Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Beat Goes On.

Today I am especially grateful that we had 117 of our students come to our orientation meeting on August 1. We knew we had to make contact with the 3 students (all girls) and their families to find out why they did not come and give them the necessary information. Two of the girls live close in to Arusha, so the process should be pretty quick. Theoretically.

Sadly, we also needed to find another male student. While we were camping, one of the students we had selected died suddenly. Mark spent all day Friday attending the funeral (yes, all day) then worked through our student list with our teachers to identify another student that would take that place. So off we went this morning.

Student #1: Now doesn't want to come to school. At 17, she wants to get married. When we arrived the mother said she had run away. A quick-witted older sister ran over and said "no" and ran to get the student. When we were all together (and all of these discussions take place in the yard with anyone who wants to drop by to listen shows up), the mother then said yes, she did want the girl to go to school. The girl did not want really to talk to us, so we put her and her sister in the car and drove her back to our house to talk to Theo, our headmistress. Theo had a strong talk about the importance of education and waiting to be married until she can be independent and can take care of herself and a family. The girl agreed to come--however, we will have to go back this week to the house to get the signed documents and will probably have to go back to the house several times between now and the opening to keep her focused on attending school. Hopefully, we can get her to school and she will see how great it is once she's there and realize that she needs to stay. Much will depend upon the access and influence of the "finance."

Student #2: Said she wanted to come to the meeting but her "mother" (actually an aunt) didn't want to come. The headmaster at the school confirmed information we had gotten during the student interview, that the student was quite difficult and not honest about many things. The girl said her mother was not available to talk today, so we told her to tell her mother that we would come to see her at 9:00 Thursday morning. And we'll be showing up at 7:30 in case she is going to try to dodge us.

Student #3: Wants to come to school, but the grandmother and other relatives want her to get married. This weekend. It is illegal to prevent a child from attending school, a law that is obviously rarely enforced unless someone from the outside takes action. In this case, the ward leader and the pastor helped the girl pack and, as I write, Mark and the teachers are bringing her back to Arusha. We'll find a place for her to stay until school opens.

It's very easy to look at these instances and shake your head at the short sightedness of the decisions. But decisions are made all the time everywhere like this. There's actually something called a "culture of poverty" that heavily influences a person's decision-making skills. I once did a simulation for several hours where we had to try to get our lives organized with family, work, and children at the poverty level. Here I was, an educated person from a solid background, but I just couldn't get ahead. Every time I tried to make a good decision, something would happen and I'd get knocked back. I just never had enough resources to get ahead or get a cushion in case of trouble. By the end of the simulation, I was making poorer choices about my money and resources because I couldn't count on what might happen in the future. I think the same ideas are at play. We are offering a once-in-a-lifetime chance at an education at virtually no cost to these students. But maybe we aren't, in their minds. Maybe it's here today, but it won't be tomorrow. But a potential husband is here today. True, he maybe not be here tomorrow, either, but they can't afford to worry about that right now. Right now, he is here and familiar and concrete. The idea that a better educated girl can provide more resources to the family in just a few years is not something that carries as much weight.

I was sharing these stories with a friend at lunch who wondered why we are bothering. After all, with so many children who need an education, why not just go get someone who does want to come? Two reasons. One, because some of these students do want to come, but family members, tradition, etc. are impeding that opportunity. Second, PHF's mission is to help orphans and vulnerable children and here, just as in the States, it's those that are in the greatest need that also come with the most problems. It would be a pretty small selection pool if they have to be orphans and highly intelligent and academically high-achieving, and well-balanced! These are the children that have suffered the most, that have lost so much, and it stands to reason they will bring problems and conflicts to the table. They are also those that may turn out to be the most resiliant and in the end the true leaders. That's the mission of PHF. And the Hillmans. And the teachers. And that's why we do it.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Noah, Noah, Noah...

Noah is our wild child. The only thing that keeps us sane through the tantrums is that he's just as passionate and joyful when he's happy! It's never the middle ground with him.

The kids are a bit tired of the Snake Park, but went along this week to show some new friends to town the excitement. Holding the olive snake is a big treat. He's hamming it up for a group of Tanzanian students, all of whom are really terrified of snakes!

Pay no attention to the fact that the boys appear to be in a bar. Because they are. Kind of. Going to the rec. center for lunch is fun because of the rugby fields for running. And these small candies which completely dye your mouth blue or green or red. The kids love 'em!

(I love that tomorrow is the first day of school!)

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ol Doinyo Lengai

It's Maasai for "mountain of God." About a 6 hour drive from Arusha, it's an active volcano that actively erupts about every 20 years. It's currently bubbling and spewing lava and rocks, so what better place to go for a weekend camping?

The temperatures out there were over 100 degrees. I can't even begin to describe the heat, the never-ending wind, and the dust that swirled constantly. Ava's always asking, "are we in the bush?" and the answer was most definitely, "yes!" This is classic Maasai land, and words can't describe how desolate and dry everything was. Within a kilometer or so of the campground was a large creek that provided water, but it's obvious how far people/animals would have to travel to get that water. This particular cattle herd was several hundred--you can see how far back the line stretches!

We hiked up the river until the scrambling started to freak me out with Ava clinging to a rock above the creek, then turned back while Max, Gina, and Cameron went up to the waterfall. We retired by the little swimming pool, a surprising bit of heaven in the middle of nowhere! Goats, sheep, donkeys, and baboons all wandered in and out, giving Ava lots to do as she tried (successfully as you can see) to catch a kid!

The big goal, of course, was climbing Ol Doinyo Lengai. We heard it was steep and knew we would start about midnight and climb all night. We hired 2 guides, one to carry Ava or help part of the group turn back if needed. We knew it was going to be really tough.

Ha! Here's a word not in the Swahili vocabulary--switchback. And, while the guides mentioned it would be a "little" cold, they lied. It was freezing. And windy. And unbelievably steep. So, after about an hour, Max and Gina forged ahead with one guide while the Hillmans stayed together. After about another hour, we realized that this was not going to be a family adventure, but we were stuck--Mark couldn't go ahead without a guide, and I couldn't go back with the kids without one. Aside from the very real possibility of being lost out there, there are leopards about. So the unfortunate choice was to all head back down to the car. Along the way, Mark decided that this mountain was a metaphor for all the challenges he's faced in Tanzania and by God he was not going to quit. So we got back to the car about 3:00 am and he turned around and went back up with the guide.

We were told it takes about 6 hours to climb. Max and Gina reached the summit at about 4:45 am (about 5 hours) and huddled in a tunnel soaking up volcanic fumes until sunrise. Just at that point, about 6:00 am, Mark showed up. Yep, he made the climb in only 3 hours. What a horse! Poor Max had been throwing up all the way up, Gina was spattered with lava, Mark was exhausted, but they all watched the sunrise from a place they all swear they will never go again! :-) It was good that even Cameron turned back, as the trail grew progressively steeper and more difficult near the top. The volcanic dust and the hard rock underneath made it almost impossible to grab any traction and very very difficult to come down.

The kids and I promptly fell asleep in the car until 6:30, ate some cereal, and marveled at the fact that no matter how far we looked, we seemed to be the only people in the world. The views were amazing--the mountain steaming, the escarpment rising from the plains below, the tiny dots of white (goats) and the solitary red dot (the Maasai) far in the distance. We anxiously awaited the return of the hiking heroes, and greeted everyone that came down. After the 3 hours up and down, none of us considered it a failing that we stopped early!

As we packed up, we were disgusted by how EVERYTHING was COVERED in dust--even things inside bags. There was just no escaping it but thrilled at the experience. We were actually surprised by how many tourists there were there). There's always talk of things being "colonial" and I suppose an upscale bush camp out there qualifies. But in an area where electricity is unobtainable, where supplies are scare, water is iffy, and everything must be trucked in, how logical is it to put in hotels or lodges, big buildings that are heavy/wastefull uses of desperately precious resources? A bush camp--canvas tents with beds/nets and hot solar showers, a small bar with great food and (warm) drinks--really is a great way to go. Yes, the idea was developed by the first Europeans who came out and hunted and explored and wanted to bring some of the comforts of home along. But we brought over 100 liters of water and ran out so having a bit of something out there was a necessity! Without ice we had to rely on foods that don't spoil and hope that others don't mold. It was much different experience than camping in the States!

Yet what a privilege to be able to see such a remote part of the world! To quote a comedian, if it's not the end of the world, we could see it from there. I felt like I was living a photo spread from National Geographic. All of us continue to develop such a respect for people that can live in such harsh conditions--watching them, knowing that they are basically unchanged for hundreds of years, was humbling. Amazing.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Reading and Writing.

Stephen King is one of my very favorite authors. I love horror stories but I've always thought he's excellent with dialogue. I like his pacing, how he takes his time to move the story along in the beginning, then race at breakneck speed and scare the pants of me. He's been given numerous awards, many somewhat controversial because "serious" critics have called him a hack.

One of my favorite books is "On Writing." The first half of the book are vignettes from his childhood and how he began the process of being a writer. The second half is about the actual writing process, the craft of writing. I'm fascinated by having a glimpse into what he considers important in terms of language. I think anyone who loves reading and writing would find his insights very interesting, even if you aren't a fan of his writing or genre.

So, given all of that, I'm thoroughly enjoying the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest--2007 Results, a contest where people send in their worst attempts at writing. You can read the results here, but I'm including a few of my favorites. They are not always the winners of each category, but they definitely made me laugh.

This one is my favorite:

Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee.

I actually liked this passage as it went on--it's got a bit of humor in the fact that everyone only has 10 minutes to live, but the last two words are the equivalent of hitting a brick wall with your car. Some others:

I'd been tailing this guy for over an hour while he tried every trick in the book to lose me: going down side streets, doubling back, suddenly veering into shop doorways, jumping out again, crossing the street, looking for somewhere to make the drop, and I was going to be there when he did it because his disguise as a postman didn't have me fooled for a minute.

There was a pregnant pause-- as pregnant as Judith had just told Darren she was (about seven and a half weeks along), which was why there was a pause in the first place.

Joshua was as dumb as a bunny and not at all like the egg-carrying one, more like the one who has never gone to middle school, or even the schools at either end.

The easy and comforting roll of the saddle was second nature to Luke, and as he gazed off into the distant setting sun, he wondered whether he had enough change for one more ride at the supermarket before he had to return to the home.

And because I'm a sucker for puns:

A rather youthful Billy Joel was fascinated when he entered the Green Room at the Tonight Show and saw a group of matronly nuns hastily applying hair color to the noggin of the show's next guest, Neil Young, whose agent offered an explanation from the corner of the room: "Only the good dye Young."

I was in a back alley in Fiji, fighting desperately and silently for my life, fighting desperately for oxygen, clawing at the calm and almost gentle pressure of the fabric held over my face by implacable, ebony thighs when I realized -- he was killing me softly with his sarong.

The droppings of the migrating Canada geese just missed the outdoor revelers at the inaugural Asian math puzzle competition, marking the first time that dung flew over Sudoku Fest.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Student Orientation

They're really coming! Today was our first official PHS gathering. The students and families came to learn about PHS and the details about getting started. 120 students were selected and 113 actually showed up! That's an astonishing number, given how many factors can impact a person's life here. They were photographed (again--to ensure that the person that took the exam and the person we verified in the home is the person that came today), measured for uniforms, served sodas and doughnuts, and introduced the families to PHF/PHA. Families watched a short slide show of pictures of the school under construction, learned a bit about PHF history, met the teachers, and got all the information about what to bring, etc.
You could tell that many of them wore their best clothes for the trip to town and to this meeting. Many of them that were so serious when we visited them in their homes broke into huge smiles when they were recognized and greeted by one of us. Even though virtually no one that attended spoke English (including the students) it was clear they were excited to be there and at the opportunities that await them. For me, it was a chance to see them as a class of PHS students, not just a bunch of people, and to imagine them arriving on the first day. I have never in my life wanted something that I needed in the way that these students and their families must want the education they need to be able to survive in life. It's so exciting to think about having real students at school finally!

The Family

Remember these guys? Well, here they are 9 months later! Moshi and Rugs (Rugby), all 75 pounds (each) of wiggly good-tempered adolescence. They scare the you-know-what out of anyone that comes in, which is what they are supposed to do, but really are quite sweet and good-tempered, which is great with all the kids that are around. They have these big deep barks, too, letting everyone in earshot know they're on duty. They also beat the poo out of a friendly neighbor dog that somehow ended up in our compound. We love them.

This summer many of the kids' friends were on home leave and they were forced to actually play with each other. I know, I know, the horror of it all. They learned some great habits and lessons about getting along with your siblings and spending time alone and enjoying it. Around the beginning part of July, however, a great family arrived for a month to do some medical work here. They ended up staying just up the road from us and Nate and Meredith hit it off with our kids. Noah and Nathan became instant soulmates, the way Noah does (Nathan reminded me very much of Noah's good friend Isaac) and Ava loved having an older girl to play with. Nathan spent most days here at the house and Ava up at Meredith's. They are a great family, and Noah is demanding that we promise him a trip to Nova Scotia SOON to visit him again. They are leaving this week and the house will feel empty without him here.

This past week the weather finally got warmer and we started hitting the pools again. Yesterday was a great day, with Meredith and Ava, Cameron, Noah, Nathan, Jacob and Aden (2 new boys from New York that will join them at school) and Charlie and Annie (from Arkansas, whos dad works for the Nature Conservency and who are here for a month) all running into each other at the pool yesterday and spending almost 5 hours playing together, while the moms chatted, American-style. It was heavenly!
The "event" of the summer is Ava on her bike sans training wheels. From what I can see, those training wheels were only slowing her down. She mastered it instantly and was off and running (well, pedaling) as fast as she could. We have terrible troubles with flat tires from thorns, but every chance they get they are zooming around the yard.

We have had, as I mentioned, several earthquakes in the 5-6 range on the Richter scale. Definitely big enough to give you a creepy feeling as you watch your living room sway! There is an active volcano about 75 miles from here called Ol Donyo Lengai (Maasai for "mountain of God") and when we arrived last February, it was spewing big rocks out. We are hopefully heading over there next week for a few days of camping with Max and Gina, and hoping to see some action. You can climb to the top, starting at midnight and arriving around sunrise (honestly, what is with that? I am sure sunrise looks just fine from down below and exactly how do you climb in the middle of the night?!) and we're hoping to be able to get all the kids up the hike. We'll see--if not, Cameron'll go for sure and I'll stay back (sleeping) with Noah and Ava. No baby carriers any more--it's all about real hiking now!