Saturday, January 31, 2009

How to be a Warrior


Be like Sean Casey.  Sean Casey believes in something.  He believes that gay people around the world should be safe.  Since in many countries gay people are in danger of being killed or arrested for their sexual preference, Sean Casey goes to countries such as Rwanda, Pakistan, Lebanon, and coming soon, Afghanistan to help those people who live in constant fear.  Sean Casey doesn't sit around in his pajamas watching TV and thinking about what he could be doing but what a pain it would be to actually do it.  He just does it.  I want to be like Sean Casey.

Sean Casey is a suspected spy in some parts.  He's now in Rwanda where the general line about homosexuality is, "Oh, we don't have that here."  He is openly gay in a place where it is basically illegal.  He is a warrior for a cause he believes in, traveling a good 80 percent of his year to help people who live with out protection.  Sean Casey is pretty cool.

Sitting next to him I wonder to myself what, if anything, I feel that strongly about.  To go to Afghanistan you have to really freak your parents out.  You may even be just a bit scared yourself, and you would have some valid reasons to feel that way.  Afghanistan is a place you go because you have to.  You go there because what is driving you is so strong it gives you no choice.  If you had a choice, you'd stay home.  Who are these people who risk their lives and distance themselves from their loved ones to go to the most desperate corners of the earth and give help where help is needed?  I want to know more about them.

I left Rwanda this week and said goodbye to some pretty amazing warriors.  Some I met just briefly and others I encountered early on and saw on a daily basis.  Many I've mentioned in my weekly postings though a good deal remain unnamed.  My students are among them. The women I taught are heros.  What they have seen and survived would turn the strongest toward despair, but they carry on with beauty, grace, and laughter.  They are warriors and they are my heros.  They have shared their stories, given their time, and taken a risk by trying the practice of yoga, an exercise they had never heard of, with a young woman they had never met.  I wonder if I could do the same in their position.

How to be a warrior?  Be like Sean Casey, or be like them: take a risk, don't fear, be present, be open, be a beginner, believe in something, make it happen, be persistent, smile, laugh, love... LIVE



(Pictures from Rwanda and Stories from India coming soon.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I am a humble witness or Let's go Clubbing


Today my Canadian friend Logan (aka Little Bit) said goodbye to Rwanda and began her journey back to her hometown.  I knew this day was coming but I was still sad as the hours approached. In honor of Logan I finally said yes to a night out past 9pm.  On Saturday we sipped drinks at our house and then climbed in a cab to Car Wash, a local bar.  It felt great to sit outside under the open sky and enjoy the company of friends.  I looked around at all the faces surrounding me and smiled.  A chill of sadness at my approaching departure swept through me, but I moved back into the moment and was filled with sense of calm.  

Under the Rwandan sky I had sat just days earlier during a rare nighttime blackout.  The stars so often hidden came out in numbers to play.  Trusty Orion with his three starred belt was front and center, but I was sad to discover the rest of the patterns of light were unrecognizable to me. Where was the Big Dipper?  I made a note to brush up on my Astronomy and then looked up again.  My eyes soft, I limited my vision to the dark arch above and had such a visceral realization of how small I am.  Like the stars above I am a speck of light.  I am the tiniest part of the universe and yet contain the whole universe inside me.  It humbled me to see the big picture, to remember I live on a spinning world floating in space.  It is a world that lived before me and will continue on long after I am gone.  And though my life in this incarnation is short, my actions ripple across continents in ways unknown and my body will do the same.

So, though Logan is in Canada now, at one time we danced at New Cadillac Club in Rwanda. Lights flashed and beats bumped like in any club.  I stood outside the crowd and remembered dancing in Spain, in Boston, in India.  I laughed to myself thinking about how recognizable the scene was before me.  People are dancing in London and New York too.  A girl is turning towards her girlfriend to avoid a predatory dancer.  Someone is spilling a beer.  The songs may be different but the desire is as universal as the stars we share, to let loose and be as big in our movements as we feel in our hearts.  To break barriers.

I danced with Africa on Saturday and I cheered with Africa three days later as we watched Obama take his oath.  All across the world young and old were hanging on to every word, investing hope and faith in a man who has already broken so many barriers.  Though we live in different countries, our desires are the same, to have peace and safety, access to food and shelter, freedom to speak and worship as our soul commands.  We dream of a president who isn't afraid to dance.  

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Connections



It's been two months, but suddenly there is a shift and I am making some new connections. This week I met with two people who I have been wanting to link up with since I got here.  These two new souls have expanded my world exponentially.  They are beautiful, kind, and full of knowledge and experience.  And I am eager for the weaving patterns that describe their lives. I first met with Richard Niwenshuti who is Managing Director of Business Council for Peace. His organization helps female entrepreneurs in post-conflict countries to expand their businesses. Richard is working with twenty businesses here in Rwanda.  

In my slower days I have been doing tons of reading about aid in Africa.  Many people have written recently hypothesizing as to why the millions in aid sent to Africa seems to have done so little for the people who so desperately need it.  Writers like William Easterly, author of The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good" talk about some of the major mistakes that have caused this money to end up either in the wrong hands or in unsustainable projects.  Issues include corrupt governments, bad planning, and our failure to ask the people we are helping what would most benefit them. The most successful projects have been those that include the input of the people we seek to be of service to, and that give them the resources they need to succeed once aid is not as prevalent. Micro-Lending, invented by Muhammad Yunus, has helped the poorest of the poor to get out of debt and grow their businesses.  His book, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle against World Poverty, is an excellent read.

Richard's company, Business Council for Peace, understands the mistakes that have hindered so many well intentioned do-gooders from making real change.  They have thoughtfully analized the the programs currently available and found the group they believe will most benefit from the kind of aid they provide.  Business Council for Peace is designed with the knowledge that it is the success of small and medium-sized businesses that will revive suffering countries and keep their people employed.  They believe "MORE JOBS MEAN LESS VIOLENCE".  And they specifically focus on female entrepreneurs because women are known to pass their skills on to the next generation, creating a legacy of knowledge.  Please see the business for peace website at: www.bpeace.org.

I was connected with Richard through Anne Kellett who is the sister-in-law of Marilyn Zeigher who is a pre K assistant at the Jewish Community Center in Tenafly where my mother works as Program Supervisor.  Being this far from home, I was eager to pursue any connections, however thin, that I could make out here in Rwanda.  The other person I courted with more than a couple emails is Savannah Keith.  Savannah is the Country Director in Rwanda for a non-profit called The International Education Exchange (IEE), www.educationexchange.org.  One of my yoga students knows Stephen Paletta, the founder of this extraordinary program.  He connected me to Savannah.

Savannah is overseeing the program from here in Rwanda.  International Education Exchange pairs schools in the U.S. with schools in developing countries.  Their mission is to "prepare the next generation for the global community" through these partnerships.  The IEE is also helping the Rwandan government to build classrooms, set up high speed internet, and construct athletic fields.  In addition, they are erecting libraries and even training teachers.  You can read all about what Savannah is doing on her beautiful website, www.savannahkeith.com.

This past week I read a book called Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  It tells a true story of the unbelievable difference that just one person can make. Richard and Savannah present yet another example of what the faith and persistence of a single being can accomplish.  They are not superhuman, but rather much like the rest of us.  Their only difference is they don't give up.  They are present and energetic in their approach to life and because of that they are able to touch people and make positive and lasting impacts.  I hope you will look at their websites and support their missions.

Richard and Savannah, if you are reading this I thank you.  This week you shared your time, thoughts, and stories with me.  You fed my mind and body as we exchanged ideas over Rwandan buffet.  You touched my heart and gave me the boost I needed in order to continue giving to others.  I am so glad that our paths have crossed and our stories are now connected.

Namaste

Monday, January 12, 2009

Slow

slow slow go the rainy days in Kigali.  The new year has brought with it some new challenges, but with each one a lesson is learned.  I think the long Christmas break caused some set backs in our progress here.  Our seamstress women are backed up with a large order and can not break for yoga twice a week in the middle of the day as they once did.  They are also now being payed by piece instead of by hour, so many choose to continue to work instead of participating. In fact, we don't want them to break for class if it will mean taking away from their small income.  So, we look for solutions.  Perhaps it would be better to schedule class in the hour before work and offer a breakfast after.  (Do we have the budget?)  Maybe we can have class during an already established break or after work...  All of these ideas will have to be discussed with one of their English speaking supervisors so we can root through problems that may arise with these time slots, such as cooking the daily meal, or picking up children from school. Finding answers to these questions takes time in Africa where things move very slowly.
In the spaces I am able to document my findings.  Every hurdle here is one I will be able to avoid should I design a program like this one in the future.  I am learning how different NGOs work by meeting with members from many of the non-profit organizations here.  It is such a blessing to have access to people who are willing to share their knowledge.  I don't think there is a better way to learn!

When things are slow, I feel like a bear that is devouring everything.  As I take in the wealth of information surrounding me I am consciously storing up for my return to New York, a place too fast for days like these.