26 January 2009
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.
17 January 2009
Here in Dogon country, a remote region of Mali in West Africa, after climbing a red rocky cliff and perching myself upon a 500 year-old cubical hut, I had an epiphany. As I watched the sun rise over the boundless plain below me, I felt like I could feel the sweep of history. After all, this is the terrain of the Dogon people, who over the course of the past millennium, have migrated, hidden and resisted slavery and religious conversion in order to preserve their rich cultural heritage. Fleeing from Islamic slave-raiders in the 18th century, they settled here along the face of the Bandiagara Escarpment, a massive red-rock cliff that marks the transition from high ground to plains. Originally settled by the Tellem, small hunters also known as “pygmies,” the cliff-face is still home to their ancient cubical dwellings. But despite its picturesque setting, life in this stark, dry land is quite difficult. Due to the constraints of limited land, low rainfall and increased population density, the Dogon people struggle for their own subsistence.
Fortunately, a few outsiders have helped the Dogon cause, starting with a French anthropologist that spent 25 years living amongst the Dogon, studying their rich cultural heritage and designing dams that have allowed them to develop the onion crop to supplement their subsistence. In recent years, a few of the larger Dogon villages have become popular with tourists, some of whom have started local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to help the Dogon’s health, agriculture and education; this is one of the positive examples of how responsible tourism can not only bring much-needed revenue to a stressed population, but also provide assistance to help improve the standard of living of this remote region’s inhabitants.
One of the biggest needs that must be addressed is the lack of educational resources. Due to their poverty and isolation the Dogon receive very minimal federal funding for their schools. In many villages, there is no government school at all, which forces local children to hike very long distances to receive a basic education. In some cases, community schools have been established, but as can be expected, such schools have very little in terms of funding and/or supplies.
On behalf of 100 Friends, I purchased $600 worth of desperately-needed school supplies to deliver to two remote villages here in Dogon country. Buying the schoolbooks in the closest city proved to be the easy part; the real challenge was transporting the boxes of supplies through the mountains and into the hands of the kids themselves. For three days, aided by a guide, a porter and a cow, I trekked this rugged terrain, visiting local markets, tribal dignitaries and ritual dances along the way. When the day’s trek was complete and the couscous with chewy chicken had been consumed, we slept under the stars while bracing the harmattan winds that blew sand into every crevice from the Sahara in the north.
We delivered half of the supplies to Begnimato, where a village elder, the headmaster and local teachers expressed their heartfelt thank yous, assuring me this contribution would definitely make a difference for these childrens’ education. As they told me, without the notebooks, pens, and miniature chalkboards the younger kids use to practice their writing, school lessons were confined to basic lectures, with teachers merely pointing to letters and words on the big chalkboard; starting today however, the students will be able to learn to write with their own two hands! For a writer such as myself, this is obviously a rewarding thought.
Upon arrival in the remote cliff top of Indelou, one of the most sacred animist Dogon villages, I was told the sad story about the German traveller who had heroically financed the construction of a school here, but was killed in a car accident on his way home. In order to carry forward his giving spirit, I decided to donate half of the notebooks, pens, chalkboards, etc. to the school, which though well-constructed, is practically empty of school supplies.
When the village chief, whose age can only be estimated to be around 85, blessed me for my efforts, I felt humbled in his presence, as he seemed to exude the wisdom of the ages. I conveyed my respect for his culture, particularly the importance placed on harmony, which is expressed in everything from the extremely-elaborate system of greetings to the architectural design of the toguna, the local “courthouse” where the men gather to settle local disputes; the low-hanging structure prevents angry outbursts, as anyone that stands suddenly will hit his head on the 3-foot high roof. (I only wish such a novel idea would be instituted elsewhere).
With all of our “advances” in the West, it is reassuring to witness firsthand a traditional culture that has struck such a fine balance between their environment and their daily lives. Sure, by our standards, the Dogon people are poor, but watching their masked dances weave through their villages, seeing kids trailing with big smiles and speaking to tribal leaders about their sacred animist rituals, I developed a deep respect for their cultural cohesion over the test of time.
As I look out on the sweeping plain below me, I think back to a simpler time, before the advent of the technologies we take for granted today. Perched here atop a mud brick house 200 feet up amidst the cliff, I bask in the knowledge that daily life here has continued nearly unchanged – talk about cultural continuity! Though their traditional culture persists, educational advances are imperative, as it has been shown how even an elementary education amongst African agriculturalists leads to more effective farming techniques, crop output and ultimately, family income. Surely, our investment in these two communities’ schools will help the Dogon people here improve their lives while retaining their rich cultural tradition, as it is an important piece of the globe’s cultural fabric, too valuable to be lost in the face of mono-culturation and lack of opportunity.
14 January 2009
How does a 14th century King of Mali relate to the modern plight of the handicapped people in this destitute West African country?
Sandiata Keita’s greatness was predicted before his birth when a witch-doctor prophesized that Sogolan (a particularly ugly princess) would beget the greatest king in the world. That prediction seemed pretty implausible when baby Soundiata was born with paralysis in both legs. Miraculously though, at the ripe age of nine, he gained the use of his legs and soon developed into a muscular hunter. Then, just five years after becoming ruler of his small Malinké state in 1230, the brave warrior confronted and vanquished his daunted foe, the leader of the huge vassal state that had oppressed his people for centuries. King Soundiata went on to unite an alliance of independent chiefdoms into the venerated Mali Empire, which would later grow into a sprawling kingdom with riches coming from caravan trade of gold and salt from Timbuktu and beyond.
Jump to 2009 – Mopti , Mali. As I stroll through the bustling Mopti market, weaving amongst balls of dried onions, baskets of dried fish and loads of bananas (see related video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTmlNVTtx2I), I see a physically-challenged (which I will refer to as handicapped as that is the accepted term here) man shuffling along the dirty streets, using his arms to pull himself around. Despite the uplifting story of Sandiata, the King of Kings, most handicapped people here in Mali cannot count on such a glorious transformation; most cannot even afford to eat one meal a day. Though I have seen the sight plenty of times throughout the developing world, it is always troubling to watch people shuffle around the city on their hands and knees. Walking next to them or standing above them, I appreciate every walking step I take, as whatever problems I may have pale in comparison.
Mali is ranked one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average annual income of $470. Scraping out a living is a challenge for nearly all of the country’s twelve million inhabitants, which is why nearly 75% of Malians live below the poverty line. Given these economic challenges, imagine the prospect faced by the country’s million-plus handicapped people. There are no anti-discriminatory laws here, no sidewalks and no government programs to provide them with social relief. They are literally left to fend for themselves.
Seeing these people struggling to dodge cars, motorbikes and goats on the chaotic city streets tugged at my heartstrings. Later, as I played with some kids in front of Mopti’s ornate mud-brick mosque, I met a man in a bicycle wheelchair, which is the only way these people can get through the hectic streets here. He told me about the Association for the Handicapped of Mopti which had changed his life. I searched out the AHM center and arrived to find two men sitting under the shade of a neem tree. I introduced myself and asked to speak to the director, at which point a man with two lame legs shuffled through the doorway, ushering me forward with a warm smile. To my surprise, he opened the door to the office, pulled himself up onto the chair and presented his hand to me, formally presenting himself as Mohamed Cisse, Director of AHM. Seeing him sit there with pride and stature, having witnessed his sudden transformation from relaxed mode to focused Director mode, I could not help but think back to King Soundiata.
Bara Tamboura, the President of ADHM and Mohamed Cisse are two of the local heroes I often rave about; these are the people that recognize a need in their community and then mobilize their forces and amass whatever resources they can in order to make a difference. They are my inspiration. The raison d’etre of the organization is to provide the handicapped people here with a means of generating their own income. The “Help Them Help Themselves” mantra is perfectly embodied here; as each of these man and women come here everyday to work diligently. Though they started from nothing, the association has evolved into a huge workshop where members make shoes, jewelry, belts, clothes, soap, etc. These products are then sold at the market with the proceeds split equally to all; this communal philosophy carries over into everyday interactions, as members feel a strong sense of community with each other.
“Before the association,” Asitsa, a matronly woman with colourful rich fabric and a deformed leg tells me, “I felt a lot of shame because of my condition, but since coming here I have overcome the complex and accept my fate as just another challenge to face.” Other members told me how important the remedial education classes are, as many of them were ostracized from their communities or had no means of getting to and from school as children. After confirming the credibility of ADHM with a US-based non-governmental organization that will begin working with them this year, I searched for the most effective way to help. After speaking with the Director, I learned that although there are over 200 members in the group, only 55 of them can make it to the center, as the others do not have the transportation (i.e. wheelchairs) to get there. I asked Bara to bring in some of the recipients in need of a wheelchair and later that day, once we were all seated on the ground, I explained the nature of my visit and announced that on behalf of 100 Friends and all of my wonderful donors, I would like to purchase two wheelchair bicycles and pay for the repairs of four others that lie in disrepair. Ear-to-ear smiles of unbridled joy erupted amongst all present. “You have no idea how much this will change my life,” Abdullah told me as he tried kissing my hand. I told him it is only through the generous donations of my friends in America and beyond (thanks to my first donation from Nawelle in France !) that allowed me to provide him his dream. He smiled as he said, “Well, tell them tanks for me - they have given me the biggest present of my life.” Enough said.
But I did not want to stop there, as these peoples’ perseverance to overcome their disabilities truly inspires me, so I did some research and discovered another way to positively affect these marginalized of the marginalized: by working with Trickle Up, a very highly-accredited US-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that delivers small grants to very poor micro-entrepreneurs around the world, with wonderful success here in Mali. It just so happens they assist the handicapped association of the nearby town of Sevaré , allowing individuals and entire families to rise from the lowest rungs of poverty. Each recipient receives business training to learn about entrepreneurship, marketing and balancing their books. Trickle Up’s local professionals then help them devise and develop business plans that will earn their families an income. Next, they are then provided with a seed capital grant of $100 to start their business. In the case of one gentleman I met, this money went towards buying the supplies needed to repair stereo equipment. For others, this seed grant can purchase a sewing machine. Trickle Up also introduces these micro-entrepreneurs to savings institutions to allow for sustainable growth and an emergency fund. With our $500 contribution towards the Sevaré Handicapped Organization (GPHA), 100 Friends will be sponsoring five new micro-entrepreneurs in their business ventures. That’s five families of handicapped people that will be able to earn a living and rise above the $1 a day income they have been sentenced to by their unfortunate condition.
Sure, the handicapped people we have helped here in Mali may not go on to become Kings, but meeting the directors of these two associations and seeing the industriousness of its members, it is obvious there is hope for a brighter future. Without your help, these people would be shuffling around on the streets begging for spare change, but today they are proud members of society, working hard and smiling the whole day through.
03 January 2009
Quest for Peace: Helping the Eager Youth of Sierra Leone Achieve a Brighter Future
“War and fighting will not solve our problems. We need to band together and make a change at the bottom!”
After meeting so many positive-thinking young people here in Sierra Leone, it has become obvious to me that if real change is to take place here, it must be targeted to the younger generation of this war-torn country.
Though the Sierra Leone’s civil war has been over for six years now, the culture of violence still manifests itself in many ways, especially amongst adolescents. Since many of the teens involved were once child soldiers, their traumatic experiences and violent instincts often manifest themselves without real provocation. Even high school sporting competitions these days are devolving into violent clashes, leaving many seriously wounded or even killed. The problem is there are not enough moderating voices to urge their cohorts not to settle such petty disagreements with rocks, broken bottles and knives. What are needed are ambassadors of peace that are familiar with the Gandhi’s ahimsa philosophy of non-violence.
Just as importantly, young citizens need to voice their opinions and become more involved in the political process, as one of the country’s most serious problems is the culture of political patronage: parliamentarians do anything to get elected, including making pay-offs and big promises, but once elected they cut themselves off from their constituents and direct their “governing efforts” towards delivering jobs, money and favors to their buddies. What is needed is a program that teaches promising students about the political process and encourages them to make their voices heard.
Seeking well-run local organizations that address these needs, I spoke with a Sierra Leonean economist working for the World Bank in Senegal and also met with Sierra Leone’s Minister of Development. Both referred me to CCYA (Council for the Coordination of Youth Activities) who train Peace Ambassadors that then go back to their schools, families and communities to carry forward the positive lessons they learn. This program has proven so effective that one of the young woman that went through this program spoke to the United Nations Security Council about their success.
I met with a few of these ambassadors, all of them high school students from rival high schools, sitting together and seeking ways to convince their colleagues to focus on real solutions to real problems affecting their lives, instead of fighting over one’s school affiliations. The older generation inflicted such widespread suffering upon the population here in the civil war that it is especially discouraging to see the young generation falling into the same senseless cycle of violence. That is why programs such as CCYA are so important. As these kids told me themselves, the country is wracked by so many profound problems, it is the young generation that need to band together to work towards a brighter future. Knowing the effective manner in which CCYA administer their financial resources and after meeting with the directors numerous times, I contributed $500 on behalf of 100 Friends in order to facilitate the training of ten more Peace Ambassadors. That’s ten more young voices that will be motivated to cause positive change here; ten teens that will preach the virtue of non-violence to their cohorts and ten ambassadors that will provide a positive role model to other kids to dream of a brighter future, for themselves and their country.
Meanwhile, I discovered an energetic group of young adults that have formed their own organization called AUCAYD (Artist United 4 Children and Youth development), which promotes a positive message to kids here through art, music and culture. The twenty volunteers are incredibly motivated and very well-organized (with the administrative support of the larger, more-established CCYA). Without ANY outside funding, they have managed to administer outreach projects in schools and hold weekly sessions to teach music, dance, graphic design and art to marginalized kids of Freetown. This jolly collection of souls are such a positive role model to the kids here, I decided to help promote their efforts by providing $500 (to be administered by a local friend of mine) towards buying supplies for their art and music classes and the production of a new song to promote the vision of peace they so successfully promote. With all of the problems affecting Sierra Leone, it is imperative that groups such as this can preach positive messages to these kids, urging them to stay in school, stay away from drugs and embrace non-violence. Only then can this country dream of a brighter future.
Thank you for your support – between these two projects and assisting the war amputees, I know 100 Friends has made a very positive impact here in this wonderful, though troubled country.