Under the Big African Sky, part 2

In the village of Muukuni, everyone lives in huts made of mud and straw. The “palaces” of the female and male chiefs are just BIGGER straw-mud huts. Virtually everyone drops out of school at age 15 because their families cannot afford to send them to secondary school through age 18.

I am fascinated by this very large village comprised of smaller villages–with fenced compounds for each family. I believe I was there for a reason, and I intend to find out what that is. They don’t seem to have any help in sending children to school. Only 3 in the village with 3,400 school-age children have had the chance to go to college, which makes them local celebrities.

My guide, Philip Muwba, is 32 and wishes he could study to become a math teacher. Instead, he has a part time job giving tourists elephant rides. My other guide, Lumba Simulube, is a single mother of a 4-year old daughter, and she would love to study to be a nurse. I asked how many children would LIKE to go further in school, and they said, “Many! They just can’t afford to.”

But after age 11, parents must pay for uniforms, exams, and tuition. The exciting thing about this village I found in Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), different than working with villages further north in Africa, is that Victoria Falls (one of the 7 natural wonders of the world) is just minutes away. So the large town of Livingstone has grown up around it, with secondary schools and a college where young people from the village can be educated. I am gathering more information to find out how directly I can work with those schools and the University of Zambia four hours away.

It’s very inexpensive to send an African child to school. I am hoping to put together a great way to sponsor the students who excel in school but have no way to access higher education. I have a contact in the village who is highly motivated to help ambitious, smart kids who have a desire to help their people, become educated and return to help their people. I hope to put something together that’s really cool and tell you about it, but first I have to research how you get money directly to the educational institutions to sponsor kids, etc. I’m talking to my full-time humanitarian friends.

Check out my photos of the children in the village fascinated by the photos we took of them. (You could entertain them for hours by taking their photo and showing it to them, as they have no mirrors and have never owned a photo of themselves.)  

We took four of the kids from the village (with their adult chaperon) to our five-star resort for the day. I can’t even describe how fun it was to watch 12-year old Precious, 6-year old twins Austin and Herbert, and 2-year old Kala, swim in a pool for the first time. Eat in a restaurant. Play with my two iPods. Watch soccer on TV. Kala couldn’t stop stroking my white skin and hair. All firsts for them.

They were completely fascinated by ice floating in glasses of water, and couldn’t eat enough of it. Ditto shaking salt on food. Shaking it on a plate and dipping their fingers, or their food, in it. It was an experience I will never forget.

Under the Big African Sky, part 1

I love to travel, to see how others live. How they are the same, how they are different. How they eat, not least of all. I’m thrilled by names, places, people, animals, transportation. A tiny international airport in Zambia where they hand-write the tickets and cats wander the waiting area.

I spent four days roughing it in the five-million-acre Kruger National Park in the province of Mpumalanga, “the place where the sun comes out.” It’s fun just to SAY Mpumalanga.

And our guide, Nick–probably worried when he saw two blonde American women–warned us that his motto is, “TIA.” Or, THIS IS AFRICA. Rough translation, don’t even think about whining. My own version of it, when I’d see something crazy, was, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

We met lots of Africans, and not one who had ever been off the continent. Their mouths would gape open with astonishment when I described to them that the week before I got to 95-degree Africa, I was skiing in snow waist-deep. I told them it’s so cold where I live that the hairs in your nose freeze, so you have to wiggle your nose to break up the ice. And your breath makes a frozen vapor cloud. They can’t imagine it.

One asked me, incredulously, “How can the children write in school? Aren’t their fingers stiff?” Central heat (or AC), of course, is something they’ve never experienced.

In the village of Muukuni, 7,000 people live, the vast majority without jobs. No electricity, no running water, no internet. The women carry water in pots on their head. The only junk food I saw was a little hanging stand at the entrance to the village–but only the occasional tourist who visits buys it–and apparently not much, since the vendor’s bags of potato chips were sun-faded.

In my world travels (23 countries on 4 continents the past 4 years), I’ve found few places untainted by Western culture. Even rural Vietnam and China had far too much processed food. The ONLY places on Earth that don’t have processed foods are the places where the people have virtually no access to cash.

Muukuni Village is one of those rarities. The vast majority of families have zero income, and there is no government aid. Unfortunately, they also have leprosy, extreme poverty, and a high mortality rate. The chief can be put to death if the Council decrees so, and once they decided to poison the chief. When he didn’t die, they buried him alive.

My guide, Lumba Simulube, told me her large family was orphaned in 1996 when her father died of a nosebleed. Since you don’t generally die of that, they assume he died of a hex his brother put on him.

Only four in the village own a car–for commercial purposes.

There are things I like about village life. For instance, there is zero crime. Maybe that’s because everyone is poor (so who would you steal from?). But part of it has to be this: look at the photos of the community jail. While I was standing next to it, a couple of young men were escorted in by the village elders. They are questioned, and they are caned by an old woman, only if they refuse to be accountable for their actions. Look at all the kids gathering around–it’s rare that anyone needs discipline, so the kids were fascinated.

The crimes of these youth?

They are referred by parents if they use bad language, disrespecting elders, or refusing to do their jobs.

The Sunflower Orphanage, Peru Part 4

I have much more to tell you about our trip to Peru and especially the Sunflower Orphanage. In the swings (THANK YOU to GSG reader Patti for these photos!) are Purfita, Dayana, Janina, and me.

Janina is so cute and sweet, but she is impish and lets you know EXACTLY how she wants things to be! Dayana makes beautiful jewelry and drives a hard bargain. But she also wrapped a set of earrings up with gobs of paper and tape, and she and Janina presented them to me as a gift.

When I think of how badly I would like to take one or more of these girls out of Peru, I have to turn my brain away from the thought before my heart shatters in a million pieces, as impossible as that is.

The day we finished building this swing set, it rained all afternoon. The kids, though, took turns swinging all day long and into the night. No swing ever stood still. Classmates stood above the orphanage looking in, jealously. Some of these kids have never been in a swing. (Don’t worry, they figured it out. It didn’t take them long to learn to yell, “Empujame!” Push me! And to jump out at the height of the motion.)

In this photo with Cristofer, who is 7 years old and new to The Sunflower, whom Emma and I adore, we are hauling grass and rocks away before we built an outdoor wash basin. Cristofer rode in my wheelbarrow over and over, and it’s easy to carry him since he’s the size of a 4-year old! Seventeen percent of kids in Latin America are malnourished and Cristofer came as one of them. Now he gets three meals a day thanks to the generosity of Americans who sponsor kids at the Sunflower, run by two of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.

I looked high and low for a humanitarian organization that is truly dedicated to the welfare of street children and orphans, where virtually all of your money reaches the intended cause. I already know the founders. But I wanted to go there to see it, touch it. And I asked the kids, the intern, everyone, lots of questions. This organization, and this amazing home, is the real deal. Let me tell you a couple of examples of why I love this place:

One day I was pushing kids in the swings and Gabriel saw one of the teenage girls get into a swing with a big handful of grapes. He stopped his swinging and walked over to her, to ask for some. She give him half. Then he went back to swinging but noticed 5-year old Janina standing nearby. He slowed his swing to a stop, silently reached over and gave her half of his grapes. Then he started swinging again.

He never even knew I saw this. I never saw a fight the whole time I was at the orphanage. I never heard an argument, never saw meanness or selfishness. (I wish I could say the same about my own kids.) These children were rescued from savage abuse. From hiding and trying to survive in the jungle. From begging on the streets. From alcoholic parents. Many of them don’t even know their own birthday, how old they are. Many have no memory prior to age 8 because of that magnificent ability the body has to protect us from horribly painful memories.

Nora is an MD and PhD cancer researcher at the famous Houston MD Anderson Clinic. She came with a GSG reader (and often translated for us, including letters to the kids as we left, since she is a native of Argentina). Nora decided during the trip to sponsor a beautiful, quiet girl named Margot. (That means she pays the $37/month that covers Margot’s meals, and Nora is going to skype with Margot and send her clothes and shoes.) Margot was confiding in Nora the gossip at the Sunflower. “Papi Leo,” she whispered, “might convert this place to be an orphanage!” Margot ran away from two previous orphanages. At the Sunflower, the gates are always open, but no one has ever run away. The kids seem very genuinely happy to me.

Margot has no idea the Sunflower IS an orphanage. To her, it’s just . . .

HOME.

Here’s where you sponsor one of the kids:

http://www.genhu.org/greensmoothiegirl.html

Hello from 13,000 feet up in the Andes: Part 3

I just returned from a tour of a hospital in Cusco, Peru. If anyone who reads this site / blog thinks I am anti-doctor, I’m not. I am teaching a nutrition clinic to a pediatrics practice on Jan. 15 at home. But I just gained a newfound appreciation for medical care in America. I think we should use it less, especially drugs, especially antibiotics and steroids. But I’m so thankful we have access to some of the best medical care in the world. It was a shock to see Western medicine practiced in such a primitive way.

In the obstetrics unit, the mothers are packed 6 to a room. The maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world according to the World Health Organization, in the Andean countries: Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. That’s because the women are tiny, and cervical size is directly proportional to body size. In addition to poor medical care in general, many Peruvian women are only 4′ tall, so many are lost in childbirth because of short cervixes where doctors are unable to stop bleeding. The equipment in the OB wing of the Cusco hospital is ancient, the hospital far from sterile and some might even say dirty, there are no incubators, babies must sleep with their mothers, and we gringos were allowed to wander through with our guide, an obstetrics nurse who helps run the orphanage.

Peasant mothers don’t know when they will deliver because they haven’t received any medical care, so they come down out of the mountains and often end up at the hospital for weeks, waiting, all funded by the Peruvian government.

We gave hand-knitted hats and newborn kits to the new mothers, who let us photograph their beautiful babies. One woman’s baby had died, and her daughter was sleeping on the dirty floor next to her, surrounded by other expectant and recently delivered mamas.

Then, with no warning, we were ushered into the delivery room of a first-time mother giving birth. When I realized what we were seeing, I asked my daughter, only 14, and the other 14 y.o. girl with us, if they really wanted to watch a birth, and they did. I am frankly ecstatic that they saw that. What they saw may be more helpful in discouraging poor choices than the semester of Teen Living my daughter just took, where she carried around a fake baby with batteries that cried (very annoyingly) and peed. My daughter said afterward, ”I am never having children.” She’ll get over that, but it is well documented that women with education have babies later (improving the children ´s and family ´s quality of life), and women who have babies later have more education.

Not that seeing the birth wasn’t beautiful. It was. We got to see a human being take its first breath, utter its first cry, and I was deeply moved. This mother had no anaesthesia of any kind, but didn’t make a sound. One of the midwives was putting her entire body weight on the mother’s belly to shove the baby into the world. We watched an episiotomy. We watched the six women around the mother yell, ”Es varoncito!” It’s a baby boy!

The midwives and Eunice, our nurse friend who works on the unit, dragged Linda in to take photos. We gringos (the men were down the hall, declining to watch) were horrified and begged her to come out and not take photos of this very private event. So Linda came back out, but Eunice grabbed her camera and began snapping away. We realized later that Eunice wanted that young mother to have the photos, for us to send them to her. She was there alone, no husband or boyfriend, no parents or siblings or friend–and no camera. Some of the peasant women we photographed have never owned a photo of themselves or their children.

We walked through an emergency room with appalling conditions: patients lying on stretchers with IV’s surrounded by sick people, even some with basins in their laps to throw up in–the waiting room and treatment room were one and the same. Husbands and boyfriends and children sleeping in corners and hallways everywhere.

I’m glad clean and efficient medical care is available in my country when we need it. I couldn’t help but say under my breath a few times in the hospital, ”Please God let none of us get sick in this country.” I have been rather blessed that way. All but a few of the Americans in our expedition have been ill with altitude sickness, diarrhea, vomiting, and other symptoms. I’ve been totally healthy and even have been eating lettuce salads we were warned against, and using tap water to brush my teeth.

Emma threw up at the entrance to Machu Picchu (”I threw up on one of the 8 Wonders of the World,” she likes to say) but hiked all day and has been otherwise fine.

Eating right while traveling internationally . . . part 1

Hello friends–I am back from touring 8 countries in the Far East.   Getting trapped by the landslides that had downtown Hong Kong under water the day we left was pretty exhausting.   Fortunately, they held the flight (and 150 others) for a few hours due to the fact that lots of the crew and passengers were missing.   Had we not been delayed almost an hour due to bureaucratic red tape getting off our ship, we probably would have been in one of the taxis floating down the harbor.

 

Instead, thanks to a lot of good karma, we were just in a taxi sitting on the freeway for almost 3 hours (a  futile taxi ride that eventually dumped us in the subway and cost $650 Hong Kong Ding Dongs, which is what I called their money after giving up on keeping track of all the currencies we used).   We miraculously got home to Utah right on time.

 

I have to confess that thinking and studying about how to achieve ideal nutrition for my family and yours seemed indulgent and petty in the face of what I saw.   Whole families in the Phillipines living on top of flattened cardboard boxes in the median of the road.   Others living in corrugated metal shacks.   Very young boys out in the ocean next to our ship on dilapidated boats fishing, just for their families to be able to eat.   The Sultan of Brunei living in obscene opulence while his people go without.   A young couple who chased our bus for 2 hours hoping to sell us a t-shirt, just because I smiled at them as they sped along next to us holding up the shirts and signaling the price.

 

And what broke my heart in two pieces: crippled and blind people begging in the streets in Vietnam.   They told us not to hand out money or we’d get mobbed, but HOW CAN YOU NOT?   I cried every time I saw one of them.   Where is the fairness in the world that some of us get to overindulge on 8-course meals on a cruise ship, while others are in a third-world country, without arms and legs, begging for spare change?

 

I came home with renewed commitment to do more with my energy and financial means to help people in these circumstances.   Tomorrow about how to live low on the food chain, even on a cruise ship.   Consuming fewer resources helps everyone.