Thursday, April 1, 2010

Meeting Greg Mortenson

Meeting one of my heroes, Greg Mortenson
was a great thrill...

In early March, Lorena, my host and contact at United World College in Singapore, sent me an email that concluded, "Greg Mortenson will be at our school while you are here. Would you like to hear him speak?" I don't know why but I waited a day or two before responding "yes" and then watched for Lorena's reply. When it finally came she wrote, "We were too late in getting our request in....sorry." Oh well I thought, a close call but it wasn't meant to be. I was disappointed.

I first learned who Greg Mortenson was when I listened to an interview on WNYC radio just as his book, "Three Cups of Tea" was being released in 2006. I ordered the book from Amazon that night and was really absorbed in the story as I read it. His perseverance and idealism were and have been inspirational to me, as they have been to millions of readers. I've given the book as a gift, recommended it to many friends, and loaned my copies to others.

Greg Mortenson is a hero in the truest sense of the word. He has endured tremendous hardship and risked his life to build schools for girls in some of the most dangerous and remotest corners of the world. The chance to meet him is something I would cherish. I can count on my fingers the number of living people I'd be as excited to meet. In that group would be Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Wendell Berry, and Paul Farmer. Back in 2000 I shook hands with Senator Bill Bradley shortly before he dropped out of the race and that was something I will always remember. I sometimes wonder what our world might have become if Bradley had been president on September 11, 2001.

During lunch one day at United World College last week I began a conversation with a lady named Joy, who looked and sounded  like an ex-pat American. She was, and as the conversation proceeded I learned that she was also one of the people organizing Greg Mortenson's visit. Before lunch was finished she had told us to keep in touch with her and that we might be able to attend Mortenson's talk after all. On Thursday Lorena gave me the good news. Greg was scheduled to speak at 10 am on Saturday and we were on the guest list.

Those of you who know me well know that I am seldom early for appointments. I'm nearly always on time but just can't get the hang of being early. I broke my pattern and arrived at school at 8:30, before any of the organizers were even there. A few people began to wander in as I sat at a table outside writing in my notebook. The temperature was already above 80 degrees F.  At about 9 a.m. I looked up to see two men walking towards me. The big man on the left was Greg Mortenson. I think my jaw must've dropped and my eyes popped open wide. I felt like a kid meeting a famous ballplayer. He must've sensed my awe because he walked up to me, put his hand out and said, "Hi, I'm Greg." I think I said, "I know," but don't remember exactly what I said  after that.  A few minutes later I went into the auditorium where I had done several performances during the week including a family concert two nights before. I kind of hung around in the back looking for an opening to go up and speak more with him. I was nervous but knew I had to do it because I often give the advice to kids that "you'll never know unless you try." He realized what I was up to with my camera and "Bridges" tee shirt in hand and he again made it easy for me to approach. We talked for about five minutes. I told him about Bridges of Peace and Hope, asked a few questions, and had some photos taken. Before I left he tore the end off a piece of paper, wrote down his email address and phone number, and thanked me for helping to promote peace.

As I walked back outside the theater I again felt like a kid. It was a good, mixed up feeling. I felt a little like I had just won a contest, but I also felt like the teenage boy who finally got the courage up to ask a girl to dance, but didn't know what to do when she said yes. His talk was excellent and with some more twists of fate perhaps Bridges of Peace and Hope and I will have opportunities to collaborate with Greg Mortenson and Pennies for Peace. As my friend Ken Buescher often says to me, "You are one lucky guy!" You're right Ken, I am.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Trip Over the Tundra to Singapore

I didn't take this photo but it did look a lot like this out the window

I left JFK airport on Friday March 19 at 4:50 p.m. and arrived in Singapore a day and a half later at 6 am Sunday morning. If you look on a globe you'll see that Singapore really is on the other side of the world. Add in the drive from home to New York City, a six hour layover in Bejing, China, and the trip to the hotel in Singapore, and it was roughly 32 hours travel time door to door. Although that's a lot of time to be traveling it is absolutely amazing that we can be half way around the world in such a short period of time. I find it absurd when I hear fellow travelers complaining about the duration of the 13 and half hour flight from NY to Bejing, but I have to remind myself we all have different tolerances. I'm fortunate in that I actually enjoy the challenges of long distance travel. I like airports and I don't mind waiting in lines. I read two books and did lots of writing on this trip.

The flight to Bejing took us over northern Alaska, and I assume that generally speaking we were in the vicinity of the Arctic and the North Pole. The scenery was stunningly, starkly gorgeous. It was a harsh, white and shadowy gray, crumpled terrain, divided by countless sqiggling fissures that appeared like rivers but were actually cracks in the snow and ice. As awesomely beautiful as it was I couldn't help but wonder how much of what I was seeing may be the result of climate change. Knowing that we humans are living in a manner that may be altering the balance of this magnificent planet left me feeling bothered and a little ashamed.

After arriving in Southeast Asia it took me about four days to adjust my sleep to being 12 time zones away. When it is 12 noon in New York it is 12 midnight in Singapore. For the first four nights there I was awaking while most sensible Singaporeans were fast asleep. There is a comforting silence to those wee hours of the night. More to come when I'm better rested.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sad News From Zambia

Richard and Friends the day we visited Prince Takamado School

Over a month ago I received an email from Zambia titled "Sad News." I was reluctantly compelled to open it, not sure I wanted to know the contents of the message. Life is harder in "developing" countries than we here in the US can understand. I was fearful that the sad news was the death of someone I had met while I was there in October. Fortunately, that was not the case but the title "sad news" was still very apt. Richard Lungu, the gardener I had met and become friends with was in trouble.

Richard and his family live in Bauleni, a compound that we might call a slum or shantytown -- very small houses, many poorly constructed, nearly on top of each other, garbage strewn about the landscape, high unemployment, etc. etc. (For a detailed description of Bauleni and how I got to know Richard see the Oct 22 Blog Entry)

Richard was more fortunate than many in that the house he rented was sturdily built, and he had a steady job working at the American International School of Lusaka. He and I quickly became friends when we met and he acted as my liaison and guide in my visit to the Prince Takamado School in Bauleni. He had a warm and outgoing personality and a generous, gracious manner. I really liked him and was grateful to know him.

The "sad news" was that Richard had been caught stealing from the faculty and staff at the international school and that he had lost his job and may be facing very serious prison time for the offences. When my friend Kate sent me the news she wrote, "I can't imagine why he would risk such a good situation for short term gain?" In my reply to Kate I wrote, "I can't imagine either, but I also can't imagine what it is like to live in Bauleni, or what his motivations may have been." As of now, I don't know what has happened to Richard. He didn't answer the email I sent him a few weeks ago. In the meantime, I did learn from Kate that he had passed along something for me. It was a phone number for the school. I suspect he knew he wouldn't be able to a act as the go-between any longer and wanted me to know how to contact them.

A painting I photographed in a hotel. It seems to fit this entry.

He may already be in prison, which according to Kate would be a very difficult experience to go through and overcome. Not knowing enough details to have an opinion as to whether "justice" is served by imprisoning Richard I can only hope and pray that he gets a chance to make amends, and work to regain the confidences he had enjoyed in the past. I also hope that he and his family can find peace and comfort.

It truly is "sad news" when your friends are in trouble.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Circle is Closed as New Guitar is Delivered to School in Zambia

When head teacher Madame Mwanza learned that a Bridges of Peace and Hope delegation from the American International School of Lusaka (AISL) would be coming to present Mr. Jannack Mahachi with a guitar she began making preparations to mark the occasion. She called the local television station, got out a special white table covering, and had some of the students prepared to do performances to thank the group from the school. Pictured above is Mr. Mahachi with his new guitar. He is a blind teacher at the school. The guitar was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Kerry Bidder, Canadian teachers at the International School in Lusaka. The funds to purchase the guitar were raised by students in Mr. Ken Buescher's Fourth Grade Class in Danbury, Connecticut, USA, nearly half a world away.

Mr. Buescher's students learned about Prince Takamado School while reading the October 22 entry in this blog. After Mr. Buescher read the entry, which tells about a blind music teacher at a school of over 2000 students that doesn't have any musical instruments except a few drums, one of Mr. Buescher's students said, "Let's buy a guitar for that teacher." It was decided that for the gift of the guitar to have the most meaning the students would have to work to earn the money rather than asking their parents or others for donations. They did jobs like raking leaves, babysitting, and helping with chores around their houses. In less than a week they had raised over $200, enough to purchase the guitar. Using email and Skype teleconferencing Kate Bidder told me of a plan she had to get the guitar. Kate is a Grade 1 teacher, who is also doing a BoPH PenPal project with Cheryl Arnett's Class in Colorado in the USA. Kate and I met when she helped organize music workshops that I did when I visited their school in October. Kate and her husband Kerry run a summer music camp in Zambia and are strong supporters of music, building bridges and community service projects. They were the perfect connection for this project.

The photos below show some of the students from AISL teaching sign language to the song Love Grows to the students at Prince Takamado School. When the AISL delegation started to sing "We Are Walking a Bridge of Peace," all the the students from PT School joined in with them immediately. Kate said both groups were thrilled to see that they knew the same song and that the music had definitely built a bridge. Unfortunately the program was cut short when the heavens opened up and heavy rainfall came down. We hope that the presentation of the guitar is just one phase of an ongoing partnership between Prince Takamado School, American International School of Lusaka, and other Bridges of Peace and Hope Classrooms in the US. Several packages of Pen Pal letters were delivered to the school in October and we are awaiting return letters now. Thanks to the Bidder Family, Mr. Buescher's Class, Richard Lungu, Madame Mwanza, Mr. Mahachi and all who helped make this possible.

The boys below from Prince Takamado School are intently watching and following along as they learn to sing in sign language. Maybe one of these boys will one day learn to play guitar on the new guitar Mr. Mahachi now has.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Good News, Bad News, and No News: The Bridges Pen Pal Project

Katie and several of her PCV friends relaxing the morning after the concert
These two little ones made me feel very welcome in their home

In America, we drive on the right;
In the UK, they drive on the left;
In Africa, they drive on both sides

Katie and "Little Zara, the Charmer"

I've been home from Africa now for just over two weeks. The entire trip was a sensory tickling experience that will take me months and even years to process. Twelve scheduled flights; one canceled flight; one missed flight; nerve wracking, sardine style bus rides; many miles on the backs of motorcycles; death defying taxi rides in Senegal; a spectacular bicycle ride in Cameroon; four incredible days with our daughter Katie; and approximately 30,000 miles later I arrived home the proverbial "day late and a dollar short (because of airline fees)," but I'm very happy to be home with Ann Marie again. I traveled far enough to go completely around the earth. (Note: The Space Shuttle orbits the earth once every 91 minutes.)

I have delayed making this entry about the Pen Pal Project because I was hoping to be able to tell everyone who sent letters with me definitive news about who their new pen pals are and when they would be hearing from them. I'm pleased that for the vast majority of teachers the news is very exciting. I have had several emails from Africa this week about the project. For some of you though the news will be disappointing. Here goes...

The good news is that most the letters that were sent with me were distributed to teachers from at least twelve different countries in Africa. We now have new "Bridges" teachers and classrooms in the following countries;

Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Kenya, The Gambia, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nigeria, Qatar, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Further good news is that many of these teachers have been in contact with their partners here in the USA and Canada, and some have already sent return letters. More good news is that this group of international teachers includes wonderful educators, many of whom are involved in community service projects within the countries where they live and teach. These "Bridges" to vulnerable, at risk students and schools will offer us many learning experiences and opportunities to make a positive difference in these places. Please be patient. These connections take time to develop.

The bad news is that some of the packages of letters that I took with me ended up either disappearing or being taken by teachers who did not remember to come to me to register their contact information as I had asked. I conducted twelve assembly programs and workshop sessions in Africa and at the conclusion of some of the sessions the transitions were awkward and hurried. I asked all teachers who took letters to please come to me with their names, schools, locations, grade levels, and contact information. Most did, some did not.
I took letters from more than 50 classrooms with me when I left for Africa. I am uncertain what happened to letters from 7 teachers in the USA. I'm very disappointed that this happened and I apologize for not having a better system in place to manage this. Because I travel alone and have many details to attend to I underestimated the potential confusion in keeping track of the letters. Thanks to Mary Jain and Darlene's generosity I went with a well thought out system of cataloguing the packages I had with me. The difficulty came at the end of sessions when as many as 7 to 10 teachers wanted to talk with me at the same time and time was constrained.

I've learned that managing pen pal projects is not easy and the ventures are uncertain at best. In spite of this I continue to believe it is a magnificent opportunity to connect with peers and friends we would never know otherwise. In this time of "tweeting" "social networking," "instant this," and "virtual that," there is something very comforting about taking pen and paper and engaging in an act of faith and hope that may or may not yield the results we wish for. I "hope" those of you who are disappointed will forgive me. I hope those of you whose penpal seeds bring back fruit will keep in touch with Mary Jain and myself so we can share some of your stories with others.
We will be sending individual emails in the next week to everyone that sent letters. Included in the email will be the status of the letters you sent, including contact information. Wishes for a peaceful and healthy Thanksgiving to all! (Thursday, November 26 in the USA)

Katie Farrell with some of her Cameroonian friends and neighbors

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cameroon and Katie

Here in Garoua some children go
to school by motorcycle.It's not unusual
to see 3, 4, or in this case five people
on a "moto."

Finally made it to Cameroon and the reunion with Katie. We had an unexpected meeting when the vehicle I was traveling in drove right by Katie as we entered the driveway for the hotel. I called to the driver "Pull over, that's Katie!" I jumped out of the car, ran to her and we hugged each other intensely as tears spilled down my cheeks. A long anticipated moment had arrived and it was wonderful. Katie was traveling with her good friend and Peace Corps comrade Joanna. After checking into the hotel they took me around Garoua, the town where I was scheduled to do a performance that afternoon sponsored by the U.S. Embassy. Garoua is the capital of the North province of Cameroon. Katie's post is in Koza in the Extreme North, 6-10 hrs away, depending on a number of factors such as road condtions and volume sensitive bus schedules.
It was fun to see and here Katie conducting business in what sounded like very
comfortable French. She and Joanna really know their way around Cameroon.

Garouas streets were packed with people in motion. It seemed that motorcycles outnumbered cars by about 10 to 1. The "motos," as they are called, are combination taxi cabs, moving vans, school busses and rolling smokestacks. There are no emission standards in Cameroon but the "standard" emissions from the motos is plenty of smoke and fumes. You can see just about anything on the back of a moto. I saw people with goats, beds, tables, chickens, suitcases, guitars (that was me) sacks of grain, bicycles,lumber and much more. It's really amazing! In addition to a lack emission standards, there are no traffic rules, no stop signs or traffic lights. In America we drive on the right. In Ireland they drive on the left. In Cameroon they drive on both sides of the road. You have to see it to believe it. It's incredible that there aren't more accidents but the drivers have a surprisingly civil way to work all these negotiations out very peacefully. Roundabouts are common in the big towns and cities and the weaving in and out must look like an ant colony at that just ate discarded chocolate and absorbed an infusion of caffeine. I actually saw a cab driver pull a U turn in a busy roundabout. No one seemed to care.

To get from Garoua to Koza took us all day. Two bus rides packed like sardines in a 100 degree can, a 15 K bicycle ride, thoughfully arranged by Katie, and a 5K moto ride down the mountain in the dark and we were there. We were both asleep nder the mosquito nets by 9 pm that night.

Katie is doing well, living a very simple life in a mountain valley in the Extreme North. Northern Cameroon is semi-desert, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees and the earth is dry as a bone. Seasonal rivers dry up completely. Rainy season ended recently so things were not parched but even so they were very dry. Katie's house does not have running water or a bathroom. Water has to be hauled from the well and the only toilet is a latrine out back. Electricity is available but unreliable. No TV, no microwave, no shower (but bucket showers). It is a very basic lifestyle but she is handling it with commitment, grace and I think a sense of adventure.

I'll include some photos on a future posting.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A “Forever Day” in the Dakar Markets

A very busy workshop. The artists gave me
some samples of their carvings in the
event that BoPH might be interested in
importing some pieces to sell for
fundraising that would support them too.

The sculptor Babe holds up a wild boar
made of light and dark ebony. Almamy said
Ebony is not a racist wood, and laughed.

Right behind this mans display four
members of his family were busy carving,
sanding and polishing. I bought a "thinking
man" statue for about 6000 CFA (see-fa)about
$5 US. Every sale is negotiated

The first two days in Dakar I didn’t stray far from the hotel other than taking two 15 minute taxi rides to the international school to meet and rehearse with a group of high school students. I felt insecure about just wandering around the city. The cab rides themselves were outright adventures, and unlike Zambia, where English is widely spoken, Senegal is a French speaking country. In addition to this, Dakar has a predominantly Muslim population, and times are difficult for the large percentage of very poor people in the city. The cost of goods is high and so is unemployment. Add these factors up and you get a situation where there are throngs of people milling about hustling to make CFA (currency in Senegal) any way that they can. This includes selling goods, providing services, begging, and pick-pocketing tourists.

The only time I ventured beyond the gated hotel grounds, which were beautifully kept and situated right on the beach, I had a couple of men approach me right away trying to sell me something or engage me in conversation. They weren’t speaking English and I have no French, so in spite of my desire to trust everyone, I retreated to inside the gated walls, a bit disappointed in myself, but feeling I needed to because I didn’t know how to handle these approaches. Another thing that had me a little off balance was that someone was broadcasting what I assume were religious chants over a loudspeaker at all hours of the day and night, including one each morning well before sunrise. These were quite loud on my side of the hotel and the first few nights it made me feel uneasy because they were so unfamiliar sounding and loud. I didn’t understand the messages but the word “Allah” was the most frequent word I recognized. Ironically, by the end of my stay I enjoyed hearing the melodic chants, even at 5 a.m., which is when I was waking up anyway. It became familiar and comforting.

By the middle of the second day I was feeling rested and restless, so I asked Mary Casey, the teacher I was working with, if she knew of someone who spoke English, that might give me a tour of the city. She consulted Brad Philen, another teacher, a few phone calls were made and Brad had arranged for his good friend Almamy, a Senegalese Muslim man to show me around. When Almamy arrived the next morning and we set out on foot I realized he didn’t have a car. The learning adventure began when Almamy negotiated our first cab ride in a beat up old cab with the exhaust belching smoke, the fenders dented and barely attached to the frame, and a driver who went as fast as he could at all times. There are no traffic rules observed in Dakar. All turns are permitted and it is survival of the fittest, or most reckless. It felt like what I imagine demolition derby might be, except the objective here seemed to be to come as close to crashing as possible without actually crashing. I leaned back, recited a few prayers, and knew I wasn’t in control. Are we ever really in control?

Almamy took me to the Artisan’s market, the Fabric market, and the Senaga Market, the oldest market in the city. I saw sights and had experiences I will not forget. I decided to use the term “A Forever Day,” because I will remember the day forever. We spent about one hour in a workshop where dozens of barefoot men sat on the dirt floor surrounded by piles of Mahogany and Ebony shavings. There was the constant syncopated, staccato beat of hammers striking chisels and the slicing sound of blades shaving wood and saws being drawn back and forth. There were no power tools in use. In fact there was no electricity at all in the shop. The only light was the sunlight coming through the patchwork canvas roof. Accompanying the woodworking was a flow on conversation and laughter. A friend who visited the shop with another guide described it as a “sweatshop” and said he had to leave because it bothered him. I didn’t see it that way at all and was fascinated by what I saw. I stayed about an hour, bought several pieces, had tea with some of the artists and interviewed a couple of them with my video camera. The photos above also tell some of the story. I’ll close hear because the battery meter says it’s time. I’ve been writing from the Paris Airport during a 6 hour layover en route to Cameroon where I will meet up with Katie for the first time in 406 days. To say I’m excited is a gross understatement. I can’t wait. When the plane touches down in Garoua tomorrow it will be my 9th flight in two weeks. Good thing I like flying and airports.