Can One Life Make a Difference?

          What price freedom?  What price a human life?   These questions are still with me several days after a visit to the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town.

Do you remember Amy Biehl?  The white 1989 Stanford graduate who went to South Africa on a Fulbright several years later to work against Apartheid and to register voters in hopes of a free election? She worked hard; she made many friends in the townships, and especially in Guguletu.  Then on the evening of August 25, 1993, she was taking two friends home to Guguletu, where according to reports a peaceful demonstration had been in process.  But the police showed up and started shooting; the peaceful protest turned violent.  This was the very height of the resistance to Apartheid, which finally ended the following year. 

When Amy and her friends drove in, a mob formed around them.  In spite of her friends’ frantic protests that she was “one of us,” they pulled Amy from the car.  She tried to run, but the crowd was faster:  a barrage of stones brought her down and knives did the rest. 

What price freedom?  What price a human life? 

The Amy Biehl Foundation, started in 1997 by Amy’s parents, tries to answer these questions every day.  Dedicated to Amy’s goal of empowering young people in the townships through education, the Foundation supports a number of programs:  after-school creative arts and culture activities in five township schools (they hope to raise that number to 10 by 2014); HIV/AIDS education; sports such as soccer hockey, swimming, cricket, and even golf; “greening the environment” of local communities and schools; computer skills; and reading role models.  These programs all aim to teach the value of freedom and the value of human life and to give young people hope that they can better their lives.

It can’t be easy.  The township schools I visited are clearly struggling; classes are large and teachers ill paid and overworked.  Equipment and materials–sparse or nonexistent.  Yet the children, most of whom live in tiny, dusty shacks crammed together in row after row after row, seem overwhelmingly happy to be at school.  For one thing, they get a plentiful and healthy meal (one school I visited had its own small vegetable garden and the Biehl Foundation hopes to bring similar gardens to the other schools they support).  As one teacher said to me, “We know that children cannot possibly learn on empty stomachs.”  In addition, the lessons of the day are augmented by the after-school programs the Foundation brings to them.  At one school, the children played drums, whistles and flutes of several kinds, and an instrument that looked like a xylophone made out of leather (these kids were good!) while  other children did indigenous dances and sang for us.  They took turns performing—and we clapped and roared our appreciation.  Sitting in the dirt enthralled by the scene in front of me, I almost didn’t notice when a small hand worked its way into mine.  I looked down into the deepest brown eyes of a girl about 6 and held on tight as she crowded in close to me.  Another minute – she was in my lap and I was holding her for all I was worth.

Back at the Foundation headquarters, Director Kevin Chaplin gave us a brief history of the organization, and I was impressed by how much they seem able to do with limited resources and a small staff.  Asking us to spread the word about the work of the Foundation, Kevin also said “And I beg you to visit our small shop and buy gifts:  all of that money goes directly to children, as does the money we make from our Amy’s bread and Amy’s wine projects.”  We did go into the shop and we did buy:  I coveted some of the children’s art but couldn’t figure out how to get it home, so instead I bought many bead bracelets with clasps bearing the emblem of the Foundation – a black hand and a white hand, fingers intertwined. 

So we shopped, looked around, and asked questions about how to volunteer or how to help in other ways.  We learned that the Foundation accepts interns from colleges and universities–and I met Michael from Yale, who will be with them for three months; he looked like a young man very happy in his work. When I left the little shop and went back to the meeting room, I met Ntobeko Peni, who works with the after school programs, and a bit later Easy Nofemela, an assistant who also coaches sports teams.  We shook hands, I asked a couple of other questions and then thanked them for welcoming our group visit.  As we shook hands, I looked into their eyes . . . and for a moment thought I saw something familiar. 

Not until I got back on the bus did those eyes come back to me, eyes I had seen before when we watched a video about the Foundation’s history.  Beginning with the story of Amy’s death, the video went on to speak of the four men charged with her murder and sent to prison.  After five years, two of the men asked to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation process:  Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemala.  I watched them in court as they spoke of that night in 1993 and as they spoke later with Amy’s parents, who had flown to South Africa for the hearing.  Amy’s father summed up their feelings by saying that the truth and reconciliation process worked—it really worked—and that he and Amy’s mother felt that they could now live out Amy’s ambitions and hopes and dreams.  And they could do so accompanied in part by two of the men who killed her. 

I had shaken their hands.  I had looked into their eyes.  I had felt something deep and strong—and also puzzling.  I am puzzled still, though perhaps contemplative or meditative is a better description. 

What price freedom?  What price a human life?    The answers to these questions:  inestimable.  And can one life make a difference?  Yes it can.  Yes it has.  And yes it will.

MUST We Communicate?

February 27, 2012 ~~  MUST We Communicate?

Given my experiences so far on this round-the-world voyage, I would have to say yes, human beings are wired to connect to other humans through symbol systems:  we must communicate.  I felt the need myself acutely in Brazil, where I was woefully unable to speak in Portuguese.  So I fell back on snatches of Spanish and a lot of hand gestures, signals, and even drawing.  Deep in the Amazon rainforest, working with villagers on a painting project, I was more tired from trying to grasp what others were saying to me than I was by the physical labor—by a long shot.  But it seemed infinitely important to me to make that effort.

Then I got to Africa.  Here the language barrier is not so intense for me since English is one of the eleven official languages of this country.  But as I watch and listen, I see that people here are making huge efforts to communicate with one another, across linguistic as well as cultural and racial borders.  On the street yesterday, I watched as two people began drawing on a scrap of paper:  one was trying to explain to the other a key African concept (Ubuntu) with only the resources of English.  When I left, they were still hard at it. 

Kenneth Burke defines humans as “the symbol using, symbol misusing animal,” and I’ve thought of that definition many times during my long career.  But never more so than on this trip, and never ever more so than on my visit to Cape Town’s Iziko Museum.  This museum was included on one of the day trips I have taken, and our guide told us we had an hour and a half to explore its several floors of exhibits, including everything from dinosaurs to contemporary art. 

I never made it out of the first large room.  Here in a dimly lit space was eloquent testimony to people’s need to communicate:  exhibit after exhibit of African rock art, some of it geometric, much of it representational drawings of animals and, occasionally a person.  I strained to see every detail I could make out, trying to reach back through the centuries, the millennia, to these communicators, to reach them somehow through the messages they left behind.  From the Apollo Cave in southern Namibia a 27,500 year old painting of an animal with human back legs. . . .  From Blombos on the southern Cape Coast, an 80,000 year old geometric carving – ochre into stone.  What could these marks mean?  One of the informational placards gave some hints:

San paintings not only expressed symbolic ideas that were at the heart of San society, but also the achievements of artists who placed an imaginative world of figures and space in paint on rock surfaces. . . .  A painting was never ‘finished.’  Successive generations of artists might have added figures or erased them over many years.  The composite whole reflects the passage of time, several layers of meaning and the enduring importance of ritual and symbol.

So these messages were probably collaboratively created, passed down from generation to generation just as oral histories would be at a later date.

     Then at the far end of the room, a modest display in a glass covered case holding what I recognized immediately as an abalone shell and some small mounds of earth.  Puzzled, I made my way to a sign telling me that the abalone shell I had just seen, and another one that is now housed in another museum, formed the world’s first container.  Created some 100,000 years ago, these two shells held a mixture that scientists have identified as ochre and several other ingredients.  In essence, I was looking at an ancient chemistry lab, one that produced pigments that were used in rock paintings.  The abalone shells formed the connected pieces of a bowl to hold the pigment.

I had to sit down.  I felt the same way I felt when I first read the words of Enheduanna, Sumerian priestess who lived about 3200 BCE, or the first time I read a fragment of Sappho’s poems.  Sitting on the stone floor, I felt the human drive to communicate surging through the centuries, touching me right here, right now, in Cape Town, South Africa. 

The artists whose work I was studying were of the San people, and the next day I visited !Khwa ttu, the San Cultural Center.  There I saw replicas of more rock art and heard stories of the god Mantis and how he created the Eland.  I listened as the guides there spoke to us in seven different African “click” languages and I tried hard to learn to say “water” in each one.  I failed at that task, but they encouraged me, generously patting me on the back and saying “very good try.”  And even when I couldn’t understand their words, their gestures, their touch, their eyes all communicated to me—and I hope I reciprocated.  I wanted, I needed to communicate.  And so, I think, did they.  So do we all.    

How Much Food . . . .

How much can 700 people eat?

The answer to this question turns out to be A HUGE AMOUNT.  This week we had a chance to visit for an hour with the head chef and the hotel manager and to learn about the ship’s galleys and storerooms.  The ship has seven decks and galleys are spread out over deck 2 (the galley for crew members), 3, and 4 (the storerooms and galleys for the students, faculty, and staff).  I was relieved to see that an escalator runs between these decks:  I can only imagine how hard it is to negotiate very large pans and trays of food with the ship rolling constantly, so surely the escalator helps. 

               We were not invited into the galleys in person but rather watched a video and saw slides:  having 700 people go through these areas physically, the chef explained, could be dangerous since the floors are often slippery.  But the biggest reason for keeping us out of the food service areas is health-related:  they do not want to take the chance of any germs brought in by us to contaminate any of the containers of food. 

And oh my goodness gracious, what a lot of food.  We saw slides of the pastry and breads area—think a room chock full of trays stacked twelve deep in racks with each tray full of loaves of bread (of many kinds), croissants, muffins, dinner rolls, hamburger and hotdog buns, cakes, cookies, pies, loaves of fruit bread, and more.  To my surprise, TWO pastry chefs make all the baked goods on the ship except for bagels and English muffins, and they get up every morning at 4:00 to start this process.  They and the other cooks turn out about 150 gallons of soup a day, a salad bar with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery, carrots, onions, and usually two or three other items daily; giant trays of vegetarian and non-veggie sandwiches, equally large trays of a dessert (or two), and a hot bar that always has a vegetarian main dish, a meat main dish (or two) as well as vegetables and usually rice and/or pasta of some kind.  And baskets of homemade rolls.  And four or five kinds of juices.  And for those not satisfied with the daily offerings, there’s always the snack bar on deck 6 (sandwiches, fruit, and sweets) or the grill on deck 7 (pizza, burgers, etc.)  (I haven’t mentioned breakfast because I haven’ been to one yet, but I understand that they make pancakes and waffles every day along with sweet rolls of all kinds, scrambled eggs, omelets, breakfast potatoes, hot and cold cereals, yogurts, and other breakfastey foods.)

And how many cooks does it take to keep all these meals coming?  Thirteen, including the two pastry chefs.  That means every one of them is cooking for 55 of us.  I feel slightly ill just thinking about the math:  if I put together a dinner party for 10 I feel like I should get a Presidential medal. 

The entire galley crew, we learned, numbers 35, including 14 dishwashers.  The rest are circulating around the dining rooms, refilling pitchers of water and picking up used dishes—or they are staffing the grill or snack bar or, in the evenings, the faculty bar.  I had been planning on chipping in for a tip for the galley crew all along, but after this presentation I am upping my contribution:  like all crew members on board, the galley staff work ten hours a day seven days a week, and they are working HARD.  When I ask any of them about these long hours, they give the party line:  they work very hard for four or five months and then have three months off:  a good deal, they say.  Still sounds like a very tough job to me!

Those folks who were up at 4 a.m. are still hard at it since this afternoon we will have a “Taste of South Africa” in the faculty lounge, where we will taste, according to the chef, hoender pastei, sosaties, ntomo krakro and more (I have no idea what any of those things is but can’t wait to try them)!  Before we left the session with the chef, he read out a bunch of statistics, most of which I wouldn’t write down in time, but I did get a few numbers that fairly staggered me:  participants in the voyage that finished just before ours began consumed 13,299 pounds of beef, 20,587 pounds of chicken, 7000 pounds of pasta, 12,000 pounds of lettuce, 20,000 pounds of carrots, 3500 pounds of peanut butter, and 22,000 candy bars.  I don’t want to know any more—ever.

While the galley crew is about 99 percent Filipino, the larger crew includes people from Germany, Croatia, South Africa, Jamaica, and probably other places I don’t know about.  So it’s a mixed group and all seem highly skilled as well as very well trained.  And what the Captain says, goes, not only in terms of the ship’s crew but also in many cases in terms of students and/or staff.  In short, the Captain is responsible for making sure that we abide by maritime law and by the laws of each country we visit:  early on in our trip, one student was found to have very, very small amounts of an illegal substance in his cabin-and he was sent home the next day.  That was a bummer for everyone on board, but since then all seems to have gone well – no more dismissals at least. 

The ship is rolling pretty steadily today, making everyone UNsteady on their feet.  Several classes have been cancelled, but all my students except one were right there ready to go.  I have an hour’s break so am sitting on my little balcony soaking up a bit of sun and trying not to get wind blown out to sea.  I haven’t seen another ship in three days in this vast, blue ocean that seems to go on forever in every direction.  Our ship is nearly 600 feet long and I keep thinking about those who made the Atlantic crossing in tiny vessels (the early explorer’s ships were very small – a tenth of the size of this one, if that) or, infinitely worse, in the holds of slave ships.  These travelers—some voluntary, but most not, had none of the luxuries we have on this ship, and certainly not the bountiful provisions we are enjoying every day.  So food for thought, which is perhaps the most important food of all.

Tema to Accra–16 miles in 106 minutes!

14 February 2012 ~~ Tema to Accra:  Sixteen miles, an hour and forty-six minutes

Our ship arrived at Ghana’s Tema Harbor early, and standing on deck I counted over forty huge cargo carriers lined up, apparently waiting to enter. We sailed past and found our docking place, the only “cruise ship” in sight.  We later learned that this huge industrial harbor and the surrounding area is not yet a tourist destination (one guide told us that perhaps five cruise ships stop here a year).  Tema, an industrial city of some 180,000, seems like just an extension of the harbor. 

               We docked at Tema because it is the port of call for Accra, the capital of Ghana and the destination for many of our field trips. Hearing that Semester at Sea was providing buses to take us back and forth to Accra—as many times as we wanted during our five-day stay for a $15 flat charge—I looked forward to going into the city as soon as possible.  A piece of cake, I thought:  just sixteen miles.

               Think again.  We boarded our bus at 10:0 a.m. – and arrived at the drop-off point in Accra nearly two hours later.  And what a ride it was—through teeming roadways lined with kiosks, and on the roads themselves squads of mostly young people, trying to sell what they were carrying in huge baskets, tubs, and cartons on their heads—in the 95 degree heat.  (We were born to this, said one young man when I asked how they managed to balance these loads and yet move with such grace.)    

               We seemed to be scarcely moving, but we were absolutely hurtling forward compared to the traffic around us because we had—of all things—a police escort.  This man, dressed in full uniform and riding a small motorcycle, looked not a little like Haile Selassie to me, and he ruled the road.  He would get squarely in the middle of the two lanes of traffic and then honk his horn and begin swerving wildly from side to side, motioning to the vans, trucks, cars, and Tro Tros on either side of him to move over, thus creating a third “middle” lane.  When a car or bus didn’t instantly oblige, our escort kicked his right leg out to his side as if it were on a swivel and gestured with his right hand:  they moved over.

               Actually, I could have stayed on the bus all day, since everything was new fascinating to me:  the fruit bats hanging like black sacks in the gorgeous mahogany trees, the peacocks strutting, the chickens running everywhere, and the vans packed with people—one even had two goats strapped on top of it (looked perfectly calm to me) and another had a goat AND a bicycle tied down.  

Eventually, however, we reached Accra, where we stopped at the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial.  I remembered Nkrumah pretty well from the sixties, as the father of African liberation, the first president to take his country out of colonial rule (he declared independence in 1957).  He is revered here and throughout Africa, and the memorial was, well, memorable.  Made of Italian marble, its four sides form what our guide explained to us is the trunk of a vast tree growing tall and straight and true:  the people of Ghana are its branches, so that they complete the sculpture.  Nkrumah is, in this setting, lying at peace under a protecting and ever-growing tree.  There are also two statues of Nkrumah in the memorial park.  I approached the first from its rear and saw the figure of a man, headless, and with part of one leg missing.  Facing it, I finally saw the head of the statue lying at its feet:  both are the remains of a statue that was defected and torn down during the military coup that overthrew Nkrumah’s in 1966 (probably with the help of the CIA).  Though the other statue shows him at the height of his powers, it is this broken one that stays in my thoughts, making me think of Nkrumah’s broken dreams of the Pan Africanism he had envisioned. 

We went on to the W.E.B. DuBois house, and here—as in the Nkrumah memorial—I was taken back forcefully to the turmoil of the early 1960s:  there are photos in both museums of John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, and many U.S. leaders—as well as the main world players of the time.  DuBois came to Ghana in 1961, at a very old age, to work on a projected six-volume Encyclopedia of Africa, a project that remains unfinished.  The museum, where he lived, is small and plain, essentially a fairly large rectangular sitting room, a small kitchen, and two bedrooms, one of which was his office, lined with cupboards that hold his papers, including the original copy of his dissertation.  A young man seemed to be working there and answered our questions thoroughly, but I wonder how long this monument to DuBois can hold out: without any kind of climate control, for example, the documents are sure to deteriorate.  Again I realized that Accra is not yet set up for tourists:  neither the Nkrumah Memorial nor the DuBois house had a single post card for sale, much less books or other artifacts related to these two giants of the twentieth century.  On my way out of the DuBois house, in a dusty corner, I saw a small wooden contribution box—and I put what little money I had in it.  Outside stood a sign that said African American Association of Ghana.  When I get home I want to try to find out about this organization and about any plans they may have to support the DuBois House in the future.

Later, our trusty driver showed us the opulent Presidential Palace, huge amphitheater of Independence square – where they had received John Kennedy and where they would have received President Obama on his 2009 visit to Africa had not security concerns forced them to hold the welcome at the International Conference Center (“We were all very, very disappointed, said our driver, and I can only think that Obama was equally disappointed.)  But soon we were back on the highway, braced for the return to the ship—and this time without our police escort. 

All went well, if slowly, and I was continually amazed at the ability of our driver to turn very small corners in this very big bus.  On one such occasion, he swung wide and to the right but still entered the street on the “wrong” side of the road—and we came bumper to bumper with a car, two men inside.  Seeing what was happening, the car behind the one with the men immediately backed up, leaving a large space for the car in front of us to follow suit.  Our driver looked at the men and, gently, motioned “back up.”  Nothing doing. They sat, stolid, not making eye contact.  After some time, a fellow from a hotel, wearing a red jacket, came out, knocked on the car window, and seemed to ask the driver of the car to move back.  Headshakes in the negative. No dice.  Not even a budge backward.  Used to stories of road rage, I half expected one of the men to pull out a gun and start blasting away or at the very least for the people in vehicles behind us to riot.  Neither happened, and as I sat there in these tense moments (the SAS students on the bus had been laughing and whooping it up, but  by now they were silent and fidgety) I remembered something I’d heard at our “cultural pre-port” gathering when several people talked to us about what to expect in Ghana:  “in this culture, the speaker said, people are expected to do the right thing.  When they don’t, citizens try to find out why and then they put subtle pressure on the offending person to change ways. . . .”  When I looked back up from my musing, I saw six or seven people step off the sidewalk and approach the car.  No one raised a voice. No one pulled out a weapon.  They all leaned in and spoke earnestly to the driver of the car.  And he backed up. The art of public persuasion in Ghana:  we in the U.S. could learn a lot from it.

At school in Ghana

     This morning, I and 34 others set out to visit Morning Star School (grades K to 9) in the city of Accra.  We knew little about the school except that it had a connection with Semester at Sea and that they knew we were coming for a visit.  Our guide, Nii, told us that Morning Star was one of the best schools in all of Ghana, founded in 1965 by Mrs. Esme Praah Siriboe; today, her two daughters and her son continue the tradition.  As we enter the school, we pass parents and young children waiting to be interviewed for possible admission the next school year.  Later we learn that parents put in the first application when their children are three; then a year or two later, they are interviewed and, perhaps, accepted.

We are greeted by one daughter, Ms. Nana Yaa Siriboe, who tells us of the school’s history and its mission:  “to promote optimal learning to enable our pupils and staff to seek and use knowledge for personal growth and development, and service to mankind.”  The mission is deeply Christian, she tells us, and all children there, whether Muslim or Christian, pray together.  Their motto:  Knowledge is Power for Service.  She goes on to explain something of the curriculum (English, science, math, languages as a core with other courses on technology and communication and homemaking. We meet one of two coaches and several other teachers. 

I look around at the comfortable room we are in.  It is simply furnished but has art work on the walls and at the front of the room, two large signs:  "GO CONFIDENTLY IN THE DIRECTION OF YOUR DREAMS" and LIVE THE LIFE YOU HAVE IMAGINED" . . . Henry David Thoreau.

The school is almost 50 years old, and it is showing its age:  I see a lot of peeling paint and rust and can’t help wondering about the shape other, less affluent schools must be in. After all, students at this school pay tuition equivalent to $1800, a fortune in Ghanian terms. But these thoughts fade quickly when we meet the children:  dressed in yellow checked dresses for girls and brown pants and yellow shirts for boys, they are shy but anxious to meet us.  We move from room to room and I sit with a little girl who is filling out a workbook:  “What is a homepage?”  Answer:  “The introductory page of a website.”  We see the computer lab and the library, which cannot have more than 200 books in it though they had subscriptions to a number of magazines, including Time and Newsweek. 

We are entranced, dazzled by the smiles and the handshakes and the very formal and serious greetings.  I sit and listen to a seven-year-old read from her workbook on morals:  she reads of commitment and service and responsibility, and when I ask her to tell me what commitment means she says, without hesitation, “when you give your whole self to it.” 

The visit ends with a soccer match between students and kids from Semester at Sea and kids from Morning Star.  We have a few good players but we can’t compete with their team, who dart in and out, deflecting the ball and scoring with ease.  At the end, more handshakes and some hugs all around among the players while we all cheer for both sides.  After that,   we return to the room we were greeted in and enjoy meat and vegetable patties (like empanadas), fish balls, and the best peanut brittle I have ever tasted.  We have brought gifts:  tablets and paper, colored pencils and pens, crayons and markers, stickers, Frisbees.  Their “official photographer” records this exchange while we give our thanks.  The children crowd around as we leave the building, waving us goodbye.  I think we all felt ebullient:  we had seen a Ghanian school in progress, had seen students excited about learning, had talked with teachers who had “given their whole selves” to it. 

On the way to Morning Star, we had asked our guide if we could possibly visit a public school, and so on the way back to the ship, he took us first to a very large public school (well over 1000 students) in the Teshie neighborhood.  The school was actually several schools in a large, concrete compound; like Morning Star they taught to grade 9; to go to high school requires more funding than most have, the teachers told us.  This school, supported by the government and by some contributions, was less well-appointed than Morning Star, but they too had a small library and a few computers.  We met with three teachers and I once again watched as students filled out very worn workbooks.  Some student drawings brightened up the walls, but otherwise the classrooms were pretty spare.  The children, however, were anything but spare:  they danced around us, laughing and clapping as we knelt down to talk with them and ask questions.  Our guide, as it turned out, lives in this neighborhood, so the headmaster had allowed us to come calling at no notice—though just for ten minutes.  Back on the bus, Nii tells us that we have now seen one of the very best-equipped private schools in Ghana and a “very good” public school.  “But,” he said, “there is one other school I would like you to visit.”  He knew the head teacher at this school, he said, and we could stop by it just for a moment.  “Then you will have seen the full spectrum of education in Ghana,” he said.

On the way, he told us that this school, a private school founded by a very elderly man of the neighborhood (now 98), was for impoverished children who could afford to go to no school at all.  Our bus pulled up to a small building behind a fence, with a patch of dirt to one side of it.  The school building is actually one not-very-large room, divided in two by sheets of cloth:  the older children meet on one side, the younger on the other.  Dirt floor.  A few long tables and some chairs.  No electricity.  No water that we can see.  No books.  An enthusiastic teacher (we find out later that the founder of the school pays the teachers what he can but that most are volunteers) holds up a computer keyboard and asks what it is:  “A computer! A computer!” comes the response.  He tries to show them what the keyboard does and tells them about computers.  They listen intently. 

We have left our gifts back at the affluent Morning Star school and are now feeling it keenly.  One young woman has a bag of silly bands and she starts putting them on little wrists one by one, to the children’s amazement.  The young man who brought Frisbees has one left:  with the teacher’s permission, he runs out into the center of the patch of dirt and a wild Frisbee match ensues with little ones throwing themselves in its direction and, occasionally, catching it with rapturous shouts.  Several students get out smart phones or cameras and the children stare—and then break into huge smiles. When they see themselves, they crack up and shout and we wish we had an instant way to print those photos.

When we leave, the kids press against the fence, calling bye bye and waving and holding out their hands.  Many of the Semester at Sea students crouch down to give hugs, and then we were off.  Back to our air conditioned ship and to a hot meal and to a shower.   Subdued, we talked about our day—and about the children’s day.  Many of us came back to write, and to ponder, to think about our own commitments, to those things we “give our whole selves” to.  We also came back to gather what we could to send to this school, Unipra Institute, and to ask others on board to search their cabins for anything at all that could be used by the Institute’s children.  Nii will be back at the ship at 9:00 on Friday morning and I will meet him with whatever we have been able to come up with.  He has promised to make a special trip back to the school for us. 

I close my eyes and see the little faces, hear the laughs and shouts, hear the little boy playing a traditional flute, see the little girl making a day-late valentine out of a scrap of paper, hear the KICK of the soccer ball, and feel the heat and the humidity and the humanity and the grace of these teachers and children of Ghana. 

Kids' Writing Club!

     Today is the third meeting of the Kids’ Writing Club:  2:45 t5o 3:45 or 4:00, once a week, in a corner of the main dining room, and as I enter the kids call out to me “come on, come on, come on!”  So in I come and we do a bit of warm-up:  “if you were a food, what food would you be?” I ask.  Instantly come the answers:  “I’d be chocolate ice cream!”  “I’d be pizza!”  “I’d be an ocean of M&M’s”  – and my favorite for today:  “I’d be a blowfish so no one would eat me.”  These kids are hot tickets for sure.

               We divide into groups:  some of the younger kids want to draw pictures and tell stories to go along with them, and Christine, one of the fabulous volunteer peer tutors on board, joins them.  Betty puts pen to paper first:  “I’m going to draw a whale,” she announces.  A group of four boys (second to fourth grade) get busy with their ongoing comic book:  Maritime Mysteries.  They send me in search of a pencil sharpener, tell me the story line, and dismiss me:  they have work to do.  At another table, Harris (just turned 5) chews the end of a pencil and then carefully, laboriously, writes out the title of his story for the day:  OUR THE HOUSE.  BY HARRIS.  Two other boys are working on a song to be performed during the play they are writing about Batman, while another one sketches out a poster advertising the big event.  I move from table to table, asking questions, giving high fives, and checking on progress.  The saga “Evil on the Explorer,” being written by two nine year olds, is turning into a cross between Harry Potter and Robinson Crusoe:  as of today, I will get to play a nurse in the final production, while my colleague Margaret Bass, gets to be a Deatheater (I’m jealous).

 Margaret hasn’t read the Potter series, but she loves the title, and earlier today she gathered a few of the boys around and asked if they’d like to hear her growls.  OH YES.  She has some good ones, too, and when they were all awe-struck she said, deadpan, “You know, I eat little boys between the ages of six and eleven.”  Big eyes.  Bigger eyes. “YOU DO?”  “Oh yes I have always done that.”  Then she leans back laughing and they crack up:  “she eats little boys age six to eleven” they chant.  Later in the afternoon one of them came to ask me if I knew whether she ever made an exception for 12 and 13-year olds.  A touch of sibling rivalry there, I think.  At any rate, Margaret came to the Kids’ Writing Club today because Cricket turned 11.  The kitchen had made a huge chocolate ice cream cake AND cookies, and we clapped and sang while Cricket beamed her sunniest of smiles.  Because of the festivities, I didn’t get to read her writing, but Cricket, who plays the piano (beautifully) and has lived in three different countries in her young life, is full of imagination and stories, which she brings to life on every page.  The last time I read one of her stories aloud, she rewarded me with a beautiful origami swan.

Not that I need any rewards:  being part of the Kids’ Writing Club is reward enough—and more!

Music in Ghana

     We were 1300 miles from Ghana when a big storm blew up: thunderclaps, lightning, pounding rain, and inside—a jam session with Ghanian musician Sheriff Ghale leading a group of students on guitar, drums, and all manner of rattles and bells.  A Brazilian student sang in lyrical Portuguese while the audience clapped in rhythm.  The sounds of Brazil, Africa, the Atlantic ocean, and the rain storm combined in a perfect, raucous harmony. 

Ghale was with us from Manaus, Brazil to Accra, Ghana, so we had the benefit of his presence for 11 days.  Seemingly indefatigable, he attended classes, performed, coached newbie drummers or guitarists, and responded to every request with grace and wit.  One of 26 children, and the only one to go to college, Ghale is currently completing his MA in music at the University of Ghana.  Over our time together, we slowly learned about his work:  slowly, because he is extremely modest and not given to talking about himself.  My first hint of the depth of his music came on the first night when I listened to him sing some of his own compositions, including a haunting lyric about the lives of young women from northern Ghana who move south, to Accra, in search of work.  All too often, they end up on the streets, and Ghale’s song mourns for them.  So I learned right away that his music has a strong social mission.  As he said, “My music is not about bling; it’s about real life in Ghana.”  So his songs aim to capture the harsh realities of many young people and also, when possible, to help bring about change. In one case, his song about guinea worm, a water-borne disease that had plagued Ghana for centuries, is credited with the near eradication of the disease. 

Over dinner one evening, Ghale spoke about the importance of music in Ghanian culture:  “It IS our culture,” he says.  “Our history is recorded in music; we celebrate with music; we mourn with music; it’s as if music runs through our veins.”  After dinner, he begins to drum, humming softly to himself, and I listen to, and feel, the beat. . . .  I’m taken back years, to the opening of Savion Glover’s “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,” which chronicles the African experience in America.   The theatre was dark.  Then we heard the drums.  I felt the beat.  And then when the curtain rose, above the stage the words “The beat will never die” appeared.  I felt the beat that night, the beat that will never die, and I heard it again on board the MV Explorer with Sheriff Ghale.  Thank you, Sherrif.

Rock n' Roll Is Here to Stay

ALBlog ~~ February 8, 2012 ~~ Rock n’ Roll Is Here to Stay

When I was a teenie bopper dancing my little heart out to Danny and the Juniors singing “Rock ‘n Roll Is Here to Stay,” I didn’t imagine that more than a few decades later “rock ‘n roll” would take on a whole new meaning.  But yesterday as I stood—or tried to stand—on the deck of our ship, the lyrics to that old song kept echoing in my ears.  We are about halfway across the Atlantic, between Brazil and Ghana, having traveled 2000 nautical miles and with 1965 yet to go, and our ship has definitely got those rock ‘n roll moves down.  Yesterday it pitched and rolled so much that I found myself catapulting down hallways and careening around corners, grabbing any solid surface I could find.  We were, as I later discovered, sailing into the strong wind and waves, so what we are calling “smackdowns,” when the boat slams into a wave and then suddenly drops with a BOOM were frequent. 

Yesterday afternoon I began to hear murmurs:  the sea gods must be angry; maybe we can’t have Neptune Day after all.  Neptune Day???  As a newcomer to Semester at Sea, its rituals are still all new to me.  But if I ever doubted that this ship is a floating campus, with the emphasis on campus, those doubts flew out the window as I learned of the upcoming hijinks on the high seas.  Neptune Day, students told me, celebrates the second crossing of the equator (we’ve crossed it once going south and now again going obliquely northeast)—and it is a event not to be missed. More than that, no one would say.  So when the announcement came this morning “Out of bed, all you pollywogs, and get to deck 7—in your oldest clothes,” I made a cautious approach.  By the time I had climbed to deck 6, I could hear roars and screams of laughter coming from above. When I peered around a corner onto deck 7, I saw HUNDREDS of students in cutoffs and bathing suits in a huge line:  one by one, they approached the pool area to come before King Neptune (aka Bob Viera, our Administrative Dean) and his Queen (aka his wife Abbey) painted green from head to foot and outfitted with tritons and towering crowns. 


                                                            –King Neptune and his Queen (photo to come I hope)

Each supplicant kneeled, had a bucket of gross-looking green water poured over him or her, kissed a big ugly dead fish, and then received a tip of the triton from Neptune.  Then the bravest (or most foolish) of this crowd slithered down to the other end of the deck and had their heads shaved (lots of guys and at least seven women), apparently a tradition followed by members of the Navy when crossing the equator.  Bald is definitely the new look on board tonight, as the students prepare for a jam session with Ghanian musician Muhammed Sharif Ghale: we will meet in the “union” at 8:00 and they will distribute all the rattles, drums, tambourines, and other music makers they have for a giant dance-and-sing-along.  I’m hoping the sea gods will stay placated and that we’ll be rockin’ and rollin’ to music rather than to the waves. 

Tomorrow, Neptune Day will be a memory and it’s back to classes for all of us. Four more days to Ghana, where I will visit Morningstar School on our first full day.  More soon…… 


Our Chinese Writing Center

     Traveling around the world on this Semester at Sea voyage are a dozen students from China.  They come from China’s best universities, where they won out in very stiff competitions to enroll in Semester at Sea Spring ’12 at the expense of their schools.  These kids are clearly brilliant.  And fun.  When Chinese New Year’s came around, they put on a special celebration for as many of us as could cram into one of our classrooms:  there they gave talks on China’s schools, culture, and food (they are forbearing but clearly looking forward to getting away from the ship food once we get to China for some “real” cuisine!).  They had made colorful red cutout figures as prizes and the children in the crowd had fun trying to answer questions in order to win one. After the talk on Chinese cooking, for instance, “So—what is the greatest staple of Chinese cooking?”  Wild hands waving and then little Sam shouts out “Rice!” – and gets a prize.  The Chinese student who delivered the prize said “And what is YOUR favorite Chinese food?”  “Dumplings!” came the immediate response from Sam.  “Why is that?”  “Because they are made of pork and I love pork.”  Applause all around, and on they went to the next celebratory activity.

            About a week into the voyage, two representatives of this group sought me out in the writing center on board and we chatted about the challenge they were facing in this all-English environment.  While they have studied English at school more or less all their lives, they have never been so totally immersed in reading, writing, listening, and speaking in English.  At one point, they said “we need our own writing center.  We need our Chinese Writing Center.”  Music to my ears!!  So I said, “and what should our motto be for our Chinese Writing Center?”  and one student immediately said “HOPE.”  So “hope” it is.  We have decided to meet once a week, from 7 to 9 p.m. in one of the classrooms and to “work on English.”  When they said that one-on-one practice might be most helpful, I appealed to other students on board, and ten of them immediately responded saying they would like to join our group. So now we will meet, spend a little time talking about one or two issues, and then work one on one for the rest of the time.  I look forward to reporting on how this Chinese Writing center works out!

            During our first meeting, I asked the students what they thought they would most like help on.  Not a single person mentioned “typical” ESL issues—articles, count and non-count nouns, prepositions, idioms.  Instead, here’s the list they made up:  transitions, finding a thesis, documenting sources, developing an argument, gathering evidence and proof, and being interesting.  While I am certain we will eventually work on prepositions and articles, this group of dedicated Chinese students are worrying about the very same issues that native English speakers have.  I want to think a lot more about anecdotal finding because it once again raises t he question of how and why we tend to separate English language learners from native speakers.  Does it really make sense to do so??

The Amazon!

     I’ve seen my fair share of Tarzan movies—and in fact, they’ve been showing some of them on our closed circuit TV station here on the ship.  But they certainly did not prepare me for THIS Amazon, the one just beyond Manaus.  This city of 2 million, accessible only by water or air, is a gateway into the Amazon rainforest, which, in spite of rampant deforestation, is almost unimaginably huge.  The Amazon river itself is more huge, some 4000 miles of rushing water that pours out into the Atlantic from a mouth over200 miles wide.  It took us two and a half days from the mouth of the river to get to Manaus, after which we had four days to explore.  The second day I joined a group on an Explorer trip down the river, first to where “the rivers meet.” 

The Rio Negro, whose water is black from tannic acid caused by decomposing leaves, meets the Amazon,with its  yellow-brown water, right near the Manaus harbor: but the rivers don’t join and mix: rather they flow side by side, and the contrast is quite stark.  Eventually we continued up the Rio Negro to a floating restaurant:  like many houses that also float, this restaurant is built to rise with the river—sometimes 30 to 50 feet in a year.  Our boat docked at the restaurant and from there we took a path taking us into the rainforest, where we saw small, adorable, yellow-faced monkeys peering out at us from the green, green canopy, birds I had never seen or heard before, a very large lizard who shot across our path like a rocket, and trees, trees, trees.  I was surprised to see a Kapok tree (I remember one well from Clearwater, Florida) that was 150 feet tall, but most of the trees are quite a bit shorter.  So the canopy wasn’t as tall as I was expecting given my memory of Tarzan movies, but it was incredibly dense. 

            Back at the floating restaurant, the owners had laid out a gigantic buffet of local foods:  three kinds of fish, of which my favorite was Pararucu:  creamy white, tender, and seasoned with spices I couldn’t identify.  Platters of pineapple, papaya, coconut, and what tasted like caramelized bananas were all delicious as were the vegetables: tiny green beans, cabbage, beets, and my favorite, small tender okra.  No one goes hungry in this part of the rain forest!

            As long as I was on the water, I found the temperature pleasant, but on land it was a different story:  my hour’s walk left me limp and (almost) too hot to eat, but the trip back on the boat revived me and left me ready to try the next day’s adventure, a two-hour boat trip going the other direction on the RioNegro to the tiny village of Acajatuba.  It and its 225 inhabitants sit on the edge of the huge Acajatuba Lake, and as we pulled ashore, the village President came down to greet me and the 18 students who were with me, introducing us all around.  Gathered on the porch of the main village building were a dozen or so villagers.  We had come to help paint their houses, and we came bearing huge pails of paint in the colors they had requested:  blue, orange, yellow, green, and white.  We divided up into teams and headed to their homes, buckets, rollers, and brushes at the ready.    Somehow we managed to paint most of eight houses in one very full day, a miracle in my view!  We even got to take a lunch break, a surprise since the Field trip people on the ship had “forgotten” to provide us with box lunches and we were prepared for an eleven or twelve our day without food. But the villagers, I think, saw our plight and at our break they laid out some food to share:  bread and butter, hard boiled eggs, some lettuce, and some apples.  The students tried unsuccessfully not to inhale this repast, and their thanks (Obrigado!!) were heartfelt.  After more painting, we got to tour the village, seeing its two churches and its school along with a canoe-building outfit and of course all their houses.  The main building had wooden boxes planted with flowers and bushes (a lot of hibisucus) and just beyond stood a large, deep green tree absolutely full of Orioles. Their yellow and black wings flashed in the sun and they darted in and out, making astonishing sounds:  mimics, they gave the cries of lots of other birds, including something that sounded to me like a cuckoo—and I could have sworn that one of them was snoring!  Along the path, we spotted five or six large water containers up on tall stilts; the whole village was very neat and tidy and colorful (the water towers were, appropriately, blue).  The little kids, who had helped us paint, now ran or biked beside us, smiling and sometimes holding hands with us.  I brought construction paper, tablets, and boxes of markers, pens, and pencils for the school, along with a whiffle ball and bat—but the hit of the day were the silly bands one of the students had with her:  she gave each little girl four of them, and they proudly took them on and off, showing what shapes they were in and then proudly putting them back on.  (I wish I could embed pictures here – and will definitely add them if and when I get to internet café where that is possible.)

            This village got electricity only 18 months ago, but already has  had a great effect on the place.  The “road” through the village (think a 15-inch dirt path) is dotted with lamp posts, the school boasts a big satellite dish outside it, and at one home three little boys were clustered around a television set on which they were playing Super Mario games:  to our surprise, the accompanying voiceover was in English, which they duly ignored!  At the end of the day, we walked the length of the “road” and saw other signs of the effects of electricity. including small refrigerators and stoves in some of the houses.  I tried hard to imagine living in this village, and practicing subsistence living.  The people there were open, friendly, and full of smiles; our guide said, on our way back to the ship, “Life in Acajatuba is very good.  Very good.”  I believe it.