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Cuba

posted in: 2010, Washington DC - No Comments

Imagine having to depend on the American government for all of your basic needs, receiving only $20 a month as a salaried government worker. Yet the money you receive from the government cannot be used to buy many of the goods and services you need. First you must exchange those 20 meager dollars for a different currency, let’s call it the e-dollar, worth 25 times a regular dollar. The money you earn working for the government is not even accepted at the government-run stores that sell packaged food, electronics and other consumer goods. The gross economic injustice that you face is aggravated by your lack of basic civil rights and the constant threat of government surveillance, beatings, imprisonment, and even exile should you even contemplate demanding better conditions for yourself and your community.

This is a daily reality for the millions of Cubans who live under the Communist regime established by Fidel Castro and perpetuated by his brother Raul Castro. Yet Cuba has many brave souls who fight for economic and political justice daily despite the dangers to themselves and their families. Last week, I was fortunate to meet and spend time with two women from FLAMUR (Federación Latinoamericana de Mujeres Rurales), a Cuban organization of about 1,000 women across the island committed to bettering the lives of women by empowering them to become agents of change (www.flamurcuba.org). READ MORE

Rethinking Common Sense

posted in: 2010, Gulfport, MS - No Comments

This internship has challenged what I think of “common sense.” Working with grants that have various donor restrictions and constant changes to these restrictions, it’s a wonder that anything actually gets done. You would think that if a person truly has a need, then this person should be helped. But this is not always the case.

Take, for example, a senior citizen who is trying to get a forgivable loan to repair her house. She is a longtime resident of the Gulf Coast and lived through Hurricane Katrina. Her house was severely damaged at the time, but the money she initially received from the government she used to buy proper medication and repaired part of her home, but not all. Now she is trying to complete well-needed repairs and the money is there. She gets qualified into a program with IRD but the donor’s guidelines change midway through and she’s no longer eligible. Since she did not spend all of her initial recovery money on fixing her house, she isn’t eligible. READ MORE

Chapas: Notes on the Journey

posted in: 2010, Indonesia - No Comments

I still can’t decide if I should be impressed or appalled by the Mozambican public transportation system. The vehicles themselves are called chapas (pronounced “shop-ahs”) and as a whole, they resemble a somewhat decrepit fleet of white metal boxes on wheels. Door handles are frequently missing, seatbelts are non-existent, and I’ve never seen a front windshield without at least three large cracks across it. The chapas all congregate at the paragem, which is similar to a bus stop. Each chapa has a specific destination, but none of them have any sort of schedule. They line up along a block in the center of town and wait for passengers to come fill them up.  Once the chapa is filled with passengers, it leaves. Until then, you just climb in, sit down, and hope that other people are travelling to the same place you are. In a large town like Maxixe, chapas usually fill up in 20-40 minutes, depending on the time of day. However, in smaller rural areas, you can wait for hours before the chapa fills up, and if no one else is interested in leaving town that day, you won’t be either. Try again tomorrow.

The paragem itself is a hub of activity. Parked vehicles filled with waiting passengers are a great market for local street vendors. All kinds of delicious street snacks are there to tempt you: grilled corn on the cob, fried dough balls, fish on a stick, roasted cashews, and hard boiled eggs served with a side of salt, to name just a few. One of the best parts of the paragem is that everything will come right to you. If you happen to be craving a packet of Nik-Naks (a Cheetos-type snack), but the nearest kid is only selling bananas, you just have mention the word “Nik-Naks” and literally within seconds he has managed to sound off the Nik-Nak alarm and three kids will show up at your chapa with Nik-Naks in tow. READ MORE

Well…it’s not quite that easy.

posted in: 2010, Mozambique - No Comments

One of those most concrete benefits provided by IRD’s orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) program is the distribution of food to children’s families. Each month the World Food Program provides enough food for the families of the children in the program to eat for about one to two weeks, reducing each family’s burden of providing food. It’s a great help to the families, and seems simple enough, considering the food is already being provided. If one group of people has food and wants to give it to another group of people, it should be an easy task to ship it from one place to another. Unfortunately however, it is much more difficult and complex than that.

For food to make it into a child’s bowl at dinnertime, it must first be shipped into Mozambique through one of two major ports. This is, of course, assuming that the food that has actually been harvested and has not been diverted to another emergency situation. Once in the port, the food then must be shipped to central warehouses. Again, this seems simple enough except that paved roads are a limited commodity in Mozambique. I live right next to the EN1, the nation’s major national highway, which in Maxixe is a well paved road, but two hours south becomes a bumpy dirt path that is perpetually under construction. Blown tires and tipping are common for passenger vehicles, not to mention large trucks carrying tons of food. READ MORE

Hope in Unity on the Gulf Coast

posted in: 2010, Gulfport, MS, Washington DC - No Comments

On Wednesday, June 30, I attended the Mississippi Gulf Coast Disaster Recovery Summit at The University of Southern Mississippi-Gulf Coast. It was a gathering of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs), religious organizations, businesses, and community leaders to tackle the largest ecological and technological disaster this country has ever seen: the oil spill resulting from an explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig.  Representatives from along the coast came to learn, express their concerns, and collaborate on resources. The South Mississippi Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (SMVOAD) organized the event.

I attended the Summit as a kind of “outsider.” I grew up in the Midwest and don’t try to claim that I understand life on the Coast. The fishing, the ecology, and lifestyle are all foreign to me, and it was difficult to fully grasp the implications of this disaster from afar. Thus, for me the Summit was about education. I learned how people’s lives are tied up in the Gulf and how this technological and ecological disaster is also an emotional disaster. It not only affects people’s jobs but their livelihoods.  This came through in people’s questions for panelists and their sometimes emotional responses. People can rebuild after a hurricane, but this disaster is fundamentally changing life along the Coast. READ MORE

Disfigured…Transfigured

posted in: 2010, Cambodia - No Comments

His face was a charred, burnt red. Like roasting meat pulled from the flames, it was a deep, swollen burgundy. His right eyelid had been blown away leaving a milky white ball with only the cloudy remains of iris and retina. There were no protective lashes or thick brows to shield the exposed ivory bulb. His left eye, relatively intact, was a crisp mahogany; it wasn’t a depthless brown, but a rusted wooden floorboard brown. His lips were a faded wormy pink and puffed up in the right corner. There were shiny burns and hard sores that disrupted the surface of his haggard, tender flesh. His hands were charred stubs, thick scar tissue nubs sprouted from where his fingers use to be. He fumbled with a navy blue baseball cap and sloppily mouthed words that spilled out like dried beans on a linoleum floor. Hobbling towards me, he continued to mumble and I, despite a twinge of compassion, pulled away, averting my eyes and briskly stalking toward a secluded indoor café.

He was a landmine victim. Cambodia is the single most landmine-ridden country in all of Asia. Every travel book and website I have read about Cambodia ominously warns against straying from well-worn paths, particularly up in the sparsely populated mountains and along the Thai border. Landmines are an American legacy; President Nixon had landmines planted during the Vietnam War, a measure taken to “quell” any insurgency that could be regrouping inside Cambodia’s borders. But it wasn’t the armed military or Vietnamese guerrillas who became the victims of the mines; women and children wandering across the open, grassy fields were arbitrarily blown to bits. Pol Pot, the ugly and ferocious Marxist revolutionary, planted even more landmines—particularly along the Cambodian border with Thailand—to dissuade the victims of mass murder from fleeing to safety. READ MORE

Ants and Elephants

posted in: 2010, Sudan - No Comments

Mother Teresa was once quoted as saying: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

A very simple, yet poignant expression of how the perception of one’s impact on the life of another compels one to action.  This quote also resonates with me on a more complex level. Couched in Mother Teresa’s statement was her innate ability to look directly in the face of systemic poverty and see the eyes of a starving child. It was her capacity to hear beyond the critiques of her humanitarian approach in order to listen to the sheer elation of a paralyzed person receiving love and care. How does someone so unassuming encounter such massive injustices and still find the fortitude to want to make a difference in the lives of so many?

As part of a casual conversation that took place since I have been here in Sudan, a good friend referenced the importance of being able to recognize the “ants” as well as the “elephants.” This statement sparked an intense period of reflection for me. How often in life have we only paid attention to the “elephants” while overlooking the “ants?” The “elephants,” in this case, are the people, places, things, and ideas that capture most of our attention. They are usually the things that we feel bear the greatest impact on our lives, requiring our greatest level of investment. In most cases, we perceive that finding a solution for these “elephants” will bring the greatest satisfaction; or if we fail, bring the greatest possibility for pain, in turn, validating our need for heightened personal investment. READ MORE

The Long Walk toward Community Health

posted in: 2010, Sudan - No Comments

My colleague Gideon and I were exhausted. We had travelled one hour from the CHESS project’s headquarters in Duk Payuel—on a road peppered with pools of water and mud, courtesy of Sudan’s rainy season, which could bring the strongest off-road vehicle to its knees—to Mareeng, a nearby village that normally would take 15 minutes to reach. Just as we reached the outskirts of Mareeng, our vehicle finally succumbed to the condition of the roads and became stranded in a mixture of mud and clay that could easily be mistaken for quicksand.

Determined not to let our travel conditions get the best of us, Gideon and I decided to complete the fifteen minute journey in blazing heat to the County Administrator’s office on foot, so that we could introduce ourselves and inform the government officials of our scheduled activities in Mareeng, before getting to work.  Battling the wave of exhaustion that washed over us as we settled into the office chairs in the Administrator’s office, Gideon and I made our requisite introductions and set out to begin the interviews that had brought us to Mareeng in the first place. READ MORE

Model Mothers as Agents of Change

posted in: 2010, Cambodia - No Comments

Her name is Pach. At 30 years old, she has three daughters. The youngest is nestled against her chest, waiting to be fed. The other two are sitting close by, wondering and whispering. I thank her for inviting me into her home, encouraging her to be open about her experience with IRD. Her smile is warm, her shirt bright orange.

She knows IRD well. The acronym, standing for International Relief and Development, flies around this village like the common mosquito. IRD’s Child Survival Project, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has been running for close to four years and is ending in September 2010. Striving to educate and equip the most vulnerable in the rural Tuk Phos province of Cambodia, the program’s main aim has been to counter the reality of infant mortality by decreasing malnutrition among children under five. Using the PD/Hearth model, IRD utilizes positive deviance as an effective teaching method for women. Educating mothers on health during pregnancy and proper breastfeeding techniques are just two ways IRD is encouraging behavioral change within the villages of Cambodia. It is the hope of the organization and the aim of the grant that these women who come to model positive health practices will in turn share their practices with family, neighbors, and friends. The passing on and passing down of knowledge are ways that IRD seeks to ensure the sustainability of its project.

The impact of the grant is noticeable. I ask Pach how IRD has been active in her village. “Education on hygiene and child feeding, hand washing, breastfeeding” is her response. As a model mother in the PD/Hearth Program, such a response is not surprising. Recognized by IRD for her commitment to adopting and upholding their health practices, Pach’s answer should be consistent with IRD’s goals for the program. IRD depends on women like Pach. READ MORE

Flickers of Hope

posted in: 2010, Cambodia - No Comments

Children. The Bible tells us they are a “heritage from the Lord” (Psalm 127: 3-5). They are whimsical, carefree, and downright adorable. They are innocent, trusting, and unblemished by the tough lessons that we learn as we grow older. In short, children are precious. During my six weeks here in Cambodia, I have marveled at the children who live joyously despite conditions that make my Western, sanitized heart rattle. The more I see this country, the more I fall in love with the shy smiles and wide eyes of its children.

I have noticed, though, that the children here are more reserved than in the United States and in Guatemala, where I have done previous mission and humanitarian work. In Guatemala, children ran to me with open arms, flocked around me, tugging at my blond hair and giggling at my broken Spanish. But not here; Cambodian children will watch me, their large dark eyes illuminated by curiosity, but they do not come near. There is a consciousness that strangers may be entertaining, but only from afar. READ MORE