Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Attack of the Fruit Bat

Greetings from Burkina Faso. Sam and I just returned from a visit to the “bush” and we have a short story for yawl.
When we arrived at the guest house that our Professor had built we noticed that the first thing our driver Adama and the new library coordinator did was close the windows to their bed room. Not much thought was given to that until…. I tried to capture our dialogue best I could so follow along.
Austin: “Sam!……..Sam! Wake up…….Sam!” I throw my flip flop across the room to wake him up.
Sam stirs “Hmm What’s Up?”
Austin: “There is a bat in our room”
Sam: “Are you sure it is a bat?”
I was starring the bat eye to eye as it clung to my mosquito net. “Yes…I am very sure that it is a bat”
Sam: “Is it a vampire bat or a fruit bat?”
Austin: “What the hell difference does that make?……………..I hope it is a fruit bat ”
The bat flies around the room and lands on Sam’s mosquito net
Sam: “Maybe this is why the other guys closed their windows before they went to bed”
Austin: “Most likely”
The bat flew around the room again and disappeared under my bed, I was awake all night with a fear that Dracula was going to emerge from under my bed. I felt like a 6 year old with nightmares about monsters under my bed again. Fortunately in the morning I was still alive without having been bitten by a vampire and having to share in Dracula’s lament.

Hope all is well back home, Sam and I are off on safari for the next few days. Hopefully we get some good photos of elephants for you!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Can you spell Ouagadougou?

Nearly two weeks since last touching a personal computer and after a week without electricity for our cell phone, we find ourselves sitting in the large capital city “Ouaga” in the to-be-known country, Burkina Faso. Over two weeks ago we left Accra, Ghana and headed north to visit Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL) a not-for-profit organization founded by Santa Clara University professors Michael Kevane and Leslie Gray. After more than a week spent in the village of Sumbrungu cataloging books, frying hash browns for friends, playing team-building games, waiting for something to happen, walking around the village and chatting it up with the local elders over a fresh crop of groundnuts (peanuts), we taxied north yet again to cross the border into Burkina Faso. After the initial shock of crossing into Burkina and figuratively hitting a wall in Francophone Africa, we slowly recovered enough to speak basic French phrases such as “toilette?” and to begin to absorb the vast differences between former English and French Africa colonies. With time it became clear that not only our tea and sweet breads from Ghana would be replaced by homemade alcohol and crispy French bread but that, in important matters, the English tradition of passive governance in Ghana is rivaled by Burkina’s inheritance of the French “Functionaire.” (An example of the importance of titles in which a government employee views their job as simply fulfilling a function, no more and no less). However these subtle differences are easily lost in the larger and perhaps more striking realization that Burkina Faso is undeniably, statistically and in our personal experience among the five poorest countries of the world. In upcoming posts and conversations we will try to be more specific about our observations of Burkina, but for now I want to introduce two dilemmas for you to help us discuss:

Dilemma 1: Can I knowingly contribute to “tourist pollution” and still go to tourist heaven?

Walking in the breathtaking landscape in the remote Nepali village of Lamatar we proudly returned warm smiles of welcome with our newly learned greeting “Namaste.” Upon which, and without fail, the local children would gladly respond to our traditional gesture, with not-so-traditional demand in English “Chocolate, Please!”
Fast forward thousands of miles to Paga Northern Ghana and as we stand frozen with cash in hand to pay a taxi driver for a trip to the Burkina border he looks at us longingly, wondering why we would cheat him out of the “bag fee” you know his explains: “pay for luggage.”
I do not know about “luggage fee” and I DO know about “Chocolate, please” (and I would really like some but it Africa chocolate bars cost more than a baby goat, I’m serious) I also realize that at some point, an well-intentioned traveler handed out a box of Hershey’s bars at the base of the Himalayas. That same tourist, on their next vacation on elephant safari in Ghana, decided to tip the taxi driver for handling their luggage. Not because it is custom, but because why not pay extra when it is not too much money for us? What is the difference between paying $4 for a $2 taxi ride especially when it is benefiting someone who really needs it? ($2 is about the daily wage for an agriculture worker in Northern Ghana).
In other words: as a representative of the financially wealthy West do I have the right to set the expectation that future tourists will also tip and come bearing gifts (tourist pollution)? Also from the perspective of local entrepreneurs, are they justified in expecting Westerners to pay a premium for the same, sweaty taxi ride?

Dilemma 2: When do I need to hold my Western, educated, socially liberal , ethnically European, modern American male tongue?

During a stay in a country village in El Salvador Austin complemented his host family on the size of their only prized chicken. “Me gusta!.” Several hours later he sat and starred wide-eyed at the freshly prepared lunch plate of pollo. “Te gusta?” his host mother asked intently. Adding to the stickiness of eating the only meat a family can afford all month, what if Austin, hypothetically, had been strictly vegetarian for moral reasons? Do you say something? Or just grin it and bear it as my Dad would say. Lets take this a step further by bringing in only real examples from our current travels: What if the host whose food you are about to enjoy has been obviously and consistently verbally abusing the underage (by our standards), female cook? What if that same female has not been given an education in local village school because her role as a woman is seen in that specific tradition and culture as solely a caregiver to her family. Can you, do you say anything? What if the host who is serving you chicken she cannot afford is wearing a Catholic rosary and she has prepared the meal with the help of the younger underage women who happens to be her husband‘s second wife. She has carried two of his children and lives in a mud house directly next to the younger wife who has given birth to one of his children. Do you feel comfortable asking her how, as a Christian, she views polygamy and marriage? What if, upon clearing your empty chicken plate to the water bucket to help the women wash, you are teased by the men in the family for doing women’s work. Do you stop washing to avoid disrespect for their tradition, or do you insist on helping and push the issue upon your male friends asking them why it is that only women are asked to clean? What if the women insist it is their tradition to clean?

Real life. Real stuff. What do we do?


Sunday, October 5, 2008

What is "good enough" in Africa?

Walk into Dr. Patrick Awuah's modest, 15x15ft office in Accra Ghana and enter a clean, calm and (thankfully) air-conditioned future of Africa. The clean-cut, well spoken gentleman from the UC Berkley still shows signs of his computer engineering days: rimless glasses, a shiny silver Blackberry, and a pristine IBM Thinkpad within comfortable reach, desktop icons neatly arranged and all. However, sneak a peak just slightly to your right and note his collection of books crammed (alphabetized I'm sure) into an overwhelmingly large bookshelf in his tiny office at Ashesi University. Mohammad Yunnus' Bank to the Poor, Bill Clinton's Giving, Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope, Paul Farmer MD's Mountains Beyond Mountains, and even Three Cups of Tea. Patrick Awuah, an American educated Ghanaian, returned to Ghana to work with what he believes to be the key to economic opportunity in Ghana: education. Unlike many well intentioned social entrepreneurs, however, Patrick didn't just research barriers to tertiary education, which leave less than 5% of Ghanaians with university degrees; Patrick simply decided to found his own University.

Let's just assume that you avoid asking our question "Patrick, was it difficult starting a university from scratch in Ghana?" (He laughed for a while after that one, YES!!!!!!) and jump straight to the question about the principles on which Ashesi was so humbly founded less then 5 years ago. Patrick's perspective on social progress in Ghana is something like this: Corruption in government and business and life in general is hindering much-needed growth in Ghana's economy. This corruption, he argues, is especially habitual zed in Ghanaian higher-education where cheating goes hand in hand with memorization, and uncreative thinking. His idea is to impact students in their final years before entering the workforce, leaving a lasting impression by educating both "ethical and entrepreneurial leaders." Additionally, because the proportion of students who receive college degrees is so small, he assumes that many or most of college students will be filling the shoes of CEO's, lawyers and presidents: just the kind of hot-shots needed for structural, societal change in Ghana.

So here are some of the ways Patrick hopes to save souls for Ghana: For the first two years at Ashesi University students are immersed in what is essentially a liberal arts education: economics, English, history and more. In the following two years students begin to specialize in Business Administration, Computer Engineering or Accounting Information Systems, the only three majors that Ashesi offers. Before graduating students must complete four seminars and a generous helping of community service. The seminars build on one another and you could even argue that the U.S. system of higher education could learn a thing or four: "What is a great leader?", "What is a good society?", "Economy of the good society", "Leadership Service". Throughout the course of these lectures, discussions and readings students are exposed to a range of perspectives from Adam Smith to Karl Marx and Martin Luther King to John McCain (Actually probably not McCain because the entire continent of Africa is obsessed with Barrack Obama!). In addition, students are even offered a special honor code option after they have completed several seminars. If an entire class is willing to sign their name to honesty, tests from that point on will not be proctored by any "adult" in the room.

The final part of our conversation with Patrick focused on the issue money. We bluntly questioned the ability of an expensive and elite private school to provide opportunity to a representative generation of young Ghanaians. His response and the discussion that followed was thought provoking: Ashesi University is simultaneously the most expensive as well as the most inexpensive university in Ghana depending on a student's financial aid package. Of course most universities, unless your buildings are covered with ivy, struggle to find donations to make their education as affordable as possible. Ashesi, however, is especially cursed at the moment in finding donors because the facilities, staff and faculty are already world class. I must admit, having visited a handful of colleges in the developing world, Ashesi is not a palace, but it is extremely clean, well maintained, organized and staffed with what seem to be extremely competent professionals. To further illustrate this dilemma Patrick told us a story about a nearby orphanage. Several church groups from Europe had collaborated with a local NGO on a $10k project to build the orphanage. Arriving on the "grand-opening" day, the president of the local NGO toured the orphanage with church leaders from Europe and could only comment on the dismal sight of depressing grey concrete that would greet the children each morning. The NGO president argued, that only an additional $200 would have been necessary to paint the classrooms with bright and beautiful colors, ABC's and multiplication tables. In short, Patrick is deeply concerned that "misery sells rather than results" in the world of NGO donations. Westerner's are deeply moved to generosity by sights of pot-bellied children in dismal slums, but when it comes to supporting proven, world-class programs in developing world, the floors may seem a little too polished and shirts a little too pressed.

The novel Mountains Beyond Mountains is a wonderful story about doctor who struggles with a similar dilemma in heath care: providing human beings everywhere with the same first-rate health care we would expect in Western hospitals, regardless of financial costs and ultimately justified with the statement: "Because we can." I would have recommended this book to Patrick, but judging by it's prominent place on his bookshelf, it looks like he got to it way before me.


On the streets of Mumbai (with addicts)

In Mumbai, Sam and I were invited to visit the drug rehabilitation center, Sankalp. We met Eldred, the founder, in Pune where he was being recognized for his work.
Eldred is a brilliant entrepreneur not only for founding Sankalp but because he has challenged a process. He has created new rehabilitation techniques, that were first criticized but now are well respected and replicated all over the world. Eldred has also challenged the way many think about drug users and he pushed others including myself to look at drug users from a different perspective.
We began our day with a visit to one of their clinics, where Eldred offers the men a place to “hang out” during the day. At the clinic the men are able to consult a doctor, play chess, have their wounds dressed, and enjoy a small lunch. While the men eat, a nurse and counselor will speak with the men about general hygiene. The men pay a few rupees for their lunch, specifically for the men to understand that their money can be used towards their health as opposed to drugs.
Eldred came in and spoke to the men in the morning and I have never seen men listen so intently. It was as if he was preparing to reveal Jessica Simpson from behind a curtain. They listened to Eldred because they understand he comes from a similar background and he knows how to overcome the same challenges the men face.
He is tough on the guys, during our convo when a 70 year old man broke into tears about his family leaving him. Eldred told him to
“suck it up and to stop being a baby! Yes your family left you, good, you need to get your life together before you can rejoin your family.”

Eldred explained later after he saw the shock in Sam and I’s face that it was necessary for him to be hard on the old man, most of the time they just want a little sympathy out of you which they would translate as forgiveness. Forgiving these men does not help them take control of their lives, they need to do that on their own.
These conversations may or may not work, most of the men visiting the day clinic had used intravenous drugs within 24 hours and some of them were still high. Eldred explained to us that the main purpose of the clinic is to provide a safe place for them to stay during the day. It is not so much an opportunity to stop doing drugs, but an opportunity to stop the spread of HIV amongst the drug users. Most of the men we met were HIV positive and obviously the ones who were not were at high risk because of shared needles.
If he can keep them from using for a needle day, that is one day that a needle is not contaminated with HIV.
Sankalp does offer a rehabilitation boot camp for the men, but they have to make the choice to attend.
At 6pm we were greeted by Shitaya (he asked us to call him “Shit“ for short), who took us on an one of his outreach visits. Sankalp has 29 outreach coordinators, including Shit. Their responsibilities are to visit the areas known to have many drug users. During the visits he records the users name, age, and where they are from. After information is recorded they will exchange needles, collecting the dirty needles in exchange for a clean one. Also if the men are sexually active the coordinators will provide the men with condoms.
Our first visit was to an 18 and 22 year old, we arrived as soon as the 18 year old had stuck a dirty needle into his foot. He quickly removed the needle and exchanged dirty for clean and after a short conversation the 18 year old began to prepare the clean needle for injection. We walked away as he reinserted the needle into the side of his foot. (see photo above, taken with permission though while he was taking "brown sugar")
On the way to our next stop we drove through another red light district. Apparently Sam and I are very good at finding red light districts in just about all of the countries we visited.
Our next stop was a busy railway station. Many drug users find shelter near these stations and out on the tracks, they inject on the tracks because no one will bother them out there. While this may provide a haven away from other people the trains are still coming and they show little sympathy for someone passed out on the tracks. Many of the men we met during the day were missing a limb and disfigured.
Sam and I understood that our target audience was the men asleep on the ground, or out on the tracks. Normally I would have taken little interest in this men cast aside on the sidewalk, I would have ignored them as I walked by. Tonight they were men I recognized, men I had met at the clinic during the day. I knew their stories and struggles, I knew their names. It was a surreal experience, especially when they shouted my name and greeted me as a friend. That was something I would never forget.