Category Archives: Disaster relief

“Misungu, How are You?”

Yes, for those who haven’t heard, this week I’m writing this from the town of Ahero, Kenya, where I’m spending a couple of weeks investigating the field of potential charitable cooperation with schools and orphanages and the like. When setting off on this adventure to “real Africa” (not just some enclave of Western culture on the African continent like Cape Town) I knew sort of what was in store for me, and that I was as prepared as I was going to get, but probably not sufficiently. So far that seems true enough in all senses. This is a basic report on my impressions from my first few days in Kenya –– how it has touched me and what hopes I am starting to develop so far.

c036The passengers on the Kenya Airways flight I took from Amsterdam to Nairobi were a good mix of cultures and skin types; perhaps a slight majority of white folk. The flight itself went without a hitch, other than that (typically for me, some might say) my assigned seat had the one broken entertainment console on the entire 777. But as there were a few passengers who missed their connection to be on the flight there were other places for me to sit where I could be as properly entertained as I wished. We arrived on time to Nairobi just at sunrise, with the temperature surprisingly cool at just under 15 Celsius. The sun and temperature rose quickly, however, burning off the fog before it even had time to give an emotional atmospheric impression.

One of the flight attendants started to give basic instructions for disembarkation, by telling us that those passengers who were transferring to other flights must take the ramp attached to the exit on the right side of the aircraft, and those for whom Nairobi was their final flight destination must take the stairs down from the left… except she forgot to specify the left and right bit, and she couldn’t remember the word for stairs in English. Her colleague where I was standing in the mid-section sort of rolled her eyes and smiled at that.

Getting to the stairs seemed to take a while, and when I got to them the situation was partially explained by the fact of the wheelchair waiting at the bottom, with special assistance staff on hand to wheel this white woman with conspicuously swollen legs through the airport… once she had managed to climb down the stairs on her own. This was my first impression of Kenyans perhaps being a bit lacking in certain aspects of logistical understanding this trip.

Customs clearance was also an exercise in mild communications difficulties making the otherwise friendly service a bit less efficient, but nothing to complain about too seriously. Before the last of my fellow passengers had their business sorted out I had all my luggage and was free to go. I was just starting to phone to my contact, Pastor Dan, when I spotted his face in the crowd.

He proceeded to make some inquiries about the best means of getting to the bus station in town from which we could get the coach to Kisumu. That turned out to be the basic “City Hoppa” service, which seemed to wind its way through most of the various outlying districts of Nairobi where service staff might live before working its way closer to the city center. There were some price guidelines of sorts from last year on the inside wall behind the driver, but near as I could tell ticket prices were subject to barter (which I left to Dan to negotiate). Traffic was hectic, of course, and not all of the roads the shuttle negotiated were paved. There was a pair of conductors who, in a fairly well practiced system of teamwork, took turns taking money from passengers, hanging out the window looking for new passengers on the sides of the roads, directing traffic in aggressive ways to get the bus in and out of informal stopping places and around ruts in the road of over a foot deep, and manually operating the passenger door latch, which consisted of a make-shift peg and loop system had been welded to the door frame where the original hydraulic door operating system once was. They communicated with the driver through a code of sorts which they hammered on the side of the bus as it drove. This daredevil form of transit thus successfully got us within 5 blocks of the coach station without serious incident. I’m really not sure how long each of these stages took but there were 5 hours between my flight’s landing and the coach’s departure from Nairobi for Kisumu, and that turned out to be just enough for the logistics of buying coach tickets and having brunch at a nice little local café that Dan picked out.

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The view from the front window of the coach while waiting for departure

The coach itself was, by Kenyan standards, a fairly luxurious form of transport. There was no A/C, onboard toilet or video systems, but it still showed signs of being one of the better services on offer. On impressive feature was the broad reclining seats, which seemed to have been recycled from the business class section of an airliner from the 70s or something. It also had a strong smell of having been freshly disinfected as we boarded. I was the only white person on board, but among the Africans there none seemed to be anywhere close to the poverty line at least.

Once clear of the suburbs of Nairobi, the coach struggled up and down the hilly terrain across the country. Following what seemed to be the only paved road for a significant distance in any direction. Parts of the road were being reconstructed of course, with extended sections of semi-prepared gravel road bed to drive across and rather informal systems of for directing traffic as to which “lanes” to take in either direction. At various intervals there were also police checkpoints equipped with chicanes of spike mats to discourage anyone from trying to bypass them.

Then along the way there were also a number of “shopping centers” of sorts, constructed in what South Africans would call a “township style” of temporary architecture. Mud looked pretty deep surrounding most of them, and life there gave the illusion at least of being pretty relaxed. All of the advertising and direction-giving signs along the way appeared to be in English, but no one actually seemed to be speaking English. Some of these more populated wide spots in the road had some pretty draconian speed bumps installed on the main road to protect the lighter traffic going in and out of them from any momentum that passing trucks and busses might otherwise have built up.

066Another conspicuous factor was that each of these little shopping center villages, other than those set up for foreign tourists at “scenic view” locations, seemed to have 2 or 3 churches and/or church run schools of various brands conspicuously present in them. In fact while driving through the countryside on this main road I counted roughly a church of some sort every two minutes on average. If there is one thing Kenyans doing seem to be lacking then, it’s faith in Jesus. What they seem to be less secure in is how that faith is supposed to relate to building a safer and more secure life for themselves and their children, but I’ll come back to that.

Roughly 7 hours on this coach brought us to the town of Ahero, in the suburbs of Kisumu, where Dan’s wife and a few helpers were waiting for us. My conspicuously pale skin immediately began to draw attention from children on the sides of the dirt roads there. At that point Dan told me that the Swahili word for a white man is “misungu,” and that I would be hearing it a lot from children in particular. True enough. It also seems as though for many Kenyan children, especially at a preschool and early elementary level, the only active English vocabulary they have is “how are you,” together with one or two formulaic responses to such a greeting. Thus I have been more or less continuously confronted with the question, “Misungu, how are you?”

A group of children gathered to stare at the "misungu"

A group of children gathered to stare at the “misungu”

The only difficulty I have in responding to this inquiry from children is that not all of my responses fit within the social formulas they have been taught and memorized; so if I say in response, “I am very happy today,” I mostly get puzzled looks from the young children who are asking. Even so, I started to experience tiredness in some of my facial muscles from sharing smiles with so many little dark faces –– a very satisfying form of tiredness to experience.

On a deeper level though it is of course a more complex question to address: How am I really? I mean, what is this crazy white man doing here to begin with?

I got vaccinated up to the eyeballs for everything relevant to this part of Africa in the months before my trip, and the only health challenge I’ve experienced since I’ve been here thus far has been a few nose bleeds of the sort I am prone to when I get especially tired in travelling. In my first morning here, however, I had to join my host in a stop at the local health clinic, where he was helping a family deal with money transfer issues to pay for the treatment of an elderly aunt for acute malaria. Later in the afternoon I found out that my host himself had been experiencing malaria symptoms, and while we were visiting schools together he left me with an assistant and took off for a doctor’s office to get a prescription for drugs to help fight the disease. Now he is just hoping that the drugs he received will not turn out to be counterfeits, as so many of the drugs available in Kenyan village pharmacies turn out to be.

I was a little bit disappointed to discover that my accommodations had been arranged in a local hotel rather than in the home of some church member as I had expected, but Dan perhaps correctly surmised that it would be necessary to put a “misungu” someplace with running water, a private porcelain throne for his bowel relief needs, coffee service of sorts, and a bed with secure mosquito netting rigged around it. These things would be bit much for any of his very poor parishioners to provide. In this hotel room where I am then the television in the room doesn’t work, there is mold on the ceiling, I got a bit of a jolt from the electric shower system while adjusting the water flow, the toilet lacks a seat, and there are a number of other little details that don’t quite live up to western tourist standards, but overall it works, and I don’t think it will bankrupt me.

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

The street in front of the hotel where I am staying

But it was Joseph, the headmaster at the first medium sized elementary school I went to visit here in Ahero, that really put the whole matter of “how I am” here in perspective for me. My first impression of Joseph was that he bore striking physical resemblance to my Palestinian colleague, “Mudi”, only slightly darker and older looking –– so I was slightly surprised to discover that he is actually close to a year younger than I am! But in many ways Joseph already thinks of himself as an older man for his community: most of the fathers of his school’s pupils end up dying long before they reach his age.

Of the 360 students in Joseph’s school, 27 are currently HIV positive from birth. So far this school year they’ve had one pupil suddenly die of AIDS. Over three quarters of his pupils’ families live below the poverty line, and many of them are mal-nourished to one extent or another. Illness is frequent and long lasting among these pupils, in part because their parents can’t afford medication, in part because medications are frequently counterfeit anyway, and in part because lack of proper food leaves their little bodies without sufficient energy to fight off even basic illnesses.

Joseph was more than happy to call all of the pupils in his school together in the school yard for a spontaneous assembly to greet this foreign visitor. As he explained it, for his pupils seeing a misungu is a significant source of hope in their lives: For some it raises their hope that some help might come to leave them just a little less physically hungry. For others it is symbolic of a wider world of possibilities, further away from their current challenges, but nevertheless possibly open to them some day. Representatives of the full spectrum of Christian churches are thus welcome, including those who focus on testimonies of having been delivered from lives of sin and crime, because it gave these little minds the message that people can really change, and that one’s early experiences and impossible background challenges don’t have to set the limits of one’s potential. The only sort of misungus he had any serious reservations about where those which came to promote new cults which are especially critical of Christian traditions.

b045It was thus rather humbling to stand in front of this crowd of hopeful children and try to find something spontaneously hopeful to say to them. My message was not that I could promise major material resources for their acute needs –– though I would try to spread the word about their needs –– but that the greatest and most reliable source of human happiness is the feeling that we humans can be important to each other and somehow part of each other in a deeply personal sense. I was there for selfish reasons in the sense that I wanted the sort of fulfilment that I know comes from living according to what we call the Twin Commandment of Love: loving God with my whole heart in terms of being fully committed to what I believe in, and loving my neighbor as myself in terms of coming to recognize even distant others as important elements in what makes me me. All I could offer them for certain under the circumstances was the advice to remember the importance of caring for and caring about each other, and the possibility of having one (more) crazy old friend from way up north to further expand the circle of people to whom they are important.

I spoke in English with some limited translation of key points being offered by Joseph when I paused to take questions. I guess it worked, because my host here who had arranged the visit to begin with said that the school had called him back and saying that they would really like to have me there for a full week of guest lectures. So in that sense, yes, this misungu is feeling quite fine this week.

If there are any other misungus out there (or people of any other skin color for that matter) who want to increase their own happiness by connecting with and supporting an orphan or two in this part of the world that none of the established NGOs have reached yet, or if they want to support a local school teacher or two here who currently live in poverty and work without a salary, or even if they would like to provide basic support for children’s education here in the form of one-time sponsorship of an infrastructure project like pouring concrete over the dirt floors in a primitive school building here to keep it from getting shut down for violations of the local health and safety codes (such as they are),  get in touch with me here and I can hook you up.

c026This is not a means of spreading a message or making converts to some particular brand of Christianity; this is a matter of living up to the ideals that Jesus taught as a means of experiencing the richer sort of life that Jesus talked about in John 10:10. It can be something as simple as brightening the lives of a group of five-year-olds for a moment by showing them the basic theory of how to throw, catch and kick a little American football. It can be something as profound as saving children’s lives through feeding them when they are dangerously hungry. In the end it’s all about love, in the many different non-erotic senses of the word, at least as much for our sake as for theirs. We’re not going to fix all of this country’s problems right away, but we can save some very important lives here, and help some very important people to reach their full potential as people. Seriously, what could be more important than that?

Meanwhile, for any of you for whom this report leads you to pray over what sort of contributions you might consider making to this cause, a few extra words to God on behalf of my own continued health and safety while you’re at it wouldn’t go amiss.


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Filed under Disaster relief, Education, Empathy, Ethics, Happiness, Purpose, Religion, Risk taking, Travel

Immediate Sandy Hook Reflections

Today I had the sort of work day that few others have, but which was sort of par for the course for me. I’m only teaching part-time right now, so I only had morning classes for this day. I had to stay into the afternoon however for efforts relating to connection with my students: helping some eighth graders run a bake sale to raise a little money for a class trip later on, and getting those who will take active rolls in the school’s Christmas worship service next week (something that goes with the official connections that remain between the Lutheran Church and the Finnish state) prepped on their lines and queues. Following all that I took care of some basic paperwork and came home and treated myself to a little nap before setting to work on some writing. But as I turned on my computer to get to work I indulged in a bit of international on-line radio news, and consequently caught the Sandy Hook story just as it was breaking on NPR. It’s hard to focus on other things right now, so I’ll just take a moment to let some of the thoughts and feelings this gives rise to flow here.

BathFirst of all it is interesting to me that there has been repetition of the fact that this has been the second-worst school shooting in US history. I can see where that would be strictly speaking correct, but I am disturbed none the less that this once again sets aside the matter of the Bath School Massacre, which was technically more of a bombing than a shooting, and thus it is deprived of recognition as the greatest school killing in US history on this occasion. That puts Virginia Tech in the lead, followed by Sandy Hook today, knocking the University of Texas sniper of 1966 back to third place and the Columbine boys to fourth.

It also adds a new twist to the psychology of such things. The reports are still being untangled as I write this, and they will be for some days; but what we seem to have here is not someone who is protesting about having to pay high taxes to cover the cost of educating other people’s children, as in Bath, nor a psychologically isolated and tormented student reacting against the environment where he felt the most pain, as in Virginia, nor a dramatic reaction to bullying taken to extreme, as in Columbine and its imitations. Initial reports indicate that the shooter had a troubled family relationship with one particular teacher in this idyllic little school for 5-10-year-olds, and so he decided to attack this teacher in her place of employment so as to not only destroy her, but to attack as much as possible of what her life stood for.

This leaves us with few lessons to draw morally. There is nothing the school could have done to make things safer. The shooter was buzzed into the school as a family member of a member of staff — someone who had probably been there many times before, and not something that normally presents any significant risk. It wasn’t the sort of place where security frisking or metal detectors would have been appropriate. And tightened gun control laws wouldn’t have stopped this fellow from getting the small caliber hunting weapon he was carrying, nor limited his access to the sort of ammunition he used. The students had been drilled on “lock down” procedures, and they apparently carried out their emergency routines flawlessly, but it not plausible to say that this is likely to have saved lives in this case. If anything it gave the teachers a sense of duty and mental focus that helped them get through the crisis in better shape than they would have without such training.

So why did these 20 young children die this day? Sadly, almost ironically, because their teacher cared deeply about them, and because someone who really wanted to hurt this teacher in the process of killing her knew that. It is not likely to be fruitful to speculate on the matter here any further than that in terms of how this gunman came to be so angry at this teacher, or what could have been done to prevent either his anger or means of expressing it. In those terms perhaps this was just a tragic accident of unfortunate circumstances, like all of the car accidents that were being mentioned in passing on the traffic reports that were interspersed with coverage of this tragedy that I was following.

But in spite of all of the sorrow and uncertainty still involved in any analysis of this tragic event, I am already convinced that there is one thing that people need to take from it: It yet again shows how much teachers’ work means to them in terms of the connections they (we) pupils/students. Had the killer been a disgruntled family member of a banker or businessman he might have attempted to destroy a bank building or office or retail outlet, but that wouldn’t have had anything like the painful impact of his attacking a teacher’s working place and current pupils. More than those in the vast majority of other professions, teachers invest deeply of themselves in their work; in those they teach. This killer apparently knew that all too well, which made hatred for these innocent  pupils part and parcel of his hatred for their teacher. So the only real lesson that can be drawn from this tragedy on a broader scale may be for those who are not as aware as this killer was of how personally teachers take their work to also stop and think about that for a bit; to see how much of themselves teachers invest in those that they teach, and to in turn to offer them a bit more respect than usual this Christmas season. elementary

President Obama spoke of emotionally of doing what he was sure all parents will do after hearing of this heinous crime: hugging is own children more tightly than usual, recognizing once again how fragile life can be for all of us. He will also probably be motivated to take stronger action than he otherwise would have to reform the sheer insanity of US gun ownership laws. What he may or may not get around to doing is acknowledging how this tragedy reflects the deep connection that teachers share with those they teach. Though this time it has led to an unspeakable tragedy, far more often this connection leads to unspoken benefits to the places we live and to important parts of our lives that many take for granted.

Newtown, Connecticut is, and will continue to be, one of the most desirable middle class places in America to live because of the deep sense of community there, in no small part because of the work that the teachers like those at Sandy Hook Elementary have been doing.  Perhaps in the very shattering of this ideal the value of what such teachers contribute to their communities will become less taken for granted.

In an ideal world this would also lead to greater resources being given to this important work in terms of  building on the value of what great teachers contribute; focusing less on preparing kids for standardized tests and genuinely caring about helping them develop as well-rounded human beings with important dreams that their schools should help them realize. But for me as a teacher to dream that such a tragedy might lead to structural improvements in education systems is too great a stretch, even for the most romantic of dreamers.

In any case, here’s wishing peace and comfort to all those in Sandy Hook area, all of whom will be going through Christmas in a state of shock this year over losing so many of the familiar little faces they would otherwise see having snowball fights in front of their houses over the holidays. My prayers as well are with you. As they are for all those in southwestern Connecticut and other semi-rural areas of New England, and everywhere else where the illusion of safety based on mutual trust has been so badly shattered this week.

All I can add to the platitudes coming from politicians and media professionals is this: Just because the way that teachers personally care for learners has led to tragedy in this case, that doesn’t stop it from being a wonderful thing worth celebrating otherwise. Please don’t forget that, and please let teachers you know know that you remember it.

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Tragedy, Strategy and Morality

It’s been an interesting week in history. The world’s attention has been torn between Japan and Libya. There is a new outpouring of sorrow and empathy, but of the sort where no one is actually doing anything about either situation really, because no one really knows how they could possibly do any good for either.

The Japanese situation with the earthquake and tsunami has people scared because of radiation risks, almost forgetting about the matter of interdependent production and the immense human tragedy already suffered. Tens of thousands of people have died, and a portion of their electrical supply equivalent to what it takes to run Finland, Sweden and Norway has been wiped out. And it could get much, much worse before it’s over.

There is some impressive video of the earthquake and the rush of sea water which followed there, and this has caught people’s attention, but unlike the Haitian crisis there is no big rush of empathetic support going on really. That’s partially because of the sheer hopelessness of the scale of the problem, partially because of an impression that one thing the Japanese people don’t lack is financial resources, and partially because the media has had a bigger fish to fry this past week: Libya.

Try to name popular heads of state, leading stable government coalitions, effectively using their country’s wealth for the good of their people, and open to concepts of democratic transparency and peaceful transition of power from one regime to the next in north Africa and the Arab world, and you’ll end up with an extremely short list. If you were to rank the leaders of these countries in terms of how close they come to such ideals (which in principle are supported by Islam as well) and Gaddafi would probably rank somewhere in the middle of the pack actually. But very few would deny that he has outstayed his welcome and usefulness to the country by at least a decade or two. Nor are there many who would deny that he has gone on a psychopathic rampage to kill off large numbers of his countrymen who are willing to challenge his right to remain in power. The relevant question is, what can and should be done about it? Is trying to stop a military dictator from killing off whoever he feels like killing within his own country just as hopeless as trying prevent tsunamis from sweeping inland after an earthquake at sea? Some might say so.

In the cases of both disasters there is plenty of hand-wringing going on, and even a bit of government action, but in the back of everyone’s mind here there is the question of what these governments figure is in it for them. In the Japanese case there’s the Russian prime minister magnanimously offering to help by selling Japan as much natural gas as they want. Other countries as well are willing to step up and sell the Japanese whatever they have on hand that might be useful in dealing with the immense catastrophe there. But can we really look at that and say, “Wow, how generous of them!”? A sense that they have their own interests at stake in the matter is inevitable. They want Japanese manufactured goods and economic resources flowing into their own countries, obviously, and whatever they do for the Japanese people will be related to these wishes.

In Libya this sort of strategic thinking is quite probably less profitable for any would-be protectors of the people, but the political impression of promoting Western interests there –– raising up specters ranging from the Crusaders to the Colonialists to the crudest of capitalists –– especially given the extent that the US military is already over-extended in the Middle East with adventuresome wars in oil producing areas that their last Commander-in-Chief got them into –– makes for good reason to think carefully about whose interests these forces are actually serving. But whereas earthquakes and tsunamis cannot play the media and issue public statements raising suspicions about the ulterior motives of those who would help their victims, military dictators can. In fact we’ve seen plenty of evidence of that in Libya in recent days.

But regardless of what our governments do or don’t stand to gain in the process, something about helping innocent victims in horrific circumstances –– be it in Benghazi or Sendai or Port-au-Prince or New Orleans –– deserves our attention and sincere efforts. So why is that so hard for us?

That might be a rather weak rhetorical question. In some ways it is obvious why it is so difficult for us to empathize with those who have recently been in a position of strength which has caused some to feel threatened by them even. In these terms it is also obvious why in cases of such disasters we can always find some tasteless publicity hound who can find ways to blame the victims for creating their own bad karma. In other terms there are immense technical challenges in trying to limit the effects of the disasters these people are experiencing; things which make the experts of the world throw up their hands in despair. But perhaps the greatest problem is one that Barry Schwartz has pointed out: when you give people both a moral imperative and a financial incentive to do the same good deed, they become less likely to do it than if you would have given them only the moral imperative. People become morally confused when they think they stand to gain by doing the right thing. Funny how that works.

Not that I claim to have any of the big answers, but hopefully we will find ways of getting these messes sorted out so that as few Arabs and North Africans die in fighting for freedom this year as possible, so that the Fukushima plant disaster does not rise above it’s current third place position among the worst nuclear power disasters of all time, and so both of these countries will be able to clean up, morn their dead and then rebuild enough so that they can get back to business. I realize that this might be a bit unrealistic and utopian, but it remains a set of goals worth pursuing.

If anyone has any concrete ideas of what we outsiders can do improve the odds of such solutions being realized, do let me (or someone important) know about them. If the do-gooders would stand to benefit from helping out, perhaps we need to find ways of helping them find justification for that, and help them to be able to help out anyway, even if they are accused of doing so for selfish reasons. Perhaps we need to set up more foundations or charities that can take charge of these gains to keep them from being used “selfishly”. Or perhaps we just need to help create an atmosphere where benefiting from from doing good is not so stigmatized by jealous individuals. As for myself, if I can help in a way that I also benefit from it, frankly I really wouldn’t mind.

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