Saturday, December 3, 2011

Sit back and take it all in

Just a little reminder of how awesome this universe is.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

World Aids Day: In Rememberance

I wrote this on April 18, 2007 while living in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa:

“There is not much talking now. A silence falls upon them all. This is no time to talk of hedges and fields, or the beauties of any country. Sadness and fear and hate, how they well up in the heart and mind, whenever one opens the pages of these messengers of doom. Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and child bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.”
-From Alan Paton's 'Cry the Beloved Country'

What is the meaning of a world where you welcome death for a child because it means the end of suffering - the end of knowing your mother has left you, of feeling too weak to play the games of the children around you, of finding the strength only to cry?

This is the face of AIDS in Africa. Of a child who came three weeks ago and whom I mistook for shy. A child who came in clean and pressed clothes and bright white tennis shoes that swallowed her stick-like legs.

“On admission to the center the child looked malnourished with very thin legs and arms and sunken eyes. According to the grandmother she does not like food, has diarrhea with blood, sweats at night and is restless.”

Her cries were the first I heard here – I went to investigate once when they seemed as though they’d never stop. And even with an arm around her bony back and her head on my knee, they continued. They were cries for which there could be no comfort.

On Saturday we invited her to hit the piñata, and gently took the bat when she broke into tears after one swing. The children shared their candy with her as she held back, as she always did, when they rushed forward to join the excitement.

Two days ago, she went to the hospital for the fifth time this year. She had no stuffed animal for comfort, it was insisted that anything of the sort provided would quickly be stolen in the night. Sister visited her and said she was worried. This morning the prognosis was better – she was smiling and talking to the nurse on duty. When Sister returned to see her after supper she was told she died in the afternoon. We learned her CD4 count this morning, it was 3.

I did not know her before I came here, nor any like her. She existed only in theory, in a far off land where the virus that killed her raged out of control. Then I came to Nkandla and I learned her name. I held her, I watched her, I worried after her and I got to know as much as I could of the shell that remained after three years of constant pain and illness.

Now I introduce her to you for this is all I can do – to offer a face and a name to that which we think we cannot know. This was Lindokuhle. From here on out, may this plague be considered a stranger no more.

In honor of World Aids Day, please consider contributing to The Africa Project, still hard at work with the Nardini Sisters in Nkandla.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Day 12: Tribe

The West African Sankofa

"Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi."

"It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten"

I have never been the most patriotic of Americans. This has very little to do with what it means to be American, and more to do with how I see the world. I don't imagine I'd be any more gung-ho to be Canadian, British or Kenyan for that matter. To me, nationality is a crap shoot. Given the absence of my ink on the constitution, I don't feel a personal claim to what makes this country great/not great beyond my daily actions to support the good things therein. I cherish parts of our foundation and the subsequent (and continued) evolution of human rights that I hold dear - most notable among these, equality. But for me, the significance of country or citizenship is moot - we are born into a sliding scale of humanity, with some countries inevitably further along than others. I believe as individuals we are defined by our actions, not by our birth.

As a white, middle-class American growing up, I was often envious of friends whose culture or ethnicity offered prescribed values and practices that could be publicly acknowledged as such. Sometimes, such distinctions were painful, as when a friend told me at our 8th grade graduation she'd have to prioritize her Korean friends in high school out of respect for her family. Mostly, it was something that I felt a vague separation from - I just didn't have anything like ethnicity to identify with. What I did have was a close extended family with deep traditions tied to singing very specific family songs in treasured family spaces. As I grew, I came to identify these things as the unique culture I could claim as my own. Still, this was a small circle in comparison to the ethnic labels other communities could claim.

Over the years, such perspectives and experiences (coupled with a move from my child hood home and immersion into a variety of unfamiliar communities in high school and college), cultivated a deep sense of responsibility to be firmly independent. Not only did I want to avoid being a burden to anyone, I didn't want to need anyone: success meant being able to take care of myself. I vowed to never test whether I had the sort of safety net ethnicity and tribe can often provide in case, quite simply, it wasn't there (mind you this wasn't based on any lack of family support - my family is beyond generous).

When I talk about how my time in Africa has become a simple experience in humanity far more than a lesson in what's wrong with the countries that combine to make up this awe-inspiring continent, I mean it. Removing myself from my own communal framework and stepping away from this naive attempt to be "independent," helped me to see the value in identifying with a group. By stripping away years of politically correct conditioning and my personal feelings of exclusion, I started to understand (if not always totally agree with), how important it can be for someone to say with total confidence, "I am a [INSERT TRIBE/NATIONALITY/SELF-IDENTIFIER HERE]." While tribalism has many negative and potentially dangerous sides in any culture or context, I can now see how the gift of belonging can be critical to identity. Before, I felt any firm "I am" statement was laden with the potential to exclude or judge anyone else who might not be from the same "I am."

This Thanksgiving will be the fourth I have spent abroad, away from my tribe. In honor of this day, I'm resuming my "30 Days of Asante" posts and taking a moment to be thankful for learning that independence is often over-rated. I have been adopted by many cultures at this point, welcomed in and made to feel like I belong. I have also learned just how critical my sense of identity as an American...a Californian...a MacDonald or a Daniels, etc., is. While I'll never focus on the idea that one "I am" is any better than another "I am," I remain more and more thankful for my growing ability to identify in some way as a member of a larger group. Over the past year I have been overwhelmingly supported by my tribe of family and friends, all of whom have helped me let go of any presumption that I could exist, survive or thrive without the love, support and companionship of those who share my roots and history. Somehow, understanding this makes venturing out into the world in all its diversity, pain and splendor that much sweeter.

For this, I am thankful.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Here today...gone to Ghana!

When I returned to the U.S. last year, I did so with a desire to promote access to education in the developing world. All my time abroad, all my studies and work experience to that point suggested that the fight against poverty is best served by getting kids into school - and more specifically, college.

In the developing world, most curriculum and pedagogy are based on wrote memorization. Students rise hours before dawn, drawing close to kerosene lamps to churn through unfathomable amounts of information. All this is done to reach an academic climax at the end of high school that determines whether they will be one of the fortunate few to gain access to government universities. Of the 300 thousand or so Kenyan students who sat exams last year, only the top 3% gained admission to the University of Nairobi system with a government bursary. An additional 3% or so will attend by paying their own fees, and another 3% or so will attend private universities. The rest? Their formal education and all the opportunities it might offer, end there. This situation and the staggering numbers of hardworking students it leaves behind is replicated across the developing world.

What this means is that many people in the developing world never get to engage or participate in an education that promotes critical thinking, problem solving or comprehensive analysis. American teachers struggle to do this in overfilled classrooms with limited resources - imagine what a rarely paid rural teacher faces with 60 students, no books and a small blackboard (often without any chalk?). Getting kids to college means they might learn how to think critically, to challenge the problems around them - to actively engage in changing their circumstances, both personally and in their community beyond.

I shared these thoughts last year from the Bay Area to Seattle with anyone and everyone I could, along with the ideas I was starting to mull over for addressing this challenge. Little did I know that a model similar to one I was dreaming up already existed – and in Seattle, no less!
Which brings me to my current "geotag" in Accra, Ghana, and a 3-month fellowship with a non-profit called Vittana.

Vittana is based on the Kiva-popularized model of micro credit, often practiced with small business owners and entrepreneurs in the developing world. By providing access to previously unavailable capital, people from Bangladesh to Peru are moving beyond day-to-day, subsistence living and gradually breaking the shackles of poverty. There have been challenges, to be sure, but as my recent visit to a group of borrowers showed me, the “poor” can be reliable “investments” who are exceedingly capable of paying it forward in the form of education for their children and greater community involvement and economic engagement as a whle.

Vittana’s founder, Kushal Chakrabarti, realized this model could be used with students as well – providing access to funds to pay for school fees – especially when a lack of fees was threatening to force a student to drop out of college just a semester or two shy of a degree. Vittana was launched and in the past few months has gone from working in 8 countries to partnering with 19 local micro finance institutions (MFIs) in 12 countries.

Click here for an easy break down of how Vittana works. My role as a fellow in Ghana involves doing the market research that determines the feasibility and scope of a potential loan product, and then helping build and launch this new product with our partner. My fellow colleague and I are working with one of Ghana's largest MFIs to create a loan program that addresses student's needs in the Ghanaian context - a challenge given mandatory national service after college and high unemployment rates. It is a lot of work in a totally new country, but each time I meet a student and see the "hustle" they go through to get through university, I'm inspired.

I believe deeply in the interconnectedness of international communities, and ensuring citizens throughout one of the most booming continents (6 out of 10 of the fastest growing economies in the last decade are in sub-Saharan Africa) are equipped with the tools they need to support this growth. I am so excited by the idea of helping students stay in the programs they've worked so hard to access that I'm doing this work on an almost exclusively volunteer basis (fellows just get a small stipend to help with travel costs).

If you are interested in supporting Vittana's mission, please consider visiting the website and picking a student - it's that simple. Just think - with a few clicks you can cross "help someone go to college" off your bucket list and even get the money back when they're done. I'll let you know when our first Ghanaian students are on the site - until then, I hope you can find a student that shares an interest or a goal that might resonate with your own story.

It’s an honor and privilege to do this work – to sink my teeth into the arena that my studies and experiences show me is the most critical support we can provide to the developing world by working to increase access to education for future leaders. These are the people who will take responsibility for their communities. Please join me in supporting them.

Vittana borrower Hend Hamdan from Jordan
Studying to be an environmental engineer

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fun with instagram

Though I have a novel of a post in the works, these days I regret I don't have as much time or bandwidth to blog properly. I am posting lots of pics to Facebook and Twitter - make sure to friend/follow me if these are your cup of tea. If not, here are a few of the pics I've posted via Instagram of life in Accra, as it passes by. Instagram is an iphone app that let's you easily enhance photos with various filters. It's fun to use and a quick way to share!

My morning commute (usually with a lot more traffic)

The building next door to my office

The shooting range near my colleague's house where army training occurs

Remnants of colonialism

The name says it all

Cape Coast drama

Shells to remember Ghana by

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Here today, gone to Ghana...

I've been meaning to write for awhile and explain what the heck I'm doing in West Africa. I promise to soon - until then, enjoy a little glimpse of traditional life. This is how fufu (a mixture of ground cassava, yam and sometimes plantains) is traditionally made. I took this video just before I had my first fufu, which is sadly too spicy for my taste!

It certainly helps understand the mentality behind this billboard for instant fufu!

Neat Fufu

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Apliiq + Rising + Bombolulu has launched!

I know I introduced this project a couple posts back, but the formal collaboration has launched on Apliiq's site. While you can still design your own pieces, Apliiq has put together a "Rising Collection" and is sharing more about Rising and Bombolulu with their Apliiq community. Please visit the Apliiq site to learn more about the partnership, and then, get your shop on! Thank you for supporting two organizations near and dear to my heart.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

From the horse's mouth

I've never been close to a refugee camp or a major famine, but I've seen my share of distended bellies and red-tipped hair since 2007 and my time in Kwa Zulu Natal. It explains what anyone who has dined with me in recent years can attest to - a near neurotic attempts to skirt wasting food. I've always loved left overs, but these days it's harder and harder to justify the copious portions offered in so many American eateries when I've seen how quickly a bag of beans can go.

The truth is, there are children starving in Africa...moms, dads and lone survivors too. And while taking food home after a meal helps me assuage the guilt of always having too much - it does nothing to address this reality. Thankfully, there are things that can be done.

I've been posting links to the World Food Programme on Twitter and Facebook because it's the best thing I know how to do. Still, I sense that like me, many will resist donating at first - because aren't there always starving children in Africa? I mean there have been since our moms first started making us eat all our peas, right?

The answer is yes, and no. Yes, the continent remains plagued by food insecurity and many nations are especially drought-prone and under-developed. But as a far more practiced and insightful development blogger notes, these are no longer death sentences when the rains fail to come. As Owen points out, Ethiopia (perhaps the most famous of dinner-table references) is weathering this drought ok, thanks to infrastructure and a safety-net system set up by their government with international assistance.

So lest we be tempted to hold back support for fear that there's nothing we can do but accept that countries like Somalia just drew the short straw in the allocation of natural resources, we cannot. Right now, in the horror of a true humanitarian crisis, we can send money to feed people that are starving.

Please do. And if you're not going to take that leftover pasta home with you, I'll be happy to.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Global threads

I've been involved with Rising International for a number of years. It's a group that buys artisan crafts from around the world and sells them in home party settings. Anyone who has been to a Rising party can tell you how magical they are. Often a woman from one of the countries where the crafts are made will speak about her experiences back home and what it's like to give birth, raise children or try to make a living in an underdeveloped and often poverty stricken country. With clarity and poise she will tell her story to a room full of strangers, and by the end she is amongst friends. Women empowering and educating each other - it's a beautiful mission.

A few months ago Rising partnered with Apliiq, a creative clothing company based in L.A. that lets buyers customize cozy sweatshirts, lightweight tops, dresses, hats and bags with amazing fabrics from around the world. A portion of sales from certain designs benefit various non-profits, including Rising. I worked with Rising to source these fabrics from one of the groups I worked with in Kenya and am so excited to see them on the site!

Bombolulu Workshops work with disabled people from around Kenya to provide jobs and skills training. Visit Apliiq's fabric section under the ethnic category and see three fabrics from Bombolulu's workshop in Mombasa:
Rising, Kenya Krew and Bombolulu Blast. You can customize a piece with any of these fabrics and know that Bombolulu and Rising will benefit from your purchase. I warn you - it's addicting!

Here's one I put together:

And a couple others for inspiration...

Seriously - the possibilities are endless! Treat yourself to a fun, ethically sourced and sweatshop free goodie and support Rising and Bombolulu along the way.* Remember - look for the fabrics Rising, Kenya Krew and Bombolulu Blast. Make sure to send me a picture of what you create - I'd love to see it!

*My inner copywriter can't help but make an appearance in this post.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

When moments collide

In today's gloaming hour I stepped outside a stranger's house and breathed in the scent of trusted northern Californian soil. The fragrance in the stillness of twilight was the same as the dirt and field and gravel that surrounds my home, and I paused in the comfort of such familiarity. A moment passed and I envisioned a future hour of soft and setting sun when I would stand a continent away and find resonance in the wind's same carried notes.

All my life I have packaged moments and memories in one of two ways - through scent or through sound. I have chronicled years of my life in curated soundtracks, able to return to an emotion or event with just a few notes. But it is smell that grounds me, scent that tells me whether I have truly opened my heart to a place.

Tonight I attended a fundraiser for a small non-profit whose founder, Kat, approached me last fall looking for a Kenyan organization to sponsor. She had already started raising money for children in need after visiting South Africa and Kenya in recent years, and was looking for a trusted organization to begin building a partnership with. I provided a list of about six groups I'd worked with or visited during my time in Kenya, and she selected The International Peace Initiative (IPI) in Meru after interviewing them all. IPI's founder and director, Dr. Karambu Ringera, started the home to demonstrate to her neighbors that AIDS orphans can be a resource to their community and deserve to be supported as such.

At least two years after I visited IPI in Meru to learn about a program designed to empower orphans, I shared about the place they call home with a group of people joined together tonight to raise support for these kids. The funds raised will help build a pig pen that will provide sustainable income for IPI, helping house more orphans and growing their impact in the community. One small project, by one small non-profit, based on one small trip over two years ago.

So there I stood, grounded in the scent of home while the evening's event wove it together with the far off soils of a place that also claims me. These are the moments in which I trust my path explicitly. Mungu yu nami.

To read more about IPI's vision, take a look at this article by founder Dr. Karambu Ringera in World Pulse Magazine. I am helping Solid Ground for Africa plan a visit to the project next summer - let me know if you'd like to join!

Monday, April 25, 2011


I spend a lot of time these days trying to find peace...peace with personal choices, peace with other's choices, peace at the point of decision, peace as I reflect on the past. I have enough flux in my own life to sometimes feel peace is infinitely out of reach, and thus the lack of peace in the lives of those I love is sometimes beyond my ability to address. When my own plate is too full to take on the weight of another's, I try instead to send positive energy in their direction by investing good will, time and hope for change wherever I can. This approach led me to spend some time getting to know an organization in Seattle called Recovery Cafe over the past couple of months. Recovery Cafe is a "refuge for healing and transformation," existing to serve people dealing with homelessness, addiction and mental illness. The following piece was shared at an event celebrating the 1 year anniversary of their new space where strength and dignity are found in expertly prepared lattes and volunteer-led art and yoga classes (all of which complement recovery groups and other more traditional programs). It is one of the most beautiful things I've read in quite some time and I post it here as part of this chronicle of my journey to explore humanity and what it means to help and be helped.

Sonnet, with Pride

In 2003, during the Iraq War, a pride of lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during an American bombing raid.

Confused, injured, unexpectedly free, the lions roamed the streets searching for food and safety.

For just a moment, imagine yourself as an Iraqi living in Baghdad. You are running for cover as the bombers, like metal pterodactyls, roar overhead. You are running for cover as some of your fellow citzens, armed and angry, fire rifles, rocket launchers, and mortars into the sky. You are running for cover as people are dying all around you. It’s war, war, war. And imagine yourself as a lion that has never been on a hunt. That has never walked outside of a cage. That has been coddled and fed all its life. And now your world is exploding all around you. It’s war, war, war. And then you turn a corner and see a pride of tanks advancing on you.

It’s ok to laugh. It’s always ok to laugh at tragedy. If lions are capable of laughter, then I’m positive those Baghdad lions were laughing at their predicament. As they watched the city burn and collapse, I’m sure a lioness turned to a lion and said, “So do you still think you’re the King of the Jungle?”

I don’t know if the lions killed anybody as they roamed through the streets.

But I’d guess they were too afraid. I’m sure they could only see humans as zookeepers, not food.

In any case, the starving lions were eventually shot and killed by U.S. soliders on patrol.

It’s a sad and terrible story, yes, but that is war. And war is everywhere. And everywhere, there are prides of starving lions wandering the streets. There are rides of starving lions wandering inside your hearts.

You might also think that I’m using starving lions as a metaphor for homeless folks, but I’m not. Homeless folks have been used as metaphors far too often. I’m using those starving lions as a simple metaphor for hunger. All of our hunger.

Food-hunger. Love-hunger. Faith-hunger. Soul-Hunger.

Who among us has been not hungry? Who among us has not been vulnerable? Who among us has not been a starving lion? Who among us has not been a prey animal? Who among us has not been a predator?

They say God created humans in God’s image. But what if God also created lions in God’s image? What if God created hunger in God’s image? What if God is hunger? Tell me, how do you pray to hunger? How do you ask for hunger’s blessing? How will hunger teach you to forgive? How will hunger teach you how to love?

Look out the window. It’s all hunger and war. Hunger and war. Hunger and war. And the endless pride of lions. The endless pride of lions. Are you going to feed the lions? Are you going to feed the lions? Are you going to feed the lions? Are you going to feed the lions?

- Sherman Alexie, April 14th 2011, Recovery Café Capital Campaign Public Launch Event

Thursday, April 7, 2011

It comes around

On February 11 last year I came home around 10 at night and was grabbing a snack before heading up to bed. Suddenly Maureen came into the kitchen with wide eyes saying, "I think my water just broke." I burst into a fit of nervous giggles before rounding up my housemates and jumping into the car for the two block ride to Nairobi Women's Hospital. Thankfully, Maureen was staying with us for just this reason - a late night drive into Kawangware would have been too dangerous and taxis don't really operate in the area.

I remember the distinct honor I felt to be driving this young woman to the hospital and the great sense of responsibility as we prepared for an event I had no personal experience with. I'll never forget the nurses a few hours later asking me and my housemates how many children we had as we held hands and focused Maureen on breathing through the pain. "None," we said.

Yet there we were, witnesses to a beautiful birth full of strength, faith, friendship and humility. Out of a forceful crime came this perfect little child, born to a girl who became a woman right before our eyes.

On Christabell's first birthday while friends celebrated in Nairobi eating Ethiopian food and cake with the birthday girl, I said a prayer of thankfulness for this experience and continued friendship.

Look at our growing girl - in a dress I wore myself as a baby sent with love from her auntie far away.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Breaking writer's block isn't always pretty...

I haven't gone this long without writing for quite sometime. For months I've turned words over in my head, jotted notes and ideas for posts and then sequestered them away as life's changing tides polished them into pebbled handfuls too fragmented or outdated to share.

I'm in Seattle now where the cloud cover isn't as bad as I was cautioned when I started sharing my intention to move here. Still, on a sunny day like today I realize how the weather these past two months has forced a fair amount of inside time, urging Seattle-ites (so many transplants like myself) to hibernate in the comfort of hot tea, cozy couches and if lucky, the care of a loved one or treasured friend. I'm halfway through an internship with Rwanda Partners (, enjoying having a hand in a variety of projects and witnessing the grass roots devotion that the team puts into services for thousands of Rwandans in need of jobs, education and deliverance from the tragedies of their past.

As I learn about Rwanda's history I realize how much I've resisted engaging with the reality of the genocide and similar global atrocities that have occurred during my lifetime. While part of my desire to go abroad and immerse myself in the challenges facing the developing world is the need to bear witness, my ability to find faith in the face of evil has always been supported by a devout commitment to focusing on the good. As I allow myself to confront the atrocities of the genocide I am reminded that true faith requires an understanding of evil's existence - that this is where the choice to forgive and choose good becomes most profound. So many individuals in Rwanda have embodied this time and time again in forgiving the people who killed their family members (often neighbors and former friends) and it is humbling to be a part of an organization that gives voice to these incredible examples of faith and forgiveness.

These insights accompany near constant attempts in my daily life to turn over my own experiences, especially in the past three years abroad, and understand how they will inform my next steps. Most of this is messy and unpleasant, enshrouded in failed expectations, shaky dreams and a fair amount of guilt at not having a clear cut understanding of what I'm doing or knowing exactly how to put my energy to the best use. So I've stayed quiet (at least in the blogosphere) and shared these things in more personal spaces in the hopes that I could purge them and move forward into whatever comes next with confidence.

I think I'm getting there - each spoken word, shared conversation and idea helps me re-frame what could or should come next. I am revisited by a deep desire to focus on education and promote scholarship opportunities for Kenyan students. This stems in part from my own scholarship and the relationships it fostered but perhaps moreso frm my still evolving understanding of where economic development is rooted and what must be in place in order to move a country forward. At this point I'm not sure if I'll be able to focus on this professionally or not - but I know it is part of my story and will continue to be (and I've got 5 college-ready kids without school fees in Kenya who will hold me to it if I falter!).

As so much of this journey has simply been about evolving as a person I find things I once feared now resonate amongst some of my deepest desires. The open road still calls but I'm more responsive right now to the idea of shorter stints, craving above all the moment when the momentum of recent years stops bearing such weight and I can say with confidence I am where I am meant to be, putting down roots and simply living life to the best of my ability.