Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Keeping the Peace?

Keep this tent empty! At the height of the conflict in northern Uganda, this tent at Gulu Support the Children Organization (GUSCO) housed over 400 formerly abducted child soldiers.

The critical ceasefire agreement, signed last summer by the Lord's Resistance Army and the Ugandan military, is set to expire today. Do your part - call on Congress to act and do their part to put an end to the fighting in Northern Uganda once and for all. The suggestions for action that follow are provided by Uganda Conflict Action Network (Uganda-CAN):

We are asking you to join us in calling Members of Congress to sign a resolution introduced by Senator Feingold (D-WI) and Senator Brownback (R-KS), which calls on the Government and LRA to return to the peace talks, and for the U.S. to do all that it can to make sure this opportunity to achieve peace in northern Uganda is not lost.

Call Your Members of Congress to Pass the Feingold/Brownback Resolution Today!

  • WHO TO CALL: The resolution has been introduced into both the House and Senate, so please call both your Senators and your Representative. To find out the contact information for your Members of Congress, click here and type in your zip code. You can also call the Capital Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to your representatives.

  • WHAT TO SAY: Here is an example of what you can say: "Hi, my name is _____ from ______, and I'm calling Senator/Representative _______ to express my concern about today's expiration of the ceasefire in northern Uganda. I urge Senator/Represenative _____ to vote in favor of the resolution led by Senators Feingold and Brownback, which urges the Government of Uganda and rebel Lord's Resistance Army to resume negotiations and renew the ceasefire. The lives of two million people displaced by this conflict, and tens of thousands of abducted children depend on the success of these negotiations."
    If you can, it helps to personalize the message; a personal connection emphasizes how important the issue really is to you.

  • WHAT TO EXPECT: Most likely, the staff members in the Congressional offices you call will just take down your name and zip code and thank you for your call. If they ask you for additional thoughts, you can say more about why you care about the crisis in northern Uganda, or consider mentioning some of the following points:

The Juba talks are the most viable opportunity there is to achieve peace in northern Uganda, and with international attention, they can succeed.

The U.S. should send an envoy to show support for the talks, and provide assistance to the team that is monitoring the ceasefire.

The Ugandan military should also be expected to and assisted in protecting the millions of people in northern Uganda who have been displaced by the conflict.

A return to civil war, as may result from the expiration of the ceasefire truce, would yield disastrous results for the people of northern Uganda and for regional stability.

Together, thousands of us will demand today that this new Congress shows moral leadership for peace in northern Uganda!

Friday, February 23, 2007

IYVS 2007 + a scary bat rumor

After a very [very] long ride from Midway on the "L," I'm currently living it up in Evanston, Illinois, representing GYPA at the second annual International Youth Volunteerism Summit (IYVS) held at Northwestern University. We're leading three workshops:

"Building bridges between grassroots activism and high-level international decision-making"

"Maximizing Short Term International Learning Experiences"

"Critical Reflection"

I will post more info and stories from the summit in the coming days, so stay tuned for some in-depth analysis of what we learned here.

Until then, here's a tiny tidbit from the odd news feed. Earlier this afternoon I received an email from "Bat Demon," notifying me of a strange phenomenon that's been plaguing East Africa as of late. It appears that superstition and witchcraft are alive and well, especially in the rural parts of the region, where this bat demon has been sexually assaulting villagers. Locals claim it originated in Zanzibar, where reports of its existence have been common for many years. Check out this BBC news story for more details. The bat demon story reminds me of jinn, a genie-like spirit that makes frequent appearances throughout the Muslim world, including areas of Somalia and Uganda. The existence of these spirits seems to run parallel with the presence of brutal conflict and a lack of education in a particular area. Tradition supports this line of thought, as jinn are supposedly repulsed by the mental "noise" created by education. Hence they tend to torment rural, illiterate women. The Economist wrote up an interesting piece on the topic in their holiday edition this past year.

Back here in Evanston, I'm still thinking of bats. I can't help but wonder if this mischevious bat demon is actually "Icebat" the Uglydoll plush toy Carrie purchased at the local Evanston comic book store, where we spent upwards of a whole dorky hour yesterday trying to choose which Uglydolls to bring home with us. The winners? Icebat, two Moxys and a Chuckanucka. They really are ugly.

The wind is howling in off Lake Michigan, reminding us of how frigid it is outside. Luckily with the massive amount of noise in my head, I don't have to worry about jinn paying me a visit tonight. As for Icebat, he's on the nightstand and he's creeping me out.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Open Season: GYPA Summer Trips

This summer Global Youth Partnership for Africa (GYPA) will send 40 American students to Africa to meet with their counterparts in Uganda and Cameroon. The Immersion trips will give American students the unique opportunity to explore the role of youth in development, peace-building, and health promotion first-hand. Our goal is to expand international youth networks, encourage greater understanding about Africa, and inspire an ongoing dialogue and partnership between young American and African leaders. Participants will engage in discussions regarding conflict resolution, economic development, post-conflict rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS, and gender issues, among others. Students with backgrounds or interests in any of the above fields are encouraged to apply! Interested students may apply to just one or all three of the programs. Applications, accepted on a rolling basis, are due no later than Tuesday, April 3, 2007. Please visit the GYPA website to download the official immersion program descriptions and to fill out an application. Contact Carrie Stefansky at with any questions.

I will be leading the following trip:

Uganda Immersion: “Youth, Development, and Peace-Building”
July 2 –18, 2007
Uganda faces dramatic challenges, including poverty, political marginalization, and HIV/AIDS; however, it is also at a crossroads. This fall, peace talks brought about a cessation of hostilities in the 20-year civil war in northern Uganda. Now is a critical time to examine the many questions that remain regarding reconstruction and rehabilitation and, particularly, the role youth can play in solving them. What factors brought about a transformation in the conflict? What role do Ugandans see for the international community in the post-conflict environment? How can Uganda help to provide stability of the Great Lakes region? What steps need to be taken to protect and provide for vulnerable populations, such as refugees, internally displaced persons, and orphans?

The Immersion will provide a first-hand look at Uganda through dialogue, cultural exchange, and direct service. Students will gain a unique perspective on issues such as economic development, democracy-building, and transitional justice. The program will include opportunities to meet directly with community-based organizations, international non-governmental organizations, and other young leaders in Kampala and northern Uganda.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Feel-good shopping news?

Way back in October I wrote a post about Product Red -- and half-jokingly talked about how ethical shopping can change the world (in reality I was just trying to make myself feel better about my excessive consumerism). Today, as I was reading up on Inhabitat, I came across EPIC. Are you an ethical, progressive, and intelligent consumer? Hell yes I am! My first thought was to book a plane ticket to Vancouver as soon as possible so that I could be among other cool EPICs...but then I began to wonder if it might be the new millenium's yuppie-fest. How beneficial can ethical shopping really be?

The Economist article "Voting with your trolley" (7 Dec 2006) sparked a lively debate on whether or not ethical food shopping actually makes a difference in the world. When faced with the enormous challenges of world poverty and climate change, the average person feels overwhelmed and helpless. Buying locally, choosing organic food or purchasing Fairtrade products seems like an easy enough lifestyle shift that can make a difference. But does it?

Many argue that ethical food shopping is like the traditional "vote with your feet" argument (tip of the hat to Mr. Charles Tiebout). When you don't like the package of public goods (schools, infrastructure, etc.) being provided in the community in which you live, pack up shop and choose a community that provides the mix and quality of public goods you're looking for. This forces communities to be competitive...or so the argument goes. Now apply this to shopping. If the masses start purchasing more organic/locally-produced/fair trade products, the market will have to respond - the message will travel the lengthy journey of the supply chain from the consumer to the producer. This phenomenon is pretty visible - lots of grocery store chains (including Wal-Mart) now carry their own organic food lines. But are all aspects of these products actually beneficial? Here are some interesting arguments against the buzz words:

  • FAIR TRADE: Economists argue against subsidies because they encourage overproduction. So while Fairtrade farmers are earning a higher price for their crops, the overproduction is driving down the prices received by non-Fairtrade farmers making them relatively worse-off. In addition, the Fairtrade premium creates a disincentive for farmers to diversify their crops. Some also argue that the Fairtrade certification policies to not help the majority of poor farmers - those who work on large plantations that are ineligible for Fairtrade status.

  • ORGANIC: A Nobel-peace-prize-winning agriculturist (think Green Revolution) argues that organic farming (without fertilizers and pesticides) produces less output, which in turn requires more land - leaving much less land for forests. How environmentally friendly is that?

  • LOCALLY-PRODUCED: The main argument for buying locally combines supporting local farmers and decreasing "food miles" - the distance your food travels from the source to your table. However, a study in the UK found that majority of food miles are racked up between home and the grocery store/farmers market. In addition, studies found that it's (in many cases) more efficient and environmentally-friendly to truck in veggies from someplace warm than to grow them in hothouses. And what about the boost in trade and development received in developing countries get when we import our food from outside the US?

My opinion remains the same - expos like EPIC are creating a more mainstream and popular image of the "sustainable lifestyle" - and this makes it more easily digestable for the yuppie masses, who aren't ready to turn in their pointy-toe boots for Birkenstocks. The stereotype of the environmentalist/social activist is changing, and I think that's great. Keep the talk going - the more people become aware, the more solutions we'll see - and maybe (just maybe) the movement will advance beyond changing consumer habits, to something more concrete like changing policy. In the meantime, I'll look for flights to Vancouver.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Shameless self promotion

2006 Uganda Best of Blogs Awards.
Go here. Scroll down to Best Photography selection. Vote.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wanderlusting on Thursday night

Henry wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. to start the long process of waiting for me to take him outside for his morning walk. He persistently follows me around, occasionally whimpering, constantly trying to make contact with his pleading eyes. Once my hair is dry and I am dressed in some random concoction of pajamas and outdoor gear, we venture out into the pale light of Northern Virginia morning. When the "wintry mix" blew through the DC area on Tuesday night, it left an un-impressive three inches of wet snow and slush. Twenty-four hours later, it's a rock solid sheet of ice over snow, and I'm ice-skating in cowboy boots as Hank pulls me across the shimmering backyard.

I'm reminded of the first lines of Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel

It was hard to say when exactly winter arrived. The decline was gradual, like that of a person into old age, inconspicuous from day to day until the season became an established, relentless reality.

Yes, it is winter, but that doesn't change the fact that twenty degrees with a stiff wind in your face is really freakin cold.

So, that said, is it any surprise at all that I can't get my mind off of travel? Even the yoga instructor tonight was playing ocean sounds and encouraging us to breathe in the "fresh and crispy air." Crispy isn't exactly how I'd describe the constant wind blowing across the Caribbean in Belize. I've mentioned Belize before, but I think it's time for a re-visit.

Last April I was on a deserted island just off the coast of Belize – my second annual girls-only vacation with Venessa. We spent the week camping on a tiny island about thirty miles off the coast, on the barrier reef. Our journey there was an international flight, then a prop plane along the coast and a single red, dirt road and jungle. Then a bumpy ride to Placencia and a bumpier hour and a half boat ride out to the island. The journey is cleansing for me – it’s always been one of my favorite parts. I look forward to the feeling of being suspended with absolutely no purpose aside from arriving at a destination. The feeling of Belize was not dissimilar from the detachment of the travel itself. Life simplified itself to rhythms – the surf, the tide, the sunrise and sunset, dips of the kayak paddle into the sea, jumping schools of fish, laps of osprey and pelican, the measured dance of sand crabs amongst the bleached shells and seaweed. It was a feeling of absence and complete presence. And when the sun set and the stars rose up to fill the sky, the opaque blackness gripped the surface of sea and eliminated the feeling of gravity. Lying in the sand, I could actually feel the Earth’s slow spin – a deep, fluid, ancient movement. The oldest rhythm of all.

I think Wordsworth (goofy looking as he may have been) had it right. As de Botton explains:

"...we may see in nature certain scenes that will stay with us throughout our lives and offer us...both a contrast to and relief from current difficulties. He termed such experiences 'spots of time':

There are in our existence spots of time.
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue...
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen."

Belize is one of my 'spots of time.'

Monday, February 12, 2007

Music Monday

And I see you hiding your face in your hands
Talking bout far-away lands
You think no one understands
Listen to my hands
Alexi Murdoch - Song for You

H Street NE is an "up-and-coming" neighborhood in DC, and home to the relatively new venue on the scene - Rock and Roll Hotel. What that looks like is a bunch of emo/mellow music enthusiasts (me included) crowding around freezing on an otherwise desolate street on a Sunday night at 10 p.m. to watch Alexi Murdoch - a folksy/acoustic/Nick-Drake-ish-type fellow from Glasgow perform music from his album Time Without Consequence.

Murdoch's voice - backed up only by guitars - is at once syrupy and crisp. Kind of like hot waffles in the dark. It really just pours over you, and I think you can pick this up simply by listening to his CD -- but it hits you even more when he's performing live. His voice and the guitars were the sole energy in the [hot and airless] room, and it easily filled the space. The audience, a captivated and absolutely still cluster of fans, stood with mouths slightly ajar, heads tilted back to get a better view. Bravo. Murdoch also sports my latest fashion obsession, the "Communist beard."

I strongly encourage you to spend upcoming frigid Sunday nights lying in bed, half-watching the snow fall outside, and half-listening to Alexi Murdoch.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Tour de Ohio: So Long CBus

Starting at 4:00 a.m., I traveled by car (still dark in Joey's car), plane, shuttle, train, metro, and arrive at my office for work today by 9:30 a.m. In a cruel twist of fate, Mother Nature was beating down on Washington D.C. with blasts of absolutely frigid air. My [gasp] Starbucks mocha, meant to shake the frost and exhaustion from my bones, was iced before I walked the block to my building.

With a caffeine- and wireless-internet-filled weekend now behind me, I can comment a bit on the Tour de Ohio. Part of being an Ohio State alum is having a neurotic obsession with all things Ohio. While I no longer live in the state, I am still immensely proud when I talk about Cleveland, Columbus, or the Buckeyes (even despite last month's misfortunes). Over the course of the past week, I gave five lectures, two NPR interviews and set up two movie screenings - all to boost awareness about the situation in Northern Uganda. Coming back from Uganda, I didn't know what to expect in terms of level of interest on the ground in the Midwest. I couldn't have been more impressed with the reactions and attendance at the events. As a result of the two movie screenings, 700 people (400 in Strongsville and 300 in Columbus) who likely didn't know where to find Uganda on a map now have a basic knowledge of the atrocities that have been committed and the international community's failure to act.

All we can hope for at this point is that of those 700 people that watched Invisible Children - or of the others that listened to lectures and radio interviews - that there is one person that does not forget.

Is it you?

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Roethke - dig it

"Light takes the Tree..."
Second consecutive day at Cup o' Joe. My brother is lost somewhere in a dense fog of World of Warcraft. I couldn't take the magic and swords any longer and headed down the street. I could have a very happy life sitting at coffee shops and writing all day long. Came across this poem again while talking to a friend (Kevin, you vile imposter!). Roethke seems appropriate for this Sunday afternoon.

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Tour de Ohio: Buckeye Nation

I'm not sure if my Tour de Columbus is more for publicizing the GYPA trip or embarking on a gastronomic adventure. Anyone who knows me well also knows how deep my love runs for this gritty little city - especially the restaurants. I may have been born in Cleveland, but Columbus is surely my home.

The tour started Thursday morning with the Butvin team's dinner at PF Changs, but the real eating started on Friday morning at Jack and Benny's on the corner of Hudson and High Street - the coconut and chocolate chip pancakes are still the best. Note to self - avocado and swiss omelettes would ONLY be good in Uganda -- not in Midwestern USA. Lunch was a letdown - a stop at Eurocafe just south of Broad and High in downtown CBus (my weekly lunch destination when I worked for the State of Ohio). We arrived to find out that they were out of pierogies until the end of the month. I almost cried out in agony. I brought my spirits back up last night with a trip to El Vaquero's - my weekly stop for margaritas and the #40 (a chicken burrito, enchilada and a side of Mexican rice). Much to my dismay, they've expanded the restaurant and remodeled it (no worries here - the inside is still covered with cheesy murals and Scarface-esque chandaliers). It's no longer attached to the Super 8 motel - since my last visit they tore that wonder down and built a Hilton Garden Inn. What's this town coming to?

Aside from eating, I also gave a lecture to the Ohio State City and Regional Planning class, which went very well. With a little luck we'll have a Buckeye contingent on the trips to Uganda this summer. I also did another interview with NPR - this time for WCBE, the Columbus station. The interview was recorded and will be cut up and played during morning rush hour on Monday. I will post it when it's available online.

I'm now doing what I rarely get the chance to do - spending the day at Cup o' Joe on Tulane and High Street, working on my caffeine binge and catching up on my reading - What is the What by Dave Eggers. It's a fictionalized account of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese Lost Boy, and his journey from a war-torn Sudan, to life in refugee camps, to a difficult life in the U.S. Stories from Sudan have been popping up a lot in my life lately, from the Darfur photography exhibit at the US Holocaust Museum, to God Grew Tired of Us (go see it immediately), to my conversation with Lisa Moser about African refugees in Cleveland. It's impossible to learn about one war in East Africa without having to then learn something about the others, which leaves you mired in a web of seemingly insolvable conflicts. On that note, back to my reading.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Tour de Ohio: Cleveland rocks

After a metro ride, a transfer, a sprint through Union Station, a train ride to Baltimore, a flight delay, a flight and a very long taxi to the gate, I arrived in Cleveland bleary-eyed and freezing. The ground was covered in snow and it was so cold that the top layer was blowing over the pavement, dancing in swirls and zigzags across the frozen ground. Henry greeted me with his butt-shaking dance and underbite. My Dad cut his "bangs" so he can actually see and it looks a bit weird - but otherwise he's the same lovable ball of fur I missed so much.

Wednesday was a frenzy of activity, starting at 7:20 a.m. with four back-to-back presentations at high school classes. Dad picked me up at 11 a.m. to drive downtown to Playhouse Square for the NPR interview. Being in a studio was surreal, with the sweet sounds of monotonous NPR broadcasting gently wafting from the speakers. I had a ten-minute slot on Around Noon. It may or may not be the hallmark moment of my life to date. Listen to it here.

In the evening we had dinner with my high school English teacher, Linda Lackey (check out her awesome blog) and her family, the Junior Statesmen of America students that helped organize the movie screening, and Operation Deep Freeze - the Invisible Children road crew that are showing the film. The screening was a huge success - almost 400 people came for the free screening in the auditorium at SHS. It's amazing to think that maybe (just maybe) this was more than just a screening for one of those 400 people. You never know what might change someone's life.

I had coffee with Lisa Moser, of Migration and Refugee Services in Cleveland, to talk about the possibility of students volunteering with newly arrived African refugee families - to help them adjust to the culture shock that accompanies a move from the refugee camp to America.

Now on to Columbus!