Saturday, May 12, 2012

Stereotypes of African Men

I love this video put out by the group Mama Hope, a non-profit working to end the idea of "pitying Africa" and instead, creating sustainable projects that are based on local ideas and use all local workers and resources.

I think that the young men in this video put a great message out there not to believe everything you see in movies.

When I Hear Your Voice, I am Fat

I still like to stay in touch with students from Monapo from when I was a Peace Corps volunteer. I called this student up this weekend to say hello and see how he was doing. He is still working hard and helping take care of his family. Besides telling me that I should go to church, he said "senhora professora, quando eu ouco tua voz, fico gordo." Teacher, when I hear your voice, I stay fat. Fat is just another way of saying happy and satisfied. But I like to think what people would say or think if I started dropping that line in an English conversation. Cracks me up.

One way that I am "staying fat" is thinking about the future. I have been accepted into the International Development and Social Change program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, so I will be heading to the east coast in the Fall! I am really excited to start pursuing my degree in international development and to meet people with similar interests. It seems like a great school and program, so while I am sad to be leaving Ojika in two and a half months, I am also excited for the new opportunities and experiences I will have being back in university!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


During my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, I helped put together a conference for the empowerment of girls in the northern part of the country. Gathering girls from three different provinces, they attended a workshop on girls’ issues, health, rights, and a short technical training in areas such as sewing, computers, first aid, mural painting, etc. Overall, I really enjoyed myself and felt that bringing these girls to the city to meet other girls and learn important information to bring back to their own groups was such a valuable experience. Prior to the conference, all of the chaperones received and signed a contract agreeing to the modest amount of money they would be given for the four days, plus travel. I only knew to present them with these contracts because of the arguments our conference predecessors had faced.

One thing that definitely darkens the mood of trying to gather a large group of people to provide important information, opportunities, and activities is per diems. I know that this is a problem that people deal with a lot when it comes to training seminars or workshops in Mozambique and numerous other countries. Per diems are a set amount of money that you pay people every day that is supposed to make up for what that person would have made had they been home. It can also account for the loss of that person to care for the family and the home. Often, these per diems are a lot of money and people have grown to expect it when they attend workshops.

This is a great article to check out called "Per diems undermine health interventions, systems and research in Africa: burying our heads in the sand" by Valéry Ridde. The author discusses "perdiemitis" and I think they really hit the nail on the head.

Per diems are an out-of-control monster in my opinion. What it comes down to is that you are paying people to teach them new skills or information, when they should naturally have that thirst for knowledge and that desire to improve their communities. Also, their jobs will already pay them a salary so it seems unnecessary to give large per diems. It’s fine to give a modest sum, but if people are attending a workshop only because they are going to receive per diem, i.e., only learning when it benefits them, you`ve got a bigger problem on your hands. When they return to their community, do you think they will properly put that information to use?

The problem is: how do you revert to a system of volunteerism and a genuine desire for knowledge (with money only paid for hotels, food, and transportation during a conference or seminar), when per diems have been doled out for years? Because the truth is that practices in health, governance, technology, etc., aren’t going to improve until people have a vested interest that isn`t purely financial gain. I’m not saying that everyone is in it for the money, but I do think that some people are and this impedes development. I think that true development will happen when there is a better and more genuine conversation with communities and people, rather than by just throwing money at people and expecting change.

Luggage Locker Vacation

So my parents came to Japan for a week last week and we had a grand ol’ time. We started off in Fukuoka, where we took the ferry to Ojika. The ferry is just a big open room basically, where you sleep on the floor, surrounded by other people doing the exact same thing. It`s not exactly the epitome of comfort and the stench of cigarette smoke is strong. As my dad described it, "it`s like a giant neighborhood sleepover party." You get enough floor space to lay down and that`s about it. I fell asleep with a family next to me and I woke up with one of the children huddled up at my feet. Thankfully, the mother woke up, grabbed the child’s leg and dragged her back over to her allotted floor space. Sleeping in such conditions is difficult for people like me, who tend to flail and thrash in their sleep. Whenever I wake up, I am almost always partially mummified by my sheets (minus the embalming).

"Oh, hey there! Just hanging out outside the Ojika post office."

My parents really enjoyed Ojika – meeting my friends and students, and walking around and seeing the sites of the island when it wasn’t raining. I took them on a death march because we didn't have a car. The weather wasn’t ideal and regrettably, we didn`t get to see the Pot Hole. The Pot Hole is a well-known landmark on the island, where a stone ball was formed in a hole on the coast by crashing waves. It`s about as exciting as it sounds. We went to the high school sports practices, where we dealt out Reese’s and after a mishap with a friend, we had to advise them to remove the dark brown paper before consuming the peanut butter cup. Also, my mom and I hit a soft tennis ball back and forth, much to the amusement of the girls tennis team. Whenever I have gone to sports practices, I am still not used to everyone turning and collectively bowing in my direction. I prefer to be covert in my arrival.

During the march, near the public track and field/baseball grounds.

After Ojika, we headed to Kyoto and saw Kiyomizu-dera (a temple), the Golden Pavillion, Nijo Castle, Fushimi Inari and Arashiyama’s monkey mountain. How it works is you climb up a really steep mountain and pretend to not look winded. The monkeys roam freely close to the top of the mountain. When you finally wheeze your way to the top, you go into a screened in room where they sell apples, bananas and peanuts to feed the monkeys, who all hang onto the chain-link fence separating monkey from man. So it`s basically like a reverse zoo. I went and visited the monkeys last year with my sister but I just couldn`t get enough of their creepy little human-like hands reaching out for apple bits. My favorite part was when three monkeys were hanging on the fence with their hands outstretched. One monkey was being particularly impatient and crying out loudly when I heard my mother say to the monkey “no, you`re naughty. I am not giving you any!” The monkey then proceeded to turn around and attempt to defecate on the other two patient monkeys. Revenge, a dish not served so great while hanging from a chain-link fence and gravity is working against your favor.

One of the patient monkeys.

After Kyoto, we went to Osaka and visited the aquarium. Words of advice - never visit the Osaka Aquarium during very busy tourist times. It's probably the only time and place I ever see people being outright rude to each other, shoving and pushing their way past each other. The aquarium is designed to flow downward so that people walk past tanks and take in the sea creatures. However, this is lost on the crowds that tend to swarm toward the glass windows in large groups so that very few people can enjoy viewing the animals. They even crowded together to take pictures of small crabs, something I can see on this island. Those crabs probably now have a very elevated sense of self-worth. Even my mom was bitten by the photo-taking bug, with my dad dubbing her "Charlene Lynum, Marine Photographer."

After Osaka, we headed to Hiroshima, where we engaged in a battle of epic proportions for luggage lockers to leave our crap in while we walked around. It was only one battle in the constant war during our trip in finding suitable and open luggage lockers. Not only was it a matter of finding lockers but also finding lockers to fit all of our luggage and the size of our luggage. Luggage lockers are a serious business at Japanese travel hubs during heavy tourism times. As soon as you take your stuff out of one, people literally run for the now empty locker. We spent about an hour in Hiroshima station before eventually figuring out how to safely ditch our luggage. We spent a few hours at the Peace Park, where they were having the 2012 Hiroshima Flower Festival. I was happy that my parents got to see some Yosakoi dances at the festival while we were there.

The grounds of the Peace Park, decorated with flowers and giant paper cranes for the Flower Festival.

A Yosakoi dance group that was pretty impressive. Anything that involves back-flips is always impressive to me.

I loved these metal hair decorations!

After we had finished our crazy, fast-paced trip around Japan, we ended up again back in Fukuoka the night before my parents flew back out. We went out and consumed an authentic Japanese dish for our last meal together, tacos with chips and salsa. I had a really great time with the parents and it was great to see them after so much time apart. They seemed to enjoy themselves, minus the sitting and sleeping on the floor. It's never easy to say goodbye to family at security gates at airports but I can rest assured because I will see them again in July when I return home. I'm hoping to return home to find a fabulous photo album full of trip pictures, two-thirds of which will be of seals and jellyfish.

"Go, go, go!" - It was raining and this was a few seconds sans umbrella and people walking through the shot.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Stranger Than Fiction

When I was a child, I read books but I wouldn't really have called it my number one hobby. While I was convinced I could dig my own hole for a swimming pool in the backyard, my sister was more of the bookworm, reading her Babysitter's Club books. However, as I grew older, I found reading to be a more enjoyable and satisfying activity. A lot of people prefer to watch films to get the story faster but with a book, you feel more involved. And the best thing about a book is that you can be alone (say, relaxing in your house in rural Mozambique or on a fairly isolated island in the East China Sea) and never feel lonely.

Since arriving in Japan, I have made it my goal to surpass the number of books I read while in the Peace Corps and attempt to read a book a week. This leads to a grand total of 105 books that I have to reach by July 25th. Challenge. Accepted. It hasn't been easy because some books just aren't quick reads and sometimes, I have zero attention span and go watch some TV. But I have been on a real nonfiction kick. There was an interesting article on NPR entitled "Why Women Read More Than Men" and it raises some good points, with the author discussing why women tend to gravitate more toward fiction. (Another article to read about the subject of gender and reading is the article "How to Talk to Little Boys" by Lisa Bloom. She talks about how girls have surpassed boys in education and how reading is now generally frowned on as a male activity, when it used to be that reading was a more masculine pastime.)

Anyhoosies, here is my list of great books that I recommend and have read in the past year and a half or so! (Also, forgive me for my sometimes depressing taste - they are just subjects that I find interesting.)

1. The Zookeeper's Wife (Diane Ackerman) - This book tells the story of the zookeepers of the Warsaw Zoo who helped save hundreds of people during World War II.

2. Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way - (Jon Krakauer) - Krakauer wrote this short Kindle e-book about the author of Three Cups of Tea and discusses how parts of the original story were fictionalized and how funds were mismanaged - a sad and common trait among some "charitable" organizations.

3. Girls Like Us: Fighting For a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale (Rachel Lloyd) - This is a book about a British woman who helps young girls and women leave a life of prostitution and abuse to try to start a new life.

4. Band of Sisters: American Women at War in Iraq (Kirsten Holmstedt) - A great book about women who serve in the United States armed forced and how they fit in among a dominantly male military culture.

5. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berline (Erik Larson) - I love Erik Larson`s books. This book is about the family of the American Ambassador to Germany during the rise of Hitler`s regime in the early to mid-1930`s.

6. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Laura Hillenbrand) - This is the well-told story of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic athlete and POW. It`s really well-written and this guy's life and story of survival are pretty amazing.

7. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (David Simon) - This is a book about detectives in Baltimore, Maryland and how they go about solving crimes and murders. The stories of the detectives also served as the inspiration for the TV series Homicide and The Wire.

8. Cool, Calm & Contentious (Merrill Markoe) - This is just a funny, well-written book by a former writer for several comedy TV shows. The parts where she writes about her mother are hilarious.

9. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Mary Roach) - Okay, this book can be a little gross at times but it`s still an interesting read about where our bodies end up after we donate them to science.

10. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Mindy Kaling ) - This is a just a funny book with great opinions and thoughts about society by Kaling, a writer and cast member of the American version of The Office.

11. The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America (Erik Larson) - Like I said, I love Larson`s books. This is the story of the set-up and planning leading up to the 1893 World's Fair, set alongside the story of the serial killer H.H. Holmes, who operated in Chicago and found his victims during the hustle and bustle of that period.

12. Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men (Mara Hvistendahl) - No matter how you feel over the controversial subject of abortion, this is an interesting read that discusses sex-selective abortion and what the world has already and could become like if more and more people use technology to choose the gender of their children.

13. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Robert K. Massie) - A biography of Catherine the Great. The court life of Imperial Russia reads like a soap opera. Sometimes it can be a dry read with all the historical details but for the most part, she was a very interesting and intelligent woman.

14. Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell) - I really, really loved this book. Gladwell talks about how people often define success as something we have worked hard for and deserve more than others. However, he believes that, in reality, our success is often a result of being born in fortunate time periods, being given opportunities, and special circumstance and coincidences.

I haven't really read much for fiction lately and although I love fiction, sometimes the truth truly is stranger and more interesting than fiction.