22 August 2016

the fruit of my work at the LULU project.

Every year in early August, a group of American visitors comes to Tanzania for about two weeks to learn about the work that we do as Maryknoll Lay Missioners and to discern what role they could play in our mission, whether that be becoming a missioner themselves or donating to the cause.

I always find the visits to be refreshing and invigorating, mostly because visitors see all experiences in Tanzania with such fresh eyes. For us, after almost three years, so much of life here has become mundane and routine. Even thinking of something to write up on this blog has become a struggle, evidenced by the downtick in blog postings!

Yet this year, in addition to being inspired by the observations of our Friends Across Borders (FAB) visitors, I was equally inspired by my own LULU young women.

Whenever you give a presentation at work, you feel a certain amount of pressure to perform, right? On one hand, you want people to be impressed and to see the obvious benefit in what you do. At the same time, it shouldn't be inauthentic but should be an accurate picture of what your work truly is.

Full disclosure here: Sometimes, the work I do in Tanzania does not look particularly impressive or beneficial.

As the Coordinator of the LULU Project, I lead and motivate about 20-25 young women to serve as our LULU facilitators, who then go out into their local communities to form eight clubs of 20 girls each, teaching them life skills, health, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Well, I should say, I try to lead and motivate and do all the things we aspire the project to be.

But Tanzania - and life - get in the way of that. Facilitators show up late, time and time again, to meetings and workshops. I'll look forward to visiting a certain club that day, only to arrive to find three or four girls instead of the 20 we aim for. Young women in the program are forced to return to their villages to care for a sick parent or grandparent and we can only hope that the lessons they've had will serve them in some small way in the future. Yes, we've even had young women steal from the project or try to take advantage of our mission in other ways.

It's an experiment in hope, to say the least.

Although I'm (somewhat) prepared for disappointment in my day-to-day life, I certainly don't want to have to face it on a day when I have many visitors from the States, expecting and hoping to see the great work that we do at LULU. Gulp.

The FAB visitors were scheduled to come and spend a couple of hours with our LULU Bwiru Club on a Monday afternoon. I had prepared for this day by planning out what the guests would do alongside Eliza, my Assistant Coordinator, in addition to Winnie and Loveness, who are the facilitators or peer educators of our group in Bwiru. We had agreed on a small, easy-to-do handcraft that the FAB guests could attempt with the LULU members sitting with them as their teachers. We would also incorporate the guests into a short lesson on Effective Communication from our Life Skills curriculum, giving them a taste of the structure and types of activities our members do throughout the course of their year-long curriculum with us.

Of course, this all presupposed that everyone - the Assistant Coordinator, the facilitators, and the club members themselves - would show up. And somewhat on time, perhaps.

At about the time the guests were scheduled to arrive, Eliza was there along with… two group members. One of the facilitators, Winnie, had called to say she was sick and probably wouldn't make it. The other, Loveness, had turned off her phone. Not a great start.

Thankfully, the guests were late! In the meantime, though, what else to do but worry? I started to chastise myself, "Why didn't you offer the group some kind of gift if they got here on time? Money? Extra handcraft supplies? A soda?" Then, another voice popped up in my head, "No, that would have been completely inauthentic. That's not the reality of what LULU looks like. If we only have three girls today, well, at least we're being honest with the guests about the realities of mission life in Tanzania."

I couldn't decide what voice I agreed with more.

Thankfully, my internal debate quieted as one by one, LULU members made their way into the room. In the midst of the argument with myself, I failed to notice that a few of the girls had left only to return 20 minutes later with a fellow member in tow, a girl who perhaps hadn't planned on coming but was persuaded by the positive peer pressure of her friend.

By the time the guests did arrive, there were 15 young women there and even more trickled in as we spent time together. This allowed for each guest to have one-on-one interaction with a LULU girl. Not only that, the LULU members were fantastic hosts. I watched as they welcomed our guests with big smiles on their faces, showed them (with very little English!) how to make a handcraft, and teased each other as mistakes were inevitably made.

At one point, I looked around the classroom, wondering what I was supposed to be doing… until I realized that Eliza, the facilitators, and the girls themselves were doing my work. Pretty much all of it.

In that brief moment, I saw the fruit of my work from the last two and a half years in the faces of the 15+ young women in front of me. With an immense sense of pride tinged with a little sadness, I realized that they don't need me as much anymore. They have taken our LULU lessons to heart - lessons that I had sometimes convinced myself fell on deaf ears - about self-confidence, building healthy friendships, cooperating with your peers and being accountable to one another. They were all a poster child for what a LULU member or  "pearl" is: helpful, friendly, brave, creative, cooperative, and supportive.

As many of you have read, Michael and I have decided to return to the States next May and as a result, I'm not sure what the future of the LULU Project will be. Naturally, I've been allowing it to sadden me as I think about no one being here to carry it on in the same way or the potential reality of it ending all together. Yet this experience made me realize that there is hope - and so much of it. No matter what happens, the LULU Project will live on in each of the over 350 young women who have been involved over the last four years, in their ability to see themselves anew, in their fresh plans for their futures, in their willingness to reach out to other young women in their communities and offer support. That's the fruit of LULU and for me, that's more than enough.

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