Sunday, July 29, 2012

Go See Castnetting

A dear friend just started a fantastic blog that focuses on sustainability issues called Castnetting.

She has the pulse on all things environmental. Her posts are clear and concise. I cannot wait to see how it grows, because I know I'll be using it a source for news on timely topics.

Check her out!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Ebenezer Children's Home, Ahero, Kenya

Even the word Ebenezer has a significance for me.

A Christmas Carol is one of my all time favorite books. My mom got hooked on Dickens a few years ago, and in talking with her about how much she was enjoying him, I started reading his books again.

Honestly, "again" may not be the right word. I read a few of those books I was supposed to read in high school. A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, David Copperfield. It's not news that Dickens is talented, and I especially love how he weaves social issues into his stories.

As much as I enjoyed the other books, A Christmas Carol is my favorite. In fact, I still harbor the fantasy that my family will sit around a fire during the holidays and take turns reading it aloud. That has yet to happen, but I will not give up the dream.

There are so many things to love in A Christmas Carol, but to me the scene stealer is Ebenezer Scrooge and his life-changing transformation.

When I heard from our Kenyan research partner that in her spare (!) time, she and her husband are house parents at a local orphanage, I immediately asked to visit. The research team consisted of four professors and one amazing student, Maria, who also wanted to visit the home. So on our day off Maria and I took the ride out to Ebenezer. We both decided it was our favorite part of the whole trip. It was that incredible. 

I must confess: I'm a bit of a cryer. I have no problem with breaking into tears during a commercial, or every Oprah show I've ever watched, or at the end of Cars the Movie (1, not the sequel) even though I've seen it four thousand times. 

I'm totally okay with being a public cryer... but I know it can be a little disconcerting to others.  I was really worried before the visit, because I didn't want to fall apart at what I thought might be a sad situation and then in any way make the kids feel bad or awkward or unhappy. So I kept repeating this mantra in my head, "don't cry- enjoy the moment, and cry later if you need to." Over and over that day I said this in my head. 

The truth is, I shouldn't have worried, because the kids I met were so charming, fun, and sweet-- and again FULL of joy, that they put me at ease. 

When I heard stories about how they were a combination of AIDS orphans, or former street boys, or kids' whose mom's had died and their dad's second wives had forced them onto the street. I didn't cry. 

Even when I met a baby who'd been left on a roadside at only a few weeks. Isn't she gorgeous? Even when I heard her story, I didn't cry. 

She was in a wonderful place after all, and her caregiver clearly adored her (she was also the only baby at the site).

Of the 300 children and young adults at Ebenezer, there was one baby, about seven preschoolers, and the rest were school-aged kids.

When I met a toddler who was sick from his AIDS medication, I didn't cry.

Maria and I went to hang out with the older girls-- high school age, and we spent about 45 minutes with them talking and laughing. They were a lot of fun (and so fascinated with Maria, who is much closer to their age than I am).

They're having kale and ugali (a kind of millet or sorghum cake-- in fact, it most reminded me of when you let your grits get hard. YAY grits!). When I heard that they eat chicken once a year on the day they all celebrate their birthday together, I didn't cry.

We were having such a good time, and Maria and I started showing them our photos on our phone and ipad. They watched videos of my kids, looked at Maria's boyfriend and my husband, etc. (Making lots of hilarious comments about everything). When they asked if we had photos of our moms on our devices, and could they see them, I have to be honest, I almost cried. But I held it in.

Then we went to visit the younger girls- elementary and middle-school aged. They sang for us.

And that's when I cried, but it wasn't because I was sad.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Out of Africa

It has been a week since I returned from my research trip in Kenya.

I'm going to spend the next few weeks blogging about what I learned there.

It is difficult to imagine that only days ago I was on a completely different part of the planet. Standing on the equator (literally), and experiencing things from another world.

They have a word in Kenya for people like me. Mzunga. Which I guess means whitey, or cracker, or something like that. Though it's not said in malice. There's no way to blend in in a place like Kenya. You have to give up the idea that you will look like you fit in, or know what you're doing, or anything like that right away. Because when you're a mzunga, the truth is that you stick out like a sore thumb.

On the days I sat in the front seat of the truck as we traveled to the sites, I felt like I was riding in a parade. As we drove through the rural back roads, people --especially children-- would stop to wave, and to shout "how are you?"

I was in Kenya working on a sustainable agriculture project, promoting the grain Amaranth. Amaranth seeds are TINY, and for the farmers we are working with, the typical way to plant them is to broadcast the seeds along a furrow-- they're too small to make the effort to space them out by planting them singly. But then seeds are wasted, or plants are wasted when it's time to thin the plants. It's also very labor- intensive to thresh the plants by hand. To make it short, engineering students and faculty created a simple seeder and thresher, and we were there setting up pilot projects of farmers who would test the technologies. We want to know if these technologies will help them create a quality product with less time and labor.

So we would have our meetings under mango trees.

Or occasionally in the classroom of a school. 

The people I met were unbelievable. People without plumbing or cars, or wifi... kids without shoes, with holes in their clothes. We visited a polytechnic high school where the girls in the seamstress and tailoring program sew with PAPER BAGS, because they cannot afford fabric. And look at how well they sew, even with those materials. 

Sometimes the groups we worked with were HIV positive, or HIV widows and widowers. They formed collectives to fight the stigma of the disease and to farm together. And it's not necessarily that everyone was happy and carefree-- I don't want to marginalize the people I met and give the impression that they were all the same, or some colonial-era myth of smiling, happy content people. 

These were people just infused with an incredible entrepreneurial spirit. They were growing mangos, and amaranth in some cases, and raising dairy goats and poultry, and CHANGING their lives and communities. They were adopting AIDS orphans and trying to raise them. They were taking the profits they made to start SCHOOLS in their communities. They knew more about CLIMATE CHANGE and SUSTAINABILITY than most of my students. 

And they exuded joy.   

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Kindness Project and the I DIG READING Challenge

Well, I should be en route back from Kenya today. (YAY!)

For this month's Kindness Project I wanted to highlight the I Dig Reading Challenge.

It all began as an idea from the WhoRuBlog, who hosted a read-a-thon in December of 2010.
The idea was simple-- read as much as you could over the four day period, and pledge to donate X amount per page or book or what have you.

People were doing 5 dollars a book, 1 dollar a book. One penny a page (which could get costly if you've just started to read George R. R. Martin).

The amount doesn't even need to be publicized. You then pledge to donate to any organization you choose (again, this can be publicly shared or kept private).

I participated and loved it so much I didn't want the reading and giving to end.

I started the I Dig Reading Challenge so that I could tie my (somewhat selfish) desire to read as much as possible with something a little more selfless, like giving to others.

I keep track of how many books I read each month, and then give a monthly wrap-up that features both the books I've read and the group I'm giving to. Check out the I Dig Reading Challenge TAB above to see who I've given to since December of 2010.

I'm the kind of person who always "wants" to give to the charities or organizations that I think do good work.

But, that being said, when the end of the month comes around (or the end of the year, which is worse after holiday spending) I don't often feel I have enough money to give a "good" gift.

What I like about this challenge is that it allows me to give small amounts all year long. I don't have to wait until I can afford to send $50 or $100 (which could be never).

I think it's just as important to give not what you think is "the right amount" but at a level that works for you. One group I love sent me a plea for a giving campaign. I could only afford to send them $5.00 this year... but I know if just a tiny percentage of the humans on the planet did that... it would MEAN SOMETHING BIG.

I read for many reasons-- because I love it, because I learn as a writer from it, and also because the more I read, the more I give.

So, JOIN me! The wonderful thing about both the I Dig Reading Challenge and The Kindness Project is that anyone can participate.

Contact ME if you'd like to be added to the I Dig Reading Challenge list of participants, and/or direct me to your blog when you post about it, so I can link to it, too!

Visit these other kind souls for their musings on spreading kindness.

Sophia Chang                         Sara Larson
Erica Chapman                      Matthew MacNish
Jessica Corra                         Sara McClung
Elizabeth Davis                       Leigh Moore
Christa Desir                          Tracey Neithercott
Sarah Fine                              Katharine Owens
Claire Hennessy                     Elizabeth Poole
Elana Johnson                        Lola Sharp
Amie Kaufman                        Michele Shaw
Liza Kane                                Meagan Spooner                      
Alina Klein                               Carolina Valdez Miller

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Kisumu, Kenya

Jambo means "hello". Moss moss means "slow". Asante is both "thank you" and "cheers". This is all you need to know.
Okay, it would probably help to know a lot more Swahili, but this is a good start.

I am not sure I know yet how to put into words what it is like here. It is so wholly different from any place I've ever been. I'm taking notes, keeping a journal, and many thoughts are simmering. Until then, check out these photos.
 This is Saturday morning. The greenish colored van is filled with people. You probably can't see, but there are something like 15-20 people inside, sitting on laps, taking up the entire space. It's how one goes to work. The little scooter/rickshaw behind this is a smaller, more intimate vehicle. I am not sure if both are considered matatus... or if this just the name for the larger ones.
We rode today on boda boda which is a bicycle with a rectangular seat on the back and a handle and footrests for the passenger. You hop on, and head into traffic. A little crazy. For this delightful ride (and it was) you pay 50 kenyan Shillings, or 50 cents.
 Tusker lager, delicious cold and I LOVE that logo.

 This was our hotel parking lot in Nairobi. Imagine a blacktop of about 20 meters by 50 meters, filled totally with cars. We had to drive through a guarded gate to enter the hotel. Here is, as you can see, the Fire Assembly Point. Thankfully we didn't have to find out exactly what that meant. Behind it was a large truck that was blasting music, until the man from our hotel yelled at them. It also seemed to contain a fryer/grill and some bench seating. I don't know what happens in that truck, but I bet it's a party.

 Here's a shot from the plane window over Burundi.

The view from my hotel room.