Archive for the ‘Peace Corps’ Category

Move on? Resist? What’s the Plan? 2017

February 24, 2017
Me (Robyn) at Vic Falls

Me (Robyn) at Vic Falls

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi, in 1992,  the country was  undergoing a big shift. There had been a president, who had named himself  life president, and had served, at that time, 26 years:  Hastings ‘Kamuzu’ Banda.  He was s dictator:   he terrorized the country.  He was supported by the Europeans & the USA because he was NOT a communist, and  he  supported apartheid in South Africa. About the only good thing he did for the Malawians was build a  decent road infrastructure.  The school and health care systems were virtually nonexistent.  It was a country run by elites. who went for medical care out of the country.  Malawi was socially stratified:  if you had a decent job and were literate, most likely you employed an illiterate servant to clean your house & probably cook for you. There was no way to improve your lot unless you were (or are) particularly ingenious.

Of course, I worked with elites.  They  two I worked with were honest, and had integrity.  Things were the way they were.  Pick your battles. but I explained to them that  democracy did not bring good government, but representational government.

And here we are, over 30 years later, and our  representational electorate has elected  a guy who lied, who had no plan, who  disrespects women, minorities, the handicapped…. people who are not white Europeans.  It will be interesting to see how  his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law works with the white supremacist  Bannon, who is a close advisor.  Really interesting….but I think they are sell-outs. I have some friends who I really lost respect for.  It’s one thing to think your friends are  uninformed—but to see they voted for the white guy because they believed ‘fake news’ (what we used to call lies….as ‘toxic assets’ were liabilities) and just didn’t like  or trust Hillary.   Was it because she was a woman?  Doesn’t matter—she actually got the popular vote. She won!  But due to the political mumbo jumbo of the electoral college, these former friends who voted for Trump think—really, that HE won!  It’s like saying 5-3=10!  So this is the new reality.

I fear for the environment.  Even the Clean Air & Clean Water acts were signed by Nixon—a Republican.  It is proven that when you offer free birth control and family planning information—the unplanned birth rate goers down, and the community prospers….but our rulers  really have a mindset that women should be punished for having sex—the punishment being raising  children, and this will lead to a surplus in labor.  Our economy can no longer absorb uneducated people—as it can’t absorb the educated ones! What other explanation can you  come up with for  defunding  Planned Parenthood or making abortion illegal?  It’s not like the people who make these laws are fostering or adopting orphans or kids in the child care system.

I also think  the Democratic Congress made the banking industry more accountable. Trump thinks it is too much regulation.  Education would  fix this, as kids would understand more, but with DeVos, they have demonstrated that  making sure kids learn math & science is not a priority.  it’s up to us…in the states…to work this out.

So, as a result of all this, I am much more in touch with my elected officials.  I let them know how I feel about everything.

But  are there  citizen movements emerging to develop strategies to  change it all back….or…?

While   I have big issues with the Affordable Care Act, the problem is with insurance companies, and it is time for Single Payer.  If Trump wasn’t flitting off to Florida every week, there’d be plenty  of money  for  people of all ages to buy into Medicare. You wouldn’t have to—you could still pay for private insurance if you really believe you’d get a better deal….but, having had to  deal with  health insurance a lot recently (Bursitis, and I was bitten by a dog), I can tell you, the government couldn’t make a bigger mess out of what things should cost & how hospitals get paid than the insurance companies have!

If we are going to ‘resist’ and make things better, we must educate ourselves, so we have talking points.  I want everyone who wants to make a difference get  4 books and read them.

  1.  The First is, “Lies My Teacher Told me, ” by James Loewen  You really have to understand American History, first, or you will be ‘condemned to repeat it.  It’s outrageous, what we learned in school and  what we think is real;

2. “Charlie Wilson’s War,”  by  George Crile.  Aaron Sorkin made a pretty funny movie by manipulating facts.  All of what Charlie did, and why,  is sort of ‘funny’ in an ironic way.  It’s important to understands what he did and who influenced him, as he changed history.  You will learn  that he actually armed what became the Taliban, ISIS, and all the others who hate  freedom;

3.  You ought to read a book on economic history.  “The Big Short,” by Michael Lewis, again, was a funny movie.  Not so funny  is that is our history, and he documents it and writes about it in a way you can understand.  Bottom line:  because we are  an innumerate nation, and so few of our schools teach  people real math and budgeting, our neighbors trusted the banks—even thought the numbers were right in front of them. We all lost, big time.

If this seems too convoluted, get a copy of Robert Reich’s book, “Aftershock.”  We could have saved ourselves, but Hillary didn’t make it engaging enough (that, and the Russians and FBI director Comey put the final nails in her coffin);

4.  Finally, how do we actually  get the hearts & minds?  You have to read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point.”  We’re not going anywhere in a hurry unless we know the dynamics of social change.  In simple language,  this book tells us how it’s done.

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Vacations for Animal Lovers

May 13, 2016
Pariah dog sleeping at Ephasus in turkey

Pariah dog sleeping at Ephasus in turkey

My passion is  working with animals.  From  before I could read, I knew volume #7 of the Encyclopedia Britannica had the dog pictures.  I used to love  pulling it out and looking at the dog pictures.  Growing up, I lived in a very middle class suburban (Skokie) neighborhood, where, if people had dogs, they were behind fences.  If I saw someone walking a dog, I went crazy. Part of this obsession was because my parents wouldn’t let us have a dog until we were  mature enough to take care of one.  My father  owned his own business,and my mother  had four kids  under 7 years old. Looking back, I  totally understand the logic.  What happened, however, was that my sister and I  took every dog book we could find out of the library. We finally got  our first dogs when I was  nine-years-old.  We  taught that dog all sorts of things.  I took every opportunity I could find to work with dogs. I learned to groom dogs.  I have also titled my pet dogs in performance.  When you work with dogs, you learn your limits.  At one time, I wanted to own a kennel and have a bunch of my own dogs.  When I started working in kennels, I learned that it is  hard to give quality time to more than a few dogs. So many dogs need homes, and many without homes need advocates. What could I do?  If I fostered a dog, I would be cutting into the quality time I spend with my own dogs. and it would change the dynamic in our household.  So, I looked for opportunities where I could help others who  care for pets needing help.

Reception at Lilongwe SPCA. in Malawi

Reception at Lilongwe SPCA. in Malawi

There are many ways to help when you  can’t foster or adopt another pet.  Most shelter and rescues need help with accounting, marketing, and fund-raising, as well as recruiting  other volunteers.  Here in Chicago, I volunteer as a court advocate for  http://www.safehumanechicago.org  This means, when someone is charged with an animal related crime (neglect, cruelty, or dog fighting are the common ones), I go to court to make sure the judge knows that the community has an interest in this case.  Mostly, it is just being there.  We let the  prosecuting attorney know  we are there, and they make sure the judge knows we are there if the  courtroom is crowded. The police making the arrest also know that we are there.  This makes everyone take animal crime more seriously. Another thing I do is support pet rescues, especially pet rescues in  developing countries.  Now, due to the internet, where you can google ‘animal shelter/country, you can get linked up with  animal lovers in  most places.  In many places, you can even volunteer. I volunteered , via Cross Cultural Solutions, to work with a community based group in New Delhi, India, and some people told me about Frendicoes.  Friendicoes mostly does trap/neuter/release, and has a small shelter.  Virtually all the animals they have are pariah dogs and cats:  that is, they are true street  animals, and really not suited to be pets. Several years ago, I visited Turkey. Via networking, I was able to get in touch with  the people who run the Forest Sanctuary, outside Istanbul.  They had about 100 dogs at the time we visited.  Western Turkey is becoming very urbanized, but the Turks, for the most part, never  kept dogs in their homes.  Also, like impulsive people all over, many  buy dogs and tire of them.  Those involved in rescue are very pragmatic.  They do trap/neuter/release (and one reason for the  protest over loss of park land in Istanbul several years ago was not just  over loss of open space to a shopping mall…but loss of habitat for the street dogs and cats), but also care for  dogs at the Forest Sanctuary outside of the city. They work with a Dutch rescue, and ship many dogs suitable for homes to Holland. I’ve also  visited  ‘shelters’ in Hoi An, Viet Nam (http://www.vnanimalwelfare.org/category/slider/) , and both Lilongwe and Blantyre, in Malawi.  They all welcome volunteers.  Soi Dogs, in Thailand not only needs volunteers, but  people who can accompany a dog (as a courier)  from Thailand to the USA.  The Sighthound Underground and Galgos del Sol also need couriers, and you can volunteer to work in the Galgo kennel in Spain. There are also  animal shelters in more ‘vacation oriented’ places.  http://www.animal-kind.org  can put you in touch with  many shelters needing assistance.  So can Norah Livingstone: http://www.animalexperienceinternational.com/aboutus.html.  World Vets:  http://worldvets.org/volunteer/upcoming-projects/  has volunteer opportunities in  Central America and southern Asia.  If you are more the type who  just wants to observe, or maintain habitat, Earthwatch http://earthwatch.org/has programs, many involving habitat conservation or observation of animal behavior, overseen by scientists. Meeting  other animal lovers and sharing information is a great way to spend vacation time.

A Trip to Africa Changed my Life: a continuation of the blogs on Malawi/Zambia 2016

March 11, 2016

busstation LuWhat does being a  developed country mean?  Why are some counties so poor, and others, which started on the road to development at the same time, doing so well?

These were  the questions I had when I traveled to Africa (Tanzania) for the first time, in 1985.  At the time, Tanzania had a 90+% literacy rate. So, why were there no roads, and if there was nothing to buy, why was inflation so  bad?
Being so inspired to learn the answer,  having seen people working incredibly hard with nothing to show for it, I returned to America, took College Level Examination Program Exams( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/College_Level_Examination_Program ),  enrolled in college, and started studying Africa area studies and international development.

The indicators of ‘development’ are : a literate populace,  access to health care and communication, infrastructure to aid economic vitality, a low infant mortality rate, and an ability  for adults to return to their communities the economic investment made in them.  So, how is it that Malaysia and Thailand seem to be doing much better than, say …Greece?  Or so many countries in Africa?

central malawi2The short answer is political will.  The answer gets more complicated  because of  western (oh, hell, American and the European)aid, which  keeps  people engaged in corruption and malfeasance in power.  These are sovereign states.  We have an embarrassing track record of intervening—in fact, in assassinating, elected leaders whom  WE (face it—our tax dollars at work) felt were governing not in OUR interests.    Yet, for all the meddling we’ve done, and the billions USAID has given, we don’t have  much to show for it. We don’t have to go back forever, but just to after the end of World War II.

But this is not what this blog is about. What I learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer is that  direct aid to communities, which you can  hold accountable, spurs more development than anything USAID or ODA have ever done.

I had been donating to several groups, and I wanted to see, with my own eyes, how they were doing.  Actually,  I wanted to see what they were doing with my donations.

Zambian Children's Fund Chishawasha School outside Lusaka

Zambian Children’s Fund Chishawasha School outside Lusaka

The first  place I visited was the Chishawasha primary school  in Chishawasha, just north of Lusaka.  Kathe Padilla had seen the poverty in the region, and  also knew how AIDS had devastated families. So, she worked with a local chief to get land set aside for  housing for orphans,  and a school.  Somewhat resembling the SOS Children’s Village model, where a house mother stays with a cohort,  with the assistance of the Glassco Foundation of Canada (http://glasscofoundation.org/ZambiaMainframe.php?page=OrphanageProject.htm),  Kathe had a compound, and a primary school built.  I have been sending books, art supplies, and other miscellaneous items to Kathe, who is in Tempe, Arizona, and she sends a container about once a year.  There are supporters in other parts of the ISA and Canada.  The school is a good size, and they even have a computer lab.  Kathe is also working with the extended families of the orphans on other income generating projects.  I am lucky enough to live in Chicago, and get just about everything I send  for free.  It  costs me about $100 a cubic meter to send the boxes to Kathe and the Zambian Children’s Fund by UPS.  I actually used to send  books to Malawi via M bag, but that program no longer exists.  In any case, I was

Buildings on the Chishawasha campus

Buildings on the Chishawasha campus

delighted to see that housing in such great shape and so modern, and the compound so  beautiful.  http://www.zambianchildrensfund.org/  Also, they have so many  helpful projects to help the community with economic development.

Reception at Lilongwe SPCA

Reception at Lilongwe SPCA

I then went to Malawi, and I had planned to  volunteer with the Lilongwe SPCA (http://www.lilongwespca.org/ ). However, they had just moved, and  they were still a ‘work in progress’.  One way they support themselves is by running a veterinary clinic. Thy were quite busy the day I was there.  The number of pets they have for adoption at any one time varies.  They’ve had a litter of pups for  a couple of months, and they all seem to be well socialized. The kittens they had really needed more human interaction.  I had learned about  them via  http://www.Animal-Kind.org and was able to make several donations to them via Animal-Kind. They’ve unfortunately, had a communication breakdown, but they do get a lot of local support, particularly from expats, but also, from many local Malawians.  At their new  grounds, they will be able to have many more activities, including dog training classes, and they do educational workshops all over the country.  I felt my donations were well used.  Their   new compound is so large, they will be able to house volunteers who might come from outside the country.

mcv1Finally, I went to Malawi Children’s Village in Mangochi (http://malawichildrensvillage.org/about/).  I had been supporting MCV since  inception, with cash donations and  sending books M-bag.  I was a bit disappointed to learn that the books were packed up because they were in the process of moving the library from  one  room to another, but Vincent, the assistant manager, took  us (I arrived as  a few other people were there) on  a tour  of  the grounds.  They now have a secondary school, and  vocational training in bricklaying, carpentry, vehicle repair, and  a sewing/fashion workshop.  They produce a lot of nice items there, and I was able to purchase trousers and several small bags.  They also have made uniforms for local school children.  Attached to the compound is the Open Arms orphanage, which serves infants to age 2—until they are healthy enough to

Open Arms Orphanage at Mangochi

Open Arms Orphanage at Mangochi

return to their extended families.  Many of the babies have AIDS.  In fact, as I served in Peace Corps, there was a 20—90% incidence of HIV, depending on how close you lived to the road.  What kind of difference would this make?  During times of drought and starvation, girls will prostitute themselves for food, and truckers  take advantage of being away from home.  One must keep in mind that this is a somewhat polygamous society, so there  never really was a stigma regarding multiple partners (in spite of the influence of Christianity…and for the most part, both Zambia and Malawi are  very Christian nations:  you pick and choose what works for you…and of course, Jesus forgives your sins…). Malawi Children’s Village is very well-known now, at least in central Malawi, and I found it very gratifying to see how effective the programs are.

Lilongwe bus station

Lilongwe bus station

Partly due to culture, partly due to religious faith, and partly due to access, Malawi is a very poor country.  It is difficult for me to say that  Zambians  are better off, but being closer to Zimbabwe, which  is closer to South Africa, and being a larger country, there are more of the trappings of development  (at least in terms of infrastructure) in  Zambia than there are in Malawi.  I noticed more water pumps closer to the roads in Malawi than there were 20 years ago, and there is a much greater middle class population—-at least in both Blantyre and Lilongwe.  More people are wearing shoes, everyone has a cell phone, and all the women either are relaxing their hair, having extensions put on, or are wearing wigs.  Yet,  literacy has barely improved, there is still very little access to health care, and  rally, people ar  very cynical about their governments.  This is true of both countries.

Hippo in the Zambezi River

Hippo in the Zambezi River

There is  too much cronyism and corruption in both countries. When beneficial laws are passed, they are not enforced.  Except for  the hippos I saw in the Zambesi River, and the monkeys in the park, I saw no other wildlife.  This is a tragedy.  Wildlife tourism is a major foreign exchange earner for both countries.  People who come to see wildlife  support a lot of jobs in the hospitality industry.  If word gets out that there is no wildlife to be seen,  people with money will stop coming to  these countries, and there is virtually no other industries that can  be competitively developed to  support all these people.  We —in America—think we have a refugee problem now?  If we don’t do  something to cause the non-profits now supporting wildlife and environmental conservation to  develop more effective strategies for  educating Africans about the importance of their wildlife heritage, and influencing politicians, we are going to be facing another crisis.

 

 

 

The Warm Heart of Africa & ‘Big Heads’

February 26, 2016
miles from anywher you'd call anywhere, except right on Lake Malawi

Lufua Village miles from anywhere you’d call anywhere, except right on Lake Malawi

I am starting this blog post with a link to an excellent article that Alexander  published…you can see how many years ago.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1991/12/16/an-ideal-state

For those new to me, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer Urban Planner in Blantyre, Malawi in 1992.  I joke that I undeveloped the country, but my main job was development control, and helping the country modernize their  procedures.  I failed at almost everything because there was no political will.  Worse, there was a drought, and these were the last ruling days of Hastings ‘Kamuzu’ Banda.

When you are a Peace Corps Volunteer, you develop a fondness for your country.  Thus, I supported Malawi Children’s Village, and have been in touch with humane societies in Lilongwe and  Blantyre.  In future blogs, I will do more of a description of these organizations.

I don’t think there is one of us who doesn’t feel that they want to leave the world a better place.  I was a founding board member of Uptown Recycling Station in Chicago in 1984—one of the first community based recycling organizations in the country, and this effort kickstarted an industry.  So, you do what you can…and this  was the reason I  returned to Malawi, and also spent time in Zambia—-to see if my  support  has been making a difference.  I am happy to say it has. So, it was worth the effort just for those reasons.

As far as this being a vacation…I can hardly call it that.  Let’s start with the currency issue.   You can see the difference.  In America, we go to the bank & just assume we are not being given counterfeit bills.  But that was not the problem, I learned.  The unofficial policy in both Zambia and Malawi was not to change  $100 bills that were older than 2013.  I even had trouble at the banks, and the American Embassy was of no help.  As I explained to  my African friends, nobody in the USA uses $100 bills.  They could see how crisp the bills were.  I told them only gamblers, dope dealers, & people buying & selling cars use $100 bills. the rest of us use credit cards.  I thought the reason for this  discrimination was counterfeit bills coming in from South Africa. Ah, no:  the reason is….the Asians (Indian/Pakistani)  population hoards them, and if they dear a devaluation, floods the market and causes rapid  inflation…so by banning the  street or bank conversion, they are forced to bank them.  So I had to be very frugal, and use credit cards where ever I could—which was difficult.  Nobody takes a credit card outside of the big cities.  In the past,  the currency discrimination was against ‘small heads’ (bills  minted in  the 1980s) vs the ‘large heads’.  Now, they want to see that mylar stip and the liberty bell in gold.

What has changed in 23 years?  Literacy is up by  about 25 % for both men and women, and AIDS is down (though  there is a cohort of people—-probably age 35+—which is missing,  Both countries are now very young), and people seem to think that the economy is much better and growing.  This is a subsistence agriculture country.  Into the 1800s (we have to go this far back for you to understand Africa) Malawi was sparsely populated. The Ngoni had gone from  south Africa up to the Congo, then back down  through Zambia and  into Malawi, the Chewa were there, and the Yao came in from Mozambique, mostly to  escape the slave trade….but due to tsetse fly,  people couldn’t farm all over. The soil wouldn’t support it, anyways. For  centuries, these people raised millet as their staple, a  drought resistant grain. When the Europeans came in, they supported the planting of maize over millet, and maize is not drought tolerantThe drought issue  could be cyclical, but  for the past  30 or so years, the problem has been  deforestation.  Most of this is caused not by slash & burn agriculture, but  harvesting wood for charcoal for cooking.

Starvation  is still a huge issue, especially in the rural areas, but  actually, Malawi is very densely populated and some what urban.  What I  did notice is that  virtually everyone was wearing shoes—even if it was cheap BATA  or Chinese jellies ( in the early 1990s, only about  30% of people wore shoes) and virtually every woman gets her hair done, whether it be relaxed, or, mostly, extensions or wigs.  When I served, no woman  got her hair done—less than 5%.  Again, these are women with no electricity or running water. Another surprise:  everyone had a cell phone. No joke. I was in a way off the road in Lufua village.  I had to take a truck to get there, and  people had cell phones. They buy battery packs in markets to charge them.

More people are running ‘matolas’ (Toyota 4 x4) and minibuses, so  Stagecoach, the  old buses  imported from Blantyre, Scotland, are gone. They used to run on a schedule.  Now, the vehicle goes when full. Finally, Whitex, the  regional cloth looms, is gone.  They produced unique designs. Now, all the cloth is wax print & faux wax print from Mali, Tanzania…and India or China.

I will write more about  my experience in next week’s blog post.

 

 

The Blog About Going Back to Africa

January 29, 2016
a colorized version of G.P. Murdock's ethnic map of Africa

a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

One of my friends said I had to write about this, as just arranging this trip has been an adventure.  I was  a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi in 1992.  I was a town planner. Peace Corps Volunteers are not supposed to be in politically sensitive positions, and I  actually tried getting another agency (NGO) to pick me up, but the times were  pretty tense, as the European Community was leaning heavily on Hastings Banda (Kamuzu) to allow multi-party elections and a free press.

My job was actually development control…and I was briefly given an assignment  financed by UN Development Programme to organize residents of traditional housing areas (that is, residents of urban communities which allowed  squatter housing, or housing that would not pass building codes) to  have control over their water supply…but that didn’t work out due to the Malawi Congress Party, as well as the Europeans leaning on Banda, and the funding was withdrawn in about four weeks.

In any case, I lived in Blantyre and  at one point, the  Government of Malawi —at least through the office of President and Cabinet, wanted me to take  an illegal action and confiscate some land people had title to.  So, it was stressful.  But now it is  over 20 years later, and I want to not only see how things are, but I want to visit some projects I’ve been supporting (Zambian Children’s Fund in Chishawasha, a bit outside of Lusaka), the Lilongwe SPCA, and the Malawi Children’s Village  outside Mangochi.  I will also visit several other projects, and Victoria Falls in southern Zambia.

 

I paid for the airfare ($1268.36, Emirates Air) back at the end of June, 2015. Yes, the airfare has gone down a bit over $200 since, because the price of fuel has fallen…but that could not be guaranteed, so I really didn’t overpay that much, and I spend the night in Dubai.

Doing research on getting transport had taken up a lot of time, as you can’t get any info  directly from the bus companies, or it contradicts what everyone posts on TripAdvisor and ThornTree/Lonely Planet.  That’s how it is. Unless you  join a formal tour company for a ‘safari’, which is extremely expensive these days, you have to be flexible about how you plan to get around. Thankfully, all the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) now have websites, and their people are very helpful about telling you where to stay and how to get there.  I will get into the itinerary.

I knew I had to get a visa for Zambia ($70 plus the certified letter costs), and I actually was thinking of going to Hong Kong this time  because I didn’t want to have to get another Yellow Fever shot—which was required for some time for visas to either Zambia or Malawi.  A Yellow Fever shot (I’ve had 3) will make you quite sick, and is not cheap—you have to go to a  specific travel medical center to get one, and they not only charge about $150 for the shot, but  $$$ for ‘overhead’.  No thanks.

So I sent my passport off to the Zambian Embassy, and it took them  about  two weeks, or did it?  I sent it USPS certified mail, and I got a notice that it was returned, but since I was not home, I had to go to the post office and stand in line…and then, it turned out the   mail person had ‘forgotten’ to take it out of the bag, so they told me they would deliver it the next day…and did not, so I had to go back on Monday, now having no receipt because I had signed it over, and they found it.  It was very stressful.

So, I’m set, just have to pack, but I am on Facebook (Peace Corps Malawi feed) & someone posts last week : “has anyone tried to get a visa to Malawi now that the rules have changed?” What?  A visa had not been needed for Americans or Europeans  since independence, but now the reciprocal deal is  that if  your country charges their nationals for a visa, they charge you (&  the US charges about $160 to Malawians)…so I tried emailing the embassy in Washington, DC, and none of their email addresses are  good. I downloaded the  application forms, and left a message—and the embassy called me back!  They said I could NOT get a visa at the border, to send my passport Fed-Ex and they would  process it & send it back!  So, that was $100 + the $55 to get it there and back.  HOWEVER, I will point out that the official Malawian Tourism site—run by the government—still has the old, inaccurate information on it.  What are you going to do?   What ended up happening is that I sent it, tried to track it, it got to the embassy, and…sat there because of the huge blizzard.  Most embassy offcies were closed, but I left a message and they told me a few people had gone in and would send it back tomorrow.

I’ve budgeted about  $3000 total for this trip. Some places are set up to take credit cards, which is good, and food and transport are still inexpensive by American standards.This is a 20 day trip including  air transit days. Minus the air fare, that’s $86 a day.  Can I do it?  We’ll see.

Big problem is  I am taking a lot of stuff to leave there. About  five  pounds of fabric to be made into clothes,  about 10 pounds of books  as gifts, and other odds & ends.  I never anticipate bringing that much stuff back, but if i can find  bone or malachite jewelry—or bowls, that would be nice.

So, this will be the last blog for a while.I will be spending all my energy getting around.

 

Book Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

August 21, 2015
a colorized version of G.P. Murdock's ethnic map of Africa

a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

As many readers of this blog know, I have traveled in Africa several times. I was Peace Corps in Malawi in 1992.  Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Even though it has been the recipient of much foreign aid (from USAID, the European Community, and even medical personnel from Egypt), the government policy has been to NOT have it trickle down to the populace.  Who knows where it went. Consultants?    When I served in Peace Corps, literacy hovered around 35%.  Only 15% of households had access to radios. The incident of AIDS was 25–90% depending on how close you lived to a paved road.  Malawi is still very much a country of small holders:  small  farmers.  Many have been encouraged to  plant the cash crop of tobacco (hey—the Chinese still smoke like chimneys, as do the Eastern Europeans and Middle Easterners…), but then, due to quality issues, the  government  parastatal buying the tobacco to resell  will only buy a small portion of what small holders were selling…and you can not eat tobacco.

With access to the internet (via mobile phones, originally brought to Malawi by the Malaysians), more people are getting more information. However, in addition to AIDS, malaria is still a huge  problem, as is TB. So many Malawians do NOT live near paved roads that it is difficult to  get  information (so most of what you get is via rumor) or access to health care.  Primary school is free, but often teachers are merely high school graduates themselves, and don’t own any books for the subjects they are teaching.  You have to pay fees to go to high school.

Knowing this,  this is why  Kamkwamba’s story is so remarkable.  This book was written by  one of those kids who didn’t get to go to high school because his family could not afford school fees.  He feared for his future, of course, but  he was a curious kid, and thankfully, there was a free library in his town.  All the books were donated.

Farming is the type of job  where there are weeks of intense work preparing the soil and planting….and then you wait and hope and pray.  Malawi has  always suffered droughts, made worse in recent decades due to deforestation. This  story takes place  just after the turn of the century.  While Malawi was no longer rules by Kamuzu Banda, it turned out that the devil they didn’t know was worse, as Muluzi, the president at the time, was in total denial about  people starving due to crop failure due to the drought.  Kamkwamba does a brilliant job of describing how bad things were at this time.  It’s humbling.

He also describes the culture of the Chewa people very well.  The gist of the story is that he had a lot of time on his hands, as he wasn’t in school, so he borrowed books and taught himself physics.  He  found scrap parts, and built a windmill so his family could have electricity.  He becomes  famous in his village (one reason is that he charges villagers cell phones!),  Malawian journalists write about him, one thing leads to another, and  his education (having been interrupted for five years) is sponsored and he is asked to give a TED talk.  Very happy ending.

This is a marvelous book, available on Amazon (I’ve included a link), and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about Africa, resilience, perseverance, or who wants to make a difference and help others like Kamkwamba.  When I first became curious about Africa, the classic, “The African Child,” by Camara Laye, was recommended, and that is  a sort of idealized view of African childhood.  This book is better.  It would make a great gift for any child, and be a great addition to any school library.

I’ve included links for the African Library Project and Zambian Children’s Fund.  In the last century, I used to send books via ‘M’ bag, to schools in Malawi.  I sent several tons of books, but the U S Postal Service stopped this as it was too expensive (they had to pay to store containers until they were full). It you send books to  either organization, they  will send them in containers and make sure they are delivered.  I send the books UPS, because I know from experience that the USPS often is rough with boxes and empty boxes have been delivered.  The Africans  really need books on science, business, public health, first aid,  and teachers editions.  They can also use maps.

Who knows how many kids like Kamkwamba there are, who are curious, but don’t have access to books?

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?search=William+Kamkwamba&title=Special%3ASearch&fulltext=1

http://www.amazon.com/The-Boy-Who-Harnessed-Wind/dp/0803740808/ref=pd_sim_14_1/185-7381202-9985626?ie=UTF8&refRID=1JHS80E4ZQ1VAAS6G14J

http://www.africanlibraryproject.org/?gclid=CjwKEAjw9dWuBRDFs9mHv-C9_FkSJADo58iMa3PZxGrRVw6NNZQacpRvHv2_5RGkn2ON0jSGUM_TaxoCBKDw_wcB

http://www.zambianchildrensfund.org/

Planning a Trip to Africa for Winter 2016

August 7, 2015
a colorized version of G.P. Murdock's ethnic map of Africa

a colorized version of G.P. Murdock’s ethnic map of Africa

My first trip to Africa was Tanzania,  in 1985.  I found a guy who  booked camping safaris, and he suggested  Tanzania because (he said) “Nobody goes there.”  One reason  people didn’t go was because infrastructure was so bad…and I am told, 30 years later, it still is.  And I’ve learned there are many places in Africa where nobody goes.  I wanted to see the last Eden, which I was told would be gone by now…and it is.  It’s gone because of war, drought, poaching, and rapid population growth.

We Americans  think we know it all, and we think Africa has not developed because of tribalism.  That’s not the reason. The reason  Africa stays without infrastructure is elitism that is fostered by western donors.

There  has never been much material culture in Africa except for the coasts, where land was rich enough to support agriculture and social stratification, and trade was easy.  Go inland, and people are so poor due to  non-arable land, it’s all they can do to eek out a living.   Not much time  is left to pursue the arts.  On the coasts, you’ll find metal working (particularly West Africa), carving, even  bark cloth.  More inland, there is more performance and dancing.

What Americans tend to not understand is that women are the farmers in Africa, but the aid has gone to the men:  men who’ve frittered it away, gambled, drank and  wasted it….  with our help.  Women  do the framing, house keeping, and child rearing.  Men sit around and bullshit.

My 2nd  trip to Africa, to volunteer in Kajiado, Kenya, in Maasailand.  We were at a school run by the African Inland Church (Scottish Protestants), and in our enclave, there was a school for blind boys, a school for  physically disabled girls,and our boarding school for girls.  We went into town  to get some provisions.  I was waiting with a government official (an educated Maasai guy), and we were sitting in a restaurant drinking Fantas.  An older Maasai woman weaved over to the table and started talking to me.  Of course, I couldn’t understand her, and my friend said, “She’s quite drunk, actually.”  It wasn’t even 11 in the morning.  She couldn’t have been older  than 40, but it’s hard to tell.  In her younger days, she might have been the  mtoto sweeping out her boma or tending a fire, but she has kids…maybe even grandkids…to do that now. She had nothing to do but drink.  Where did these pastoralists get money to drink? Selling jewelry to tourists.

After graduate school, I joined Peace Corps, and was assigned to be a town planner in Malawi. At first, it looked like I was going to be sent to Mzuzu in the north, but when I got to training, I was told I was going to Blantyre.  BT was the industrial capital of the country.  It was a relatively old city, with a population  of  about 400,000 at the time, and it was essentially ‘planned out’ by the  Scottish/British. Due to a racist dynamic,  there were areas zoned where Indians could not  buy land.  However, they were clever, and due to their political organization, they ended up with the best infrastructure.  I had just gotten my masters degree in urban planning, and what a great place to see how things actually turn out.

AIDS was a huge problem in the  early 1990s. Due to government policy, less than 35% of the population of Malawi was literate, and fewer than 15% of households had  radios.  All information was via rumor. There was a 25 to 90% incidence of HIV, depending on how close you lived to a paved road.  There were many factors  causing this, but the main one was poverty.  It wasn’t like the USA and Europeans were not sending  development aid.  It was  just not  monitored and it was mis spent.

I was able to make a brief visit about  two years after my Peace Corps service, after there had been a multi-party election.  It looked like the economy had improved.  Many more women were having their hair relaxed (a large expense in households making under $4000 a year), and more people were wearing shoes.  However, the U N had moved in Somali refugees, and they walked around with rifles.

I have not been back in  over 20 years.  I have been supporting Malawi Children’s Village, the Zambian Children’s Fund (in Lusaka, Zambia), and there were  things I never got to see while I lived in Malawi.

I plan to fly into Lusaka, take a bus to Lilongwe (visit the Lilongwe  SPCA while there), get transport to Mua Mission to see their pottery works, get transport to Dedza to see Dedza pottery…then get transport  down to Mangochi to visit the Malawi Children’s Village.  From Mangochi, I hope to  spend a day in Blantyre & see what the Chinese are doing, Then catch a bus —I hope to Lusaka….but I may have to  go back up to Lilongwe and  go back around.  Then, back in Lusaka, I plan to make it down to Victoria Falls.

The roundtrip airfare with taxes is in the $1500 range.  $100 per day should be more than enough for expenses.  I am not going on a safari, but if anyone wants to join me, there will be an opportunity in Zambia.

‘Higher’ Education…What a racket!

April 10, 2015

I didn’t go to college until I was in my 30’s.;  It was a trip to Africa that changed my life. I stared out as a do-gooder who wanted to  help the Africans. As i got my education, I  was embarrassed at my American arrogance and changed my mindset, but my goal was still to give back.  My counterparts in peace Corps  often discussed with me the   merits of a particular action regarding lad=nd use planning.  Of course, they asked my opinion. they felt I had more experience and access to more information,  I often told them it was a judgement call.  It was their country, and they had to decide.

So, I was a mature adult when I decided to follow through on college. Thankfully, the College Level Examination Program saved me a lot of time and money. I got 2 years of college credit for free, and didn’t have to pay for a bunch of prerequisites.  I knew I wanted to major in anthropology, and I had dual minors:  environmental studies and international studies.  My instructors were very good, for the most part.  I  did learn a lot.  However, by 1989, a bachelor’s degree meant nothing, and I knew I’d need an advanced degree to have any sort of impact.  Long story short, a friend who was a professor at the University of Illinois at
Chicago, got me an interview at the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development, and I got an assistantship which paid for my master’s degree…which was virtually useless.

While I was  in the program, I sort of realized this degree was a way to weed out people less committed to planning, but  my  schooling—even statistics—was no more rigorous than an associate degree.  I was not studying anything really technical (I graduated a year before software allowed  land use planning on a computer): most of my studies were  a history of planning, or  entry-level management courses.  I also took a concentration in educational policy planning.  Keep in mind—I paid for nothing and got a small ($500 a month) stipend.

The reason(s) the degree was really worthless  were several: 1.  I  had an undergraduate degree in anthropology—not in finance, accounting,  geography, political science, or law.  Unless I knew someone, there were hundreds with  backgrounds just like mine; 2. I was not bilingual Spanish; 3.  I had never taught in an elementary school classroom, so without a Ph.D, it—my graduate education— was just an exercise in self-indulgence.

I had a roommate who had  an undergraduate degree in English Literature. she got interested in Urban Planning, and  could type 60 wpm.; she got a job right away as an administrative assistant at a land use planning firm. she was totally disorganized, and a ditz, but she could type and was really charming.  I got interviewed for several jobs where I was told—at the interview—the  organization was looking for a visible minority (that means person of color).  so Peace Corps was the right decision at the time.

While I was in high school, I  took savings and decided to go to dog grooming school. It was the New York School of Dog Grooming in Chicago, and it was run by Don Doessel for Mario and Margaret Migliorini.  These  people were pioneers in the teaching of grooming  for those of us who wanted to work with dogs and whose parents  probably did not show dogs.  Don sold Louis & Seme Auslander their  foundation  bitch, Dansel Dutch Treat.  Don was a fantastic teacher, I don’t think I ever saw him actually groom a dog, but he could teach, and he was patient.  The advantage of the school at the time was that every dog was a Poodle. And, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his essay, 10,000 hours, we learned to  do Poodles by grooming so many Poodles.

Those days are gone. In 12 weeks of grooming school (which I believe I paid under $5000 for), I got enough of a foundation in grooming, and how to manage my time, that I was able to apprentice to  some very good groomers and home my craft.  I got  proficient, and I was able to work part time as a groomer and pay cash for those  3 years of  college that were my undergraduate degree.  The industry has changed. More and p more people who have never groomed nor trained a dog are opening dog daycare businesses or kennels, and hiring groomers, and they seem to believe the groomers either out of grooming school or trained by a ‘big box’ pet store can actually groom, They can’t groom. they can shave dogs, but they don’t know anything about dog physiology, dog psychology, or  the artistry of grooming. Now, owners of purebred dogs  go back to the breeders for grooming, because the pet groomers groom so poorly.

This is all relevant because with some capital, and a lawyer, you can open a dog grooming school and be licensed in the State if Illinois to teach grooming.  Some students pay for their own education, but many get financial aid from the state—our tax dollars, and  even after  6 months, most can’t groom.  There’s a  combination of reasons they can’t groom:  poorly trained teachers, not enough  dogs with coat they can practice on, not having any talent to begin with…but no matter.

We are learning more and more of other schools just like the  dog grooming schools:  private, for-profit, training  paralegals, CNAs (nurses assistants) massage therapists…the list of things they teach goes on and on, and these  graduates of these schools can’t find jobs.

So, you see, from my experience in getting my master’s degree, actually choosing a bona fide  program is the luck of the draw.

Now, certainly, if you graduate from an Ivy League School in philosophy or English Lit, you will get a job based on the connections you made.  Also, chances ate, with any B.A. degree from any college, you can  get a management job in  a retail store, or sell insurance (you will have to study for licenses), but face it: a liberal arts degree is now a ticket to nowhere.

Unfortunately,  so many people take out loans to  go into these  programs, to they can get a job to pay back their loans, and it’s all based on  1 big lie.  The lending institutions get you into debt, you can’t get a job, and  by the time you see what’s happened, you’ve wasted anywhere from a year to 5, and you’ve  got a mess.  But it’s legal.  You’d think some sort of school counselor would say to these people: “don’t  get student loans to pay for an undergrad degree in
English Lit, Liberal Arts,  Music History, History, etc, etc.  If you are not majoring in STEM—science, technology,engineering, math….you are digging yourself into a financial hole.”  but nobody does.

My niece did it right.  When she graduated high school she went to a community college and got an associate degree in accounting. she also worked at a bank, and learned the mortgage brokerage business from a customer of the bank.  she went on to get her B.A, in political science, and went immediately to law school, where she concentrated  in real estate law. She does house closings, and she and her husband fix up homes, and either rent them out or sell them.  Yes, she had student debt, but she had a way to pay it off.

I would advise anyone to talk to at least a dozen people  who work in the profession you are  thinking of training for. Ask how they think prospects are.  Ask where they thnk the berst training program is.  The one thing you shouldn’t do is borrow money.

Elephants…and the Availability of Family Planning Services

March 13, 2015
Me on an elephant in Thailand

Me on an elephant in Thailand

What do   most  Americans know about elephants?  They are big, they are smart (they never  forget),and they live long.  But, do most of us understand that their habitat is disappearing due to  human population encroachment, and  that those in Asia which  traditionally had jobs  are losing them to trucks? Do many people know that the ones still used, for  work—often entertainment—are either passed down in families…or actually mortgaged (and  they cost around $100,000)?

I learned about this when I traveled in India and Thailand.  In Thailand, there are several businesses that  are open to tourists in the Chang Mai area, that do elephant ‘shows’ of elephants playing soccer and painting. They address the  history of elephants in Thailand, and that  they don’t  want to lose  their elephants, but  need to find  something for them to do, and keep them healthy.  The  keeping and using of elephants as  beasts of burden goes back centuries in Asia, but  not so in Africa.

2 good books for learning about  elephants are, “Coming of Age With Elephants,” by Joyce Poole, and  “Portraits in the Wild:  Behavior Studies of East African Mammals,”  by Cynthia Moss.  Poole was a protege of Moss, and the Moss book, published in 1975, is dated, of course, but  anyone thinking of going on safari in Africa should definitely check it out, as  it is comprehensive and a good   entre’ into  wild animal behavior observation.

Why should any of this matter?  I have  been a proponent of animal rights/animal welfare for  most of my  sentient/conscious life.  I am not a vegetarian partly because my father was a meat packer when I was young.  However, I do eat  lower  on the food chain, and am conscious of my choices.  But enough about me.     I have blogged about  Armchair Activism, and one of our concerns  has always been  animals  exploited for entertainment.  Animals in zoos/aquariums, and circuses.  It’ one thing to train a dog.  Dogs have been domestic for over  10,000 years.  Dogs love to learn,and  many love to work.  Some of the Asian elephants have been from  domestic  bloodlines, but  from what I’ve read, this is a rarity,and they are still being captured in the  Asian forests.

We know  African elephants are still being slaughtered  for ivory, and, as I write this, in 2015, China has put a moratorium on  ivory imports (but this has not  been true in the rest of southeast Asia), and Robert Mugabe,  the president of Zimbabwe—one of the last old time dictators who will NEVER get the Mo Ibrahim prize for leaving his country in better shape than he found it, has been selling  elephants to  highest bidders.

The news came  down this week that the largest  circus in the US, Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, is phasing out the elephant act.  Could be they finally got religion, and the ban on their use prevented them from  setting up shop in some major markets?   Or because they are old, and many are ill? This came about  not because elected officials  have such a high consciousness about animal exploitation, but because activists made a compelling case for why this  should not be allowed.  In case I am not getting my point across:  these are large animals, they are smart, they are under a great deal of stress, and they can be dangerous…and it is no  feat of intelligence on the part of humans to brutalize them.  It is a display of cruelty and  exploitation—hardly entertaining.

I guess the Felds—the owners of the circus,  saw that this scenario  was really bad for the bottom line.  It costs a lot  to  care for elephants.  People are starting to think about what is involved in  keeping  endangered species for entertainment.  The elephants in the circus are old, and they should be retired.

Most likely, if we can make our voices heard, the elephants will be retired to the elephant sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee: http://www.elephants.com/

This is a true sanctuary.  People are not allowed to visit—but you can go to the website & see how  they elephants live.  In fact,  zoos with elephants should  bring their  elephants living in  solitary confinement (as most are in zoos) to the sanctuary, and run the films  to explain to zoo goers  that this is much more humane, caring,  and ethical  than  what we  did before we knew better.

So I have to put this out there:  if the thought hasn’t crossed your mind already:  how can you  say you love animals—your pet animals, and  not  at least be concerned about  ALL ANIMALS?

We are at the moment of truth.  We’ve known for decades —at least 5—about habitat loss and human encroachment.  But do we know that  women in less developed countries still don’t have access to  family planning and education? That  my own United States government still gives foreign aid (mostly in the  form of military  equipment and expertise) to many governments that  don’t provide  public education, don’t train teachers,and don’t allow  women to have control over their own reproductive choices?  We give money to MEN who  make the decisions…and you can see they’ve done a piss poor job of it.  Women would choose to have smaller families, and there would be less habitat loss…and more room for wildlife, and fewer ecological disasters.

I urge  anyone who hasn’t seen it, to get a copy of the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.”   It’s an entertaining  look—based on a true story—of how a politician who didn’t have  an opinion either way—was influenced.  I also urge you to read Malcolm Gladwell’s marvelous book, “The Tipping Point.”

With social media—yes, Facebook—we can now get out message out so much faster.  I  became reacquainted with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in  30 years, and he asked me what I had been doing.  I told him  about grooming dogs, training, Peace Corps.  He said he wished he could  do something. I told him   the  one thing he could do right now  was to start recycling his trash. Start there.  Start learning the issues.  Know who your elected officials are. They are not entertainers (for the most part), but  public servants.  Tell them what matters to you. Sign the petitions.  Anyone asking you for money—any nonprofit group—really do some research and make sure they aren’t  countering your values…but  go out of your way to help those  that  live your values, like the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.  If everyone gives or does just a little, it makes so much difference!

Book Reviews: Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWosken, and Kosher Chinese, by Michael Levy

November 27, 2014

When you travel, do you want to really learn about a place, or experience a place you fantasized about?  Do you want to meet the locals and learn what they think about the world, or do you  want photos of places you’ve seen photos of?  Do you want the people you meet in that place you’ve traveled to, to  know YOU?  As a person, or as an American?

To be a Jew in the world it to always be an ‘other’.  I think a lot of non-Jews  think of  us as an oddity.  There are the stereotypes that  we are either  Hasidic in culture/nature, or comedians, or  odd people with Asperger’s (guilty), or lurking as  gentiles/goyem. In reality, most of us are secular humanists  trying to find a place for ourselves.

As a Jew, and anthropology major, I am intensely interested in the   experiences of  Americans  attempting to make a way for themselves in a foreign culture.  I guess I did ok as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Both books came to me, by coincidence, at about the same time:  1 was at a free book swap.  The other was given to me by a friend who sell s books.  Both of these books happen to be by Jews who worked in China.  Both had unique experiences, and ways of describing their experiences and interactions with  Chinese nationals.  That’s where the similarity ends.

DeWosken had a very unique experience.  Her father was an academic sinologist, and  she had lived in China as a child.  When she graduated  college (with degrees in English and poetry), she decided to go back and live her life as an adventure. This was in the  mid 1990s, and she was able to get a job at a public relations firm in Beijing…which she hated.  Via a chance meeting at a party, she agreed to be cast as a character in the soap opera which is the title of the book.  Unique  experience hardly addresses Dewosken’s adventurous life, negotiating for  living space and learning  the subtleties of Chinese (Mandarin) as she  bumped along.  But she managed.  She also recognizes the absurdity of the character she plays,  and how this gave her a bit of an edge in meeting Chinese  artists as well as people who would become her friends.

Levy’s book is much different, and much  funnier.  He became a Peace Corps Volunteer after from returning from a trip to Israel, where he studied in a Yeshiva and planned to make a life until  bus bombings too close to home.  He returned to New York City, and not two weeks later, the  9/11 World Trade Center attacks occurred.  He thought of joining the marines, but  his mother  persuaded him that  Peace Corps might be  more to his ‘lifestyle’ taste.

Every Peace Corps Volunteer goes through that period of adjustment where you  just marvel at how little sense anything makes, and just feeling that even if it appears to be working, it probably isn’t.  Levy makes do, learns the language, goes with the flow, and does an excellent  job of telling us how he managed.

I enjoyed both books, and would recommend then to anyone thinking of either  Peace Corps service, or  expatriating themselves  to China.