Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Make me an instrument of peace

For many years, I have hung the Prayer of St. Francis in a place where I can see it when I wake to remind myself that each day can begin with the intention of promoting kindness.

When I arrived in Pader, I knew little about the village outside of what history books and human rights reports shared about the brutal violence which occurred in the region: the dismemberment of bodies, the killing, the abduction of children. I came with no set plan of action, but with an open mind and a willingness to give of my time and skills.

After my first two weeks teaching at FRO’s rehabilitation center, I approached community leaders with an explanation of my prior experience in peace building work and asked about their perceptions of what is most needed to promote sustainable peace and development in Pader. Their answer was unanimous: work to educate our most vulnerable children.

In the days following, I tirelessly labored over (and might I admit, stressed about) a plan to educate 1500 primary school children identified by a coalition of international NGOs as the most vulnerable and war-affected. All of these children are fully or partially orphaned, many were abducted by the LRA, and most care for themselves and siblings. None could access education without the support of donors to cover the expense of school fees, uniforms, school materials, and a basic living allowance.

I learned that it costs $30/year to cover all of the expenses associated with a child’s school attendance in Uganda, less than I spend in one night of dinner and a movie back home. For less than $8,000 more/year, the entire program supporting 1500 children in 56 Northern Ugandan primary schools could be administered and have all operational costs covered.

After agreeing to find funding to support this program, I was greeted with another request: help bring peace education to schools in Northern Uganda. I jubilantly accepted this challenge after seeing how happily the Kids for Peace Peace Pledge was received. Over the next few months, I will work to support peace education beginning with the most local primary schools and eventually reaching several more remote schools in areas that once served as battlegrounds for the terror waged by the LRA.

The enormity of the challenges I am facing here are at times overwhelming. While I’m constantly hearing about new “causes” to support here and realizing that one person can only do so much, I know that even so, all people can begin the day with the intention of doing the most they can to foster peace and spread hope.

The Prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

The Faces of Youth

Here in Pader, I spend part of my time teaching at a vocational school operated by Friends of Orphans (FRO) for vulnerable youth. To be admitted to the center, a young person must be a formerly abducted youth (a child soldier or child bride of the LRA), a war orphan, disabled, an AIDS orphan, and/or a child-headed household. Many of my students qualify in more than one way, with the majority once belonging by will or force to the Lord’s Resistance Army.

I cannot picture a single soldier amongst the boys who are kind, courteous, and quick to help me in the classroom. The girls, many of whom leave at lunchtime to feed their children, seem like any other teenage girls, except more responsible and wise to the value and privilege of obtaining an education after having it denied to them for much of their lives.

The classroom can be a distracting place. Several times a day, chickens chase each other across the cement floors, squawking loudly; the wet season’s rains cause a deafening cacophony of sound as water tumults the metal roof, impeding instruction; and intermittent power means I often must teach in dim light, using my lively imagination to come up with adapted lesson plans.

I teach Computers, English and Debate to the vocational school students, and am shocked by some of the stories that surface in our storytelling practice. During free writing exercises, I provide students with simple prompts, like “Tell me about your weekend,” which often result in responses that leave me heart-wrenched for days to come.

One timid teenage girl shared that over the weekend, she was faced with deciding how best to support her 12-year old sister who was raped by a man in the village. My job as an English teacher—to correct the grammar of the stories shared in my class—suddenly seemed trivial as my humanity compelled me to inquire about the steps taken to ensure the health, counseling, and legal support of this young girl.

In the smiling faces of the students, I can tell how deeply they appreciate their educations, the security within the gates of the FRO rehabilitation center, and the healing they are able to experience here. In the furrows of their brows and serious, aged eyes, I am reminded of the cruelty these brave youth faced during wartime and continue to face as they struggle to survive in Pader.

Monday, October 24, 2011

“Same, Same, but Different:” Women, Men, and Rural Life

One of my favorite nights in Pader so far, Nighty invited me over for a soda. I am not normally a soda drinker, but with few sugary items available, I jumped at the chance to try a pineapple flavored Novida.

When I arrived, I was hurried into Nighty’s thatched-roof hut, away from the drinking men surrounding who always love my visits. Inside, Nighty had carefully swept her dirt floor and cleared her belongings to make room for three plastic chairs and a worn wooden stool. Her other guests awaited my arrival: her vivacious and opinionated 24 year-old sister named Alice, and her sister’s friend, Sange.

We spent the evening chatting and joking like childhood friends. Outside, Nighty’s customers drank and listened to spirited African music, and every now and then, the women and I would suspend our conversation to teach one another how we would dance to the beat. They laughed and laughed at my attempts at mimicking the tidal movement of their gyrating hips as they demonstrated the traditional dance of the region.

Of course, in a room of young women, the subject of conversation eventually turned to men. Did I have a man? What is dating like in the United States? Do I plan to meet the family of the man I have most recently dated?

I quickly learned that in Northern Uganda, a woman may be courted for as short as a few days or as long as a year before she introduces her suitor to her family for approval and marriage. I explained that I once dated a man for two and a half years, but decided not to marry him, and that I could reasonably date many men in my life for long periods of time before deciding I wanted to marry.

“Why do you think it will take such a long time?” Alice asked. “Western men are supposed to make very good husbands. Me, I am waiting for a Western man. White men know that an African woman will be very obedient and make a good wife, so they like us too.” The others all agreed, they were waiting for Western men to come to the village and ask for their hand in marriage, and even Nighty—the one with children among us—said that she would take up a Western man if she had the chance.

“Why do you like Western men so much?” I asked, amused by their interest in those I am quick to dismiss. I was expecting an answer involving money or looks, the superficial qualities that girls in the U.S. fawn over, but was surprised by their response. “One of the main causes of death for a woman here is beating. Sometimes, a woman is beaten badly, but there is no money for the hospital, so she dies at home. We have heard that Western men do not beat their wives. Also, we are told that they are not players and they do not drink as much.”

Humbled by their response, I agreed that it is not culturally acceptable for a man in America to hit a woman, but I shared that even some men in America do, that others can be “players,” and still others drink too much.

Sipping our pineapple bubbly, we allowed the conversation to return to lighter things, to dancing, travels, and what life is like back home.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Nighty, the businesswoman

“Miss, how are you? Where are you going?” a woman’s voice hollered in
accented English from afar. While men ask me this all day long, I was
surprised to hear a woman speaking to me.

Nighty is robust and young, with hair cut close to her head and a joyous presence. Her beaming smile and inviting voice drew me to the
side of her homestead, where she waited by her mud wall to talk to me.

After shaking her hand and introducing myself, Nighty proudly
proclaimed that she is a businesswoman. When I asked about her
business, I had a hard time following: something about transforming
liquids, placing things to dry, making mush. With the confusion
apparent on my face, Nighty welcomed me into her mud hut so that I
could see for myself.

Nighty’s small, circular hut serves as the sleeping place for herself,
her husband, and her three small children. Under the only bed, millet
is drying, and big vats of liquid in varying stages of murkiness take
up most of the rest of the ground space. The strong aroma solved the
mystery: Nighty makes alcohol, and the corral she built in front of
her hut—full of drunken men at 2pm—serves as a testament to her
business’s success.

Nighty says she is so happy to have a foreign friend now. She met one
woman from Canada some years back, and loves to admire the beauty of
foreigners. I told her that I think she is beautiful too, which she
responded to by inviting me to visit her during the evenings.

During my first evening visit, I brought her citrus fruit and beans,
which delighted her nearly as much as my headlamp pleased her
five-year old daughter. With my invitation to join for dinner and her
promise to help me practice Luo, Nighty and I are forming a bond that
I hope lasts for the duration of my stay in Pader.

Welcome to Pader

After a brief stay in Kampala, I began the long journey to Pader,
Northern Uganda. During the ten hour bus ride, I saw the land around
me transform from the semi-tropical and relatively prosperous south to
the increasingly dry, desolate, and poor north. At one point, an
Acholi mother with two young children sat beside me. Her oldest
daughter, roughly 3 years old, laughed and laughed every time she
looked at me. Occasionally, she’d reach out to touch my skin and then
let out a big belly laugh with her sparsely toothed, orange slice
smile, a sweet, innocent reaction to the unknown. Later in the day, I
encountered a younger boy, less than two years old, who looked at me
with a horror-struck countenance and then broke out into tears. I
preferred the little girl’s response.

Pader is one of the most remote regions of Uganda, and was hard hit by
twenty years of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) warfare which ended with
a peace agreement in 2008. During its heyday, the LRA abducted an
estimated 60,000 children who were forced to become soldiers and child
brides, and 1.5 million Northern Ugandans were herded into internally
displaced people (IDP) camps, living in notoriously abysmal conditions
for over a decade.

Today, Pader is a graveyard of NGOs, with locals telling ghost stories
of foreign humanitarians who passed through, leaving few remains of
the tens of millions of aid dollars spent here. While NGO buildings
and jeeps sprinkle the town and countryside, the liveliness of these
organizations departed and left in its wake a slew of empty
guesthouses and restaurants.

Food is scarce in this dusty and dry district, so World Food Programme
trucks pass by often, with Food for the Hungry, Mercy Corps, and
several others having some presence here. While many habitations
advertise restaurant services, most are seldom open, and those that
are offer only a small fraction of what is on their menu.

With the coming dry season, the availability of food and water will
become even rarer, introducing me to paucity like I have never before

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Buddhist Tour of Southeast Asia

This summary of my Southeast Asia tour originally appeared on the Global Basecamps Blog. Global Basecamps is a specialty travel company focused on sustainability. I appreciate their commitment to eco-friendly travel, and I appreciate their co-founder who is on the board of Kids for Peace! Thank you to Global Basecamps for posting my blog entries and for generously contributing to my travel experience.

After four years of hard work completing my undergraduate degrees, I decided to treat myself to a trip I had dreamed about since my youth. Southeast Asia enticed me with images of orange clad monks, golden Buddha statues, and seemingly endless rice paddies. With the highest proportion of practicing Buddhists on the planet, I went to experience peace: to meditate in temples, contemplate beauty from the peaks of Laotian mountains, learn and connect.

One month of travel took me to the magnificent temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia, rural villages of Northern Laos, and tranquil beaches of Koh Samui, Thailand. As part of my personal mandate to experience the fullness of life, I sought not only experiences that foster peace and joy, but those that could teach me about human suffering—the key component of the Four Nobel Truths that form the basis of religious practice and culture for much of the region. I designed a trip that would go beyond touring the temples and art I admired and delve into the depths of the human experience, embracing too the suffering true of our existence.

In Siem Reap, Cambodia, I admired some of the most beautiful artistic expressions created by humankind. With monsoonal rains drumming against the forests’ canopies, I explored the temples of Angkor in surreal solitude, dancing to the natural rhythms of the forest and admiring the awe-inspiring reliefs and architecture that idealize the harmony of Buddhism and illustrative lives of Hindu deities.

I left the magnificent temples to visit the Cambodian Landmine Museum and Rescue Center where children who have lost limbs receive an education and care. I learned about how millions of undetonated devices left from the Vietnam War continue to jeopardize the security of rural Cambodians and Lao. In the faces of these smiling children, I saw the cruelty of war firsthand, the injustice that affects civilians long after fighting ceases.

Along with gorgeous temples and bustling markets, I visited the killing fields and prisons of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia where I learned about some of the most heinous acts one human could do to another. I asked questions of victims of forced migration and heard stories of starvation and struggle for survival.

In the villages of northern Laos, I trekked through beautiful rice paddies, participated in a Buddhist festival to honor the departed, gave alms, and enjoyed the slow pace of rural life. On one trek, I explored the dim caves of Muang Ngoi where villagers lived for twelve years while their country fought a civil war and Americans relentlessly bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I listened to adults who were born in the caves and who lost family members to disease when it was too unsafe to seek outside medical attention.

Along with some dark moments, my trip was blessed with periods of unparalleled bliss. One day, I bicycled 70km in the sunshine through the countryside of Luang Prabang, Laos to swim in pools at the base of massive waterfalls. I took a day-long cooking course in Chiang Mai, Thailand that introduced me to the epicurean concepts behind my love of Thai food. I was treated to a divine Thai massage at one of the most internationally praised spas in Koh Samui, Thailand, and swam with tropical fish during a daylong snorkeling excursion off of the deserted Koh Tao Island. Many days of morning meditation in inspiring Buddhist temples left me with a feeling of harmonious emptiness and a constant smile that I carried with me throughout my days.

From my willingness to explore suffering and bear witness to the affects of violence, I was able to connect with those I met and deepen my understanding of the human experience. Through tears and smiles, laughter and joy, I glimpsed the expanse of life: the struggles that no one deserves but some must endure as well as the pleasures small and large that help sustain us. In an extraordinary trip that took me out of the comforts of the Middle Path, I experienced the extremes of beauty, happiness, and suffering in Southeast Asia, learning more about life in one month than in many of my years past.

Pursuing Pleasure in Thailand

On one of the last days of my Southeast Asia tour, I picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love from a used bookstore and realized that Elizabeth and I were on the same trip. Sure there are some notable differences: the autobiography’s author had suffered a horrible divorce prompting her to visit three I’s—Italy, India, and Indonesia—with the goals of pursuing pleasure, devotion and balance. I had no such explicit goal at the outset of my trip, but here I was, lying on a sun-kissed beach in Koh Samui, Thailand, reading my book, sipping a Mai Tai, and…pursuing pleasure.

Compared to my recent travels, Thailand was as a beacon of fun, frivolity, and pampering.

Italy called to Elizabeth with its rich pastas and full-bodied wines, and Thailand’s famous peppers and spices beckoned my epicurean sensibilities. A proper visit to Thailand includes a good amount of eating, as every local tropical fruit, each variety of curry, and the many takes on the fried noodle must be sampled. I wanted to perfect the art of eating these delights and also to take a skill home as a souvenir, so a friend and I enrolled in a day-long Thai cooking course.

At Baan Thai, we learned how to make homemade coconut milk, to mash our own spices for curry with a mortar and pestle, and to time the dropping of spring rolls into hot oil perfectly so as to ensure a crisp exterior and delicate finish. Even better, we developed the skill of eating for seven hours straight as each of our five courses needed tasting. And by tasting, I mean to say that we ate them in full—sometimes with a Chang beer—and always with a chili-filled smile of self satisfaction and flavor-induced delight.

A thorough visit to Thailand also includes a sampling of Thai spa culture. The famous Thai massage (which at times feels more like a Thai boxing match in which the organizers forgot to give the massage recipient a pair of gloves) is certainly a beating worth taking at $5-$10 per hour. Thai are experts in making the body feel and look fresh, with beauty salons and massage parlors as plentiful in Bangkok as temples in Laos.

Without a doubt, a highlight of my visit was an amazing stay in Koh Samui at Zazen Boutique Resort, a gift from my friends at Global Basecamps. The resorts of Koh Samui had come highly recommended, but my traveling buddy and I had no idea what service would greet us as we entered our honeymoon suite beach bungalow. The rose pedals on the bed and in the tub meant we began our stay with a big belly laugh, and the weekend of beach lounging, five star dining, speed boat rides, Thai dancing, and snorkeling kept the smiles permanently painted on our faces.

Thailand may be a land dedicated to what looks and feels good, but that didn’t keep me from visiting temples and experiencing some hearty, pleasure-avoiding meditation.

The glistening gold of Thai temples pierces the eye like a blinding, alkali-filled jewelry box. While the exterior shouts so loudly that the Buddhist message is at times unheard, the silence within and the gentle smells of incense could transport the practitioner to the interior of a temple anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

After visiting many of the impressive temples of Bangkok, my temple tour of Southeast Asia was officially complete. I left the memories of physical struggle behind with my Lao woven hat, said goodbye for now to Thai Basil and sent my last postcards off to friends and family back home. In one month, I had pursued pleasure in Thailand, learning throughout Southeast Asia, and meaningful connection with everyone I met.