Wednesday, October 28, 2009
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
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
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
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
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
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
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.
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.
Monday, October 12, 2009
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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org 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
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.