Wednesday, November 28, 2007

In praise of beauty

Since yesterday evening, the most transformative realisation has occurred. As of 2pm today I find it impossible to not smile. Why? Because I have teeth again! After 4 days of hiding my face from the world, practicing my seductive "Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen lips closed and slightly upturned at the corners" smile, discovering what the strong silent types might experience in their daily life, and cancelling all unnecessary appointments, I am confident to again walk down the street, flash my pearly whites and engage people in conversation.

So the realisation is that it actually doesn't matter how you look "oh, your missing teeth are barely noticeable," what's important is how you think you look. Today as I walked down the street, I wanted to grin at everyone, I wanted everyone to notice my smile, I wanted to bare my teeth just so people would stop and say "are those new? how lovely." Of course, the reason I want to do this is because they look like they were never broken and so no one will notice they aren't mine. For the past few days, I've huddled in my corner office avoiding human contact, and to be perfectly honest I've been quite cranky. I blame my crankiness at least partially on starving (liquid diets work so well, I've discovered, because they cause you to lose weight regardless of whether that is the primary goal or not). Today I finished every sentence with a smile, if I forgot to smile I played with my teeth until I remembered how nice they were and smiled. I wanted to speak with people, to be in public, to smile!

So for everyone who is debating a new haircut, or whether to join the current decades' fashion trends, or to get braces, my advice is to do it! You may not realise just how cranky you currently are, until you rise above yourself and can't stop smiling with inner joy at how lovely you think you look, even if no one else agrees.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Of teeth and frisbees...

Years ago in University I took a course called Mammalogy, the study of mammals. As part of this course we analysed different mammalian skulls; beavers, coyotes, moles, etc. and we learned to identify animals down to a species sometimes based only on the teeth. Teeth are pretty special.
Years ago in University I also started to play a sport called Ultimate Frisbee. Yes, this sport, so misunderstood and never heard of, is actually one of the best sports in the entire world. I would know this because I've played most sports in the entire world at least once. At the same time as I played Ultimate I also played Ice Hockey and Rugby. Of course every time an injury happened it always got blamed on rugby, but it was generally the fault of ultimate. My rugby and hockey teammates would laugh at my third sport, but in all honesty I truly find ultimate more challenging in many ways than hockey or even rugby - minus of course the continual fullbody contact.
Most of you have probably never seen a game of Ultimate Frisbee. Most of you, in fact, likely associate frisbees with dogs catching them in their mouths at a park. Well, if I had in fact made the connection between my study of mammalian teeth and the differences in capabilities between said teeth, I might have averted a disastrous mistake.
This past weekend, I went to an ultimate tournament in Bridgeport, CT. My team was a random assortment of random players from random teams, and we decided that we didn't want to win the tournament since it was cold and we would have then had to play an extra game. So we enjoyed our spiked cider and played as hard as we felt like playing. Two of the guys on my team loved to huck (that means to throw the frisbee really far) and I love to run deep (that means to run all the way to the other side of the field) and catch, so we made a great team. Our final game was against a team even less competitive than we were; we at least had talent which we decided not to use whereas they had no talent and tried to use it. Final point of the game, as I ran to catch the frisbee, the girl defending me decided she didn't want me to beat her and instead pushed me. This resulted in the frisbee being caught not by my hands, but by my teeth.
This is where mammalogy could have been useful. Apparently dogs have much stronger teeth than humans. I fell to the ground and realised I had tooth pieces floating around inside my mouth, and carefully spat them into my hand. The doctor on my team informed me that these should be stuck in a container of cream (like strawberries and cream?). I traded a cup containing teeth for a cup containing ibuprofen. I think I got the better deal.
In the meantime I've discovered lisps don't really get you anywhere, it is not cool to show up at work looking like a jack "o" lantern, and front teeth are really useful for chewing. I've also discovered why liquid diets are so great for losing weight. Should I ever need to lose weight in the future I'll just ask someone to chuck a frisbee at my front teeth and wait a couple weeks before getting them fixed.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


I decided recently that I should be more aware of what is happening in the world. Online newspapers make my job especially easy, and I'll freely admit to enjoying the BBC. Part of my job being to interact with people from all circumstances all over the globe, I've found it quite important to be aware when there is civil war in one country, elections in another, riots in another, the list goes on. Reading the news, simply to read the news, can be extremely boring since there are always wars, murders, new discoveries, opinions don't often change, it can all seem the same on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis.

Since travelling and meeting people from so many different countries the news now takes on meaning to me. When I read of a car bomb in Lebanon, I realise that is the same neighbourhood I stayed in the week previously and perhaps people I met or drove past were injured or killed. When I read of electoral difficulties in Thailand I can email a former intern and find out if this is something that could cause a split in the country. Electoral issues are a common thread: corruption in the Philippines - WYA members are putting their lives in jeopardy to monitor the elections; corrupt elections in Nigeria - hopes of WYA members for a better leader are dashed. When I read of genocide in the Sudan, I remember what WYA members in Rwanda told me about surviving and rebuilding from their genocide. So the news is no longer something I read about that is happening somewhere else, but it is almost like an international blog of issues directly affecting people I know, or work with, or work for, or will hopefully meet someday.

Then there are the special interest stories, just this morning I discovered a blog about moustaches. I realise a blog on moustaches has nothing directly to do with promotion of human dignity, but it's so funny I highly suggest everyone to follow this link!

The next article I happened to read was about evolution of the human species into a super race and a subhuman race - didn't we already get over this post-Hitler? Based on sex selection the super race should have smooth, clear skin (sounds like a Neutrogena ad), symmetrical facial features, athletic build, men will have large penises and women will have perky breasts. The subhuman race will appear like hobgoblins. Did I forget to mention that of course the better looking race is also more intelligent since studies have clearly proven the genetic link between good looks and intelligence? Now I don't wish to disparage Dr. Curry, I'm sure he doesn't realise he's following in the footsteps of eugenicists, but does it concern anyone that this could be considered a serious enough topic that he was able to get a PhD based on this theory, and published in the BBC? Do we really want to encourage these people through providing them with academic credentials and press? enough said...

On a much cuter note, there was also an article about the most recent winners of the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. There are some incredible pictures for any wildlife fans out there.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Thoughts, at last :)

The difficulty with beginning a blog just as I embark on a tour of 4 countries in Africa, Lebanon, and the Philippines, is that once I've returned home there just doesn't seem to be the same excitement to write about. Of course, random exciting things always happen, but how to compare a weekend in Paris to my first taste of Nigerian food. Or how can I possibly compare taking pictures with Hezbollah in Lebanon to my daily life in the office in NY? This is my life, the travels are exciting, the people are incredible, and every day I wake up and come to work... same as everyone else.

Beirut, Lebanon

New Brunswick, Canada

Road Trip! NY

Soapsuds in a fountain in Paris!

So, brief update, we started with a new batch of interns 3 weeks ago. The interns are from the USA, Canada, Philippines, and Mexico. They're a lot of fun! Normally there is a period of relative calm after interns arrive, they're all kind of nervous, thrown into a new city with new people and new experiences, and they all want to make a good impression. This batch was somewhat unique... First day, they were all
volunteering to work, were going out shopping with each other and in fact quite loud. I don't think it helped that the night before their first day of work Phil (the International Director of Operations) and I took them out to a nearby pub :) Culture of dignity requires an EXPERIENCE of dignity, right?

The week after they arrived I flew to Mexico for the weekend, at this point you all roll your eyes and say "yeah, right, I thought her life became boring after all her travels?" ok, so I still travel, I've just already been to most of these countries so they're no longer exotic :) Back to Mexico, our members in Queretaro organised a huge youth conference by the title De Mente Joven. In spanish this means "take action youth," in English I know what your thinking, demented youth is not what we advocate is it? This conference was incredible, most of our members in Queretaro are in highschool and the conference had 4,000 participants. Pretty impressive for a group of highschool students to organise a conference with local celebrities, a band - the backstreet boys of Mexico, and of course, WYA!

Since then, we've all been settling in. I've given the interns all multiple projects so all the work that's needed to get done for months is getting done, I love interns! Two are monitoring the UN, one is working on an International Film Festival for '08, one is working on international conferences to commemorate our 10 year anniversary in '09, one is working on HIV/AIDS conferences and prep, bioethics research, university campus groups, monitoring online members' training, developing a brochure, press articles, CityAdventure in NY this Nov., etc. Haha, and the best part is that usually some of the interns really struggle with doing their projects well, these interns have so much initiative that I sometimes struggle just to keep up with all they are doing. Plus, of course this is all taking place in one office, did I mention we have 4 more?

So my life is busy, lots is getting done, progress is being made, and I even find time to play ultimate frisbee :) I spoke at a conference on Social Justice and Poverty two weeks ago at St. John's University. The professor who introduced me read my bio, all the usual bio "accomplishments" blah blah blah, then he cracked himself up and said "I think the most remarkable aspect of the young lady about to speak, is that on top of everything else she has accomplished she is so talented she plays a sport with a name as fierce as, Ultimate Frisbee!" Of course the entire room cracked up, and my incredibly intellectual opening lines were useless, so I told a story instead...

Ok, enough news for one go, this has got to be information overload after months of silence...

A picture of my family, extended version :)

Thursday, March 15, 2007


So much has happened since the last post. We had a beautiful gala with all the WYA staff from around the world, our International Board Members, WYA interns, many friends and family all in attendance. During this gala I became president of World Youth Alliance and Anna was able to fully claim and enjoy her title as Founder. We were both able to experience and enjoy our new roles in a follow-up trip to Lebanon.

We travelled back to Beirut to meet up with many more young people, and continue to begin the work of WYA in the Middle East. Anna spent a great deal of time working to develop a curriculum which will incorporate WYA materials into a high school curriculum. In this way high school students will be able to study the WYA training sets with guidance from their teachers and to help in completing their high school studies. The training materials currently cover the WYA philosophy on the dignity of the person, UN language which has shaped and been shaped by WYA, developmental issues, and other movements and philosophers who have impacted the development of the ideas WYA works with. Through incorporating this into a high school curriculum the materials will also incorporate local heroes and cultural references to give concrete examples of how this message can be lived in their society and culture.

While Anna was busy working on curriculum, I met with over a hundred youth. The great majority of youth I spoke with became members and understood so clearly the importance of the message of dignity for their lives and for the Middle East. Many of the youth had already begun their own organisations which focused on economic opportunities so youth wouldn't have to resort to terrorism and violence, and on cultural ties which are shared and can bring young people together. They immediately understood how important WYA was to bring them together with other young people they might never meet and to begin to change their society.

We have many members from Lebanon and the Middle East enrolled in our online training program and I look forward to great things happening from WYA members in the Middle East. They are absolutely capable of making the transformations which they see need to happen.

Upon my return from the Middle East, a new batch of interns had arrived at WYA headquarters in NY. We have 8 interns at the moment. We have one Filipina, a Mexican, a Canadian, a Thai, and 4 Americans. They are an excellent batch with quite a range of interests and talents. One in particular introduced himself in an unforgettable manner by pranking the founder. Danny is hilarious and has pranked almost every staff and intern at some point or another, but also takes getting pranked quite well. He is working to organise an Emerging Leaders Canadian Policy Seminar in Ottawa at the end of September. Part of the organisation process involved calling numerous hotels seeking a discount. Clare and Ines, two other interns, decided to return his pranks and called pretending to be Laura from the Sheraton. Laura offered to Danny free hotel rooms and suites for all the WYA participants and guests. She also demanded within 30 minutes to have an organisational profile, letter from the president, and speaker bios. Poor Danny was so excited and panicked trying to get everything done. Then Laura called back, said they now wished to host the event at the Sheraton, to cater the event, and also to open up all their press contacts to WYA. Danny didn't even get off the phone but sent Jordan to get me. I didn't dare break Danny's heart further so I asked him to request a letter from the Sheraton confirming all they had offered on Sheraton letterhead.

Clare and Ines were so shocked that I would turn on them, but came rushing downstairs to say he'd been punked! It took a while for Danny and the rest of the interns to believe that not just the press and catering, but even the rooms were all part of the same prank. He took it pretty well and even managed to wait two weeks before pranking Clare.

So, now we're heading into the middle of our second internship of the year, projects are coming along nicely. We're all wary of getting pranked, and have started Wednesday lunches all together to get to know each other better.

That's about all for now.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Gawad Kalinga Immersion Day 3

Thursday morning was our last day of GK Immersion. We said goodbye to our families, a number of the SIGA kids came to say bye, even Aliah was there. Instead of going back to build at Talanay, we toured a number of other GK sites. We visited another site nearby which was also under construction. We then visited Baseco, a slum beside the site of what used to be one of Manila's busiest ports. Baseco is one of the most dangerous areas in Manila. There are high crime rates and the police are almost entirely ineffectual there. GK now houses a few thousand families and within the GK site there is almost no crime and the difference in the people who live there and just outside is incredible. It is possible to look down the streets of GK to the very end, and see thousands of shacks at the edge of the GK site. It is possible to glance across the water and see a few meters away people living in shacks, then glance around and see people living in beautiful, clean cottages.

The people in GK Baseco are so friendly and so grateful for what they have. We stopped into a little classroom which was 4 meters by 8 meters. In one corner was a little play area for the children and the rest of the room was filled with tables, chairs and books. The teacher told us how he was able to teach the children thanks to the generosity of their international friends. He was especially pleased to point out the play area. This was a 1 by 2 meter area in which was a little plastic slide, some books, some stuffed animals and a few other toys. He told me this area was donated by the son of an international company, they had a plaque on the wall in his honour, he emphasized numerous times that the son donated this area personally. I felt so ashamed listening to him. That play area probably cost a total of $200. To anyone in the west that is NOTHING.

If we each contributed that amount to organisations such as Gawad Kalinga, and even more than that cared about the people who are living in such terrible conditions. If we didn't support greed and corruption through carelessness and the desire for our own comfort, there would be no need for this man to be so grateful for a plastic slide donated by the president's son of an international company. Gawad Kalinga is very careful to honour their international friends who make their work possible. Every street and house is named after the person or company who donated to make that possible. To the people living on those streets and in those houses, those international donors are really their friends, people who finally took the time to look past the misery of their conditions and realise that they are people who deserve a nice house and a clean neighbourhood and water, and a place for their children to attend school.

The difference these houses has made to those living in the communities and those working to build new communities is incredible. For the first time in their lives they are treated with respect, and looked on as part of the solution to the problems in which they live. The rich who generally ignore them and look down on them donate the materials but more than that come and work beside them to build their houses.

After Baseco, we toured a site which will soon begin construction. A group of children gathered round me as we walked through the site, and every time I smiled at them they would huddle together and giggle. Ren translated for me, that as the children would giggle excitedly and talk amongst themselves they would say "the white girl smiled at me." They were so excited just to look at me, catch my eye, smile and then turn to their friends and tell their friends I had smiled at them.

We sat down in a room for our final talk about Gawad Kalinga. A number of volunteers who were touring the site to plan the build joined us. At the end, they asked us to share our experiences, and all present turned expectantly to me. I didn't know what to do. As I'd spent two days building with those living in such conditions, I'd actively been helping them change and able to be their friend. At this point I was only able to see them, to smile at them, to leave them. I'd been telling myself all morning to be strong, not to see their poverty, but to see them for who they are. But it is very difficult to view someone as a fellow person and then to view the conditions they live in without strong emotions. So I tried to share my thoughts and couldn't, I just cried. I cried and tried to stop, to thank them for all they were doing, and for the incredible experience they'd given to me but I couldn't, all I could do was cry. My sharing was not what I intended it to be.

I finally stopped crying and we took a picture all together, at which point Tam asked me what I thought of Gawad Kalinga. Talk about terrible timing. I managed to hold back the tears since the children were all waiting for me, looking at me, and I wanted to at least leave them with a smile. We walked back to the van, and I chatted somewhat with the children asking them their names and ages. One little girl left the group and came with me all the way to the van, where we hugged and then I left.

Gawad Kalinga Immersion Day 2

Wednesday morning we woke up at 6:30 so we could get to Talanay early for more work. We rented a jeepney to go to the other site, and a number of the SIGA kids skipped school to come help us build. It was the first time any of them had travelled to another Gawad Kalinga site, and they enjoyed the experience, although they said it felt a bit strange also. Having helped to build their own homes they were already experts and many commented that it was nice to help those in another community who were trying to achieve what they already had. Wednesday morning some of us again painted others of us helped make concrete. They had a big pile of sand that had to be sifted to remove the rocks. Two people held onto either end of a large sifter and shook back and forth while other people shovelled sand from the pile onto it. Once the pile of sand was big enough, the two people emptied the rocks onto a separate pile, while others filled up bags with the sand and transported them to another place where it was mixed with water to become concrete. The local kids were eager to help and loved sifting and shovelling sand. They'd work hard, tire quickly, and then run around for a bit before returning to help. A couple little boys climbed a tree nearby and would return with handfuls of small, red fruits from the tree which they encouraged us to eat. Even our Philippino friends had no idea what the fruits were, so I ate them and hoped I didn't become sick.

At breaktime the women were true to their word and gave us putopao. Putopao are little rice bread rolls with some sort of filling inside. No one in the community has a stove, so they must have gone to the local bakery to make them for us. They were so thrilled to offer me their local specialty, of course I was thrilled to eat it by then. I ate lunch with my sister Ann from Brookside at a local woman's cottage who owned a little sari-sari, a store which sells almost anything the community could need but in tiny packets for one meal or one day, which is all the people can afford to buy at a time. During our lunch break we sat outside and gradually most of the children came to play near us. One little boy in particular was such a clown, he would run at top speed towards almost anything or anyone, swerve just before killing himself at some incredible angle, then stop and grin at us waiting for approval. Philippinos, as a nation, are not camera shy. Once I took out my camera, the kids spent the next hour coming up with creative activities, poses, faces, anything so I would take a picture of them. I let one of the kids take a picture with the camera, and after that they all wanted to try so I had to tell them it ran out of batteries so I could get it back.

In the afternoon we taught a SIBOL class at the local school, of children 3-7 years old. Charisse and Ren taught the kids some english words, then we drew pictures together. One little girl came to the session late. There is a morning and and afternoon session of school for the children. This little girl generally attended school in the morning but she'd heard a foreigner was attending their school only in the afternoon so had gone home and cried to her mother. Her mother had then spoken with the teacher and she had received special permission to attend school in the afternoon to meet the foreigner. In my group, I had the little girl who arrived late, another little girl and a little boy. We each drew for each other what we wanted the other to have. Every single child in that school drew a house. A house was the best gift they had ever received, so when they thought of generosity they thought of giving a house. We then read a story to them, I read in English while Tam read in Tagalog. We sat at the front to read, and while I was reading one little girl began touching my leg, then another girl joined in, a little boy, then half the class was touching my leg. I think they wanted to check if my skin felt different to theirs. The teacher of course was mortified and told the children to sit back and stop touching my leg. Two little girls were quite creative and then draped themselves across my knees so they could continue touching my legs without getting in trouble.

One beautiful thing about my encounters with all these children, in all the GK communites I visited, was how open they were, within seconds I became their Ate. We didn't speak the same language at all, so instead they introduced me to their games and invented other ways to get to know me. One little girl named Aliah, from Brookside, about three years old attached herself to me within seconds of seeing me. For the next three days we were practically inseparable. I became her Ate, her horsey, her amusement park, and she became my little shadow. Her mom came up to me the second night and told me that Aliah wanted to sleep with me, it was heartbreaking whenever her mom had to take her away and she would cry to come back to me. When she did return she'd run up to me all smiles and pull at me until I picked her up.

Wednesday night we had our second talk on honour. I spoke on behalf of the WYA about Dignity and Honour. I mostly wanted to convey to the youth how special they are. They've come from tough backgrounds and haven't experienced much privilege yet they had been so warm, so generous, so happy, so filled with hope. So I spoke about dignity with them, and how it tied together all our experiences, and what they could do as part of the WYA to bring their experiences to others and how they could also continue to improve their lives and their communities through living out dignity. Their levels of english comprehension varied, so I tried to speak simply. One funny aspect was that I was playing with Aliah before I went up to speak. I knew I couldn't leave her behind or she'd be sad, so I just brought her up with me, sat her on my hip and had baby in one hand, mic in the other. Of course, all the kids thought it was hilarious to have me speaking to them holding one of their babies. After a while though my arm grew tired and I had to put her down. Without me holding onto her, she took one look at the crowd and ran for the nearest break in the chairs to escape the staring eyes.

WYA has volunteered for a while with another GK community, Castaneda. A number of the youth from that community drove an hour and a half to join us for that evening. Erika told me after my talk that one of the boys from Castaneda started to cry as I was speaking. After I finished speaking, we had a party together. Greg is a rapper and also breakdances, so he started the festivities, another volunteer did some freestyle. The SIGA kids performed a number of hiphop dances for us. They compete with other GK communities, and always win. They choreograph themselves and could win against many groups with professional choreographers, they were quite impressive and danced for more than 15 minutes with all the moves perfectly memorised. They called on a number of us volunteers to freestyle at one point, and I became one of the lucky victims. Greg, Zeus, some of the SIGA kids, myself and Gail were chosen to freestyle for everyone. Thankfully Gail and I were equally terrible, since everyone else chosen was a great dancer.

We also cooked everyone dinner, we made spaghetti and Erika brought chicken. Philippino style spaghetti would not be appreciated in Italy. Philippinos love everything sweet, including spaghetti. I don't dare give away the recipe but the kids loved our spaghetti, they gave us the highest compliment - that it tasted like McDonalds or Jollibee spaghetti.

Gawad Kalinga Immersion Day 1

Tuesday morning Renelyn, Tam and some others participated in a Gawad Kalinga immersion. Gawad Kalinga is an organisation which works transforming slums. They work with donors and the people living in the slums to build cottages. For people to qualify to have a cottage built for themselves, they first need to work a certain amount of time building cottages for their neighbours. The children are also enrolled in schools and in youth groups for their age. Healthcare is made available to the communities and different experts help with talks, with skills, with seeking jobs. The most important part of Gawad Kalinga is that it doesn't just give the poor what they need, the poor become partners in transforming their communities and themselves. There are homeowners associations, and the president of the association is typically the last one to receive their own house.

Our immersion consisted of working in one slum site, and staying in another community which had already been transformed. Tuesday morning we drove to Talanay and spent the morning painting - one important aspect of Gawad Kalinga is to make the communities beautiful, so the cottages are all painted bright, warm colours. There were a number of children who gathered to watch us and play nearby. The children all help whenever they're allowed, they tried to help us with painting but were shooed away by their parents for wasting paint. Another aspect of Gawad Kalinga is that the volunteers don't just come in, work, and leave. It is important that the volunteers meet and get to know the people living there, so breaks are scheduled frequently to allow opportunities to chat and hang out. During these breaks there is of course always food. Philippinos are very hospitable and very generous, even the slums we were always offered more food than we could eat. Our first morning break they made chocolate rice porridge for us. The whole time I was eating, the women watched me to ensure I liked it and asked me frequently if it was good. Thankfully it was delicious so I could honestly reply that I loved it. Afterwards they asked if I'd ever eaten putopao, and since I hadn't they promised me we would have it the next day for our snack.

After painting all morning we drove to Brookside, the Gawad Kalinga community which is already a community of beautiful cottages. We arrived at lunchtime and were taken to the school where there were some hotplates to cook on. Greg, our rapporteur with GK, asked the women how to cook rice and they went into detailed descriptions so I finally mentioned that I know how to cook rice. The women were so excited, they asked "you know how to cook?" yes, "you know how to cook rice?" yes, "without a rice cooker?" yes. So then two of them followed us down for proof of this novelty. I will confess the rice was a little mushy, the pots were designed to cook for upwards of 40 children at a time, so cooking for 7 was hard to measure but the women were still impressed.

We then walked up a little hill to the community center. In each GK community they organise productivity activities to allow the communities to be self sustaining. In Brookside the women bead flip-flops. We spent three hours beading flipflops with them, and not one of us finished a whole pair. Of course, the women were much faster than we were but it is quite a lot of effort, they sell the flip-flops for 100 pesos - the equivalent of $2USD. Each woman receives for the sale of one of her flip-flops 15 pesos. They are lucky to sell 3 or 4 flip-flops each/week. These tiny amounts of money enable the women to buy food, school supplies for their children, and mean the difference between surviving and begging.

Upon arrival to Brookside we were each given families, we ate and slept with our families and hung out with our brothers and sisters, I became Ate (big sister) to a fourteen year old girl named Ann. Tuesday evening, we all met in the community center for an evening activity with SIGA, the community youth group. GK focuses on hope, heroism, and honour in transforming the slums. There is a Tagalog word, bayani, which roughly translated into English means "one who carries a home" or hero. We listened to a talk on hope given by one man who used to be a millionaire and gave it all up to work full time for GK. The president of SIGA also spoke about hope, the president is 17 years old and studying information technology in university. He spoke about growing up in a slum and the transformation that happened to his life when he was able to live in a house, attend school and receive the opportunity to attend university and have hope for his future. He was shy about his english and interjected many of his sentences with "parang" rough translation "like." This caused the other kids endless amusement and him much shyness but his talk was beautiful.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Mabuhay Manila!

I left Lebanon and met up with Ann in the Dubai airport, together we flew to Manila. We arrived to 33 degree weather! It is so hot here, I understand now why Filipinos have a reputation to bathe three times per day and use lots of cologne and creams in between so they always smell nice. I've decided when in the Philippines to do as the Filipinos do, and never leave home without a bottle of Johnson's baby cologne. Ann and I were met at the airport and taken through the ambassador's passport line, Erika met us at baggage pickup, what a lovely welcome.

Our first day we had dinner with Erika and her family, Renelyn - the next Director of Asia Pacific, Tam - the Director of Operations, and Michelle - our favourite and best lawyer, no introduction necessary. Thursday we rested then went to the pearl market in the afternoon. It was slightly overwhelming to wander through aisles of pearls and always be confronted with yet more aisles of pearls. Ann was the best bargainer of all of us, and helped me out with my last purchase to get a better price. The Philippines are wonderful, all our meetings revolve around food and the food is delicious. We're fed lots of delicious mangoes, although apparently its the off season so they're not as sweet as normal. I can only imagine how many I would eat during mango season.

Friday we toured Intramuros, that is the old section of Manila which was built by the Spanish centuries ago. The Spanish largely ignored the Philippines who were able to keep their language and traditions alive, the greatest impact the Spanish had was to convert much of the Philippines to Catholicism from Islam, although the Philippines remains Islamic in the south. The Philippines was sold to the Americans during the Spanish American war, at the Treaty of Paris, and then became an American colony. The Americans considered the Filipinos to be "little brown Americans" since the culture was so readily accepted with all the technology it brought. Manila has a glorious past, it used to be called the pearl of the orient and was a beautiful city. During WWII, the Japanese invaded and General MacArthur left with his famous words "I shall return." He did return and to prevent the Japanese from keeping Manila he bombed it completely, Manila was the second most destroyed city during World War II. The Japanese for their part decided that if they couldn't have the city neither could the Filipinos, and they proceeded to massacre thousands of Filipinos before they were killed.

Manila is now a sprawling city with much of its beautiful, colonial architecture destroyed. There are slums scattered around and "informal settlers" even in the wealthier neighbourhoods. WYA here is partnering with an organisation called Gawad Kalinga which builds homes in the slums through partnerships among those living within the slums and those who donate the money. They work on the principle of building more than just homes and for people to donate they must work to help build the homes themselves. They've also started to implement programs for the children and for the sustainable development of the communities through agriculture and other means.

Saturday we had a Track A accreditation session with the interns here. There are four interns and they were quite shy at first. Their responses to the questions and about WYA were very insightful. At one point we asked what is the internship program. Mikho responded that "it is the best program in the world." Michelle responded that it "familiarizes you with the WYA database" and you "learn how to make coffee." Mikho also told us that the WYA is fun because youth equals fun, and that he had an acronym for fun: Friendship in the United Nations. When we discussed solidarity and poverty I asked if it was better to speak with beggars or to ignore them if you are unable to help them. Michelle stated that its hard to give money because often they don't receive the benefits of their begging since they are part of a syndicate, but its also hard to say no to a street child who desperately needs food and help. She said the hardest is to look them in the eyes as they're begging because it hurts. When you're stuck in traffic and their faces are at the window and they stare at you asking for money what do you do if you have no food or money, tell them you have nothing? When they continue to stare at you do you look back and smile at them, do you just stare back at them, do you look away and pretend they're not there? There was nothing more to discuss after that, it hurts to look at someone who is reduced to begging and it hurts to give knowing it doesn't help them and it hurts to not give knowing they need it.

After the accreditation session we went to Erika's house for a tea-party. Many members and friends of the WYA were there; the national committee members, Tam's and Ren's parents, some professors, representatives from other organisations, it was good to finally meet the people I've heard so much about and who are working so closely with Erika, Tam and Renelyn to bring WYA to Asia Pacific. I was especially excited to meet Aliah, a member from Mindanao in the southern Philippines. She's done so much work for the WYA and has so much initiative. I was able to meet her, and learned of some other activities and ideas she has to lay the foundation for the WYA and get more young people involved in Mindanao.

Sunday Tam and I went to the beach. We drove to the north to the west coast and swam in the South China Sea. We were hoping to surf but the waves were too small so we swam instead. The water was beautiful, warm and clear. In fact Tam and her friends felt the water was slightly chilly and not very clear, but compared to the Atlantic it was lovely. The beach is from volcanic ash so was rocky and tough in places though a nice white sand in most places. We ate lunch at a turo-turo near the beach, a small cantina with home cooked food. Turo-turo means point point, so called because the food is already there and you simply point at the foods you wish to eat, it is so cheap we ate all we could for less than $1 USD per person. The drive to the beach took 2.5 hours, and 5 hours to return to Manila. Being a Sunday evening the traffic was intense, even more so than usual.

Today we met up in the morning for a strategic planning session to discuss current and new programs to implement here and throughout the region, of course it was quite exciting and we all have lots of work to do to implement our ideas. We ate breakfast during the meeting, and then had lunch after our meeting. Now we're heading to the office and will meet with Tam's family for supper of Chinese food. It would be so easy to become fat here since the food is pretty international but the best is taken from all the cultures. Pa alam - goodbye!

Meeting Lebanon

Monday and Tuesday Anna and I went to a number of meetings. We spoke at two universities and to a number of intellectuals and interested persons. I was so impressed by the reception of the WYA. The youth and professors immediately understood what the WYA does and enquired about how to become involved. Our introductory sessions in both universities quickly took the form of strategic planning sessions. They informed us of their activities, their contacts, their capabilities and asked what our plans were for the middle east and how we could collaborate. In one university, the dean asked about our training program and offered to incorporate it into the university curriculum, as well as beginning a WYA chapter sponsored by the university so that students could receive credit for submitting their answers. At the other university, the students are already working with thousands of school children throughout Lebanon and the middle east region, helping students to discuss and solve problems through dialogue rather than conflict and were eager to incorporate the message of the WYA into their program.

Our reception was quite amazing, I couldn't get over how quickly they understood the importance of dignity and how willing they were to make it work. One student offered this insight "in Lebanon we have 17 official religions and we suffer from religious conflict, each religion closely allies itself with a political party and we suffer from political conflict. Generally peace is sought through politics and inter-faith dialogue, those aren't working for us and we see dignity as the solution where these other methods fail." Needless to say, there is a great deal of hope for peace in the middle east with young people working to promote the dignity of the person within the region.

My last day in Lebanon, Habib Malik and another professor Bassam Lahoud took us sightseeing through the south of Lebanon which was the hardest hit during the war of last summer. All the bridges in southern Lebanon had been bombed, while most have already been rebuilt many are still under construction or have yet to be touched. We toured Tyre and Sidon and witnessed bombed out buildings, and also areas which already appear beautiful. In Sidon we walked through the remains of an old fortress built by the crusaders, the fortress was built on Roman ruins and had columns incorporated into the walls for additional strength. The fortress overlooks the Mediterranean sea at a port which is still used today. In Tyre we walked through a Roman archaelogical site. The Roman site was built on top of a Byzantine city, and in many places archaeologists have exposed the layering of Roman over Byzantine in the architecture, along the pathways, and in the decoration. Some cities in Lebanon are composed of as many as 17 layers, as different civilizations have built on top of previous civilizations. In a country with such a long, diverse history, it is hardly surprising that it has such great religious and cultural diversity. This diversity offers many advantages in the art, the culture, the food, travel, and many other areas. Currently it is not treasured as it should be, and in such a tiny country each group is vying for complete power over the others rather than seeking to work together.

We drove to within 20 km of the Israel/Lebanon border, but were unable to drive any closer. One reason being I had to return to Beirut on time to catch my plane. The second reason being that within those 20 km are numerous roadblocks which would take hours to go through and of course the border is also closed. We ate supper at a restaurant in a small city within the mountains east of Sidon. The restaurant was a unique experience as the owner and his wife informed us upon arrival of what they were serving for lunch, aka what we would be eating, and subsequently brought out appetizers and dessert for us. It was much more similar to paying grandparents to cook for you than to eating at a restaurant. Thankfully Lebanese food is quite tasty and so we really enjoyed our meal. Lebanese hospitality is much more than pleasant rumours, Anna and I were continually fed traditional Lebanese food during our stay, and since it is healthy and delicious we happily ate all we were offered.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Flying into Beirut

Not literally, I landed quite safely at the Beirut airport which has undergone much construction since the war of last summer in which it was bombed. Beirut is beautiful, its right on the mediterranean. The city is mostly white houses and buildings overlooking a turquoise and deeper blue sea. We've been lucky to have lovely weather while here, although rain was forecasted it's been mostly sunny and warm during the days. Up in the mountains its chillier and breezier but close to sea level I can even go without a jacket if I'm walking.

The Lebanese should all be fat, they've shown us such hospitality that except for upon arrival I haven't had to buy any food and go to bed pleasantly stuffed each night. There is snow in the tips of the mountains! It is possible to ski in the middle east. We've been told that in April it's possible to ski in the mountains, drive one hour to the sea and then swim! Imagine what a blissful day that would be.

Habib Malik has set up a number of meetings for Anna and myself. The first day I arrived we went to his house for dinner and met with a number of intellectuals and professionals in different fields. I truly believe genius runs in families, his cousins and relatives were the majority of those we met and were all such accomplished and distinguished persons. It was a fruitful meeting with much enthusiasm generated about the future of the WYA in Lebanon, and commitments to help however they could.

Saturday morning we spoke at an inter-faith organisation called CrossTalk. There are classrooms for children from 3 years to adults, where they can meet and discuss the commonalities and differences of their faiths in a positive manner and also participate in cultural activities together. We presented the WYA to a number of the older students and some of the teachers who were all excited for the WYA. A number of them were amazed to learn how many members WYA has, and as one boy stated "I didn't realise there were so many good people in the world, I thought it was mostly evil but now I see it isn't."

Anna and I then spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday touring nearby Lebanon. We visited the Virgin of Lebanon. A statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, located at the top of a hill near Beirut This statue is quite large and looks out over many cities and can be seen at night for quite a distance illuminated on the hillside. We then walked through downtown Beirut. Many buildings were harmed or destroyed by bombs in the war last summer and the buildings are either under repair or being rebuilt. The downtown is beautiful but almost deserted. We had a spanish photographer take our picture - he was so excited to see tourists! We also met a rather odd journalist, an american girl living in Lebanon, who interviewed us on a home recorder to tell her friends back home that it was safe to travel to Beirut, two other americans alive in Beirut as proof.

We walked through the gallery districts which were empty and were told that the benches in the square could not be sat upon because security was so strict, if someone sat down for a substantial length of time they would be asked to leave by the military or police (who were standing nearby monitoring) since it would look suspicious. We then walked by the government buildings where protesters representative of every political party are camped out in front. The protesters have divided their tents into areas representative of their party. The protesters are separated from the streets and buildings by barbed wire and armed barricades, while we were there however it was quite quiet. A number of young men/boys were playing soccer in the streets just across from their tents. Women covered from head to foot walked past the guards nonchalantly, while others relaxed in their tents watching television. I tried to take a few pictures and learned quickly that it was absolutely fine to take pictures, but just had to warn anyone who might be in the picture first. Some of the protesters are quite important persons in the party, the country, or their religion and object to having their pictures taken. I'm sure there are also enough tourists and journalists always taking pictures that they've had to implement the rules to protect their privacy somewhat.

We left the tents and walked a block down through designer stores and fancy cafes. There were three young boys playing soccer in the streets while the father looked on from a distance. There was a soldier in the center of the square who also joined in the game whenever the ball came close enough for him to participate without leaving his post. It was amazing to see this young soldier, not more than 25 years, playing soccer with three small boys while he carried a massive gun slung across his shoulder. Life goes on even in the midst of war and conflict.

Sunday we visited the tomb of St. Charbel. St. Charbel was a lebanese monk and mystic who lived in the hills and had the stigmata while alive. Many miracles have been attributed to him both while he was alive and after his death and he is highly revered by the Lebanese Christians. I should mention that in this tiny country which takes 2.5 hours to drive from tip to tip without traffic, inhabited by 4 million people, there are 17 official religions. There is no problem here of indifference or disbelief, rather the citizens must work to understand and appreciate their differences. As one member stated today "we have the same problems as the rest of the world, we're just more upfront with them and in a smaller country so we're forced to confront them."

Sunday we were able to visit the city of Byblos, this city is apparently 5,000 years old, has 17 layers from different civilizations and proudly sent off the Phoenicians to enlighten the rest of the world centuries ago. There is some beautiful architecture and scenery in Byblos. There are gardens filled with orange trees, avocado trees, almond trees, olive trees, pecan trees, etc. There is such a beautiful contrast among the orange trees dripping with large balls of sunlight scattered through the greenery, beside the almond trees in full bloom with delicate white petals, beisde the olive trees with their silvery green leaves, a little slice of paradise. The Lebanese say that when the world was created Lebanon was the macquette for the rest of the world since it has everything here - mountains, valleys, beaches, snow - the rest of the world received the fruits of God's experimentation within Lebanon which got expanded to larger expanses in the rest of the world.


Although I have now been in Lebanon four days, I will finish with events in Kenya before proceeding to keep the stories mostly chronological.

My last two days in Kenya we spoke at two of the best high schools in Kenya. During my talks I asked the students, if they could speak to the ambassadors at the United Nations to request focus on certain areas what would they ask for to improve the world for the youth? The students listed a number of areas: education, job availability, good governance, healthcare, opportunities for children to develop their talents, opportunities for travel, end to racism, end to conflict, and other areas. When I then mentioned what the youth had focused on back in 1999 for the founding of the UN they all gasped, they couldn't believe it, they looked at each other in shock, discussed it amongst themselves, stared at me in disbelief. Finally after two or three minutes I was able to regain their attention and move forward to discuss the WYA. They were so excited about the WYA, right away they all signed up made plans to begin a WYA club at their school with the full approval of the faculty. They also asked us if we would allow them to help us with marketing and fundraising. Of course we would, they were so excited to learn that while learning about human dignity they could actively promote it also, I think the WYA in Kenya has an excellent future if these students remain committed and take their ideas to fruition.

On Valentine's Day Mr. Beauttah invited us to attend a fundraiser at Mamba Village where he works for an organisation which works to empower women and young girls through education, skills training and microfinancing. I sat at the head table with Ann Seabright, the Vice President of Kenya, the Director of the organisation, and the owners of Mamba Village. They were all quite excited to learn about the WYA and the VP of Kenya is now a friend of the WYA! He seems to be a great man and really understood the purpose of the WYA and fully supports it. Mrs. Muturu - the wife of the owner of Mamba Village, was seated to my left and she engaged me with questions about the WYA. Finally she just loved it and stated that "if young people respected their own dignity and the dignity of others, we wouldn't have problems with conflict, with corruption, with starvation, with abuse of women, with pornography." She got so excited, she introduced me to her adult children who were there and told them all about the WYA. She so fully understood all the implications of persons living their dignity.

Mr. Beauttah mc'd the ocassion. He introduced the Director of the Kianda foundation, who spoke a few words. Then, without any prior warning he introduced me and asked me to speak! I had no desire to speak at a fundraiser for another organisation, in front of the VP of Kenya and without preparation. I breathed deeply and pretended as though this happened all the time, stood up and spoke briefly about the WYA. I was grateful I'd previously been speaking with the director of Kianda foundation about how our work overlapped through the understanding of dignity and its applications for the women they work with, so I was able to mention that in my remarks. There was a male singing group and a famous Kenyan singer there that evening, so once the dinner was over and the VP left we relaxed and danced.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

There and back again...

Sunday afternoon we travelled back to Kigali and had a brief meeting with the World Youth Alliance committee members there. We then went to Eric Kacou's house for supper, he works for On the Frontier and helped us arrange transportation and lodging for while we were in Rwanda. We discovered upon arrival that it was his birthday and he'd invited another friend over. We had a lovely mix of Indian and West African food; fish and fried bananas actually taste really good together! He asked a number of questions about World Youth Alliance and proposed a number of ideas of activites and new areas for us to reach out to more people. His ideas were so great and so numerous, I didn't want to take notes in the middle of dinner so I instead concentrated on each idea he gave so I could remember it afterwards. Apparently Winnie and Ann felt the same, the minute we got back to the hotel we had a brainstorming session to be sure we wrote down all the ideas he'd given to us so we could use them for the future.

Monday we flew back to Nairobi arriving in the evening. Mr. Beauttah had arranged for a transportation minister to meet us. He helped us get through the visa qeues much faster and we also learned a lesson; when travelling through Kenya en route to somewhere else we will from now on be Transit, it is less than half the cost of a tourist visa!

I arrived to Nick and Caroline's the earliest i have yet, around 6pm. Caroline and I walked along a dirt road to Strathmore University so I could access internet. She has an office here, which I have faithfully visited the past three mornings. The road at one point dips somewhat so that it is always full of dirty, muddy water. There are two ways to cross, you can either jump from rock to rock through the puddle if the water level is not too high, or you can balance along a little concrete railing that crosses over sewage water. Caroline prefers to stone hop, while I prefer to balance since I am generally in sandals. Last night though there was a downpour and today we both had to cross over the sewage water since all the stones were drowned.

Yesterday we met with a member from Uganda, Saidi. He became a member of the WYA just over a year ago after he discovered us online. He then attended an international leadership conference here in Nairobi along with representatives of the WYA from a number of different African countries. Since returning to Uganda he has recruited 600 WYA members! He has recruited politicians, VIP's, friends of the WYA, and of course, members. He has taken so much initiative! This coming November the Commonwealth meeting is happening in Uganda, and Saidi has already registered the WYA as one of the official youth organisations to participate in the Commonwealth youth meeting just before. He is very respectful in his speech, and has great respect for Winnie and Esther. He refers to them both as Mama Esther and Mama Winnie. He was then excited to see once again Mama Ann, I however am called "my president." When he speaks to me or to another about me or in front of me he acknowledges "my president." We had lunch at Strathmore university hosted by Mrs. Beauttah.

We then went to the Bomas, which is Swahili for the homesteads, where they show traditional Kenyan dances. The dances were beautiful, and I must run now so will continue later...

Monday, February 12, 2007


Goma is a town which used to be a lake. There is a live volcano just outside the town, and apparently over hundreds of years of eruptions, the lake filled in and became populated to become the city of Goma. Just 5 years ago, the volcano erupted again and lava submerged half the town. Close to the Rwandan border the town is normal, but halfway through the town, the roads give way to scraped over hardened lava. The old roads are about 6 meters under, and there is a lot of construction activity throughout the town to rebuild. Due to the recent elections and rebel generals in the mountains nearby combined with rebuilding efforts post-volcanic eruption, there is also much UN activity. Every 3rd vehicle is a UN vehicle of some form, and we drove by buildings or signs for probably every single UN agency which exists, from UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP, just UN, etc.

We were hosted for lunch by a lovely family who own a house situated on Lake Kivu. They have a beautiful house, and we sat out on the terrace overlooking the lake while chatting. Jacques invited many MP's, journalists, and other persons of importance to join us for lunch. I was unable to meet with them, I was extremely grateful to the family for offering me a bed to lie down on so I didn't stare at them all like a wet, moldy, blanket since I felt pretty sick. Ann and Winnie said the lunch went well, and the conversation was an interesting mix of French, English and Swahili as people tried to communicate however they could.

Jacques had organised a conference for us nearby along with a number of other organisations. I sat at the front with a representative from UNA, someone who worked with the pygmies in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and a member of another NGO. We also had some local artists. One poet, Theophile, came and presented a poem about peace and solidarity, while a singer, Tonton Sambo, and rapper also presented some songs along the same theme. Winnie gave a brief introduction to the WYA, and then Ann presented her work as chair of the WYA board and why she travelled to Africa, then I spoke about some of the ideas of the Alliance. I tried to give a 5 minute introduction to human dignity, freedom, responsible stewardship and solidarity and how they lead to peace. Jacques translated for all of us. Poor fellow, a couple minutes into my speech he stopped, turned to me and said in a little voice "cette philosophie..." I was very impressed and grateful for his translation. Without him, the only message I could have conveyed would have been "je ne pas parle francaise..."

After our seminar Jacques and the WYA members there presented us with T-shirts produced for the recent elections encouraging young people to vote. One member also came up to me and handed me a portrait he'd sketched of me during my talk. It is actually very good, he even captured my hair flying away in the heat :) which of course I would have preferred that he left out. We then went to a local restaurant for drinks with the members and other speakers. It was great to be able to meet with them, they're all very excited about WYA and ready to take a lot of initiative. This was the first time I really wished I spoke french since I was only able to communicate with a few of them.

The next morning we attended a local Church in Gisenyi which was all in Kinyarwanda, I didn't understand a word of course, but I enjoyed the singing and clapping. Ann loves the children here, and halfway through Church a little girl left her family towards the front, walked all the way to the back and plunked herself on Ann's lap, she didn't leave her place until Church was over. Speaking of Ann, she is quite a celebrity here everywhere we travel. They are all grateful that she has travelled to Africa to be with them, but once she mentions she has 10 children it's over. From that point on she is their mother, and they love her, and they introduce her to everyone and say "and how many children do you think she has?" small pause for effect "10!!!!" gasps of disbelief from the listeners who then look to Ann for confirmation. Ann only has to give a slight nod and smile and they crowd up to her and tell her she is African like them, and how wonderful to have 10, they are so excited to meet a westerner with more than 2 children!

Kigali to Gisenyi

After leaving the children behind we set out on our drive to Gisenyi in the northeast corner of Rwanda along Lake Kivu. The drive to Gisenyi is beautiful, we travelled through the mountains along narrow, winding roads, the occasional pothole which became more occasional the farther we drove from Kigali. Rwanda has such beautiful vegetation, it is unlike any other country, flora, vegetation I've ever seen. The mountains are lush, with vivacious red dirt (vivacious really does describe the dirt even though those two ideas are generally not coupled), banana trees growing alongside the mountains, chocolatey brown rivers and waterfalls, small villages snuggled close to the roads composed of either huts or little brick buildings. The scenery was so beautiful, and varied, and a photographer could spend months there and produce multiple books and still not run out of material. The Rwandese are very industrious, the roads have a steady stream of human traffic walking, biking, carrying food, items, babies, anything that could be carried. If these people were to enter the Olympics for distance running, the competition could change, every day they trek up and down mountainsides carrying loads of bricks, carrots, bananas, trees, water, everything they could possibly need on their heads or pushing bikes, or in other contraptions they've invented.

We arrived in Gisenyi around 7 and bedded down for the night 15 minutes away from the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Saturday we met with our member Jacques from the Congo for breakfast and then travelled across the border. We walked across the border beside Lake Kivu. The border is quite an interesting place, security must do its job since so many people were clamouring to get visas on both sides, but I don't know how they keep track of who has visas since there is such a crowd of people at the windows and away from the windows they don't check too closely. I've got to run now. Caroline is letting me use the internet at her work, but it's getting dark now and we need to walk back to her house. I'll tell more about DRC when I get another chance.


I ran out of time in the last blog to tell about Rwanda. The day after our seminar with the members here, we went to visit the Rwandan Genocide Memorial here in Kigali. It was a beautiful, sunny day with the temperature around 28 Celsius. The road to the memorial site is under construction so we walked up a little path in the hillside to the gate. Inside the memorial are the mass graves of thousands of Rwandans murdered during the genocide. There are 4 graves, and each grave holds approximately20,000 bodies. There is still one mass grave open, since more bodies are continually discovered in and around Kigali with the need for more burials. There is a wall behind the mass graves in which they wished to place the names of the dead but so many people were murdered, entire families, neighbourhoods, communities, that it is impossible to find records of who is missing. Inside the memorial building are two floors. The basement floor tells the history of Rwanda pre-genocide, genocide, and post-genocide. It's terrible to read how peaceful Rwanda was before colonisation and the measures which were introduced to keep them under colonial rule which divided the country. The tutsi, hutu differentiations though in existence before the Belgian occupation never caused divisiveness within communities as it did during and after the Belgian occupation. It's so hard to read the events, view the photos, and listen to the documentaries which play throughout. Upstairs there is a section devoted to the children killed during the genocide, and another section which elaborates other genocides which have happened and continue to happen in other parts of the world today. After viewing all these atrocities, I couldn't help but wonder how Rwanda can recover. The genocide was not the case of mercenaries killing a population, or of soldiers killing a population. The genocide was the killing of neighbours by neighbours, of friends by friends, of family by family. There were heroes of course who risked their lives to save both tutsi and hutu, but the great majority of the country was led by evil propaganda and engaged in brutal, vicious killing of those they knew. How can a country regain its trust of each other, after killing each other?

We left the memorial site around 2pm. On the road just above us were hundreds of small children making their way home from school. They were so friendly and smiled and waved. Some were shy initially and just stared until I would smile and then their faces would light up into the most beautiful smiles. After initial eye contact, a number of them would then walk backwards for the next few paces to continue to smile and wave. I was so grateful to the children. Here of course was hope for Rwanda. These children were all so beautiful, so joyous, so friendly. Here was how Rwanda could rebuild, and also why Rwanda had to rebuild. After hours of reading and looking at tragedy, I was unable to smile until the children reached out to me. One little girl came and walked beside me with a number of her friends, and she just smiled and smiled. Then she reached out her hand and took my hand in hers. We continued walking along this way, since she spoke Kinyarwanda and French, and I speak English. Finally we managed to communicate somewhat, her name is Joseline. After her gesture of friendliness, I glanced around and was delighted to see that we'd become a troupe. Around me were a group of probably 15 children, all waving and smiling whenever I looked at them, and when I looked ahead they were happy to just walk along with me on the path in the sunlight. I wanted to reach out to these children in some way and repay them for the happiness they had given to me. I stopped and plucked a blade of grass and showed them how to whistle through it. They were so thrilled and astonished that I could use their grass to whistle. A number of older boys had also joined my troupe temporarily, and one of them was more adventurous than the others. He quickly figured out how to whistle through grass. I tried to teach Joseline, I molded her fingers along the blade of grass and showed her where to blow through it. She tried and succeeded in making a large blowing noise, so we all laughed. We arrived together to the end of the path, and I was so sad to climb into our car to leave. The children each came up to me to shake my hand and a couple of them hugged me. As we drove away, they ran alongide the car for as far as they could keep up, smiling and waving. One little boy ran behind the car for a number of minutes till we reached the main road, and then he just stood and waved and smiled till we were out of sight.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Small scraps

This blog will be relatively short, I'm on an extremely slow internet connection in Kigali, Rwanda. I had so much difficulty getting internet. Apparently the internet is available all night, but you can only buy the cards up until 9pm, and I missed that time. However, I managed to convince the front desk to sell me the internet of another guest who had purchased it and left the card there. Then, since none of the computers were working, I've currently hijacked the IT management computer. No one's kicked me off yet, but I feel kind of important sitting here, hopefully they'll all continue to ignore me until I'm done!

Well, our last evening in Rwanda we went and had dinner at Mr. and Mrs. Beauttah's house. They have a lovely house, and we had a traditional Kenyan dinner with rice, chicken, beef, salad, and some bread which is similar to the Indian Naan bread but I don't remember what it is called. Plus mangoes and icecream for dessert, yum! Nick and Caroline also came for dinner. Since they read this blog I'll have to be careful of what I say :) Seriously though, Nick absolutely loves Victor, he entertained us all with stories of his and Victor's adventures, thought processes, etc. He definitely has his little boy figured out! We also discussed our trip through Africa, and at one point Caroline said, and I quote, "you don't need a visa for Rwanda, why? They have joined the EU?" hahaha, too funny! Poor dear, I did warn her at least that I would post that but I just couldn't leave that out.

Ok, so we left that morning for Rwanda and were met at the airport by Jean Pierre who drove them last time they were here, and also by 4 members of the World Youth Alliance in Rwanda. They met us with flowers! We received a bouquet of yellow and red roses! We had a brief meeting with them that evening, to discuss the seminar and their group. I also swam for an hour in the pool! What bliss and joy, I'm working on my tan which they don't seem to understand, by comparison I'm still peachy white.

Today we led a seminar on Dignity and Peace with them. There were about 30 participants, the majority of them from their club, the Rwandan Youth Alliance. The seminar helped us to address the issues facing them. Obviously freedom, solidarity and peace were the big item issues at the conference. Freedom especially brought forth some interesting discussions. At one point, based on their definitions of freedom and the need to fight for peace, the genocide wasn't so horrible, but when I repeated back to them what they were stating they were horrified. Obviously none of them believes there was anything good about the genocide, and it helped us all to refine our ideas of freedom and what steps were important for peace. After the conference we got out our cameras to get some group photos, I've never imagined anything like it. Our participants were camera happy! If I so much as aimed a camera in any direction there were instantly a minimum of 3 participants there smiling and telling me to take their picture! This didn't just happen once, it happened at least 20 times! They also sang and danced for us the traditional Rwandan dance, it was beautiful, it's quite fluid and graceful for the guys and girls. They tried to teach me, but apparently I'm not so graceful with my hands. The rhythm I could get, but moving my upper body as though without bones in the manner of a swan is actually pretty difficult.

Ok, well it's midnight now and I need to wake up at 6 something tomorrow morning to meet with the youth minister for political affairs.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


Sunday night we arrived to Nairobi, Kenya. For all those of you who were about to follow the instructions for getting visas on embassy websites, don't bother. Apparently US money orders are no good in Kenya. After much haggling in English and Ki Swahili, we found some USD and paid for our visas. Since our flight was delayed 3 hours, I arrived at Caroline and Nicodemus' house quite late, but they were gracious enough to wait up for me and still fed me upon arrival! Caroline, FYI, was the first director of WYA Africa, the founder of the region as it were, and as might be expected she is great. She and Nick have two beautiful babies; Victor is 18 months and Javier is 5 months. Javier looks like a little cabbage patch baby with his big, big eyes and cheeks, he is adorable. Victor is very energetic, active, loving, and somewhat shy at first although we started to bond when I showed him a couple new noises to make while playing with his red car.

Monday we rested! Our first day of rest since arriving to Africa! We met up at 10:30 to travel to Nyumbani Children's home. This is a home for HIV/AIDS orphans, most of the children are also HIV+. Nyumbani places the children into families of 8, with one mother to care for them. As the children get older, they are placed into residences where they learn to care for themselves and live as a community, still with access to everything Nyumbani has to offer including counselling. It is a beautiful place in all regards. It is clean and well cared for. On the grounds there is a playground and pre-school for the very small children, the older ones attend private schools nearby. They also have a cemetary on the grounds, so that those who die don't just vanish but are remembered by their friends. They've also recently started a project called Nyumbani village which will eventually be self-sustaining. A place where the elderly (grandparents) will live with their grandchildren (some biological, others adopted) and learn to recreate their lives. Initially they will be provided with clothes, food, housing, and taught the skills necessary to grow their own food and learn trades so they can work together to provide for themselves and live in communities instead of suffering stigma and discrimination because of HIV/AIDS.

We then went to Mamba Village where Mr. Beauttah, a member of the WYA Board of Directors, works. Mamba is Swahili for crocodile. It is a beautiful resort which houses crocodiles and ostriches, there is a lake in the center which is shaped as a map of Africa. We ate lunch there, and I sat in the sun and burnt without meaning to (I hope it becomes a tan, but we'll see). We had a chance to discuss all that had happened in Nigeria with Esther - the Director of Operations for Africa. While we were eating the general manager of Mamba village came and joined us, he'd heard there were important persons on-site, through Mr. Beauttah of course. Since he was under the age of 30 Esther invited him to become a donor and a member. We then told him about the WYA and he signed the charter! We work even on our days off!

Then we had a lovely dinner with the Beauttah family. Nick and Caroline were once again up even though I arrived late. I've only had two evenings to hang out, but they're wonderful. Nick is hilarious, and Caroline is dynamite, she also knows all the originals within the WYA so we've been able to spread all our respective information about various personages.

Today Ann and I went to the Masai Market here in Nairobi. Those Masai are phenomenal bargainers! Their initial prices are so outrageous, and since I'm terrible at math, I had difficulty translating the currency to see what would be reasonable in USD. With each time I bargained I got better, but there is still room to improve. Now I have a much better idea of how their bargaining style works, and with my last guy was able to be stickier with outrageous prices. They're so terrible, they say they will go down, but ask you to name what price you want to pay, so the first time I did and paid more than I wanted to. Then I learned to state an equally outrageous price back to them. The problem is, that what I consider to be cheap is still far more than I need to pay, now I want to go back and really become good at their game!

This evening, I am going to dinner with Winnie's family, Caroline and Nick, I'm very much looking forward to enjoying some Kenyan food and a relaxing evening. And... I'm finally caught up in the blog to where I am in life, rather than 4 days behind, what a triumph!


We arrived in Abuja, and realised how glorious water pressure really is. Being civilized we each waited our turn nicely to shower, but oh how wonderful it was to watch the muddy water go down the drain and finally just as I thought I could scrub no more, the water drained clear! We arrived in Abuja early afternoon and were to meet with Kathryn Hoomkwap, one of our Board of Directors, for dinner that night. So we rested, swam in the pool, taught Winnie a new game called monkey in the middle, and caught up on laughter and exercise. We met that evening with Kathryn and Godwin, a representative of the Yukubo Gowon center, who works closely with an Ambassador friend of ours.

The next day, we drove to Loyola Jesuit College to present our Dignity and Peace Seminar to the students there. The LJC is the best secondary school in Nigeria, and the students are selected on academic merit rather than on social background so there is a great variety of students from around Nigeria. In the morning we worked with a small group of senior students to discuss our three topics, and received the most in-depth analysis we had so far from all our conferences. These students I hope take their ideas into the leadership of Nigeria in the next few years, and if they do Nigeria will become a global leader in culture, as well as economics and politics. In the afternoon we opened the session to more students from all grades and discussed again the connection between Dignity, Freedom, Responsible Stewardship and Peace. At one point I asked the students to elaborate on good governance, and I truly wish i had perfect memory. His answer was so deep I asked him to come up and state it before all the students. He so intricately stated the connections among dignity, freedom and good governance in the most logical way, but wtih new insights. Thankfully he is a WYA member and we can look forward to hearing from him with many more insights in the future.

Many of the students spoke with Winnie and myself afterwards, asking how they could become involved and expressed interest in starting a WYA club at their school. I had to dodge one member who had travelled there to attend. He asked me what he could do to become the person in charge of Nigeria, that he really wanted to do whatever it took to be empowered to have the authority over WYA in Nigeria, he mentioned he'd tried to do so in the past but hadn't had the authority to take control as he wished, AAAAHH! help! Apparently, our message of the dignity of EVERY person doesn't necessarily reach all those we speak to. I tried to tell him that we don't control people or work through power, but that our mission is to bring the IDEA that every human person has intrinsic and inviolable DIGNITY into the culture, through the young people, and that all our programs, policies, actions, contacts, everything are to further this mission. Since that didn't work, I told him he could enroll in our online training program. Hah! I'd like to see him first of all finish it - if his sole aim with WYA is to be in control, and if he does finish it I don't imagine his answers regarding the central philosophy of the WYA will make him the prime candidate to lead the WYA in Nigeria.

During my talks on dignity and freedom I ask the participants a number of questions about their own freedom, and later on some other questions to get them thinking about Solidarity. One question I sometimes ask which has received varied responses is "are you in prison right now?" In Calabar, the participants laughed. In Warri, a couple of them fidgeted as though I were their parole officer. In LJC, they all said "YES!" apparently, since it is a boarding school they nicknamed it Loyola Jail for Children (of course with much love). However, when I proceeded to question them about their lives in prison, my final question was "would you leave if you could?" A resounding "NO!" It seems some people choose temporary imprisonment in some matters to enable greater freedom.

That evening we had dinner with Kathryn Hoomkwap, Ambassador Ekpang and his wife, and Godwin. It was a wonderful, productive dinner. The future of the WYA in Nigeria has so much potential, so much support and I expect our Nigerian friends to begin to take over the world with their culture, at least I hope so. The Nigerian culture, at least with whom I met was warm, friendly, generous, hospitable, energetic, dedicated, etc. Of course the political and economic situation isn't perfect, but they have so much to offer the world in terms of culture.

Saturday, February 3, 2007


so, after the seminar, I didn't have a chance to tell my favourite part of the day. I went for a walk outside the seminar which was on the grounds of a boy's school. A couple boys were playing soccer, so I watched and after a while they kicked the ball to me, so I kicked it back. At times I have difficulty understanding the Nigerian accent, but sports are universal. We soon had a great soccer game going among myself and about 10 of the boys from the school. We were all barefoot, since I had sandals on, and they just were barefoot. Eventually 3 of the participants from the seminar who were still there also joined in. It was amazing how much this little activity just opened everyone up. Sports are so universal, and they had the opportunity to laugh at me running around barefoot in a skirt kicking a 20 year old soccerball just as they were. We had a meeting afterwards with the committee members, and instead of being formal with the president, we were able to chat and recognise that we were all working towards the same goal (recognition of human dignity, in case you were wondering!) even though we come from different backgrounds.

The next morning, we woke up early to be interviewed on the CRBC, Cross River State Broadcasting Corporation, morning talk show. Myself, Ann, Winnie and our member IG were all on tv for 20 minutes speaking about the WYA, our seminar, what we hoped to accomplish within Calabar and within Nigeria. That was our second media interview here in Nigeria. Our first seminar in Lagos, we also had NTV, Nigerian TV, at the seminar who got some footage of us speaking, and then interviewed each of us afterwards.

After the interview we got into a car and drove to Warri. The trip took about 8 hours, and as we got closer to Port Harcourt and Warri the amount of police checkpoints increased dramatically. We were lucky to only by pulled over for questioning (aka. checking if we would bribe them) twice. The first time, I had my window down and the officer asked me if I had anything for him. I said "no, sorry" and he asked me why not. Temptation, I so wanted to reply that if he'd called in advance and told me he'd be waiting for me that I could have picked up a little present for him. My second thought was to offer him a WYA T-shirt after giving him a lecture on the dignity of the person, solidarity, and good governance. My third thought won out sadly enough, which was that I should probably just keep quiet so he didn't shoot me or beat me.

In Warri, the bishop welcomed us very warmly, along with Fr. Nicholas who had organised the seminar the following day. We were greeted with Cola nuts which are apparently the local tradition to welcome guests. The person who brings cola nuts brings peace. After discussing in a number of seminars that the peace is achieved through voluntary suffering, the taste shouldn't have come as a shock. No wonder Coca Cola is jammed with sugar, cola nuts are very bitter and I have no idea what would possess people eat them voluntarily. Perhaps if you bring them and eat them, it shows how earnestly desire peace that you would go to the trouble of picking them and eating them.

The seminar in Warri was beautiful, we had 100 participants, and these young people were incredible. They live in the heart of the Niger Delta region, amidst all the conflict over oil exploitation, government corruption, and poverty in the midst of wealth generation. At the end of this conference, not only did every single participant sign up, but approximately 30 stayed afterwards to become ACTIVE members. They understood so clearly that it was up to THEM to make the changes they wished to see. They already know the problems, and when faced with a solution, they were so willing and eager to do anything we asked of them. Even the kitchen staff sat in the back throughout the entire session and pulled me aside to thank me for coming and had really been listening. Winnie and I find both we and the participants get the most out of the seminars through interactive sessions. In Warri, I spent a great deal of time speaking with the participants about freedom (true freedom, prerequisites for freedom, differences between internal and external freedom, etc.). Afterwards we discussed Solidarity. I could barely keep a straight face, there was a doctor in attendance, a very warm, friendly man. As I asked the participants a number of questions to lead to a discussion on the relevance of Solidarity to freedom and human dignity and in their lives, he would continually interrupt with his own questions. At one point, I asked if anyone there was in prison (limits on personal freedom was where I was attempting to lead the participants) and he interrupted to say, how often do you visit the prisoners - she is trying to get you to think of charity, what work do you do for sick people and people in prison. It was so difficult to be diplomatic, my first reaction was shock, then I wanted to laugh, and finally I had to extricate the mic back from him so I could get the participants back on track.

In each seminar, the participants have split into groups to discuss three topics: Conflict in the Niger Delta, Conflict between Christian and Muslim communities, and Civil unrest during elections. At the end of their presentations they've passed in their thoughts and we're collecting them all to form a communique or presentation of all their thoughts. Many of the groups have excellent insights into the problems and suggestions for ways to work towards a solution. We hope that by distributing the collected thoughts amongst our active members and through them to government officials and others who can do this work, that all these seminars can begin to impact Nigeria.

Yesterday we arrived in Abuja. I'm almost out of time on the computer now, so will publish this and hopefully have internet again in Nairobi. We'll arrive tomorrow night.

I emerge

Finally, internet. The only catch is I have 10 minutes to see how much I can update you on... I last wrote, we had arrived in Calabar. The next morning we gave a seminar at the St. Patrick school for boys. The seminar started around 10:30 and went till 5. This was our smallest seminar to date, only about 30 participants, but it was great! The participants were incredibly deep, I'm so amazed in every seminar for a number of reasons. First of all, these seminars are incredibly interactive, I first started asking rhetorical questions in my talks, but got feedback from the participants, so now I ask for responses. The participants all understand really the situation they are in, and that with all the potential Nigeria has they shouldn't be struggling politically, economically, etc. They really are willing to work hard, to dedicate their lives to improving their country. Some naturally understand dignity, for others it takes longer. Even the ones questioning the concepts do so in a very mature, thoughtful way. There is no immediate dismissal of anything, they think, they ask, they propose, and we're able to start to address/think about what we/they can do right now in their lives about the issues they want to address. Generally, they're not looking to get tv for everyone, or better wages, or electricity, or anything many would have thought would be top of their list. They understand so well that those are nice, but not essential. In all of their descriptions of what needs to change are corruption, at all levels, are education for everyone, are equal opportunities for everyone, are respect for all within their society, are external manifestations of freedom (we discuss that internally we are all free, and there are no disagreements to that), the really basic needs to be human, rather than to live in luxury. Because we had only 30 participants, many of whom were already members we were really able to get to know them. Winnie led with a couple games, and we then went into the sessions and had them all roundtable so we could listen to their thoughts and feedback much more than in the larger sessions. I've go no time left so I'll post now... hopefully I'll get internet again soon!