Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day: show him how to catch fish and you feed him for a lifetime. So goes the familiar adage.
But for Vineyard women Lila Fischer and Hannah Kahl, the saying might go more like this: ask a man how you can empower him to help others and you will feed his entire community. Just don’t forget to include women in the conversation, too.
On Friday and Saturday nights at the Harbor View Hotel and the Katharine Cornell Theatre, Ms. Fischer, 29, and Ms. Kahl, 30, hosted screenings and discussions about their work in Atiak, Uganda. Their story is now a television program produced by the Africa Channel, a cable news channel available in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago which seeks to bring African cultural and lifestyle programming to American audiences. Initially, the women weren’t sure whether they wanted to take part in the Africa Channel program, which would require them to talk about themselves, something neither particularly enjoys. But the channel encouraged them to be part of a movement to show a positive side of Africa.
“We need them to see the everyday joy,” of the African people, Ms. Kahl said.
About two years ago, the two lifelong friends raised $13,000 in small donations from the Island community, and set out on a six-month trip to Atiak, a town with 35,000 residents situated 20 miles south of the South Sudanese border. For many years, the region was the site of a civil war between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. A massacre perpetrated by the LRA in 1995 led to the murders of at least 300 Atiak residents. Boys were forced to become child soldiers, and women and girls were abducted into sexual slavery.
The people of Atiak are working hard to reinvigorate their community and create a better life for their children, the two women reported.
“They are very resilient and they impress me,” Ms. Fischer said on Saturday night.
“The people were so excited about rebuilding,” Ms. Kahl added. “There was so much forward motion.”
Ms. Fischer is a midwife by training and in Africa she worked alongside local women as part of Earth Birth which helps operate a four-room delivery center in Atiak.
Ms. Kahl worked with a non-profit micro-lending program called Women’s Microfinance Initiative (WMI). The small loans, most of them valued at the equivalent of $5 U.S., are put towards education for children or used to kickstart small businesses, such as selling tomatoes, greens or fish.
“Their model is all about talking to local people and asking directly what they need, helping them to then do that on their own,” Ms. Kahl said. “We wanted to find local change-makers and find a way to empower them and help sustain local projects.”
Though at first the locals regarded them as “funny ladies” who might not adapt to the work of the community, they quickly proved themselves. Through their work at Earth Birth and WMI, the women became a part of the fabric of the whole community.
“Nobody is afraid to laugh at themselves, at you, at how funny it is that you are trying to fit into their culture,” Ms. Fischer says in the television program. The women also became acquainted with a local man named Tura who never had the opportunity to finish high school. When he sheepishly asked them for some assistance, they agreed to help pay for his secondary schooling. Having since graduated high school, Tura is now working towards a degree in nursing.
Tura’s family was so pleased they gave the women a chicken, which they named chocolate chip gelato, and subsequently slaughtered for a special birthday meal.
“We got a chicken soup for our birthday, and a friendly pet, and images of ice cream,” which they had been craving the entire trip, Ms. Fischer said.
After six months in Atiak, Ms. Fischer returned home to the Vineyard and opened a midwifery practice. Ms. Kahl stayed in Uganda, but moved east to Boyubo where she continued her work with WMI. She returned home last spring after 10 additional months.
Though they are no longer living in Africa, the women continue to support Tura’s education and two other projects initiated during their time there. One project is the financing of a permanent center for WMI in Boyubo, where current business education courses are conducted outside under a tree. When it rains, the class has to be postponed. The other project is to help finance structural improvements for a boarding school run by a man named Komakec. The school is built of wood and mud and vulnerable to the elements.
“Even though they don’t have much, the joy and excitement for learning is apparent,” Ms. Fischer said.
Island educators have expressed an interest in connecting with Komakec and creating cross-cultural learning opportunities for their students.
Over the weekend, Ms. Fischer and Ms. Kahl raised $2,020 towards their goal of $5,000 for the three projects.
Read about the work of Ms. Fischer and Ms. Kahl at localwomenglobalmission.wordpress.com. Send donations to Local Women, Global Mission, P.O. Box 106, West Tisbury, Mass., 02575.