06 May 2009

Adam's Sizzling Spring Soireé Fundraiser

Thanks to all of our supporters, our spring fundraiser at Primitive Gallery here in Chicago was a huge success. The music of Opposition Party was incredible, and the delectable treats and cocktails did not disappoint. Guests were able to see my documentary that recounts my African humanitarian trip and were also entertained by Dan Brando and Jay Collen, amazing magicians, as well as Lisa Alvarado doing tarot card readings.
Special guest Marc Gold, who is Founder of 100 Friends and my mentor, was also in attendance, fresh from his appearance on NPR's Worldview program, in which he mentioned the exciting news of the launch of my own non-profit foundation!
Cause & Affect will be launched very soon - stay tuned for details!

Thank you all for your donations and attendance - the funds raised will undoubtedly create very positive change for hundreds! It is wonderful to see old and new friends unite behind this wonderful cause. See you soon!

30 March 2009

Aiding Women's Group in Senegal with Micro-credit Loan

It has been said that if work is what liberates women, then African women are the most liberated in the world. After all, they do produce over 70% of the continent’s food, as women usually cultivate the crops and tend to the fields. As for trade, women dominate the market economy of the village as well. Throughout West Africa , I have witnessed firsthand the tireless work ethic of African women, as they always seem to be tending to the fields, stooped over a fire or carrying something on their heads: a basket of bananas, firewood, dried fish or peanuts. Women (and girls) are responsible for fetching water, which is the most strenuous task in much of Africa , and they are also responsible for raising the children, preparing the food and tending the household. Hard work indeed.

There are prominent examples of African women reaching positions of power: the president of Liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai from Kenya are two of the most inspiring examples. While in the Senegalese capital of Dakar , I worked with professional television producers, lawyers, nurses and development workers – all impressive, dynamic African women. But in many parts of West Africa , women still face an uphill battle. Though opportunities for advancement have grown in urban settings, the sad truth is that in rural villages, there is little hope for advancement. Here in Nder, a small village in the arid northern region of Senegal , the literacy rate hovers around 10% and most women are more concerned with putting food on the table than anything else.

Located in the Sahel region, Nder suffers from limited rainfall and poor soils. Faced with worsening climate conditions, it is getting more and more difficult for families to produce enough food to subsist on. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to increased food production is the lack of capital needed to invest in a second crop, one that can be planted and harvested in the off-season. The growing cycle in Senegal is seasonal: during the rainy season, the community plants and harvests vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and millet. But in the off-season, they could be growing a cash crop like peanuts to supplement their families’ income, as peanuts grow well with less rainwater. The problem is that such an endeavor requires an investment in seed, fertilizer, etc.

Enter SEM ( Senegal Eco-village Microfinance), a non-governmental organization that provides low-interest loans to local communities looking to create new businesses. Just like the last project I supported in Cape Verde with David and his goats, SEM provides micro-finance loans, but distributes them to larger, community-based groups, such as the twenty women of Nder that have banded together to plant a peanut crop for their village.

The women of Nder have a history of standing up and demanding change, as this village was home to a female-led rebellion against colonial French forces during the colonial era. It seems that this fighting spirit is still alive and well today, as the local women have banded together to fight for their village’s survival. Faced with complete isolation (the nearest school and medical clinics are over 50 miles away), the village is suffering from abandonment of men towards the cities. Without a means to provide for their families, men are forced to seek work in the cities, a demographic drift that threatens the sustainability of Nder.

But with the additional income generated by a peanut crop, conditions will improve and the village cohesion will be maintained, as has been the case in so many other villags within the SEM Eco-village network here in Senegal . With a proven track record of success, SEM provides the ideal partner to efficiently administer this loan. On behalf of 100 Friends, I have fulfilled the loan request of Nder’s Womens Group for the amount of $900. This money will go towards the purchase of seed, fertilizer and insecticide to ensure a stable crop of peanuts that can then be sold at the local market to be made into peanut oil for export.

Helping people help themselves is a mantra I try to adhere to. Here in Nder, it’s as plain as day. Due to their isolation and lack of collateral, these villagers would never qualify for a loan from a traditional bank. The simple banking assistance of SEM will allow these women to lead their village to greater prosperity, perhaps ensuring its very survival in the process. I will be receiving (and passing along) field reports from them as soon as the crops are planted and harvested. Once the loan has been repaid, it will go back into the SEM Fund and will be lent to a similar group next year. Money is used to boost a community’s food production, generating income and maintaining social cohesion and then it is recycled and plugged into the grid again. Is there a more logical and simple manner of fighting poverty as that?

16 March 2009

Ya herd? Using Micro-Loans to Raise Goats and Climb out of Poverty

Much has been written about the benefits of micro-finance recently, especially since Bangaldeshi Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank, won the Pulitzer Peace Prize in
2006. To briefly summarize, micro-finance is the provision of financial services to poor people in developing countries who lack access to the commercial banking system. For those unfamiliar with this world-changing concept, please allow me to explain in a personalized example.

David is a strong and intelligent 25 year-old Cape Verdean. He finished high school, but like most people on this small volcanic island of Fogo (“Fire”), there is limited opportunity for him to work or pursue his studies. Though he would like to start his own business, he does not have the capital needed to make the initial investment to get anything started. As a result, he picks up work with a small company that mines stone from the hard earth. But even this grueling work is infrequent, leaving David without a dependable means of income. He and his wife have started to build a house, but up to this point, they have not gotten beyond building a tiny room of concrete blocks; running water and electricity are still a dream away.

The nine inhabited islands of Cape Verde are small, barren and isolated. With very limited rainfall, few natural resources and little arable land, Cape Verde is experiencing hard times, especially during the current drought, which explains why there are more Cape Verdeans living abroad that on the islands themselves. It is a sad, but telling commentary on the depths of this drought to see such beautiful islands abandoned by nearly anyone that has the means to immigrate.

Unlike many of the islanders of Fogo, David does not have family members abroad that can send him money. He would like to earn a stable income and knows that he could earn a living by raising goats, as the goat milk provides an essential source of vitamins and the cheese can be sold to the local community. Once the goats mature and reproduce, the cheese production increases and the young goats can be sold off for a profit. There is land near David’s house that is perfect for grazing animals, but there is a problem: like many people in the developing world, David lacks the start-up capital needed to finance the initial investment. In order to buy 6 or 7 goats, he would need $900. For someone with David’s financial standing, taking out a traditional bank loan in Cape Verde (as is the case in most developing countries) is impossible, as the banks do not offer credit to the poor, many of which cannot provide the collateral required.

For millions, the only source of credit is the local pawnshop or a loan shark that charges exorbitant interest rates, sometimes as high as 1,000%! I have personally seen people in the favelas of Rio that have been threatened and beat up by these loan sharks when they fall behind on their payments. So this leaves David (and MILLIONS like him) in a precarious position, but thankfully micro-credit institutions have stepped in to address the needs of these local entrepreneurs by providing poor people with low-interest loans to start their own business and climb their way out of poverty.

While in Cape Verde , I discovered one such institution OMCV that is doing amazing work with micro-loans, as they were recommended to me by Peace Corps volunteers and local development workers. While visiting David on the slopes of the enormous volcano that towers over the islanders like a sleeping giant, I met Senora Isabel and her husband, who live next door. Three years ago, Isabel took out a $400 micro-loan with OMCV for the same purpose. With the profits from her cheese-making industry, she repaid the loan month-by-month, took out another $400 loan and then last year, due to her credit worthiness, was awarded a larger $800 loan. Today, she and her husband have a flock of 80 goats and a thriving cottage industry of making cheese! With the help of OMCV, they now sell their cheese ($2 a wheel) in bulk to large hotels on neighboring islands with more tourism and have expanded their cramped family shack into a more comfortable 3-bedroom home with a stove and electricity. They are now also raising chickens and can afford small luxuries like a radio, a bedspread and a set of dishes. As she happily recounted to me over a plate of delicious goat cheese, “When I first heard about micro-credit, I had no idea what it was!” She is proud to tell me how she repaid every penny of her loans on time and she and her husband are overjoyed to have found a means to work together to provide income for their family. As they told me, they are able to put some money into a small savings account that acts as an emergency fund, should the need arise.

Visiting David next door, I felt like I was glimpsing into the future. He has witnessed Isabel’s success and knows that micro-loans are the answer to his prayers. He is committed to applying his tireless work ethic to creating his own goat herd and cheese business and knows that by repaying his loans on time, he will be able to take out additional loans to further increase his success. Thanks to the donations of people like you, 100 Friends was able to finance David’s $900 micro-loan.

David, ecstatic upon hearing the news, pledged to dutifully look after his goats with the utmost attention, “as though they are my own babies,” he told me with a smile. This was especially touching to me as I have heard about the human-like qualities of goats: goats milk is said to be very similar to human breast milk, the bleats of many goats sound like crying babies and the eyes strongly resemble humans. Interestingly enough, goats were among the first animals domesticated by humans over 10,000 years ago in present-day Turkey and Iran; the domestication of goats allowed humans to move to more arid lowland regions, marking the transition to the modern era. As humans began to harness the stable food supply that goats provided, they were able to expand into new ecological areas and grow in communal size, which constitutes one of the most fundamental changes on human history. The worship of the half-goat Greek god Pan is further evidence of the goat’s influence on human history. Hopefully, the seven goats David purchases and raises with this micro-loan will allow he and his family to evolve to a more comfortable lifestyle, one free of hunger and hardship.

Best of all, when the money is repaid back into the OMCV fund, it will then be lent out to another local entrepreneur, allowing ANOTHER family to pull themselves out of poverty and create a better life for themselves. This magical, yet simple formula of micro-credit is changing lives all over the world and thanks to your help, the wheels will keep turning.

11 March 2009

Attacking Malaria by Saving Lives With $2 Bednets

Malaria kills over a million people a year, yes one million! Last month, I walked out of my hotel and saw my local friend Steven lying under a palm tree, wracked in sweat and shaking violently. I didn’t have to ask him what the problem was; it was obvious he was in the midst of a malaria attack. Watching someone in the throes of an attack is a gruesome experience. Fortunately for Steven, I was able to help, but millions of others are not so lucky. After the one-celled malaria plasmodia have entered the body through the probiscus of a female mosquito, they travel to the victim’s liver, where they burrow themselves into liver cells. Over the course of a week, these parasites eat and multiply until they burst out of the cells and enter the bloodstream. Soon, the victim is gripped by anxiety, as though the body knows its immune system has been attacked. A sever fever and violent shivering are the body’s attempts to increase body temperature, in an attempt to kill off the parasites with heat. A sudden onset of chills quickly morphs into an intense sensation of bitter cold, even more traumatic for Africans that have never felt a cold winter’s chill before. They shake so hard and are so cold they often beg to be covered or smothered. Those without anyone to care for them or wrap them in blankets or coats simply collapse onto the ground, where they lie in a half-conscious state of convulsion. Hours later, when these painful, rhythmic waves of cold and pain have passed, the victim enters a debilitating period of exhaustion and weakness. After the attack has ended, the person is wracked by sweat, fever, pain and nausea – sometimes for days on end. Children not strong enough to withstand this battle (especially those without access to water or medical care) often perish at this point. Malnourished people are especially vulnerable to the ravages of malaria, as the disease slowly wears them down to nothing.
If untreated, the parasites continue to reproduce, until billions of them travelling through the victim’s circulatory system, attacking the oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This is when the body starts to break down: the lungs battle for breath and the heart becomes too weak to pump. I have seen these weakened people, frail to the touch and I grow angry knowing that malaria is an easily treatable and preventable disease, yet it kills more than a million people every year! Here in Africa, malaria is a rampant child-killer as 3,000 kids die every day from the disease. That’s one child every 30 seconds. In the four minutes it takes you to read this report, another eight kids have perished. These are staggering statistics, especially considering it has been going on for centuries.
Actually, malaria has been wrecking havoc on the world for millennia, as pre-human hominids and dinosaurs also suffered from the parasite and many animals still die from the parasite today. It is suspected that Alexander the Great died of malaria (which led to the collapse of the Greek Empire), while its presence may have also stopped the advance of the armies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun as well. Though the world has eradicated once-pandemic diseases like smallpox and polio, over a million people a year die from malaria, which is twice the number of a generation ago. Meanwhile, as National Geographic notes, several regions of the world (such as here in sub-Saharan Africa), “have reached the brink of total malarial collapse, virtually ruled by swarms of buzzing, flying syringes.” In addition to the health costs of malaria, the infection of half a billion people inflicts a debilitating effect on these countries’ economic condition as well. There has been a lot of international attention devoted towards curbing the ravages of the disease, especially by the World Health Organization and Bill Gates, who called the disease “the worst thing on the planet.” One of the main obstacles to producing a vaccine is the fact that pharmaceutical companies do not want to devote their Research & Development resources to finding a cure because they know that the African people cannot afford an expensive vaccine. This is the sad but true economic reality. How many children need to die before the world will be mobilized to end it? Apparently more than 3,000 a day.
But instead of cursing a reality out of my control, I have sought out the most effective way to save a local community from this fatal disease. Many are surprised to learn that malaria is easily prevented; by using Insecticide-Treated Bednets, the death rate falls by roughly 60%. That is pretty astounding, considering that each bednet ranges in price between $2 and $5. Here is Senegal, malaria is the leading cause of death for kids under the age of 5, responsible for 30% of their deaths and over half of their hospital visits. When I learned that only 14% of these children are exposed to these bednets, I vowed devote my resources to try to save the lives of some of these kids. In my search for an effectively-run local organization to partner up with, I discovered Tostan, which was founded by Chicago native Molly Melching, who has been working to promote education, health and human rights here in Senegal since her days with the Peace Corps in the 1970’s; Tostan is a wonderful model for community-led development fostered and facilitated on a local bottom-up level. (For more info, see my last blog entry www.adrockcarter.blogspot.com or www.tostan.org)
When I expressed my desire to donate mosquito nets on behalf of 100 Friends, Molly’s face lit up with excitement.
“I’ve got the ideal village for you,” replied.
Beliga is a community of roughly a thousand people, located close to the city of Thiès, a few hours outside of the capitol of Dakar. With $800 in hand from 100 Friends, we visited the local health clinic, where we purchased 400 of these specially-treated mosquito nets and then drove out to the village where we were enthusiastically greeted by the villagers. Upon delivery, the village chief and the two female leaders of the local development council expressed their heart-felt thankyous, passing along their gratitude to all of our supporters (that means YOU!). They were overjoyed to receive these life-saving nets and installed them with gusto. Since the villagers usually sleep at least two to a bed, nearly all of the villagers of Baliga will now be protected from this lethal threat.
It’s amazing how simple saving lives can be: we recognize a need, we research the most effective manner to address that need, we purchase the item in need and then go directly to the community to administer the aid. Thanks to the generous donations of people like you, we are able to provide the $2 bednets that will undoubtedly spare many of the inhabitants of Baliga from the ravages of malaria. Who knew two bucks could be so well-spent?

18 February 2009

Preventing Unwanted Pregnancy and Environmental Degradation in Senegal

“It’s so hard to feed all of these hungry bellies,” I am told by Adama, a Senegalese mother of seven. We hear about the problems posed by overpopulation, but often cannot comprehend how this issue effects people on an individual level. Coming face-to-face with a malnourished family of nine is heart-wrenching. Due to the absence of reproductive health clinics, a lack of low-cost contraceptives and high infant-mortality rates, parents here are giving birth to very large families (here in Senegal the average is about six). Large family sizes place unnecessary burden on the parents to provide food and the environment to provide firewood and water.

By 2050, world population is projected to reach nine billion, a 38% jump from today's 6.5 billion; most of this global explosion will be heavily concentrated in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. The threat is especially serious here in Africa, where the population is expected to surge from 900 million to almost two billion.

In the developing nations that have effectively promoted contraception, the key to success has been the empowerment of women. Mothers need to be educated to make informed decisions, as research proves that even a few years of education has a great impact on controlling fertility rates. In fact, hundreds of millions of couples around the world want – but do not have access to – family planning practices; it is estimated that one third of the population growth in the world is the result of incidental or unwanted pregnancies. Over the past few months in West Africa, I have witnessed these realities first-hand, so I mobilized my resources, found an incredible local partner organization and created a plan to tackle both issues simultaneously.

The first step was enlisting the help of Tostan (http://www.tostan.org), an amazingly-effective NGO (non-governmental organization) here in Senegal. What drew me to them, besides the accolades they have earned from the international community, is the success they have had in creating community-based development councils. As many know, too much of international development is conducted in a top-down manner, with planners in Western capitals deciding what people in the developing world need to improve their lives. This approach is fraught with peril, as cultural realities and local customs are often overlooked or ignored altogether, resulting in failed projects and a growing mistrust from the locals of the very organizations that were created to help them. Fortunately, Molly Melching, founder of Tostan (and native Chicagoan), recognized this fact and decided to base her development approach around the training and mobilization of Senegalese women to become pro-active agents of change in their communities. Each village adopted into Tostan’s network undergo a 30-month Community Empowerment Program (CEP) wherein local women undergo a rigorous training session to improve their reading skills and are then instilled with strategies for leadership, decision-making, income-generation, communication, budgeting, social mobilization, etc. Upon completion, each village’s Community Management Committee (CMC) meets to assess their community’s needs and then seeks an effective means to affect the positive change. After the creation of these CMC’s, local communities have mobilized to build latrines (drastically reducing the occurrence of infectious disease), dug wells (to improve water access and quality) and built local health clinics (to provide health care in regions that previously had no such access). Tostan has also facilitated the creation of a 1,500 village-wide Tostan’s Empowered Communities Network (ECN) which allows these small communities to work together, pass along lessons of success and share their knowledge and fresh ideas with each other. Utilizing this network to launch a project ensures that the innovative ideas will be effectively spread on a regional basis.

As many know, addressing population control is a touchy subject, as there are many religious overtones involved. Unfortunately, these taboos have prevented the dissemination of contraceptives as well as ideas that would seriously help control the population explosion many countries are saddled with.

In addition, millions of women are seriously injured or die during childbirth, a statistic particularly troubling here in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in sixteen mothers will die giving birth in their lifetime.

Fortunately, there is an innovative new approach that is proving to yield results: CycleBeads, which is a pregnancy prevention methods using the Standard Days Method. Basically, these beads, in the shape of a necklace, provide a tool for women to keep track of their menstrual cycle and avoid unprotected sex during their fertile 6-day period of the month. The United Nations Family Planning Association describes it as “a portable, durable, and renewable calendar, the ring contains 32 coloured beads that represent each day in a woman’s monthly reproductive cycle. For a woman with a regular menstrual cycle that falls between 26 and 32 days in length, CycleBeads can identify when she is most likely to conceive. During that time, she and her partner either abstain from sex or use another form of protection.” More effective than a diaphragm and nearly as effective as condoms, this tool was developed by the Institute of Reproductive Health at Georgetown University and has been distributed worldwide to address over-population.

What really excites me about the use of these beads (except for the fact that they glow-in-the-dark for those dark intimate moments) is the fact that there is no religious objection to their use here. Senegal is 95% Muslim, but everyone here, including the imams, have given their support. This is especially important, as birth control pills and contraceptive injections have (erroneously or not) been blamed for health complications among local women, but there is no mistrust towards the beads, as the women understand this is simply a way for them to become familiar with the natural cycle of their bodies. To see a video featuring Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in Haiti demonstrating how these beads work:

After speaking with the regional directors of Tostan, 100 Friends has donated $500 for the purchase and distribution of 500 of these CycleBeads to be distributed to fifty women in ten separate villages. From there, the techniques will be passed along to even more communities through Tostan’s Empowered Communities Network (ECN).

Another issue that demands action is global warming and deforestation. One of the most simple and effective means of dealing with these twin issues is improving the wood stoves that people in West Africa use to cook with. Open fires cause many burns and health problems: over 1.6 million people die every year from respiratory diseases caused by smoke from wood stoves. On an environmental scale, wood fires are very inefficient in terms of energy and the soot from these fires contributes greatly to global warming, as the black noxious particles in the smoke increase the atmospheric temperature. Coupled with overpopulation, the collection of firewood is stripping the local environment of its trees and resources, which leads to desertification and infertile soil which in turn makes these families’ situations even more precarious.
Fortunately, there is a very simple and cost-effective way to address these problems: the installation of more efficient woodstoves. Instead of cooking over an open fire, round one foot-tall shelters (shaped perfectly for the pots the families cook with) are easily built from local materials. By surrounding the flame to reduce heat loss and the effect of wind, these stoves become much more effective.

Working through Tostan, 100 Friends is providing $500 to fund a training session for ten villages. Two community leaders from each village will be given a 2-day training session to provide the instruction and materials needed to install these improved stoves in their communities. Each of these twenty leaders will then train ten other community leaders within Tostan’s Empowered Communities Network (ECN) to build and maintain the stoves.

So in less than a year, this $500 investment will have resulted in the construction of 200 of these improved woodstoves. Every family utilizing these new stoves will use 66% less firewood, from 6 to 2 logs a day. They will also save about 2 hours in meal preparation due to the greater heat efficiency generated by the improved stoves. To put that into context, if each family uses 4 less logs per day, multiplied by 200 stoves, and 365 days, that equals 292,000 logs of wood saved per year! This will ease the deforestation threatening these villages´ survival. As for the time saved with these more heat-efficient stoves, 200 families x 2 hours per day x 365 work days is an extra 146,000 extra hours of time that can be devoted to farming or other income-generating activities, and that´s not even counting the time saved from foraging for firewood , an activity that is especially time-consuming in this part of the world.

It is amazing to see just how easy it is to stretch $1,000 into such a far-reaching initiative to tackle the issues of overpopulation, deforestation and global warming all at once. Your contributions are making the difference in these peoples’ lives, so keep the donations coming!

10 February 2009

Rescuing Street Kids from Islam’s False Prophets

Here is an outtake from a Senegalese TV news program that featured the work of Adam and 100 Friends: http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=uvPAtE7tGvs

While passing through a local market here in Senegal , I saw a group of kids standing in a single-file line, each holding wooden tablets covered with Arabic script. I had heard these students, known as talibes, were provided lessons in reading Arabic and reciting the Koran by Sufi holy men; weeks earlier I had met a few of them in Mali and was actually impressed to see their grasp of a foreign language (http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=b3gN1_yofnw). Captivated by the image of these small boys holding their tablets in obedience, I started to snap a picture, at which point I was nearly accosted by their teacher, who literally chased after me with his whip in hand. Though I had no problem outrunning the 60 year-old overseer, even with these rickety knees of mine, I was troubled by the experience and left to wonder what guilt this man had to hide.

After doing some research and asking around, I quickly learned that these marabouts have played an integral role in the history, politics and culture here in Senegal , a country that is 95% Muslim. Though traditional Islam forbids the intermediary of priests, stressing the individual’s personal link to Allah, these Sufi marabouts exert a great deal of influence over their adherents. Centuries back, many were instrumental in rallying soldiers to resist French colonialism, while others participated openly in the profitable slave trade. Today, most Senegalese still proclaim allegiance to one of the many marabouts. In fact, most believe their fate is tied to the efficacy of their marabout; hence the expression denoting one’s good luck: “You’ve got a good marabout.” But, in recent years, a particularly-troubling phenomenon has manifested itself here, as many of these religious teachers capture swarms of young children from rural villages wracked by over-population, malnutrition and abject poverty.

Perhaps the first thing visitors to Senegal notice are the plethora of street children that crowd the streets, begging for spare change. What most people fail to realize though is that most of these children (UNICEF puts the figure at 100,000) have been taken from their families by these “holy men” who force them to beg in the streets to provide them with income.

Capitalizing upon the thousand year-old tradition of Koranic schools, parents are led to believe their children will benefit from the religious teaching; what they fail to realize is that these false prophets take the kids to the cities and force them to beg in the streets. As nine year-old Amadou here in the capitol city of Dakar tells me, he and the other 20 boys he shares a grimy bed with are awoken at dawn and forced to recite the Koran in Arabic for hours, even though they have no idea what it means.

Taking advantage of the Muslim’s religious duty of giving alms to the poor, the marabouts send the kids (many as young as 5 years-old) onto the streets with empty cans to beg for spare change for nine hours a day. They are beaten if they cannot deliver a dollar a day in change, which explains why some boys can be seen crying at the end of the day on the side of the road.

This brutal form of human trafficking/child labor has caused a public outcry; but though the government outlawed child exploitation and trafficking in 2005, little has been done on a national level to reduce this appalling practice. Fortunately, a local woman named Anta M’Bow recognized the problem and founded a home to rescue as many of these children as possible.

While at the center, the kids are fed three nourishing meals a day and given instruction in everything from gymnastics to juggling to tae kwon do. Seeing them run around with glee, it is clear they are ecstatic to be off the streets and rescued from the abusive marabouts, as any of them will attest. “It’s like another world here,” one twelve year-old tells me.

Faced with an inordinate amount of street kids in Dakar , the objective of Empire of The Children (L’Empire des Enfants) is to re-unite these kids with their families. This requires pain-staking research of social workers who investigate each child’s situation in order to locate their families and return as many of them as possible, thus making room at the center for new arrivals.

When I ask why he doesn’t just go back home, Amadou tells me his family is from Guinea , hundreds of miles away and across an international border. This is not just a Senegalese phenomenon: nearly two-thirds of the children come from the neighboring countries of Mali and Guinea-Bissau; the extreme poverty in these places, coupled with the huge family sizes and lack of food, make parents more susceptible to the false claims perpetrated by these marabouts, with the hope their children will be taken care of and fed well. As my nine year-old friend tells me, this is hardly the case. As the boys’ physical appearance indicates, their health is neglected as most suffer from respiratory illness, skin problems or parasites. Faced with such a traumatic life on the streets, these boys long to be reunited with their families and once the parents learn of their deception in the name of religion, they happily accept their childrens’ return.

Coming face-to-face with throngs of child beggars everyday, for they often gravitate towards a toubabe (white man) like myself, I am faced with a conundrum: while I do not want to enrich their manipulative masters with my money, I shudder to imagine them being beaten if they cannot come up with enough change at the end of the day. When I have food on me, I pass some along to them, but there are times when their insistence gets under my skin, at which point I ask them to leave me alone.

Playing with them at L’Empire des Enfants though, I am able to see them in their true form: not pestering beggars but wonderful children, each of them longing for the attention and affection they deserve. As I sat at lunch, eating Ceebu Jën, the traditional rice and fish meal from a communal platter with my new friends (http://fr.youtube.com/watch?v=l9HckIEzCZg), I experienced one of the strange manifestations of mixed emotions that Africa seems to evoke: on the one hand, deep sadness at the horrible fate being perpetrated upon these innocent children, the ultimate victims of circumstances out of their control, and on the other hand, a profound gratefulness that people like Madame Bow and the rest of the staff here at this center have banded together to rescue these kids from their dreadful fate. This dichotomy between desperation and hope pervades daily life here as I experience this African manifestation of ying and yang on a daily basis.

On behalf of 100 Friends, we donated $500 worth of kitchen supplies, food and medicine for the children of L’Empire des Enfants. I can only hope that with our collective help, more and more of these kids will be returned to their families, spared the trauma of their current suffering and able to once again enjoy the childhood they all deserve. Thank you for your support!

26 January 2009

Forced to Flee by Desert Decree


Life here in the desert is a daily struggle to survive. It is hard for many of us to comprehend such a tenuous grip on life, but it is true. I have spent the last few weeks in, or on the fringes of the Sahara Desert. Here in the transitional region known as the Sahel that covers over a million square miles, I can see that people here are locked into a daily struggle to survive – it is man against nature on a grand stage and every waking moment is a vigilant battle to extract enough water and food to see tomorrow. Sure, the sand dunes, camels and sunsets here are breath-taking, but beneath the surreal sandscapes, there exists a much more troubling reality: the desert is expanding its dry grasp on the region, forcing people to flee from their communities and drastically altering their lifestyle. In this punishing terrain; water is the key to life and supercedes everything else. There is a battle going on between man and nature here in the Sahel; the desert is winning.

While in Mali, I ventured north of Timbuktu into the heart of the Sahara, a place where majestic sand dunes speak stories of colonial explorers in search of legendary riches. Riding on camelback, I spent time with the Tuareg people, a nomadic desert tribe that used to control the caravan routes in days of yore. But the Tuareg lifestyle and the rich culture that goes along with that is in dire jeopardy, as climate change is forcing them to adapt to the sudden water shortages plaguing their ancestral homeland. While sipping green tea in a tiny village called Essoukane, my Tuareg friends told me that their local wells have dried up, so people come on camelback from surrounding villages to get water from a single UNICEF truck that arrives once a month. Many though, are not so lucky.

Here in Mauritania , the desert’s land grab is killing people in its wake. 75% desert, this country has always had to deal with a harsh arid climate, but in the last forty years, drought and deforestation have compounded the problem. The northern half of Mauritania is pure Sahara, while the southern half is more wooded, but the desert has been inching further and further south every year. Driving through Mauritania, I can see the desertification firsthand; in several villages, family homes have been invaded and taken over by the sand dunes, blown into place by the harmattan winds that are especially strong this time of year. (Lunch break everybody: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8v-g4uM7Kc)

The blowing sand forms new dunes, masks my vision in a dusty cloud and pervades every pore of my body. While in the east of the country, I met American Peace Corps volunteers that are helping re-forest small tracts of land, but the scale of desertification is immense. Sadly, this process is a vicious circle: drought forces people to settle in more pastoral areas, which increases demand for scarce water and compels families to cut down trees to feed their animals, earn a living and cook their food. This in turn creates competition for water and resources which exacerbates the poverty and ultimately forces people to flee the countryside altogether.

The lack of water and income forces rural families towards the cities, in this case Nouakchott, the capitol city of uncontrolled urban growth. This city was built for a population of 15,000 back in 1959, but today it is home to 600,000 - and growing at a clip of over 5% per year! Malnutrition here is rampant, as are respiratory and water-borne diseases. Without any housing, migrants are forced to live in tents on the city’s outskirts. The government is having a tough time dealing with this climate change, as 14% of the annual budget ($192 million) is swallowed up by environmental degradation. Seeing a family of eight huddled into a tent, cooking meager meals over a small fire is heart-wrenching, especially considering the fact that just a few years ago, many of these families were living in their ancestral communities, earning a stable living from their pastoralist lifestyle.

With the help of my translator, a Captain in the Mauritanian Army familiar with these nighborhoods, I ventured into one of these desert shanty-towns to deliver some desperately-needed funds to five families in especially-vulnerable positions. Each of the families’ situations is just as pressing as the next: there is the case of the mother and her children deserted by her husband, leaving her with eight hungry mouths to feed; she buys a kilo of rice and sells it off in parcels to neighbors, netting a dollar profit. Then there is the nine year-old girl with a terrible foot infection, whose parents do not have enough money to send her to the hospital.

I could go on and on – the widow left with four kids, the elderly woman reduced to begging for scraps, the man who labors daily at the fish market for twelve hours a day to earn $2 to feed his family of six...Hearing their stories, it becomes obvious each of these families have been victimized by the encroaching desert; try telling them climate change is not real! They speak of their days in the desert as though they were glory days; though their existence out there was always a bit precarious, at least they knew they could put food on the table.

It is easy to fall into a sandy swoon with romantic images of the desert, but we cannot forget the raw truth : the desert is a harsh killer that swallows everything in its path. Seeing these families battling for survival, I reflect on the problems many of us are faced with and realize once again, that they pale in comparison. I wish everyone out there could see the faces of joy and relief when presented with this money to provide food, medical care and school supplies to these families that have been displaced by the desert’s unrelenting expansion.