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.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dakar, Senegal

This is my guide and new friend Almamy
after negotiating with the taxi driver.
In Dakar most transactions are negotiable.

The Artist and Teacher who taught me about beads
and the slave trade that went through Dakar

I arrived in Dakar after midnight on Thursday, Oct 22 after spending eight nights in Zambia. I left Lusaka around mid-day and flew two hours south to Johannesburg, South Africa, before returning 8 plus hours northwest to Senegal. Getting from place to place in Africa seldom involves straight lines, and often requires changing directions. By the time I found my luggage and got a shuttle to the hotel and checked in it was 5 a.m. in Zambia, but only 3 a.m. in Senegal which is two time zones west of Lusaka. It is what it is.

Senegal is a predominantly Muslim, French speaking country on the extreme western edge of West Africa. In addition to French, many local languages are spoken here. Because it is located on the Atlantic Ocean Dakar is an important port, and was a major site for the shipping of slaves to America. Millions of African men, women and children passed through Dakar in bondage en route to the West Indies and America. While visiting the markets here I purchased some beads. The artist who made the beads explained to me the significance of the colors and designs of the beads. Some of the beads are replicas of beads that were traded for slaves. It is a disturbing and eerie feeling to be standing in the marketplace where such crimes against humanity occurred. I have visited Hiroshima, Japan, Achil Island, (Famine Monument) Ireland, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania. Each time I visit a site that commemorates such loss of life and sadness I’m reminded how vitally important it is that we teach and study history.

Dakar is a busy city, vibrant with life, teeming in colors, sounds and rhythms. The Senagalese are world renowned for their drumming, music, art, and fabrics. This is my first visit to a country where people of the Muslims faith are in the majority. A Senegalese teacher and new friend here told me Senegal is 85% Muslim. So much of what I have seen, heard, and experienced here flies in the face of how Islam is portrayed in America. I’ve had it explained to me here by Muslims that messages conveyed by the extreme fundamentalists only represent a very small percentage of Muslims and that Islam is a peaceful religion. I knew that before I came here but to see and hear it in person made a strong impression on me.

In future postings I’ll report on a remarkable day I spent visiting the markets with my Muslim guide and new friend Almamy, and also tell you about all the new people and classrooms joining Bridges of Peace and Hope.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Which New Guitar? And What it Might Me, to Them, to Us

This is a long entry. My visit to Bauleni Compound made a strong impression on me. If you have ten minutes please read the report, look at the photos and let me know what you think. Thanks!

Above on the right is Richard Lungu with our driver
and a friend. Richard, a gardener at AISL lives in
Bauleni and madethe arrangements for me to visit the schools.

The gentleman in this photo is Mr. Janack Mahachi,
a talented musician and teacher. He told me his dream
is "one day before I die" to meet Stevie Wonder. I
hope he does.

This smiling group is our newest Bridges
of Peace and Hope Pen Pals. Madame Mwanza
is on the right. They are displaying letters
from one of Helen Mahoney's classes from
Lakeville, Connecticut.

Everywhere I went I was made to feel welcome.
This group at Calabash School for very young
ones performed poems and songs for me. We also
sang and laughed together.

I took this photo just outside
Richard's doorway. Many girls
take on adult responsibilities at
a very young age.

This is a scene alongside the main paved
road through Bauleni. Soon after this spot
the pavement disappeared.

What's right with this picture? We often ask, "What's wrong with
this picture?" In this case it's slightly out of focus, but what's
right is that these kids are so joyful, actually jumping for joy
just because I smiled and pointed the camera at them. What can we
learn from that?

My first day in Zambia I struck up a conversation with Richard Lungu, a gardener and maintenance worker at the American International School in Lusaka (AISL). He was watering some plants and trees as we talked. Like so many Zambians I met Richard has a gentle, humble, manner and a contagious smile. He and his wife have three small children who attend schools in the compound. I asked him if he could arrange a visit for me to their schools to sing. He said, "That would be great John. I will try." I composed a letter introducing myself and Richard brought it to the head teachers at both schools. It took a couple of days to communicate back and forth but the arrangements were made. It was set for Tuesday morning.

After the conference ended Monday night most of the other presenters were going on safari or sightseeing at Victoria Falls which is only an hour plane ride away. I wanted to see the falls but I aslo wanted to meet some children and try to make new connections for BoPH so I made the decision to stay in Lusaka. I was delighted and grateful that Richard was able to make these arrangements. International schools are wonderful to visit and work with but I also want to learn about how the local people live and see firsthand what their schools are like too, even if it's a one day glimpse. Vic Falls is one of the Natural Wonders of the world and I hope to see it someday but children are the #1 Natural wonder of the world and our greatest source of hope.

The administration and staff at AISL support some other local schools and have a strong commitment to community service and global citizenship. Thanks to Kate Bidder, a grade one teacher and new BoPH partner, and Chris Muller, the director of the school, arrangements were made for AISL to help me get to and from the Bauleni compound. Richard doesn’t have a car so AISL generously provided a van and driver, and they loaned me their sound system. They also allowed Richard to come with me even though it was a work day for him. I was excited as I waited in the hotel lobby Tuesday morning for the van to pick me up.

As I stood there watching for the van to arrive, Stan Davis, a presenter, magician, and guitar player from Maine came up to me and excitedly said, “I’ve got to show you this, check it out!” He unzipped a rectangular case and brought out a travel guitar the likes of which I had not seen. It was an impressive instrument, inexpensive, considerably smaller than mine, and it played and sounded great considering the very small size. I made a mental note to look into getting one because it would make my travels easier. I already have a travel guitar and three others (six counting Ann Marie and Patrick’s guitars), but this one really seemed terrific and I knew I would use it frequently and appreciate it. I inject this aside about the guitar here because it has relevance later in this report. When Richard and the van arrived I thanked Stan Davis for showing me the guitar and we parted.

Before entering the main Bauleni compound road Richard warns me saying “You know it is filthy in here.” He was right. There isn’t any trash removal in the compound, which is home to hundreds of thousands of people, so the sides of the road are strewn with plastic and paper bags blowing in the wind and twisting in tree branches. Other useless waste forms miniature mountain ranges of garbage throughout the landscape. In some places there is the pungent acrid smell of people burning piles of garbage in the open air. No grass anywhere, just dirt and stones. Along the road there are people everywhere. Little makeshift selling stalls appear ready to collapse if a strong wind comes up. Hundreds of men, women and children are scattered randomly around a sad looking market. I don't see any elderly people but with an average life span of 38 years old in Zambia it is not surprising. It’s 10 am yet there are scores of school age children playing in the ditches along the road, many of them barefoot. I wonder why they aren’t in school but don’t ask.

As we continue slowly along the paved road en route to the school the road suddenly ends and is replaced by a dirt and stone surface with major pot holes in it and occasional large islands of broken pavement rising 12 to 16 inches above the dirt. Richard tells me there used to be a good road here too but it was poorly constructed and it washed out one year in the rainy season leaving this ragged, jagged dirt and blacktop jig saw puzzle. There are no plans to replace or fix the road.

For a few minutes we bounce along the surface of this 3D jig saw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. Then Richard points out the school ahead on the right. We veer off the supposed road and cross a rock littered field leading to a walled in, gated school grounds with a tired looking water tower in the center. The school was built by the Japanese government and is named Prince Takahado School. I didn’t learn why the Japanese built it but it is good that they did. I am welcomed by the head teacher in her small, poorly lit office which is approximately 8 feet wide by 10 feet long. No computer. Just a desk, some book cases, a small refrigerator, a few hard chairs and two electrical outlets. I don’t recall a filing cabinet. The school has over 2400 students.

Madame Priscilla Lydia C. Mwanza is the acting head of the school. She is a lovely, charming, articulate lady who is proud of her school and teachers. She introduces me to several of the teachers. The first man I meet is Janack Mahachi who is introduced as "a teacher and a man who sings with the children sometimes." He is wearing sun glasses and I realize upon shaking hands with him that he is blind. Another man walks beside him and guides him. Following a short discussion it is determined which grade levels will attend the assembly and word goes out to the classrooms which are in concrete rows surrounding a dirt courtyard. Soon students are flocking out of the rooms, many of them running, and noisy with excitement and wonder about who I am and what I am going to do. The first thing Mr. Mahachi asked me when we met was,“Did you bring a keyboard?” When I told him no and said guitar he smiled and said, “Guitar is nice too.”

It took a while to get the PA set up, and while that was being done I was told that Richard’s daughter Olivia wasn’t there because she only comes to school in the afternoon. That news explains why all the kids were hanging out playing. Because of the number of school age children and the shortage of classroom space, children only go to school half days. The average class size is 75 students. When those 75 go home at noon 75 more students come in for the afternoon session. I said I would like it if Richard would go get 5th grader Olivia. He said he could be back in ten minutes. The students were all just standing on the dirt courtyard crowding together, getting restless, and pushing towards where the microphone had been set up. Many of the teachers had short lengths of rubber hose or tree branch switches to assure that students stayed in back of a line they created in the dirt. Some students were given sticks to assist in this too. The sticks were mostly used for threatening but I did see a few legs get whacked.

To occupy the audience while we waited for Richard to return I was told that Mr. Mahachi would sing with the children. I was asked if he could use my guitar and I said sure and placed it over his head. The strap hung incorrectly in front of his shoulder, the guitar like a medal around his neck. Nonetheless, he gracefully caressed it and started to play. At first it seemed awkward to him and he wasn’t finding the frets he wanted. The guitar is a three quarter size so it feels strange to someone used to playing a full size guitar but once you see where the frets are you get used to it. Of course, Mr. Mahachi couldn’t “see” where the frets were but within a minute or so he was getting comfortable and finger picking very nicely. I later learned that it wasn't just the size that made it feel unfamiliar. The students and teachers sang along as he sang in a local language. I think it's called Bembe, I'm not sure. The singing was great!

When Richard returned with Olivia I sang with the group for about 30-40 minutes. We had fun singing, doing sign language, and laughing together. Then students returned to their classrooms but one class stayed around. I decided to try to get some video of us singing “We Are Walking” together. I started to play and sing with them and suddenly dozens of kids started running out of their classrooms back into the courtyard. I stopped and we decided it would be better to unplug the PA and go into a classroom.

While talking with Madame Priscilla after the assembly she mentioned that Mr. Mahachi loves to play music but the guitar seemed strange to him because he hadn't played in a very long time. He doesn’t have a guitar to play. He had one at one time but had to sell it. Not only does this fine musician, Mr. Mahachi not have a guitar or keyboard, the entire school doesn’t have any musical instruments either, with the exception of some traditional drums. I was stunned to hear this. She said that the budget was very tight this year but that she hoped that next year they would be able to purchase a keyboard. She said the same exact thing about a computer and the internet. I told Madame Mwanza that Bridges of Peace and Hope would buy the school a keyboard and one or more guitars.

My first impulse was to give Mr. Mahachi my guitar but I need to use it in Senegal and Cameroon. My next impulse was to give them the money or to try to find a music store and make some purchases. But as I thought more about it I decided that this may be a great first group service project for some BoPH classrooms back in the USA.

I brought several packages of pen pal letters with me to Prince Takahado School. Some of our teachers and classes are going to become “Connecting Classroom Partners” with their school anyway so this may be a golden opportunity for us to make a difference as we learn about each others cultures and worlds. Madame Mwanza called part of a class down to give them penpal letters while I was still there. The letters included pictures from the students who had written them. They also included some small gifts like bookmarks etc. The excitement amongst The Prince Takahado students reminded me of a birthday party or Christmas morning. They were showing each other the pictures of their penpals and the contents of the envelopes. This particular package of letters came from one of Mrs. Helen Mahoney's classes in Lakeville, CT.

Madame Mwanza told me that Prince Takahado School is having a celebration in December to mark ten years in existence. She has asked that some of the BoPH partner teachers send letters (from the teachers) helping to celebrate the occasion. I would like to propose that we consider sending more than letters. Let’s find a way to purchase a keyboard and some guitars so that Mr. Mahachi and the students can make more music.

After leaving Prince Takahado School we went to Calabash School for children younger than grade one. This was also incredible which is whole other story that I don't have the time or energy to tell now, and you probably need to do other things besides read this but thank you for reading this far.

As this most extraordinary day wound down I was struck by the marvelous irony of it all. I started the day excited about the prospect of purchasing a new guitar, my fourth, and concluded reflecting about how we might bring their "first" guitar to a school of over 1400. I have much to be grateful for, now including new friends at Prince Takahado School, and my relationship with each of you reading this. Thanks!

Note: While I was interviewing Madame Mwanza the room suddenly went dark. She explained that the electricity often goes off and that it would probably be off for three or four hours. A teacher told me that the electric company (probably the Zambian government) shuts down the grid because they sell the electricity to another country. I was fortunate they didn’t turn it off as the assembly started.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Time Warp, Pen Pals Update and Preview

I've been in Zambia now for a week and it seems like a month, but it also feels like the blink of an eye. How can that be? Time warp is my answer and I'm sticking to it.

I spent two days at the American International School of Lusaka rehearsing with 14 students ranging from 5 yrs old to 13. They performed two songs with me at the opening session of the AISA (Association of International Schools of Africa) conference on Friday. The children were brilliant and the presentation was well received by the 300 plus delegates at the conference. The 85 year old founding President of Zambia, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda was scheduled to do the greeting before my keynote but his wife was rushed to the hospital that day and he couldn't make it. I was sorry to learn of her illness and disappointed he wouldn't be there. He plays guitar and sings and I was hoping to get him to sing with me. In essence he is the George Washington of Zambia which has only been a country since 1964. It used to be called Northern Rhodesia. Although Kaunda was not there I did get to sing with a marvelous acapella group, in some ways similar to Thula Sizwe. They joined me on stage to sing "Where We Live," the organizing piece to our new project of the same name. You can see and read about the Zambian Vocal Collection at the web site They have a strong Christian faith and message, and like many people whose lives include suffering, want, and uncertainty, they have found great solace and hope in the church. If you read their personal messages they are really inspirational.
Following Fridays opening session I spent three days conducting workshops, meeting teachers, refining my presentations, and trying to adjust my sleeping to the time difference. It's only six hours but I suspect changing hemispheres also comes into play because it took several days to get remotely close to sleeping as I do at home. The interest in BoPH here at the conference is very promising. Teachers from places I had never heard of attended my sessions and are now excited about our project. Two of the new places are Lubumbashi, which is in the DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Dar es Salaam, which is in Tanzania. Look them up on a map or globe if you have time.
Many of the pen pal letters that were entrusted to me have been delivered to teachers from across southern Africa. Others will travel on with me to Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa. I was able to get names, locations and emails to match most of the packages but in the logisitics of changing sessions and people moving in and out of rooms a few envelopes went missing. I don't think they are lost. I believe some teachers didn't hear my request to come up and provide me with their information before taking the letters.
Following some sessions there were 4 or 5 teachers waiting to talk with me as I packed up my guitar, computer etc., while others were looking through the envelopes spread out on a table. Since I am alone I couldn't be in two places at once and some envelopes went unaccounted for. They will be our "mystery" penpals. If you don't hear from me or Mary Jain in a couple of weeks you will know that you are in that small group. I was most disappointed to discover this and ask your understanding and forgiveness if you do not hear from a school.
The smiling young lady in the picture on the right is Anna Tembo. Anna teaches at Banani International School here in Lusaka, Zambia. She is originally from Zimbabwe, a neighboring country, and like many others she chose to leave the country which has suffered from war, violence, and a repressive and at times brutal leader Robert Mugabe. It was moving to see Anna's emotions as she thought about that past. We were doing a storytelling / interviewing activity and she was unable to talk about it. She's a lovely lady and seems like a great teacher committed to helping others and making a better future for our children. This posting brings me up to Sunday but I'll close here before going on too long, if I haven't already. The events of Tuesday require many words to talk about. I spent the day visiting two schools in a compound which is the type of community in which the vast majority of poor Zambians live. I feel like a wrung out dish rag at the end of the day but a grateful, enriched, and hopeful dishrag at that.

On the left are some of the students I sang with on Tuesday at the Prince Takamado School in Bauleni Compound in Lusaka, Zambia. The school has over 2400 pupils and the average class size is 75, and students only go half days then another 75 come in for the afternoon session. They loved to laugh, smile and sing but it really isn't surprising that the teachers rely on small sections of rubber hose or a "switch" or tree branch to enforce keeping students in line. Can you imagine teaching all subjects to 150 students a day. I think the switches were used mostly as a threat but the students respected the threat in a way that made it clear that it also gets used.

More in the next installment. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Coincidence? Maybe

While sitting in the office of the American International School of Lusaka Headmaster Chris Muller today I noticed a newspaper on a table. Chris had left the room for a few minutes and my curiosity led me to pick up the newspaper. It was called NewsLinks and is published by an organization called ISS, International School Services. Half way down the right hand column was a story about a great sounding project involving students organizing a school flea market to sell unwanted toys and games. The proceeds from the flea market were used to purchase materials to build a much needed piece of playground equipment for a home for needy children in Romania. The project involved many interdisciplinary skills as students had to organize the event, advertise it, and then manage the sales etc., This is a very brief summary of a wonderful project. The article was written by Kevin Fayarchuk, the third grade teacher at the American International School of Budapest. It was Kevin's class that had participated.
The story made me feel epsecially good because I know Kevin. I met and had dinner with him, his wife, and other educators last March when I was in Budapest. At that time he expressed a great interest in becoming involved in Bridges of Peace and Hope which thrilled me because Joe Giulietti, a teacher at AISB, who had been very active with Bridges projects was moving to the Netherlands. It was great to read about the good work Kevin is doing. I hoped that he would become active in BoPH and share his good ideas and talents with us.
When I opened my email this afternoon there was a message from Kevin Fayarchuk. He said he had been busy but was still really interested in BoPH and would be in touch with me again soon because he wants his class to participate in our Heroes Project. A coincidence? Maybe, but the timing was sublime.
If you'd like to know more about this Flea Market project send me an email. I'll ask Kevin if it's okay for me to give you his email address. Mine is The young lady in the photo above was sitting next to me today during the Zambia / UN World Unity Day assembly. More on that next time.

Celebrating and Considering Gratitude

The dancers and drummers you see below are from the St. John's Volunteer Ambulance group. They came to the American International School of Lusaka to help celebrate Zambian Independence Day which is October 24. School is not in session that day so they celebrated early. The students and staff at AISL gave these boys and girls a rousing reception which they richly deserved. They were very energetic, athletic, and amusing too. I was invited to sing a song at the assembly and led the audience of about 400 in Love Grows.
The country of Zambia came into existence in 1964 gaining their independence from Britain. Zambia is named after the Zambezi River, a major river in southern Africa. Prior to 1964 the area was called Northern Rhodesia. The standard of living is very low in Zambia with widespread poverty, disease and unemployment but the people have hope and many are proud of their young nation. 99% of the population in Zambia are black Africans but prior to 1964 the country was ruled by a white government. Think about this --the USA celebrated 45 years in existence in the year 1821.

There are so many things I take for granted living in America. Being here in Africa reminds me I shouldn't. Quality health care in Zambia is nearly non-existent. A friend here told me a story that illustrates that point. The mother of a man who worked with him became very ill and had to be taken to the doctors. It was determined that the elderly woman had had a heart attack. The doctor gave her two aspirin and sent her home. My friend was outraged and went to the doctors office to demand an explanation and the doctor took him into his supply room which had empty shelves and only simple bandages and aspirin. The reality in this situation was that he couldn't do any more for her. If you have a dangerous medical problem in Zambia you have to leave the country to receive care. When my friend broke his leg, a serious but fairly routine injury, he was flown to South Africa to be treated.

A shocking fact is that the average life span in Zambia is 38 years old.

While riding on a bus with the groups pictured above and below I told their coordinator that our son Patrick was a firefighter. He smiled broadly and said, "That is wonderful!" I agreed and we began to talk about fire fighting equipment. He said that Lusaka, a city of between two and three million people, had two fire engines. I don't know if he was precisely accurate but he may have been, and the point was well taken. Hillsdale, our town of about 1000 people has 3 or 4 fire trucks. Given how much we have and how little they have I thought it was particularly great how excited the St John's Ambulance coordinator became when I told him about Patrick. We surely do owe a great deal of thanks to all our volunteers.

October 24 also marks the day the United Nations came into existence in 1945.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Sunrise, Sunset and Why Math is Important

This is the view from the Terminal 2 at the airport in Paris. Because I had a six hour layover between flights this was my second sunset of the trip. The flight from Paris to Johannesburg, South Africa was about ten hours and it was all in the dark which made it easier to rest. I've learned some tricks that help me when flying. I always get an aisle seat, I drink lots of water, I don't eat chocolate, or drink coffee or caffeinated drinks. I also get up and walk and stretch every couple of hours. It works for me.

Upon arrival at my final destination in Lusaka I was intrigued by the sign in the photo. It reads "Let's connect...Africa to the World.....and the world to Africa." This seemed serendipitously appropriate considering the "Classroom Connections" letters that awaited me at the baggage collection belt.

Just after passing through customs I was greeted by a Zambian driver holding up a sign with my name on it. I was relieved that he was there and also relieved to find a luggage cart handy. In most of the larger international airports I visit these carts are free. In New York airports you have to pay which must be frustrating for tired travelers who don't have US dollars yet or who can't afford the $3 or whatever it is. On my back is my guitar with my jacket draped over it. It was 27 degrees celsius outdoors and somewhat hotter on the concrete walkway. (To calculate fahrenheit multiply 27 x 9/5 and add 32....answer at the bottom of blog post)

After checking in at the hotel I set out for the supermarket, a short walk away. When I got there I was told they did not accept US dollars, contradicting something I had read in a magazine article about tourists in Zambia. I was told I had to get "Kwacha," the local currency. I had never heard of Kwacha but I do know from past experiences that this is part of traveling and something you can figure out. It now strikes me as funny that Kwacha is such a close rhyme for "Gotcha." Other countries money is usually colorful and often comes in various sizes. The exchange rate is something you have to learn how to convert to understand what you are paying for things. It's usually not too difficult. For example, right now 1 Euro is worth about $1.65 -- not too hard to understand. 10 Euro equals $16.50 US.
When I tried to exchange $20 US I was told I had to change at least $50. I had no choice and would be here for a week and certainly will need more than $50 for food etc. To my surprise my $50 US got me 230,000 Kwacha. I was rich!! Or was I? It took me several minutes of walking and talking to myself to figure out what $1 US was worth but I needed to do it before I started buying food. Sometimes certain foods that are relatively inexpensive in the US cost much more elsewhere. Can you figure out how many kwacha one dollar is worth? I'll give the answer at the bottom of the last paragraph.
If you look at the bills in the picture you'll see the one on top with the eagle on it is worth 20,000 Kwacha, and the bottom one is a 50,000 Kwacha note. To put it in some perspective I bought a medium size box of Cheerios for K 28,450 which seemed high to me. I paid K 1,550 for a half liter bottle of spring water and that seemed like a good price, if my conversions were close. I was estimating that $1 was worth between K 4,000 to 5,000. By the way I guess you figured out that the "K" before the amount means Kwacha. Another way of assessing value is to compare costs of things. I could have purchased approximately 18 bottles of water for the cost of the cheerios. I think this sort of math is fun. Not everyone agrees on this but it is important to know how to estimate, add, subtract, multiply and divide because there are times when there aren't any calculators present. My final bill was K 120,625. Our first house cost many fewer dollars than that. Oh yeah, the 100g Cadbury milk chocolate bar I picked up and put back, and then picked up again at the last second cost K 7,650 --- and the first three rows were delicious! Time to go.

The answers to the questions above are
27 Celsius = 91 Fahrenheit
$1 US equals K 4,600.
Anyway that's todays math lesson from Lusaka, Zambia. You probably should check my answers. I might be guessing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My bags are packed and I'm ready to go

I borrowed this entries title from John Denver's song Leaving on a Jet Plane.

I’m sitting at one of JFK Airports many food courts waiting to check two pieces of luggage. Both of my bags contain hundreds of letters. One of the letters may have been written by one of you. When I extended the invitation to try to make pen pal connections I didn’t realize the response would be as strong as it has been. I’m delighted to have over 1000 letters with me but the added bulk and weight presents some interesting challenges in terms of luggage. Since I’ll be away from home for over three weeks I had to pack several changes of clothes and extra shoes. I’m also bringing about 100 Cd’s with Bridges of Peace and Hope songs on them, a computer, guitar, camera, books and assorted other items that at the time of packing seemed important enough to make it into my bags.

At the end of the trip I will be visiting our daughter Katie who is living in Cameroon and serving in the Peace Corps. Katie is working on her Masters Degree in International Public Health. We haven’t seen her in over a year now so I am really excited about getting to visit her and see where she lives and works. When I asked Katie what I could bring for her, her requests were amazingly modest for a 24 year young lady. She asked for a few batteries, some deodorant, a roll of Velcro and the MCAT study guide. The Velcro was for the hospital where she works. I wasn’t sure what MCAT’s were but I’ve since learned they are the entrance exams to get into medical school. I was happy to get the study kit for Katie. The weight of the kit gives me great confidence that the young people entering medical school are determined and hard workers. In short those books are heavy but I’m thrilled to be delivering them to Katie.

My stops in Zambia and Dakar will lighten my load some as I distribute letters and CD’s to teachers interested in helping us build new bridges of peace and hope. If you would like to read about Katie’s Peace Corps experiences you can go to

I love to travel which is fortunate because I get to do it quite often. On my last international trip in May I had two of my bags stolen in a train station in Europe. This was a shock and disappointment but also a learning experience. It’s hard when traveling by myself to always be diligent about my bags. I have a heavy backpack with my computer and books in it, my guitar on my back and two other bags, a rolling duffel and large duffel. Wherever I go in airports, on trains or busses, my hands are always full. Since I don’t have anyone else to watch the bags I have to bring them with me through crowds, in lines, into the rest rooms etc. I enjoy the challenge of working with other travelers and it gives me many opportunities to practice both patience and impatience. I can be good (and bad) at both at times.

Organizing the penpal letters wouldn’t have been possible without the help of two dear friends, Mary Jain and Darlene. These kind ladies are retired school teachers so you know they have a wealth of patience, a love of kids, and a commitment to learning. The photo above shows MJ and Darlene at our house cataloging all the letters and making an index of all the teachers and schools who submitted them. Send Mary Jain a thank you if you have time. Bridges of Peace and Hope is a strictly volunteer, non-profit endeavor and no one gives as much as these ladies do. They have my eternal gratitude and respect.

I have a six hour layover in Paris tomorrow morning but I expect my next blog entry will be from Lusaka Zambia on Tuesday or Wednesday. Thanks Ann Marie for the lift to the airport and all you do.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Letter Carrier Gets Ready to Go

At times I have thought that I would enjoy working as a letter carrier for the post office. You get to be outdoors alot, you get lots of exercise walking, and you get to meet lots of people. These are all things I enjoy but I never actually pursued the idea. I'm quite sure I'll never work for the post office but thanks to many of you reading this blog I am getting a chance to be a "letter carrier."

A couple of weeks ago I sent out an email newsletter announcing that I was going to Africa to do presentations about Bridges of Peace and Hope at two educational conferences. Bridges of Peace and Hope is a growing organization of teachers and students working together to promote respect and understanding through writing, music, art, technology and collaborative projects. In my email I offered to bring pen pal letters with me in the hopes of making connections with teachers in Africa.

The response has been wonderful! For the past week Ann Marie and I have been bringing home armfuls of packages from the post office. All these packages contained pen pal letters. The photo above shows Pat, our smiling Post Office Manager, handing over some of today's shipment. Notice that Pat is wearing a Bridges of Peace and Hope tee shirt. As of today I have received more than 1000 letters from approximately 50 classrooms with more to arrive (or be dropped off) tomorrow. All the packages of letters include letters from the teachers too. The teachers letters include words like "thrilled," "excited," "can't wait to hear from you," and "we are eager to learn about you." There is a great deal of excitement building. So far I have received letters from

Newtown, Connecticut.... Edmeston, New York.... Hannibal, New York... Macomb, Michigan.... Carmel, NY... Danbury, Connecticut... Colona, Illinois.... Lanoka Harbor, New Jersy.... Craig, Colorado... Hillsborough, New Jersey..... New Milford, Connecticut... Yorktown Heights, New York... Craryville, New York... Lakeville, Connecticut... Georgetown, New York... Mayville, North Dakota... Edison, New Jersey.... Ridgefield, Connecticut

In the next three weeks I hope to make regular entries in this blog letting you know where I am and perhaps where some of your letters have gone. I leave from JFK in New York on Sunday, October 11 at 11:30 p.m. to fly to Paris, France. From there I fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, and then on to Lusaka, Zambia. From the time I leave home in Hillsdale, NY, on Sunday afternoon it will take approximately 36-40 hours to arrive in Lusaka, Zambia at 11 am local time on Tuesday morning. Look up these places I mentioned on a map or globe. I think you'll realize, as I do, that it is amazing that we can travel so far in such a short period of time. How long do you think that trip would have taken my great grandfather to make? He was born in 1870.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Hope Quilt Disappears aka My Luggage Gets Stolen at a Train Station

When I travel in other countries I like to use public transportation as much as possible. However, if I'm in a new country where English isn't spoken much, and I don't know my way around, it can be difficult. In these situations a friend usually picks me up or my host sends a driver. This simplifies the first stage of "being" in a new place. But when I am somewhat familiar with a city, as I am with Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Brussels, and I have the time to work things out, I kind of like having to fend for myself. The trains, metros, trams, and busses in each of these cities are quite user friendly when the user knows where he/she is going and knows what to do. Therein lies the catch in this story.
On Tuesday I landed at Brussels airport late in the morning and had ample time to get to my hotel and relax a bit. I decided to take the train to Centraal Station and then take the Metro and Tram to the hotel. I boarded the first car of the train and settled into my seat with my two rolling bags, guitar and shoulder bag. As the train headed for the city I became immersed writing in my notebook, working on a new song idea. After a couple of stops I expected to see Centraal Station. When that didn't happen and a few more stops came and went I realized I had missed it. I was enjoying the train ride and viewing some of the Belgian countryside so I decided to ride on a little, get off in one of the villages and take the train back to Centraal station. I went past Waterloo and on to Braine 'L Alleud where I disembarked, walked around some and had lunch. I enjoy the unexpected twists and turns of travel and I was having a rather pleasant time of it.
While walking back to the train station I saw a bus parked out front. The destination sign said "Brussels Midi Station / City Center" which I knew would be near Centraal Station. I could figure it out from there so I boarded the bus to give another means of transport a try. The bags and guitar were more cumbersome on the narrower bus and the ride was less comfortable than the train. The last bus stop turned out to be at Midi Station. I learned that Midi (or Zuid) Station connects to Centraal Station via the Metro. After studying the map a bit I realized I didn't need to go to Centraal Station. I could take the #6 train to the #5 train which would put me close to the hotel. It was now mid afternoon and I was beginning to feel tired. Lugging (maybe that's why they call it luggage) my bags and guitar around was taking it's toll.
Sluggishly, I crossed the street and descended the escalator into the poorly lit train station. I was at a lesser used end of the station and there weren't many people around. I studied the map and then proceeded to the ticket machine to figure out how to buy a ticket. I had to set my rolling bags down to free my hands. I kept touching screens and pushing buttons until I persuaded the machine to give me instructions in English but when I went to insert the requested Euro coins nothing happened. It seemed like the coin slot was jammed but it could've been my misunderstanding the directions. It was frustrating. My patience was waning.

At this point a man walked up and spoke to me in English asking a question. Both these acts were unexpected. Most travelers keep to themselves and I hadn't heard hardly any english spoken that day. I answered him somewhat curtly and turned back to the machine in hopes of getting my ticket. Less than thirty seconds later I reached for my bags and realized they were gone. I hadn't seen or heard anyone else in the few minutes I was there, just the man who spoke to me. I recalled that after I answered him he left quickly. Now I knew why. His partner or partners came behind me when he came from my left. I didn't hear or see anyone else but later recalled that seconds after the man spoke to me I hear the rumbling sound of a train arriving or leaving.

My mind raced and I raced (as much as possible with a guitar on my back and the second rolling bag in hand) around the station. The bags were nowhere. I went up the escalator, over to the bus stop, down the escalator, to the train platforms -- nothing -- the bags and the man were gone.
I did a quick mental inventory, what was in the rolling bag? All of my clothes, except some Bridges of Peace tee shirts, a box of 30 CD's, about 10 books, my notebooks, the novel I was reading, a library book I borrowed from the American School in Barcelona, and my video camera. The green shoulder bag contained my notebooks and assorted other tings, and that was gone too. My heart sank momentarily when I realized that's where my I usually kept my laptop computer. Upon inspection of the remaining bag I remembered I had transfered the laptop to the other rolling bag that morning because it was lighter to carry that way. At least that wasn't gone. The power chord was in the big bag though along with assorted other chords and harmonicas, toothbrush, razor etc.

On the plus side I still had my passport, wallet, cash, digital camera and guitar. I looked for authorities to report the theft to but couldn't find any and really didn't have much to report. I hadn't seen anyone with my bags and I hadn't studied the man who spoke to me at all. I would never be able to identify him and if I did I couldn't prove he was involved. All he had done was ask me a question.

I made my way to the hotel and began to accept that I had just been taught a lesson by some slick, professional thieves. I have to be more diligent in handling my "things." Since it could've been much worse I didn't remain upset. I was more perplexed and curious than angry, and disappointed in myself. After all I bore some of the blame. I should've been more careful, but sometimes things just happen and there was nothing to be gained by staying "down" about it.

It wasn't until hours later while riding in the car with my friend Jill that I realized that there had been one precious and irreplaceable item I overlooked. As I talked with Jill, I began to tell her about the new "Brdiges" website design. As I spoke I said, "On the homepage there will be a map of the world and under the map of the world will be a photo of the......." Before the word quilt came out of my mouth it dawned on me that the Bridges of Peace and Hope Quilt was also in the bag, and now, just like that, it was gone. This made me both sad and angry. So many people from so many places had spent dozens of hours and many months making the quilt. Packages had been mailed back and forth to South Africa, India, Spain, UK, Ukraine, Belgium, Hungary and around the USA. Teachers and artists had drawn, painted and stitched for hours, and Mary Jain and Darlene had worked for weeks to sew it all together, and now, just like that, it was gone.
Jill spent a long time on the phone that evening trying to get help from people at the station. I spent much of the next day retracing my steps and talking to various agents. I went to two lost and founds and three stations and the best I could do was leave Jill's name and contact information and hope it turned up. One helpful security agent held his thumb and index finger about 1/16th of an inch apart to show me what he thought the chances were that it would be returned. Jeffrey Brewster, the Teacher Librarian at the International School of Brussels emailed today to tell me that a friend of his had her bag stolen at the same station and later found the bag for sale at a flea market. Jeffrey went to the flea market this past weekend with a hopeful eye but didn't find the quilt.
I believe that everyone and everything that happens is connected to everything else and that there will be some good that will come of this. Perhaps the quilt will be returned, or maybe one of our friends in Brussels will see someone who needs a quilt using it to keep warm on the street. At the very least the photographic images Ray Flanigan so skillfully captured will endure, and like the used up jacket in the folktale "the Tailor," the story of the quilt will be told for a long time to come.
My sincere apologies to all who contributed to the quilt. I should have been more careful.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Ups and Downs of Traveling

I'm on my last two days in Europe on a "short" eight day visit. I had a great time at the International School of Brussels where I did two days of workshops and an evening concert for families. The students, teachers, parents, and staff were all wonderful to work with and the work we did has set the stage for some marvelous "Bridges" collaborations next year and well into the future. Fourth garde teacher Cheryl Terry, Media Specialist Jeffrey Brewster, and guidance conselor Jill Tulonen have all been helping with Bridges projects for a couple of years now but this visit was a terrific leap forward. Cheryl will be moving on to another ISB, the International School of Bangkok in Thailand, and she hopes to continue building Bridges there, and BOPH is well established now at the Inernational School of Brussels, thanks to Cheryl, Jill, Jeffrey and the other teachers there.
In our culminating BOPH assembly at ISB Brussels we sang "We Are Walking a Bridge of Peace" in 9 languages including new translations in Swedish, Hebrew, French and Japanese. ISB is a very diverse population and the grade 4 students whoe came from the countries where these languages are spoken came up and sang "their language" with me for the rest of the audience. It was wonderful to see how much each "group" supported the others. When each group sang the rest of the audience exploded with applause. We also sang a rousing version of "Hear My Story," during which the students sang, moved and smiled from the tips of their toes to the ceiling in the theatre. It was exciting.
Earlier in the week I had a great visit to ASB, the American School of Barcelona, where I am returning this afternoon to sing at their International Day Celebration. Lower School principal Nancy Boyd and all the ASB staff always make me feel completely welcome whenever I visit. This was my 3rd or 4th time at the school and they too are active BOPH members.
The attached photos are some of the "ups" of this trip. They show me "volunteering" to assist a street performer. The caption of the photo should probably be "Know what you're volunteering for before you raise your hand." When no one offered to volunteer I went up because as a presenter I know how that feels. What I didn't know was that I was volunteering to have him balance "me" on top of his shoulders. My dismount was a little shaky but all's well that ends well and the experience left no permanent scars.
The "downs" of travel on this trip will be detailed in a future post in which I'll tell of how my luggage was stolen in a train station by some very clever thieves. That's all for now.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hundreds On Stage in Danbury for Bridges of Peace and Hope

On Tuesday, April 7 nearly 300 performers (including elementary students, middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, teachers and friends) joined Kofi Donkor and myself on stage to present the "Bridges of Peace and Hope Concert."

The community project was funded by a grant from the President's Initiative. The grant was written and administered by Dr. Darla Shaw of Western Connecticut State University. The show featured students and teachers from the Western Connecticut Academy of International Studies Magnet School, Roberts Ave. Elem. School, Stadley Rough Elem School, Broadview Middle School, Danbury High School, along with students from Western Connecticut University, Singer Songwriter Barry Finch, Members of Roots 'n Shoots, and Members of the New Hope Baptist Church Choir.

The program was filmed by Bridges of Peace and Hope Board member Ray Flanigan, owner of bethel Photoworks Two of the songs have been posted on "You Tube" for We Are Walking for Many Different Languages

If the links don't take you to the video go to You Tube and search "We Are Walking John Farrell" or "Many Different Languages John Farrell"
Many thanks to Dr. Shaw, Ray Flanigan, Kofi Donkor, Jill Russell, Anne Marie Cardillo, Skip Jennings, Ken Buescher and Mrs. Catanese, Barry Finch, Francice Shoffner and Jonathan Hill and New Hope Choir, The Couch Family from DHS and Nigeria, Roots and Shoots, Western Connecticut State University and ALL the students, parents and friends that helped make this possible. The photo is of some of the students. They were all wearing Bridges of Peace and Hope tee shirts.

Friday, April 3, 2009

To What Do We Assign Value?

During my recent trip I was in five different European countries in two weeks and made transactions using five different currencies. In Germany and Austria where my connecting flights landed they use the Euro which is the common currency among many EU members but not all.

One Euro equals roughly $1.35 US.

In Romania the currency in called RON or Lei and approximately 3.5 Lei = $1 US.

In Hungary the unit of exchange is Forints and 1000 Forints is worth roughly $5 US.

In Ukraine their dollar is called the Grivna and approximately 8 Grivna equals $1 US.

Fortunately, I like doing this kind of conversion math but even so it can get confusing, particularly given the language barriers and the fact that the exchange rates change daily and vary from one exchange agent to the next. The US dollar was being sold for 280 (I'm not sure 280 what?) at one kiosk in the airport and 100 feet away was being sold for 290 at another. I didn't need to buy any dollars so it didn't matter to me but it caused me to wonder once again, "What is it that we value in our world?" Certainly it shouldn't be this colorful paper we call money and hand one another in stores. But often it seems that it is.

An interesting event occured while sitting in Michael Palmer's classroom in Kiev one morning. Michael is doing a math activity that allots each student a certain amount of imaginary money to invest in the stock market. Students are supposed to research the companies and make smart investments. The morning I was there the stock market had gone up 6% and everyone had "made" money. The room was filled with happy sounds as the fifth graders checked their stocks on their Mac laptops. Everyone's spirits seemed lifted. Was it the fact that their investments had made money? Or was it the fact the good feelings are contagious and we lift each other up? In reality, no one had made any money but the sense of hope and satisfaction had soared. I think in some ways the current economic woes came about by so many people checking their investments and getting giddy thinking they had huge amounts of paper value.

Here's another short story on handling currency. The only night I went out on my own in Bucharest I employed the "point and hope" method of ordering dinner. I knew it had something to do with chicken because the owner of the small bar / restaurant explained that much to me. It turned out to be soup and it was quite good though the smoke from the bar was nauseating. Walking back to the hotel in the fading twilight, and listening to conversations in an unfamiliar language, I spotted a small store with bins of vegetables in front and a case with bottled water and other drinks inside. The Marriott Hotel where I was staying had 1 Litre bottles of water in the "in room" fridge which were marked 29 Ron which is an outrageous price of over $7 US. I went in the store and bought bottled water for about 20% of the Marriott price and felt rather pleased with my street smarts and ingenuity. As you read on you'll see I was a bit premature in congratulating myself. I often am.

Inside the store in addition to the cooler with drinks there also was a glass case with assorted loose cookies inside. I hadn't any carbohydated sweets that day and was craving some sugar. The cookies looked good so I ordered a couple of handfuls. The price was marked in a way I didn’t understand and when he told me the amount I thought he said 26 Ron, which would’ve been about $7 worth of cookies. Given the cost of the Marriott’s water, that didn’t register with me as being much too high. The clerk laughingly (and honestly) told me the charge was 2.6 Ron which was less than a dollar, and a heck of a good deal. He smiled and returned my 20 Ron bill.

I believe the overwhelming majority of people are honest, even in hard times. I thanked him, laughed at myself, and went back to the hotel reflecting on what a privilege and blessing it is to travel, meet strangers who are willing to help you, and to learn from our mistakes. Of course we need the colored paper to do these things too so this ramble doesn't answer the question except to offer that "value" comes in many forms. Thanks for taking time to read this. I "value" your friendship.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Stray Dogs and Street Children in Kiev

Walking and traveling by car in Bucharest, Budapest and Kiev I'm surprised at the number of stray dogs wandering through the streets and parks. A friend told me that this is a sign of the "Economic Crisis" here in Eastern Europe. Many people who had dogs as pets can no longer feed the dogs so they abandon them. It is sad. Also there are many construction projects that seem to have been abandoned overnight. Cranes stand like statues, unfinished masonry and siding is changing color with the weather, giving the strange appearance of being old and new at the same time.

Yesterday, Michael and I visited the Aspern Center, a program for children abandoned or taken away from their parents because the parents are unfit to care for them. We sang and played together and then visited with Vera, the director and founder of the center. She is a marvelous advocate for children, community living, families, and the Ukraine but her job is made more difficult by beurocrats who undermine her efforts with absurd policies and greedy maneuvers.
Vera showed us photos of a home that she and the children worked on for years to restore it and make in a place where they could live more like a family. A government official decided the government could make better use of the home and they were told they had three days to move out. When Vera fought this and asked what she and the children should do the official replied, "It's not my problem!" Thankfully people like Vera are fighting for the children. She showed us photos of several children who have been adopted and are now living happily in family homes.
The Aspern center is being supported by the International School of Brussels and the students in Cheryl Terry's Class. Cheryl is a BOPH board member and a terrific teacher. I'll be working with Cheryl and her class in May when I visit Belgium. It was through Cheryl and a friend of hers named Bart, who volunteers at the center, that I was told about Aspern. I'm hoping we can find a way to connect with some of the these children through writing, music, art or some form of assistance.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Koloszvar School and AIS Budapest

Our visit to the Hungarian School Koloszvar Primary was a success. Over 100 students from the two schools came together for the first time to sing, laugh and play beneath the Bridges of Peace and Hope Quilt. Representatives of the US Embassy assisted graciously in arranging the visit, providing transportation, translation, and helping in every way possible, including a last minute stop to purchase a harmonica, a task I wouldn't have pulled off without help. Presenting with the aid of translators Monika Vali (Embassy) and Livia Suvada (AISB) the program was uplifting and exciting. We concluded singing "We Are Walking" in several languages and then did "Love Grows" in a circle of over 100. AISB teacher and BOPH board member Joe Giulietti was leading the singers and signers with his magnanimous spirit.

The embassy AV team (Norbert and Attila) did great job of videotaping and photographing the event and US Cultural Director Carolyn Glassman was wonderful to work with. Following the show and photos we talked with the principal and teachers about how the new school can join us in BOPH projects. It was a great learning experience for me. The photo shows the principal, Monika, Carolyn, and a teacher.

The visit at the American International School of Budapest was also a delight. I did two assembly programs and 7 workshops plus an evening family concert that was sold out with close to 400 children and their families attending. Most of the kids made it onstage at one time or another. Thanks to Conway and Kathy, Joe and Sharon, everyone at AISB, and especially their parents organization PSA.