There and back again by Christian Mario Lohr
A lot of things can change in three months.
That was the first thought that passed through my mind as my taxi dropped me off at the entrance of the slum leading to the Hanne Howard Fund.
I’m pleased to report that it’s all for the good though. When I was told that Hanne had already left for Canada for her yearly trip I was curious to see the changes the last few months had brought and also how things were holding up without Hanne’s guiding hand. Diego, Riyad and I had often discussed the implications of Hanne leaving for a longer period of time and had agreed that there was a danger of things unravelling without her presence.
I know a lot of people will think that this is a discriminating statement towards the local staff but sadly there are certain truths that cannot be refuted. An outsider is resistant to certain pressures that a local person would be faced with and receives more respect. That doesn’t mean that it’s easier. There are incredible cultural barriers that have to be overcome and there’s always a chance of things going wrong. But for a Fund that is just starting out the factors mentioned above are incredibly important. I’m sure that in years to come the Board will be perfectly capable of running the HHF but until then Hanne is vital for the survival of the center.
To my relief our fears were unfounded. The HHF is in great shape. So many things have improved over the last three months that it was almost impossible to take it all in. The first thing that struck me when I arrived was the new look of the gate. Now with the words “Hanne Howard Fund” written in bright and friendly yellow letters on the black gate it is finally possible to find the HHF. Before it was almost impossible to find the HHF without knowing exactly where to look for it. A small change but an important one. To further increase public awareness there are plans to put up signs along the main road.
When I walked through the gate, I was surprised how empty and quite the center was as it usually is swarming with kids running around and playing. I was told later by Duncan that most of the kids had left for boarding school the previous day and most of the tiny tots had gone home for the day. I did get to see Samuel and Evans though, two of the kids we had focused on during our shoot. Both seemed to be doing very well, especially Samuel seems to have changed a lot. While we were shooting he always showed incredible interest in the cameras and what we were doing but was too shy to approach us or talk to us, instead deciding to stay in the second row and just watch. Since then he has gained a lot of confidence, although still slightly shy he approached me and talked to me, asking about Riyad and Diego. Evans hadn’t changed as much but his usually grave face lit up with a smile when he saw me and he immediately came running over to clasp my hand. It’s great to see these kids change so much over the space of just three months and thanks to the chance the get through the HHF.
Duncan, Lucy, Lucy’s daughter Cindy, Simon, Benson and Peter were also there and seemed to be doing very well. Duncan, the newest member of the board, had just moved into a new room next to the HHF with Simon. They had previously shared a smaller room with two other people and were very happy when they had the chance to move into a bigger place by themselves. Being closer to the center also made it possible for them to draw electricity from the center, giving them the chance to study during the evenings.
After answering countless questions about Riyad, Diego and the documentary I got my second tour of the centre. The people at HHF seemed to be doing very well but what about the centre? I had already noticed the gate but what else had changed. The most obvious changes were the new sidewalk running along the front of the rooms and the repainting of the buildings. Every room is now covered in a colour combination of yellow, red and blue emphasising the colour contrasts we had already admired during the shoot.
The advantages of the sidewalk were immediately obvious. It had rained the previous day, making the courtyard and surrounding slum extremely muddy, but thanks to the sidewalk the interior of the rooms stayed immaculate with shoes being taken off at the sidewalk and not being worn again until it was time to leave the center. Duncan particularly enjoys the freedom of walking around bare foot without having to worry about dragging mud into every room.
The new hostel is located next to the entrance and in my opinion is the pride of the HHF, especially when compared to the one they had previously. Walking into the dorms make me feel like walking into a hostel anywhere in Europe. As clean and tidy as the best hostels I’ve been to and more colorful too. There are two dorms, one for the girls and one for the boys. They are separated by a kind of study. Each dorm has a bunk bends in them, complete with new mattresses, pillows and blankets. The girls dorm is a combination of pinks and the boys is blue. In addition each bed has it’s own cute little stuffed animal. It was absolutely incredible to see how much the hostel had changed and that just in three months! If something like that can be done in 3 months what could be done in three years?
And the surprises weren’t done yet. I had mentioned earlier that they had finally gotten electricity at the HHF, giving the kids the chance to study late into the night. Now, back when I was studying I didn’t want to study late into the night but for these kids it was the first thing they had to say about having electricity. “It’s great because now I can learn even if it’s dark outside” is the first thing that I heard when talking to people about electricity. It just goes to show how committed these kids are to making the best of the chances they are given. Not every kid is going to manage to get out of the slum, even with extra tuition but it is uplifting to see the drive that these kids have, especially considering that most of them have grown up with the hand out mentality that has permeated through most of the society.
And as if having electricity wasn’t already amazing enough I was told that they had received three laptops as a donation and occasionally had internet access.
Now these kids have a chance to learn how to use computers, getting a huge chance to work with something that is a basic requirement for every job out there nowadays. They learn the basics with an instructor, getting the chance to learn something that most of their fellow class mates in school will either never learn or learn years later, giving them a definite edge later on in life.
Apart from additional English classes taught by an elderly lady there is a current affairs class. Here the older kids read news papers ina group and discuss the different articles, giving them the chance to practice their discussion skills as well as staying up to date on current affairs. This is a great class. It not only gives the kids an idea of politics and the world but it shows that the HHF doesn’t just think about the here and now. Yes kids need to be feed and educated but they also need to be prepared for life outside of the slum and I think this current affairs class is the first step in that direction.
With each passing second I felt the chances these kids have of one day leaving the slums increase, and not just the kids but also the older (they are still my age) people such as Duncan and Peter have benefited from the HHF. Duncan has taught himself how to use Microsoft Word and is now working on learning other Microsoft tools. None of this is required of him, he does it out of interest and a wish to maximise his knowledge to help him move ahead in life. It’s interesting. I’ve travelled quite a bit in my life and met a lot of different people in different places but I had to go to one of the poorest places I’ve been to to feel as if this world still has a chance. It’s people like Duncan, living in impoverished conditions, that have the ambition and drive to succeed in life without sacrificing their compassion or humanity. In a country where corruption is rampant it is very uplifting to see that there are still people who genuinely want to make a difference and that they posses the will to do it. They don’t have the option of returning to cushy houses and jobs if it doesn’t work out and that’s the difference.
Sadly I could only stay at the HHF for a couple of hours before I had to leave again but all in all I was very impressed with what I saw. It has changed a lot, most, if not all of it, for the better and there is no end in sight. Now that the board members have settled into the roles it seems as if there is nothing they will not be able to do given time. Seeing the center in the great state it is in, without Hanne’s presence, makes me, the cynic, believe that things have a great chance of working out well for the kids.
I’m looking forward to returning for another visit.