Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Surfers, Sandy, and talking to your neighbors

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit organization made up of surfers who advocate for clean water initiatives, etc.  But in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the east coast branches of Surfrider have shifted their focus to humanitarian efforts.

I recently joined a group of volunteers organized by the foundation  to help with post-hurricane clean-up efforts in Long Beach, Long Island.  
We took two vans from Manhattan and Brooklyn to the destroyed, coastal neighborhoods.  At 8am I didn’t know anyone in the group, but by the end of the day I felt I’d met a unique collection of kindred spirits.  Urban surfers, as it turns out, are almost as laid-back as those who spend their days closer to the shore.  They are working to help restore not only the beaches they love, but they are also aiding people whose homes were ruined by sand, saltwater, and rain.

When we arrived in Long Beach, I partnered with two strangers, Erin and Annie.  The three of us stood in the corner of a windy, bayside parking lot, huddled beneath a rented tarp waiting for instructions.  Our assignment at first seemed a bit pointless.  We were asked to go door-to-door, gathering information about how people were doing and what we could do to help them.  Tyler, the group organizer, had given us specific instructions, “If you go into the houses, wear your masks; never do anything that makes you uncomfortable; write down any needs and send your lists to Joy.  And really, what most of these people want you to do is listen.  They just want to talk.”  My initial reaction to this assignment was to assume people would find us invasive and sort of weird.  The prospect of wandering around asking vague and probably unanswerable questions made me nervous.  I’m a bit of a loner, and barging into the homes of people who are at their most vulnerable made me feel like a Peeping Tom with a clipboard.  I wished I’d been assigned to something a bit less intimate, but I wasn’t willing to speak up and ask for a different task.

Throughout the day we walked up and down East Chester Street knocking on doors, and we did make lists of items people needed in attempt to rid their houses of mold, debris and even sewage that had flowed into their lives.  We filled ten massive bags with the sodden walls of a destroyed basement and we helped one family find the location of a community lunch.  Some residents we met were resilient, “We’re just lucky to have each other,” said a middle-aged man whose wife admitted that the one thing she missed most was her “overpriced, but super soft bed”.  Others gave in to defeat.  One woman angrily told us she was packing the last of her things with no intention of ever coming back.  Most people, however, did just need to talk.

An old man who likes to read about great American presidents spoke at length about Harry Truman while the four of us watched a machine with a giant claw lift all of his belongings high above, dragging ruined clothing and treasured photos from the sidewalk and into the bin.  When chairs and fence posts fell onto his new Toyota, none of us shuddered as Sandy had already ruined his and almost every other car in the neighborhood.  

It was hard to know what to do about the broken hearts.  Cramming heavy detritus into trash bags was easy when compared to the weight of sadness we couldn’t carry away.  

When the van came to collect us, I felt comforted by its familiarity.  Everyone inside, those strangers from only a few hours before, seemed like old friends.  We swapped stories and drank cold beer, and though the Saturday night traffic made for a long journey home, the conversation never waned.  It was good to have someone to talk to.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

International Bright Young Thing

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”  
- Wendell Berry

Olivia Muwereza is a determined and independent adventurer.  She has a charming smile and a true gift for poetry and kindness.  In person, she is so quiet and so still her fearlessness and her intellectual intensity are easy to overlook.  But Olivia is, in the words of her high school biology teacher, “single-minded” in her pursuit of knowledge.

Raised in an SOS Village in Uganda, Olivia attended high school in Ghana and is now a first year student at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.  Amazingly, she’s already learning Chinese in preparation for her next undertaking.

What thoughts, hopes, or fears did you have about leaving Africa for your university studies?
I am usually a resilient person when it comes to moving away from home but I still had a few concerns about moving to the USA. I was basically worried about the social aspect of College Life in America. I thought I wouldn’t have people to hang out with since I am very introverted and I am also not used to partying or going out. When you are in high school you think this is what students do in college especially in the USA. However I was glad to find people of various races who related to me. Besides I have a roommate who enjoys going out but she still respects my decision not to go out with her and she has never considered it ‘uncool’ or anything of that sort.

What were your first thoughts/impressions upon your arrival in Michigan?
I might be wrong but I thought people here like meeting foreigners. Every time I told them where I am from, they would be like, “You are from Uganda? That’s so cool!” As far as I am concerned almost everyone I met was nice to me so I felt very comfortable in Kalamazoo.

Thus far, what has been the most difficult challenge in adapting to life in North America? (Food? Language? Culture? Etc)
At first I thought the food was fine but after one week I just couldn’t eat anything in the Cafeteria. The fruits and vegetables tasted different and I was tired of having fries for every meal. I am slowly adapting to the food since I am going to be here for four years. Another thing is that I feel like Americans speak really fast so I sometimes feel bad when I ask my friends to repeat themselves over and over.  Michigan is also very cold! What makes it worse is that people here are like “oh it’s going to get worse.”

What (so far) seems to be the biggest difference between life in Uganda (or Ghana) and life in the United States? 
I will say the weather because it gets so cold here unlike in Uganda and Ghana. The time difference is also quite huge so most of the time I have to wait until 2:00 am in the morning or wake very early to call home.

Do you think the experience of living and studying in Ghana has helped you adapt to living outside of your own country? 
Yes, I believe going to Ghana was good preparation for me. In Ghana I learnt how to deal with homesickness so even though I miss home, it’s not that bad. The fact that I met new people in Ghana also taught me to relate to people from various parts of the world. I was very shy before I went to Ghana so I am glad I can easily pick conversations with anyone I happen to find myself with. In addition, the academic program in Ghana has also enabled me to stay on top of my assignments in college. I feel like I do not struggle much to meet my deadlines relative to some of my peers.

What do you miss most about Uganda/Ghana?
The food and the music!

What do you (or would you) tell Americans about Uganda that they don’t seem to understand?
I think some Americans have what I would call a ‘stereotypical’ view of Africa which I would blame the media for. My roommate for instance thought that back home there are wild animals such as zebra’s monkeys etc moving around everywhere! So I explained that yes we do have those but they are not found everywhere. So what I always emphasize to my peers is that there is more to Uganda than what the media says. I would like them understand how a normal day is like for certain people in Uganda and why it is like that.

Why did you choose to come to the US for your university studies?
I chose to come to the US for university because there are not so many liberal arts schools in Africa. It’s like you have to know what you want to do before you go to university at home. I think I have a lot of things I am academically interested in and I simply couldn’t imagine myself combining all of them in one area of study. So I thought the system in the USA best suited the kind of student I am.

Were you always motivated to succeed as a student?  If not, who/what inspired you? 
I was not motivated as such until I joined junior high school. I was not a weak student but I cared only about the subjects that I liked and I succeeded at them very well. I did not like math and I never made an effort to perform better at it so in my national exams, I got distinctions in all the three subjects I liked and I got a pass in math. This affected my final points in the end. So in junior high school I decided to do my best in every subject including math. I think this new attitude contributed to my acceptance into SOS HGIC in Ghana as well as my excellence there.

You were the only student from Uganda in your HGIC class, and now you are the only SOS girl in your class to travel to the US for university studies. Do you consider yourself brave?  What gives you the strength to accept such big challenges and adventures?
Brave!! Wow to be honest I also ask myself the same questions. I am like “how come its only me?” But I would say that I am not afraid of being different as long as I am doing something that is good for me and it also makes me happy. I understand that this is all part of the learning process and it’s also part of growing up. I am also a Christian so I think God also has a role to play in all this.

You are a religious person; have you found a Christian community in Kalamazoo?  Are there any differences in the way people worship in America and the way people worship in Uganda or Ghana?
Yeah there is Christian fellowship every Wednesday on campus so I get to meet other Christian’s students and it’s nice to know people from different countries who share your faith. I would say the manner of worship is similar though the songs differ.

Do you have a class or a professor that really excites you?
I like my chemistry professor. His name is Dr. Bartz. He is very understanding and he has introduced me to various people who can help me in the subject. One time he said to me “It’s not as easy as you think, Olivia, you came across the ocean to learn from me and you have to get it right.”

What are your goals as a student?
I want to make my time away from home very meaningful. I intend to take advantage of the opportunities here. I am learning Chinese and I want to study abroad in China. I also intend to challenge myself by taking courses that I like not only those that I can easily excel in.     

“International bright young thing
Now you know for sure that you make the world swing
International bright young thing
Make it swing” 
– Jesus Jones

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sandy then Snow

Ten days after a ferocious hurricane upended the region, an unseasonable snow storm visited the tri-state areas last night. 

The pictures are pretty, but the cold temperatures and fierce winds have further challenged people who lost homes and electrical power when Sandy hit them last Monday.  

I think it might be time for Mother Nature to give us a break!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Election Tuesday with Abena

“I love going to vote. The low tech chaos reminds me that this process is really all about people.” Desiree Byker Abiri

This morning my polling site in Brooklyn was crowded and a bit shambolic, but among the hundreds of people who stood in line, there was an attitude of patient enthusiasm.  At one point a young man complained about the mayhem and the well-appointed businessman standing behind him looked up from his Blackberry and calmly said,  “This is a privilege.  People have sacrificed a lot so we could do this today.”

The advantages of a participatory government are easy to get used to, but coming together with neighbors in a school gymnasium, a firehouse, or a community center is a great reminder of how lucky we are to have a voice.  And while this communal act feels sort of intimate, we all know that the world watches American presidential elections with enormous interest.  It is to our detriment that we don’t look beyond our own borders with the same intensity others often study us.
Abena Owusua, a clever young woman from Accra, Ghana is a first year student at the University of Virginia who may not be able to vote today, but she has contributed to the conversation in her own way.  Curious and sophisticated, she has leapt into college and civic life in the United States.

Abena (whose name actually means "Tuesday") was my student at the SOS-Herman Gmeiner International College in Ghana. The following comments are part of a series of questions I recently asked her to answer:

What were your first thoughts/impressions upon your arrival in Virginia?  Had you ever visited the United States before your arrival for university?

Yes, I had visited the US before but driving to Charlottesville was nerve-wracking. It’s two hours from DC and is in the center of Virginia. All I saw while we drove were cornfields and for a minute my heart sank. But as it turns out, Charlottesville isn’t rural; rather, it has a really rich history and this is evident in the architecture and traditions.
At first I was sure I wouldn’t like it but now I absolutely enjoy walking through the pedestrian mall on Friday nights! J

Have you been following the Presidential campaign?  Do you have any opinions about the upcoming election?

Yes, I have been following the election and have even helped Environment America Action Fund by canvassing for votes for Obama and Tim Kaine. While Obama is not perfect, he does stand for some very important issues such as education, civil rights and the environment which shouldn’t be ignored.
While I think that Romney has good intentions, I think that his thoughts are a bit misguided sometimes.

Were you always motivated to succeed as a student?  If not, who/what inspired you?

I wasn’t always motivated to be successful; my parents used to say that the one thing about me that hadn’t changed from childhood to the age of 18 was that I LOATHED school. That changed when I started college but what really motivates me didn’t occur until this week when I was in a nearby county canvassing for voters pledges for Barack Obama and Tim Kaine; I was in some really rough neighborhoods and it really made me think that I didn’t have all this education at my disposal so I could waste it and resort to the lifestyle of barely getting by.

 How does the American political process compare to Ghana’s system of campaigns and elections?

Well in Ghana, the competition pretty much lies between the liberal democrats and the social democrats. In the US it’s broader- Republicans versus the democrats.
It’s certainly more smooth and peaceful a process in the US; in Ghana we’re just so used to politicians reigning insults on one another or citizens taking up arms in the political party’s defense.
In both cases though I think that political leaders are trying their best to be constructive and build their countries in the ways that they see fit.

What do you (or would you) tell Americans about Ghana that they don’t seem to understand?

Not just Ghanaians but Africans in general: we’ve made it our business to learn as much about each other and about other countries like the US, the UK etc. that it surprises some of my friends when I have even the slightest inkling about another country’s history or some other fact. I think it surprises them that I’d go out of my way to educate myself so much about something that, ideally, shouldn’t matter to me,

Why did you choose to come to the US for your university studies? 

I chose the US because of the benefits of the liberal arts program and because I wanted to be far away from home. I also wanted to be in an environment where it was okay to be unsure as to what I want to do and where I’m encouraged to explore every possibility and every urge.

What do you miss most about Ghana?

The food, the communal life and most importantly my mother.