Monday, November 30, 2015

Thirteen Short Conversations About Nothing

Hastily assembled, somewhat plagiarized, poorly constructed........

1) On being liberal or conservative - I am fortunate to have been formed by conservatives and forgiven by liberals. Embarrassed to vote Democrat, ashamed to vote Republican.
2) On being Catholic once (sort of) - I remember fighting with priests as a boy, convincing myself I was an atheist. Later, after meeting Father Bill Talentino in Virginia who was doing social just work, and a dozen or so other priests working in poor missions in third world countries, I lamented my diversion from spirituality and began to build the real foundation of my faith. I am not Catholic, but I am connected.
3) On leadership - It is all about the separation of my ego. Divorcing what is in my interest from that which benefits others, then leveraging the residual grit, stubbornness, and courage to fight the right battles. 
4) On friends - Few and far between, forever forgiven, forever familiar.
5) On alcohol and drugs - The epitome of our collective selfishness. The distillation of evil deemed disease to ease our guilt and to look past crime, child abuse, and despair. 
6) On change - There are two kinds of new people who "cause" trouble in a system: Those who bring it in and those who expose it once they arrive. 
7) On wisdom - The ability to recognize the value in things.
8) On serendipity - Like looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer's daughter (Penthouse Magazine, circa 1970's).
9) On Misters Rauner and Trump - Bullies and sissy boys.
10) On Hillary Clinton - I once thought the evil press only published pictures of her frowning. Now I don't think I like that which lies underneath the frown.
11) On honesty - Too often confused with solipsistic convenience.
12) On aging - Ear hair grows faster than my IRA; I wake up with pains with no recollected attributable causes; I care far less for money and I find less things I want to waste said money on; and the notion of passing away before I change the world scares the heck out of me.
13) On love - I pray for reincarnation.............

Friday, November 20, 2015

Indiana Does Admit Refugees!

Indiana does admit refugees!

I have been bemused and saddened by the reactions I have seen to the Syrian refugee problem. Most of you will know my feelings on the subject as I have worked with refugees, orphans, and at-risk students for thirty years now. I was doubly distressed though, when I learned that my “home” state of Indiana weighed in on the wrong side of the human equation. Distressed because I too was a refugee of sorts, and Indiana was my refuge.

Forty-one years ago, my family moved from Michigan to Indiana when I was in the tenth grade. I had been born there, but had never lived in the state for any significant time. As a matter of fact, I had never lived anywhere for any significant period of time. We moved to Garrett in July of 1974 – it was my sixteenth school and my step father’s 37th second chance. I am sure if they knew what was coming, many of the townspeople would not have left out the welcome mat – but most importantly, many still would have.

I lived in Garret for two years and began to hope against reason that I would graduate there and make a life in Northeast Indiana. Fate had other plans, as my step-father showed up one day with a Uhaul in November, 1976 and moved us overnight to Oklahoma. I was crushed but without options. I have detailed before how I worked and saved for a month then hitchhiked back to Garrett to finish high school. In order to do so, my best friend, Jeff, and his family, had to agree to take temporary custody of me. They did so without hesitation. So once again, Indiana had opened its doors to someone who many might have considered undesirable.

A month or so into my stay, I got into trouble with the police and was arrested for underaged drinking. My hosts were justifiably upset and ready to ship me back to Oklahoma. When they talked to my mother, she begged them to let me stay as she firmly believed my step-father and I would kill each other if I moved back. Being the good Christians they are, they gave me my first second chance and I am here today because of it. They could have easily denied the first request and even more sensibly ended the experiment the first time I screwed up. They didn’t, and I changed.

I like to think that the kindness they showed me, and the kindness I had always experienced in that little forgotten town taught me about humanity. I would also like to think that I have paid them back in my own way in other forgotten places around the world. A refugee can be a lot of things, and no one was as lost or at risk as was I forty something years ago. A group of people with no overt moral obligation lived their faith and touched me with their grace. I am living proof of that sort of investment.  And by the way, Indiana is not my home state because I was born there - It is my home state because I was redeemed there.

I, for one, will never forget my fellow human beings no matter their condition or disposition. I can’t afford to even if I wanted to – I owe too many people too much yet.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Apples And Rotten Oranges

I was a bit dismayed today (although not surprised) when I read a Facebook post suggesting the U.S. not consider accepting any Muslim refugees. It did bring a wry smile to my face for many reasons, including but not limited to:
  1. What would Jesus (pbuh) do? What would Thomas Jefferson do? Did they miss the whole religious freedom thing?
  2. Do the posters of these things ever think they will be hosting or put out by a refugee?
  3. Does trick or treating for UNICEF once upon a time satisfy their global philanthropic responsibilities?
  4. Do they think that Muslims discriminate in the same way they wish to?
  5. Are these people who post this stuff about the greatness of America really think they have contributed to this perceived greatness? For example, most people I know who have seen real military action, or who have been in war zones, realize just how many innocent people are carried away by political issues, and would not callously toss away their welfare. 
For the sake of brevity, my blood pressure, and somehow connecting the title of this blog to its content, I will address the fourth question listed above. My supposition here is that these people have perceptions of Muslims that are negative and wish to reciprocate in kind. No thought then of the fourth grade when they were to have learned that actions were right or wrong regardless of who displayed them or who got away with them. In other words, a Christian reciprocates a Muslim's behavior, regardless of the virtue of the act or the rarity thereof. If they believe Muslims don't offer charity to non-Muslims, then they as Christians do not offer charity to Muslims. The critical question becomes "who is defining their Christian faith?" These folks are taking a wretched minority of Muslims and justifying their actions in reciprocation. Rotten oranges to rotten oranges.

I lived and worked in a Muslim refugee camp for two years. I have worked for five more years in refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa. In all cases, there were no prohibitions on who was granted sanctuary other than genuine need and desperation. It is hard to know how to penetrate such ignorance, especially when they get messages in their own redneck genres - I am referring to the movie Lone Survivor, where the American protagonist is saved by a Muslim community that is honor bound to protect strangers, no matter what faith or creed. None of these people who post these abhorrent ideas have spent much time with Muslims (I suspect strongly), for the thousands of Muslim folks I have interacted with all over the world aren't as intolerant as these Facebook fascists.

Finally, it is interesting that the internet hasn't broadened our knowledge or opened our horizons - it has instead shrunk the world, uniting various knuckleheads giving them an artificially inflated sense of community. Maybe it is time to get our of our garages, basements, and parent's houses and see how the world actually works.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

It Was, You And I Aren't, Great

I am referring, of course, to  America. America was great, by and large, but for what I am no longer sure. Whatever it is now, it isn't what it was and will soon be far less. This loss of "greatness" is due primarily to the fact that too many of us think we are great because the nation was. We think we are somehow responsible for our own heritage, bringing new definition to the term "backwards." The moment we forgot to earn our greatness on a daily basis was the moment ignorance and sloth overcame ingenuity and industry. Few folks work much harder than I, or have served their country much more assiduously (with startling exceptions however). Speaking for them and for myself, I believe most of us would contend that the debt we owe is never paid. The work, the sacrifice, and opportunity costs purchase the trivial things that center so prominently in other's esteem. The minute our displaced identities turn to sports, guns, alcohol, drugs, gossip, pornography, patriotism, and politics for primary sustenance, we chip away at the foundation of our inheritance. When we close our eyes to the collateral damage our obsessions wreak on the rest of the world, we cheapen the very things we praise in our history. We are feeding off of a long dead carcass. You are not great. I am not great. A nation that maintains itself and betters the world around it is. Imagine a country that isn't full of second-hand greatness. Imagine a presidential campaign therein. Imagine a country endeavoring to be great again, but not through the convoluted revisionist notions of selfish people. Instead, though the eyes of a people longing to create a country and a world that is great for all, and something that their children can be proud of. 

Friday, October 2, 2015


I am saddened by the events today in Oregon, and angered by the politicians rushing to respond who will disassociate the need for gun control and this incident by next week. I suppose gun supporters will tell us that if we all carry guns, this couldn't happen. We are a country then that needs to have instruments of death everywhere - schools, churches, community centers - and that would be a healthy thing. I think Americans watched too many westerns growing up, romanticizing gun wearing. The bottom line is that a lot of selfish people want to have the right to collect weapons and will make any sort of bizarre justification to do so. I wonder what happens when they come face to face with the victims of these crimes. I guess it does make sense that guns are so sacred here; we have been at war since we were created. I can think of no other country with this sort of violent heritage. Honestly, I really don't know what to think anymore.......

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Music has always been a curious friend. And as with my other friends, there have been long lapses in my association with  it. I first remember turning to music at the age of 12 or so, as I suppose many do. I got my thirteen albums for a penny from Columbia records and found temporary refuge in my bedroom from the madness around me. I had eclectic tastes before I knew what eclectic meant or that "musical taste" would be something that would nearly spoil the medium for me years later. I was free then to like what I liked and to indulge in pure musical pleasure before the hipsters introduced the guilt.

Looking back now, I find it very curious that I related to and embraced heartbreak songs long before I ever learned to love (subject to debate). How can you feel pain you never earned? I know it wasn't a portent or even the seeds of a self-fulfilling prophecy, but those lonely melodies rattled around inside me comfortably as if I had shot straight to the fifth stage of grief without passing go. It wasn't sick, but it couldn't have been healthy.

There were other connections though, some intellectual and some spiritual. The Vietnam War was ending and there were songs that inspired or accelerated a region of my conscience that fuels my limited ethics to this day. I learned to consider sacrifice, injustice, and cruelty two and half minutes at a time. Music also helped me try to connect to the world around me, not just with like minded fans, but to ideas and the artifacts of generational heritage that had skipped a beat in my family. Jesus Christ Superstar energized me to look past the pedantic filters of faith and religion that had turned me off so completely from the Catholic church. For the first time I came to embrace my doubt and shame as part of my humanity and a portal to my God.

Later in my teenage years, adrenaline and decibels displaced lyrics and intellectual passion and I didn't mind. Feeling music without a particular emotional attachment is oddly cathartic to me even now. It is hard to go back and relive my first moments with a song or artist, not remembering it in a context free of the memories that followed and envelop it now. It is so rare for me to find new music that I like, perhaps because I prefer the aggregated pain and nostalgia that have barnacled those old tunes. There are the occasional exceptions though, and I am thankful for them.

Nearly a dozen years ago, I discovered a new artist (new to me anyway) while watching a terrible but fun horror flick. The movie was a period piece, if you are allowed yet to call a 1970's flick a period piece, and the soundtrack was from the same era. I heard a beautiful and haunting song that could have been sung by a man or woman, I couldn't tell. I waited patiently for the movie to end and watched the credits carefully. The song was by Terry Reid, and I hadn't yet realized that it was an old song. After a quick google search, I learned about his career and the album that contained the song that had enthralled me. I was in London at the time and Terry was a British artist - after a quick trip down to Virgin Records the next day, I came home with the CD. I loved every track. If you don't know his story, by the way, it is an interesting one. Google it :)

The tune is Seed of Memory and I have put a link to it below. The song is connected to my London experience and my friends there, but it has become so much more for me. When I listen to it, it echoes inside me displacing an emptiness, ricocheting between the pain and pleasures of lost love and middle aged foolishness. The reanimation is a welcome ritual that leaves me smiling and grateful for the ability to feel again. Music should be like that - haunting, forgiving, and friendly........

Friday, September 11, 2015


All nights are not created equal. Some are far more lonely than others.


Pelagie was my lifeline at the UNHCR camp in Zongo!  She was in charge of many practical administrative details, and of me while I was there. She took care of my lodging, meals, laundry, and all the crazy requests I had for work and gifts. She is a great organizer and very patient. Though I am not sure she understood the word patient before my arrival there :)
Pelagie is a very friendly and kind woman. She is also very intelligent and has a great sense of humor. She can be tough too, in that very appropriate African woman way. I saw her flash a bit of irritation here and there (completely warranted), but behind it was that quick smile and laugh that let you know things are fine but there are expectations. She never was firm with me, most likely as I was so lost on most things. She is highly respected there and knows her job well.
I liked to tease Pelagie and she took it wonderfully. One of my habits there was to name trees - most of my African friends didn't really get it at first, particularly when I named the tree below the "Pelagie Tree."  They would look at me strangely until I did the near figure eight gesture with my hands mimicking the female form. At that moment, they would burst out laughing, knowing they could go back and tease her about it (from a safe distance of course). She took it wonderfully and it was a few weeks before I had the courage to show her a picture of the tree. She smiled at me and I knew I was catching a break and getting away with a bit.
I am so fortunate when I travel to have wonderful people that take care of me so well that I can focus entirely on my job. Pelagie was that person who watched over me for two months this summer in Africa. She did a wonderful job.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Yahya was my primary driver this summer. He did an excellent job and became a good friend. We spent a great deal of time together in that Landcruiser - on average about 35 hours a week to and fro. He made the almost unbearable passage bearable, and helped me learn many of the nuances of the place much faster than if I had been alone. Yahya is an honorable young man and it was a great honor to spend the summer with him.

Yahya is from Zongo, the village I stayed in. He is a Muslim and that was a nice connection between us. He also has a great sense of humor, which probably helped him survive me and that dreaded road. We joked and laughed a great deal, and I never saw him angry nor did I see him ignore or mistreat anyone. This is an important note, as refugees are in a very precarious situation and they way they are treated by support staff can make all the difference. Yahya understands this and is a great ambassador. He quickly became involved in many of the classes and meetings we had, far and above his basic duties as a driver.
I was pleasantly surprised by the interest Yahya had in developing his English. We had ample time to do so on those long rides and he was a very quick learner. As I have mentioned in other posts, our favorite English expression became "pigs in puddles." Yahya is a very loyal man - he loves his family, his job, and the people he works with. I had the great fortune of meeting his family, Hawa and Fatima (below) and seeing the house he is building for them. We even ran into his parents out on the road one day. Beautiful family.
I miss my daily commute with Yahya and our frequent stops to change currency, buy farm tools, charge camera batteries, and drink cold orange sodas. Yahya hopes to visit the states one day, and of course, Chicago should be his first stop!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Bryce and Samson

Bryce and Samson
Bryce (right) and Samson (left) where the two people who made my whole summer trip possible. Bryce is the Senior English Language Fellow who created the proposal for the project, and Samson is his man Friday. They got me off to a great start, supported me throughout, and helped me wrap everything up. This picture is from my first night in country at a goat bar.
Bryce had the remarkable vision to create this program. When I interviewed with him on the phone for the position, it was like I was talking to my own dream. He chuckled and told me he really designed it for himself if he would have been available.  Bryce is a level headed guy who cares deeply about what he does and the people he serves. After our initial discussion, he gave me a good deal of leeway in the design of the interventions, and things worked out very well. He had visited the camp earlier in the year to help set up a library. In doing so, he recognized the great potential of the folks there to help build their own English programs. Armed with that assurance, he submitted a very innovative and unique proposal to send an English Specialist into the camp to work at the ground level - this had never been done before. By the time we were done, he had written a white paper to present to the State Department to replicate the program elsewhere. On top of this, Bryce does a great job with the Congo-American Language Institute in Kinshasa that supports programs throughout the country. It was an honor to work with him.
To Bryce's left is Samson, a former student who is now his assistant. From the moment I met Samson, I realized he was one of the most kind and genuine people I was likely to encounter anywhere. Samson is also very diligent and conscientious - I could never imagine him having a bad word to say about anyone. His English is quiet excellent, although he probably doesn't think so. Samson was my tour guide during a few hectic shopping days and he took very good care of me. I remember telling him something about the DRC that made him very happy and sentimental, prompting him to say "I am so proud that my country does that." I realized then that I would never think of patriotism the same way again - he didn't thump his chest or loudly extoll, he was just simply touched and pleased. I will remember his gentleness, hopefully when I need to. I could never be as kind and accepting as Samson, but maybe I can lean a little more his way :)
I was so blessed to be included in this project and to have met and worked with these two men. They will never know how much this summer recharged my batteries or how proud I am of our collaboration.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Pink Backpacks

No, I don't have a pink backpack, but it has been brought to my attention that I now own a hot pink vacuum cleaner (long story, another day).  Yesterday, I was tested by an ancient promise and a simple gesture made several years ago. The challenge came in the form of a small child's bag purchased a lifetime ago for a little girl who liked the color pink. Another little girl has it now, a girl I could have never imagined or even accepted the day I picked the backpack off the rack at a college bookstore. Funny, how the word unconditionally brings conditions. That promise was made unconditionally, and the conditions came calling in the middle of the night.
I am smiling now though, not at the purposeful ambiguity of this post, but at the realization that I have made good on that promise of love and support made so long ago. I became aware of a new reality last night that neither saddened nor hurt me - a reality I have no place in yet offers me an inside glimpse that makes me smile. Maybe I am a better man now, maybe I have lost some of my selfishness and ego. What once would have been painful, even unbearable is now warm and comforting.
Some journeys lead you to places with no gratitude or growth. You focus only on the pain of the process which diminishes the destination. Transformations, I think, are different. You fight, suffer, struggle then arrive at a beautiful place that makes the past a slight shadow of irrelevance, a fading facade. There is no way I could have contemplated this feeling I have now when I first offered the promise. It didn't lead to the place I hoped and prayed for. It lead me to a different place, one of a solid sense of happiness and positive regard. Two simple concepts for most I suppose; but things that had always been transient in my life.
A small, little backpack has shown me I have grown as a man and a caring person. Funny thing :)

Thursday, August 27, 2015



Levy is by far the greatest musician I know! He is very talented - playing many instruments, writing songs, and adapting others to multiple languages. Most importantly, he is an artist who shares his love and enthusiasm for music with others.

Levy was our "sixth man" always near to help in any way possible. He is very cheerful and his optimism is contagious. Levy is also a very dedicated teacher. He spent countless hours working with the children in the camp helping them learn numerous songs in English and Sango. I was amazed how many other children would watch then go off and practice the songs on their own in small groups. When Levy and the kids performed for the MVCC staff on our Skype call, they stole the show.

I hope we can find some instruments to send to the camp so that Levy can continue his mission. Having music education in the camp is such a luxury, that it would be a shame not to make sure it continues. Levy will do his part - I hope we can do ours!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Saint Fort

Saint Fort
Saint Fort takes care of the Primary School Program in the Mole Camp. He recruits and trains student leaders who then teach other children. He has also developed support programs for blind students, the army personnel in the camp, and other special groups. He truly is a man without energy boundaries!
Saint Fort reminds me of me often. He will perpetually be just on the outside of things looking in. It's not that he doesn't fit in, it's that he doesn't want to probably. He works very hard and has a strong ethical mindset. This can make him a godsend when you need him and a pain in the rear end when you don't. He is single-minded when he works and definitely a man of his word. The program we developed would not have grown at a quarter of the speed it did without him.
The picture above is a favorite of mine - Saint Fort is telling his students he is blind so they have to describe things in more detail. He is a very good, intuitive teacher. Saint Fort understood the notions of praise and encouragement long before I showed up at the camp. He is a champion of social justice and always on the lookout for the underdog. Like Teddy and Juliette, his English is outstanding and he did the lion's share of interpreting for me.
My trip was successful because of a few people like Saint Fort. He really took the reigns of the Primary School Program and made it his own. I marvel at his energy and compassion. He is a good man to have in your corner!

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Scholastique is a very busy woman. She teachers in the primary school, helps out with the primary English program, and has taken charge of the Girls Empowerment Club. She is a very quiet and motivated teacher who will do anything for anyone. When I asked her how she got her name (my favorite by the way) she told me that her father thought she was intelligent and it would be a good name for her. I agree!
Scholastique is very circumspect and cautious before committing herself to projects. But once she does, she does so wholeheartedly. Her English isn't quite at the same level as the other leaders, but she works just as hard and is very involved in all levels. She has come a long way in her life, and I suspect she will go a great deal further. Married with two children at an early age, she got her education and became a teacher and a principal in the Central African Republic. Quite an achievement for a woman in that environment.
I like to tease Scholastique because she is so earnest. Inevitably though, she takes it in stride and smiles knowingly. Scholastique describes herself as gentle and kind, and I think she is right on the mark. I couldn't think of a better role model for the Girls Empowerment Club. I smile each time I think about the activities they are involved in and wait anxiously for the pictures. Scholastique is like a second mother to those girls, and they are in great hands.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015



This is Juliet, the Vice-President of the English Club at the Mole camp. Juliette is also the supervisor of the camp's nursery school, a job she does very well. She is very serious but has a wry sense of humor. I also think she is a bit mischievous, but she would deny it. She has a gleam in her eye that lets you know you aren't in complete control of everything you think. She observes intently and is always thinking. 

Juliet worked very hard as we explored various teaching styles and philosophies. She was very open and experimented easily. Like Teddy and Saint Fort, her English was far, far better than she could imagine. As a matter of fact, I have never met an American whose second language was as good as theirs who wasn't raised overseas. She speaks French, Sango, and English fluently. A very bright woman indeed.

Juliet was at the core of the leadership team and she eagerly accepted many roles in the projects we developed. She helped with the primary school program, created the girls empowerment club with Scholastique, and informally banded the women and mothers together to include them in classes and activities. As the Jamaicans would say, she is like coconut milk (in everything).

Juliet is very passionate and  the circumstances and consequences of the camp overwhelm her at times, and she struggles to navigate the complex politics involved. But she does, and she prevails when it counts. She is a great teacher, mother, wife, friend, and advocate. I was honored to be able to work with her. 

Monday, August 17, 2015


I am doing a series of posts on some of the folks in the DRC who really stepped up and helped me compete the projects we did this summer. They are a wonderful group, and I am glad I now have the time to introduce some of them to you.
Teddy is the president of the Mole/Moraine Valley English Club. He was one of the first persons I met in the camp and eventually became my number one nemesis on the basketball court. He is a great leader who inspires his team. Teddy also is very motivated to continue to learn and grow as a professional while continuing his service to others. The work we accomplished in the camp this summer would not have happened without his leadership.
Teddy wants to be a mortician - I am not sure how someone develops the interest in mortuary science, but I am sure he would be great at it. I am constantly surprised at the range of goals and dreams I encounter in places like this refugee camp - people are people and will continue to improve themselves no matter how far the journey. He is very intelligent and works extremely hard on his English skills. He has that rare combination of vision and attention to detail that will take him far in life.
I was very happy to know that I would be leaving the fate of our summer programs in Teddy's hands and those of his team. Sustainability is large issue in the development field, and often programs fail at that critical juncture. I have every confidence that Teddy will not let that happen, given that he has adopted a very familiar motto for his club:
Consistency, Follow-Through, Will Power
Teddy's only down fall is his over inflated sense of his basketball abilities, more specifically, his trash talking acumen. We are working on it though.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

More Pet Peeves

My pet peeve list changes as I age. I have chronicled a few in the past ( and I have a new crop now. It is not by accident that I associate these things with hipsters, not quite sure if it is the chicken or the egg white omelet. I would like to think my general patience level has slowly risen over the years, but there are still a few things I just cannot seem to accommodate or evolve to. Here are a few more:

I suppose I just object to the word itself - it is sarcasm and a special sort of degradation and mocking that has been anointed grown up status. I don't mind an argument or scrap now and then, but this medium is pedantic and its wielders suck up a little too much self gratification for me to appreciate the action. Action, by the way, that is unidirectional from a safe, cowardly distance. Most confounding, however, is that there are entire movies, magazines, and online sites that are purely dedicated to this obnoxiously cloaked criticism. Sarcasm is effective sometimes simply because it comes out of the blue and, if administered properly, must be constructed to give its recipient pause, not immediately discernible from sincerity. So no, I never cared for National Lampoon, the Airplane movies, the second half of Leslie Nielsen's career, the Onion, Stephen Colbert, and so on. If the aim of intelligence is ugliness, evolution is no bargain.

Cartoons and Comic Books
I should have paid more attention to those kids years ago absorbed in cartoons and comic books. I suppose they were nerds, but we did not have the word then (Sapir-Whorf stuff). I watched cartoons until I approached my teens, and I read a few comic books here and there but never collected them. Perhaps I learned to love the extra few hours of sleep on Saturday mornings, or I outgrew the genre. I never got the comic book thing, given I could read one in the check out line at the store. Most importantly, I didn't share the fantasies so prevalent in the pulp. Instead, I started reading history and poetry, preferring to make my own images and to extend my juvenile attention span past the five minute mark. Not that I thought then or think now that animated activities were shallow or trite, I just lost interest - but I am paying now. I am constantly dismayed at the number of movies based on cartoons, comic books, and graphic novels (the "novels" deigned under protest) that have inundated the market in recent years. I find them superficial and beyond my capacity to suspend my disbelief. CGI and pyrotechnics (two issues from my previous list) envelop these stories so pervasively, that I cannot even follow, disliking the visceral bombardment. Super human abilities are not very special because they are not very unique evidently. I am really not sure what the take aways are from these films? It probably didn't help when I heard some literary type listed The Watchmen as one of the greatest works of fiction ever. There are simply no reference points for me with characters possessing virtual immortality in constant combat. I just don't get it and hope that these giant productions aren't keeping every decent subtle movie from the light of day. Perhaps my evolution is out of whack?

Intellectual Prostitution
This will be short, despite the fact that I could drone on and on about it forever. Every day I listen to liberals and conservatives who have long ago bargained away any sense of equanimity or critical thinking. The world has ironically returned to being flat - flat in the literary sense where issues are black or white, never gray. Somehow some sort of valence is established, and the intellect never turns back. From fascist liberal professors to coarse and ugly conservative pundits, all too sure there is nothing else to learn, nothing else to negotiate, nothing else to cleanse within themselves. The world is spinning backwards rapidly to an age of raw power and brute force. There is less and less serious pretense of balance, rarer and rarer admissions of mistake or wrong doing, and virtually no desire to flirt with humility and the ameliorating grace of an apology. The most affluent and "civilized" nation on earth is the angriest and least inclined to the tenets of its rich and robust religious heritage. Thinly veiled self-interest and proactive offensiveness predominate communication. Compassion, empathy, self-sacrifice, and a broader sense of collegiality and cooperation have been bartered at what cost? No evolutionary quip here, perhaps a nod to statistics - regression to the mean.

Part-Time Patriots
I know the concept of patriotism has been well discussed by intellectuals and knuckleheads forever. I won't add much to the discussion, just a few stark inconsistencies I see amongst the redneck rabble I have known. It amuses me how they distrust the government so, preaching a version of the constitution that is half perversion and half aversion. They don't want to submit any information or suffer any intrusion. They love the police and military, not realizing these are governmental agencies long versed in any level of corruption such divisions indulge in. Despite the plethora of restraints they would heap on other governmental entities, law enforcement and the military are not to be questioned at all. They have notions of a single faith country that only tolerates one language, thus not really being able to comprehensively quote any particular founding father. Beer is sacramental and the flag is a holy relic representing who knows what given their historical ignorance. They have an inordinate array of enemies and imagine threats and conspiracies everywhere. America is great simply because they find themselves here. America is not great, it was and probably won't be again, at least to listen to them. Sports are paramount activities, only giving way to anti-intellectualism in between seasons. Finally, the lofty haven of love is reserved for their guns, not their spouses or children. They are gun lovers and freedom fearers. The temptation to analogize them to Neanderthals is an insult to a species unable to defend itself.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Final Report

This is my final report to the State Department regarding my project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this summer. It is in three parts: 1) A description of the project, 2) Recommendation for the future, and 3) My story. 

This program was developed after Bryce Smedley (Senior English Language Fellow) visited the Mole refugee camp in order to establish an English library. He found a large nucleus of refugees who wanted to increase their language skills and who were willing to help establish multiple programs and initiatives to do so. They lacked the confidence and basic skills to implement existing English curricula on their own. Bryce created a proposal to send an English Language Specialist into the camp for two months to help develop locally relevant English curricula and to model appropriate teaching and learning strategies that could then be perpetuated by the teachers in the camp. This was to be a unique project as such personnel hadn’t been placed on the ground level in camps previously.

Initially, the goal of the two month project was to help create a primary school English program and to bolster the small, existing English Club. Upon arrival, I discovered that there was an enormous interest in developing English programs throughout the camp, amongst a large percentage of the refugees. They viewed English development as way to secure a better living once repatriated back to the C.A.R., or even a vehicle to emigrate in order to build a viable future. A great deal of the refugees expressed a genuine disdain for what they characterized as a concerted effort by the Francophile elements of their country to dissuade their English language pursuits. This was prevalently echoed by the women who stated they were often openly prohibited from pursing their education in English.

Our first initiative was to train a cohort of peer teachers to establish a primary school English program. For the first four weeks, I taught general English courses attended by the primary students and their eventual teachers. This was necessary to shift their pedagogical focus – I have found that one of the most stubborn remnants of the European educational system in Africa and the Middle East is the notion that the teacher is an expert and his/her students are novices, which often entails a direct and harsh approach in the classroom. It is amazing to see these very sweet and gentle folks move into a classroom and change their demeanors so drastically. Therefore, we spent the first month reestablishing the classroom dynamic. I tried to model an engaging and interactive approach, with a great deal of praise, not only for correct answers, but for risk-taking and perseverance. To process this experience, the teachers and other camp leaders attended a six week Teaching and Learning Academy on Saturdays, where we openly discussed their ideas and philosophies on teaching and learning. In the process, I saw a great many shift their priorities to create more friendly and inclusive interactions. We spent two days discussing the role of praise alone, and they embraced the concept wholeheartedly. By the end of the third week, I would present a basic lesson for thirty minutes, then the peer teachers would take up to 15 young students each and move to a new classroom to practice and reinforce the concept. When the younger students left, I would then extend the lesson for the older students in attendance. By the end of the two month period, one of the camp leaders had recruited and trained 20 such peer teachers who would eventually work with more than 250 students. The peer teachers also learned the basics of lesson planning and a concept we called “peeling the onion.”  I found that they enjoyed teaching but were intimidated by the notion of creating lessons. They soon found out that every topic they addressed could be expanded very simply and logically. For example, when they did a unit on activities in the camp (framed in particular verb tense), a typical response might be “we go to church.” The peer teachers then learned to drill down into the concept and ask further questions like “what do you do in church?” This lead to a dozen or more sentences. In essence, they learned the value of depth vs. breadth, a skill that eventually allowed us to introduce a curriculum framework that they could augment and flesh out comfortably. We also focused on contextualized lessons. Our first endeavor was to journey out to their large gardens to do a lesson on vocabulary. Later we would go to the carpenter’s shop, the tailor’s shop, one of their shelters, and the market for similar lessons. Eventually, we trained a few of these peer teachers to work with special populations, i.e., blind students, the local police staff, and older adults.

The success of the primary school project taught us to important lessons: 1) The camp is a closed environment and good and bad things spread rapidly. In this case, the 250 young students would go to lessons with their peer teachers three times a week then return to their shelter pods and teach their friends and siblings. The camp literally erupted into English dialogues overnight. 2) We found that the young girls and women were interested in the program but were initially reluctant to attend. With the help of two of the camp leaders (teachers in the primary school), we created a Girl’s Empowerment Club. The older women came to help facilitate and we had more than 40 young girls participate immediately. Within a few weeks, we found the girls had begun attending the regular English lessons and the older women were attending the extended lessons.

By the fifth week, I was no longer teaching the basic or extended lessons – the five leaders assumed those duties. They began developing their own lesson plans, and after a few weeks, I reintroduced them to the curricula they had originally possessed but had neglected. They were completely comfortable with the curriculum frame as a general guideline, and were very creative in their applications and extensions of the lessons.

In the final two weeks of the project, we focused on creating a secondary school English program. For the past two and a half years, there had been no secondary school programs at all in the camp! Utilizing a conflict resolution curriculum developed in Rwanda (provided by Bryce Smedley), we established an English program for those secondary students and the older students in the camp wishing to improve their English skills. The program began in the last week of the project and had nearly 20 participants the first week.

In addition to the three programs we developed (the primary and secondary English programs and the Girls Empowerment Club), we also saw a dramatic rise in the English Club from seven regular participants to nearly 60. The English Club became the nucleus for all the other English initiatives. The bulk of the success of these programs was due, in large part, to the five leaders from the English Club who took eventual ownership of the various initiatives. This was a crucial stage of the handoff, and was made possible by Bryce’s early visit and his recognition of the potential of the refugees in the camp.

To help build and promote the programs, we hosted two camp activities: 1) On July 4th, we held an American English day with more than 500 participants and guests. The day featured English games, skits, poems, songs, and descriptions of the new English programs. It was a great success. 2) The five leaders held an open house where the camp residents could come and visit the various classrooms in action.

Throughout the planning and implementation process, we had the full support of the camp leadership committees, the State Department, and UNHCR. Eventually, we were working seven days a week to bring the initiatives to fruition with total cooperation from all stakeholders.

In order to build more goodwill in the community that may often feel resentment over the resources provided to the refugees, I worked with UNHCR and the local ministry of education officials to identify six local schools and two sites where I provided teacher training and helped to establish two English Clubs. By walking through the communities, a good deal of the village came to recognize our presence and mission.

Manifest in all the programming, was the goal that the instruction was centered around American English and American cultural issues – a goal that the refugees had adopted before my arrival. The camp community was genuinely touched when they learned of the financial commitment the State Department had invested in them, and were eager to provide in-kind contributions to continue the relationship. First and foremost, the primary cultural value we worked on was that of respect, engagement, praise, and support in the classroom environment. The teachers in the camp and in the village schools all understood this philosophy to be an American imperative and embraced it completely. Having two months to work on it, we were able have the teachers practice these principles in classes with their students. The results were very positive and the teachers were happy with the pedagogical changes. I believe they will continue this progress and share with and influence their colleagues.

Throughout the project, the teachers and students in the refugee camp were in
contact with my home school, Moraine Valley Community College, through email and regular Skype calls. Staff of all levels, including our president, participated in the communication. This helped reify the educational values we had been working on, and once again the camp community felt valued and connected to another American organization.

Finally, most of the residents in the camp and in the village were very grateful for the attention, training, and resources provided by the State Department and UNHCR. They now have curricula and resources to continue their dreams of studying English and pursuing a broader range of future opportunities.
Although we built the English programs to be almost virtually sustainable, there are several recommendations to insure their continuation and expansion. These recommendations are as follows: 1) The State Department and CALI (the Congo-American Language Institute) continue to provide curricular guidance and practical resources as the courses continue, 2) A stipend be created for the five education leaders who are committing more than 20 hours a week to staff the primary and secondary school programs and the Girls Empowerment Club – I provided a nominal stipend for all five for the summer work, and it would be prudent to continue in the fall, 3) I would like to visit the camp again for a period of three weeks, perhaps in December in order to help further develop the secondary school English program. It is merely a shell at this point as our primary objective was to get those students back into a classroom environment after a two year absence. By December, my school would commit to providing textbooks and other resources in an ongoing partnership with the camp. I have discussed this possibility (as only a possibility) with the camp officials and the UNHCR staff who are all very amenable.

No Fun, No Club
Although I lived and worked in a refugee camp previously, I was not prepared for the reception and unconditional support I received during this project. The refugees, camp leadership, UNHCR staff, and the US Embassy staff were all completely engaged and the results were incredible. Early on, we realized we had to change the local notion of teaching and learning, at least in the context of English instruction. The teachers all exhibited a very formal brand of pedagogy that was inconsistent with the American system and values we wanted to instill. It would take us a month to make the shift, but all credit is due to the refugees and support staff.
I spent a great deal of time modeling a more engaging, interactive method of teaching and they embraced it enthusiastically from the beginning. They enjoyed the emphasis on fun and praise and soon adopted the motto “No Fun, No Club.” I was impressed how quickly they adopted the new philosophy. It was amazing to point a group of people in a direction, give them a little guidance, then watch them take off and excel.

I was also very surprised by their ability to collaborate and problem solve. Despite the many challenges and personalities in the camp, they worked together well and put aside their egos and differences while helping to build these programs. This level of cooperation is unprecedented in my professional experience.

A typical day in the camp included doing presentations, working with small groups and peer teachers, arranging contextualized trips in the camp, and a great deal of planning time with the education leaders. They did a great job of adjusting to me and my schedule and I tried to adopt some of their circumspect grace and patience. My primary takeaway is that I want to work hard back here in my home institution to create a more inclusive and cooperative environment, truly utilizing a model of shared governance that I observed in the camp. Finally, I want to internalize a lesson I first learned years ago in my Peace Corps Experience – “If you go to Southeast Asia, you will learn about religion; If you go to South America, you will learn about politics; but if you go to Africa,  you will learn how to laugh!”

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Malaria - I Am No Longer A Tough Guy

Not only am I no longer a tough guy, maybe I never was. This current battle with malaria is now entering into its third week. My temperature ranges from 96 to 105 (perhaps worse as I have only been taking it for three days). I range from Parkinson-like chills and shakes to dead hot sweats.I have an unexplainable cough as well which keeps me up  when I am not suffering from the fevers. Occasionally I go almost thirty hours without feeling terrible, and I try to get up and go to work. I am very weak though, and I fade fast in the day. The fever and assorted ailments start ramping up at around two or three pm, and don't break until early in the morning. I finally went to a doctor, who told me he could not process the malaria swab right away, but that he knew of no other explanation for the symptoms he observed - fluctuating temperatures, low white cell count, low blood pressure etc. He did tell  me that often the best diagnosis is the patient himself if he has had the disease before. Oddly there are other symptoms that don't make sense, but are always there when  I get sick like this. First and foremost, the dreams are indescribable despite the fact that I always recall them perfectly. They are an odd kind of proprioceptive experience: It is an out of body sensation, with lots of conversations with other "beings" who aren't identifiable. Lately, they have involved me needing to buy things to bring back from Africa, providing tickets for children for some reason that float tentatively around and attached to my head, and conversations with a woman who suggests scripts to drive away the chills and fevers. Unlike my other dreams, they go on for hours before I realize I need to wake up. I think they add to my fatigue in the morning.
I have to wait until Monday for some anti-malarial medication, but the doctor gave me tylenol and motrin for the headaches, and an antibiotic as well. I am still riding the rollercoaster, but with a lot of help from Sindi and friends! I don't know when this will end, but I have a good support system, unlike the four other times I have been down this road.
Having said all of this, I don't regret the actions that have led to this condition, and I would do it all over again. I will endeavor to go back this December with all my resurrected passion and energy once I recover. I told someone once who thought I was crazy to go into these places that it certainly must be ok for me to risk my life to help others achieve their dreams if it is ok for others to risk their lives to kill them. I have not put myself at risk to be at risk - I have made calculated decisions that I have never regretted. I will never go into a refugee camp or similar places amped up with medications and preventatives they don't have. I know the twisted logic there, but as Henry V warned, I will not hold my manhood cheap.
But as I mentioned earlier, I am not a tough guy at all. I would cry, I think, if I could; moan and groan for sympathy if would help; and I won't tell you how I squealed trying to take a cold bath today to bring my fever down - I waited until Sindi left :)
I will be fine, and please don't worry about me. Pray for people and children who face this as a regular reality, or others who feel worse than this on a perpetual basis fighting far more devastating ills, I will follow up when I emerge from this tunnel. Thanks again

Thursday, July 16, 2015


I am feeling much better and excited for Eid. Fasting was a bit more challenging this year, but in equal ways that much more gratifying. Because of my circumstances, my zakat contributions were ten times more than ever, both materially and spiritually. It is clear to me that I have gifts and blessings and that I need to continue to exploit them. There is so much more work I can do and I have the energy to persevere. I will find more projects here in Chicago and I will continue to support the folks in the DRC. Most importantly, I will begin to tie things up here stateside in the next few years to make a permanent shift overseas eventually, where I can do my best work. I am so excited realizing my destiny and understanding now the path that brought me here. There is something approaching a sense of peace in my chest these days (not sure if my drive and need for challenge will ever permit a languishing sense contentment however) undergirded by a strength from God. I am ready for the next stage of my life, and for the first time, to determine it with purpose. I am blessed. Eid mubarek :)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


I just woke up from a very long night's rest. Sindi picked me up from the airport and I didn't last long once we got home. She did wake me up in the evening for a couple of sandwiches, and then I was right back to sleep. I have picked up a mild case of malaria, and a sinus problem - not a convenient combo. I am going into work soon to sort some things out. My goal is to begin to process the past two months soon, and let people know how they can support the folks in the camp. I am confident things will continue to develop there, and even more confident I will remain involved. I am blessed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

On My Way Home

I ended up with a pretty healthy fever for the past few nights. I tossed and turned all night Saturday and when I woke up, the bed was soaked. I got some pain relievers and they helped a bit. Sunday I took it easy and went down with Bryce to the rapids on the Congo. Evidently the spot just down river from Kinshasa marks a several hundred mile unnavigable stretch the keeps commerce from reaching the ocean. I got back to the hotel and bumped into Dikembe Mutumbo, a very nice guy. The embassy took me to the airport and I managed to get some decent bulkhead seats. It was quite awhile between water breaks due to the flight, about 21 hours. By about 11pm, I started to get sick again and I put my blanket over my head as my seatmate was concerned about my state. I am sure he thought I had some sort of highly contagious disease. I am in Paris now with seven hours to kill, feeling better. Sindi will meet me at the airport and I think I will head straight to bed. A little worn out....

A few more pictures from the hotel, I could have used a few more days there :)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Quiet Day In Kinshasa

After a nice buffet last night, I went back to my room and started feeling poorly (nothing to do with the food). I am not sure if it is a sinus problem or worse. I have had a small fever all day, but I managed to make my way around Kinshasa with Sampson, Bryce's very congenial and sincere assistant. We went shopping and I bought some artwork in the local market. Later in the afternoon, I went to CALI, The Congolese American Language Institute to debrief with Bryce and to speak to his English Club about working with refugees. The students were great and they asked really sophisticated questions. I did squeeze a nap in and then went to a pharmacy before dinner for some medication. I am hoping it will kick in soon. It turns out that Sampson and Bryce are not feeling well either, so it has been a slow moving day. Sampson and I went out and got some hummos and falafel and now I am back in bed early. I will leave the hotel at 9am tomorrow to meet with them and then off to the airport at 5:20 pm. I had a great bath today and might try to grab one in the morning. I feel really clean for the first time in a while. Gonna hit the sack...

My hotel view over the Congo river

The first thing I saw when I came into the room :)

The shower isn't bad either

Didn't take long to mess up the room

The English Club - Actually these are leaders who coordinate other clubs

Bryce leading some interesting debates

Will try to get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a rough day as I won't be able to eat or drink for quite a while. I don't mind as this has been a very spiritual Ramadan for me in many ways and small sacrifices are in better context for me these days.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Off To Kinshasa

I had a relatively uneventful trip from Zongo to Kinshasa today. I got up early and went down to the Ubangi river with Yaya so he could drop off the SUV for a wash. We walked down to the market and I bought him a new pair of shoes (given I got him in so much mud lately), and we stopped by his house to say goodbye to Hawa and Fatima. I then spent a few hours tying up loose ends before I left - got certificates done, messages sent, last minute details solved, and said a bunch of goodbyes. I was very fortunate to catch a plane from Zongo, as few flights come in and out of this place. There is not terminal and the runway is a gravel road. The military comes to supervise the flights. I caught a World Food Program plane and made the circuit down to Kinshasa after a few short stops. Off course the books I have been waiting for the past three weeks came in on the plane I took out. Traffic was terrible in Kinshasa, but they put me up in a five star hotel overlooking the Congo (pictures tomorrow). I have never had a better shower in my life I think. I had a nice talk with Bryce and am making an early evening of it as I watch PGA golf on tv. Rough life...........

Yaha dealing with the authorities regarding my picture taking at the river

My surrogate sisters - Julienne, Pelagie, and Nelly

Jean Baptist - my best English student in Zongo!

Zongo Airport

Check in with Michel

Didier, Albert, and Yaya seeing me off

Was an honor to fly on a World Food Program plane with other folks providing humanitarian aid to this area of the world

Taking another shower :)  More tomorrow.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

My Last Day In Mole

Yesterday was my last day at Mole. I knew it would be an emotional day, but I was still surprised at the genuine display of emotions I received and felt in return. It ended up being a very long day and I wouldn't trade a second of it for anything.
Yaya and I went to the camp early to do some planning with the English Club team. My last day coincided with the end of school ceremonies, so there were a thousand folks around when we got there. To date, I have been estimating that we reached 200 children with our English programs - yesterday I learned I was woefully incorrect. More than 500 of those children were rattling off English in complete sentences! I was literally mobbed, and thoroughly delighted. The children had their graduation ceremony while we had the last English lesson I will see for some time. After the lesson, the English Club assembled and we had a small going away party. It was very touching. They thanked me for helping them learn English and recounted the difficulties they had in the past when they tried to learn in the Central African Republic. Many of the women told me they had been forbidden to learn English, or that they had been dissuaded by cruel and mean teachers. The men talked of the French influence there that made it very difficult to learn English. They told me that the "French people had colonized them, but never helped them develop, they only took what they wanted from the country." It was so heartwarming to see mothers and their children learning together these past two months. Older students sat beside grade school students with no barriers or sense of entitlement. Teenagers became teachers in a matter of a few weeks. Younger students became English emissaries back to their shelter clusters. It was amazing - they had been ready for a long time before I showed up.
There were a lot of smiles and lot of tears from people that surprised me. I held it together somehow, perhaps with the firm conviction I will make it back here to them in the near future.
After the party, the Girls Empowerment Club headed back to the carpenters shop to complete the stool they were building. It was a great time and they worked like little crazed ants - it was very cute. I did cry at a very unexpected moment though. I very tall, thin young girl with a large overbite was with the group and it was the first time I had seen her. While the others were sanding, I called her over to help drive some nails into a small chair. She did a great job and when she was finished, she was beaming. She gave me a very long hug and skipped back over to the other girls. I had to turn away from the group for a minute or so.....
When I got back to the school, Yvon was finishing up the first full lesson with the new Secondary School Program. He had 19 students and it was a great start. It is hard to get across here how significant this is. These teenagers have been out of school for two or more years. They have been in the camp with very little to do, losing hope for a decent future. This program is the first step in getting them back to their plans for a better life. I will continue to help develop it, and with any luck, will be back in December to implement the next stage. I am very proud of Yvon and the whole team for taking these important projects on their backs for so little compensation. It restores my faith in humanity and decency.
The topping to this great day was that Teddy and his leadership team (Juliet, Scholastique, Yvon, and Saint Fort) all came back to Zongo with me for the night! When we got back, the staff here had a party for me and we all joined in. I won't list all the gifts I received yesterday (selfishly, they are mine) but I will say that I know they were thoughtfully chosen and at a dear cost in this economy. I am blessed.
Many of us went to dinner and then to a local club to dance. Saint Fort was the star, with the others eventually joining in. After an hour or so, we returned to the UN compound and planned the next few stages of the program and a pen pal program.  Somewhere around 11pm, they headed off to a local hotel and I fruitlessly tried to sleep. This morning we got together at 7am and had a nice morning meeting with some of the UN staff here. Midway through the meeting I found out my flight to Kinshasa today was cancelled and I briefly considered going back to the camp with them. Having made all of my goodbyes yesterday, I decided better of it and sent them off for their big open house at the camp. I will miss them.

School's out for the summer!

The student leaders getting their certificates - they are a wonderful crew and Saint Fort does a great job with them

A few Muslim families stopping by to say goodbye

Standing up on a bench to tape my goodbye song from the kids - Levy had done an incredible job with the music program here

Some gracious words on behalf of the mothers in the camp

Accepting thanks when I should be giving them :)

Good pals

Yaha taking it all in - the folks thanked him profusely for all the trips he made with me, seven days a week

The lettuce lady hoping I was hungry again

The gang (Benjamin's twin sister turned up from Bangui the other day, she is not in a matching dress). From left to right: Esther, Amina (with her new dress from Joanne), Benjamin, and Christine.

Mr. Jobson, the president of the camp's education committee, who was named by English missionaries. He would like to return to Bangui to help build a new English program

I need them on my next project

 Designing the camp's first bunk beds with Felecian. After visiting a blind student's shelter, we discovered his children had to sleep on an old worn mat. I commissioned the bed and the camp will provide the foam mattresses. As usual, once Felecian understood what I wanted, he was way ahead of me on the design.

Girl Power!

At first blush, not very extraordinary, but the kindling to a brighter future

After two months, I got a smile for Vasily (I think his mother was tickling him)


 The English Club leadership team with Yaya celebrating

The UN staff here in Zongo

Mrs. Ursula and I with the English Club leaders

Thursday morning, time to say goodbye for now :(

I haven't yet been able to begin to process my feelings about this adventure. I am not sure I ever will, or that I will be generous enough to share them. For now please know that I am simply blessed.