and my health habits).
As the health coordinator, I had to learn about what sort of health issues the kids were facing, and what were the important things for them to know. I developed a health curriculum (simple) with the help from the local clinic personnel, conducted nutrition workshops with the staff and teachers, taught sexual health class to the 6th graders (more on this experience later), but mostly, I focused on teaching the kids about personal health and hygiene, which are almost unknown concepts to most of them…. We talked about how to boil water so it’s fit for consumption, how to keep your environment “clean” (as much as possible in this setting), but when it came to nutrition, it became clear that NONE of these children were eating properly.
It was heart wrenching to see the kids fall asleep in class. Education is the only hope they have to escape the vicious cycle in which they were born – simply put, in Africa, education is salvation. If you can’t even take advantage of your education because you are too hungry to focus and stay awake, then what?? What do you do when your stomach grumbles all day long, and hunger pangs take over your entire conscious thought process?
That was the initial impetus for me to want to continue being involve with this community – there was a huge, visible, urgent need for food for these children.
To cut a long story short, by August 2007, Celina and I had raised enough funds to start up the School Feeding Program, and since September, ALL elementary school students receive a daily meal.
Now, at the time, Celina and I gave Regina money, bought food for her, bought some pieces of foam for the kids to sleep on, tried to help her start a water business…. But when we came back in August 2007, her family had grown and resources had not. She was with 17 children, and no resources. A woman died and Regina inherited her house – which was amazingly lucky – and so The Niapele Project decided to combine forces with Regina to create ARCH. We bought them bunk beds, mosquito nets, baby cribs, medication, send them funds every month to buy food, pay for school fees and supplies, etc.
There is never enough money for them though – it’s hard for us to see them struggling in spite of our constant assistance. We really hope that in the near future we’re going to be able to make their lives comfortable, so that these kids can learn to live instead of just surviving.
Recently, we partnered with The Harmony Center, which is a center founded by a frenchphysiotherapist who has been on camp for 2 years, and whose mission is to help handicapped children develop in accordance with their special needs.
We started off this partnership by allowing the handicapped children to benefit from the School Feeding Program, and we’re now going to support them financially, as well as logistically. We’re looking for special education specialists to come volunteer their time with them.
It’s a new, exciting initiative that we’re really proud of counting as part of our work in Buduburam.
This is already a very long post – is anyone still reading? Anyway, I’ll continue writing about Niapele, and what we do, and how we’re progressing…. I hope someone out there finds this mildly interesting! And don’t forget to check out our website :www.theniapeleproject.org, and visit our super cool new store with tons of fun things to buy to support our work.