Friday, November 27, 2009

"No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself." — Virginia Woolf

A friend of mine wrote me at one point and said my emails were either written "from the lap of humility or the lap of luxury."

Well, these final few days of my African journey are certainly the latter.

I arrived at The Royal Livingstone Hotel on Saturday. It is, by far, the most spectacular place I have been to in Africa (and quite possibly the world.) I have dubbed the aesthetic "colonial African chic." It's simply gorgeous.

I flew from Lusaka to Livingstone on a pitch perfect beautiful day. Because the flight was relatively short, we flew at a modestly low altitude (keep in mind, I have no idea technically if what I am saying is accurate.) The views were breathtaking. I have developed a slight fear of flying in small planes this month but, on this flight, I didn't even consider my fear. I was so preoccupied and simply in awe of the natural beauty of the lush green and tan landscape of Zambia highlighted by the crisp blue sky backdrop.

We landed at the Livingstone airport that, while tiny, is clearly adept at handling the scores of tourists who visit daily. The driver who picked me up graciously agreed to help me try and find a new backpack. The zipper had broken on mine and my skills to fix it were non-existent. I asked if there was a "sports store" in town. Blank stare. Ummmm that would be a "no". We went into town and "third world shopped." After popping into a few run-down general stores, I finally found a backpack. I had two incredibly random choices: an LA Kings one or a Trooper one? I chose the Trooper. (Not five minutes after purchasing it, I had already broken one of the zippers on the new Trooper. Perhaps, it's me?)

When we pulled into the drive for The Royal Livingstone Hotel, I was blown away. The open air lobby, which offered endless views of the glorious Zambezi River, was stunning. This is the fourth-largest river in Africa and it eventually flows into the Indian Ocean. It also famously features Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. I was shuttled into the lounge area which looked like the bar in "Out of Africa". I was seated in a comfortable beautifully upholstered armchair and was offered a refreshing drink and a cold towel while I was checked in.

Needless to say, I settled in comfortably meeting my butler (you heard me) and my driver (you heard me) and was struck by how absurdly different this experience already was compared to the "lap of humility" leading up to this.

The first night I went on a Sunset Drinks Cruise along the Zambezi River. The views of the sun setting over Zimbabwe were magical. I enjoyed a few glasses of red wine and for the first time since arriving in Africa, I relaxed. I remember the moment clearly. I was so cognizant of it. I took a breath and allowed the physical and emotional toll of this trip to release. It was both entirely deliberate and yet perfectly natural.

The next morning I woke up early to go on an Elephant Back Safari ride. My wake up call was at 6 am and it was all I could do not to turn over and fall back to sleep. But for my strong desire and need for coffee, I would have never met Danny. Danny was my elephant and we hit it off immediately. Nothing awkward or tentative. He was the perfect morning companion. The highlight was perhaps the baby elephant who tagged along for the walk with us. He was born in October and was ridiculously cute.

That afternoon I had my first experience with the magnificent Victoria Falls. Aston picked me up and we took the short five minute drive to the entrance of Victoria Falls. It is dry season so the Falls aren't as robust as they will be from March to August. During that time of year, you literally need to wear a raincoat and carry an umbrella because the sprays will drench you. On this day, we were able to walk along the path without any problem. Since it was one of the hotter days since I have been in Africa, we were both dripping with sweat and wishing it were March so that the sprays would relieve us. But, as Aston quickly pointed out, the views in November allow you to really see the integrity of the Falls. These views and the thunderous sounds were something I will never forget.

Victoria Falls was named by the Scottish explorer David Livingstone in the 19th Century in honor of his Queen. The idigenous name, which the locals still refer to as, is Mosi-oa-Tonya ("The Smoke that Thunders").

As David Livingstone, who was the first European to lay eyes on the Falls on November 16, 1855, wrote:

No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It has never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.

The next day, I took a short boat ride to Livingstone Island. Here is where David Livingstone actually first witnessed the Falls. It was an incredible afternoon. Alex, my guide, took me literally to the edge of the Falls. I was terrified but he was a sturdy and confident companion who graciously and without question gripped my hand the entire way. To see this natural phenomenon up close and without barrier was surreal. We were standing inches away from the edge where the water was rapidly plunging down. My heart was racing with adrenaline. Thank goodness for Alex who encouraged me as I'm not sure I would have been brave enough to venture so close on my own.

They served us lunch on the Island and the two glasses of white wine helped to ease my nerves. Seeing Victoria Falls from the Island was a complete rush and, once again, something I will not soon forget.

These past few days I have immersed myself in the utter sanctuary that is The Royal Livingstone and its surrounding beauty. I have delighted in seeing zebras hanging out by the pool at cocktail hour and monkeys as ubiguitous as squirrels are back home.

But I am also utterly struck by what P.M. Clarke noted about Victoria Falls in 1925:

A truly magnificent sight, and one which brings home the tremendous glory of the whole mighty work of Nature, and the comparative insignificance of Humanity.

While not his intention, I have felt this "insignificance of Humanity" in the extreme and staggering poverty that blankets this continent. The vulnerable children living in the Gaza Province devastated by the AIDS crisis which has left them homeless and on their own; the women who are struggling to raise their families without means and with gender discrimination; and, the school children who are not able to continue to go to school because they are tasked with putting food on the table. How can we live in a world as wealthy and as evolved as we do and still have the enormous problems that Africa has?

The glory and beauty of Africa is stunning and there is nothing comparable. But the insignificance of the humanity here is equally stunning and incomparable.

I wish, for the people of Africa, that their insignificance is someday soon overcome.

"Marvelous are the innocent." - Virginia Woolf

One of the beneficiaries of SLA is the Natuseko Community School. I visited the school and, with our generous donations, I was able to provide much needed supplies of books, pencils, and chalk.

These children were so happy to have a visitor and were really fun to be with. They excitedly told me their names and their favorite subjects in school (math and science ranked high). The older students told me about their exams which are coming up next week.

The challenge in this community and with this school is a disturbing lack of resources. They have lost teachers because there is no income to pay them. When I was there I met the headmaster and one other teacher. These two teachers were responsible for the entire school (grades 1-6). Also, they don't have a food program so these children are in school the entire day without a meal. For most, they have one meal a day at home and that is it. The headmaster showed me the field in the back of the school where they are attempting to grow maize and sweet potatoes, which could provide some food for the students. The problem is they don't have fertilizer and they were devastated to see that the crops the students and teachers planted just aren't growing.

The school has lost a lot of its enrollment because the children are having to fend for themselves and for their families. They have to leave school to try and find some way to make money to put food on the table. For those students, if they do go to school, they only go for a day or so a week.

The true gift and true heartbreak of this trip has been meeting all of these wonderful African children: whether it be in the school in Ngungugu, Kenya (where we provided much needed desks); or, the children orphaned by AIDS in Maputo and Gaza provinces in Mozambique; or, the children at the Natuseko Community School in Kabwe, Zambia.

I have honestly and truly fell in love with these children. Every single one of them. They have such smiling, happy faces. There is such hope in their eyes. But there is also such sadness. They struggle daily just to survive in a world that is seemingly content with children homeless and starving and without parents. This reality has truly broken my heart and changed my outlook in so many ways. How can we, as a society, accept this as our reality? It is beyond any logic that we live in a world in which our most vulnerable are most suffering.

From the book "Half the Sky":

A Hawaiian parable: A man goes out on the beach and sees that it is covered with starfish that have washed up in the tide. A little boy is walking along, picking them up and throwing them back into the water. "What are you doing, son?" the man asks. "You see how many starfish there are? You'll never make a difference." The boy paused thoughtfully, and picked up another starfish and threw it in the ocean. "It sure made a difference to that one," he said.

While the poverty is staggering and the number of children I met is too numerous to count, the idea that I can maybe even impact one of their lives is so important to me and something I am committed to do. It doesn't take much in terms of financial resources to change the direction of any one of these precious lives. The hardest part is realizing that I can't help all of them but I am inspired to help as many as I can.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. -Mahatma Ghandi


"Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day." — Virginia Woolf

It seems almost poetic that the last day of the volunteer part of my journey was Thanksgiving. This month has certainly put in perspective in such an acute and emotional way how much I have to be thankful for.

I spent the past couple of days in Kabwe, Zambia. Kabwe is a remote community about two hours outside of Lusaka, which is the capital of Zambia.

My project was to work with a group of women who started SLA (Small Loans Association.) It was incredible to meet with this group. They were beyond impressive. In a world that is still ruled, for the most part, by patriarchy (especially in developing countries), these women have taken the bull by the horns to amazing results. All of these women have risen to be the primary breadwinners of their family. And, are both so incredibly savvy from a business perspective; and, also so generous with their profits. It was inspirational to learn from them (even though ostensibly I was there to 'teach" them.)

From the book "Half the Sky":

Bill Gates speaking at a conference in Saudi Arabia with a segregated audience. 4/5th men and 1/5th women. Partition separating them. Someone asked if it was realistic that by 2010 SA would be one of the top 10 in the world in technology. Gates said, noting the segregation "Well, if you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top ten."

Well, in Kabwe, Zambia, the women have taken upon themselves to be utilized. SLA was started about three years ago by a group of 20 women. These women had no choice but to start this group. They did not have the means individually and on their own to acquire loans through banks. And, as women they are at a gender disadvantage. In the welcoming speech that Mary Kombe (chairwoman) gave she described the group as such:

SLA is a small women led group. We try as much as possible to help women and widows to improve on their living by giving small loans. Each member gives a small contribution weekly and can borrow money. After three months they are required to repay with a small interest. The interest is what we use for our operations, and to help other members in our community, especially the vulnerable children orphaned by AIDS. The small loans we get as members may seem small to others but in our hearts and in our community they are big and offer a huge change in our lives.

At the end of the year, they divide up the savings and earnings based on what each contributed. They all used the loans to start small businesses. And, to a person, they said they could not have started their business without this microloan. Some of the businesses they have started include: raising chickens; selling cosmetics; selling homemade sweaters and baby clothes; opening a small general market; etc.

They use a portion of the money they make to give back to the vulnerable children who are orphaned by AIDS, the community school, and the community clinic. (Our collective donations contributed to each of these efforts; as well as giving some more seed money to SLA.)

These women are very poor and are responsible for so many members of their extended families and yet they feel it's their responsibility to give back to the community who are suffering in way that is worse than them.

Many of these women are widows. Their children have died of AIDS. They are caring for their grandchildren by themselves. Some of the women have children who are living in their household with their children but are unable to get work. The economy here is really troubling and the unemployment for someone in their 20s is quite high.

I found this concept and the spirit of giving back, even though they themselves are struggling, so incredibly moving and inspiring. And, fitting to hear this on Thanksgiving.

While I didn't have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner this year with family and friends, I was treated to an incredibly generous home-cooked meal. The entire SLA group gathered us in the home of one of the members. We gathered on couches and chairs and floor space. They sang songs of love and thanks. We ate a delicious meal of stewed pumpkin leaves, cucumber salad, rice, chicken and nshima. I missed my family but I have to say, it was a nice way to spend the day.

They did not have any awareness of Thanksgiving but they were still so grateful for our generous donations to their organization.

A friend of mine emailed me today the following:

"you know, in the ripple effect of life...when we went around the table last night to say what we were thankful for and we weren't allowed to say 'family and friends' i could only come up with the context that your trip has provided, even to me. i.e., it's been such a crap year for me i didn't really have much to be thankful for, but i certainly could be glad that i'm not an aids orphan living in africa. things could be SO much worse; when we say things like, 'my life sucks', or 'my life is a disaster' i really have to take a beat and think twice. i live in an apartment that for most people in the world would be the lap of luxury. i can go to the supermarket and buy food. i sleep on clean sheets at night. no one is abusing me. i don't live in abject fear all the time. it's hard to remember on a daily basis, but i do think it's important to try to every now and then. your experience, the blog, etc. has certainly provided the impetus to Keep Things In Perspective..."

These women struggling to survive but feeling emboldened by SLA and their contributions back to their community was as clear a symbol of Thanksgiving as I have ever seen.

As my friend so eloquently related to me....we must keep all things in perspective. Life indeed has a way of adding day to day. Let's all try and make the next day better than the last day.

Monday, November 23, 2009

"Together we will melt stones." Malangatana

I think I fell in love yesterday! Truly. I met the renowned national treasure of Africa: the artist Malangatana.

His works are displayed in gallaries throughout the world, including the Smithsonian.

We sat in his studio and talked for over an hour. His English was perfect, which was a good thing because my Portuguese is limited, at best. (I do know "obrigada" means "thank you" but I think that would have limited our conversation immensely.)

He elucidated his artistic philosophies and regaled me with stories of his humble roots. He said he observes the world through his soul and tries to translate that as images on his canvases. I said how struck I was by the eyes in his paintings (and thought that this must clearly be intentional because one's eyes are a window into one's soul.) He said he doesn't pay particular attention to that specific detail, but appreciated the compliment just the same.

His works have been lauded for their exploration of the hardships of human life and the heroism in overcoming those hardships. He is such a proud and important cultural figure in Africa and the world.. His works are the reflection of a culture that has fought for independence and is now fighting for survival.

He thanked me for coming to Mozambique and asked about the projects I was working on - particularly my work with the vulnerable children in Maputo and the Gaza province. He was so grateful. Though the problems are enormous and seemingly insurmountable, he was convinced that "together we will melt stones." We will embrace the impossible together and see miracles happen. He was so moving. It was really incredible.

He was also a shameless flirt, quick-witted, and so wise. I was completely charmed by him.

As I was leaving he asked if I had left some of my spirit inside the studio for him to keep. I smiled at the generous flattery and what I didn't tell him was that I absconded with a bunch of his spirit the moment we met.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread." Mother Teresa

This group of children represent two different families under the care of their grandmother. Both of the grandmother's daughters have died of AIDS (along with the fathers of the children). So the grandmother is raising all of her grandchildren on her own in basically two small reed huts.

It was mind-numbing to bear witness to this. I honestly had a hard time wrapping my arms around this emotionally or practically. I can't imagine how hard of a struggle it is for this woman having to raise 8 grandchildren by herself without any resources whatsoever.

I was able to observe Reencontro gathering all of their information so they could be put into the system so that help could be provided as soon as possible.

The trip to the Gaza Province was really grueling. The roads in the villages in Xai Xai were treacherous and at times almost impossible to travel on (especially given the non-stop rain.) My back was aching from all of the dirt road driving. I have never experience car sickness in my life but I was nauseous from the hours of this driving. The lodge that we stayed in was uncomfortable and impossible to sleep in. I was physically and emotionally drained.

I emailed a friend of mine this morning and described the trip. I said that I never wanted to go back to the Gaza province again. I did my work and would continue to provide whatever resources I could - now that I have been there I know what the enormous needs are.

But then I realized that the truth is: I can't NOT go back. I really feel that I need to continue to check in and help these children. It's like it's my responsibility now that is beyond anything I "want" to do. One can't stand in front of this poverty and suffering and not always remember and not feel a sense of duty. I did not enjoy the trip but that wasn't the point now, was it?

"Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person." Mother Teresa

This young boy, who is infected with AIDS, is being raised by his very elderly grandfather. He and his brother (who was too shy to come out to see us) are suffering from a lack of proper care from their grandfather who is too weak to really provide the care they need.

This young boy and his younger sister are in the care of their elderly grandmother. They are in a hopeless situation without proper shelter or care.

These two angels are living in this hut with their grandmother along with a chicken and a baby goat.

This girl and her older brother (below) are living in a hut, while their mother is away getting treatment for AIDS. We provided them a much needed new mat to sleep on.

These two children just lost their mother to AIDS in October. They were going through the motions when we visited them but it was so clear they were in so much shock and pain. Reencontro is looking for somebody to sponsor them for $60/month which would pay for a care-taker to live with them. They are currently living on their own.

"If you cannot feed a hundred people, then feed just one." Mother Teresa

The next posts will highlight some amazing and troubling examples of children who are living in extreme poverty and orphaned by the AIDS crisis which is devastating this continent.

I wanted to start with this village that Reencontro set up. It was a long and treacherous drive to get there. We veered off the dirt road we had been traveling on and drove for another hour in the brush. The rain didn't help the conditions or the visibility. This was, by far, the most remote place I had traveled to. It is a community in the Gaza province. This particular area we were in is known for its cashew industry. The villagers gave us a bag when we left and they were beyond delicious - unadorned and freshly roasted.

We were greeted by the villagers who sang a welcome song and gathered us all in a room (it was a downpour when we arrived). Olinda had everyone sit and we went through every child's story. The village is made up of a group of orphans who are parentless because of the AIDS crisis and a group of selfless volunteers (mainly women; although the director of the village was a young man who looked maybe 25) who live in the village as caretakers.

We proceeded to walk from home to home to observe and note the needs of each child. The entire village walked together either behind us or in front of us, singing songs as we walked. It was truly an experience that I will never forget. So moving and communal and welcoming.

Reencontro has built all of the homes and are providing food and access to schooling for all of these children. We saw several of the homes which were well built structurally but did not have any furnishings. This village is desperately in need of beds and other basic supplies for their homes.

A couple of children to think about:

Angelina was such a scared and reclusive soul. She lost her mother recently to AIDS. Her uncle took her in but abandoned her when his wife said she did not want her. This community has enveloped her and hopefully in time she will find peace and, I really hope, happiness.

The next little girl had such a warm and loving face. She was found living under a tree with her very elderly, blind grandfather. She is infected with the AIDS virus. This village has taken she and her grandfather in. Reencontro is providing her much needed medication and housing in the village.

All of these children need our help desperately.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"My notion's to think of the human beings first and let the abstract ideas take care of themselves." Virginia Woolf

The past two days I spent in a very remote area in the Gaza province about a 6 hour drive from Maputo, Mozambique. (I'm told the drive can take 3 hours but we were driving in really bad rain storms which made the roadways very slow and treacherous.)

I visited two of the remote Reencontro centers. The first center was in village so remote that we were on a dirt road for about 3 hours to get to it. It felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. Literally. When we arrived at the center we were greeted to a room full of singing children (all orphaned by AIDS) and the wonderful Reencontro volunteers. These volunteers are, themselves, very poor and yet they volunteer their lives to helping this generation of young children who have been abandoned by the AIDS crisis.

We met with several families and heard such heart-breaking stories. I will post some of those individual stories in the blogs that follow.

The second day I visited the center in Xai Xai which was the nicest of the centers I have seen. One of the biggest benefactors of Reencontro is Graca Machel. She is married to Nelson Mandela and is the widow of the former president of Mozambique who died in a plane crash several years ago. (I think uniquely she is the only woman to ever have been first lady twice - in Mozambique and in South Africa.) She has focussed her efforts in the Gaza province which has been devastated by the AIDS crisis. (For perspective, the Maputo branch of Reencontro works with 1,500 children and the Gaza branch works with 7,000 children.) She donated this building and spends a lot of time working with Olinda and Reencontro to help support the devastating crisis affecting this region.

I asked why there were so many more people impacted by AIDS in the Gaza province. There were a couple of reasons. One, a lot of the laborers in this region worked in South Africa and contracted the virus there and then when they came back spread the disease. Also, polygamy is common so the disease spreads quickly through families. Reencontro is working tirelessly on education and prevention so this cycle can someday stop.

I will also tell some of the stories of the children I met in Xai Xai. Unfortunately, since it was raining quite hard, we could not do as many visits as we would have liked. I did have the chance to have a lengthy meeting with the volunteers and the directors of the Xai Xai Reencontro branch. These people give their daily lives to this fight. They are heroes beyond measure.

The other project I was able to get some insight on was a project that the LA-based architect Polly Osborne is working on called "A Nossa Casa" ("Our Home"). Malena Ruth, director of AMF, recruited Polly and her husband Tim to work to build a center that will provide housing, schooling, and vocational training for children orphaned by AIDS. It's an enormous project but one that is truly inspiring. I saw the grounds where they are hoping to build the center and I also was able to bring the plans to Olinda and her team. They were beyond happy to see all of the work Polly had done.

Polly had asked me to check in on one of the families she had visited when she was here in June. We drove as far as we could and then had to walk up a big hill to get to their remote reed hut where they were living. When Polly was here she met the mother who was in the final stages of her battle with AIDS. When we arrived I met the two young children (their mother had passed away after Polly's visit.) It was truly heart-breaking. These two beautiful children were living alone in extreme poverty without any family member to help them. Thank goodness for Reencontro and the help they provide. But, the truth is, the day-to-day life for these two angels is complete hardship. At one point, Anish, the older girl who was so brave and strong for us and her younger brother (Martin), just broke down in tears. Heavy, heavy sobs. It was so chilling to witness this. I realized, in that moment, that I had not seen any of the children cry since I have been in Africa. They all have such sad eyes but are almost numb to the pain. This little girl emoting in such a way put a pain in my heart. It puts a pain in my heart just typing this. I reached in my pocket and gave her all the money I had. I wanted to give her my suitcase full of clothes. I wanted to take them away from this horrible situation that nobody on this planet deserves to be in. It crushed me.

Thank goodness there are people like Malena and Polly and Olinda and so many other people whom I have met who are beyond the chatter of what to do and are doing the work on the ground with these children. They are not being paid but are simply moved to action by the world in which we live in where children are being abandoned without any hope.

(I posted a picture of Olinda because I realized I hadn't done that yet. The other pictures show that during our visit we gave these children some food and cooking oil and some other rudimentary supplies.)

"Arrange whatever pieces come your way." Virginia Woolf

Sweet 10 year old Christine showed me how to strap a baby to your back - African style!