I am in NYC having a ball and chatting it up with lovely people and talking to anyone who will listen about Congo. While I'm gone, I'm letting my gal Michelle borrow my bloggy audience. Michelle is doing some really awesome things for the Pole Pole Foundation that operates in Congo. Pole Pole does environmental work in DRC and puts locals to work. And while my passion is orphans in Congo, I know that an organization like Pole Pole that is good for the community, is also AWESOME at keeping families in tact. Because healthy communities= healthy families. So without further adieu, we interrupt the regularly scheduled programming for a special message from Michelle!
My name is Michelle DeJardine. Megan has been awesome enough to let me temporarily take over her blog so that I can tell you all, her amazing readers, about an organization based in eastern DRC that I really care about.
I am not sure how many of you have read A Thousand Sisters by Lisa Shannon (if you haven’t, go get that book!) but if you have, you may remember an individual named “Eric” who worked at a National Park in eastern DRC called Kahuzi-Biega. He discussed conflict minerals and had a Gorilla memorial wall that really moved Lisa because it was the only memorial she had ever seen in DRC. Lisa changed his name to “Eric” in the book for his own safety but his real name is Dominique.
Dominique was born and raised in DRC near the National Park and when he was 20 years old, he, with other staff members of the park, founded a non-profit organization called Pole Pole Foundation (which means Slowly Slowly but Steady). Dom could see that the communities on the outskirts of the park were really struggling. Most of these individuals are pygmies, who are often ostracized by other Congolese people (much like Native Americans/Canadians). He was also seeing that these communities were causing some environmental problems for Kahuzi-Biega from cutting down trees and poaching highly endangered animals for bush meat and selling poached animals to gain some form of income. The communities were also extremely illiterate with no opportunities to go to school or send their own children to school. So Dom and many of the Kahuzi-Biega park staff decided to make a change.
It has been 18 years since Pole Pole Foundation was formed and since then it has built three schools around the park- two are elementary schools, one high school. The high school students are taught everything you would expect but there is also a large focus on conservation – many of these students will follow in their father’s footsteps to become park rangers at Kahuzi-Biega. Their environmental education program has been extended to 21 existing schools around the park. Currently, 728 children are registered in Pole Pole’s kindergarten and primary schools and 147 students are studying agro-forestry and conservation at the high school. Pole Pole has created sustainable jobs for women in these communities as women are one of the main focuses of the organization. Women have learned how to sew ranger uniforms, they receive goats and chickens, they provide the food that the children at the schools eat (making sure that these kids do not have empty stomachs as they try to learn) and women whose husbands have been killed while protecting the park from poachers also receive micro credits and training so they can support their children. Six literacy centers were also launched to teach adults to read and write Swahili and they also learn about conservation. Thanks to Pole Pole, 1.5 million trees have been distributed and planted around the park. Individuals who used to poach animals such as leopards, rare forest elephants, the highly endangered Eastern Lowland Gorilla, which exists no where else in the world, have been trained to create wood carvings of the very animals they used to poach, using trees they grew themselves. These carvings are then sold to tourists, people visiting the park and internationally (I own a beautiful Gorilla carving!).
Now, I know that these facts do not necessarily pull at the heart strings. Westerners have a tendency to think that because DRC is facing SO many problems, why should anyone care about the environment, animals and communities living around Kahuzi-Biega? I will try to explain how I feel in regards to this.
Pole Pole is not an organization run by a celebrity. It is not a trendy organization. It was not founded by anyone in the Western world… but it has been there, helping these communities, before the war started in 1994 when the Western world didn’t even know what DRC was, and 18 years later it is still going strong. This organization is based in and thrives on the idea of hope. Kahuzi-Biega is ground zero for the conflict in DRC. When Rwandan refugee’s fled by the thousands over the boarder into Congo, it was Kahuzi-Biega where they decided to call home. Now 18 years later, many of the refugees have left, but the militias that were hiding amidst them have stayed and are living in the park – attacking the villages outside of the park, looting Pole Pole head quarters, stealing things from the schools, creating a feeling of unrest. But Pole Pole and its founders bravely push back against this – they solve every problem, they dedicate their lives to these communities, they give structure in times of chaos, they give people a sense of purpose and empowerment, they don’t give up. There is a reason why Pole Pole Foundation stands for “Slowly Slowly but Steady”. This organization is going to be around for generations. It has seen DRC come into war and it will see DRC reach the other side and become a peaceful, thriving country. Pole Pole and its founders know that there is no quick fix to solving the problems in eastern DRC. It takes years of dedication and commitment. It puts individuals like Dom and his own family, who could leave the area if they wanted to, right in the middle of the conflict, because he refuses to let their home, Kahuzi-Biega, and the communities around it, be wiped out because of a war that had nothing to do with them in the first place. Militias are mining in the park, destroying the land, destroying the second largest basin rainforest in the world, behind the Amazon, and wiping out entire populations of some of the most beautiful species of animals in the world. It is these species of animals that will most certainly draw tourism to eastern DRC when the conflict is over. I personally cannot stand the idea of DRC losing all of its natural beauty because of this war. I am so grateful to know that there are people like Dom and organizations like Pole Pole Foundation working so hard in DRC, risking their lives daily, to protect Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which is a World Heritage Site and the communities living around it.
So here is where you guys come in. I asked Megan to help me with this cause through her blog because I have seen what you, her readers, have done before to help DRC. I am organizing a 10km Run/Walk for Pole Pole Foundation fundraising event for August 21st 2010. Each person who participates in the event must raise $100 in sponsorships. I currently have 9 runners including myself. Now I know most of you would not be able to attend the run (it is in Barrie, Ontario Canada – I can picture all of you collectively saying “where the heck is that?!) but one thing I have learned since starting the Run/Walk is how many people in the States (and elsewhere) want to help causes based in DRC. So I put a PayPal link on my own blog so individuals anywhere in the world can donate to support the Run/Walk for Pole Pole Foundation. If any of you are able to, please consider donating to support the Run/Walk. 100% of the proceeds go to Pole Pole Foundation. If you are not able to donate please think about spreading the word about the Run/Walk by posting info about it on your facebook accounts and letting people know about my blog and how they can donate.
There is one neat element to all of this. I will be receiving a few small Gorilla carvings made by the men in the wood carving program. These are being shipped to me in the next few weeks and I am going to have an extra one to give to one lucky person on this page! I am following suit with Megan’s other draws so how this will work is: If you donate to the Run/Walk through my blog, please let me know by saying “donated” in the comments section of this blog entry. If you are not able to donate but have posted info about the Run/Walk on your facebook or your own blogs, please write “posted” or something along those lines in the comment section. If you do both, please say “did both!” Posting on your blog/facebook page is worth 1 point. Donating is worth 2 points. Donating and re posting is worth 3 points. I will enter all of your names in a hat based on the points (the more points the better chance of winning) and after the run (August 21st) I will draw a name and you will win a hand carved Gorilla, made specifically for the event you helped support, by a carver in Pole Pole Foundations carving program! A small piece of DRC!
I cannot post a picture at the moment because the carvings are still in DRC (the guys are working so hard on them!) but as soon as I get them I will see if Megan would mind posting a pic!
Thank you so much for reading this very long blog entry and for supporting the Run/Walk for Pole Pole Foundation. I cannot explain how much I appreciate it!
To donate to support the Run/Walk via PayPal please visit my blog at:
If you would like to see the events page on facebook please visit: http://www.facebook.com/michelle.dejardine#!/event.php?eid=126635997369742&ref=mf
To learn more about Pole Pole Foundation please visit:
If you would like to read about how I decided to do the Run/Walk for Pole Pole Foundation, please read my guest blog entry at Letters to Congo:
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!!!