Thursday, March 8, 2012

Journey Through West Africa

This is a short video of my travels through West Africa. I hope you enjoy. Kent

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Liberia's Eric Zinnah Elementary School

Gathered around the flagpole at Eric Zinnah Elementary School, the students appear distracted as they sing the national anthem. Donning their mint and brown uniforms, their eyes follow me, the white man, instead of being fixed on the Liberian flag. Every morning, the students, pre-school to grade six, assemble in the courtyard and sing hymns, pledge the flag, and recite Liberia's national anthem. A teacher greets the students and the crowd replies in unison, "Good Morning Mister Morris. How are you today?" The teacher says the day's announcements before the student body disbands and each student migrates to his or her classroom. A teacher stands at the door, switch in hand, to remind those that linger where they should go.

The classrooms are rudimentary. The walls are made of earthen bricks stacked between mortar. The windows are nothing more than vacancies where the blocks were not placed to allow a meager amount of light into the classroom. For the pre-school, and kindergarten classes, the four walls make a box, about the size of a small dorm room (five yards by six yards), and 50-plus students pile in and sit shoulder to shoulder on wooden benches. Notebooks in lap, a lefty knocks elbows with a righty as they dutifully copy their lessons from the chalkboard. First through sixth grades share one long room; a chalkboard amid rows of benches, partitions one class from another. The difference is striking from that of an elementary school that I recently visited in the US. There I was in a climate-controlled classroom where each student had his or her own desk, books, and supplies.

I am invited here by Ambrose, the principal and founder of Eric Zinnah School, founded in 1998. He brags that he wanted to give the children a place to study despite the conflicts that plagued Liberia throughout the 1990's and early 2000's. The school's motto is: The children will see the light. His invitation isn't purely altruistic, as few invitations in Liberia are. As one of the poorest countries in the world, most live in extreme poverty (less than $1 a day) and are still working to rebuild their livelihoods after civil strife has wrecked infrastructure and stolen economic opportunities. Most enticing offers will eventually reveal a hidden agenda. Ambrose's invitation to visit his school is no exception. He wants me to link my world with his; he wants a sponsor. Eric Zinnah is not a government school nor funded by a religious institution. It is funded by significant yet paltry fees from caring parents that want to see their kids receive a solid education.

With an optimistic look in his eyes, Ambrose shows me an area where he hopes to build an auditorium. I make no promises about sponsors; however, I tell him that I will share the story of his school.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ño Kribu Outreach

The video above is taken during a HIV/AIDS seminar facilitated by Peace Corps volunteers along the Mosquito Coast of Panama, along the Caribbean coast.  Enjoy!!!

Monday, April 13, 2009

The sun beats down unmercifully. I lug rocks the size of a basketball on my hut roof to prevent it from becoming airborne. The tall dried grass dances in the blowing wind. I am consumed. I have been stressed out for weeks, waiting for the moment when my house topples to the ground. It is only a matter of time. At nighttime, the wind blows with force, shaking my house and keeping me up all night in the darkness. I hardly sleep, listening to the screeching sounds of my zinc roof ready to fly off. At certain moments, early in the morning, before sunrise, the wind calms, and I am quick to steal a short powernap.
I do not know what to do with the weariness, with the exhaustion. I confess and surrender to defeat, the sun, and the wind. This is my life in my hut. But outside of the hut, life is normal or usual.
My village supports about 200 people and it consists of 40 mud-walled, dirt-floored houses with zinc roof. Small lawns are kept in front of each house; the grass is cut with a machete. In and around the village are planted yuccas or cassavas, bananas, plantain, sugar-cain, mango, and various types of citrus trees. Small creeks flow through the village and all bathing and washing of cloths are done in the creek. It so happens, my house is next to a small creek for my pleasure of washing and bathing. Most homes have running water for most of the year. Horses, dogs, cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, ducks, and children frolic around the town looking for nourishment.
Men clear montés, a term for a slash-and-burn plots of a few acres. Usually all of the households have their own plot, but communal monté is common within a family. Generraly, the montés will be a considerable distance, often miles from the village. If one visits the village, the impact of farming is obvious at first.
This time of the year, the whole valley is filled with black clouds of smoke from burning the montés. Sometimes, the visibility is so low, I can hardly see the next town over. The process of slash-and-burn consist of chopping down couple acres of trees in January and February, letting it dry for two months. Making a fire line around the montés, they set it on fire around end of March or beginning of April. The rain should be on its way now to soak the ground so we can go ahead and plant rice, corn, bean, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.
Slash-and-burn agriculture has much in common with ecological succession in that it uses the succession process to restore the soil after use for farming. However, due to high demand for food and shortage of land, the montés don't get a chance to rest after one use as it used to be, and thus the land is exhausted. In addition, application of chemical fertilizers increase the degradation of the soil. The impact of aforementioned activities are visible throughout the town.  Life on the edge always threatens to go over the edge, however, the people here are master of adaptation, even in the toughest environments.   

Friday, March 20, 2009

An Unimaginable Strength

I watch the rain. Tiny drops fall from the sky. Each drop as insignificant as a single grain of sand collected here on the river bank. One minuscule drop may not change one’s actions, environment, but many can move mountains, literally. Together, they possess an unimaginable strength.

For the next three and a half days, we will follow a small stream from its headwaters nearly a mile high to the mouth that feeds the Caribbean. For thousands of years, united drops of water have patiently carved its route from the chilly Quebrada Hacha to the warm seas. As we walk, drop by drop, the rain slowly soaks through our clothes. If we’re not wet from the rain, we’re soaked from the numerous river crossings. Right now, the rain, constant, but not staggering, was just two weeks ago an unstoppable force. Steep slopes on all sides show signs of landslides, simply too much water weighing down the soil and gravity winning.

Rain and landslides are natural processes. However, they are a threat when people make residence where these forces of nature frequently occur. The Ngäbes, a traditionally nomadic people of western Panama, have been forced to settle here in the mountain valleys and along the waterways of the water soaked Caribbean slope. Circular houses, made of sticks and cylindrical thatched roofs, are clustered along the streams and rivers forming small villages far from civilization.

Weekly, a truckload of supplies is dropped off at the end of the road. Sugar, rice, salt, among other things, have already made the three hour trek along a dirt and gravel path from the nearest highway, but the journey has just begun. Men, women, and children must do the rest of the work. Although Ngäbes, on average smaller in stature, may not seem adept to transport this quantity of cargo, they show up in throngs to carry the supplies. All capable do what they can. Using chacaras, a woven bag with a large strap, they haul the supplies through mud, across rivers, up hills, and down boulders. The path is there, but it’s not a trail. Horses can’t make this trek. With the strap of the chacara around the forehead and the cargo against the back, they lean forward and trudge toward their destination.

As we hike, we are accompanied by the locals, each one weighed down with merchandise for their tiny, local tiendas. A woman carries a chacara full of ground coffee and on top of the coffee sits a young baby. With the woman, a boy, about 13 or 14 years old, carries over one hundred pounds of rice. I tell him it’s my turn and we trade cargo, my pack for his chacara. I try lifting it. I raise the rice a few feet off the ground and say, “Que va. No way.” We trade back immediately. I couldn’t imagine carrying such weight for a few minutes on flat ground nevertheless hours or days through mud and mountains.

We arrive to a small village several hours from the end of the road. Here a kid sitting in the rain says to me, “El río crecío mucho. The river grew a lot.” It’s evident that the waters rose dangerously close to the base of nearby houses. I look behind me and a landslide has filled the school with mud and destroyed its structure. The destruction is even more unmistakable as we continue our journey. We look for a way to cross the river, but the bridge has been carried away. Hand in hand, we ford the river. Today it’s able to be crossed, but after an aguacero or heavy rain, the swollen, bridgeless river would be an impassible impediment.

We pass through small communities strung along the river like beads on a string. Every couple of hours a cluster of houses and a school appears and shortly thereafter disappears behind us. Each school is made of cement blocks and a zinc roof. I’m convinced the materials were delivered by helicopter, but after asking the locals they respond, “Al hombro. On the shoulder.” Once again, the Ngäbes’ strength is demonstrated by their ability to work together, carrying cement, zinc sheets, desks, etc. for the betterment of the community.

Finally, the terrain has flattened and the river has widened. We have walked three days from one transport to the next. Early on the fourth day, we take a boat ride down the Río Cricamola and enter the Caribbean. The picturesque skies of the Caribbean are hidden behind clouds and rain. Waves spill over the gunwales, forcing us to take it slow and easy to port. We arrive, albeit cold and wet.

Rain teaches us that alone one is often weak, but joined together in a common task, the whole possess an unimaginable strength. The Ngäbes have learned from the rain.

Monday, February 23, 2009

From village to village and ridge to ridge, we drift with the wind enchanted. We greet people as we climb up and down and cross small albeit fierce creeks and rivers. Gazing afar, we see the Pacific Ocean over more hills and peaks. Sometimes I am lost in what my eyes see. With so much to see and take in, we move at a snail's pace. This is the Comarca Ngäbe Buglé.
We greet people shouting “ñon toro deka” or “dre kukwe” or “¿entonces?” in the friendliest of tones. Some respond to us with a smirk of a smile, others run into the bushes (hmmm interesting). Every other house, we sit with the people sharing stories, laughing, engorging on copious amount of local coffee. We explain our work to them and ask them what they produce. Most of people produce coffee and yucca for their main diet. Some have to walk days to get rice and other implements for their household. According to most people rice doesn't grow in this part of the world for one reason or other. Well, it grows, but they get empty spikelets. Kent and I ponder on some conditions that might cause this destitute of rice that people love so much. In some areas, we promise to return with answers and move on.

We climb up a steep incline hugging the slope, zigzagging left and right. We come to a rock that is size of a VW bug car. Kent steps up on to the rock looking far down into the valley. About 5 miles below us is the Tabasara River meandering left and right like a snake carving through the valley and eventually feeding into the Pacific Ocean. In silence we listen to the endless song of the river. A smooth wisp of the wind passes through the grass breaking my attention. This is a delicious view, an experience that is purely innocent, sweet, and tender; my soul is soaked. My whole being is one with the wind, rock, sun, birds, and the trees as I imbibe my surrounding through every pore. I go and come with strange but delightful union in what I see, a part of nature. I close my eyes and feel the wind on my face as it whips across the mountain. The feeling of freedom from being here in this place makes my whole body shiver. It's strange yet wonderful.
On top of the Banco is an empty lawn with 360 degrees of stunning beauty. The dwarf trees on the roof of the Banco look like mosses holding on for dear life. The majestic continental-divide juts into the sky to the north and the glimmering Pacific Ocean commands the view to the horizon in the south. A soft pink, radiant sun dips behind Hato Chami in the west. The brilliant color of the sun is turning the surrounding mountains into a masterpiece of light and shadows. The silhouette and the contour of the mountains display a great painting. The magical colors evoke a feeling of wonder at this dwarf (my town's people claim there are dwarf on this mountain) infested land for the two lone figures perched on a mountain watching the planet pass. The colors fade quickly. Pink and lavenders deepen to dark blue and black. The land below us becomes dim and mute. In the distance, we can see civilization emanate warm light on us. It is suddenly cold, creepy. I bust out my machete and hack our way through a patch of woods looking for some trees to provide us refuge for the night. While Kent puts up the tent, I chop up some wood and make a fire as our sentinel from the night crawling dwarfs and tigres. The young crescent moon shines across the dark sky revealing every detail in the valley below us. The wind and the chill make me edgy and I run into the tent hoping to evade my fears.

A sleepless night due to the cold, I throw my backpack over me to trap the heat. My whole body tightens in fear that the wind might carry us away. Last nights's blowing gales recede to episodic gusts. It is no comfort to know that nippy air and violent winds are normal and expected weather on this hill. My guess is that the wind is caused by continental differences in air pressure modified by the topography. It is generally dry in this area and cold and rainy in the near by continental divides and thus the cold front rushes down the valley smothering anything in its way. According to the local source, its always windy here. Thus no one resides on top of this beautiful mountain.This morning's sun is bright, but the wind steals its warmth. We take in the last view of our surroundings and climb down the hill. We look for the hidden trail under the over grown grass. Last time we came the trail was visible, but today we've to guess our way. I can hardly spot Kent about 50 ft. ahead of me. Occasionally we gritar or shout at each other to know our whereabouts.
We visit our friends that were expecting us with their photos taken couple of months ago. Joyful of our arrival, they were a little worried that we wouldn't return. As we hand over their photos, they look with amazement and embarrassment. Some of these people have never seen photos of themselves before and I was wondering what it was going through their head. I remember the first time I saw my photo in Nepal. I was awed and kind of embarrassed how serious I looked next to my grandmother. Ever since then I have decided to smile for all the photos of me. I wonder if these people will think the same...
We drift on with the wind towards my village, occaisionaly stopping to chat with the people. Most people ask us what our mission is in suspicion that we might be miners looking for gold or other natural resources. We explain to them what we do and name people in my town, alas they are quick to be friendly again since most people around here are related to each other. Back in the day outsiders used to prance around this areas looking for possible mining sites. These people are naturally afraid of loosing their land and thus are skeptic.
With torching sun above us and hungry stomach, we concentrate on getting home. We visit some people I know and they offer us with coffee with copious amount of sugar to help us through the next hill before arriving at Kalli's house, where a live chicken awaits my razer-edged machete.
Alas we arrive at Kalli's. She greets us with beef jerky sent to her from United States of America. God Bless America!! A blessing to my mouth. I can no longer fend off this hunger and so I sharpen my machete as Kent runs after the wild chicken as it runs into the bush. It knows this machete is about to go through it's neck. Alas Kent finds the chicken and he hypnotizes it before we decapitate it and take it down to the creek to eviscerate it.

Simple. Grateful.

The gravel road we travel down ends. In the Comarca Ngabe-Buglé, the few 4x4 accessible carreteras just do. This indiginous semi-autonomous region in western Panamá has a different means of transportation: on foot or by horse. It is an area webbed with a matrix of footpaths carved out from years of use. Today we will be taking these trails to a hill off in the distance. Although we walk there just to see what is on the other side, the people we meet on the journey humble me. They live simply, something that is lost in today's modernity.

We walk. The green grass, dominating the scene, rustles in the refreshing breeze. The rest of the picture is painted by the blue sky. The sun is fierce, but helps to dry the colorado soils that were plagued by heavy runs just a week before. Perhaps a once tree-filled land, it's now an open savanna, save the trees bordering the streams and rivers. In the openness I feel free. Free of compass. Free of map. Free of guide. Although we are unfamiliar with the terrain, we look to a distant peak and say, "let's go there."

As we amble down the caminito or little path, a man walking down the same trail passes us. I ask him where he is going and he replies, "Voy lejos. I'm going far." Although far is a relative term, many people live six, nine, twelve hours from the nearest road with vehicle access. He continues to walk ahead. He carries nothing more than a seemingly empty little, black backpack. With the sudden realization of all my cargo, I feel less free. I think of Socrates' quote, "How many things I can do without."

After hours of walking, our path disappears into a river. We search the opposite bank and a rocky footpath ascends from the water's edge into the trees. Crossing the waterway, we lift our gear over our heads. The water comes up to my waist. The current, although not overwhelming, is swift enough to steal our cargo should one of us fall and drop it. We continue on a short ways to a nearby house. The family welcomes us to sit down for a cup of coffee. Although I dislike the taste of coffee, I slowly sip it, recognizing it as a humble gift and invitation to chat. As we converse, I ask them about their crops. To my untrained eye, the soil looks like clay and unforgiving to subsistence farming. They proudly talk about their yucca and guandú plots. Yucca, a starchy root, is a staple food and necessary source of carbohydrates and vitamin B. Guandú, a bean from a tree, is a tasty source of protein. Supplemented by oranges, plantains, and an occasional chicken their diet is simple, only covering some of the basic dietary needs. We thank them for the coffee and they send us on our way with a dozen oranges.

In order to make it to our intended camping site before nightfall, that hill off in the distance, we must continue hiking. Trodding on, my mind begins to envy the inhabitants of this vast countryside. They live free of the social pressures found in the cities, where family and food never seem to be enough and simplicity is lost in the honk of taxis or the multitude of cell phones a youth keeps at his disposal.
Today, in the Comarca Ngabe-Buglé, I see the other end of the spectrum. The people seem content despite the daily obstacles they face. However, the simple life doesn't mean the easy life. The man with the empty little, black backpack walks hours upon hours just to get from the nearest road to his house. His backpack wouldn't be empty if he had a second pair of town-worthy clothes or lunch to eat in route. The coffee-sipping family has their trials as well. The niños cross dangerous rivers and walk hours to get to their school lessons that are taught in Spanish, their second language. The men of the family pride themselves with their yucca and guandú plot; they don't mention that guandú is seasonal and yucca takes 9 months to grow in decent soil. When these staples aren't available, it makes it that much tougher to get a well balanced meal. I don't envy what these people have nor their daily hurdles, but that they are grateful for what they do have.

The friends I made today have taught me a valuable lesson: embrace simplicity and live gratefully.