Category Archives: Humanitarian

Happy International Literacy Day!

Ashley Laracy and I presenting a SWOT workshop to staff at Bac Thang Long College, Hanoi.

Ashley Laracy and I presenting a SWOT workshop to staff at Bac Thang Long College, Hanoi.

Here’s a piece I wrote for Innovate Development on what is happening with Uniterra in Vietnam. Enjoy.

SWOT/Recruitment Workshop

Introducing the workshop.

Introducing the workshop.

Last week my colleague Ashley Laracy and I gave a Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats (SWOT) workshop at Bac Thang Long college in Hanoi. We compared some of the findings another volunteer did in 2013 with the findings of my recent stakeholder interviews. For the past few weeks I’ve been speaking with deans, teachers, students, alumni and enterprise partners to find out how they view the college. I’ll be using this info to polish up the website and also for promotional purpuses. Bac Thang Long college is quite concerned right now about enrollment. There has been a recent government change in courses at colleges. Previously, people who failed the university entrance exams could take a one-year college course and then transfer into university. No longer. Now students have to complete a 2-year college course or simply work for three years before they can retry their university exams. This means Bac Thang Long is going to lose about 30 per cent of its enrollment since people will like just opt for working and saving up money before they try again.
As an outside observer I know there are many layers to the problemic onion which I am not party to. However, I was able to share what I found with the teachers and other staff at the workshop.
Here’s a little summary of my findings from teachers/students and alumni:
• Location
• Class schedules for workers.
• Regular pedagogy upgrading from international partner WUSC.
• Open, enthusiastic teachers.
• Practical experience for students (Guest experts, field trips, internships).
• Student services, financial assistance, career counseling, job placement.
• Partnerships with enterprises – internships/job placements.
• Teacher/student ratio.
• Courses tailored to needs of enterprise partners.
• Infrastructure – library access, access to computers/equipment.
• Website.
• 3-year training for middle school graduates.
• Extra-curricular activities (dancing, soccer).
• College/teachers stay connected to alumni.

• No foreign language capacity training.
• Soft skill training needs expanding.
• Due to govt changes transfer program now obsolete.
• Not enough majors for middle-school student program.
• Criteria of BTL does not match criteria of partner (bank).
• Limited technology and equipment.
• Not up to date on some technology needs of enterprises.
• Some courses need to be more specialized (supermarkets)

Here’s what the enterprise partners said:
• A large pool of students that partner can profit from (bank).
• BTL events provide exposure for partner products (bank).
• BTL provides opportunity for partner to build goodwill in community (bank-scholarships).
• BTL provides opportunity to tap volunteer labour.
• Grads are large labour pool for Thang Long Park and 32 other parks (1,000 enterprises).
• Guest lectures from enterprise staff that prepare students for reality of workplace.
• Hard working, enthusiastic, disciplined students.
• Quick respond to suggestions for new, or improved, courses. Stays current with changes in the field (supermarkets).
• College staff stay connected with enterprises, post positions regularly.
• More loyalty with grad hires vs university grads.


• School relies on enterprises to provide equipment, this causes worry for enterprises and slows them down.
• BTL does not stay up to date on emerging needs of some enterprises. For instance electronics manufacturers and the making of touch screens.
• Cannot adapt to change in electronics field quickly.
• Students need more communication skills, especially those with local accents (call centre).

Coming up with solutions.

Coming up with solutions.


The participants then came up with their own solutions and wrote them on a flip chart which is currently being translated. I’ll share those findings when I get them. Not sure the goal was really understood, so we’ll see what they came up with.

Newsletter Profile: UN Women in the Pacific

Prior to leaving for Vietnam, I did some e-volunteering for UN Women in the Pacific Islands. Here is a profile of me they recently featured in their newsletter…UNV - Newsletter Fiji Final_Page_01UNV - Newsletter Fiji Final_Page_03UNV - Newsletter Fiji Final_Page_04

Cabbages and Condoms

Breaking cultural taboos, informing people about sexual reproductive health and serving up great meals.

Breaking cultural taboos, informing people about sexual reproductive health and serving up great meals.

Here’s a new piece I wrote for the Innovate Development website on the Cabbages and Condoms restaurant in Bangkok. Go there if you get a chance and support a great NGO while having a delicious meal!

My post on Hoa Sua Resturant for Innovate Development

Lovely exterior of the Hoa Sua Restaurant in Truc Bach.

Lovely exterior of the Hoa Sua Restaurant in Truc Bach.

A wonderful spot just around the corner from where I live. I wrote about it for the Innovate Develoment website. Check it out!

WUSC, Uniterra and My Mandate in Vietnam

Outside the WUSC office in Hanoi.

Outside the WUSC office in Hanoi.

The walk from the cool Hanoi airport into a waiting cab was the first warning. It was 37C with 85% humidity. Hanoi in July is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been here five days now and am slowly getting used to the hot, wet blanket that envelops me as soon as I walk out of my hotel—at 7am.
My lovely hotel.

My lovely hotel.

But before I get into the details of my experience in this amazing city, I should let you know why I’m here.
WUSC works with eight colleges throughout the country.

WUSC works with eight colleges throughout the country.

A short while ago I was selected by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) to go to Vietnam for a nine-month mandate. My role is communications/marketing advisor for the North Thang Long Economic Technical College, also known as BTL. (the college’s name in Vietnamese is Bac Thang Long). I’m part of WUSC’s and the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation’s (CECI) Uniterra Program, which recruits Canadians to work in partnership with local organizations to help reduce poverty and inequality through education. My mandate is part of the Private Economic Development sector and the project is known as Skills Training for Labour Market. WUSC volunteers are in eight colleges throughout the country and roles include gender equity officers, IT, communications and administrative support.
The WUSC office is next to a government hotel and not far from  the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

The WUSC office is next to a government hotel and not far from
the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.

My job is to help improve BTL’s reach within the country and to use marketing and promotional tools to increase enrollment. BTL has three main faculties, engineering/info technology, accounting/finance and tourism/commerce. There are 5,000 students currently enrolled in the 10-year-old college, many are part-time shift workers in the nearby industrial park who hope to improve their skill set and create a better career future for themselves.
The amazing lunches at the WUSC office.

The amazing lunches at the WUSC office.

My first week in Hanoi has been spent getting in-country training at the downtown WUSC office. Not only have I received background on BTL, but info on Vietnamese culture and even some language lessons. One of the highlights of each day has been lunch, cooked up by one of the very talented local WUSC staff members.
Tips for surviving the heat? Drink lots of water, stay out of the sun, and take naps. I know it won’t last. Apparently it gets down to single digits in the winter. This has been one heck of a trip to pack for!

My podcast about Swaziland and Ethiopia

Michael McCarthy, the Intentional Traveller and a really great guy.

Michael McCarthy, the Intentional Traveller and a really great guy.

Following is a link to a podcast I did with Michael McCarthy, a writer and radio personality who lives in Vancouver. I met Michael on a trip to Louisiana and was really impressed with his travels and his efforts to make changes in the world. Where ever he goes, he contributes to communities through labour, services or goods.

Back to See the Girls of Swaziland

Singing the Girls Empowerment anthem "The Sky's the Limit!"

Singing the Girls Empowerment anthem “The Sky’s the Limit!”

Little did I know I’d be returning to Swaziland in less than a year! Crossroads sent me back in March for two weeks. It was great to get out of the polar vortex of Canada, but Swaziland was Noah’s Arc. Fourteen solid days of rain. I can’t help but think Mother Nature is trying to detox herself of all the pollutants humans have forced on her.
My assignment was to interview a number of members of the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse (SWAGAA) Girls Empowerment Clubs. The first couple of days I tried writing up a schedule, but the rain kept getting in the way, along with other activities. We were to drive to schools throughout the country and many times the roads were just too bad.
After one week I had three stories. Not enough to go home with. It was very frustrating. Plus, I had a very sore face from walking into my bathroom wall one night when the power was off. Thank god for makeup. The other Crossroads volunteer, Laura Dowling, went back to Canada after my first week. Staff was stretched thin between having to attend training workshops and having to sensitize 26 schools for new clubs. By the end of this year there will be 46 Girls Empowerment Clubs throughout the country. With an average of 30 members each, that totals 1,380 girls reached. Fantastic.
Young girls listen in during a school sensitization for a new club.

Young girls listen in during a school sensitization for a new club.

My last week was the final push and I ended up with 15 interviews. Many of the girls were orphans. Some had had to leave school because they got pregnant. Others had tough tales of rape and incidences of HIV/AIDS. Swaziland is not an easy place if you are female. However, the clubs give these girls hope. They told me they wanted to become nurses, doctors, accountants and geologists. Since joining the clubs their marks had improved. In some cases they finally received the medical attention they required because someone at the club made sure a teacher took them to the clinic. Some of the most impoverished said they were glad to feel equal to their “sisters” and they wanted to help others who were even worse off than themselves.
The Ngomane Primary School club has more than 90 members and a waiting list!

The Ngomane Primary School club has more than 90 members and a waiting list!

What an uplifting trip. The stories have been written and submitted and now we’ll put them into a booklet that SWAGAA can use during advocacy campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, or International Day of the Girl Child. The stories, with all names changed to protect the innocent, will hopefully pull on the heartstrings of potential donors and trigger financing for more prevention education. Hopefully they will also come across a politician’s desk and trigger political will for law enforcement and proper punishment of perpetrators.
I can be what I want to be!

I can be what I want to be!

Despite their tough situations, the girls I met in Swaziland had warm smiles and were filled with sunny optimism. Looking at their faces, I had hope for their futures. God bless the girls of Swaziland.

Livi laBomake – Women’s Voices: A Yebo ArtReach Project in Swaziland

"Powerful Woman"

“Powerful Woman”

Yesterday I took a kombi to Swaziland National Museum in Lobamba to see the Women’s Voices exhibit. Organized by Aleta Armstrong, owner of Yebo Gallery, the exhibit was a combination of creativity and community women’s voices. “I invited rural women with no previous art training to take part. The idea was to tap into their creativity and also explore issues that were important to them,” Aleta explained. She noted that 80 percent of the artwork’s listed price would go to the artist and 20 percent would go to her non-profit organization ArtReach for follow-up classes.
Swaziland, a patriarchal society, does not usually have much space for women’s voices and around 20 women from all regions of the country eagerly embraced Aleta’s initiative.
Walking through the show, I was struck by the vibrant colours and raw talent.
Margaret Dlamin, with flowers of hope.

Margaret Dlamin, with flowers of hope.

A call for self-love and sisterhood were common themes –lots of pictures of flowers and upraised hands–but the strongest works were anguished cries against inequality and abuse.
Phumaphi Dlamini’s “The Left Hand” was of a donkey with a woman’s head, crying. Below was inscribed, “Why thank me for what I have done for the family? I am a donkey, the damned left hand.” Thabsile Vilane’s “Hope” also showed a woman crying. “Rocks of oppression weigh on my shoulders, tears fill my stomach but doves of hope set me free,” said her written description.
Men are cabbages, women are tortoises.

Men are cabbages, women are tortoises.

Zanele Buthelezi had two canvases lined up. The first was of a tortoise with a human foot on top of it. “Women are like trapped tortoises,” she explained. Next to it was a painting of a cabbage. “Men are like cabbages. They sit in the fields and do nothing,” she said.
Many powerful pieces were responding to the horrendous amount of abuse that women and girls suffer in Swaziland–a report by Unicef in 2007 found that one in three women have been sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Dumsile Mthupha’s stark red canvas shone with a single item, a cleaver. It was titled “Cut off the rapist’s penis.”
"Cut off the rapist's penis."

“Cut off the rapist’s penis.”

"I am not a cow."

“I am not a cow.”

My two favorites were by Rose Mamba and Nonzwakezi Dlamini. Mamba’s image was a horned woman on a blood red background. “I am not a cow and I am not for sale. My love is not for sale. My hand in marriage is not for sale. I have no price tag. I will not love you because you paid for me,” read her description. Mamba was responding to the Swazi traditional marriage, where the groom pays the bride’s parents a dowry called Lobola, comprising a negotiated number of cows. Once the cows are paid, the woman is often treated as chattel with no voice or rights within the household.
Tapping into the inner strength that so many Swazi women, despite difficult home situations, Nonzwakezi Dlamini’s painting was of a shimmering woman holding a lamb and simply titled “Powerful Woman.”
The Swazi National Museum is located next door to the Swazi Parliament building. One can only hope that some of those ministers (almost all male) take in the exhibit and understand that it is time to address the concerns of half of their constituents and make Swaziland a safer and more equitable nation.
Poster for the show.

Poster for the show.

Understanding the Process of Transition: The Crossroads Debriefing Workshop

Maureen and Chelsey Smith (who volunteered with me in Swaziland), feeling a little patriotic at the debrief workshop.

Coming back from an overseas mandate is challenging. Experiencing the abundance of North American society, the waste, the seemingly petty concerns (TTC stalled, grocery store out of my brand of coffee) versus the hard reality of Swaziland (poverty, HIV/AIDS, rampant gender-based violence) I find myself floating. Some days I feel trivial, fluffy and nonessential whereas when I was working with the Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse every day I felt I was doing work that was serious, solid, and helpful in the world.

Fernard, a volunteer who recently returned from Bolivia, posting the Achievements and Challenges graphs.

At a recent debriefing workshop at the Crossroads office in Montreal, I found I wasn’t alone. Twelve volunteers gathered to share their reactions to coming home. The exercises were revealing and cathartic. Many people disclosed how difficult it was to speak with friends about their overseas experiences. Friends got bored and often didn’t understand the roller coaster of emotions many of us faced. We outlined our achievements and challenges in a line graph chart. Mine started high with the excitement of a new position, dipped low as I faced isolation and loneliness, and finally climbed back up high as progress (legislative change, positive media response, the organization’s raised profile) was made in my mandate. Other volunteers faced many peaks and valleys. We drew silhouettes of our personal learning, one half of our stick figures were ‘Before’ and the other was ‘After.’ Mine focused on learning patience and new skills such as radio production.

Laurent, back from Bolivia, checks our personal growth charts.

The most important section of the workshop for me was Understanding the Four Phases of Transition. The four phases are Refusal, Resistance, Exploration and Engagement. When I came home I was extremely busy with freelance work – no time to process the prior year. Some days it felt like I had never been away. My subconscious was talking to me, demanding attention, but I consciously ignored it. Lately, I think I have entered the Exploration phase. I am searching for the next steps, the next chapter of my life. But I realize I must process what I’ve been through before I’ll be able to move forward. I’m meeting with old friends and business acquaintances. I’m setting small goals, such as writing certain freelance stories or keeping up my blog. And I’m relieved at something the workshop taught me: Don’t worry about the march of time…remember goals and real interests, don’t feel panicked into accepting a situation that betrays those interests. Slowly, creativity will bubble inside me. The final phase of Engagement is on the horizon. I’m looking into volunteer opportunities locally, I’m searching for new markets for my writing, I’m getting ready to reposition myself to honour the many lessons I’ve learned on this compelling journey.

It was great to see fellow Swaziland volunteer Camille at the workshop. She was a life saver during those challenging times!

Letting these feelings out, sharing in a safe space, and contemplating next steps with a group of like-minded people has been very helpful for me emotionally and psychologically. Most importantly, the workshop gave me license to be patient and gentle on myself.

Getting ready for the next phase.