28 June 2008


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100 Friends
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with Adam Carter in the Memo
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Amazon Aid

With the stark threat of global warming closing in on us, current talk regarding the Amazon focuses on environmental issues. While it is true that the degradation of the region is already taking a punishing toll on the Earth´s delicate natural balance, this universalistic approach overlooks the hundreds of communities that inhabit the Amazon and the day-to-day struggle for survival they currently face.

Despite the common perception, most inhabitants of the Amazon are not native tribesmen. Sure, there are still thousands of indigenous people living deep within the sprawling 150,000 square mile of rain forest, but only the most remote tribes are safe from the peril of government interference, Christian missionaries or commercial loggers. In their case, isolation is their only hope for maintaining their cultural traditions and guaranteeing their survival.

Most outsiders ares surprised to learn that over 60 percent of the Amazon´s population are urban dwellers. Walking through cosmopolitan cities such as Manaus with over its million inhabitants, the only hint of the rain forest´s proximity is the humid, rainy weather and the plethora of exotic fruits being sold on the street.

Some of the most marginalized communities of the Amazon are the rural caboclo communities that are made up of descendants of indigenous peoples. One region of particular fragility is in the western portion of the enormous Pará state of Brazil, on the banks of the Arapiuns and Tapajós Rivers. The communities here, which range in size from 5 to 70 families, rely on fishing, subsistence farming and gathering for subsistence, but they are currently struggling for survival due to the rapid depletion of their natural resources, due to commercial fishing, slash-and-burn agriculture, emigration from other parts of Brazil and the expansion of commercial farms (which are fueling Brazil´s resource boom in corn, sugar and beef).

With this focus in mind, I explored the region in search of efficiently-run locally-based projects that address the major needs these people face: health, income generation, sanitation and education. By immersing myself in these communities, living, eating and sleeping by their side, I was exposed to the major challenges they face and discovered (and financially assisted) several amazing projects which positively impact theses people´s fragile existence.

Due to their geographic isolation, most of these communities lack access to medical doctors and hospital care, which presents a slew of health-related challenges. For starters, child mortality is very high; over 5% of babies don´t live to see their first birthday and 15% of deaths in these communities are children under the age of one. Another startling reality is the rash of easily-preventable diseases such as dengue fever and diarrhea, which are often fatal here if not treated. Without doctors to visit, kids never learn how to brush their teeth, mothers receive no pre-natal care and families are unaware of the importance of washing their hands and keeping their food free from contamination. Fortunately, an incredibly-run project called Health & Happiness sponsors a floating hospital that makes monthly visits to about thirty of these communities, with the doctors, dentists and surgeons on board providing their services free-of-charge to the local residents. Miraculously, they have cut child mortality rates in half and have dractically improved the overall health of these communities in the last decade. In addition to medical services, Health & Happiness also performs a circus in each community, using this clown-filled approach to help spread their health tips. I was lucky enough to witness one such performance and while painting the kids´ faces – their eyes lit up with such brilliance – I could tell that some of these kids had never participated in such an exciting spectacle. While helping administer a tooth-brushing workshop (full of plaque-themed songs and games) for the children, it warmed my heart to see these kids learning such an integral skill and having so much fun doing so. The $570 I have donated will help finance this incredible project and will go towards the pruchase of much-needed medical supplies (and a few toothbrushes as well).

Since the vast majority of land in this particular region of the Amazon is federally-protected, the caboclo communities are not allowed to farm for profit. Cultivation is limited to subsistence levels and carried out in a communal manner. As a result, the people rely on alternative forms of income generation. By providing a means of income to these communities, we can assure they will not resort to degrading the rainforest to ensure their own survival. I encountered some projects that promote the production and sale of traditional artesanato handicrafts, and others with an environmental focus, such as a federally-funded turtle farm that sells turtle meat and helps protect the species´ survival by guarding their breeding ground and releasing healthy turtles into the river.

While staying in a community called Cachoeira de Aruá, I encountered a recently-founded furniture construction project that provides employment for local residents, income for the community and preservation of the local environment. Local men are taught how to construct furniture (beds, wardrobes, tables, chairs, etc.) while also facilitating local conservation efforts. They take inventories of the area´s tree species and extract wood in an environmentally-sustainable manner. [A large plot of land is divided into twenty quadrants and wood is extracted from only one quadrant per year so that each plot is given two decades to regenerate itself before any logging takes place.] As of now, the workshop produces furniture for local communities, spreading the income amongst their families with 30% going towards a communal resource fund. Our goal is to supplement their income by expanding their reach to all of Brazil by working in tandem with an on-line market that has been established to help such projects (http://www.mercadoamazonia.org/). Speaking with the Director of the project – himself an expert woodcrafter and experienced development project manager – I learned the major impediment to expanding their market is the humidity here, as wet wood is nearly impossible to work with. In order to address this hindrance, I have donated $580 which will go towards the construction of a dry wood warehouse, designed to facilitate the rapid drying of the wood, which will produce a larger supply of workable wood. Oh, and another $20 for a radio, so these guys don´t have to work in mute silence all day long.

The first step in reducing water-borne illness is providing a safe water supply to the community. Fortunately, all of the communities I visited already possess local wells or rudimentary running water systems, but most still lack any type of sanitation system, which is why building latrines is so important. In order to learn more about this reality and provide a helping hand at the same time, I participated in a five-day development project that will eventually provide six communities with outhouses for each family. [So, if anyone has any toilet-related questions, now is the time to ask...] Constructing these specially-designed latrines is especially important, as these “dry toilets” eliminate standing water, which is a breeding ground for disease-spreading mosquitoes. What also interested me about this project is the process of involving six local communities: three representatives (including the Community Association President and a village elder) were present for the workshop, which was carried out in a small but centrally-located community. Engineers from the national health board were there to administer the instructions and everyone helped in mixing the cement, digging the holes, etc. I would not call the work more fun than working at the baseball stadiums, but certainly more important. The $580 I donated will go towards funding similar projects in the coming year, so that more communities will be saved from the spread of preventable communicable diseases. Basic sanitation, a reality we all take for granted, should not be a luxury item.

Due to these communities´ isolation, federal services – if they exist at all – are lacking in scope. This is especially true in terms of education, as most schools here only go up to the fourth grade. Only 7.5% of the caboclo kids in this region have access to high school, which forces half of the kids to migrate to cities in search of educational opportunities or work. In additon to depriving the community of able-bodied workers and leaders, this exodus threatens the traditional culture that is passed on orally through the generations. Fortunately, a few communities have banded together to finance their own supplemental schools to provide a extra years of education for their children. I had the good fortune of visiting one such school which finances a separate classroom for fifth, sixth and seventh graders, extending these children´s education for three additional years. This multi-grade approach (a logistical necessity, due to the small number of students and limited resources) captivated me, as I too spent three years of elementary school is such a multi-level classroom. ­The school´s multi-disciplinary approach uses art, play and communication to creates a stimulating environment to pique the kids´ interest in learning, quite different from the dry, boring approach of the public schools. I was so impressed with the staff´s dedication and cultivation of an inter-community forum to work with other villages facing the same challenge that I donated $580 to provide much-needed materials such as school books and art supplies.

Though each of these projects are addressing recognized needs, there are plenty of other issues that demand attention. It was obvious through my visit for example that there is a lack of family planning. As long as family sizes continue to increase unababted, these communities will exhaust their natural resources which will force them to decimate the forest in order to guarantee their own survival. Given alternatives, there is no reason to think the Amazon rain forest cannot be saved, but without a means of income and basic health, the fragile eco-systems here will suffer as a result. Guaranteeing the environmental survival of the Amazon is the world´s responsibility, but it starts with the people who have lived here for centuries. Walking through the rainforest with some of the local kids in search of tropical fruit, I was impressed to watch them identify nearly every plant, explaining to me what each can be used for. I hope their mutually beneficial relationship with their environment continues for centuries to come and I thank all of my donors for allowing me to immerse myself in this region´s reality and improving the lives of their wonderful people in the process.

27 June 2008

Escaping Escobar – A Herald of Hope

“You´re going to Manrique? Better be careful!” I hear that a lot here in Medellin, in reference to this rough and tumble neighborhood where I have been volunteering my time lately. To Colombians, there is still a stigma of violence associated with Manrique. After all, in the 80´s and 90´s, this barrio was once ground zero for the Medellin Cartel´s cocaine wars. Pablo Escobar, the most infamous of Colombia´s drug lords, used Manrique as a base of operations, flashing shiny guns and hefty pay-outs to lure young kids into his racket as assassins, drug-dealers and bodyguards. Though these ramshackle streets are a world away from my beloved Chicago, I can identify with the residents of Manrique. After all, on countless occasions in my travels, I have been greeted with the same gangster stereotype: “You´re from Chicago? Al Capone – bang bang!”

Actually, the parallels between these two hoodlums run deep. Al Capone recognized a demand for contraband and used his smuggling expertise to distribute his product and amass his fortune. Pablo Escobar´s contraband may have come from coca plants in South America, but the destination (like Capone´s whiskey) was the same: the streets of America, a place where intoxicants are always in high demand and millionaires are born everyday. By providing the logistics to distribute cocaine on a massive scale, Escobar´s operation raked in $30 billion a year and in 1989, he was ranked the seventh richest man in the world by Forbes Magazine. Interestingly, both gangsters were larger-than-life figures with extravagant lifestyles who tried to gain public approval by sponsoring social works programs. But behind the façade of Capone´s soup kitchens and Escobar´s churches and soccer stadiums, both were ruthless business men who relied on raw power and murder to intimidate their rivals and maintain their lucrative operations. By increasing the scale of their illicit business, each created formidable criminal organizations: Capone´s Chicago Outfit and Escobar´s Medellin Cartel. Both also had a hand in planning major attacks; Escobar helped finance the M-19 militia´s take-over of the Colombian Palace of Justice, wherein eleven of the Supreme Court Justices were killed, while Capone carried out the bloody St. Valentine´s Day Massacre against his enemies (which took place three blocks from my home in Chicago). In the end, both were both hunted down by US federal agents and both died painful deaths (Capone the victim of syphilis and Escobar the recipient of a hail of gun-fire).

Though Chicago has outgrown the Bootleggers (Capone died sixty years ago), Medellin has not quite exorcised Escobar´s ghost. In the 80´s, Escobar provoked a bloody wave of violence here in order to maintain his grip on the burgeoning drug trade – call it the Power of the Gun (Poder de la Arma ). Though the violence was felt throughout the city, the result was especially gruesome here in Manrique, a shanty-town perched upon a hill overlooking the city center. Residents tell me they wouldn´t set foot outside their homes after dark, afraid they would become another statistic, caught up in the crossfire of a conflict they never asked to be involved in. Even more disturbing is the fact that the cartel used intimidation, threats and delusions of grandeur to ensnare innocent kids into their dirty business.

Forty percent of Manrique´s five hundred families are internally displaced people (desplazados) that arrived in the city after fleeing the civil war ravaging the Colombian countryside. Little did they know they would be victimized by yet another plague of violence. Many of the families live in run-down shacks with inadequate access to safe drinking water and sewage systems. Although rampant poverty, high unemployment and drug abuse still abound today, the drug wars have ended and peace has returned to the streets of Manrique. And in the last year, hope has emerged in this marginalized community, thanks to a local NGO called Poder Joven (Youth Power), which was founded by local university students in 2000 in another down-and-out area called Barrio Triste (Sad Neighborhood). After a few years of volunteering with the children on a regular basis as college students, the graduates decided to take their efforts to the next level by building a community center to provide sanctuary for the kids in order to teach them values, keep them in school and provide them with counseling, attention, hot meals and self-esteem. After spending time with the director, teachers, psychologist and social worker, I am very impressed with the project´s mission and the professionalism of the entire staff. The organization is very-efficiently run with an eye on the bottom line and stringent book-keeping. Most importantly, the project has recently increased its own sustainability by establishing a recycling business that already pays for all of their administration costs. After six years of success with their initial project, Poder Joven opened their second home last year, here in Manrique. Every day (half in the morning and half in the afternoon, as the kids only go to school for half a day in Colombian public schools), seventy kids enthusiastically arrive at the center, armed with schoolbooks and bright smiles. When I walked in for the first time and heard the joyous sound of children diligently tackling their homework, it was clear the results are already being felt. Seeing these effervescent children learning and playing, I couldn´t imagine being here one year ago, when these kids had nothing to occupy their time besides the temptations of the street. Now that I see the results, the alternative is too sad to consider.

Though Escobar is no longer around to recruit these kids, there are still many negative influences to battle, such as living in the streets, sniffing glue, prostitution and crime. The cocaine wars may have ceased, but there is still a battle being fought on the frontlines of Manrique, one child at a time. In order to combat these vices, the staff rely on their own weapons: affection, security, attention, nutritious food, fun and most importantly, self-esteem and hope for a better future. Before Poder Joven arrived, many parents here sent their children into the city center every day to sell sweets or beg for money. Since integrating these children into the educational system is the number one priority, school attendance is a prerequisite for every kid in the project. It is heartbreaking to hear eleven year-old Sandra tell me she is only in the second grade, but hey, better late than never. In addition to the activities, counseling and teaching, Poder Joven also provides each child with two meals a day, which lessons the economic burden on their parents, so they won´t rely on their kids´ meager incomes. Over eighty percent of the kids diagnosed with malnutrition before the project opened last year are already making marked imrpovements in health. Unfortunately, the $25 it costs to send their kid to school per year is often too much for these families to handle, which is an unfortunate reality in a community where the average household income is $63.

In order to address the dire situation these kids of Manrique face, I have donated $400 of the funds I have raised to Poder Joven, so that we can send 16 more kids to school for the upcoming school year. That´s 16 kids that won´t be sniffing glue out of plastic bags, begging for coins or sleeping on the street. That´s 16 kids that will have the nutritional intake they need in order to learn, grow and enjoy their childhood. That´s 16 kids that will go from the Power of the Gun to the Power of the Youth. Thanks to all of my financial backers that are helping us all win this battle on the streets of Medellin, Colombia. With time and more financial assistance, even more children will benefit from this project´s amazing work. It may be true that violence begets violence, but education, security and self-esteem can beget a whole lot more. Rise up children of Manrique – the future is yours!

26 June 2008

Rocinha: Rio’s Raw Reality

The tight alleyway wound its way through a labyrinth of concrete. Everywhere I looked narrow stairways led into dark caverns. My path dipped and veered, rose and fell, winding left, then right, up then down. Electrical wire hung haphazardly from low-hanging poles and the never-ending network of plastic water pipes all seemed to be interconnected. There was no method to the madness – it was a hilly conurbation completely devoid of urban planning. I felt like I was walking through a dream world, but my heart raced with a vigor that only imminent danger can bring, keeping me conscious of the reality at hand: I was walking through hostile territory under the cover of darkness. But somehow, this ethereal world captivated me, as though I was hiking through that optical illusion where all the stairs that go up somehow lead to the stairs going down, leaving the viewer trapped in a vicious visual circle. The sinuous path twisted under houses whose only space to expand was over the alley, creating a concrete tunnel and obscuring the sun, or in this case, the moonlight. Purely surreal. I continued climbing through this boundless three-dimensional maze and finally emerged onto a main street. I surfaced from the shadows and found myself face-to-face with an assault rifle. Its owner wore a flak jacket, loaded with an extra clip, but no uniform. He may be a soldier, but his army wears no badges. To quote Treasure of Sierra Madre, a famous film from the 40s, "Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!"
For those worried about my location, no, I am not describing Fallujah, though my environs are reminiscent of many Middle Eastern medinahs I have wandered aimlessly. The gun-wielding kid before me is not an insurgent, a freedom-fighter or a revolutionary. He is a drug-dealer. I met him, and many like him, in Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. With over 250,000 inhabitants, its Latin America’s largest shanty-town, though it is more of a city than a favela, as it has a thriving culture, running water and electricity. It also has a murder rate higher than many of the world’s war zones.
Most residents of Rio do everything in their power to steer clear of Rocinha and insist anyone that visits is risking their life. But I have friends that live here and since my immersive instincts have taught me to experience a place before I judge it, I decided to stay for a while. What I discovered is a surprisingly safe spot that offers an almost-addictive sense of adventure. No wonder thousands of Rocinha’s residents wouldn’t want to live anywhere else...
Last year when I was living in Rio, my first "visit" to Rocinha had been from the air when I hang-glided from a nearby mountain. As I soared with the sea hawks looking down upon the bustle of activity below, I took pride in the fact that I had overcome an irrational fear. Many desist from leaping off mountains for safety concerns, but my brave mother and I had made the jump. On this second visit, yes, there was a higher level of danger as Rocinha can be a perilous place. Last year, a war erupted with Vidigal, the neighboring favela; it was a bloody episode and many were killed. And yes, tensions are once again on the rise as the whiz of pistol and machine gun fire becomes more frequent. But for the most part, this is controlled violence, carried out by professional soldiers on virtual battlegrounds for purely business-related reasons. Everyday life in Rocinha is safe, which is unexpected considering the complete absence of police. As in most favelas, the police are distrusted and disliked; they only enter in SWAT teams when they want to apprehend (or more often, collect a bribe from) a high-ranking drug trafficker. It is the drug cartel that maintains order in the favela and though they rule with an iron fist, the petty crime rate here is lower than anywhere else in the city. Though the wrath of vigilante justice may be brutal and the "trials" short, people know that theft, rape and assault are punishable by beatings or death. It’s an irrevocable truth that keeps people in line.
Rocinha is a world of its own with a distinct culture. Many of the original inhabitants are nordestinos that arrived as early as the 60’s, fleeing the drought and poverty of the Northeast in order to search out work in Rio. Many, such as Marcelo, the proud grandfather that lives here with his huge family, have been here for three generations. Taking me to his rooftop to display his expansive view of the favela below, I sense his deep pride in Rocinha. Though most would never even visit, he refuses to leave. From his vista, he describes the geography of the favela, which is built on a huge hill overlooking some of Rio’s most wealthy neighborhoods. Down below, the bustle is greatest, as four-story apartment buildings have been built where the highway meets the favela. Looking up at night from the street below, where Rio melds into Rocinha, the favela glows with lights that resemble stars, as though its own universe, which isn’t too far from the truth…
My first day in Rocinha was a bit strange, as I felt like I was re-enacting the now-famous favela-based movie City Of God. Anyone will recall the opening scene with the knife being sharpened, while the doomed chicken ponders its impending fate. This was the exact scene as my friends and I had decided to create a feast of our own, our savage dinner preparations somehow mirroring our brutal surroundings. Later that evening, after the "sacrifice," we went to a party in a neighborhood called Laborario, which is perched on the hilltop where the favela spreads even higher above the city. Though blessed with breath-taking views of Rio (spread out like a satellite map below us), I felt like I was in a quaint mountain town, as we hiked through green mountainous trails complete with monkeys and mango trees. It was a steep half-hour hike from the bottom, but much more open and expansive than the cramped conditions down below. As we descended, my peaceful mood was shattered by gunfire. Since I was walking with residents, I watched their reaction for clues. No one displayed any concern, so I asked if those were fogueteiros, the child lookouts that fire off firecrackers to alert the drug kingpins of any incursion by the police or rival drug gangs.
"No, that was a Kaleshnikov," my friend calmly replied. "They’re firing down from the mountain between here and Vidigal. Not a big deal," I was assured. We continued down the narrow paths until we came to Estrada da Gavea, the main drag of Rocinha and immediately noticed that something was going down. A phalanx of men with submachine-guns and flak jackets paraded through the streets, as though they were guarding a president. Though the sight of these massive guns was a bit unsettling, I knew I was in no immediate danger. My presence meant nothing to these soldiers; I was just another face on the street. We continued down the street and came to a spot where more soldiers had congregated. They were communicating by walkie-talkie and had paused, as though awaiting orders. They resembled a unit of ground troops, but their surroundings were so commonplace (a hot-dog stand and a bar blasting music) that it was hard to imagine they were actually engaged in warfare. Right next to them, a man was selling wheels of farm cheese from the trunk of his car. Though most people that suddenly find themselves surrounded by such heavy artillery would run (or at least keep as quiet as possible), the cheese-seller didn’t even blink. He continued yelling his vending chant, "Quejo mineiro! Bom precio!" It was his cool demeanor and the lack of panic (or even worry) on the faces of those around me that made me realize that what looked like a dangerous situation was just a mundane moment of daily life.
When I left the favela the next day to take care of some business in Rio proper, I longed to return to Rocinha. Though some would call it recklessness, I felt myself drawn to something greater. Rocinha represents the rawness of real life. Its residents range from garbage-pickers to drug kingpins. In the days to come, I hung out with both. We sipped beer on the street, hung out with great-grandmothers and tiny babies and cruised from party to party, jumping on the back of motorcycles, dancing in sweaty clubs, eating greasy food and ogling at beautiful girls. Though I may write guidebooks, I find myself drawn to the places that don’t get mentioned. Call me the accidental tourist. My initial reaction may have been one of surrealism, as I wound through a maze of concrete and electrical wires, but getting to know the people and the mentality of the favela, I came to realize that Rocinha represents a reality few of us can fathom and incredibly, a reality I find hard to resist.

Water is the Gift of Life [Maasai Mara, Kenya]

Water is the gift of life. We hear that often - but ask anyone who has suffered months of drought and they will tell you, indeed, this truth is more powerful than we might ever imagine.

Every day we are bombarded with statistics about how many people in the world are experiencing certain hardships; twelve million are refugees, over a billion live below the poverty line and countless others are deprived of adequate health care. But without putting a face to the statistic, we often experience a sense of resignation in the face of such unsettling facts.

I used to feel that way about the water shortages plaguing so many people in the world. I had read about how nearly 450 million people in 29 countries currently face severe water shortages today and by 2025 (when the world’s population increases by another 3 billion), as much as two-thirds of the world population could be water-stressed. But here in America, homeowners water their lawns for hours at a time, fire hydrants spray plentiful water onto the street and people leave faucets running because they are too lazy to turn them off. Americans may know that somehow water is important, but many certainly don’t treat it as the most valuable natural resources in the world. I have witnessed the perils of water shortages on previous trips to Africa; once while hitch-hiking through the sun-baked country of Namibia, I was dropped off for the night at a river where I could purify some water and set up camp. I walked to the sign that promised Red Gorge River, but arrived to find a dry riverbed. Suddenly deprived of this precious water source and saddled with a dehydration headache, I empathized with those that face this daily struggle. While in graduate school, my interest in water issues continued, as I wrote a major research paper on the future prospect of water-related wars, an especially dangerous possibility in the Middle East and East Africa, but it wasn’t until I met Jonathan Shuraki Koshal, a Maasai warrior from Kenya, that this water emergency hit home and inspired me to make a difference.

Late last year, my mother heard a report on NPR about a Chicago woman who while on a safari in Kenya with her family, was taken to visit a local Maasai community. The horrid conditions of the public school, coupled with the existence of a wonderful nearby charter school, inspired her to create her own foundation, Matanya’s Hope, which aims to improve the educational opportunities for these Maasai children. My mother befriended the founder and upon my return to Chicago this spring, we all worked together to organize fundraisers and traditional dance performances for Jonathan the five other Maasai tribesmen who were coming to Chicago to publicize their cause.

Though tall, dark and lanky like his Maasai brethren, what sets Jonathan apart is his disarming smile and playful nature. The time I spent with Jonathan over the course of a month was wonderful; we visited the aquarium (much to his child-like fascination), listened to music (he was enamored with my reggae collection), went out for ice cream and cooked big dinners here at home (Mexican was his cuisine of choice). At one point, while the cooking their native chapati bread in our kitchen, he and his friends confided that they only make these breads on special occasions because they cannot afford the flour. Bread, our most basic staple, is saved for “special occasions” due to the cost of flour? It is moments like that when the desperation of these peoples’ living conditions really hits home.

The Maasai are an indigenous pastoral tribe from the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa who are trying desperately to hold on to their rich cultural heritage while guaranteeing their own survival. Though communal in nature, they have been forced to embrace a market economy, which has made them dependent on market forces often out of their control. But the single existential threat facing the Maasai today is the scarcity of water. As a semi-nomadic peoples, the Maasai always moved based on the availability of water; in addition to their personal needs, water is crucially important to maintain their cattle, the Maasai’s only treasured possession. But the English colonial government and the current Kenyan and Tanzanian governments have tried to settle the Maasai by introducing “group ranches” and individual ownership, which has disrupted their traditional water-based migration pattern. As Jonathan tells me, this has had disastrous implications. The Maasai, he explains, have always believed water to be a community resource, with access guaranteed regardless of social status. They have a strong conservation ethic, as everyone is responsible in keeping water clean and herdsmen traditionally move from one wetland to another to allow the land to recover. But recent modernization in Kenya has made the wetlands a prime location for large-scale commercial agriculture projects, which is pushing the Maasai off of their traditional lands onto more arid landscape. Being confined to smaller areas of land with their livestock leads to over-grazing and land erosion which in turn results in desertification. The results, in many cases, have been deadly. When the small communal lake that the Koshal family has been confined to dried up last year, they were forced to travel over twelve miles to fetch water. Needless to say, trekking such a long distance through desert-like conditions makes everyday survival a tough task. Jonathan himself nearly died of thirst last year and at one point, was forced to drink cow urine to stay alive.

Finding myself face-to-face with a friend who nearly succumbed to death by dehydration, I felt ashamed for all of the times I had used the expression, “Man, I am dying of thirst!” Then and there, I pledged two things: first, never to use that expression and second, to assure that Jonathan won’t either.

With the help of my donors, I have contributed 20,000 Kenyan Shillings (US $300) to build a family-size rainwater storage tank for the Koshal family. This tank will guarantee a steady water supply for Jonathan and his extended family, ensuring their survival through the upcoming dry season, as water becomes more and more scarce. I am planning a trip to Africa in the fall and while there, I will look for local NGOs that are finding sustainable ways of increasing the water access for those in need, but until then I aim to support Jonathan’s family and other families in the Maasai Mara that are faced with life-threatening water shortages. Once again, a profound thank you goes out to all of my donors from Jonathan, his family and mine.