Friday, August 6, 2010

Rwanda: An Amazing Country to Visit

From July 24th through July 26th I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to work with a group of 17 young women in what must be one of the world's most scenic regions: Nyungwe National Park in Rwanda. The park itself consists of a dense, imposing forest landscape that is home to 13 species of primates, many of which are endangered. Monkeys were everywhere. And I even had to chase one out of the house I was staying in while working on my computer!

For this workshop, the focus species was the chimpanzee and the workshop participants wrote a number of great tales featuring chimpanzees.

For those of you whose impressions of Rwanda are dominated by the movie HOTEL RWANDA and news about the genocide, please realize that is not Rwanda today! Traveling in Rwanda was such a relief - the roads are amazing, the buses only fill up to capacity (not beyond), the motorcycle taxi drivers wear helmets and carry one for you (the passenger) as well. Everyone is very friendly and helpful and there are very few people who are pushy or aggressive, as I have encountered in a number of other countries. Rwanda's economy has been doing well and, although there are certainly some concerns over political freedoms and freedom of the press, it appears Rwanda has a bright future. And it is certainly a wonderful country to visit.

One of the goals of the Endangered Species, Empowered Communities project is to provide another data point to help shape both children's and adults' perceptions of the countries featured in this project. When the last time you heard much in the news about Rwanda was when the genocide occurred, it is natural to feel it is a dangerous country. Many people feel the same about Nicaragua or Cambodia. Even DR Congo is far safer and more stable than most people realize. Of all these countries, I feel that the impression that many people have of Rwanda is the least deserved. And I hope these books, which will feature information on life in Rwanda, will serve as a source of positive news about the country to help balance-out the media's tendency to only report bad news, thus sometimes unfairly shaping our opinions of entire countries and cultures.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

I spent last week in Arusha, Tanzania working with 23 young women to write stories about elephants. These young women are all part of AfricAid's first group of Kisa Scholars. The intent of the Kisa Project is to provide "school scholarships and leadership training to some of Africa's brightest young women."

After the first day, it was clear to me that AfricAid had in fact identified some of Africa's brightest young women to participate in the Kisa Project. This was by far my easiest workshop! The first exercise we did was intended to practice developing the characters in their stories and the Kisa scholars ended up not only developing great characters, they jumped ahead by developing great stories right off the bat. Then when I asked them if they knew anything about elephants, they responded with a host of facts, including the height and weight of elephants! But the Kisa Scholars are not just smart. They are also well-spoken, confident, and thoughtful. All ingredients that I am certain will make them great future leaders of their communities.

If you want to learn more about the Kisa Project, visit: AfricAid has developed an online platform that allows sponsors in the U.S. to connect with the Kisa Scholar they are sponsoring by sharing pictures, video, and messages. I think this is the future of sponsorship programs as it allows for a great connection between the Kisa Scholars and their sponsors. While I was there, the Kisa Scholars had their first opportunities to correspond with their sponsors and they absolutely loved the experience. I am very excited about the Kisa Project and hope that sales of the book about elephants that the Kisa Scholars helped write will fund a number of Kisa Scholarships. Considering that 95% of girls in Tanzania don't have the opportunity to attend Secondary School, there are plenty of young women who would benefit from the opportunity!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Monday June 28th, 2010

Today I met a pretty amazing woman: Mama Beatrice. Mama Beatrice is the teacher at HEAL Africa's Tungane School. Tungane provides classes for children who are staying at the hospital for extended periods for one reason or another. That means that Mama Beatrice is teaching kids of all different ages, students come and go frequently, and many students are sick or injured - about half of the class is currently in a cast.

For many kids, I imagine the only thing worse than being at school is being in the hospital. These kids are at school in a hospital! Yet they truly seem to enjoy it. They welcomed me into their classroom and started introducing themselves right away and showing me their artwork. They were enthusiastic about writing stories together and seem to love the idea of having their pictures and names in a published book. Instead of each of them writing their own stories, we wrote stories as a group, with each student taking turns shaping the stories.

At first, the students contributed fairly short, basic sentences to the story. Then one girl, Anto, got going and just kept going! After that, everyone really seemed to get the idea and they told all sorts of elaborate stories, adding in dialogue and acting out their stories. Heritier was so into it that he was using different voices and moving all around excitedly, despite having casts on both legs, while contributing his own ideas to the story! It was really fun watching the students let their imaginations run wild and they came up with some great story ideas!
Saturday, June 26th, 2010

Today was the last day of the workshop at Mugunga School outside of Goma. We collected 24 stories about Mountain Gorillas written by the students, many with colorful drawings included. It has been a real pleasure working with these kids. They are full of smiles and laughter. They loved trying to teach me Swahili, while also trying to learn some English. They showed off their cartwheels and backflips (which were quite good!) and tried to get me to do a few--unfortunately that's something my body is just not made to do!

Working with the kids at Mugunga, even for such a short time, highlighted the challenge kids face in trying to get an education in DRC. In DRC, you have to pay for school, so these kids were only able to attend school due to the generous support of HEAL Africa and a few benefactors. The school raises some rabbits and goats and vegetables that it sells to try to raise some money to pay for supplies. But, whereas in most place you might expect the government to provide funding to schools, in DRC schools have to pay a tax to the government, and this tax eats up some of the proceeds from the produce sales.

Mugunga is only a Primary School and, despite a 95% pass rate for their first graduating class, it is likely that most students will not have the opportunity to attend Secondary School as they will not be able to afford to attend a public school. On top of that, many of the students arrive at school hungry and often faint. And the teachers struggle to find transportation out from Goma.

Yet despite all of those challenges, the Director, Teacher, and students are proud of their school and are working hard to make the most of what they have. And it's great to know that these kids have been given the opportunity to attend such a great school. Hopefully seeing their pictures and parts of their stories in a published book will provide them with a feeling of accomplishment that will reinforce the value of education.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Thursday, June 24th, 2010

28 students, 9 teachers, and the Director of Mugunga School loaded into two mini-buses today for a trip to see two mountain gorillas at the Rumangabo Park Ranger Station. For everyone on the trip, this was their first opportunity to see gorillas in person. In fact, many of the kids had never ridden in a car before and, unfortunately, we had to make a stop to pick up some plastic bags for car sickness. We also encountered a flat tire on one van and a carburetor issue on the other that caused the bus to die every 10 miles or so, but eventually we made it.

6 students at a time walked down a trail through the forest to view Ndezi and Ndakasi, two orphan gorillas who gained international fame when featured in National Geographic after their family was two and a half years ago. It is still unclear who killed their parents and why, but fortunately Ndezi and Ndakasi are doing well and will eventually be released back into the wild.

The primary reason tourists visit Eastern DR Congo is to see mountain gorillas, especially since there is no wait to get a permit, while in Rwanda and Uganda the wait can be several months. Yet despite living just miles from these rare and astonishing creatures, most Congolese will never have a chance to see them. In fact, it is likely that more foreigners have the opportunity to visit them than Congolese (if you exclude the park rangers). It was wonderful that the students had an opportunity to see them in real life and it served as a great inspiration for the kids' stories.

Special thanks to Papy Shamavu from Wildlife Conservation Society who helped organize the trip and the staff of Virunga National Park for allowing our class to be the first group of students to visit Ndezi and Ndakasi. To learn more about them, visit:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I happen to be currently listening to a book-on-tape called THE INVISIBLE GORILLA, which is about a famous phsycology experiment in which people are asked to watch a video and count how many times a basketball gets passed around. In all the commotion, someone in a gorillas suite walks straight through the screen, stops, and pounds her chest, then walks off. About half of the people watching the video are so focused on counting basketballs that they do not notice the "invisible" gorilla. Upon watching the video a second time, most people can hardly believed they could have missed it.

This story is not about an invisible gorilla.

Yesterday, I began a workshop at the Mugunga Primary School outside of Goma, DR Congo with 28 Grade 5 students. Pappy Shamavu from Wildlife Conservation Society kindly arranged for a troupe of three actors to come teach the kids about gorillas through a play. The first actor stood in front of the class, telling the kids all about gorillas and then got them singing and dancing, which is easy to do in DRC. Like counting the basketballs, this distracted the kids in order for a gorillas to arrive on the scene. But nobody missed this gorilla

One of the actors came charging into the room, totally unexpected, in a full gorilla costume, pounding his chest and grunting as loud as he could! The room erupted in smiles and laughter and screaming and kids running all over the room. Even the teachers were going crazy! The kids loved it!

The actors then performed a wonderful play featuring a gorilla, a poacher, and a village chief. The play was both educational and entertaining and really got the kids engaged in this workshop. It was a memorable experience for all!

On Thursday, we will be bringing the kids to the headquarters of a national park where two orphan gorillas are being raised. As with the field trip in Bangladesh, the teachers don't want to miss out on this and asked if they could all join!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Goma, DRC

Saturday June 19, 2010

I arrived in Goma, DRC this week. Yesterday, I spent the day touring HEAL Africa’s facilities and learning about their programs. Among many other things, they run a pediatric HIV/AIDS program that helps 971 children, they run a program called HEALing Arts that assists victims of Gender Based Sexual Violence in recovering psychologically while providing them a means for earning an income, they treat women suffering from fistulas (see: ), allowing them to lead healthy and productive lives, and they provide an education to children who are staying at the hospital as well as a number of orphans, children displaced by violent conflict, and Pygmies (an ethnic group that has suffered significantly in DRC).

Since arriving in Goma, I have heard the same sort of stories that led me to come to DRC in 2007: a nine year old girl raped by her neighbor or young boys imprisoned for rape explaining that “they saw something they wanted and decided to just take it – they know plenty of people who have done the same.” While it is discouraging to hear these stories, it is impossible to resist being inspired by the hard-working staff at HEAL Africa. They are treating victims’ wounds—physical and psychological, they are helping them earn an income, they are providing them with legal counsel in order to prosecute perpetrators, and they are helping to care for the victims’ children. It is this holistic approach that has earned HEAL Africa visits and support from organizations and dignitaries from around the world, including Hillary Clinton, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs (Kouchner), Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn through Half the Sky, and Oprah, through her For All Women Registry.

I also met with Papy Shamavu from Wildlife Conservation Society. If HEAL Africa can be said to be operating in one of the most challenging environments for a humanitarian organization, the same can be said about Papy and the rest of the team at Wildlife Conservation Society. They are combating illegal fishing that is done with illegal nets (holes are too small), poison, or dynamite. They are combating the lucrative and illegal timber trade. They are combating poachers. And they are doing all of this while armed militias roam the wilderness areas they are trying to protect. Not only that, they are doing it in a way that is sensitive to the fact that illegal deforestation and illegal fishing are both means for generating an income in a region where extreme poverty is rampant and people need to be able to care for themselves before they will be able to care for the environment. It is because of people like Papy and organizations like WCS that Mountain Gorillas have survived decades or conflict in the Virunga Landscape of Central Africa.

Next week I will begin a workshop with 28 students at the school HEAL Africa supports, plus perhaps another 10 children or so at the hospital. More to come on the workshop later!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

BRAC Bangladesh

During the last week of May, I conducted a creative writing workshop with members of BRAC’s Social Organization for the Empowerment of Adolescents (SOFEA) program. I was struck by how motivated and confident the 22 young women in the workshop were. They had big dreams for the future and I have no doubt that is because of the encouraging atmosphere created by BRAC’s community centers that provide safe spaces and role models for young women across Bangladesh (and now around the world). BRAC is a wonderful example of an organization that is successfully empowering women and girls around the world. By don’t take my word for it. Here are a few excerpts from essays written by the participants:

Noorbanu: My parents and I have the same dream which is for me to become a lawyer. I hope that I am able to give myself a beautiful life. I want to study and do big things. I hope when I am grown up I am able to take care of my parents.

Anjuman: When I grow up, I want to be independent I want to be a doctor. I want to spend my life helping others. I want to stand by them in their times of need. I want to help people with something with which they can earn a living.

Rehka: I want to be a doctor. But I don’t just want to be a doctor, I want to be a poet too. I will practice medicine and alongside I will write poetry. That is my biggest dream.

Bokul: What I hate the most is when differences between boys and girls are highlighted. I’m not sad that I am a girl, but many people in this society to make me feel bad about it. They keep thinking girls are weak, helpless. This belittling attitude towards girls I find very hurtful. . I want to finish my education and be independent. My father wants the same. That’s why he never says no to anything. In fact, he encourages me.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A First Prize Chicken

Today was the final day of our creative writing workshop in Chandpai. We presented the top three students in each of the two classes with a chicken as a reward for their efforts! There was a lot of giggling and laughing about the chickens. One students really loved getting his chicken, but I am not so sure what the girls thought! Overall, we got some great stories about the Ganges River dolphins from this workshop and I continue to be impressed about how quickly kids around the world pick up on storytelling. It is hard leaving Chandpai behind since I spent so little time there. It is really a fascinating place, tucked away in the beautiful wilderness that is the Sundarban Forest. Life there isn't easy. I met a young boy (maybe 7 years old) who had spent all day pulling a net through the shallows to catch shrimp larvae. He was excited to have caught 6 freshwater and 6 saltwater shrimp (the brackish water of the Sundarbans supports both). For his full day of work, he will earn about 10 Taka, or roughly 15 cents. Yet the people of Chandpai have an easy way about them. Upon one of the student's houses, her father promptly climbed to the top of a coconut tree, collected a few coconuts, cut them open with his machete, and served us a few glasses of fresh coconut milk (which Nic knows is my favorite!). There is also an old woman and and old man who are both known as the "town beggars." The whole town takes turns taking care of them, making sure they have enough to survive. And that's coming from people who have to send their 7 year old children out to work all day to earn 15 cents. It was truly a pleasure to have the opportunity to meet the people of Chandpai!


Had I slept a little longer today, I would have been awoken by the
first rain we have had since my arrival. The sky was cloudy yesterday
and is overcast again today, and it turns out it is because there is a
huge cyclone on the way.

The cyclone is supposedly twice the size of Sidar, a cyclone that
devastated Bangladesh in 2007, killing as many as 10,000 people and
wreaking havoc on villages across the coastal area. There is
definitely a sense of concern in the air among the crew, as everyone
waits to hear what the cyclone will do and whether or not it will head
towards Bangladesh.

It’s depressing to think about a major cyclone hitting Chandpai just a
few days after I leave our students for Dhaka, which is far enough
inland to be safe. A large storm could wipe out many of the houses in
Chandpai while destroying fishing boats, the main source of income for
the community. Not to mention the potential loss of lives. Let’s hope
the storm dies off and spares Bangladesh’s coastal communities another