Posts from — June 2008
“Do you think mankind is basically good or evil?” I asked the man sitting next to me. He paused to think…his answer surprised me. It was a topic discussed amongst friends months earlier; the conversation was of the broader idealism vs. “reality”. The man sitting next to me worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He was a Senior Officer with plans of retiring soon and was returning to a Sudanese refugee camp.
After an inspiring time in Malawi, I was headed to Dar Es Salam, Tanzania, which, if direct, should be just over an hour flight. However, things work a little differently in Africa, so rather than flying direct, as my ticket indicated, I would fly to North Malawi, then Kenya, then finally to Dar Es Salam. Needless to say, I had a little time on my hands, and when I learned my neighbor worked for the UN Refugee department, I figured I’d jump right in.
He paused when I asked. Then to lessen the pregnancy, I joked, “Maybe more of a philosophical question…” He smiled and returned to reflection. This is a man who sees mankind at its lowest; when their country and people have turned on them; when disaster, natural or mankind, has stripped of them of every comfort they have ever known, and in the final hope of survival, they are forced to leave the only thing they do know-home.
‘Tis better to give than to receive. Yet when it comes to giving your family a meal to survive, the temptation to take what you have not received becomes awfully real. When people are in desperate situations, they become aggressive…” he replied. He began to speak about the tendencies of mankind when pushed to their limits. We talked about the effects that has on neighboring country(ies). The strain-economically, and socially. Desperate times bring out desperate reactions.
I believe in life, nearly everything is self- perpetuating. When you do an act of good, especially underserved, it stirs something in the receiving party who then wants to do something good to someone else. Likewise, if you over react in anger or frustration, the receiving party is stirred by injustice and reacts in kind. Therefore, it’s better to do good. Yet in the drive of self-preservation, these golden ideals break down. If my daughter is starving to death and my neighbor has two days worth of food, I would be terribly tempted to take, which in turn places my neighbor in the same position the next day, forcing him to take what is not his, to preserve what is. And so the cycle of aggression begins. It’s hard to think of tomorrow, when you’re not sure you’ll make it through today.
I’m not sure Mr. Miselini ever answered my question before he left half-way through my trip, although with an empty seat, he did leave my head full of thoughts. I arrived Zanzibar with more questions and less answers.
On the turquoise shores of a small beautiful island, I met another random person. However, this conversation was not quite as stirring as the rasta and I talked about how great Italians are, while he smoked a joint and tried to sell me on a 1/2 day snorkeling trip. No, can’t say that for sure… I wasn’t as stirred, but my rasta friend sure seemed inspired.
June 23, 2008 No Comments
The more you travel, the smaller the world gets. Flashback to Portland, Oregon the day before flying to Africa. I sat with a friend downtown passing the time until my flight that evening. Sitting outside, enjoying a cold drink on a warm, welcoming spring day, when an acquaintance of my friend strolls by and says hello. After a short greeting I go back to sipping and soaking as they converse.
“Blah, blah, blah… Africa…blah, blah” (“Blah” by the way is refers to the level of my attention, not the importance in things being said. That is until “Africa” perked my ears.) “Africa? Were you in Africa?? I’m leaving for Africa today!” I interjected. As it turns out my friend’s acquaintance had traveled through some of the places I was going. I explained to her my interest in humanitarian causes and she told me about a guy in Malawi who was working with prisoners. We exchanged info, and that was that.
Fast forward to David and the preschool. Somehow in conversation I brought up this acquaintance of a friend, who had met a man that worked with prisoners somewhere in Malawi. “Oh Nick?” Answered David, “ Nick’s a good friend of mine.” And just like that a couple of phone calls later we had scheduled an appointment with “prison-guy” Nick, who agreed to meet and show us around the prison.
But before we can get to the prison, we must get through the police. After a asking a few people for directions we found the smelly little van headed to the “market”. We paid our fair and climbed in. There sat mazungus Derek and Mandi, and a van full of Africans chatting in local tongues, when suddenly the van slows to a near stop. We look around and see a police car had pulled next to the van. The van hesitates then proceeds.
Moments later the van stops completely. This time the police car comes quicker and closer. The officer gets out and through a stern brow says no more than a few words to the driver. The driver says even less. Gets out of his van and into the back of the police car, which drives off into the distance. Keys still swinging in the van’s ignition, I dart my head around to the guy next to me. He shrugs. I shrug. We all look around at each other and then he says to me, “Come. We go now.”
Everyone gets out and extend hands to the man who had taken our fare (different than the driver, of course). Each hand was issued a refund, when another van pulls up. Not quite as savvy as the locals, we were the last to reach the new van, which consequently had reached its capacity. Doors shut. Van drives off into the distance. Fortunately, there was another man standing nearby who noticed our situation and pointed us in the right direction. Eventually, we made it to the small coffee shop where we met Nick.
Nick is soft-spoken British man, a little rough around the edges, between his cigarettes and slightly shifty eyes. He’s also a gentle man, and though not quite understanding why, obliged to my video taping him. He explained his start. One man, wanting to do something to better this world, he sort of happened upon this prison. The prison was built shortly before the British left, to accommodate (too flattering a term) less than half the number of inmates it now did.
Though drastically overcrowded, the inmates were highly forgotten. Malnourished. Uneducated. Many serving severely for modest crimes. There was a small percentage of women, several with babies, who were reportedly treated worse than the men. Nick sparked with pride as he described his helping one child get admitted to an orphanage for care while the mother served her time. It was his goal to do the same with the remaining children.
There are many needs, most of which Nick had a goal to address. It began with education and providing study books and supplies. Then with health and providing seeds for growing crops. Unfortunately, there are deeper problems, less obvious problems. We talked shortly of corrupt governments, injustice, and the many inconsistencies within the “justice” system. “I trust the prisoners, more than most of the guards…” he said reflectively and we left for the prison.
We walked around to the back of the market/coffee shop and within five minutes we were in another world. Nick spoke with the guards and escorted us back. Suspicious guards watched as we walked toward the women’s ward. In a small room, one older woman taught younger women basic English from a small notebook. All were there voluntarily working from supplies Nick had provided. Close by a young girl, no more than two years frowned crossly, threatening to strike any of us who approached besides her mother. After slipping one lady a couple cigarettes we continued.
Next we entered the men’s ward. Ducking through the steel doorway, there was a certain air. A crowd of inmates sat and stood closely in the room we entered. I shook the cold calloused hands of a couple men. Some appeared nervous, others hard, still others joked. We had come on the wrong day. A guard pulled Nick aside to explain it was the day of a prison transfer and might not be the best day for us to be there. Nick honored the request. With a slight nod, I bid farewell to the desperate eyes that watched us leave. Eyes mine would never meet again.
I followed Nick back along the dusty path we had entered from, tracing his prints with mine. We were on different paths. For me, it was a short walk from another world. For Nick, a long road to a dark reality. One paved with countless challenges. However, at any moment you could look back and know that one man who had come a long way, and would go even further.
* With money donated by yourselves, I helped purchase supplies for the prisoners. Please see the “Charity” tab for details or information on how to help more. Thanks for your giving. You are making a difference.
June 16, 2008 3 Comments
One of the hardest things in life is reaching the decision you want to change the world. To do something good. To make a positive difference. Then comes something harder, actually doing it. First is the realizing, “Yeah, I should do something!” Then comes, “Wait…what can I do???” Well if you ever want to jump right in, just get to the source and start right away, I’ve found the place for you… actually the continent for you.
Whether reality or something stirred from Hollywood hype or awareness concerts, no place seemed to have more need than Africa. An entire continent fighting things like HIV/AIDS, malaria, starvation, poverty. Turns out there’s some truth to that inkling. Different areas of course plagued with different problems. It may take a moment to get past the beautiful smiles, but it won’t take long before you find those smiles are covering a life of need. Malawi I learned was something like the third or fourth most impoverished country in the world. Right behind Haiti. Depressing, huh?
Until you get to a little village and hear for the first time a mob of children yell “Mazungu (Swahili for white person)!!!” and run full speed to greet you. To slap a high five. Or to just take hold and not let go. That’s the kind of “warm fuzzy” you can find only in the ink fairytales, or laced in the fibers of your special blankie. It doesn’t matter how dark or depressed your mood, you can’t help but smile as the warmth of your heart raises the corners of your mouth.
We began our morning on a small minivan used for public transit. This is where I met David Leflar. He’s easy to find. Not only is there the obvious ethnic difference, he’s also about 6’3”, wearing overalls and a red ball cap that reads “Ugly Bass Player” on the back. He’s somewhere in his late 20’s (I’m guessing) and after finishing college at a small university somewhere in Tennessee, David and a couple other friend decided they wanted to make a difference. So they did. They shared a vision on importance of early childhood development and started a group called boNGO Worldwide.
We were on our way to visit one of their projects. A preschool in a little village in which the teachers and workers almost entirely come from within the community. After getting off the strong smelling trasport, we walked the dirt road among maize (African corn) fields until we reached the preschool. And then it happened. We turned the corner and about 30 kids started screaming “Mazungu! Mazungu!” .The teachers held them at bay until they could stand still and then like a gunshot at a racetrack, the kids fired towards us. Mandi stayed to keep the kids company, David showed me around.
There were two classrooms painted colorfully with the alphabet and numbers, one kitchen, bathroom (or outhouse with a hole in the ground), living quarters turned storage and a few crops planted in the back of the property. David only recently moved out of the community. When he arrived he lived at the school as he helped build and organize everything. He didn’t speak the language but learned. And now this preschool is educating kids from 12 different neighboring villages.
boNGO Worldwide has since set up 14 schools and community based childcare centers, trained teachers, and is working hard to do more. It’s an inspirational story of one guy who had a vision to make a difference in the world. He joined some friends, moved to an area of need, and has helped communities educate their youth with their people. What’s interesting is maybe for the first real time I noticed there were less boundaries. Less divide. It wasn’t the white guy and the villagers, it was friends and people concerned for the children. It was as I said, inspiring.
I went back to hang out with the kids. All children I am learning are fascinated with cameras, these were especially. At first they would star emotionlessly at me as I took a picture. Then as I turned the camera and revealed portraits of them in the viewfinder, a wave of excitement would wash over them. I’d click, turn and show. They’d look, realize and scream. I mean kind of screams you’d hear somewhere on the shores of Never Neverland with Peter Pan and an army of Lost Boys. Pounding with joy and excitement.
Later that day we visited a much more organized and funded orphanage, known as Open Arms (www.openarmsmalawi.org). You may recognize the name as a place Madona recently visited when looking for a child to adopt. It was impressive. Clean. Well thought. They too were doing amazing things to help children. But I have to say there was something magical about the village. About the dirt and the maize fields. About 30 children yelling “Mazungu” and running barefoot to greet you. Something I think I’ll hold on to for some time.
June 11, 2008 4 Comments
There’s something admirable about an animal that simply does not care what others think. It takes a certain confidence to sit in broad daylight, in the middle of the road while playing scratch and sniff with your neighbor’s back end as cars back up to watch-whether they want to or not. Or to dig deep into the pits of pals and as a gesture of gentleness, proceed to eat every creepy crawly burrowed in the hair of your buddy. Ah the magnificently bold baboon… well deserving of a dedicated entry. This one in two parts: Admirable… From a Distance and Please, Take What You Please.
Admirable…From a Distance
I’ve always had an affinity for monkeys and I think they would say the same of me. Needless to say, when I heard baboons walked the hills of Zomba I was ready to go. Zomba is one of the larger peaks in East Africa. Covered with cedar, it’s a beautiful drive. Young men walk their charcoal loaded bikes down the winding road as their piers stand stationary selling carvings, fresh picked raspberries, or meticulously arranged bouquets of dried flowers. Once you reach the top, a row of roadside retailers are ready to trade carving for t-shirt or, well just about anything.
“Me, I like your shoes.” One would say, initiating a proposal. “I like your hat,” another would say. Watch, shirt, shorts-all was fair trade. We did our bartering, made a couple exchanges, then crossed the street for tea. From our table you could see the world, views of the African countryside unparalleled. Yet no monkeys. Until…
We heard something scurry on the roof behind us. Before we had a chance to decipher the clamor, a baboon swooped overhead into a tree partially covering the patio. A few more followed. A game of chase commenced. Roof to tree to roof, the baboons entertained. Then the commotion died. The monkeys disappeared back onto the roof, save one subtle fellow. This one stayed behind admiring his admirers. At first he sat, watched, then branch by branch he moved closer eyeing our table of condiments.
A server walked by. “Tsssk! Tsssssssk!” He spat at the baboon, then looked to us. “This one is my enemy…” and walked away. Off the tree, onto the rail he curiously approached. First it was cool. Then it got uncomfortable. The baboon came within feet. Merin called inside for assistance from the workers… nothing. I decide I’d stand and intimidate the boon…nothing. Swung my arms in the air as though they were something to be feared…nothing. Closer, closer. Then I remembered something.
You know how when you want to take a picture of something, you rush to get your camera ready, then just as you get everything in order the something scurries away? I grabbed my camera from its bag…aimed… and shot. The flash fired. Baboon paused, blinked and rubbed its eyes. FIRE! I flashed again. The monkey looked around blinking, rubbing. At last it backed away. I sat back down to finish my coffee and we resumed our admiration for each other-comfortably, at distance.
Please, Take What You Please.
This story takes place just outside a National Park. We had just spent the day watching nature in its various shapes and sizes, animals of all sorts. As we exited the park, our driver stopped for a final bathroom break. I was the last of four to exit the Land Cruiser. Having no real need to “take care of business”, I stretched just out side the car.
Then I heard our drive yell, “Close the door!!!” He was pointing behind me. Baboons. Similar to the others but bigger, much bigger. I looked behind me as the baboon quickly advanced. Just in time, I slammed the door. But I had forgotten something-the sunroof.
The massive monkey swooped onto the hood and dropped into the car. Monkey in, man out. I watched as his furry fingers sorted through our bags. Without thinking I swung open the door. Except this time I was unarmed. No, I take that back. Actually arms were all I had. Like I said, I wasn’t really thinking. If I were I might have realized, there is really no next step. What, crawl into the car with the razor tooth beast and “talk it over”? “Look Lucy, I know you’re curious, but how bout you drop the bag and just walk back to your home? Then nobody gets hurt.” Nobody of course meaning me… Right.
Having no flash to defend myself, I reverted to my original plan and started waving my hands frantically over my head. Except this time I threw in a couple strong Southwestern-“HhhhYAW’s(!),” as though I was herding a stampede of cattle. John Wayne would have been proud. The monkey looked up, grabbed an orange and leaped back out of the sunroof.
Our driver came running up laughing. Me? I took a couple deep breaths and regained composure. You know, on second thought…I think I will use the restroom.
June 7, 2008 2 Comments
Beanie is a second or third generation Malawian. He manages a tobacco and coffee plantation and invited us for lunch. I’m not much for smoking, but coffee? Are you kidding? Coffee is one of the few remaining fruits that can be traced back to the Garden of Eden. So uhm yeah-I accepted.
Visiting his plantation was a picture of
We entered. “Hello, massuh.” Two words that would haunt me for days to come. Words I was unaware even still existed. She was a worker, not a servant. Still the statement sat uncomfortably. I greeted the fragile, pregnant girl as I passed through the kitchen. Later she quietly sat before us a delicious meal, over which Beanie spoke of his youth. And the youth of his nephew wherein their closest friends were those of workers.
Beanie was pleasant and hospitable. It was hard to imagine him mistreating or discriminating anyone. However, my experience here was one I had started to see throughout
Maids. Guards. Gardeners. Not only did it exist, it was expected for anyone of lighter hue. I noticed it at the theatre, the restaurants, the markets. And yet somehow it seemed “ok”. No one seemed bothered by it. There was no tension. It is what it is, if you were white it seemed you were smarter, richer, more respected. Even if the drastic minority.
Meanwhile, a few countries south there were daily reports of murder and violence in the shadow of apartheid. I was reminded of our own country’s past. Malcolm and King. Riots and protests. The struggle of a people to be recognized as such. A past I’m proud to have missed out on, growing up in the 80’s and 90’s in
But now it seemed real. Not as extreme perhaps but enough to understand. To see more clearly a people’s effort for equality. However, I am left wondering what is right, appropriate, necessary. In a world of war, I’m inclined toward peace. Non-violent protest. Yet there must be a will to fight. To stand, for those God given rights of humanity.
Where do you start? How far do you go? When do you draw the line? When does action speak louder than word? Must the pendulum err before finding its comfortable compromise? Frankly… I just don’t know. It’s possible I’ve over analyzed. Maybe there’s no way to pinpoint a society in three solid days. I hope so, because frankly I’m not sure I’ve any solutions. In any case, it’s got me thinking. So that’s a good thing…
June 2, 2008 2 Comments