Sunday 31 July 2011

What’s the buzzz this morning? A “måhu-rå båsa”


This morning I go out to join my landlady Sushila and her daughter and our sabzi walla on the front porch to  be met with “ssh, aså. måhu dekhå, aså aså”  ssh, “come, look at the honey bees”.
Overnight our house has a  new addition, the busy bees have built a nest! The hive or “ båsa” is probably about 2 ft across hanging from  the underside of our under construction upper floor roof. Seemingly they were swarming all around when Sushila  first go it up this morning but have settle down now.
I wonder how big it will get, and how long it will stay?

Friday 29 July 2011

“100 small things to make a difference” – Practical Action

My fellow VSO volunteer Gina has been blogging this week about her “greening”  and how her stint in India has changed her attitude to all causes environmental.
In itself interesting reading, but then today I caught sight of this great FREE downloadable “100 Small Things to make a difference” poster from Practical Action and it seems appropriate to share it and make sure it  gets a helping hand to a wider audience. ( Fellow bloggers – reblog please)
It has some good ideas, & not just for the kids it is aimed at. It focuses on the 6Rs (Reduce , Reuse, Recycle , Repair, Refuse, Rethink) – we can all do one if not many of these easily. It includes at least one in common with those Gina writes about – using less toilet paper!
For those educationalists reading this blog their website has further accompanying freebies .

Monday 25 July 2011

A weekend movie ramble – "Into the Wild", "District 9" and "2012"

A massive movie fan I have been borrowing from other volunteers movie collections when here aiming to catch up on films I always wanted to see missed in the cinema, ones I’d never heard of, and some,well best described as to be left on the shelf! I thought I’d start adding my own personal take on these into this blog
This weekend’s movies were
Into the Wild is directed by Sean Penn. Penn is, in my opinion, an extremely good, capable of being great, actor and director. I like that he does things he is passionate about. I’ve particularly enjoyed his performances in The Game, Hurly Burly, and more recently was enthralled by him in I am Sam.
I came to Into the Wild not knowing the background to this story and perhaps that is the best way, so I shall say very little about it here save that there is no Hollywood ending, that the ending is great if that is the right word to use given what it is. It has touches of Jim Jarmusch about it. Penn gets a riveting central performance out of actor Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless.
It is a road movie with Christopher heading off into the unknown, travelling through the USA, and ending up in Alaska. But it’s also a story about running away from a dysfunctional family, a place of lies and deceit to search for the truth and to try and refind happiness lost after childhood. It’s the story about giving everything up to find out what really is important.  He finds companionship along the way with folks of all ages, and learns a lot about himself. He goes through the “I want to be alone” stage to rediscover that happiness needs to be shared. It is a story about one young man’s search for identity – he discards his name and takes the alias “Alexander Supertramp” only to find that truth comes from calling and naming things by their real name. He goes through the “I hate you” stage to find eventually that he can forgive. The pivotal point comes quite ate in the movie and its second half is heart wrenching mix of success and failure , of happiness and sadness: the viewer does not know whether to cry or not.
 ashramblings verdict: One of those quiet films with lasting impact (4*)
District 9
I’d never heard of this movie before, but noting the Peter Jackson production tag I thought it would be worth a watch.
At first I was not at all sure whether I was watching a serious sci fi movie, a spoof or a comedy, whether it was akin to Doctor Who in its depictions of the alien “The Prawns”, or whether it was an Alan Partridge like comedy. I later read the trivia on the films page on and found the following explanation of the central character’s last name
“In South Africa, the last name "van der Merwe" really is a fairly common surname … but it would also be recognizable to most South Africans as the common name in a whole genre of jokes about stupid, bumbling, oblivious, or incompetent Afrikaaners. The fact that the Wikus van der Merwe character is (at least at the beginning of the film) an ineffectual, catastrophically clueless bureaucrat is immediately communicated by the screenwriters' decision to give him that particular name.”
The first half shows the authorities trying to evict the alien population of District 9 or Jo’berg for resettlement far outside the city in District 10 – it cannot be amiss that this is set in South Africa, that it is an apartheid that is inflicted on the aliens.
 ashramblings verdict: A sci fi take on political satire comedy? Interesting! (3*)
Joining the ranks of  humanity survival sci fi movies, this film tries to do a Deep Impact on a different sort of extinction level event with a take on the Noah’s Ark idea. If you like a film full of special effects but lacking much else beyond  the cliché this is the movie for you! 
BUT and here comes a huge BUT, if not, then this film is worth watching for the 10 minutes or so in total that Woody Harrleson appears on the screen as Charlie Frost, the doped out, ex hippy turned radio station operator who reports from a ringside seat as the world’s newest volcano erupts in Yosemite. His nicely judged over the top depiction of  a spaced out fanatic steals the show and is arguably the best performance he has ever given.
It left me wondering why he never got an award  or even nomination for this ? Is there some minimum length of time a character has to be on screen to qualify as a supporting role? I’m thinking here about show stealing performances like that of the magnificent Katherine Hepburn as Ginny in the otherwise mediocre Love Affair with Annette Benning and Warren Beatty which was nominated for a Razzie award as the worse remake.  Come on film buffs help out here – is there a minimum screen time? Are there other “missed” performances linger in the wings because they are such small parts?
 ashramblings verdict: fast and furious special effects (2*) overtake all but Woody Harrelson’s “best in show” small part (4*)

Saturday 23 July 2011

Childline comes to Rayagada

imageFor many years now Shakti has run a school for child labourers, mainstreaming  250 children from its schools into the formal education system.  Now Shakti is taking its involvement with children and its support of the Rights of a Child one step further. It has become the Rayagada arm of ChildLine India. For 2 days this past week we have been holding first interviews at our Rayagada office for the new Team.P7220149
I’ve been patiently waiting publishing this blog post for some time now, knowing Shakti had the role  but the wheels of final government authorisation grind exceedingly slowly. It was several months ago when we were applying for this that S and I headed of to our School to meet with some of its previous students, now attending local schools. They had agreed to stop by their old school on the way home from school to have their story told and their pictures taken to help bring ChildLine to Shakti and to Rayagada . I reproduce 2 typical stories here (names have been changed)
Rinky is  14 years old. She was working in a house maid servant when SHAKTI staff rescued her from her work place. The team counselled her and her parents and after several rounds of motivation, her parents agreed to send her to School . She had previously dropped out at Class 2. Her parents, migrants from Kasipur block, were living in Jhodia Basti (one of the Rayagada Slum areas), and working as construction labourers. Rinky completed her education in Shakti’s Special Child Labour School from 2004 to 2007 after which she was admitted into  Class 6 in RSEWC High School. Then following year she was placed highly (11) in her Class 7 exam and now in 2010- 2011 she is studying in Class 8.
Manoj is 13. He was working in a tea stall when the Shakti team found him in 2004. Again Shakti’s team counselled him and his parents, motivating them to send him to SHAKTI’s School. He had dropped out of formal schooling at Class 3 . His parents are member of the SC communities, work as day labourers and are resident in Sastri Nagar Basti Slum. He too completed his education in Shakti’s Special Child Labour School, Rayagada from 2004 to 2007 and thereafter was admitted in Class 6 in RSEWC High School and is now studying in Class 8. He is very happy with his performance at school and has helped to motivate another 3 child labourers of his slum to also return to education.
These two success stories are typical of the successful interventions by SHAKTI’s staff for the welfare of children.
What, you may ask,  are the issues affecting children in the Rayagada District?
  • The use of child labour  - 6021 child labourers were identified during a District survey in 2007. Due to the poor economic backgrounds of families, parents are sending their children to work instead of sending them to school
  • Child Trafficking  - labour contractors/brokers (gangmasters) are trafficking both girls and boys for domestic work in the metropolitan cities.
  • In the Tribal communities, child marriage is a common with families arranging the marriage of their girl children at 13 to 14 years of age.
  • Child abuse  eg where the child is engaged in domestic work as maid servant.
  • Migration - Parents, migrating for seasonal wage work, often take their children with them, encouraging dropping out from education, early entry into the work place and “loss” of children on route
  • Education drop out  - As per Child survey by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, 29913 children are out of school in the district.
  • Malnourishment is high among the children. 40% of the children in the District are Grade 4 malnourished. Malnutrition is due to poor feeding practice and to the poor economic condition of families
  • Child Orphans - Due to 2010 Cholera epidemic, many children lost their parents.

So here’s hoping we can find some good candidates for the ChildLine Rayagada Team!


Friday 22 July 2011

Rodent alarm clock – dhamana!

Today has been a bit of a wildlife day. First I was woken up just before 5AM this morning with a noise really quite close to my head – it sounded like something rummaging at the corner of my mosquito net. In a half asleep daze I am waving it away with my hand. I’m sort of only half awake and thinking it is probably Fred (the resident gecko!) when the noise becomes more of a scurrying , clearly a bigger animal, and I realise I must have a rodent in the bedroom. I get up, switch on the light  and sure enough I find a rat sitting on the bedroom shelves. 
I chase it out of the bedroom, trying to watch where it heads for,  ie how it got in, but I loose it in the dark in the kitchen. Once the kitchen light is on I check the sink plumbing. You will remember this was the way they were getting in last year. My landlord had put in a cover thinking it would cure the problem and I dispensed with my make shift rat stop of a piece of marble and slab of cement. Well this musa had worked the cover loose!  So after a good check that it wasn’t still in the house, it was back down with the marble and cement blocks.
P7220153Later this morning in the office there was much asa, asa – come ,come – with a ssh sshh do it quietly. There outside the window of our Accounts room was a snake. Only a couple of days before a cobra ( in Oriya “naga”)  had been found in Mr P’s brother’s house, squirming about by the cooking gas cylinder in the kitchen – deadly! Luckily the adults of the house saw it and none of the small children were about. So Mr G, who manages our old  age home was summoned. Seemingly he is an ace snake catcher! I missed all that excitement and when I was told the story yesterday I had mentioned that I had never seen a snake in the wild. Much bemused looks and then the questions “you don’t have snakes in your country?” 
So today when someone noticed this one in the grass outside the office Mr R came to tell me about it so I could see a snake! Not a deadly one,  but about 6 foot long and the thickness of my forearm.  The name for this one in Oriya is dhamana”: and after investigating a bit on the web I find it is a fairly common Rat Snake which must have a field day in our nagar with all the rats and toads we have.
After it disappeared back into the shrubbery and undergrowth, then all the snake stories started to come out. It appears that on 2 occasions a cobra has actually come into the office building through the front door! Actually there are lots of snakes in the nagar even though it is getting to be a built up area it wasn’t always and there are regular sightings.  I just have never seen any. Part of me wants to and part of me doesn’t  - this is as close to one as I really want to be to any snake. Another Indian experience ticked off the list! I’m just glad my wake up call this morning was of the rodent rather than reptilian variety!

Monday 18 July 2011

Expectations and deliverables - a postscript

As I mentioned in a previous post one  of the things I have done is an HR Assessment from which I provided suggestions for improvements to the HR Manual, and a process for the incorporation of a Gender strategy. This I did last year. Nothing very much had come if it, and I had put it down to one of those “bedding in” tasks which let the NGO know more about the volunteer and acquaints the volunteer with the organisation, while the specific topic of the task may well need to be written off , never to see the light of day again. Now that’s Ok. When placement outlines are drawn up some quite generic statements are made like the 3 original objectives in mine: once you are “bedded in” and accepted by colleagues refinements and adjustments can be made.  I knew we’d return to this topic if we got round to doing a full Organisational Assessment, and when we began the process for Credibility Alliance Certification and yes it did come up again during the OA. Still, other things needed to happen and be done, and it has been sitting quietly on the back burner for some time.
Since the beginning of May,  as part of the change transformation in Shakti, Mr P has more time to spend at the main Rayagada office, and he specifically indicated that he would have available to spend more time on the detail of many of the things he and I are working on but are pending his review, action or decision. It has been great to see this actually happening – he has been attentive to the timelines for several concept notes submission and project proposals, he has been participative in and supportive of the MIS & IT training programme, and is investing his time in the web redesign project.
Then this morning I am called into his office: he has a question about my annotated comments on the Gender Strategy draft! I’d not even realised he was reviewing it. Very nice! Now I have to go back and reread it  :)

Saturday 9 July 2011

Ramanaguda rambles in the rain


On Wednesday I spent the day at our Ramanaguda field office where we have a training facility. They are having PC problems which need to be fixed ahead of their next capacity building workshop. I’d been before so I was quite looking forward to the fresh country air to blow a bit of the Rayagada dust out of me. 
I was picked up by our driver at 7:30 AM  and then we collected Mr P and Manoj from our main office. The drive up starts out from a muddy nagar, after continual rains since about 6PM the previous night (actually we’ve not had a lot of rain at all this wet season so far).

The video shows the state of the main road through Rayagada and through our nagar. As regular readers will  remember at the end of last year there was massive destruction as work began to improve the road. The disruption continues and as you can see it still has a long way to go. Another 6 months is being talked about – I think it will be well into 2012 before it is finished. I doubt I shall see it completed. But progress is happening the concrete drains aside of the road have been built and for some of the way have their covers in place. These will become the pavement walkways. But for most of the route the covers are still missing – For the past month I have had to walk to my local ATM over a plank across the drainage. For now all road except one into our nagar are closed because of this construction. On foot one can clamber across at some points but even pedestrians cannot get through at others where 6 ft ditches full of metal supports patiently awaiting concrete greet the person on foot. So you can see the drainage in the video, and experience the road condition as we bump our way through the pot holes to get out of Rayagada. Now the country lanes are in better condition than the town roads :)
P7060116 Out of Rayagada we drive north, going through a couple of villages and gradually climbing up, zig zaging round a series of sharp, hairpin bends and in some places struggling up the gradient in low gear. We pass fields, pretty much empty at this time of here, although some vegetables are still to be  found at roadside sabzi walls stops, but the choice is getting very limited – johnny, aubergine, beans – the very last of the mango crop and I saw a few custard apples for the first time this year. Its pretty wet, misty and not great for pictures.
We arrived here about 10:00AM. Mr P and Manoj immediately headed off again to Gunapar another 1 hr drive for a monthly meeting on one of Shakti’s major involvements (OTELP) There are no  field staff in Ramanaguda office when I arrive, they are all off out at the villages working on our CHIN project for health advocacy and awareness. Only Mr  S is here to open up for me and the caretaker’s family who are busy in the garden. No English speakers at all. As far as I can make out they are trying to sort out a problem with “musa” in the latrines and attacking the newly planted garden plants. I think its these rats eating the cables to the latrine block lights again! Some one should invent a rat repellent covering for wires – come on 3M that sounds like something for you!
P7060123 P7060120  P7060122
The office here is quite spartan – two office rooms, one large training hall and a kitchen area and caretaker’s room. But it has a reasonable amount of land and a garden. It is situated about 1/4  mile from the village and so is really quiet and has no distractions for people during courses.  If you want a contrast in facilities between the have and the have nots within India check out my colleague Mike’s Facebook photos of some of his workshop sessions from Delhi and points north.
I spent most of the morning sitting outside in the nice,  fresh, but wet and steamy air. The rain comes and goes, the sound of music from the next village comes and goes, the butterflies flutter round the garden. All very pleasant, and every so often a slight cool breeze.  We are much higher up here than in Rayagada, further inland, but it is no where ear as cool as Koraput – which really does have the best climate around here . Everywhere is forested, with lush green undergrowth carpeting all the hillsides, none of the deforestation you see elsewhere.
P7060147 P7060127 P7060128 P7060129 P7060130  P7060132 P7060135  P7060138 P7060146
Yes I was supposed to be working – but what also comes and goes is the power, and even when it is on the voltage is  so low as to make using anything impossible.  Silly me I forget to bring my solar charger this morning, but it was  so overcast and grey that I doubt it would charge very much. Basically the power has been off since 2AM when the rains started.  At this point it was looking likely to be a very unproductive day :) Even if the power comes back on and I can get the PC started, identify the problem I certainly won’t feel happy about upgrading  their windows installation when the power is coming and going.
Come 1PM, Mr S asks me if I want to go into the village for lunch. He will go to the electricity substation and see what is the problem as as has been told by phone that the power should be back on. I tuck into fish curry and rice in the local dhaba, not only the only European but the only woman there as well. No hassles, no one batted an eyelid :)
P7060141 P7060139 Back at the office one of our field staff ManojS has arrived back from his morning out in the villages. His task for the afternoon is to draw up some handouts for a capacity building sessions he will run on village microplanning. My artistic skills lend a hand and his copies are done in no time. No fancy clip art graphics here, just plain and simple pen and paper.

P7060143Now the electricity fixer arrives.  My NGO paid to have the  power brought up from the village so they do get a bit  of  personal service it seems. Anyway, next thing I know he is climbing up the tower and within 30 minutes the local problem is fixed and we have full voltage power again.
By now it is about 3 PM and I tackle the first of the computing problems. Mr S’s pen drive, on which he transports everything back and forth between Ramanaguda and Rayagada offices is not showing up in Explorer on the Ramanaguda PC.  We sit down and together try to troubleshoot the problem. In the end, I do not know why the problem has occurred, but taking off all his files onto my PC, reformatting his pen drive and reloading his files cures the problem. It may be a short term fix but at least he can get to work. Next task is to show Mr S how to access the internet via a new internet dongle.
The main task of the day was going to be upgrading their Windows installation and loading some new software to mirror the PCs in the Rayagada office, I’m only part way through this when Mr P and Manoj return to pick me up. I had assumed their meeting would go on all afternoon but for some reason it has turned out to be a short one.  In the end I get the Windows updates done and find I don’t have enough room on the disk given how it is partitioned to install all new software and the updates to the antivirus. Regretfully :)  I will have to come back another day and rebuild this machine.  We head home, arriving back in Rayagada by 9PM, I fall straight into bed without any dinner, tired but revived by seeing the countryside and some green horizons again.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Expectations and deliverables

I am heading into my last 4 months or so of my placement so this is a good time to take stock, consolidate what has been done, finalise what needs to be completed before November.

A prospective volunteer makes her assessment of the suitability and desirability of a placement offer from the placement outline. There are no formal interviews, no opportunity  to meet the boss or the team, no seeing the organisation and the work environment before you decide – you go in pretty much blind. ) Looking back at the original placement outline,  mine  said 

“The purpose of this placement is to strengthen the OD processes of the organisation and to set up systems that can be utilised, sustained and contribute to the growth of the organisation”

1 Creating a long-term organisational strategy Long term organisational strategy in place
2 Streamlining internal information systems (quality of reporting, centralised reporting and its compilation) Quality standards for documentation set

A centralised reporting system created with linkages to various project information

Internal information storing and management streamlined
3 Support in strengthening funding base of the organisation Fundraising plan in place

So how has this materialised in practice?
The role has involved working closely with key staff at the NGO (namely the General Secretary and the Documentation Officer) to improve organisational process, on fundraising and MIS systems. This  has been done by sharing skills to develop sustainable processes,taking/making opportunities to improve communications materials, develop fundraising strategy, improve information systems, strengthen management, business and technical skills and initiate long term planning.
It sounded and turned out to be a broad brush placement, ideal for my skills & experience set. So what do I think I have achieved?

Executive coaching - -The key has been building a strong relationship of trust with NGO General Secretary. I have provided thought leadership re organisational transformation and executive level coaching to him. I delivered sound advice, suggestions and management skills coaching: for example, exposure to alternative time management tools; coaching through new ways of approaching /resolving the hiring issues faced in succession planning (e.g. golden handcuffs, role premiums) and in the refinement of the organisation’s Vision/Mission statements.

Marketing Communications – The second key relationship has been with the Documentation officer. Relatively new to the role, she and I worked well early on to conceptualise the Shakti brand and to design and deliver Shakti’s first ever logo (with help from friend and ex colleague Judy Bandy,  and from the team at 2i Design in Cambridge (news) who undertook our design work pro bono – many thanks folks!) The organisation’s stationary was redesigned, its first ever brochure and organisational leaflets , many of its internal forms redesigned, its first website and blog built. The blog and organisation’s facebook page are now being run entirely by the Documentation Officer. We have just this past week started a project to revamp, expand and improve the website (with web design assistance from fellow VSO volunteer Gina)

Organisational Strategy – I guided the General Secretary through his first Organisational Assessment and consequential Action Planning. I undertook an HR Assessment and provided suggestions for improvements to both HR Manual, process for the incorporation of a Gender strategy. I delivered a Fundraising Plan to significantly change and strengthen funding base, rationalise scope of projects. Associated fundraising processes (donor mapping etc) established and staff trained (with assistance from VSO colleague Brooke). I delivered an IT review and an IS plan to provide a solid foundation for the organisation’s IT requirements and to improve systems operational performance to support projects and programme work. All office computers have been updated, memory added, updated versions of software installed, antivirus software upgraded, a LAN installed, backup and recovery processes initiated (with assistance from fellow VSO volunteer Corey) and associated supportive training provided. We have begun a records management exercise, reviewing existing files, agreeing retention schedules.

I am working closely with General Secretary to pull together a very large strategic programme to take the NGO on its next step towards its long term goal of becoming a state wide resource centre.  I am supporting and advising on concept note development and proposal writing to support this transformational change.

Capacity Building Training – Fundraising, communications, basic Office IT skills. Encouraged Documentation Officer and built her skills and confidence re social media, blogging and associated IT skills, delivering training in basic HTML, Live Writer, Blogger & Facebook. Improved quality of reporting through capacity building relevant IT skills e.g. graphical data analysis. Delivered proposal and designed training to improve field staff photographic skills. Conducted Microsoft Word & Publisher 2010 Training ( Excel and PowerPoint training in the pipeline)

So did I do exactly what was on the job description? Probably not, but plus ça change! On the whole I am fairly pleased with what has been done and most importantly I really do think the vast majority of it can be sustained after I go. We do need to consolidate the IT management processes for the LAN and when our faulty NAS drive is  finally replaced by the manufacturer I will ensure we go over the backup and recovery procedures to reinforce these anew. Likewise the fundraising research process needs to be consolidated and internalised better by Shakti staff, so a review of that is in order.

I will be completing the Microsoft Office 2010 training and providing follow up help, advice and encouragement, continuing to work on the series of fundraising proposals and concept note submissions for the new projects, integrating new project staff and their requirements into what we have so far achieved (watch this space for an imminent formal announcement on our successful bid and new project), and continuing to work with the General Secretary on the groundwork for the transformation to a Livelihoods Resource Centre.  He and I have identified several others areas and specific projects at Shakti which would benefit from the assistance of International and /or National volunteers and proposals for these will need to be drafted.

What could have been done which hasn’t been?
Well top of this list has to be Project Management for the field office staff. I certainly could  deliver appropriate capacity building training in this area. As most of the field staff have little of no English, an Oriya interpreter is required.

Also, the Organisational Assessment indicated a requirement for improving Decision Making and Problem Solving skills. At this point in time I am not entirely sure we will have time to do this, much as though I would like to.

It seems like I will be having a busy last few months!