Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ode to Dung and Community

A soft foot with a swollen ankle
Steps surreptitiously on slippery pebbles,
The off-hand moo or hog snort startles
As he approaches the animal pens,
A delicately putrid smell of dust, dung, and urine
Fill his senses for a brief moment,
But are soon replaced by other sensations,
Those of labor.

Sweat dripping across a brow, blisters forming on
Foreign regions of the hands that grapple with
Daily tasks.

Twisting corn, digging beds, mulching rows,
Milking,walking, lifting, breathing,
Then, at the precipice of exhaustion,
Fruits emerge.

Conclusive sensations in tasting the freshly picked and grown,
Milked and boiled, slaughtered and plucked , seasoned and dried and fried.
The calluses and sensations accumulate for seventy days,
Eroding away former fits of anxiety and attachment,
Loosening the eyes and the mind,
Open now to insights of dung and community.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Independence Day

Here is some Independence Day Truth: we live in a world spiraling around in despair.

I am here as an intern in Uganda for Foundation for Sustainable Development, working for St. Jude Community Farm, and I turn on the news - Choose your social ill:

Job Crisis - Middle East Fiasco - U.S. Upset in World Cup (just kidding) - Oil Spill - Poverty - Terrorism - Bank Failure... the list goes on I am sure.

I am here offering an alternative - and asking for you to join me and others here in supporting this alternative.

The program is simple, clear, and a long-term strategy to helping the youth of Masaka, Uganda (and possibly other districts across the country) to feed themselves:

30 Boys and Girls (between 12-20 years old) will join the farmers of Masaka in a
never-before-seen Apprenticeship Program. Receiving part-time salaries, opening
their own individual savings, learning about leadership and cooperative economic
development, and joining hands with sponsors across the world, the St. Jude
Apprenticeship Pilot Program will join the needs and assets of Masaka's
Adolescent Youth (ages 12-18) with the needs and assets of Community Farmers
under an Apprenticeship Program with targeted impacts of youth leadership
development, improved community entrepreneurship, farm business skills, and
cooperative scholarship savings.

We kick off their independence this Friday, July 9th, at the Contract Signing Ceremony, when each farmer receives their 2 Apprentices and both farmer and apprentice sign their individual contracts.

If this alternative inspires and makes sense to you then please read the attached program flyer, read Mike's Story, and join hands with us across the world in this groundbreaking initiative.

All checks must be made out to St. Jude Family Projects and mailed to 1119 Bonview Lane, Atlanta, GA 30324.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and Happy Independence Day,


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kernels and Cobs and Corny Photos At the End

“Be not deceived. If I have a veiled look,
I turn the trouble of my countenance
Merely upon myself. Vexèd I am

Of late with passions of some difference,

Conceptions only proper to myself,
Which give some soil, perhaps, to my behaviors.”
- William Shakespeare, Act I of Julius Caesar (and
one of the few books I brought)

Saturday June 19th, 2010

I sat down with Frank, stumbling over the immense pile of ears of corn and eventually reaching a sack to sit on. We each sat with a red bucket in front of us, sitting on top of a floor of the season's harvest. The warehouse was nearly full of the dried corn, and the job was simple. Grab each cob, and twist with both hands until the kernels loosened and fell off into the bucket. Simple but certainly not easy. In fact, the job was probably the hardest I had done yet on the farm. My hands soon began to tear, and by the time I begrudgingly put on the gloves I had, in the face of Frank's snickering, I had already torn the skin on a few fingers. The sweat, now stinging my open sores, made the experience even more painful and frustrating. As insects like flies, moths, and beetles crawled over my feet, I became seriously uncomfortable. Sweat poured from my legs, hands, and face, and I looked over at Frank who had already filled half his bucket. He knew I was in pain and told me to think about something else.

I have often tried deep reflection when doing farm labor and it was nice of Frank to provide the reminder. I often think in metaphors or symbols, and in this case I was using the work itself to think vaguely about identity and purpose. I have struggled at times with owning and accepting my identity and purpose, resigning to the fact that I am not only a 'sponge', here to absorb all physical and social experience, but also a 'filter.' I am here not only to 'experience' my surrounding, whatever esoteric process that may be, but also to understand, interact, facilitate, and question. Now on to the metaphor:

Here there are two conflicting identities—my hand, representing my identity. Soft and malleable, my identity and resulting purpose are here to grasp and absorb around an abrasive and structurally different identity and purpose. The people of Masaka and my work here with St. Jude make up the ear of corn. From afar it appears that the valuable resources are readily available. They are budding yellow kernels, dry and ripe for picking. Soon my hand and in theory, my identity, realize that extracting the value causes inevitable conflict, friction, and discomfort. When the kernels finally loosen and one breaks off, the space it leaves creates a snowball effect and more kernels slide off in large batches until my hand now grasps what lies underneath. I realize that the value in 'the process,' my journey here, lies not in the bucket full of valuable yellow kernels left now for some external purpose, but instead in the raw and soft cob I now hold in my hand. Each cob, removed of its superficial outer layer of kernels, is unique underneath.

What I am trying to say is that my first month here has not been the 'whole fluffy world holding hands' experience I seemed to be describing in my entries. Filled with boring days, long hours in front of an unnecessary television, putrid dust and smells of animal excrement, and a generally disorganized atmosphere, I have found that extracting meaning and lessons from my activities each day is analogous to the job of tearing kernels off of corn ears. Yet the moments that the 'kernels,' the impersonal products destined for some external purpose, are loosened — a completed budget, a workshop summary, a grant proposal, are the moments when truly unique lessons or 'the soft cob underneath' emerge — hearing Mike's story, growing close to Frank, teaching the 3 year-olds to count to five in English, playing soccer with the local boys, and receiving an unexpected letter of gratitude from a schoolteacher.

As I hauled my red bucket now filled to the brim with kernels and began to heal and wrap my wounds, I felt I had a better understanding of my identity and purpose. Each day is a new cob bringing unknown moments when kernels suddenly loosen and a soft, unique core is revealed.

There was also a bit of irony when this evening's mass, which I attend every Saturday at the farm, had a sermon (now repeated in English for me) discussing Jesus's question 'Who Am I?' I smiled, rubbed the fresh scabs on my fingers, and listened. The pastor didn't discuss the question's introspective potential for all of us reading the passage. Instead he focused on Jesus's journey, quoted a few other passages, and ended the sermon without the reflection I was craving.

Sitting now in the living room with the 3 year-olds Payas and Fina, watching Gorilla School on Animal Planet, and waiting for the Cameroon vs. Denmark game to begin, I can relax now, stop squeezing and twisting the kernels, and rest my tired hands.

Six weeks remain and my to-do list of 'kernel gathering' includes:

- Finishing budget and grant proposal
- Online fundraising campaign launch (to all of you!)

- Final Program Start Date, Stakeholder Contract Signing Ceremony

- Trip to Mbale Jewish Community and Mirembe Fair Trade Coffee Cooperative

- Meeting in Kampala with Makelele University about potential Fulbright Research

- Training St. Jude staff in workshops, preparing outlines, and 'handing over' program preparation duties

Next post will ask your help in launching the program – Weraba! Goodbye!

The whole crew in front of the gate for my home - quite the mansion! My host mother on the far right.
The entrance to the farm

Workshop underway

The adorably infamous Payas and Fina

More future apprentices at Butale

Butale Primary School (future apprentices!)

The adorably infamous Paya and Fina
The whole gang with my host mother on far right

Monday, June 7, 2010

Spurts of Productivity

Week 1 Re-Cap with Mike's Story at the End

So the past few days show quite the bifurcation in the process of 'getting things done' in the culture of a developing country. One day you do everything, the next day you do almost nothing. Sometimes we plan and work hard, other days we sleep – unlike Western culture, there is no hurry! Time is seen through an entirely different cultural lens.

Monday was productive. My first day of work, I was over at the farm at 7:30 to sit in on a staff meeting, which was very interesting to hear. They spoke a little bit in English, and I understood there was some argument over a part of the farm, and that someone was not fulfilling their responsibilities. I am very surprised to hear the problems discussed so publicly, in a culture where criticizing someone else can be an insult to their entire clan. Next I had a long discussion with Paul, my supervisor, about my experience in community agriculture, and what I wanted to be able to see over the next two weeks to develop a project proposal. Things are certainly in the works for a youth development/entrepreneurship/scholarship savings-type program, and after visiting several of the adult training groups tomorrow, I have no doubt that the youth can be involved (many children now are losing their mother and father to AIDS, so connecting them to mentors who can teach them life skills and business skills is very important!).

Madame Stephanie is such a community elder, with a farm behind her home, she uses her living space and a small building next to it for a nursery. She is the leader of a small group of about twenty women, who gather every two weeks to share their stories and support one another. They each bring the equivalent of about $5 to each meeting, and collectively vote on which one of them will receive the pool of money (for a project or improvement, or if one of them is struggling). They have, in essence, begun their own informal microfinance initiative!

Anyways, I worked in the field for a bit with Charles and Winnie, to show them I also knew how to use my hands. The sun was at full strength, and within 15 minutes I was about ready to pass out. I pushed on and completed the raised beds we were digging, and even through the gloves I had blisters! My shoulders were also burned. No matter, pain is good – with the pain I can show I have worked hard with my head and my hands.

Monday afternoon I went with Agee, a Japanese volunteer (here for 2 years) with an international sustainable agriculture network. He is doing experimentation in Permaculture (basically growing plants and raising animals using methods found in nature) with raising chickens, and growing rice alongside Tilapia and Catfish. We went and visited the site he is doing his experiments on, it is the Ssenya Fish Farm about 10 km away (the motorbike that took me there ripped me off! Charged me 5000 shillings, about $2.50, for a 10km drive!). Anyways the fish farm is the largest producer of catfish and tilapia in all of Uganda! We went right in and met the executive director, Paul Ssenya (another Paul!). Paul is such a nice man, with many motivations to train the community and help the local economy. He is so intelligent with his local business, and is always thinking of ways to train other farmers better methods to raise their income – what an inspirational guy. We visited his rice experiments, and he told me that the region of Uganda, the low-lying areas, either in swamps or alongside rivers, are IDEAL for permaculture rice-fish farming. Some of the most ideal land in all of Africa. . Agee is with a Japanese gov't sponsored agriculture program that is bringing rice-growing technology to Uganda, Sudan, and a few other surrounding nations. Very exciting stuff!

Anyways with all of these ideas floating through my head on how my project could connect with what Agee is doing, and with youth development, I finally met my host mother that evening, Madame Josephine Kizza. She has such a presence! Everyone kneels to her when they see her, showing respect (they say 'Eradde nyabbo,' which basically means 'respect, Madame.')

Josephine and I talked into the night about my story and experience, and her story as well. We talked about the fish farm, the opportunity to train Masaka farmers in better ways to raise their income, and to involve the youth (who cannot afford school) in these new projects as well.

Tuesday's activities, however, were a bit on the unproductive side. I did some digging in the morning, waited for a few hours for Richard to take me to some of the school training program – that didn't happen. Had lunch, walked around the farm, waited some more, then talked to Paul, then it was 4 o'clock and I realized how little I had accomplished that day. Well as they say, TIA! This is Africa!

Wednesday through Saturday were busy with school and farmer visits, playing football (soccer) with the neighborhood kids, cooking 'Southern Fried Chicken and Black Bean Burgers (a hit with the whole family), having informal Yoga Classes (every morning now at 7:30 with my host mom and aunt, and whoever else decides to come), and leading an interactive workshop I had with the staff to flesh out some of their ideas about what “youth development and entrepreneurship” really means to them – They loved the interactive improv-based activities! We have to work on their sense of humor though, and Paul even wants me to do more improv activities to build teamwork and cohesion amongst the staff. Not to mention that the games I teach them would be great to use in the schools!

Saturday morning I went with Madame Josephine to see Mike Chiwanuka. The drive was long and bumpy. Well, most of the roads are bumpy – but we were bumping in the truck for so long, my stomach even began to feel queasy. We stopped near Rakai, about four villages out from St. Jude, and stopped at a larger intersection to ask a schoolteacher who teaches Mike where to find him. She sent a boy with us in the back of the truck to lead us there, and we bought some meat and bread to bring him as a welcoming gift. We finally got out of the truck when the road became too narrow, only wide enough for a Boda-Boda. We approached the home, and an elderly woman came running out shouting and hugging us. This is an extremely odd way for any person to act to a stranger, much less a Muzungu (Westerner). I soon realized that the woman had an obvious mental handicap, and as we approached her home she began asking in Lugandan if today was Christmas, and if we were here to celebrate with all the gifts we had brought. Mike stepped out of his small home of brick and mortar, and brought out a grain sack for us to sit on (they have no chairs) underneath the banana trees in the shade. He then began to share.

I should preface this by saying that Mike's story is incredibly difficult to tell, and was even harder to hear him say that morning. Madame Josephine even began to break down, and I just stared down at my notepad, my hand trembling, swallowing any sign of tears of remorse or guilt. Mike is fifteen years old, and stands at about 5'3, a shorter stature most likely due to years of hard work and a general lack of nutrition in his diet. Like most poor farmer children, he wears no shoes. Mike is the head of the household, with his father having died of AIDS this past year, and his mother mentally handicapped to the point that she cannot even take care of her self, he cooks, farms, and cleans with his three younger siblings. His family's land is all they have, and they struggle to find water, manure, and seeds for their fledgling crops of bananas, tomatoes, and beans. Even the land is in jeopardy of being lost, as Mike's uncles, his mother's brothers, are very desperate men, and plan to take the land that is in their mother's name when she dies. They have been coming often to the home to discourage Mike and his siblings from working hard to save the money to keep the land, and Mike has suffered from repeated physical and psychological abuse from these men. Mike has nothing, but he works for everyone. More importantly, Mike wants to make something of himself as well. He goes to school every single day, according to him and the teacher we met, arriving late because of his work at home, and leaving school early so he can come home and take care of things. I asked him if he would prefer to work full-time and save money for his family, or continue his education. He said he wants to badly to continue learning, but he is torn by the duties he has at home. Mike has no one to turn to, nowhere to go, no resources to build upon, no foundation to hold him steady. He is the foundation.

We have invited Mike to be the voice for the Apprenticeship Program, representing many youth who are in need, but who are beyond description in their determination and leadership potential. He has agreed to come to the workshop with the teachers, local farmers, and St. Jude Staff, and give comments on what incentives can motivate youth like him the best. I only hope that the program can help Mike to improve his situation, if not by helping him save to afford school and buy a new plot of land, then at least by providing community elders to support him. I find it a sad and cruel irony that in the most deprived conditions with the least amount of hope, one can find the most potential, wisdom, and strength, even in a fifteen year-old boy.

The time spent with Mike has been the most important lesson I have learned thus far, a powerful experience that continues to prove that as much as “I am here to facilitate their development,” with my project's now stated Main Goal of “Joining the needs and assets of Masaka's Adolescent Youth (ages 12-18) with the needs and assets of School Gardens and Community Farmers under an Apprenticeship Program with targeted impacts of youth leadership development, improved community entrepreneurship, farm business skills, and cooperative scholarship savings,” I have soon realized that

the people of Masaka are also facilitating a development — my own.

Work this week will be busy with budget drafting, work plan and grant proposal, a few more community visits, and of course, more Yoga. I hear the sound of children laughing outside. I think I'll go play a bit.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Uganda Bites Back

“Today I wake up distressed. The hours I have been awake have been a gradual ascension to accept the inevitable gap between “those who have,” a culture of material selectivity, and “those who do not have,” a culture of marginalization. The severity of one is always relative to in different places and times — there is no definite standard or criteria for either, only the universal need for one to respect the other in the inevitable occasions that they meet. It is this respect which I hope to further understand, facilitate, and nurture.” 10:30 AM May 29th, 2010

I apologize for the vague and esoteric prologue. The details of my encounter, of my valuable possessions nearly being taken, are not appropriate for public display. I have shared the details with those to whom it is relevant, but for public consumption, I will instead provide my tentative learned result:

As I sit outside, toyed with by either the adorable 3 year-olds Payas and Fina or the two needy kittens that follow them, both of whom have a feeble concept of personal space and material possession, I begin to wonder about culture. I came here to listen, to observe, and to facilitate. Not to judge. I find it hard not to judge considering recent events, but I have gradually shifted into an acceptance, response, and now, reflection.

Culture, in my opinion, is an evolving process of, and a balance between, two distinct categories. One is the organization of human and natural resources, through visible and invisible institutions of learned behavior, organization, and impact. This category is made up of measurable parts. They are empirical, physical, and easily understood. One can easily observe this category, and its different appearance between countries, and draw what my be called a 'comparison of development.' One country displays more cohesive, efficient, and productive behaviors under this category, and therefore may be considered 'more developed' than other countries that show deficiencies.

The second is the subjective truth of the selected area (country, region, neighborhood, family) and its general mythology. This involves interacting with belief systems, religious devotion, and how individuals organize their beliefs and behaviors under such systems. One can often forget this second aspect, as it is not easily observed, discussed, or measured. Oft ignored, subjective truth is not commonly associated with understanding the 'development' of a country, as this concept does not coalesce with the commonly used evaluation of 'more developed' and 'less developed' societies. Each subjective truth is, quite simply, subjective. Neither rational nor irrational, a people's subjective truth simply belongs to them, and must be left in their possession in order for their culture to survive, in equilibrium with the necessary 'development' of human and natural resources. This is the respect I am referring to, and is one not easily given amidst my current uncomfortable circumstances. Sure, when there are tribal dances, wonderful food, and open discussion, and one can easily experience and respect the subjective truth of another people. But when personal trust is violated, when all is not 'hold hands and sing kumbaya,' and more difficult situations are presented, one can easily begin to judge.

I refuse to judge. I come from one culture, and they come from another. My experience here, my internship in community economic development, is an attempt at cohesion between the two cultures. When different subjective truths can find confluence, gain mutual respect, and act cohesively, wonderful things can happen. So in spite of recent events, I am steadfast in my respect, observance, and optimism.

On a lighter note, I have completed my orientation and training, having gone through a wonderful workshop with Paul from REAP (Renewed Efforts to Alleviate Poverty). I now have a thorough grasp on Community Needs and Asset Assessment Models, and am prepared to begin my Work Plan and Project Proposal next week. There are so many different ways to systematically measure and analyze the needs and assets of a community, and I am fascinated by these innovative techniques. Some are more empirical than others, some are more subjective than others.

I took a very long walk around lunch time, soaking up some equatorial sun rays and walking the dirt road around my valley. I walked up this larger hill, overlooking the valley, and was amazed. I will try to put up a photo of this view, but its simplistic beauty is simply indescribable. Walking in such a calm and rich place (rich in ways I have not even begun to comprehend), I began to think that I could very easily live here for quite a while. As I was contemplating such elitist Alexander-the-Great-esque pursuits, the young heifer behind me begins to become a bit perturbed. I look over at him, and he bows his head, ready for battle. In the state I was in, I almost charged right at him. I was seeking a challenge, and charging a young bull would certainly constitute one. Instead I turned a shoulder the other way, inhaling the fresh air, digging my toes into the clay-orange dirt, reaching down for a discarded fruit rind, and tossing it next to the cow. I hope he will understand my plight as I continue to respect his. I also hope he doesn't charge me on my run tomorrow morning.

Sibba Bulungi, or Good Afternoon,


Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Meal of Firsts

After polishing up my basic Lugandan, with new phrases such as “Okuseera!” or “don't overcharge me,” I thought I was ready for the market. Our last night together as interns led us to the market, preparing a meal to serve for 35 people (this was also Jordan's going away party). I was appointed the 'chicken man,' and prepared a Chicken Raguu with tomatoes, onions, and carrots, and 'Southern Fried Chicken. Quick kitchen description - a smoky oven with a baby crying, an electric stove that barely functioned and another stove that was run by a propane tank (which soon ran out of gas), and a wonderful housegirl named Grace who showed me the ways of hacking a chicken – I would be understating the richness of this evening if I only called it a 'learning experience.' This was a complete immersion in Ugandan culture, beginning with the kitchen. I suppose you could say that my internship with St. Jude with be a transition to another core of Ugandan rural life, and that is the use of the land.

With orientation wrapped up today, discussing Budget and Work Plan preparation, I am more than ready.

I have arrived. The gates to my compound (literally) open up, and I am greeted by an open space, the chatter of chickens, dogs, and rabbits in the background, and the housekeeper 'Chaz' hammering in nails in a shed in the back. Unfortunately, Josephine Kizza is busy with meetings in Kampala, but even better – I have two mothers! Josephine's sister, Maria, or Mama Muto, greets me with her two god-children, 3 year-old Josephine and 4 year-old Paya. The children kneel down to me, and show such immense respect for those older than them. I am shown around the house, settling my things down into one of the girls' rooms. I soon realize that the house is not as full of children as I thought it would be – they are all away at school! Most children here attend boarding school, and two of Josephine's daughters have graduated from university and are already living in homes of their own in Masaka.

No matter – still such a beautiful home. Tiled floors, a nice television, accompanied by the traditional aspects of Ugandan life such as the kitchen, the tea (we have tea and biscuits at 6 PM and dinner at 8 or 9 PM!), and the family (the children sit on a straw mat on the tiled floor while the adults sit on couches). We watch TV, talk some, although Mama Muto's English is a bit rough, and I explain to here my passion for the simplicity of farming. I show her the hand-written card, thanking her, Josephine and the family for welcoming me, and she is pleasantly surprised (and entertained) to see that I have also written the letter in Lugandan.

I meet Frank, a local boy who works at St. Jude, and also Agee, a Japanese volunteer who has been here for 14 months and has his own farm nearby – these are experienced colleagues I will be working with. As I sit here writing this journal, the bugs begin to emerge and I must rest for the night – early morning tomorrow with tea at 7 AM and catching a ride with the St. Jude car to Masaka shortly thereafter. A thirty to forty minute drive is needed to get to 'downtown' Masaka, although that means a few main roads, dirty paths, and grassy hills. Look at the wonderful traditional shirt I bought today, only 7,000 shillings (about $3.50)!

Looking forward to the first day of work on Monday, and I will update you sometime next week.

Sula Bulungi (Good Night),


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Another Update - Cultural Expression

Been awake for about an hour now, at least I slept for a good while (we, as in Mike and the two Ugandan university students, Joseph and John, fell asleep watching Bayern Munich lose to AC Milan). Soccer is god here, by the way.

So quick update:
- learning Lugandan greetings, which are extended exchanges with varying levels of formality, each specific to the morning, afternoon, and evening. Most importantly, I've learned to say "I'm sorry" and "I don't understand," Simanyi and Nsonyiwa respectively. We went shopping today, and then for a 'cultural dance event,' which I explain at the end of this post. Aside from the lack of sleep I feel great - despite a huge lunch of Indian food and fresh pizza for dinner. I think I will simplify my diet today, just to be safe. I am enjoying the city ammenities, level of development, and sights, but I am definitely eager to get to Masaka - a smaller, simpler, cleaner, cooler, and safer town. We also had safety orientation yesterday, and that was, well, obvious. What was nice, though, was talking at length with Jordan, our FSD site coordinator, about his experience living and working here. I am also beginning to see the personal difficulties that ex-pats have in living and working here, especially in the NGO world (not many friends back home, iffy relations with families, lonely lifestyle, etc.). As much language, culture, attire, and behavior I may be able to adopt while I am here, I will never be Ugandan; yet, there is certainly a purpose to the presence of anyone is anywhere doing anything - it's just a matter of finding that purpose and owning its focus and meaning. We shall see what focus and meaning begin to emerge over the next week.

Will update you when we arrive in Masaka.

Tulabagané, or see you later!

A Performance to Remember:

We enter a 'cultural center' of sorts, with those big straw huts, art on the walls, these guitar-like instruments that look like miniature boats.

Walking into what appeared to be an open stadium, with terraced levels for tables, I see an open performance space with drums and instruments lined up.

What followed was a performance never to forget, simply Chirunji (Beautiful), as each ethnic tradition of Uganda was performed and explained with such passion of expression.

The dancers and singers, with their vigor and spirit, were all young. These youth, close to my age, were living their tradition, retaining in the face of such adversity. I have never before seen such cultural authenticity, such important expression, such incredible joy. We laughed, cried, and danced our way through the night, ending up on stage at the end of the performance.

What a night!

Will post once I am in Masaka, wrapping up orientation and preparing to move in with my host family on May 27th.

Sula bulunji! Good night!


Monday, May 24, 2010

The Initial Arrival

From my blackberry, as I can't sleep and don't want to wake the two younger college boys (rising sophomores from Gettysburg College and UNC) with my laptop:

When we landed at 645 PM last night, earlier thab expected, I was eager to land with some daylight remaining. That hope quickly faded as the sun was darting down the horizon like it was late to a meeting on the other side of the world, and I knew we had landed right on the equator. I walked off the plane into a bright and humid airport, a brightness that soon faded into a dimly lit darkness when we exited the airport with our luggage to the van. Two short men, appeared to be twins, fit as I hope to be by the end of this summer, load our luggage into two cars, and count 11 Americans - they keep telling us there should be 15 of us, and without an answer, I tell them that only the strongest survived the flight (a sleepless one, mind you).

The drive was peaceful, with explained majors, work assignments (they range from AIDS to microfinance) and hometowns - our two older guys, Ian and Luke, are both '05 Stanford grads - and I will be picking Ian's ear, as he begins at Duke's Env. Management master's program in the fall, arguably the best env. graduate school in the country. We are greeted at the guest house by a warm and motherly hotel manager, a candle-lit compound with picnic tables and a surprising deficit of mosquitoes, and told that we have arrived on the shortest day of the year. I can personally attest that yesterdat felt like the longest day of the year.

Chosen bedrooms and a delicious pumpkin soup later, I crashed. For about 3 hours. I finally slept solidly until 7 AM, and now as I finish this e-mail, the birds begin to quickly chirp and awaken, and the sun is faintly creeping up, waiting, I know now, for its hast race up the horizon.

My curiosity draws me to go and explore thse sounds (and take the 10 minute walk to Lake Victoria), and begin the day's adventure. So long for now, loved ones - the next few days are filled with orientation, language training, and meeting our host family. Masaka, here I come!

Friday, April 2, 2010

I am NOT A TERRORIST: My little manifesto to change the world, one round table at a time

Hey Everybody,

Sorry for the title. It was a bit out of line, but you never know nowadays who is reading these blog posts, and I just wanted to be very clear that I have NO AFFILIATION WHATSOEVER WITH ANY OF THOSE CRAZY GROUPS. I don't cut gas lines, I don't throw brick through windows, and I certainly don't engage in international espionage whatever-that-is-tactics.

I wanted to tell you all that this week has been a hurricane.

I have met the mayor of my city twice in the past 12 hours, and there is a small chance he may be coming to my college for Earth Day. Quite surprising, until you realize that most people on campus don't know who he is, or just assume he is already corrupt. A pretty sad political climate we live in.

But here is the thing: I think we are at a crossroad.

Down one path is the status quo (more industry bubbles, more genocide, more corruption, more greed, more hatred at the polls, etc.) -- perhaps leading to some unfortunate end.

Down the other path is something makes us human not just democratic but human, and that is cooperation. It is bringing as many people to the table as the table can hold, and asking them all 1. What do We want (core things) 2. How different are each of our paths to reach this table (how we see one another) and 3. What are our limitations (time, people, and money).

So this alternative path is a bit tricky, because as an old friend and mentor, Robert Lowe, once said "Any organization or body of organized individuals, as the group ages, will become more and more bureaucratic. It must either evolve, adapt, and self-reflect to avoid this stagnant inefficiency, or it will continue down that path to complete bankruptcy and dysfunction." He pretty much said that.

So I feel that this alternative path is based on some key things that WE CAN ALL PRETTY MUCH AGREE ON (shocking, really) -- I talked about these things with journalists, community organizers, passionate socialists, and frustrated conservatives. As one of the frustrated conservatives, my former fraternity brother, stood atop a washing machine shouting down "LABOR UNIONS ARE THE REASON WHY MY FAMILY IS POOR", I began to understand, through his rage and anger (I'll get to rage and anger at the end), what exactly he was saying.

Core things to agree on:
- People should earn what they have (and understand why they have earned it)
- People should be treated, talked about, and classified equally regardless of sex, race, or any other demographic qualifiers.
- Society should not take what people feel they have rightly earned, although if any decisions are made about "communities", these decisions are made democratically.
- The absolute definition of democratic decisions, from our founding fathers, was a 1 to 1 vote. Now on a national level, I think this is slightly impossible -- BUT on a local, regional, neighborhood, business-wide, city-wide level, perhaps, this is much more achievable.
- What is above is pretty much core to grassroots organizing and coalition building. It is also core to the organization of a cooperative structure (it is seen in Fair Trade businesses and farming communities around the world).
- When we engage with one another about these changes that need to be made, we need to be civil, respectful, and willing to listen. **Note: This one is the hardest to have everyone agree on!

In essence, I want to say that in a time of scarcity, it is so easy to divide up. It is so easy to divide up and yell at one another from across the fence (or fences), never willing to even see who or what is on the other side of the fence. We can all agree that this too is a problem.

So think of scarcity and global recession as like this GIANT MONSTER, and we are on, say, the movie "Starship Troopers" (love that movie). It is really to get scared, pissed, off and split up -- But, in the case of this movie, we would all probably die. Not good.

I think it is within our biological makeup to work together, it is within our evolutionary "common sense" to allow for things like competition, people earning what they have, and having the most hardworking people emerge as the strongest (now we could be going down a slippery path to social darwinism with this, so it is important that we are aware of what Hitler was thinking 70 years ago).

So, now that we are talking about biological makeup, I will bring up the the "rage and fear" discussion. My good friend I met this week, David Shipler (a wonderful author and human being), talked about this as well. There is also an incredible Radio Show that speaks about this, and if you have the time you should listen to all of it.

Basically this world-renowned psychologist Michael McCullough studied human brains under certain behaviors. He looked at brains when we were enacting revenge or seeking revenge, and the brain patterns he saw (whatever those look like), were almost identical to those of craving, those of desire, those of thirst and hunger.

These are, for the most part, unquenchable and unending desires, and they serve an ancient evolutionary purpose. Well Dr. McCullough thinks that purpose has expired, and that we live in an age where this behavior of rage "cravings" is simply disadvantageous to our species.

Then he looked at forgiveness, he looked at people who were in the act of forgiving. Their brains, I believe, were very similar to feelings of pleasure, calm, and things like hypertension and blood sugar were of course at lower levels.

So we are a dichotomous species in that these two ways of behaving oppose one another. One says "An eye for an eye", one believes in the Body of Law and Justice (which, by the way is not perfect) , and the other is something else altogether.

Maybe we can learn about from our relatives.

He first spoke of his son, who is 6 or 7 years old. When his son accidentally kicks him in the face, breaks his glasses, Dr. McCullough is certainly flustered at first, but not angry. He doesn't punish his son, or kick him back. This is simple and makes perfect sense in the scale of family dynamics.

Then he spoke of Timothy Mcvey and the unibomber, and that when McVey had been sentenced to death, someone spoke up against his execution. It was the father of one of the girls who had been killed. This man said that his daughter's death should not warrant more pain and suffering, and that he had already seen enough death and destruction and did not want any more. Furthermore, this man was at McVey's execution, and was consoling the father of Timothy McVey, who was obviously distraught. Before McVey was put to death, the father of this murdered girl said to McVey's father "What a remarkable human being. What a shame to put him to waste."

This is the essence of forgiveness.

He then went on to talk about Joseph Kony and his child soldiers in Uganda. The cultural devastation is immense, as thousands of women have been raped, entire villages and communities disbanded, and thousands of children forced to do horrific things. Before the children are taken to the forest to be brainwashed, they are forced, in front of their parents, to kill their siblings. This way if the children ever escape, they have no way of returning to their families.

Some pretty awful stuff is going on here.

Basically the Acholi tribe, the group that has seen the worst of Joseph Kony's wrath, is singing these songs. These songs are beautiful and you should go to the show and listen to them.

The songs are asking Joseph Kony to join them in peace. The songs are forgiving Joseph Kony.

So I spoke to a few professors about all of this, and they think that societies, groups, countries, they all come to such a point of exhaustion, such a point of "We have had enough pain and suffering" -- That they forgive. They ultimately forgive, and we all should ultimately forgive.

So back to Birmingham.

I was speaking with John Archibald last night, who is the most knowledgeable person in the state about Alabama politics, and I asked him that when, and not if, we go to the polls, or when we go to the voting booth, should we vote/answer with the range and anger and revenge that is so easy to feel (when are scared), or should we go with a different mentality?

Certainly not a mentality of vague principles such as "Hope", or "Change", for example (don't know where I got those); but instead, we are hoping for something real and changing something specific.

I also met with 7 Alabama universities and colleges yesterday, under this same principle. We are forming a coalition and if you would like to join us please e-mail me.

This is the essential crossroad we face: Will we join the factions of hate, anger, and revenge, or have we really had enough?

Is it time to forgive and come together? Isn't this what our melting pot of a democracy is all about?

So please come to the table. Please join us not in revenge or hatred, but in forgiveness.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I'm going to go do homework now.

- Ben