What’s next for KareMeKuc?

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Photo by Saskia Sichermann.

We couldn’t be happier with how our Project for Peace carried out this summer. Now that our pilot program is off and running, we’re looking toward the future and what’s next for our work in northern Uganda.

We are using the remaining funding for our program to continue the trainings twice a week through the end of October, which is three months longer than we had initially planned. The students will continue to receive nutritious meals throughout the program. As the crops are growing, the remaining lessons will focus on monitoring, pest and disease management, drought management, and harvest. Although we’ve returned to the U.S., we’re confident that Calvin and the CPU staff will continue to keep the program running smoothly on the ground.  After the training concludes, each student will begin mentoring five to ten households in their village to share the knowledge and seeds they have gained. This means that over 250 households will have benefitted from the program.

From the U.S., Seren and Nellie will be continuing their work with KareMeKuc, while Max will be taking a different direction. He wanted us to share the following message:

I am happy to say we have had many great successes this summer. However, it is with a heavy heart that I announce I have decided to branch from the current direction of KareMeKuc. I will be working directly with Jane Ekayu, the executive director of Children of Peace Uganda, to pursue our original dream of building a Peace Center. The program we have started this summer will be an important part of the curriculum at this Peace Center, I look forward to collaborating with KareMeKuc when the Peace Center is established.

As we move forward, we will be organizing fundraising and educational events this fall to support future cycles of the training program in the next growing seasons. Once we have collected the rest of the post-test and survey data, we’ll work on evaluating and improving the program. Now that we know how much it costs per season, we can make a plan for funding the program sustainably over the next few years and enhancing our impact in the community.

To make it possible for our program to grow, we are expanding the KareMeKuc team! We are looking for people with a variety of skills and interests who are passionate about peace building. In particular, we’re working on fundraising, community outreach, social media, organizational development, and grant writing. If you’re interested in joining KareMeKuc, or would like more information, please get in touch with us at karemekuc@gmail.com.

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Photo by Saskia Sichermann.
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Growing from the ground up with seed saving education

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Calvin passes out the pre-tests for the seed saving curriculum. Because not all the students are literate in English and/or Leblango, we write multiple choice tests in English that Calvin then reads aloud in Leblango.

Our students left class last week equipped with a sack of high-quality bean seeds from a reputable African seed supplier and the knowledge to preserve those seeds for future seasons. Although most of the students currently practice some form of seed saving, they don’t understand how to select and store them properly and often struggle with low germination rates. Much of the traditional knowledge about seed saving and the local seed stores were lost during the two decades of conflict in northern Uganda.

Buying seeds has its own set of challenges, however. If farmers buy seeds from the market at the beginning of the growing season, edible seeds like beans are typically five times more expensive because supplies are low at the end of the dry season, when people live off of stored food from the previous growing season and famine is common.

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Scovia helps Calvin and I check on the bean plots after the seed saving class.

Buying improved hybrid seeds from a seed supplier can be a great investment, but typically costs more. There is also a big issue in Uganda with “fake” seeds. Due to low regulations for seed companies, there is a high occurrence of bad seeds that either don’t germinate or do so at very low rates, even though the seed packets may tout a 99% germination rate. These “fake” seeds can be difficult to track down and enforce regulations on because there is no way to pinpoint the source of the problem. The seed could have been stored improperly, expired, replaced or filled with a cheap decoy, or planted poorly. The responsibility can shift from the farmer to the village seed dealer, to the distributor, to the agro input company, to the research organization, to the regulators — and at the end of the day, nobody can be held responsible.

In class, Calvin discussed the pros and cons of using different seed supplies, and taught about how to properly select and store seeds at home. Heirloom varieties originally purchased from a reputable seed supply company can become an investment that lasts years if the seed is saved in a home seed bank. Selecting seeds from the strongest plants with desirable traits can improve the percentage of plants with those traits in the next generation. Eventually, the seeds become well-adapted to the microclimate of that farmer’s fields. Hybrid varieties from seed suppliers can still be saved, but the traits in the next generation may be variable and have lower yields, depending on the nature of the hybrid.

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Notes to prepare for the seed saving curriculum. Calvin and I designed the curriculum together, combining Calvin’s knowledge with my research and knowledge about seed saving practices in the U.S.

Through the community mentorship program, our students will be creating seed sharing networks within their own villages between their household and the 5-10 households they will be mentoring. While we had initially planned on establishing a community seed bank in a central location, we decided that due to the logistical difficulties of getting personnel to manage the seed bank and the need for a structure in a central location, it made more sense to instead create home-based networks managed by the village communities.

At the end of our class, we practiced a little seed saving with a heirloom watermelon I brought from the market. I cut up the watermelon into bite-sized chunks, and luckily, it happened to be full of seeds. The students ate a piece and then put the seeds in a pot of water. Some volunteers demonstrated the cleaning process, rinsing the healthy seeds while pouring the pulp and bad seeds off. Each student took home a baggie with a small handful of seeds to dry and store or plant in their garden. One student told me excitedly that if he was able to produce even one melon, his small bag of seeds was eventually going to fill his field with fruit.

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Calvin calls student leaders up to receive a 10kg sack of high quality bean seeds to distribute among their parish group.

After class, we distributed the bean seeds to the students. The seeds were an improved variety from an agro input supplier that Calvin knows is reputable. Along with the cabbage seeds and sweet potato vines, the bean seeds were one of the purchases we made with the discretionary funds from project donations. Especially after just finishing the class on seed saving, there was a hopeful feeling in the air as the seed sacks were distributed. Each seed carried the possibility for food, for abundance, and for future prosperity as the generations of seeds are shared in the community.

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Calvin poses proudly with our thriving bean plants. A neighboring farmer told him that our beans are doing four times better than his. Calvin believes this is thanks to the thick layer of mulch we are using, which is an uncommon practice in the area.

“This is how we have been living ever since”

IMG_0252This past week, we’ve been moving along with the Farming for Peace trainings and watching our crops, and our students, grow.

Before class one afternoon, Max and I went with a CPU social worker to visit the home of Moses, one of our students. He lives just next to Coorom Primary School, in a cluster of huts near the water pump. His mom welcomed us into the mudbrick hut where they typically eat meals, which was just big enough for the four of us to sit. Max knew Moses from being involved with the peace club last year, but it was my first time sitting down with him and hearing his story.

Moses was five years old when he fled with his mother and siblings to the IDP camp. His father was killed when the LRA reached their village, but the rest of them managed to escape. Unfortunately, they escaped capture only to face life in a camp with terrible living conditions. There was a lack of clean water and very little food to eat, which was provided by UNICEF. Life in the camp was his entire childhood. Finally, in 2009, he and his family returned to their village in Ogur. Moses told me he was scared to return, but the camps were closing and they had to leave.

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Again, they escaped life in the camp only to face the struggle of starting over their lives on abandoned, overgrown land. Since then, Moses and his mother make a living through subsistence agriculture while his two siblings are in boarding school (through CPU sponsorships). “This is how we have been living ever since we returned,” he said. He typically eats one meal a day, often with stretches of going hungry when there is not enough food to eat. “What do you remember about life before the war?” I asked him. Echoing the reply I’ve heard from so many northern Ugandans, he replied, “It was good.” Now, despite the challenges of post-conflict recovery, Moses still says he is doing fine.

When I asked him about how the training program is going, Moses was enthusiastic. He told us he has been learning new skills he didn’t have before, and the consensus among his friends in the program is that it has been useful and new information. Every time I hear this from students, I am both pleased and surprised. I’m glad the program is making a real impact in the lives of people who really need it, but it is still shocking to me how these young subsistence farmers can still be unfamiliar with basic crop management techniques. Our pre-tests are confirming what the students are saying. “Most of our learners do not know the basics,” Calvin said when he was looking over a cabbage management pre-test with an average score of 20% (it was a multiple choice test). Hopefully, our post-test data will show good progress, but even if a student retains no new information from the program whatsoever, at least they will leave with a full belly and a generous supply of seeds for their household and their neighbors.

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Because educational opportunities are so rare and coveted in the community, it’s easy to see how much students care about the course. For example, a student named Moris showed up sick to class one day. With severe stomach pains, he put his head down on the desk and didn’t eat lunch. He was trying to complete the pre-test, which Calvin gives orally since many students are illiterate in both Langi and English. During the test, Moris’s face was contorted with pain and he had tears on his cheeks. Saskia stopped Calvin and they took Moris outside. Calvin had to explain to Moris that it was okay if he missed the pre-test — his health was more important. We were able to get Moris some medicine from a nearby drugstore, and our very kind food service provider drove him home on his boda. Moris was fine in class the next day. I was amazed to see him there again the next day, but even more surprised that he had walked all the way to Coorom with such pain just so he wouldn’t miss class.

Later that day, another student demonstrated to me just how important the program is for these students. A girl named Shannon got a scholarship to go back to school, an opportunity she could not refuse, so she dropped out of the program. However, her mom Grace showed up this week to take her place. She would take notes and convey the information back to their family.

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I am amazed by this dedication and desire to learn. Jane said something to me today that helped me understand why: “Once you have addressed the issue of food, you are addressing so much with rehabilitation and empowerment. You are addressing nutrition, self-esteem, livelihood, health — even these people who have no status in the community are being given the opportunity to learn.”

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At the end of the week, we distributed packets of cabbage seeds. Saskia visited Sharon’s home for some filming, and saw that she had already created her own cabbage nursery bed for her new seeds, just as we had done together in class.

We’re busy preparing for our last week on the ground, which will be hectic as we aim to fit our nutrition and seed saving curriculum into the last five class sessions. Despite the many challenges of daily life on the ground, which can leave us worn thin some days, I always feel strengthened by a visit to the field and interactions with our amazing students. Things are growing here.

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Well-timed rain showers help us multiply the gifts

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Yesterday, our students wanted to get out in the field early to complete the bean planting. When Calvin and I arrived, they were ready to get to work on the remaining two bean plots. There are four sections of land set aside for beans, each of which will be managed by a team of 10 students. These teams are being set up to foster teamwork and mentorship between people of different backgrounds and experience levels, as well as to more easily monitor each person’s understanding of the material.

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The students were even more efficient at setting up the plots this time and were able to get the remaining two planted in less time than it has usually taken for one plot. The rows have been pre-measured using sticks every three and a half hand widths. Two students stretch a string between the sticks on either side of the plot to mark a straight line for a group digging small trenches. Another group works behind them to partially fill the rows with manure. Finally, everyone lines up in a row and walks down it planting the beans and covering them with soil.

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As we were working, the clouds were darkening and the roll of the thunder was nearing. We finished planting just as the first drops began to fall. Calvin and I made it back up to the primary school and waited under the awning there for the downpour to let up before continuing back to Lira.

The rain was much-needed for our new seeds and for the vines. The 40 bags of orange-flesh sweet potato vines were distributed to the students this week. Jane told us that the orange variety is actually highly valuable because the potatoes are purchased by WorldVision but are hard to find. Each bag can plant a fairly large area, so the students are sharing with their neighbors and using the opportunity to spread the knowledge they have learned about growing the vines as well. Thanks to the beautiful rain showers this week, this planting and sharing process the vines can begin today and this weekend.

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Part of the program will include training on how to propagate the vines and save seeds from the harvest so they can be shared in the community. Together with the mentorship program, which teaches our 40 youth how to train others, these aspects of our project are designed to make sure the funding we have received doesn’t stop here this summer, but the gifts multiply and spread throughout the community with each season.

We are seeing the community impact of the program in the field already. Early on in the program, three of the students had to drop out for various reasons. However, we now have 41 participants due to community members seeing the training going on and asking to participate. Yesterday, our 41st student joined us, a neighbor to the demonstration garden who heard about the training. Calvin let her know that she has missed much of the information already, and due to our budget we may not be able to provide her with the same supplies. She still wanted to participate and enthusiastically agreed to the conditions.

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Calvin and I were talking on the way back. He’s thrilled with the reception that the program is getting in the community, said with the relationships he’s building with the students. “Sometimes they just come up to talk to me about their lives,” he told me. “Even personal things they feel comfortable sharing with me.” Though I can’t understand Calvin’s conversations with the students in Langi, I can see from the way they interact with him and each other that the students are enjoying the community being formed through this program. When everyone is laughing around me, I often ask Calvin what was said. “These people are just cracking jokes,” he usually replies. I don’t know what the jokes are, but they make me smile too.

Support young peace ambassadors in celebration of the Day of the African Child

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Today is the Day of the African Child, an international holiday celebrated here in Lira with song, dance, and a festival attended by local NGOs and community members. The day is about raising awareness for issues facing children in Africa and encouraging a spirit of abundance. The children who CPU supports certainly are inspirational in the way they model hope, generosity, and forgiveness.

We are celebrating the day with them by teaming up with the GlobeMed team from the University of Wisconsin – Madison to launch a fundraising campaign for CPU. We hope you’ll join us in supporting this truly incredible organization that works every day to improve the lives of children, especially formerly abducted children, child-headed households, young mothers, children born in captivity, and children orphaned by war.

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In talking with the executive director Jane Ekayu, one of the greatest needs for the organization right now is a van to safely transport sponsored children to school, bring materials and equipment to programs in rural communities, and allow more staff members to go out into the field on a daily basis to conduct trainings and manage programs. Working with CPU on the ground over the past two years has also shown us how difficult transportation can be and how needed a van is for the ever-expanding CPU programs.

We are already 60% of the way to our goal to purchase a van for CPU and help connect vulnerable children to resources and education. Please consider celebrating the strength and hope of children in northern Uganda today with a donation to our campaign here. Thank you for your continued support. It is truly amazing to be able to be on the ground and see the real impact of your generosity in uplifting children here.

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What can be done with a bag of cut-up vines

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Calvin thanks the class for their hard work at the end of the afternoon while the remaining sweet potato vine cuttings are distributed.

We took an extra motorcycle to the field on Friday. Strapped on the back were two large bags of orange-flesh sweet potato vines for our class. The boda driver helped us take them all the way to the demonstration garden site, which is about a mile down a dirt path from Coorom Primary School.

Orange sweet potatoes are one of the crops that we are focusing on for nutritional purposes. Choc (sweet potatoes) are already eaten as a staple here, but the white variety is far more common than the orange-flesh variety. As Calvin explained to us, there is an attitude that the white color is superior to the orange. However, the orange-flesh sweet potatoes contain more vitamins, including vitamin A, which is particularly important in an area with high occurrence of vitamin A deficiency. In addition to teaching the best techniques for growing sweet potatoes, the program is emphasizing the importance of choosing the orange variety for nutritional purposes.

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The sweet potato vines were cut into shorter segments before being planted in the demonstration garden.

The students were excited to open the bags and begin cutting the vines. When pulled out of the ground, the vines begin sprouting new roots from nodes along the stems in search of soil to root into. Calvin had the students cut the vines into 15 cm lengths, which were then planted in groups of three in mounds of soil. Each cutting was immersed into the soil so that only two growth nodes were above ground and in the right orientation.

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Students prepare the upper garden for the planting of the vines by heaping the soil into mounds.

While half of the students were preparing the cuttings, the other half was using the hoes to make one-meter mounds of soil in the upper plot of the garden. Max played music while we dug, which the students loved. It got to be late in the afternoon, past the time the class was supposed to end, but the students wanted to finish off the sweet potato section before going home. Despite all our hard work, there were so many vine sections that not all of them could be planted. The remainder was divided up and sent home with the students so they could plant them in their own gardens at home.

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Agnes shows me the proper way to plant a sweet potato vine by digging a whole with a stick and burying the vine so two growth nodes are left above the soil.

On the first day of the course, several students mentioned that they wished to be provided with seeds to use what they are learning at their own farms. Fortunately, we were able to find the funds to provide seeds and vines for the students to take home, which will allow the students to grow nutritious food to support their family and put the concepts they are learning in the course into practice. This extra funding is coming from the donations of our supporters. Thank you for your contributions and support of our program. On the ground, we are able to see truly how far each dollar can go. It’s been a privilege to be able to witness the sharing of the resources from our community at home with the community here.

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Geoffrey and his classmates work to finish up the planting of the vines.

A bag of cut-up sweet potato vines may sound like it’s not much, but when it is planted with care in the soil and shared among the students, it is a valuable resource. It becomes an investment in the future of these youth, both for education and for nourishment.

Feeding bodies and minds on the first days of training

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The students on the first day of training, looking very serious. Photo by Saskia Sichermann.
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Our group on the first day of training, smiling only after being instructed to make a funny face (typically people look very serious for photos). Photo by Saskia Sichermann.

We’re two days into the agricultural training program, and so far, it’s been amazing to see things finally come together and get moving.

Yesterday, we gathered in an empty classroom at Coorom Primary School for our first day together since the launch. The 40 students were so eager, and some members of the community who weren’t selected by CPU even came to see if they could sit in. Luckily, it is looking like we have enough space and food to accommodate them as well. Calvin is a wonderful teacher and has a great ability to capture the students’ attention. Even though we can’t always follow what he is saying (he speaks in Langi but writes on the board in English), the students are really engaged, contributing ideas, taking notes, and asking questions. The majority of the students are teens or young adults.

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The wall mural at Coorom Primary School. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.

Each day, the training session will begin with lunch, which is being graciously prepared by a local woman. Having the meal first serves several purposes. First, it encourages participants to come on time. Typically, when you announce when an event will begin, people may trickle in an hour later and still be considered on time, but we want to make sure there is enough time in the program to get to through the curriculum content. The meal is also important for creating a good learning environment. Many of the students typically eat just one meal a day and struggle with malnutrition. I was shocked when Nellie told me that a small boy with a protruded belly in the program is actually 17 years old. “That’s what malnutrition does to people,” she said. Serving a meal helps the students can focus in class and ensures that they are all eating at least one good meal per day. So, before class begins, we fill our plates with cassava, beans, and meat, and we all eat together.

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Calvin welcomes the class (“apwoyo bino”). Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.

On the first day, we primarily did an overview of the curriculum and talked about the students’ expectations for the trainings. Many voiced their expectations about what they hope to take away from the training. I was inspired by one student’s hope to learn how to train others so the knowledge can spread throughout the community. Hearing some of the other expectations was also pressuring, because there are students with all different backgrounds and experience levels, and we want to make sure it’s well-worth everyone’s time.

Some of this worry was soothed on the second day of training today, when we dove into land preparation practices. Calvin led a discussion on the most common practices (including ox-plowing, tractor plowing, burning, and use of herbicides to clear land), bringing up some of the issues with these practices. He then moved into giving his recommendation for a practice called minimum tillage, which involves disturbing the soil as little as possible during land preparation to help maintain soil structure, fertility, and biodiversity. Several students said this technique was intriguing and new, including an older woman who has already been farming for many years. It was really encouraging to see the students already learning something new and useful.

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Students voice their expectations for the program. Photo by Nellie Trenga-Schein.

Before and after class, we have been chipping away at completing well-being surveys for each student, which Nellie has designed. The survey questions help us understand a little bit about where each person is coming from and will allow us to compare how they are doing before and after the program. So far, almost every student has said that they eat one meal a day, have gone hungry because they had no food in the house at least once in the past four weeks, and finding food has been much harder over the past year due to issues with pests and drought. This shows a really clear need for the training — people are farming and yet going hungry. We hope to track the well-being of these students several months after finishing the program to evaluate the impact of the program.

Tomorrow, we’ll have our first practical training day out in the demonstration garden, which is a short walk from our classroom at the primary school. We’re bringing up hoes and other tools to practice minimum tillage and other land preparation techniques. So we’ll be getting our hands dirty as we engage with the curriculum and get to try out the recommended practice for ourselves.

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Our classroom, and the path towards the demonstration garden.