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.