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.