The Things We Bought (And Then Carried)

Jeff and I aren’t really big shoppers, and we’re not much on souvenirs. Sorry friends, but it’s unlikely you’ll get anything from us when we return from a trip. It’s not that we don’t like you…it’s just that we don’t like you that much.

Kidding. Kidding. I just hate dusting. And I assume that most of you all do too, so what’s the point of me buying you something that you’re just going to have to dust. That’s hardly a gift I’d say. And it’s not like we’re usually out buying all kinds of stuff for ourselves either. I don’t like to shop, so doing it on vacation is not really my idea of a good time.

But don’t let me fool you into thinking that I’m immune to “Oh look how cute this is” or “Wouldn’t that look fantastic by our fireplace” (which, you have to remember, was completely make believe while we were traveling). But usually I resist. On an average trip, a short little 10 day trot around some foreign locale, the most I’m likely to come home with is an ornament.

Many, many moons ago, when I took my first trip abroad and probably didn’t even have my own bank account and thus not much money to shop with, I purchased a Waterford crystal shamrock Christmas ornament. (I was in Ireland in case you didn’t put two and two together). After that I decided to make it a habit, to purchase a Christmas ornament from each place I visited. Then, once a year, I’d get to pull each one out and reminisce about my travels. As far as souvenirs go, ornaments are about as good as you get I think. They’re small, they’re inexpensive, they’re fun, and they actually have a purpose. The only trick is that they’re not particularly easy to come by in countries that don’t celebrate Christmas or even in many countries that do celebrate Jesus’s birthday when it’s not the holiday season. But fortunately, there are lots of things that can serve as ornaments, and considering I like an eclectic tree and not a prim and proper everything matching tree, the more interesting the ornament the better.

On our trip around the world, we managed to snag an ornament in every country. In the process of unpacking and putting things away in our new house, I found them. Here you can see a few that will be gracing our Christmas tree next year (a beaded lion from South Africa [originally a magnet], a carved wooden gorilla from Uganda, a knitted penguin from Argentina [originally a finger puppet], a turtle carved from a tree nut from Ecuador [originally a key chain], and a carved blue-footed booby from the Galapagos).

Seeing that we were gone a year and we saw some pretty fabulous stuff, our shopping was not limited to ornaments. We did come how with a few (ahem) other items.

In Swaziland, we bought a too-cool-for-school carved wooden chair. It rode around in our car for six weeks, and then Jeff carried it in his backpack for another six. He’s a swell husband, I tell you. (Especially considering I wanted this, not him.)

In Malawi, we scored a pair of iron Masai men, who now stand guard next to our fireplace. (See, it wasn’t imaginary after all). I got to carry these in my backpack for a couple of weeks. (I may have also wanted these, so I guess that’s fair.)

In Peru, we picked up a ceramic ox of the type people put on their roofs for good luck and a papier-mache mask that now scares visitors to our bathroom.

In Ecuador, we added a crudely carved chess set to our collection. (In the past, I’ve bought chess sets in Greece, Egypt, Russia, and the Czech Republic, but I’ve given them all to my brother, a chess aficionado. That’s a good thing, because I don’t know where to even put one of these things, more less five.)

In Tanzania, we went wild with the paintings, buying three of the famous Tinga-Tinga style works as well as the long repeating image of Masai. Our collection of artwork also includes propaganda posters from Vietnam, flower art from Ecuador, feather art and elephant dung prints from Namibia, and a batik from Swaziland.

And from all over the world we picked up fabrics. Kangas in Africa, krama scarves in Cambodia, batik sarongs in Malaysia, silks in India, woven table runners in Ecuador…

Add to that a few vases, a few more masks, a collection of woven bowls, a finely carved cheetah (yeah, that one’s interesting), and other odds and ends, and we’ve got quite a collection of souvenirs. With all of it laid out in the extra bedroom that we don’t yet know what we’re doing with, it looked a bit like we were getting ready to open a tsotchke shop. I was considering taking orders. But now that it’s slowly dispersing through the house…finding a home on a mantle, a bookshelf, or the wall, it’s looking pretty good. While some people might go formal with their living rooms, we’ve gone African. It might not be everyone’s style, but we like it. And on dreary days of same ol’ same ol’, all it takes is one look at the Tinga Tinga on the wall or the Indian bedspread on the bed and you’re instantly transported elsewhere, sometimes just for a minute, but always long enough to remember just what a fantastically interesting world we live in.

What about you? What’s your favorite souvenir?

The Ship Has Sunk


In the remaining twilight, we survey our surroundings. We don’t see people. We don’t see houses. No one is going to find us if we stay here. We have three choices. We can go south, toward the end of the island, but we’re practically there already, and we’re not convinced we’ll find much life that way. We can go east, further inland, but we’re afraid that we might get lost and just wander aimlessly if we do that. Plus there are a few too many poisonous snakes on the island for much shoeless wandering. Our final option, and the one we choose, is to go north. That’s the direction of our lodge, and so we know that there is life that way. Plus by staying along the shoreline, we’ll at least have a guideline, a way to know that we’re continuously moving in the right direction. And so we pull ourselves up from the rocks and start moving before darkness completely overtakes us. It’s no walk on the beach but is instead a clamber up and over boulder after boulder. We each take a paddle and use it like a blind person uses a walking stick, poking it out in front of us and feeling our way forward.

Jeff falls first, slipping into a crevasse between rocks. There is no light anymore (not even moonlight), so we can only make out the vaguest outlines of shapes. Each step is a guess. Jeff guesses wrong. I scramble to his side, wondering what the heck I am supposed to do. What if he broke something? I certainly can’t carry him. I’d have to leave him. Try to find help on my own. Luckily it doesn’t come to that. Jeff gets up, scratched and bleeding but okay, and we continue on.

I fall next, stepping on a rock that rolls and then flips over onto my leg when I fall. I’m pinned down, and I’m not sure the state of my leg under the rock. Jeff hurries back and removes the rock. I take stock of my state. Like Jeff, I’m just bloody and bruised. We’re lucky. But we’re beyond frustrated. Our progress is so slow, and at this rate, one of us will end up good and hurt. It doesn’t seem there’s anything we can do but keep pressing on through the darkness that makes it nearly impossible for me to even see Jeff directly ahead of me.

But then, my brain unfogs for a minute. I remember that I saved the daypack. I grab it from Jeff and feel my way through it.

Though one Nalgene bottle floated away when our boat sank, there is still one in our backpack, and if I remember correctly it’s the one I want. Once upon a time Jeff bought a Nalgene lid that with a press of a button illuminates a light and turns your Nalgene into a lantern. I made fun of him for it then. But now, I swear to take it all back if only the light will still turn on after its long dip in Lake Malawi.

I find the bottle. I press the button. For a moment, nothing happens. But then it flickers on. It works! The glow it casts is small, but it’s enough. We can see where we’re stepping. Slowly, slowly, we continue on, our feet cut up, our bodies exhausted. We stumble where we shouldn’t, our coordination not up to par.

I also remember that my whistle, the one I take with me when hiking, is attached to the front of my backpack. I grab it and begin blowing, hoping that someone will hear it and come investigate. At one point, I think I see a light, and I start yelling like crazy. No one responds. Turns out it’s just a glowing plant. I keep whistling, but no help comes.

We walk for an hour. At least. It feels like forever. And then finally we see a flicker of light ahead, which we soon realize is a fire. We move with renewed energy. The boulders give way to beach. We hurry through the sand to the fire, around which a group of men is gathered. When we approach, they all stare, jaws unhinged. In front of them stand two white people, soaking wet, dripping blood, and carrying paddles though there’s no boat in sight.

Jeff takes charge, asking if anyone speaks English. No on answers. He repeats the question. No answer. We don’t have another language to fall back on, so we just speak, slowly, clearly, trying to explain our situation. Blank stares are what we get in return. We gesture toward their boats, all still lined up on the beach. “Fishing tonight?” we ask, casting out imaginary lines. Every other night we’ve seen the lights of boats blinking from the lake. “Can you take us?” we ask. “Motor us back to our lodge. We’ll pay,” we say. Finally, a man steps forward. In broken English he says, “No fishing tonight. Lake too rough.” We should have known.

On to plan B. “Does anyone have a phone?” we ask, pantomiming calling someone. They exchange glances. Then one of the men runs off, returning shortly with another man, who speaks better English and has a phone. He hands it to us. We stare at it. Theoretically it should be of help, but we don’t have any numbers. Who are we going to call? We ask if anyone knows the number to Mango Drift. Silence is the response.

I am completely exhausted at this point, my body wrecked. I am also being stared at as if I am an alien, as if I just shot down from a hovering spacecraft. I collapse into the sand. I sob. I am overwhelmed, uncertain how we’re going to make it back, but mainly I’m overwhelmed by the realization that we’re okay, that that we’re going to be okay.

The people are trying their best to help us, but they don’t know much more than we do. “You should just stay here tonight,” they suggest, gesturing toward my cuts, still dripping blood. “You’re tired. You can sleep here with us, and then we’ll take you back in the morning.” I thank them. I try to smile. They are warmhearted and generous. But we can’t stay here. We have to get back. They’re expecting us back. They expected us long before the sun set.

We return to the phone. There has to be someone we can call who can help us. “The police,” I suggest. “Ask them to call the police.” Jeff hands the phone back to the owner and asks him to call the police for us. He dials.  We wait. He hangs up. “No one answered,” he says.

Shit. Now who? I rack my brain. “Call the hospital,” I suggest. There’s a British-run hospital on the island, and we had met some of the workers earlier in the week. “They speak English,” I say to Jeff, relaying my chain of thought, “and can call the lodge.” The man with the phone dials the hospital. Again the phone rings and rings, but no one answers.

There’s no one else we can call at this point. We stare at each other, blank, not knowing what to do. Finally, we ask if they know where the hospital is. In chorus, they shake their heads yes, and point in a general direction. “Will you lead us there?” we ask, and again receive a chorus of nods. It’s not close, a couple of kilometers, but closer than the lodge. We also don’t have shoes. It’s going to be a long, painful journey. But at this point, we don’t see what choice we have. We start walking.

But we only make it about 200 meters before our guide stops and enters a house. He returns, then gestures for us to follow him in. I have no idea what’s going on. I hope he’s not trying to get us to stay there for the night. We can’t.

Jeff and I look around at the house—a very nice one for the island with couch and TV, a dining table, separate bedrooms—and try to figure out what’s going on. Then a man, nicely dressed and speaking excellent English, addresses us. He’s the mayor of Likoma Island. We’re in the mayor’s house. I feel like Dorothy when she finally makes it to see the wizard. I only hope that there’s no curtain.

He immediately tells Jeff that he knows Mango Drift, that he goes there often for a beer, and that he’ll call them as soon as the man who was leading us returns with a card for his phone. It’s low on money. Then he begs me to have a seat. I decline. I’m still wet, blood’s dripping from my elbow. I don’t want to sully his furniture. He insists until finally I relent. Then he offers me dinner, asks us to eat with him and his wife. I look at the steaming bowl of cassava and know that there’s no way I can stomach it right now. I decline. When I agree to eat a banana and have some tea, he accepts this. He asks what happened, listens to our story, tells us that we are lucky, so, so lucky, that so many people have died on the lake when the weather suddenly turned.

Then the man is back, and suddenly Jeff is on the phone with Josh and Becky, the managers at Mango Drift. In ten minutes, Josh is at the door, laden down with blankets, chocolates, cookies. He keeps saying how happy he is to see us. How they’d kept watching and watching the water waiting for us to return. How when the sun set and we weren’t back they called to the lodge on Chizimulu to see if perhaps, if hopefully, we’d decided to stay there for the night. How they’d called everyone they knew on the island, asking if they’d seen a kayak, if they’d seen two white people. How they were sending out the rescue crew just as we called. We express relief that we caught them before they pulled out the big guns, say how happy we are to see them too.This adventure gone wrong, oh so wrong, is over.

I snuggle close to Jeff in the car as we ride back to the lodge. My mind keeps replaying the events of that afternoon. But already the day has become grainy. Already it’s become unreal. Already it’s become nothing but a good story.

Thank heavens.

Onboard a Sinking Ship

Ferries and other passenger ships in the developing world have a terrible habit of sinking. Far too often, reports of such ships show up in the international news. In fact, while we were on Zanzibar, a ferry from Dar Es Salaam sunk just outside the harbor, resulting in the death of many passengers. So every time Jeff and I boarded a boat, I paid close attention to the safety briefing (if there was one), scouted out my exits, and snagged a life jacket (if there were any). I was prepared for an incident that though not likely wasn’t improbable. Where I failed was in considering the possibility that a boat I myself was piloting could be the one that sank.

On our third day on Likoma Island–a place we wrote about earlier in regards to its warm, friendly people–the sun rises bright and clear, and after a big breakfast at Mango Drift, the backpacker lodge where we are staying, we push one of the lodge’s kayaks through the sand and into the warm, deep waters of Lake Malawi. Our destination is the island of Chizimulu, 13 kilometers away. According to the lodge managers, no other guests have made the trip during the few months they’ve been there, but they see no reason why we can’t.

The trip starts out as nearly all of our kayaking trips start. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. Paddle left, paddle right. Bicker, bicker. I don’t like taking orders, and when you’re the person in the front of the kayak, as I always am when I’m with Jeff, that’s what you have to do. I eventually get over it, and we find a rhythm and have a good time.

But about 20 minutes into this trip, I pull my oar into the boat and turn to Jeff. I’m feeling uncertain about continuing on. Though we still have about 2 hours of paddling left in front of us, I’m already feeling like we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s just us and a lot of water. It’s a little bit scary. And I’m starting to think that maybe we ought to have life jackets, a thought I share with Jeff. He reminds me that this is Africa, that life jackets aren’t standard equipment, that people who can’t even swim go out in boats every day without life jackets, but he also offers to turn around, either for good or to inquire about life jackets. I turn down his offer. I’m not a quitter. And if we go back, I’ll probably end up staying. Paddling 13 kilometers across Lake Malawi is freaking hard.

We forge on. The sun beats down, and we roll gently with the bobbing of the lake, which at 26,900 square kilometers might as well be the ocean. I paddle 100 strokes and then I break. There’s no hurry, and after about two hours of paddling, we land on the shores of Chizimulu. A coalition of cute kids greets us, and then they lead us to the island’s only tourist lodge, where we grab lunch, snorkel, and relax.

Around 2:30 p.m., we’re back in our boat. The African sun sets at 6 p.m.. It took us two hours to get across. To be safe, we’re giving ourselves an extra hour and a half to get back. More than enough time, we think.

But anyone who’s spent any time in nature knows that it’s not always predictable, not always willing to adhere to your time schedule. When we get outside of the sheltered area near the island, we find the water to be a bit choppier than it was on our way in. By the time we we get a few kilometers out, when we’re afloat in the no-man’s land between the islands, where going back or continuing forward will take approximately the same amount of time and effort., things get flat out rough. The wind picks up. Whitecaps surround us. It really is as if we’re in the ocean. In a kayak that’s meant for tranquil lake waters.

We know from rafting through the Grand Canyon in an inflatable kayak that you’re most likely to flip when a wave hits you on the side, so we turn the kayak ever so slightly so as to head directly into the waves while still aiming for our lodge, a landmark we can’t see yet but know thanks to the cell tower behind it.In order to keep the boat oriented properly, Jeff must paddle only on the left side, a balance to the wind. Soon, I too must join him. Paddling properly is futile. We’re not kayaking anymore, we’re fighting.

We can’t take a break. We just paddle, ignoring the burning muscles. We paddle and paddle and paddle. I scream with each stroke, angrily yelling at the wind and the water. Jeff, usually the optimist, starts talking about how we’re not getting anywhere, that we’ll never make it. I yell at him too. I’m the pessimist, not him. That’s my job, not his. And in this situation, I need positive. I am celebrating every meter, every missed wave.

Unfortunately, for each missed wave, there’s a wave that gets us. I’m soaking wet. There’s a few inches of lake water in the bottom of the boat. At one point, I try to bail, but it’s futile. I have no bucket; with a snorkeling mask, I can toss out a cup or so, but without me helping to hold the line, more water comes in than I can get out. There’s nothing to do but keep on paddling. The sun certainly isn’t holding still; it’s continuing its westward arc, and we’re now racing it.

Eventually, we find ourselves about 1 km from shore. We can make out the lodge, swear that we can even see a few people. It looks like we’re going to win this fight, this race.

Ha, nature responds. It’s not giving up so easily. Instead it ups its game. The wind comes harder. The waves break more frequently. With land in sight, we give up the battle to land straight up on the beach at our lodge, and aim just to get to land, period. I’ll drag the kayak back if I have to. We have to focus our energy.

The wind pushes us harder and faster than we’d imagined. In no time at all, we’ve been pushed nearly the entire 8 kilometer length of the island. Unfortunately, at the same time, we’re not a whole lot closer to land. Time after time, we’ve spotted a great landing area, pushed with all our might, and then watched as we were swept right past it. We’re going nowhere, and I don’t understand why.

But Jeff’s got it figured out. Over the wind he calls to me to turn around. Though there’s only a few inches of water around my feet, in the back of the boat, behind Jeff, the water has nearly filled the boat. We’re too heavy to go anywhere. We must bail. It’s the only way we have a chance. And so we both drop our paddles and furiously throw water overboard. The lake returns the favor by throwing it right back in. We’re in a losing battle.

And at that moment, for the first time, we both realize that we’ll never make it to shore in the boat. Jeff looks at me and says “What should we do?”. I, with a calmness that surprises me, say “Well, I guess we better swim.”

With that, we roll out of the boat and into the lake. I again wish we had life jackets. This is fresh water; we’re not buoyant. And the wind and waves mean the water is regularly going over our heads. Plus the sun, well it’s about to touch the lake. In a matter of minutes, it will be gone.

I grab the small daypack we took with us and try to hold it over my head. I lunge for one of my flip-flops, as the other along with a water bottle, floats away. I take a quick survey of the sun’s position. Not good.

I kick hard to stay above water. Jeff meanwhile dives under.

“What are you doing? I yell to him.

“I’m trying to right the kayak,” he yells. I think we both thought we’d slide out, flip the boat over, and then hold on to it and kick into shore, but the kayak has other ideas. It’s gone Titanic. The front points straight up, the back straight toward the bottom of the lake.

“Screw the boat,” I yell. “There’s too much water. You’ll never get it up.”

He agrees. But then goes underwater again.

“What are you doing?” I yell again.

“I lost my sunglasses,” he replies.

“Screw your sunglasses,” I answer, thinking that he’s lost his mind. It’s nearly dark now, and we’re still a few hundred meters from shore. We have to start swimming. And most importantly, we have to stay together. If we’re still in the water when it gets dark, we’ll never find each other if we’re separated. Staying together is number one on the importance list. Getting to shore is number two. Luckily, while evacuating the boat, I had the good sense to hold tight to the paddles, the only slightly buoyant items we have, and so I thrust the a kayak paddle toward Jeff. He grabs ahold of one end, I cling to the other, and together we start kicking.

Fortunately, we’re both good swimmers. But still we struggle. It’s not easy.

Fortunately, we also both keep our heads. Our boat is gone. We’re in an angry lake that is hundreds of meters deep right up until you reach shore. We’re on the cusp of darkness. But we know what we have to do: swim. We know that’s the only thing there is to do. We know it’s the one thing we can’t stop doing. We’re focused.

My life doesn’t flash before my eyes; I think only of how it would kill my mom if I drowned here in Lake Malawai. I’m not brave; I’m just determined. In fact, I say more than once to Jeff, “I’m scared,” but always calmly, detached, as a statement of fact not emotion. Jeff has left his pessimism behind with the boat and is only reassuring: “We’re almost there. We’ve made it one rock (referencing a peninsula we could still see further down). We’ve made it two rocks.”

And then, after what seems like the longest swim of my life, there’s solid ground under our feet. We pull ourselves up onto the big boulders lining the shore and take big gasping breaths. Our kayak is gone. And with it, the light. Darkness has come to Likoma Island. And though we’ve made it on to land, we’re nowhere near any signs of life. The nightmarish adventure isn’t over yet. We still have to make our way back to the lodge.

(To be Continued…)

Aid That Works

Did you watch any of the BCS Bowl Games this year? If so, did you see the commercials asking you to donate $10 toward providing mosquito nets for Africa? If you did, did you donate?

I hope not.

That’s probably not what you were expecting me to say, so I’ll repeat it. I hope not.*

Wow, I must be meaner than you thought. How could I be opposed to providing mosquito nets to Africans, people I talk about with much fondness? Am I not in support of ending malaria, the deadliest disease in Africa?

Well, it’s not that simple. Of course I am in favor of ending malaria, and yes, I think that using mosquito nets is an effective method of prevention. But I don’t believe that handing them out for free is the answer.

As we traveled around the world, we encountered many different types of aid, and what we witnessed over and over is that as an everyday form of charity, handouts don’t work.** Sometimes what is being given is not what the people most need. Sometimes what is being given might work for us but doesn’t work within the recipients’ set of values and beliefs or with their lifestyles. And sometimes what is being given is taken not because it’s wanted, but because it’s free.

Come on, admit it, you do the same thing. Free stuff is hard to resist.

But when you receive something for free, it has no value to you. You didn’t have to give up anything to get it, you didn’t have to decide that that item was worth the price or the sacrifice of getting it. So if it’s lost or broken,  if it crumbles to the ground, if it sits around and is never used, it’s no sweat off your back.

Also, sometimes when you get enough free stuff, you begin to expect that you’ll continue to get free stuff. You start to believe that you don’t have to work hard to get what you need and want, that you don’t have to hold those who are actually supposed to be providing for you (i.e. family, government institutions, etc.) responsible for delivering on their promises, but instead you just have to put your hand out at the right time.

Time and again in Africa, we encountered the case of the free mosquito net. In theory, it sounds like a great idea. In practice, it doesn’t work. Rarely was the free mosquito net being used properly; most of the time, it was actually being used as a net for catching fish, birds, or other animals that could be turned into dinner. I’m not saying that’s a completely invalid use; I’m just saying that using the net in such a way doesn’t help prevent malaria. And as far as I’m aware, that’s what all these charities giving away the nets are trying to do.

So what’s the answer then? Should we deny people the simple protection they need to prevent an often fatal disease? Should we demand that people with little money pay a hefty portion of it for a net?

No and no. What we need to offer people in cases such as this is the skills and knowledge that they might not currently have but once acquired can put to good use themselves (for instance, in regards to the mosquito nets, knowledge about what malaria is, how it’s transmitted, and how it can be prevented). We can also offer them stuff, things that they need but cannot for whatever reason get, but we shouldn’t give it away for free. That doesn’t mean it has to cost much, or even anything. But, those in want or need of the item should have to “pay” for it, whether with money or through barter of goods or services. This means that the “purchaser” will truly want whatever it is on offer and thus be more likely to put it to good use. It also means that they will feel like a valuable person; someone who has something to give, not just someone who takes. I think most of us want to feel this way.

You might now be wondering if this works, if people are willing to pay for things that some charities give away for free. I can tell you that yes, it does work. I’ve seen it firsthand.

One of the most outstanding aid outfits we saw while on our trip was the Bwindi Community Hospital, a place we were invited to tour while staying in Bwindi to trek with the mountain gorillas. Here, a British couple run an Anglican-sponsored hospital for locals (and by local, I mean people who can walk to the hospital in a couple of days). They take in a few foreign volunteers each year, but other than that, all staff is Ugandan–nurses, doctors, janitors, secretaries, AIDS counselors, etc. This hospital is vested in the community. (The couple running the hospital are even drawing up plans to eventually remove themselves from their roles.) And though they offer excellent mendical services–a maternity ward that allows women to stay for their entire third trimester, preventing multi-day walks to and from the hospital; x-ray and surgery facilities; health workers who go out into the community and seek out those in need of treatment–what they’re most proud of, and rightfully so, is their education program.

The “Small Families are Rich Families” campaign has helped lower the birth rate in a country with one of the highest, by educating men on the benefits of having a small family they can take care of and by providing women with access to birth control (which is often literally a lifesaver).  The Village Health Promoter program means that each of 200 villages in the area has at least one trained resident teaching his/her neighbors basic health care practices, thus helping lower the number of cases of easily preventable diseases like dysentery. The Community Garden program teaches mothers not only how to grow food that is nutritious but also how to cook food that is healthy. And the sale of mosquito nets has translated into 15,000 children protected from the disease.

While we were touring the hospital, I specifically asked how the mosquito nets were sold, finding it interesting that they weren’t given away for free. What I learned is that the nets have a set price, a small amount less than $1 that people can pay for them, but that if even that small amount is too much, they can offer whatever it is that they have that they feel is worth the set price. I was laughingly told that they have an entire closet of carved masks and animals that they have accepted as payment. It’s not money; but it is an item of value. They could, after all, probably sell those carved goods to gorilla trekking tourists for much more than $1.

When we left the hospital, I felt uplifted. This, I thought, is how aid is supposed to work. It is supposed to promote empowerment, rather than dependence, to create systems that works whether the aid workers remain or go, to ultimately render itself unnecessary. So many times, we’d seen the remains of projects that simply didn’t work; it felt good to now see one that not only worked but worked well.

Aid is a tricky issue. What works one in one time and place doesn’t always work in another. And for those of us wanting to give, trying to determine what organizations are doing work that works can be nearly impossible. If you’ve been thinking about giving to a new organization this year, or if that mosquito net campaign from the BCS bowl games got you pondering how you could really make a difference, may I suggest Bwindi Community Hospital? There are lots of aid organizations doing good work, but this is one I’ve witnessed firsthand. For more information, or to make a donation that will help the hospital to help others, please visit their website.

*If you did give, good for you. It’s not that giving mosquito nets away for free is bad; it’s just that I think there are more effective ways of providing aid.

**I’m not referring here to the giving of aid during one-time disasters such as the current one in Haiti, but to prolonged aid efforts.

A Credo for the New Year

This year, instead of joining most of the world in making a bunch of half-hearted or even well-intentioned resolutions that we’ll all indubitably break before the first month of 2010 is over, I’ve decided to say adios to that guilt-inducing tradition. Having grown up Catholic, I have no trouble finding things to be guilty about every day thank you very much. Instead, for this fresh (and ridiculously cold, I might add) year, I’ve chosen to establish a credo, to write down just exactly what it is I believe, and then to try to live my life with it in mind.

And so a year from now, when 2010 chugs off into the night and 2011 slithers down the pole to say hello, I might not have a better butt, but I will hopefully be a better person.

I *think* that’s what matters most.

And so, without further ado, here it is.

I believe that people matter most.
That the relationships I have with my family and friends are my most precious assets.

I believe that we all have something to offer, and that it is our responsibility to share our talents with the world and to allow others to share theirs.
That, though we are not all equal in every way, we all deserve equal rights.
That human rights are non-negotiable.
That no matter how different we may seem, at heart we all have the same basic desires.

I believe in living sustainably.
In choosing to bike or walk whenever possible.
In reducing, reusing, and recycling.
In supporting local business, even if it costs a little bit more.
In living within, if not below, my means.

I believe that diversity enriches our lives.
That listening to different opinions opens my eyes to perspectives I hadn’t considered.
That changing my mind when I’m convinced of another view makes me a stronger, not weaker, person.
That it’s okay to agree to disagree.

I believe that at times hope is enough to sustain us and to take away hope is to destroy life.
That dreams are powerful but that they require action.
That love empowers and forgiveness frees.

I believe that the less I want, the more I’ll find I have.
That the more I give, the richer my life will be.
That a hand up helps more than a hand out.

I believe that I can’t control everything, but I can always control how I react.
That every day I get to choose how I will live that day.
That it’s never too late to do the right thing.

I believe in dancing even though I have two left feet and singing even though I’m tone deaf.
In not worrying about what others think but about what I believe.
In disappointing others if that’s the only way to stay true to myself.

I believe that there is something out there far greater than me.
That our world is an awesome place begging to be explored.
That life should be celebrated.
Every. Single. Day.