Saturday, March 30, 2013

Nyaka, Inc.

Our volunteer, Stan Allen, has been writing from the field. Check out the first installment of his four part series and catch the next one next Saturday! 

The view overlooking Desire Farm


First impressions. We are told these are the ones that make lasting impressions.
My daughter and I just arrived to Nyaka over the weekend.  My job was simply to deliver Emily for a six-month volunteership, get a taste of the continent, and, then, back to reality.  For both of us, this is our first journey to the continent.  The trek to Nyaka, as many of you know or have heard, is long, surely, but not without its moments of charm throughout the sometimes jolting 8-hour day.  Special moments occur – like riding through dozens and dozens of villages where the sight of a “mazunga” seems to be the source of great curiosity for everyone and downright wonderment for the children, who invariably yell something, often “How aaaare you” and less frequently, “mazunga,” but always with a bewildered grin.  First impressions.

We arrived to the guest house on a Saturday evening and nothing was going on at the Nyaka compound, nor Sunday, when we had a cool rainy day to recuperate from travels.  Especially notable on Sunday was a continuing chorus of youthful singers from Nyaka – the Anti Aids Choir – which was having a practice session in the classroom building next door.  We couldn’t actually see anyone – just the music wafting throughout the day, occasionally accompanied by the percussion of rain on the roof.  This was not a normal – at least by my standards – practice session because it lasted practically the whole day, with a few breaks to punctuate.  It wasn’t necessary to see the choir in order to feel the spirit.  The intonation, the excitement, the joy punched through the various melodies followed by exclamations of laughter between songs.  First impressions.

As I said, we arrive with nothing going on and little context for the buildings surrounding us, each door with an imposing paddle lock, the statuettes holding the Nyaka mission sign seemingly themselves orphaned from the school’s inactivity.  On Monday morning, things changed dramatically.  At about 8:00, after a delightfully awakening cold shower, we wandered over to the classroom buildings as waves of purple uniforms flowed towards the assembly area.  Obviously delighted teachers introduced themselves as we both struggled to remember even just a few names.  The students, patiently lined up in the school yard, participated in some exercise, Bible readings, news updates (in English), announcements to the student body, and flag raising with the Ugandan national anthem sung by all.  Then you start to realize that many of these children have no parents, others the most unfortunate of situations, but all getting a first rate primary schooleducation on a safe and, even, pastoral campus where they (the children) come first – it’s then you start to see what Nyaka is all about.  Lasting impressions.

But not really.  That is, this is not all Nyaka is about.  Invisible – at least for me looking through remote eyes in the US – is the infrastructure behind the dream and vision expressed by Jackson in his book.  Of course, most of us are aware of the Grandmothers program, the unique activities centered around the principal caregivers for the children.  But as a director of a small organization myself, what I was most surprised about was the layers of supporting and ancillary activities that are the “operations” of Nyaka.  Clearly, the primary school compound has its operational staff and we experienced this through the caregivers at the guest house, the groundskeeper crew doing the gardening, the cooks working in the kitchen, and, of course, the teachers, head of school and others who are devoted to education.

After assembly activities in the morning, I accompanied Daniel, Operations Director at Nyaka, to the new library, office complex and adjacent farm.  This is where layers were revealed.  The library is a short trek – at least if you are trying to negotiate the dirt road by car, which looks like it was the victim of armed drone strikes.  To walk the steep road, it would take a half-hour – downhill.  The library is an impressive new building – the Blue Lapin Community Library – donated by sponsors from Canada.  (Interestingly, there are issues of Country Extra on the shelves, possibly coming from the subscription of the donors themselves, showing scenes of winter beauty and wilderness.  Sitting there on the equator looking at pictures of cross country skiers and ice fishermen was an incongruous experience.)  Nyaka is truly a global village.

Of course, there is a librarian who is doing his best with the collection of mostly text books and second hand and dated periodicals.  Jane Austin is nowhere to be found, and all books have to be read on site, I imagine greatly limiting readability of most of the material.  Students frequent the library on holidays.  The librarian said he could use an encyclopedia, and immediately I had a flashback to the days I was growing up without the internet or Wikipedia, and said to myself, “Of course!!.”  And what a grantable wish!

Across the U-shaped building from the library are the computer room and offices.  The computer room, also attended by students “on holidays,” was seriously impressive.  There were at least a dozen terminals on the server, and the librarian doubled as the computer instructor, enlightening students in basic principles on the PC and helping them explore the usual suspects from Microsoft: Word, Excel, PowerPoint.  At the offices – that is, the communal office area, where Daniel also works – I met the office staff, including assistant operations manager, accountant, and coordinator and associate coordinator of the Grandmothers program.  At the same time, there was clearly a second group of grounds keepers at this site.  Wait a minute – Nyaka is not just a school, it’s an institution in the community, clearly a source of employment.

Then on to Desire farm.  This is not just the community garden for demonstration, like at the White House.  This is a truly large working farm, with banana plantations, cabbage, pineapples, tomatos, experiments with papaya, carrots, as well as livestock holdings of goats and cattle, all run by a manager in full time employment and, what seemed like, a small army of field hands – mostly women were doing the cultivating among the banana tree plants.  The farm is clearly growing and getting more sophisticated in its management, but still is just serving the Nyaka community alone, apparently.  Presently, it has little surplus to sell as a profit center.

Daniel said, “Do you want to see the new land where we are planning to build a Secondary School.”  After seeing the Primary school and infrastructure, the library and infrastructure,the computer offerings and infrastructure, the administration’s infrastructure – you are now going to show me another “division” of Nyaka?  Really?  The new land was truly impressive – a significant holding on a hill overlooking a gently sloping foothill.  One can easily imagine a school cited there, with dormitory beside it.  And what a contribution to the Jackson dream of extending education for deserving Nyaka students through University.

This is also where I started thinking, Nyaka, Inc., operating budgets, sustainability, and mission creep.  Is it possible to keep such a dream alive while growing still more?  And what about the obligation for continued operating funds for Nyaka, Inc.  If ever there was a reason to start thinking about earning revenue, this (first) impression seemed obvious to me.  And I hadn’t yet seen the clinic.  How will sustainability happen?  Can the farm become a profit center?  Are there other services that Nyaka, Inc. can provide?  Are there other commodities that might, on one hand, provide revenue and, on the other, provide training or educational opportunities – like farming fish or other crops, perhaps?  Is there opportunity as technology marches into the hinterland?

These are all questions stemming from my first impressions “on the ground,” at the center of Nyaka, Inc. and they will remain lasting reactions when I go home and, hopefully, find some way to participate in this grand, glorious, and righteous social experiment that impressed me as Nyaka, Inc.

Stan Allen
NAOP Supporter & Volunteer