Washington — Agnes Kwenda wants to teach young mothers in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, how to become self-reliant. She says the skills she learned at St. John's Shelter Program for Women and Children in Sacramento, California, will help her do that.
"We're going to do all we can to make a difference," said Kwenda, who started the Precious Life Foundation in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. The group she funds with her husband and community donors cares for homeless teenage mothers and their children, many iof whom have nowhere else to stay. She said community leaders are needed to step in to motivate others to provide services that are not being provided by governments.
Kwenda is one of 58 community leaders from 28 countries who participated in the four-month Community Solutions Program funded by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) and implemented by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington-based nonprofit organization.
Participants in the professional development program, now in its second year, were matched with nonprofit organizations and government offices across the United States where they worked with counterparts on community development projects related to women's and environmental issues, transparency and conflict resolution. In collaboration with their U.S. hosts and with support from IREX, they also developed projects that they will implement at home during the first half of 2013, according to IREX's Michelle Weisse.
The visiting leaders headed back to their home countries from Washington December 7 inspired to motivate others to join their efforts.
Ortal Be'eri returned to the Upper Galilee Region of Israel with plans to promote dialogue between Jewish and Arab citizens in her community through training and mentorships for young women politicians from various parts of society. She'll do that with skills she picked up at the Washington peace-building group Search for Common Ground in facilitating discussions among people with different backgrounds so they can learn what they have in common.
Winding up his four months in America, Angel Chitrakar of Katmandu, Nepal, said he will use what he learned about energy technologies at CNT Energy in Chicago to teach Nepalis, especially in rural areas, about locally available and cost-effective alternative energy sources like solar panels and improved cookstoves. He stresses that kerosene, the traditional energy source, is a safety and health hazard. Children may tip over containers of the fuel, leading to indoor fires, and people exposed to heavy indoor smoke are much more likely to develop chronic respiratory disease, he tells community members.
Chitrakar also wants to teach youth how to assemble and sell energy-efficient light bulbs, a project that will help local economies and provide youth with needed jobs, he said.
Nicholas Kaponda and Armytage Mumbwali are both bringing change to their communities in Zambia. Kaponda is the communications director of the New Dawn Non-Formal School in Ndole, which teaches young adults ages 18 to 35 skills in sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurship so they can find employment and start business cooperatives. Working with the group Cultivating Community in Portland, Maine, Kaponda said he learned how to write grant proposals and evaluate projects. In the future, he said, "We want to make sure that with every project we start, evaluation will begin right away."
Working with the Center for Public Policy in Anchorage, Alaska, Mumbwali of Choma saw how Alaska's elected legislators engage citizens in decisionmaking. He also learned about the technologies involved in the state's voting system and that the public has access to legislative and other government proceedings. Mumbwali plans to use what he learned to help bridge the gap between government officials and citizen groups where he lives by bringing discussions of local issues to radio, television and meetings at schools and churches.
IREX cites the long-term impact Community Solutions will have on the visiting leaders. "Countries in transition need civic and community leaders who not only possess a vision for change, but also have the practical skills and networks that can help move their societies forward," it says.