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

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Shrimp larvae harvesting and the Coast Guard

Today I noticed a lot of yelling on the banks of the river and then all of the shrimp larvae boats began rapidly paddling ashore all at once. While there are generally dozens of boats out with their fine blue nets set up to collect the shrimp larvae, and dozens more people (men, women, girls, and boys) pulling smaller versions of the same nets through the water, the river was suddenly empty. A short time later, a Coast Guard vessel passed.

It is illegal to catch shrimp larvae since the fine nets catch 1,800 other creatures for every targeted shrimp larvae captured, resulting in a devastating impact on the overall fish stock in the rivers. So every so often, the Coast Guard goes around and confiscates some nets and roughs a few people up to make a show of enforcing the laws. Chaddpai clearly has an effective early detection system in place – not to warn of impending cyclones, but rather to warn of Coast Guard raids.

Interestingly, a Coast Guard vessel is parked at the main dock in Chaddpai all day. But I am told that that is a “different” Coast Guard, which means the crew are part of the local community and there is no way they are going to take anyone’s nets. Chaddpai’s Coast Guard probably only goes on raids a few miles downriver, where I am sure an equally effective early-warning system is in place.

Chaddpai’s entire economy is dependent on the shrimp larvae harvest, yet the shrimp larvae harvest is destroying the ecosystem Chaddpai depends on. Laws have been put in place to try to protect the ecosystem. But there is no local buy-in at all and thus the laws and enforcement are not effective whatsoever. This situation perfectly demonstrates the codependence of development and conservation. Without addressing local economics (e.g. providing an alternative income source than collecting shrimp larvae), it will be impossible to protect this valuable ecosystem. And yet, without
protecting the ecosystem, the economy here is only going to get worse, as over-fished waters begin to fail to support the population. Both the people and the environment near Chaddpai desperately need an alternative to shrimp larvae collection. International Development Enterprises is an organization that has come up with creative solutions to such problems (see

Hopefully a similarly inventive organization will help find a solution in Chaddpai. And hopefully the Endangered Species, Empowered Communities project will be able to
effectively generate funding to support both the communities and ecosystems featured in our books.

Kevin on Cambodia, SMF, and this project

This post from Kevin is a bit delayed in publishing, but never too late:

The idea behind Concinnity Initiatives was fostered by an experience I had meeting with a group of survivors of sexual violence in Eastern DR Congo. During my visit there, the women I met – who had undergone unimaginable experiences—performed a series of poems, skits, and songs, some of which they had written. These women, who are always depicted in the media with tears streaming down their faces, turned out to be incredibly bright, creative, and, believe it or not, optimistic about life. It is true that their pasts are full of tragedy and their futures promise to be full of continued hardships. Yet even so, their lives are still full of smiles.

Yesterday in Cambodia I met a young survivor of sex trafficking who is being helped by the Somaly Mam Foundation. She is clearly a bright young woman, though perhaps a little shy such that she doesn’t immediately stand out from the crowd … until she gets a pen and paper in her hand. This young woman briefly saw a children’s book that I had passed around the room and then proceeded to draw FROM MEMORY an EXACT replica of one of her favorite drawings from the book in just a few minutes.

It is important that we learn about the pasts of the women I met in DR Congo or those I am meeting in Cambodia. Only by first knowing about the wrongs that are going on in the world today will anyone be able to take action. However, it is equally important not to extrapolate from these individuals’ pasts into their futures. Over the next 3 months I will be traveling around the world meeting young women who have come from difficult backgrounds. And my prior experience in DR Congo and my recent experiences in Nicaragua and Cambodia leave me confident that our children’s book project will make it clear that, despite difficult backgrounds, there are talented young women everywhere in the world with bright, beautiful futures. Though sometimes they need just the slightest bit of help in realizing them.

Want to do something to help young women such as the one I met yesterday? I am signed up to make an automatic payment via my credit card each month to Somaly Mam Foundation ( It is small contribution and it is simple. But SMF knows how to make it count.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Post from the future

Monday, May 17, 2010

Today we took 40 students and 10 teachers on a field trip down the river to see the Ganges River Dolphins live and up close. All of the participants have spent their lives growing up on the water and most of the participants often see boats like the one we used. However, for nearly everyone, this was the first opportunity they have had to travel on such a boat and to learn about the dolphins that call their
river home.

One of the teacher specifically thanked Elisabeth, the Wildlife Conservation Society staff member who taught the educational portion of the trip, for teaching them and then student (the teachers asked as many questions as the students!) about their own backyard.Yesterday we taught the students that they will need to think about four key elements in writing their stories: characters, setting,problem, and solution.

Today, Elisabeth spent a lot of time speaking about the characters and setting (e.g. dolphins and river). Then one of the students specifically asked about the problems the dolphins face so they can include that in their stories. It is great to know that they were paying attention and spent the day connecting what they were learning during the field trip with what they had learned about creative writing. It has been great to see how well the creative writing portion and the conservation education portion of our approach complement each other!

Tomorrow the students will begin the writing exercises, hopefully inspired by a day on the water.

School on a Boat

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I awoke this morning on the roof of the Chhuti with only my mosquito net between myself and the early morning sky. It is extremely hot here, and sleeping on the roof is the only way to ensure I will wake up with at least some fluid left in my body!

It was pleasant sleeping under the stars as wooden fishing boats quietly drifted by, although about half a dozen mosquitoes found their way inside my net and spent the night waking me up whispering in my ear about something.

Elisabeth, Shaheen, and I conducted our first two classes today. We watched as the students at the middle school assembled for the National Anthem and as students made religious announcements: first the Muslim students and then the Hindu students. Interestingly, the majority of the students are girls – the exact opposite of what we
encountered in Nicaragua. This is because many of the boys are pulled out of school to work with their fathers or uncles fishing or collecting shrimp larvae. Bangladesh also has a program in which parents are paid when their daughters finish school, providing an extra incentive to allow girls to finish schooling instead of requiring them to help with work around the house.

The students were generally reserved and seem to be trying to figure out exactly what is going on. However, they are all excited about the field trip on the boat to see dolphins tomorrow. And in fact, the teachers at the school found the idea of the field trip so interesting that the head of the school canceled ALL classes tomorrow so the teachers can attend along with our forty students! Since part of the goal of this project is to promote education in Bangladesh, I feel a little bad that the other 85 students of the school will be missing a day of school while their teachers join our field trip. But somehow I don’t think they mind too much!

Dolphins and giant mangrove forests

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Today I arrived in the Sudarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and home to (among many other things) tigers, barking deer (apparently they sound just like dogs), king cobras, and Ganges River dolphins. Along with Elisabeth—a member of Wildlife Conservation Society’s field staff—our translator Shaheen, and a crew of five, I will be spending the next five days living on a boat, the MV Chhuti, while teaching a creative writing workshop focused on the Ganges River dolphin in the village of Chaddpai.

At first glance, the Ganges River dolphin looks like the bottlenose dolphins most of us would recognize. However, the Ganges River dolphin is a little more eccentric. First of all, it is a freshwater dolphin and lives in rivers, not the open ocean. Much more interesting is that the Ganges River dolphin is nearly blind and, like bats, navigates and hunts via echolocation (a number of enormous fruit bats also happen to call this region home). On top of that, it swims on its side for reasons not entirely understood, but probably related to the most effective use of its echolocation.

Tomorrow I will begin classes with the students in Chandpai, a small village whose residents rely primarily on harvesting tiny shrimp larvae from the river to survive. Everyone here pulls blue nets through the water all day to catch the larvae, which they sell to shrimp farms. Shrimp is Bangladesh’s second biggest export, after

The mud and thatch homes in Chadpai are built right on the edge of steep embankments next to a large and fast river. It is easy to see why Bangladesh suffers so much when struck by cyclones.

Kevin in Bangladesh

Friday, May 14, 2010

I arrived in Bangladesh yesterday after spending a few nice days in Bangkok, Thailand with Pond, a friend from high school. While Thailand is definitely having serious problems right now, it is not nearly as bad as you might imagine based on the media coverage. The same was true of DR Congo when I visited in 2007 or Honduras when I visited shortly after the military coup there last summer.

It is the beginning of the rainy season in Bangladesh, which I thought might mean a break from the 100+ degree weather Nic and I encountered in Nicaragua and then Cambodia and then Thailand (in each place, we were greeted with “Wow, you chose the hottest time of the year to visit). I was wrong. informed me that it was to be over 100 degrees today and that it would “feel like” 119 degrees. Accordingly, I didn’t leave my hostel today. And I am not sure the staff even came in to work. I have been the only person here all day and feel the hostel has been abandoned to me!

A few quick facts on Bangladesh: it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with an astonishing 160 million people crammed into a fairly small landmass. Bangladesh is also ~85% Muslim and happens to be known as a hotbed for nonprofit innovation, with BRAC and Grameen Bank both getting their start in Bangladesh and then going on to become two of the leading pioneers of microfinance.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Final post from Cambodia

Dear readers,

I hope you’ll forgive the delay – we were lucky enough to get to see the mysterious, ancient Khmer temples at Angkor Wat (and dance in the street!)for a few days, a bit of distraction from city life. We’ve now crossed the border into Thailand, pitching camp in steamy Bangkok. This will probably be my final blogpost, as I’m flying home to continue developing the Nicaragua and Cambodia books. Kevin will take the blog-reigns as he travels to Bangladesh for a Ganges River dolphin workshop (on a boat!), Tanzania, DR Congo, and Sudan. Honestly, I’m pretty excited to go from writer to reader.

The end of our week-long Cambodia writing class brought with it some pretty inspiring descriptions of dreams and aspirations from the ladies in our workshop. A couple pages of the Cambodia book will be dedicated to these “stories behind the stories”, like with the excerpt on the three sisters from our class in San Isidro, Nicaragua. This group of women in Phnom Penh are natural role models of empowerment and hope, something well worth sharing with our young American readers.

What does the feisty leader of the 2010 Voices For Change group, a survivor and fighter, aspire to? She wants to become a lawyer, fighting sex trafficking from a political and legal standpoint. Another writer in our group plans on learning modern farming techniques and starting a farm and small resort in the country, employing survivors of trafficking and sharing farming techniques with rural families so that they can learn to better support themselves. Another woman hopes that she can open a tailoring shop, spending a few days of the week there and a few days continuing her outreach work with trafficking victims. Another will open a restaurant in Phnom Penh, training victims of trafficking cooking and restaurant management skills. Talk about a move from victimhood to empowerment, from helplessness to outreach and action.

There is so much we can learn from these women. Humor and the human spirit can surmount such indescribable tragedies. Many of these girls were downright comedians - some in a quiet way, others in a mischievous way. They support each other, hug each other, live together, learn together. Their ethic is one of study and perseverance. Even those that had only studied English for 3 months were already holding conversations with us, and said that they didn’t have much time to rest on the weekend because of English and Khmer reading homework. And now they're writing books to be published in America. Feeling lazy? Not anymore.

Friday, April 30, 2010

and storytellers are off!

We have discovered a positive goldmine of creativity in Phnom Penh!

Today, to introduce some non-ferocious characteristics of tigers, we started with a bit of help from a 1995 National Geographic article (thank you parents’ basement!) on tigers. I started by showing the girls a photo of a mother tiger tenderly licking the heads of two of her cubs. Going around the circle, we each chose a word or phrase to describe the photo, some saying “makes me feel like she is human, has a family and loves her cubs just like we do” or “her fur is colorful but also matches the forest behind her.” To bring in a bit of humor – since probably most kids would agree that the best books are the funny ones! – the next photo was a tiger that was so hot, it found a cool crevice with a puddle of water just big enough for its butt to sit in. This brought lots of giggles and “I feel bad for him, he looks so pitiful!”

With significantly more compassionate and amused feelings towards tigers flowing around the room, each person came up with their own tiger character and description. When we shared these with the class, I was STUNNED. Not only were they so hilarious that my cheeks hurt from laughing, but some of the girls had written entire stories then and there! In one story, a tiger most likes to eat fish, but is afraid of water and cannot swim. One day, a bird swoops down from above and gets a fish from the water. Seeing this, the tiger tries the same tactic – he climbs a trees, and then jumps through the air like bird, plopping in the water (HA!). Since he cannot swim, though, he fails to catch any fish and returns to shore embarrassed. Pretty good, eh?

One thing we’re trying to do is let the girls have control over the creative process, and part of this means letting them be the ones behind the camera for once, instead of the object of journalists’ cameras and questions. They’ve learned how to use the video camera, and took turns throughout class filming each other present tiger stories. The resulting footage will be the world through their eyes – and they seem to like this. Maybe one day a VFC girl will be Cambodia’s premier documentary filmmaker, or maybe a journalist!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Workshop 2 begins...

After two classes, I am excited to say that the workshop is off to a great start. The girls are endearing, funny, a little shy, and excited. Classes are conducted sitting on the floor in a circle. In Cambodia, it’s rude to point your feet at people (or touch their heads…), so girls sit with their feet tucked away to the side.

For the first day off class, a local Buddhist environmental organization came in and made a presentation on the environment, conservation of forests in Cambodia, and how preserving the environment can be not just a way to protect nature but also for Cambodians to make a living via eco-tourism. My hope was that this talk would bring up some points about why conservation is important, which might not be immediately obvious to ladies dealing with the life and death issues of sex trafficking.
In the second class, we got to know the girls better in a more casual way. We played a memory game where everyone had to say their favorite animal, and remember everyone else’s favorite animals who had gone before them, which made for lots of playful slaps and giggles. Why one girl chose venomous snakes as her favorite is beyond me, though! Kevin is now officially named “The Giraffe”, because he made a big crash-bang when he knocked a table. This was right after we were told that Cambodians like to keep their voices soft and shut doors quietly. So much for that ! You can ask Kevin sometime to say “My name is Giraffe” for you in Khmer :)

The girls aren’t terribly excited about tigers yet, but we’ll see what happens after we talk a bit about the creature and try to brainstorm some funny stories. Will keep you posted on what happens today and tomorrow!

Chapter 2 - Kingdom of Cambodia

Hello, dear readers!

Kevin and I arrived in Cambodia this week for our second workshop. We have been looking forward so long to this workshop, mostly because of the incredibly heroic women we are working with. Our non-profit partner here is the Somaly Mam Foundation, a program fighting sex-trafficking that was founded by Somaly Mam, a modern-day Harriet Tubman and survivor herself.

The writers of this project are 11 girls in Somaly Mam’s Voices For Change program, a group of girls who have joined the foundation staff and will help other girls being rescued from brothels and integrated into rescue and rehabilitation centers. To read more about the sex trafficking, see this article by Nicholas Kristof about one of the girls in our class -

In this blog, I don’t want to write anymore about the girls’ tragic, terrible, beyond-sad pasts. I will write about how they are now, about their growth and laughter and creativity, and about the way they engage with this workshop. The dark side of this story is much better described in Somaly’s book, which EVERYONE should read. It is called “The Lost Road to Innocence”, available everywhere. Spend an evening and read it, and I promise you won’t regret it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

mucho gusto, Nicaragua

Last day in the village of San Isidro, Nicaragua, and it will be a sad departure.

Today is Tortuga Fest for our two writing classes, with cake and music and of course an award ceremony. 12 blossoming young writers will receive special prizes - sets of colored pencils, all the rage around here - for specific strengths of their stories. Gabriel, a quiet and hardworking boy who plays the flute and joined in the second week of our workshop wins for "best use of suspense" in his story, "The Intelligent Turtle". Spunky Abraham wins most creative title "N.C.H.D.T." (No Comen Huevos de Tortuga - Don't Eat Turtle Eggs). Francisco (about 12 yrs), a star student who encouraged the others by reading his story to the class as they were working, will win for his use of detail. Check out the beginning of his story (please excuse the rough translation):

"It was a hot day, and the waves of the ocean were calm. A sea turtle swam with his babies under the surface of the water, and all was calm. The fish swam happily as the turtle and her babies floated along without a problem. This turtle and her babies spent most of their time in the sea, although sometimes they would spend a little time in the un one the beach. One day..."

There are many good stories to share. A shout-out definitely goes to thhe story about the Bougie Frog and the Turtle (I've translated fochenta as bougie...), and also to the story where a mother buys turtle eggs in the market only to discover that her daughter has adopted and brought home the mother turtle, resulting in a happy family reunion and return to sea :)

Before I sign off from Nicaragua for a week break before Cambodia, I'll leave you with a couple fun learnings about Nicaragua:

* Nicaraguans point with their lips. (Thanks to Bridget for pointing this out - it's a mannerism I'm considering adopting). Want something over in the corner? You'd better air-kiss toward it.

* If you need something, plan for 6 times as much time as you might expect. Por ejemplo, yesterday we wanted to buy cake for today's party. Pretty easy, we're told, since there are some places with cake. After an hour sitting under a star-fruit tree watching Natacha the feisty puppy repeatedly torture the cat (I seemed to be the only one disturbed by this) while talking local politics, we met the smartest little 8 year old around who named all the major U.S. cities and taught us about turtles, and accompanied us in the bed of a pick-up truck to the cake-store. Somehow this took 5 hours. No idea how. Pretty cake though.

I highly recommend Nicaragua to anyone. There is a huge amount of naturaleza here, the people are friendly, and it's not touristy in most places (even San Juan Del Sur is more backpackery than touristy, and the cafe Gato Negro is a dreamy Nicaraguan seaside version of a Brooklyn cafe, missing only the skinny jeans - not too much to lament over). A little money will go far, and all you need is a dictionary, some bravery in use of Spanish, and say "Adios" or "Buenas" to those who pass by.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some color on Nicaraguan life

As fascinating as it may be to detail the goings-on of our writing workshop, even more interesting for you, dear reader, is probably the culture of Nicaragua itself. Given that, I'd like to take some space here to share some of the culture I've absorbed from this country, so that you can also feel immersed in it.

So to start - Nicaraguans are very clean people, in general. Even when it is 95 degrees, breezes kick up the dust all around, and the scalding sun shines down with such intensity you think it'd run out soon, people still put themselves together each day. Both men and women often slick their hair with some sort of gel or wax, with men combing their hair neatly back and women pulling their hair tight, tight into a neat ponytail or bun. Clothing is often neatly washed and not wrinkled, with many color shirts, slacks, and closed-toed shoes (heat notwithstanding). Houses are swept frequently and things kept in place, even when the roofs are made of tin (most of them are) and the wall are rudimentary (generally cement, stucco, or just giant swathes of tin pieces together like a quilt). In the rainy season, the rain can make such a clamor on the roof that they say it's hard to hear yourself think. I imagine it gets quick messy in the rainy season, as most houses have a 6-inch space between the top of the wall and the roof. I assume this is for ventilation, but it also allows the snoring of the neighbor, the howling of the dogs, the crowing of the roosters, the buzz of night insects and of course anyone's gossip to float through the houses along the breeze.

Almost every house in Nicaragua has a dog for protection, all looking looking as lean and tough and any stray mutt. Though they bark at times, these dogs are in the end are well-trained and polite. They generally lounge about the front of the each house in the dust, or wander about looking for anything suspicious or fun to play with. At night, one dog's growl, snarl, or bark can set off the others, but their excitement never lasts long. With the high rate of petty theft and other crimes in Nicaragua, having these dogs around must add a sense of security, or at least hope.

The men of Nicaragua mostly do farm work, construction, or other basic manual labor. They work on the farms that fill Nicaragua (not patchwork farms like you'd imagine in America, but smaller plots on scraggly, chaparral-like land). They grow beans, rice, tomatoes, and fruit. Giant papayas and avocados, mangoes, banana bunches and pineapples are grown everywhere, and sold in the busy local market. Many young schoolboys have to take several months off of school each year to farm with their families. This help with the harvest often puts them behind their studies in school, but there is little option. Girls also have to take time off school at times - if they are in school - to help with some manual labor as well. The number of single mothers in Nicaragua is astounding - so many have several children, perhaps aren't officially married yet, and then the men leave. These women are everywhere, running their households with such hutzpah and effort.

Everyone gets up at 5am. This is when the roosters crow, the sun comes up, and it is slightly cooler. Breakfast is gallo pinto, or rice and beans. Little is added to this dish besides water, and lots of salt. While rice and beans are eaten three times / day, essentially, a couple other ingredients may be added - chicken, dried, super-salty cheese that looks like sticks of feta, ayote (a cucumber-like vegetable in the squash family that can be sauteed), plantains (dried, boiled, fried, steam, you-name-it), and sometimes bread. Most families can't afford to have very much meat at home, though. Chicken is a special thing.

The women wash the family's clothing in the one sink in each house. These deep, wide sinks are made of dark cement, and reminded me of the sinks we used in elementary school art-class. The bottom of the sink has some fifteen ridges, used to scrub out the dust and sweat from clothing. The same sinks are used to wash faces, wash food, brush teeth, do the laundry, and clean the dishes. To the right of the sink is another sink that's 5 inches wide and a couple feet long, with a faucet, and this is often filled up for the day, with a plastic bowl left in it to scoop water out and onto the dishes/faces/hands/clothing that are being washed. This helps hugely in preserving water during the week.

The kids are pretty happy-go-lucky, not-with-standing the hardship. Often those with the biggest smiles in our classes had some of the hardest background. Nicaragua is not safe, and all know it. People know the groups of men hanging out who are professional thieves, who go into the city to pick-pocket and break into houses, and then return to their own town at night. The townspeople don't speak up, because they say it is better to be friends with them than on their bad side. People walk carefully, and are wary of city buses and walking or traveling-about after dark. Everyone is in bed by 8:30 or 9pm. Many people burn their garbage, and walking along at night you'll often see piles of cinders glowing alongside the road.

Huge portions of Nicaragua are undeveloped, with only a house here or there, and otherwise only scattered Fincas or bus-stops in sight. Nicaragua has huge capacity to become an eco-tourist zone, like Costa Rica, but has not taken advantage of it. This has helped to leave the nature undeveloped. We will see what happens in the future.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Moving towards a Nicaragua book...

Good progress has been made in the last couple of days!

Yesterday, we visited the home of the 3 sisters in our class whom we would like to highlight, and it turns out there are nine siblings in total! Outside their home are 4 giant tubs of water which were standing full, something that only happens once every eight days when the “Agua Potable” truck comes rumbling by, kicking up a dust-storm in its track.

Behind the house is a “finca” (farm, though mostly uncultivated) stretching across the hills with barely a house in site. The three sisters must have show us every prickly plant and pretty flower and hovering bird on the premises, and were terribly exited to show us these natural secrets of their land. It's amazing how quickly kids can become comfortable with you, and us with them – I already feel so familiar with them that I will be sad to say goodbye in only 3 days.

This morning the sister’s father took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the finca. Unfortunately, even though I stuck my head way into the tree where a sloth (“el perezoso”, or lazy one) lives – and poops down occasionally – he was way up in the heart of the tree, just out of sight. We got a good whiff of him and some shots of his home, at least. The finca had beautiful, if dusty, rolling hills and thick trees and vines that require saber-toothed machetes to pass through. There is an incredible difference in the dry and wet seasons here – now, in the dry season, there is no rain, no water (thus the weekly agua truck), and only prickly bushes and trees with thick, waxy flowers. In the wet season, though, the entire depression behind the sister’s house is filled with 5-6 feet of water, making an instant lagoon. This is also the season for growing tomates, frijoles, and maize.

A final note – if anyone is looking for a fabuloso Nicaraguan singer-songwriter to make famous, I’ve got one here. Ernesto allowed me to film him as he played Nicaraguan folk songs, some modern pieces, and even his own work, and anyone would be slightly in love. He sings songs of youth, love, dreams, hope, pobreza, the environment… a Nicaraguan Jack Johnson, quizas?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nica, Week 2

Greetings from Nicaragua, everyone!

After taking a local bus almost to Costa Rica- with a vociferous rooster and an even more vociferous preacher – and a couple days of salty Pacific treatment for our dusty feet, it’s back to work in San Isidro and the final week of creative workshops! This week is especially key to the project, both for story development and the “other” part. You see, these are no ordinary story books..

After each endangered species story will be a profile of the local non-profit partner, like Fabretto’s education program, special features on Nicaragua, and the Carey (hawksbill) sea turtle – one of the 7 species of sea turtles, 5 of which are in Nicaragua. Other pages will have the always important “Vocabulario!”, and These are some of the elements that we heard in our parent focus group could add a lot to the books from the parents’ and teachers’ perspective.

But wait, there’s more! If all goes well, the books will also have nifty educational CDs for the intrepid reader to learn more about conservation, do some fun activities (because who doesn’t love a turtle-themed crossword puzzle?), listen to clips of local kids singing, and even check out a Behind the Scenes section with a sneak peek into our classes and the daily life of people here.

To make this happen, I’m snapping photos and filming as much as possible so that we’ll have lots of color to paint with during book development. Doing an ethnographic film with local interviews could be a wonderful month-long project - if you had the time!

Early this morning I asked a man living in an 8 ft by 4 ft, tin-lined shed if I could hang out a while and film as he prepared breakfast. Fanning the small fire circle in front of his home, he cooked water from an old oil can and pinto beans until they frothed in his riddled cast-iron pot, and then switched out this pot for another with plantains to boil. Stirring his food and fanning the fire, he told me about the hard life of the people here, (Nicaragua being the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere behind Haiti) and how his skewed eyes see blurry because his mother was not given sugar while pregnant (hmm). Though he didn’t have much, he insisted I drink his hot bean water with a touch of sugar. Pretty tasty, actually, and I’m thinking one could make a new energy drink of this stuff in the U.S. Will experiment at home with bean-based drinks, if anyone is interested in a taste-testing position …

As my head is full of turtle-facts (I’m no wangba dan!*), here are a few for the road:

After long migrations and wandering, sea turtles march up right up the beaches where they were born (usually by night) and lay nests full of flexible, ping-pong sized eggs!

Baby sea turtles brave a dangerous journey back to the sea, but often head off in the wrong direction if lights or beach erosion confuse their orientation.

In many areas, shrimp fisherman now must use turtle ejecting devices in their nets to decrease the amount of accidently trapped turtles. It only takes them 40 minutes to drown (they have lungs), and much less to be ejected!

Turtle eggs are often sold as shots in bars as a protein-rich, if less-potent, alternative to Viagra.

*Calling someone a turtle egg, or dumb person, is pretty derogatory in China.