Monday, June 15, 2009

Identity, Violence and Empathy

An essay from what started as a letter to a Village Enterprise Fund colleague regarding World Anti-Poverty Week, which occurs October 11-17 of this year:

A very high impact lesson that many of us teachers use in teaching about the issue of poverty is called the "Hunger Banquet".  Do a search online for various ways to do it but basically you give a few people a big meal, maybe 1/3 rice and beans and the rest a bit of rice and water to mirror the current world conditions on poverty/hunger. 

Addressing poverty through food is a powerful way to do it in the US because our culture is so food rich and heavy (think gutbuster bacon cheeseburgers etc.) - it's hard for most Americans, even our poorer citizens, to imagine going without significant calories in a day.  The Hunger Banquets can be done in schools or publicly staged to create awareness, information can be disseminated, donations can be asked for at the event, "things you can do" and resources for them can be discussed. Anyways that is just one idea that comes to mind though I know it's a bit outside of VEF's typical approach to creating awareness and fundraising. It is important for us to ask what the root structural causes of poverty are and they are not disconnected from the way food is produced and distributed in the world.

Two rainstorms have come within 24 hours here which is a blessing for anxious farmers.  Interestingly the first one came from the west, the second from the east, which is the more typical direction from which clouds travel across Soroti.  From whichever way the rain comes you can hear in the voices of locals what each drop of rain means.  As the water falls down the dreams of maize or sunflowers growing up to heights that translate to enough food for the family for the season or a bit of income are expressed openly with a bit more optimism, if at least for a relieving day.

We are making more friends here and getting to know the area better.  It's nice to be greeted so kindly and gratefully by shop owners and neighbors though there are times when you'd like to be less of a curiosity to everyone.  I first experienced such intense interest from the locals and the empathy of what it may feel like to be from a "minority group" of the population in Thailand when I went with my family to visit my sister who was studying there in 1996.  If anything a lesson is that when you are different than most of the people around, you get treated differently, and this gets complicated by history, cultural patterns of interaction, politics, socioeconomics and language. 

As a social studies teacher leading discussions about race or class or gender issues at Berkeley High, where some 25-40 languages are spoken on campus, I really got to see how some of these issues play out.  A central theme becomes clear: identity - or how we see ourselves, how we see ourselves in relation to others, and how others see us.  Unfortunately at this point in our social evolution the focus is more often on differences we perceive or believe in than the commonalities we can find. 

It is thus my hope and a thrust of my career and social interactions to help people seek the universality of the human experience in their own interactions.  And it is my firm belief that doing so would lead to less poverty, less violence and less human suffering because of the empathy – the unique trait of those who have achieved the highest level of moral development according to Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg - that is activated through the commonalities we find with others. Former president of India Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan once said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself because you are your neighbor. It is an illusion that makes you think your neighbor is someone other than yourself.” With such an approach the concept of "the other" starts to dissolve; the solvent being the inevitable bond and compassion we begin to feel when we find that we share something with another person.

This feeling comes from somewhere innate because it is in our survival interest to bond with other human beings, to collaborate with them towards our shared basic goals - food, security, shelter, companionship.  And here some might say is the root of philia and agape love (Martin Luther King Jr., Christian theologists, and ancient Greek philosophers identified various types of love, typically: eros or romantic love, philia or brotherly love, and agape, which is a self-sacrificing, altruistic, devotional love).  And when we operate on not just the intellectual understanding but actual relationships wherein we feel a connection rooted in shared experience or interest we see more constructive action. Connected people “lend a hand”, or solve problems together, or collaborate on a project towards shared interests. Constructive action deepens human collaborative and social relationships and can also be seen as peace-building. 

But so long as there is a sense of scarcity or insecurity when it comes to meeting our basic needs humans will sometimes collaborate with others - most often their familial, clan, tribal, community, or national kin to use structural violence (unjust institutional systems or laws) or direct violence against "the others", which is a chosen group or groups of somehow categorized others that is seen to be a threat because of their values or practices (example: the LGBTT community to those who believe in a certain definition of marriage and vice-versa), their assumed intentions (example: Iran to the neoconservatives of PNAC), or historically most often – because the other is seen to be in competition for or in possession of the needed resources or is the cause of the scarcity or insecurity (examples: as many others see the US, or ethnic warfare throughout the last 12,000 years. The oldest archaeological evidence of organized group versus group violence was found in Sudan where fifty-nine skeletons are buried in a mass grave many of them with the arrow or spearhead inflicted wounds. The event occurred during a time when climatic changes led to dwindling resources after a period of human population growth in the area). 

The ongoing conflicts among groups here or there, the great disparities of wealth in this world, the grossly unequal distribution of food are arguably the result of a few national groups organizing to secure more resources for their kin in the last few hundred years and being crushingly successful. The last five hundred years of world history tell the tale of the rise of nationalism, technological innovation towards the increased ability to destroy human life, the organizing of massive groups into armies representing the state, armies of people trained to not just kill, but specifically to kill “the other” which includes a rigorous program of psychological conditioning (statistics from World War II show that only 25% of US soldiers actually fired their guns at the enemy. Wanting to increase this number the army and marines have since ramped up their program on dehumanization of the enemy and reflexive as opposed to conditional firing. As Shakespeare so eloquently expressed through the tragic figure of Hamlet whom I will summarize and paraphrase: “To hesitate – therein lies the rub.”).

And it is national governments that have a relative monopoly on the tools of violence. The great armed forces of the world and weapons of mass destruction are concentrated in the controlling hands of the kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, advisers and elite legislators, the generals and admirals of modern history and contemporary times. And how have they chosen to use them? And what have been the effects? Where went the lessons of our great religious and philosophical teachers to “turn the other cheek”, that “violence begets violence” that “the pen is mightier than the sword”, that we should “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, that we should “love thy neighbor”, that “thou shalt not covet” that as the Dalai Lama says, we are, more than ever, part of one community thus violence is ultimately self-destruction?

A problem is that to organize such institutions to advantage some people and exploit or oppress others or commit such large-scale violence requires the dehumanization of the other as it is against our nature to take such action against someone or a group with whom we feel a bond.  And a systematic process of dehumanization and the experience of violence as victim or perpetrator powerfully affects the psychology of individuals within a culture and the culture itself.  Just as baseball references are part of everyday American vocabulary the words of violence are rife within the American and many other cultural lexicons. But it doesn't stop at our words. Thoughts becomes words, words become action. By most violence is seen as an acceptable tool to gain more of what is perceived as needed.  And the violence becomes easier as we desensitize and further dehumanize, which is necessary to maintain a sense of justification for committing unnatural acts such as denying others freedom or killing innocent people.  You can see this in how the Bush administration approached war-making or blacks were treated in apartheid-era South Africa or American South or how many in Uganda view the Karamoja people.

It's hard to recondition the mind and our patterns of interaction to seek bonds instead of differences with others.  Here comes in the importance of education systems and how and what we choose to teach.  As Gandhi said, "If we want to see real change in the world, we must start with the children.” Indeed, each generation offers us an opportunity to educate people in ways the recreate and reinforce violent systems and structures, such as socializing people into the punitive nature of our justice system that by the measure of recedivism has shown to be an utter failure (70% of all prisoners will be rearrested within three years of their release) or instead teaching and calling on youth to practice restorative justice in their own lives and as an institutional reform project of their generation.
Restorative justice projects, such as Cathrine Sneed's “The Garden Project” wherein the aim is to recognize the injury of the transgression to the community and have the transgressor work with others in the personal and communal healing process, are proving to be wildly successful compared to traditional punitive measures (jailing, economic and political disenfranchisement, execution). Rates of recidivism are much much lower and transgressor and community members report feeling strengthened by the reconciliation and restoration process. Remember - constructive action deepens human collaborative and social relationships and builds peace.

But more influential in our thinking and decision-making is the realities we face that relate to our basic needs.  And the reality of the state of the world today is that for the reasons I detail above and surely some others a large percentage of human beings live in a crippling cycle of poverty or real or mental resource scarcity or livelihood insecurity. The challenge in creating awareness about seeking bonds with others and thus compassionate and constructive action for people of richer realms towards those of poorer places is that they are far removed from the visceral experience of a complete lack of money, the intense pangs of hunger, from the roof of their house caving in, from relatives dying of easily treatable diseases or the screams and splattering of blood and forever-haunting horrors of witnessing murderous violence. 

So what can we do to change the way we identify ourselves, our relations with others and how others identify us? How can we awake Americans from their food comas or have them feel a fundamental human connection with the poorest of the poor living halfway around the world from them?  If we can't bring the African mother and American mother together for a conversation, if just telling them "what life is like there" gets an "Oh that's so sad ... I've got a meeting to get to" or even a donation but no attempt to "be the change" then in the short-term sometimes we have to shock people, give them an affective experience outside their day-to-day existence.  We have to help them to feel destitute or uncomfortable, unjustly treated or hungry, without health services or in danger. At the same time we have to help them feel empowered to do something about it.

For me, witnessing violence, being acted upon violently, and the examples of great nonviolent social movement leaders like Cesar Chavez, Meena Kamal, Chico Mendes, Aung San Suu Kyi and of course Gandhi and MLK are what inspire me to give and work towards peace, justice, and the relief of human suffering in the world. For myself and others activities like the Hunger Banquet, books and films, music, compelling speeches, a healthy dose of reflection through them all and importantly the discussions they provoke and the modeled actions one can take in light of the greater empathy achieved can serve as “shock” and inspiration. As VEF does, we need to continue to show and invite others to do the many creative and constructive things that can be done as empowered members of the local and global community who see and feel how we are connected, how we are one in the same with “the other”, that identity need not be achieved via recognizing how one is different but how we contribute towards universal human needs.

And especially during a time like World Poverty Week, is it so bad to "shock" someone into an emotion, deeper reflection or action?  After all it's no shock to the people we serve, it is simply their daily existence.


Adams, David. “The Culture of War.” Symposium on Peace Education. Pontifica Universidade Catolica do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil. 23 April 2008.

“Agape.” Wikipedia: The Free Online Encyclopedia. 19 June 2009. 10 May 2009.

“Aung San Suu Kyi.” Wikipedia: The Free Online Encyclopedia. 22 June 2009. 5 May 2009.

The Burning Season. Dir. John Frankheimer. Perf. Raul Julia. 1994. Videocassette. 1998.

Dalai Lama. “The Heart of Nonviolence: A Conversation with the Dalai Lama.” Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA. 2005.

Gardener, Jostein. Sophie's World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. New York: Berkeley Books, 1994.

Luther King, Martin, and Washington, James M. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

Reader, John. Africa: The Biography of a Continent. New York: Random House, 1997.

Schell, Jonathan. The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Field Work in the Budongo Villages

These pictures were taken over the last ten days during our visit to the Budongo Forest Project site near Masindi in western Uganda. Click on them to open larger images in a new window. This is the primary project I am sharing the management and coordination of for Village Enterprise Fund. To learn more about the project, check posts entitled "Everything is Connected".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Precisely Where I Am

From a letter to a friend in New York City:

"I live on the outskirts of a small town of about forty thousand with my only other American counterpart Julia, 24, from Indianapolis, recent graduate of a master's program at Thunderbird School for International Affairs and Management in Phoenix. Also with us are two house girls that cook, clean, do laundry. Sarah is 21 and working here as she waits to see if she will be able to start BA studies in August. She is the niece of Ewalu Michael (people introduce themselves with surname first here), VEF Uganda Country Director and owner of the land and guesthouse here. The other is Shilla, 25 recent college graduate in search of a job. As you know it's one of the problems here in Africa that college and graduate-level educated people are hard-pressed to find jobs here so often the talent goes untapped or goes elsewhere. If Western NGOs employed more Africans like they should then that would provide a significant boost for employment. Western NGOs are everywhere. Their signs line paved or dirt roadsides in any town of significant size in Uganda with the density of well-developed commerical strip areas in the U.S.

The poverty rate is 51% in the district, the town being the seat of it. Districts used to be named after the dominant tribe of the area, but in efforts to reduce tribalism, districts were renamed after the major town within it. The house/office in which I live is a permanent structure but almost all neighbors live in mud huts. Check Google Earth at coordinates (1°43'25.04"N, 33°36'14.62"E) and you'll find where I am living. Now there is an open-air hall to the left of that structure and a guesthouse to the right creating a three-sided enclosed space. This area was a large camp of IDPs because of the LRA that is now broken up as things stabilize and people return home or buy land. Zoom out and/or pan east and you'll see the airstrip - second longest in Uganda thus the target of an LRA attack in 2005 who wanted to secure it as a place for delivery of supplies. "Gunshots was the music of the area" at that time said my colleague and closest male friend here, Assistant Country Director Erongot Charles. Due south of the airstrip you should notice a big rock on the edge of the central town area. This is Soroti Rock, one volcanic plug of many that dot the Ugandan eastern plain.

In town all grocery stores are owned by Indians. They are trickling back into Uganda after being expelled by Idi Amin in the mid-70's. Storefronts are painted in bright colors and with logos and slogans as advertisements for major companies - Zain (pink), MTN (yellow), Coca-Cola (red), Eurofoam (white) and various other smaller companies. In most places the trash is serious but sweeping is more consistent here. But dip into an alley that will lead you to the space between storebacks or where people live in small apartments and you will find the piles of trash that are mostly burned. Compost and plastics alike are burned as goats pick from it. I have written composting into the conservation curriculum that we will be using and am demonstrating it to my colleagues. I think it could be a major way to increase and maintain soil fertility in Africa though the tropical climate presents some challenges.


You are always welcome here of course. It's a nice place to get in touch with your food sources i.e. slaughter chickens and other practical yet fun activities that make you feel a little more human and a little more manly at the same time. And there is something exciting about all the history and current state of affairs here. The history makes the culture rich and humbling as an outsider from an individualistic society who hasn't experienced such high levels of social integration. And despite continued suffering there is a hope here that things are on their way up in a more stable way, a way in which things are less likely to fall apart. The empowering nature of cell phones are a part of this Zeitgeist. . . ."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What's the Written Word?

It's become clear to me that most of my reflective writing on my experience here in Uganda comes spontaneously. Most often it is in response to a friend's email. Upon reading Peter or my sister or Whitney's life logline and inquiries I find myself taking on the challenge of putting my experience here into some words with the hope of being able to connect. One of the difficulties of traveling or living abroad is the disconnect it creates with friends and family during your time away, and perhaps even in a more impacting way, when you are back. You try to relate your experience but there is just no way that language can be used to fully describe the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, interactions and spiritual moments individually let alone the sum of them all, which does amount to much more than its parts. Like a photograph provides perhaps a flash of insight, but not whole, continuous, and in-context visual information the vocabulary, syntax and creative use of the written word amounts to not much more than a very rough idea of someone's experience.

Nonetheless, we try. We try to connect with others through writing because we want to be understood and have the ones we love and that knew us at home to be able to relate somehow. How I wish I could share the jokes made by Charles: "English was born in England, grew up in America, fell sick in Africa, died in India and was buried in China" - his accent making them that much more funny to the American ear. How nice it would be to not have to paint or write a thousand words but just have mom or dad or sister there to be walking with me through a maize and cassava garden following a barefoot boy through the huts and jackfruit trees, the height and thickness of the rain forest trees and vines looming enchantingly a few hundred meters ahead (and of course so much more than that). How much more easy it would be to come home and have friends understand why you feel a bit different now about life at home and American culture, that some things you appreciate and are happy to be enjoying again while others seem trivial and become annoyances as you watch your old friends be overly concerned with them.

It's true that your own identity actually changes when you travel, and especially when you live abroad for several months time. The new information your brain and body has taken in by being in a different natural environment and culture are undeniably significant. You cannot think the same way you did before leaving home. The pattern on the kaleidoscope lens you see the world through has been altered. And so we seek ways to help our family and friends keep up with and know our changing view. We share photographs or we write hoping the picture that is only a few degrees of the field of vision and a nanosecond of the day or the story that may be only 1/100th of the full story is enough to save us the alienation from what we knew before we found ourselves talking to a Ugandan medical student about the state of medicine in his country while on a bus through sugar cane and tea plantations.

So from now on with this blog I am going to post selected parts of excerpts of letters I have written to family and friends in addition to essays. In some ways I will get more travel blog mainstream. I will post smaller items like funny quotes from my colleagues or pictures when I can. I will post bites if not meals of reflection all with the aim of sharing with you, attempting to help you know better what is going on here even if just the tip of the iceberg, hoping to maintain connections with you all that I have not seen or touched for days, weeks, months so that when we finally do meet again we can still know each other's lives despite the continents and oceans of experience that separated us.

Of course, I also hope my postings inspire you to be more curious about what is going here enough that you will seek more information. Maybe you'll even read Aidan Hartley's The Zanzibar Chest or John Reader's Africa: The Biography of a Continent or better yet make a visit to this beautiful part of the world. Here you will see people living in ways that just don't exist in the US or Europe. You'll see children or old women from the road as you zoom by wearing rags hoeing in the gardens or lugging heavy bags of grain how but find when you stop and meet them you share common values with that villager who has never had electricity or shoes. Here you will feel more in touch with the story of humanity, the evolution of our species beginning right here on the dirt paths I walk every day and the way that modern economic systems have shaped the stark differences between East Africa and California or England. You will feel the sun and water and plants and animals and earth working in ways that change the way your heart beats and expand your mind to consider new physical possibilities.

In the meantime I will write and look forward to hearing from you.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter in Soroti

Dear Family and Friends,

A happy Easter to you from Soroti, Uganda. It's raining here, and almost as cool as a San Francisco summer day. The first day in my nearly ten weeks here so far that is actually legit for a sweater. Folks are about in their colorful Sunday dresses or proudly worn goodwill clothing with out of place brand names, slogans or the token of a 10k or pancake breakfast fundraiser. Most are moving on foot or boda bicycle taxis from town to the church or village where relatives await in mud huts with thatched grass roofs that will be tested through the emerging rainy season. I tried to meet some friends at a Baptist Church in the former IDP (internally displaced people) camp this morning to have that experience but everyone was gone for two funerals. AIDS, malaria - a mother, a child. So it goes here. The tragedy amidst the beauty.

Later my sole other American colleague Julia and I will head to the home of our primary host, Village Enterprise Fund Uganda country director Michael Ewalu. On the menu is likely to be ugali and atap, dense and gummy breads made by boiling millet and sorghum. We will tear a piece from a pile of the bread and form it into a scoop as one would be able to with clay and dip it into a thick sauce of groundnuts and greens. Other dishes may be beans or lentils stewed with chopped green pepper and carrot, roast or fried sweet potato, cassava, "irish" (irish potatoes) or matooke, a starchy unsweet banana. Beef, pork, or a chicken freshly slaughtered then and there will round out the meal that we'll eat with bottled sodas, water or beer.

Julia and I have prepared a fruit salad for desert - local papaya, green oranges, banana, watermelon, pineapple, and apples imported from South Africa. Mangoes are not yet in season in the semi-arid east of the country where I am though soon they will infiltrate the olfactories of all residents. Like drip irrigation the teardrop fruits are slowly growing larger and eventually will fall by the thousands to rot on the ground lining village paths and town streets. There are just too many to eat for the locals and no efficient drying or export business in place. Interestingly, I experienced the fruit rot phenomenon in Costa Rica, where you might also catch knowledge of the Easter Bunny in a western-style mall. But no mythical rabbit hopping around the minds of children here, just another day of very real goats, pigs, cattle and chickens scratching out sustenance amidst the sparse end-of-dry-season grasses and abundant piles of trash.

My love towards your good health and spirits,

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Everything is Connected: Part II

In short, because the chimps are here and humans have been destroying the forest at increasing rates over the past century is why the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) has a stake and station in the Budongo Rain Forest. They want to protect our close genetic partner (94-98% of DNA sequences are the same). The chimpanzee is considered a flagship, umbrella, and keystone species. A flagship species is one that is charismatic and tends to draw the sympathies and donations of humans. An umbrella species is one that has a large range and thus protecting it results in the protection of thousands of others and an entire ecosystems. I will explain a keystone species later. Of course a large part of animal protection is via protecting the home environment. In the world, though the rate of reforestation should soon surpass that of deforestation, some better estimates are that just over 50,000 square miles of forest are destroyed every year. This is just under the size of New York state or about the state of California from the Mexican border to an east-west line across from Santa Barbara. In Uganda, about sixty square miles of forest, a swath of land about the size of the cities of San Francisco and Berkeley combined are lost every year. Imagine all the buildings and homes on each side of the Bay Bridge being burned to the ground every year.

Why is the forest being destroyed? In Budongo most of the destruction in the past was in the form of logging or slash and burn to clear land for agricultural production. Some of it was industrial scale, but significant acreage was logged or burned by villagers practicing subsistence farming over the decades. Notably, the rate of forest destruction has greatly accelerated over the past ten years as the population around the forest perimeter has grown rapidly. In the three larger forests along the Albertine Rift Valley in western Uganda 157.2 km2 of fully-stocked forest were cleared in the period 1995-2002 alone. Some land is logged or cultivated for a few years until its exhausted or fertility decreases and then more land is cleared in a cycle of degradation.

But now the forest is protected as the Budongo Central Forest Reserve. Any kind of trespass into the preserve is illegal. Patrol and hunting snare removal teams are funded by JGI, the National Forest Authority, and even the Oakland Zoo recently sponsored a project there. Even so, locals still need firewood and building materials and logging companies based in Kampala want the precious mahogany in the forest. They hire people living in the villages for very low wages to take the high risk of sneaking into the forest, felling and chopping up the hardwood behemoths, and carrying the pieces to the roadside where large trucks await to whisk the loot away to the furniture markets of the capital and abroad.

Additionally there is a subsistence need and market for the meat and pelts of the mammals in the forest such as leopards, lions, and various primates including the chimpanzees. The hunting (now poaching) pressure has increased with an influx of Congolese immigrants who traditionally practice the trapping of forest animals. Hunters set traps along the main animal trails in hope of catching dinner or a product. In one forest zone studied by JGI, 25% of chimps had one snare injury, 10% had two or more.

Whether or not you care about the fate of the chimpanzees, you should care about the fate of forests. They are vital pieces of our greater ecosystems home to a tremendous number of flora, fauna, fungi and bacteria. Earth is a closed system and life is dependent on other life in almost all cases. An estimated 50,000 species a year going extinct should be heard as a horrific scream from the forest that its vital organs are failing as its skin, veins, muscles and bones are crudely ripped apart. Taking a keystone species like chimpanzees out of the forest is like ripping out a kidney. The forest loses several key functions the animal provides such as seed dispersal. Without chimps digesting mahogany seeds they cannot germinate easily. Take away mahogany trees and you lose a protective canopy that supports the growth of hundreds of other plants. You could say mahogany is like a protective epidermal layer of the forest. If the plants it protects die food sources for other animals are lost. More animals die, other plants die, other animals die, the forests organs fail. It dies. Everything is connected.

So unfortunately the death of the forest does not mean the dying stops there. Most of us know that forests store carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Besides the oceans, they are the most vital processors of breathable air. But perhaps more immediately important for those living near them, the forests bring rain. And when it comes down to it the people that steadily destroy but over time will always rely on the forest are the poor that live in the communities bordering forests. If those people know that it is the forest that brings water, the blood of life I like to call it, then you might be able to convince locals it is worth being stewards in the conservation of the forest as their vital resource.

But when the Jane Goodall Institute people told forest-edge villagers that conservation must be their priority the message didn't take. You see, extreme poverty means you are struggling to meet basic needs. So every day your first concerns are water, food, shelter and it takes work to get those things. I can understand it much better now that I've seen it. Beyond providing timber to build sturdy homes and livestock pens, the high-energy value food that is meat, desperately needed incomes for hunters and the day-and-night laborers of the big logging companies it also provides wild honey extracted by starting fires to drive the bees away from the honeycomb, several medicines and tens of other materials that help meet basic needs. So especially a mzungu, a person of European descent, speaking the message to “stop using the forest because it's bad and you'll be arrested. Instead, conserve it for the sake of an animal or better yet because it brings you rain” is not well-received by someone whose short-term survival depends on forest resources. In fact, JGI was often met with hostility. They needed help if they were to somehow stop the damage being done to the forest by the local population that has been increasing with a wave of immigrants to the area in search of fertile soils or fleeing conflict in Congo.

Enter Village Enterprise Fund.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Everything is Connected: Part I, pictures

These two male chimpanzees were sitting on a branch about twenty-five feet above our guide, my two colleagues and me. All together about eight males, two females, and two babies were in the trees just around us or down to the ground for short periods on this morning. They acknowledged us with an occasional glance, but seemed rather unconcerned and even apathetic about our presence. When a pack of baboons came through they yelled a bit towards them as a guard dog might bark at a noise through a fence.

The main preoccupation was the high-ranking female who was in heat. All the males preferred to mate with her as she had proven to be fertile and delivered healthy babies already. She was being a bit elusive however. The whole dynamic played out around a hierarchy with her at the top and a dominant male who had to fend off mid-ranking or up-and-coming guys who fended off the lower-ranking males. These tough-luck Tommys could not get within fifty meters of her without getting screamed at and possibly a blow to the back or head. So the scene was two to five-minute quieter periods of grooming among cliques and maneuvering that more or less maintained rank order in proximity to the prized female and ten-second to minute-long periods of screaming, chasing off, and near boxing matches before order was (momentarily) restored.

This is a stretch of the "Royal Mile" in the Budongo Forest. Now the road to the Budongo Conservation Field Station, it got its because King Kabalega of the Bunyoro Kingdom had it created for his hunting and bird-watching expeditions in the late 1800's. The site to this day is considered one of the best bird-watching sites in the world with over 300 species observable in a very small area.

King Kabalega was in power when the British made Uganda, the "pearl of Africa" its protectorate. The king strongly resisted the British's effort along with the help of rival kingdom Buganda to take control of his land and people. Unsuccessful, he was exciled to the Seychelles islands. Despite this loss, the Bunyoro Kingdom is still intact today, one of four that remains as a constituent of the Ugandan nation.

This is a family's set of dwellings on the edge of the jungle. Ten years ago this land was probably forest but it was slashed and burned with the hope of higher-yielding fertile soils. Unfortunately few farmers here have knowledge of crop rotation or how to make natural fertilizers so land is used until its nutrients are sapped and then new land is sought. Now that the forest is protected from slash and burn practices, farmers are in desperate need of new knowledge and materials to help them keep producing.

In those huts may live a man, his wife or multiple wives (each wife would have her own hut) and children or brothers or friends and their wives and children. The roofs are several layers of thatched grass on walls of packed mud held together with stalks of elephant grass. The floors are usually packed earth. Different structures may serve as a kitchen, outhouse, animal housing or any number of other functions.

These children were the daughters of a butcher who had received a grant from Village Enterprise Fund. They played peek-a-boo with us while we sat with the butcher over some jackfruit and heard an upbeat story of his success so far. He recently was able to purchase a cellphone that is greatly facilitating his ability to take and prepare orders for customers.

We will visit the family again in a year and look for standard of living improvements such as permanent walls, corrugated metal roofing in place of the thatched grass or the clothing of the children. It's good that these girls have tops and bottoms, but none of them have shoes. By next year the ideal picture would be them in their new shoes and school uniforms perhaps even with a book under the arm. Primary education is free in Uganda but uniforms and books must be payed for by the family.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Everything is Connected: Part I

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to 
everything else in the universe.” - John Muir

Is everything really connected?  Some connections are easy to find and others take some work. But when we realize that every apparently separate item or thought is actually part of a greater whole then we have learned one of the keys to life. Understanding our connections helps us go from survive to thrive as we can better predict cause and effect of actions and see why acting in line with “the golden rule” or Albert Schweitzer's idea of “reverence for life” is not only an ethical but practical calling.

First let's look at some examples of connections. Searching for someone on Facebook reveals a list of people that have mutual friends, some surprisingly in other parts of the world you may not have predicted. Or one can draw on some knowledge reserves and research to find noteworthy connections of the current breakdown of the finance capitalist system.

For example we can read that Vladimir Lenin predicted finance capitalism as the last stage of imperialism before an inevitable collapse and movement towards more government influence in the economy. Then we see today the mortgage crisis and failing of banks in the US and Europe, investment and consumption rates greatly decreasing thus Chinese product makers laying off workers en masse as demand for their exports have sharply declined. And following we observe a reverse of the migration trend in China (people are heading back to the countryside from the cities) and a renewed interest in Maoism amongst many Chinese “proletariat”. When we look at Maoism we see how it is focused on the agrarian people surrounding cities instead of the urban industrial laborers rising up as was the Marxist idea that Lenin revised a bit to include more of a role for the rural poor. So here we see how history and current economic events are just points on a web of threads of time strung by the needle of human ideas.

Though one beauty of Muir's statement is that it applies universally, he was speaking in the context of conservation of natural ecosystems in light of human population growth. In his close studies and relationship with the Sierra Nevada mountains he was one of the first modern humans who realized that natural resources are not infinite and environmental degradation not only threatens natural wonders like Yosemite Valley but the continued health and economic sustainability of human societies. He established the Sierra Club in 1892 to bring awareness to this issue and advocate in the political arena for conservation.

So why I am I talking about this in a blog based on my work for an economic development organization in East Africa? What is the connection? I have been in parts of Kenya and Uganda now for three weeks.  As I indicated in my first entry I arrived here with only a vague idea of what my work would be.  However the basics of my responsibilities, the people I met through my interviewing with Village Enterprise Fund and of course the mission and approach to poverty reduction of the organization were in line with my values and interests. One piece of this approach is to partner with other organizations to tackle complex problems. And one of my primary jobs while I am here will be to evaluate, coordinate and manage pieces of our project and partnership with the highly-visible international conservation organization Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) in the communities that border the Budongo Rain Forest, one of the few remaining habitats in the world for chimpanzees.  

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Energy of Questions

There has probably been a moment in your life when you've asked yourself, “What the hell am I doing?” Perhaps it races through your head as you are kissing the person you have just told you love though in truth you are not really sure. Or maybe the question haunts you five years into a job when you realize you have no passion for the work. Or you accept a ride from a kind stranger in a new city who you quickly find out is a reckless driver.

In these moments we wonder what we are doing but an immediate and practical answer is usually not what we need. The question is more philosophical. It is often the flower that blossoms from a bud of fear, confusion, or nervous anticipation. And what we are really asking is often more something like, “How did I arrive at this moment?” and “What is to come?” So there is emotion and we can be swept out to sea by a strengthening undertow of fear, confusion, or nervous anticipation. Or we can start to reflect. We can feel the tide pulling while our toes can still dig into the sand below us. We can observe and accept the feeling and find the questions behind the question. And we can then choose to be swept away or walk back towards the shore in a new direction as masters of our own destiny.

I am on a plane to Nairobi, Kenya and I've just had a “what the hell am I doing” moment. It will be my first time in Africa save a day trip to Tangier, Morocco when I was sixteen on a school trip to Spain. I can vividly remember that day crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in the early morning on a barge. There was a mist over the Mediterranean and as it cleared the northern edge of the plateaued African continent slowly emerged and grew larger. It was awe-inspiring, not only because the sight was magnificent but because up to then I had only imagined Africa. In my mind it was a wild and dangerous place. It was intense desert or dense jungle. It was the Pyramids and the Nile, the Zambezi full of water snakes and crocodiles. It was The Gods Must Be Crazy. It was lions, giraffes, and elephants. It was a violent place with a violent history. It was slavery, colonialism, civil war, and apartheid. It was desperate and diseased people speaking unfamiliar languages. It was the Dark Continent in so many ways.

Even so I was enchanted. And this was mainly because of the African music I had heard. One song specifically piqued my curiosity. It was the “Limpopo River Song” sung by a choir that my 10th-grade World Cultures teacher, Mr. Allen, had given us as part of a collection of music from around the world. I listened to it repeatedly on my tape player. The song moved slowly and heartfully as a serene and familiar river might carry you in a canoe towards your home. The song was infused with a sadness of something lost, but the strength of a community that can still sing together and the comforting softness of a lullaby. Of course I didn't understand the lyrics but I knew there was a rich culture and story behind the song.

So now I am back to Africa thirteen years later after my day as a tourist in Tangier. But beyond occurring on the same continent this experience is bound to be entirely different. Since then I have learned a lot more about the land and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Africa's people past and present. I have developed units and taught lessons on parts of African history, cultural and physical geography. I have enjoyed so much more wonderful African music and food. I have African friends and colleagues.

But with all of this additional knowledge and exposure I still don't feel like I know “Africa.” It remains mostly imagination, literature, textbook summaries and news reports. It's Arabic in the north, Swahili in the east and a smattering of other languages in other regions. It's famine, AIDS orphans, the specter of malaria and the ravages of cholera. It's Things Fall Apart or Cry, The Beloved Country or The Lost Boys of Sudan. It's the damage of dictators like Amin or Mugabe contrasted with the inspirational leadership of Mandela or Tutu. It's Lucy in the Ethiopian Highlands, gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt in the Congo. It's Islam and the Sahara creeping south. It's still lions, giraffes, and elephants.

But my greater knowledge and experience is not what will make my time in Kenya and Uganda different than my day in Tangier. For one, I am not here as a tourist for a short time. I am here to work through several months with Village Enterprise Fund, an organization that provides seed capital, business training and mentoring to small groups of people living in remote villages with the aim of reducing poverty. If you made a Venn diagram to compare living and working in a foreign place to just visiting it you'd have very little to put in the middle section. I can attest to this from my experiences living in the Czech Republic and Costa Rica and touring parts of Europe, Asia and South America.

Another reason this experience will be unique is that I am no longer coming to Africa with the common error of the Western mind that lumps all of Africa together. One can't come to know Africa by a visit or even a long-term stay with just one or two of it's fifty-three countries just as one can't know the US if he or she only visits New York or California. So I am no longer imagining that I will know Africa after my term here, but simply that I will become more familiar with some people, some of the culture and land in parts of Kenya and Uganda. I am ready to stop imagining and generalizing because my ego would like to tell my friends, “Oh yes I know Africa. I lived there for several months.” Instead my aim is to be fully present in my immediate environment and observe how that shapes my earthly and spiritual connections.

However most of all, my experience will be unique here because of the reasons I am asking myself, “What the hell am I doing?” or rather the feeling of nervous anticipation of “what is to come?” and “How did I arrive at this moment?” The truth is I know little about my job and the people and places I have committed myself to for the next good portion of a year. So yeah, I am a little bit nervous and eager to experience and not just wonder about my reality in Kenya and Uganda.

But there is a definite reason for how I arrived at this moment. And when I remember this reason I feel calm yet inspired, righteous though humbled. I am here to read a new chapter in the book that answers the question I have asked since my day in Tangier. The question is, “How can I contribute to greater peace in the world?” You see, on that day not only did my friend receive a death threat from an aggressive salesman (“3000 pesetas or I kill you!”) but I witnessed the first incident of direct and intense physical violence in my life.

After a stop at the beach for the hokey opportunity to have one's picture taken while sitting on a camel, our group was approached by a small boy asking for a handout. Someone in the group gave the boy some change and then we all loaded onto the bus. As we sputtered away leaving the child smiling despite enveloped in a cloud of smoke I looked back to see him confronted by two teenage boys in the middle of the street. They seemed to demand his money and when he resisted they proceeded to push him to the concrete and kick him in the head and ribs until he released the change from his clenched fist. When he did they grabbed it and ran away. There had been many people around but no one helped. I was speechless horrified, deeply saddened, and angry. I felt helpless as we continued on, the bloodied child still unmoving and growing smaller in my sight. He lay in the street in danger of being run over as an oncoming rush of cars approached. We turned a corner and were gone from the scene. I don't know what happened to the boy.

Being a witness to this violence was hugely impacting in my life. Reflecting on the incident and my feelings, comparing it to my own life of abundance, wondering about connections between the boy and myself, thinking about it in light of historical and current violence set me on a path of formal and informal exploration of how I can contribute to the cause of peace. It has been the driving force of my educational and young professional career. I could not help the boy in that moment, but I can help uplift humanity in other moments.

So to learn and practice peacebuilding (and of course for some adventure) is why I am on this plane headed far from home even though the work can be done anywhere and in so many ways. And I am full of hope that if we can each do a little towards the cause of peace the world will be an increasingly uplifting place for boys, girls, men, women everywhere. So join me in this practice. Join me vicariously through this blog. Or join me with your own unique contributions toward greater peace in the world upon a few pieces of awareness:

1. Realize the boy was beaten for something like fifty cents, that this kind of incident happens everywhere everyday and you have to ask yourself if there is a connection between poverty and violence.

2. Remember that no one helped the boy (myself included), that even mass murders and genocides in the Americas, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Sudan, Congo and other places have been or are being carried out with little attempt at intervention from knowing outside observers and you have to ask yourself what values we embody as acting members of the human community.

3. Become conscious of the fact that by your work, consumption, and political choices you can exacerbate or alleviate the unnatural and often brutal suffering that millions of humans and other life on earth experiences every day.

And now it is a good moment to ask yourself: “What the hell am I doing?”