Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fr. Mark

Fr. Mark Mwera is a happy, playful, and somewhat flirtatious guy, tiny in stature and huge in smiles. But if you want to say that to his face you're gonna have to shout. Quatamele's retired priest, at age 81, no longer hears very well, sees very well, or can go too far without his walking stick, but his heart is still that of a child's. He loves to read picture books, sing children's choruses, and tease the little kids. But although everyone in the village calls him Grandpa Mark and nothing lights up his face like playing with one of his many "grandkids", he has no children of his own. Anglican priests are allowed to marry but Fr. Mark never got around to it. When you tease him and ask him why he never found a good woman he gives you a different response every time. "You women are trouble and I wanted a peaceful life" he might say, or "I found one once but she loved someone else," or my personal favorite "Well I never found a woman that's as good looking as me!" But although he has no wife to cook for him, daughters to sew for him, or sons to cut firewood for him, our area is filled with his family members who try their best to look out for him. However, helping Fr. Mark is not an easy task and often his well-intentioned relatives become exasperated with the stubborn old man. And here's why: any little gift intended to make Fr. Mark's life easier will fly out his door before he ever uses it. New shoes will be found on his nephew's feet, a rain coat will turn up keeping a child dry, and food finds it's way into the kitchens of all his friends. "Stop giving stuff away - that's meant for you!" his frustrated relatives will exclaim, but that's Fr. Mark's style and he's not likely to change it soon.

Although at first glance Fr. Mark is just a goofy little grandfatherly figure, truly he is as wise as his years and has had some amazing experiences. He remembers well when the U.S. troops came during WWII (he can sings the whole Marine theme songs and sometimes when I walk by he salutes me) as well as when Vanuatu gained it's independence, and he worked for over 10 years for The Republic of Vanuatu's first (and some would say only successful) government. He has written a fascinating story about his life so people won't forget him, and I'm going to copy it and put it in a nice book for him as a surprise.

Yes you strain your vocal chords when you story with Fr. Mark, but hearing his corny jokes, his interesting experiences, his beautiful and heartfelt sermons, and his expert kastom story telling is well worth it. Fr. Mark easily takes down your defenses and makes you laugh, but look out - he might not be as harmless as you think. He keeps threatening to steal my passport so I'll be stuck forever in Quatamele, unable to leave him :)

What I Really Do Up Here

When I started this online documentation of my adventures in Vanuatu I promised myself I would never become the typical self-agrandizing blogger who uses words like "self-agrandizing" and urges her reader to realize how awesome she is. But it looks like I didn't make it very long. I must apologize, but I'm so excited about all the great things going on in North Ambae so you're just going to have to let me gush and brag for a post. But if it makes you feel better you can all write me about the cool things you're all doing :)

So here's the update:

  • My treasurer training workshop - One of the problems I've begun to see in my area is the widespread gross mismanagement of money. Community and group funds are constantly being raided for personal use - often by the treasurer of the fund or his family. Now maybe I'm too naive and haven't gotten the chance to have my idealism and my optimism kicked out of me yet, but I don't believe this embezzeling is going on because the treasurers are bad people. In fact I know many of these individuals and they're wonderful people. No, I think this problem comes from the fact that many people are just confused about money in general. Money is a fairly new concept in these parts, and in a culture that still often uses kastom woven mats and pigs as currency, it's hard to fully understand the value of a little piece of paper. I do not want to insult the intelligence of the people I live with - of course they understand that money has value and they can take it to a store and exchange it for salt and soap. But at the same time they haven't had the generations to get used to the idea of paper currency that we have, and how to use it right and manage it well can be somewhat of a mystery. In addition, in this culture if a family member asks you for something you are honor bound to give it to them. Food, clothing, tools, and even money are often thought of as family property and to refuse someone is to cause great shame. Now it is not my place (or even my desire) to question or change these cultural practices. I admire how tightly knit and supportive these families and communities are here. However when this "help yourself" attitude starts to seep into community funds, church funds, youth group funds, etc., resentment grows and fights break out. So last week I did just a one day workshop on how to be an effective treasurer. We talked about the correct way to release and receive money, how to keep good records, how to report back to your group, and most importantly the accountability you have to keep the money safe. I think it was pretty successful but we'll see if it does any good.

  • My family budget workshop - Word spread about the one I ran in my village in March and next week I'm doing it again in the neighboring village of Vuiberugu and I'll be doing another one in Wainasasa in September. Hmm. . .that actually isn't that interesting or cool. Next.

  • My rural banking project - It's gonna happen, it's really gonna happen! I would never publicly admit this but I'm actually very surprised this is going ahead. A note about North Ambae - people don't think we're very important. We don't have much development or wealth and we're largely illiterate (of course I could go on and on about how awesome we are but I'll save that for another time). We're basically the hicks of Ambae and people tend to ignore us or mock us (a common saying is "North hemi zero." Really nice East Ambae - you guys are clever!) But regardless there is some money around here and I think it would really help people's money management skills to have access to a bank (for now money is buried or put in an old peanut butter jar), however to hire a boat to the nearest bank in Lolowai is the equivalent of $60 USD - an astronomical sum to most people here - including me. So I thought - if people can't go to the bank, bring the bank to the people! I can't really credit myself with this idea (sadly) because the National Bank of Vanuatu (NBV) already has a mobile banking program. Just not in North Ambae of course (remember? We're "zero.") So I decided to pull it to us. I started in February by requesting a meeting with the Head of Rural Banking in Vila and he grudgingly accepted (I don't think he wanted to but in this country people work pretty hard to keep the Peace Corps on their good side). By the end of the meeting I had gotten his mandate - but that's it. I could use his name if I wanted but he wasn't going to make any calls for me. Next step - local branch in Lolowai, East Ambae. Through a combination of smiles and refusing to go away I got them to agree to a financial literacy toktok in North Ambae and then (more smiles and refusing to go away) they agreed to start sending a guy once a month to do deposits, withdrawls, and maybe even some microfinance loans. Next step - get the bigwigs on board. With the help of my wonderful chief I called a meeting of some chiefs, church leaders, the one rich guy in North Ambae, and the school headmaster - basically 8 of the most powerful men in the area. Trying to keep the butterflies in my stomach from choking me or making me throw up I pitched my idea (I couldn't even rely on my sister who usually helps me through these things with supportive smiles and head knods because she opted to sit outside and listen at the door. Coward. And this woman is not easily intimidated). And. . . they loved it! They all agreed it would be great for the North and said they backed me 100%. They'd even help with providing a venue and helping me spread the word (not easy in a world without cell phones, email, or trucks - we basically pass notes). Our first NBV day and official kickoff of the program is next month so there's plenty of time for things to go wrong but I hope I hope I so much hope this will go smoothly.

  • My (I use that term loosely) youth group - The two guys I brought to the Training of Trainers last month (remember? the youth leadership camp that you guys helped pay for?) have taken it upon themselves to start a youth group in Vuiberugu. Every Sunday after church the youth of the area gather to sing, tell kastom stories, and play all those silly camp games we taught at the TOT. Then these two (Aru and Tensley) sit them down and talk to them about one of the subjects we trained them on. They've covered leadership, communication, and building trust, and next week is good teamwork. With minimal help from me (we meet every Saturday to go over what they're gonna say and I jump in if they get stuck) and with zero resources and limited formal education, these two have started successfully building up the youth in the area. Sounds to me like money well spend :)

  • My dove necklace project - As a proud member and treasurer-in-training of the Gender and Development Committee I'm always trying to find ways to help our dismal bank account (it's a long story but we're very limited in where we can seek funds). As one of the managers of our local handcraft group I'm always trying to find new markets for the products. And Nancy and I have found a way to do both! I worked with North Ambae's incredible carvers who can make beautiful jewelry out of nuts, seeds, and shells, and we designed the Peace Corps Dove Necklace - a re-creation of the Peace Corps symbol made from a natangura seed. They've become very popular with the volunteers in Vanuatu and the orders are flowing in. Half the proceeds go to the carver and half to the GAD committee.

So there it is! I'm super busy and slightly exhausted, but very happy. As those closest to me already know, I'm never more content than when I have lots of work to do, plenty of projects to complete, and maybe just a few too many committments on my calendar.