World Down Syndrome Day on March 21

Down Syndrome girl at Hold the Future, Hanoi

Wednesday March 21 2012 marks World Down Syndrome Day. And it made me remember my year in Hanoi, Vietnam working at Hold the Future as a VSO volunteer. We had many Down Syndrome young people living and working at the Center. They were the most loving and wonderful people and provided me with many fond memories.

Hold the Future offers vocational training and handicraft production work. Most of the time there are between 30 to 50 young people working there. It’s not great pay because the products are sold quite cheaply to remain competitive with other handicraft producers.

But the Center provides accommodation, all meals and a chance for young people to work for their own livelihood. The young people often work right through the week, including week-ends. There is the odd public holiday and two weeks off over the oriental New Year. But on the whole they work long hours.

The training is also over a long period. At least 6 months of repetitive learning processes might stop most people from enjoying this kind of work. For the young people at Hold the Future it’s something they love doing. Being able to support themselves is a dream come true.

In particular the rolled paper decorated greeting cards and rolled paper small jewellery containers were the favourite products to make. Of course rolling paper very tightly into small balls isn’t everybody’s idea of great fun. But for the Down Syndrome members at the Center they loved it. They were good at it and enjoyed their work.

And friendly and smiling faces most of the time. Of course they weren’t immune to unhappiness. But the Down Syndrome people were much readier to let go and smile again than most people I’ve come across. I loved visiting with them and sitting next to them at meal time or chatting to them via an interpreter. Never did get my head around Vietnamese. Fond memories indeed.

Thinking of many lovely Down Syndrome people today on their special celebratory day.

Blog Action Day 2011

I missed this one last year. But this time I’ve had a few invitations one of which came from VSO. So I had to remember this time around. The theme for this year is food and Vietnam, where VSO sent me as a volunteer, has still a fair amount of food shortage.

That’s actually not accurate. There is no actual food shortage as the country is one of the top rice exporters. There is definitely no access to food though for a fair number of people. In fact outside of the cities the poverty levels can easily reach 17%. And poverty brings with it a lack of food because there is not enough money in the household. Even child malnutrition is still high and the VN government looks to nursery schools to fill those little tummies.

But one would expect there to be these sorts of stats in a developing country such as Vietnam. It’s not so great to see people not getting enough food in countries such as the USA which one considers to be a developed world power. Surely the USA can make sure its citizens get sufficient food?

But it doesn’t seem to be the case. More Americans are unable to feed themselves than one can imagine. In 2010 48.8 million Americans lived in food insecure households of which 16.2 million were children. (Stats: Feeding America).

That’s a frightening statistic. This is the country whose budget for the Department of Defense was $680 billion for the 2010 fiscal year.

Even just a small portion of this budget moved towards feeding the starving people of the USA could make a difference.

There is an unwillingness world wide by governments to look after their people. Which is truly bizarre considering that that is exactly what they are voted in for by the very same people. Elected governments are supposed to look after their citizens. That is the only reason why they are in government. Yet they don’t. Not even close. In fact they almost seem to do the opposite. Cameron for instance, the Brit Prime Minister seems to be actively working against his folk.

Or you have Obama bailing out the banks and insurance companies, the motor industry and anybody else with their hand out while ignoring 48.8 million people who do not have enough food.

At the end of the day the world makes enough food to feed its people. It’s just that food gets priced so high that more and more people cannot afford to pay for it. Money making schemes for a few wealthy farmers and GM seed makers. Water that gets diverted to serve greedy industrial cities, land that gets taken away for big factories so that small holding farmers are left with nothing to farm. And the list goes on. The little guys, the Davids of this world, are constantly squashed by Goliath. And nobody is protecting them. Least of all their governments.

So the call for food, the fight to ensure every person has enough to eat, those kind of boil down to governments that do not govern for their people. That govern to help a handful of wealthy folk become even wealthier.

Have you noticed the number of non-governmental organisations that have mushroomed in the past years? NGOs only have a function, a task to fulfill, because our governments are letting us down, us the people. Why should there be a Feeding America NGO? Why is the government not feeding its own people. Surely that is what government is all about.

That’s the bottom line isn’t it.

Reflecting on work performed by VSO volunteers in 2010

VSO volunteers worked in over 50 countries across the world, through federation members and programme offices. Over 3000 individuals have volunteered with VSO during those 12 months, and spent more than an incredible half a million days, working to support poor people across the world in their fight against poverty. And together, VSO staff, volunteers and partners, the organisation reached over 26 million people across the world.


Makes one remember Margaret Mead’s famous quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Posted in VSO

Working for VSO and Hold the Future

Actually that’s not entirely correct. I work for VSO as a volunteer. And in this instance VSO has partnered with Hold the Future. So that’s how I got to go to Hanoi to work at a Centre for disabled young people.

Hold the Future’s Gardens in Co Nhue

Hold the Future and it’s director Mrs Hien is an example of total commitment against all odds. And here is a brief history.

Mrs Hien, herself a disabled person resulting from a vicious bicycle accident in her final year at University, found herself widowed at an early age with two teenage children that still needed support through higher education.

She was a civil servant at the time and salaries not huge. To supplement her earnings she spent her evenings and week-ends working on extra projects. She sold food on the pavement and worked at making handicrafts.

It was during this time of huge effort that she started to get to know other disabled people who were also eking out a living. Eventually this informal group grew to such an extent that it became worthwhile to open up a business and lease premises.

This was in 2002 and over the years the focus of this Centre has shifted slightly to become more vocational training focused than purely a facility for a co-operative of people working in handicraft production.

Over the past years the Centre has nurtured and offered training to close on 300 young people between the ages of 18 and 30. Currently there are just under 90 young people benefiting from vocational training sponsored by Caritas Germany.

During these eight years the Centre not once received assistance from the local government. There has been most welcome assistance for the vocational training by charities and foreign government agencies. A small grant for instance was provided by the Canadian International Development Agency some years back .

Young disabled people at Hold the Future

But it is the sponsorship of Caritas Germany that has enabled the Centre to substantially improve and extend it’s training portfolio to not only promote the acquisition of handicraft skills but to also add tuition in numeracy, literacy and sign language  to the mix.

During 2010 with a much more substantial grant awarded during the second half of 2009 by Caritas Germany it has been possible to add soft skills to the training. These cover such subjects as building, confidence, communication skills and presentation and sales techniques.

As much as the production of handicraft is still a major focus there is a move towards providing additional skills. It is hoped these skills will provide young disabled people with more choices and opportunities to build their own future so that they may live independent lives.

To follow the heart warming stories of the people involved in Hold the Future visit the blog at and sign up to the newsletters.  Your participation is most welcome.

Is a sustainable livelihood possible for a disabled person?

‘Sustainable livelihoods for young people with disabilities’. That’s the new slogan recently developed for Hold the Future. It’s nicely compact and describes exactly what Hold the Future is about.

What would you imagine that means? A non-profit centre that gives disabled youths an opportunity to work and earn a living? Hopefully, that’s what you would think that means.

Because that is exactly what this centre based in Hanoi, Vietnam is trying to offer the young disabled people that attend its vocational courses and are offered work manufacturing handicraft products.

This is where I have been working for the last six months. Interesting times.

Recently one of the dilemmas faced by non-profit organisations such as Hold the Future was brought into sharp relief. During an application to the World Fairtrade Organisation the question of minimum wage arose.

It was not anything that had bothered me before after all it was a given that one should do exactly that – pay a minimum wage.

But I’ve discovered that this is a presumption. Because what happens if you have mentally disabled young people who cannot work quickly enough to ‘earn’ a minimum wage?

What then? And there is nothing that can be done. This young person can only produce a fraction of what other people can produce in the same hour. Even a person with limited mobility can compensate using whatever facilities they have and produce more than a mentally disabled person who cannot think or move quicker.

This is a question that the World Fairtrade Organisation expects us to be able to answer. Are we paying our young people a minimum wage even if they cannot produce enough goods to warrant this wage.

In other words, who will make up the difference? Other disabled workers who earn less because they have to subsidise other less capable people? Or does one have to hold out that hand to charities for ever hoping to receive enough funds to make up the difference.

Quite a question. Any suggestions anybody?

There will be more articles on my work at Hold the Future on this blog. Subscribe to the feed or provide your email address to get articles emailed to you.  If you would like to get involved in the centre’s work by giving some of your time please email me direct at anja at hqlondon dot net.

What I will miss about the English

It’s just over a week and I will be wending my way to Hanoi for my volunteering position at an NGO working with disabled young people. It’s quite a jump in terms of my life direction and I spend more time wondering what on earth got into me to do this, than being all confident about the move.

Got to change that attitude, for sure! What else is changing is that this blog will be more focused on my experiences in an Asian country and people with disabilities and less on commenting on the world and it’s strange workings.

It’s been such a quick three and a half years that I have lived in the UK. In this short time I have had some quirky experiences with the English. And I’m going to miss it. Somehow it has felt a real home even though the African in me is ever present.

In fact one of the first things I had to learn was that the English spoken in South Africa is quite a different animal to the one used in England. Sometimes I even thought that there was no relationship at all between the two! Many misunderstandings later it dawned on me that the words and expressions often meant quite different things. Slow learner, I am!

But besides the many misunderstandings one of the things I truly love about the English is their use of the language. And the humour, both at themselves and anybody within reach, is often priceless.

One of the funniest I have seen was a conversation via TMS and posted on the BBC site that was going on during one of the Ashes Tests. The Ashes is a long time feud. read cricket competition, between Australia and England. This is not a game. This is outright war. And it is played with the passion a war deserves.

The discussion was around the excuse this one person had for lambasting the Australians. And he used a whole string of philosophers and their writings to excuse his pleasure (or Schadenfreude) at seeing the Australians being beaten. With other words he reasoned it was ok to gloat. It was a great dialogue and had me chuckling for hours.

What else will I miss? The English spirit of caring! They would groan if one were to point out that they are warm and generous people, open to having a chat and a laugh. The English think of themselves as reserved and unsocial. On the contrary. I have found them to be most welcoming and ready to participate.

And they love to dress up and play theatre. Even the guides around an old prison or park will consider themselves on stage and put on a great performance. It is truly the home of Shakespeare where all the world’s a stage. It’s such fun.

How about this one. Not many English people will agree with this fact. The country really works well. Sure I might be looking at it from a South African perspective where not much run by government actually runs.

In Cape Town, not rural South Africa, I have waited in line reaching outside the building to renew my driver’s license. I had less than thirty people in front of me. The wait was over three hours. I got in line just after six in the morning that is two hours before opening time so that my wait would not be the whole day.

There would be pickets outside 10 Downing Street if that were to happen here! I got my UK driver’s license. There was nobody in the queue ahead of me and it was posted to me and I received it within four days of my application. And it GOT to me by post. The postal system works here….

And talking about government employees makes me think of tolerance – there isn’t any of that to be had in South Africa. In fact government and tolerance don’t go together in SA. Especially when the citizen happens to have a white skin. A touch of reverse apartheid is a regular occurrence.

The English are unbelievably tolerant. It’s not just with respect to race but with all people of differences. Great support for gay and lesbians, religions, unbelievable system of caring for disabled folk and many efforts to look after the elderly and more. And always generous to donate to some cause. The UK gave the most, by far, per capita for the Tsunami victims in Asia. Totally indicative of the people.

The public transport is amazing. I have a choice of at least ten different buses and routes to get from the city centre to close to my home. I got a free bus card because of my age! I have free medical and dental health care should I wish it. Sure I have the benefit of an EU passport. But I have never lived in Germany.

One of the busiest railway stations around is Clapham Junction. Ask any person working on the platforms where to catch a train to any insignificant place and they can tell you at a drop of a hat what platform to go to. A bus driver in Birmingham could tell me what stop I needed for a training centre and he apologised that he had to think a bit. He didn’t normally drive that route!

The place works.

I’m going to miss the English dress sense, or one might think the lack thereof. Will miss the pubs, although not the pub food. Didn’t frequent them often, but when I did they were great fun. In retrospect, I should have gone more regularly.

My choir. The Brighton City Singers. No audition required, all welcome, don’t need to be able to read music, just come and have fun. It’s given me the opportunity to sing in the Royal Festival Hall! At the choir’s picnic on the Hove Lawns I played catcher in the baseball game. Couldn’t walk for a few days – it was worth it. It doesn’t get any better.

The U3A meetings and the amazingly affordably priced field trips to a string of great places I would not have thought of visiting. The bridge group, where I met many lovely people, was always great fun. And I could have participated a lot more if I had had the time.

The orchestras, choirs, music festivals both pop and classical are wonderful. There is support by government and the lotto of the history of castles, places, parks, historical monuments. Sure it costs to get into everything. But then the upkeep of these wonderful old churches and buildings is astronomical.

The list of good stuff goes on. It’s a great place!

Now it’s a matter of saying good-bye to wonderful friends and acquaintances and getting on that flight in Heathrow. Thank goodness for email and Skype to keep in touch with folk. Nevertheless they will be sorely missed.

Oh. One more thing! Back to fundraising. So anybody want to help a bit towards covering the costs that VSO has to pay for my volunteering, please check the Just Giving button on the right hand side of this blog. All amounts, of whatever size, sooo welcome. Thank you.

Elizabethan theatre and modern Chinese art – great day out in London

Monday’s diary was a trip into London. It’s not something I do often. When it does happen, the time table gets filled to the top with things to do. This time was no exception with two galleries, one theatre and a cathedral on the itinerary.

After my meeting at VSO in Putney which was the point of going in to London, I caught the bus to the Saatchi Gallery. It’s now situated in a very impressive building having moved from the County Hall on the South Bank. I must say the outsized columns at the entrance are not my cup of tea, but the exhibition spaces inside are wonderful.

The current exhibition of modern Chinese works is fascinating and the collection a careful and clever selection of different media elements of sculpture, paintings, ‘moving art’ and more.

Reading through the history of the Saatchi Gallery from its inception of showcasing American Art to moving to Britart and some Europeans it seems that Charles Saatchi has a nose for where the art world is at. China is definitely a place I would propose to explore further.

From the modern but Chinese flavoured art exhibition I moved on to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.  Not really on theme, I would imagine, but so what. While there, I popped into the Tate Modern as it is snuggled right next to the Globe just to check what’s new in the Turbine Hall.

Thank goodness the crack in the concrete floor has been filled in. I couldn’t quite identify with that artistic statement. As pride of place in this enormous volume of space is a wonderful huge spider made out of steel plates and I’m guessing plastic with a few skeletons and strange cages filling up the space a little.

I didn’t go in any further. I have seen the main exhibitions a few times and my trip was already costing me a fair amount so decided to pass on the special exhibitions which are always quite expensive. Next door then to the Globe.

What a great exhibit with some good video, wonderful costumes and photographic material showing the world of theatre and the people and their skills who served it. I loved the fact that Shakespeare signed documents using different spellings of his name. One wonders about those rumours that the plays were written by somebody else.

But it doesn’t matter who wrote the plays. They were certainly written at a fair speed. Money, as in modern times, wasn’t easy to make. Theatre owners demanded quick turnover of material and actors had to know the lines of five or more plays at any one time.

The theatre, which has been rebuilt trying to keep as faithful as possible to the original, is wonderful and our guide was great. Amusing that the building was situate on this side of the River Thames to escape the censure of the Mayor of London. Entertainment was frowned upon as being rather sinful. Have we heard that one before.

What I love about the Brits is their passion for the arts. There is just such a love for theatre and music amongst the people. Even a theatre guide throws herself into her dramatic presentation as if she were on stage. It reminds me of the tour guide who took a bunch of us around Winchester. He must have wanted to be on stage as well.

Quite a mix of culture so far which I suppose is something that London is famous for. First a quite different Chinese Art Exhibition, then a huge spider designed by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, a French artist, and now a replica of the Globe Theatre rebuilt by an enthusiastic American.

So what could top that? A stroll across the Millennium Bridge, which was rather uncomfortable as it was really windy, wet and cold even though it’s still a lovely bridge, and a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral. Huh? You might think to yourself that this is one massive mix of cultures and civilisations.

A visit to a Church of England Cathedral to top off a very varied afternoon! And I had timed it to take in the Evensong as well. Of course it required an entrance fee to be paid as is required at almost all venues except for the Saatchi Gallery.  By now the whole afternoon had cost me more than £50 in transport and entrance fees. Not to be done too often.

What a building. Massive high ceilings to ensure that the congregation was suitably cowed into submission, loads of pomp and ceremony to create a feeling of permanence around the whole faith, and very few people to sample it. Somewhere along the way, the church has lost it’s congregation.

Our Evensong had at most sixty or so people. The great part of that was that we were lead into the quire section with it’s lovely little lamps. Three levels of seats facing each other. Wonderful. Right next to the organist. I haven’t been to too many services of any church since my years at a church school where we had to endure hours of protestant hell and damnation doctrine thrown at us. Brrr. Unpleasant just thinking of it.

But I have always had a love for the music. One has to remember that for many composers the only outlet for their creative writing was the church, or the local royal courts. Bach would have to write music for the church in order to make a living. One wonders what he would have written a few hundred years later. Get rid of the wig and don some jeans, what would have come out of his electronic keyboard one wonders.

The boys’ choir started the proceedings with a short hymn and then the procession walked in. No women to be found here. But certainly frocks. What amused me the most were two men in black voluminous gowns who held some kind of silver staff at a very odd angle while walking one in front and one at the back. It seemed the staff denoted some kind of honour on the priests being led in.

As ceremonies go this was something from way back in the history books. I suppose the cathedral’s magnificent decor and detail would lend itself to this kind of procession. Must be difficult to try and yank the church into more modern times when the house of worship itself is so magnificently old fashioned.

Regrettably most of the singing ended up being in the form of chants and the lovely boys’ choir didn’t get a chance to shine again. The sound system was quite bad, although the engineers have my sympathy for trying to install something that works into that kind of volume. But it did make it difficult to hear what was being read and said. Not really a bother. The event itself was totally worth it.

To round the day off I had the pleasure of enjoying the tube system during rush hour. It’s quite an experience! What a treat though to have every bit of my trip planned via Google maps and the transport for London website. Tubes, buses and trains as well as opening times and fees for the venues all prepared in advance. Yeah to technology!

A new Volunteer for VSO

For many years I have had this dream that one day I would be able to contribute in a more meaningful way to this world. Many many of my years were spent working long hours to make money for somebody else. Often loads of it.

Nothing wrong with that. But mostly these efforts resulted in a small bunch of people getting to make a lot more money than they would have on their own. Sure, this is how it works and entrepreneurs who have the courage to set up a business do deserve the rewards.

But for those many years I have always felt that I would like to do something more than that. In a way my blog has allowed me to write about inequalities, crimes on humanity, slavery, gender inequalities or ageism just to mention a few of my soap box topics.

However, talk is good, but what about some deeds? Finally in August I did another one of my regular internet searches for charities and came across VSO. I completed the online application to volunteer and managed to get through the first selection process.

That was followed with a full day’s worth of assessment at the VSO centre in London. I got through that successfully and am now registered to attend the first course on Preparing to Volunteer.

VSO, which is one of The Independent’s Christmas Appeal charities this year, sends professionals to share skills which will remain long after the volunteers have returned back home.  I am thrilled and excited that I have the opportunity to finally contribute a little to the world we live in. Read about one of the case studies in The Independent.

It will take a while for a suitable position to be found for me. But there is much to do and learn before leaving so all in good time is probably a most appropriate saying right now.

As a volunteer I am also tasked with raising some money. It makes sense. VSO is paying for my training, staff to look after me, air fare to the placement and a whole bunch of other things. The least I could do is get together some contributions towards this cost.

So if you have wanted to contribute a little something towards making our world a better place, but have not been able to spend the time or effort due to the many commitments that one always has, then why not help me with mine? I would truly appreciate it. Donations may be made at my page on Just Giving. It’s really easy. Thank you!