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September 25, 2012

The last time I wrote it was February. A whole lot of life, both exciting and mundane, happened in between then and now. In my last post our nursery school kids were sketching up ideas for their “dream playground.” We finished that playground. And then we built another. The playgrounds on our site were done in partnership with Playground Ideas. This NGO designs and builds play spaces that utilize low cost, local and recycled materials and are assembled with locally sourced labor and tools in order that they might be feasibly maintained and replicated. The site designs are also bespoke, speak to the particular nature and history of the community in which they are built, and contain elements that encourage open-ended play.

Play spaces that facilitate open-ended play are surprisingly rare. At some unknown date in recent history, the adults of the world convened and agreed upon what it is that children enjoy doing. This resulted in the canon of playground equipment: the slide, the see-saw, the swing, and the merry-go-round. A canonical playground can be a fun for a time, but in essence this norm of design prescribes play for children. The single activity nature of these structures communicates a fundamental distrust of children and their ability direct their own play; work that is nearly as important to their development as eating and sleeping. The slide is for climbing up and sliding down, not scrambling up backwards. The swing is for sitting, not standing or hanging. There is a “right” and a “wrong” way to play on these elements and deviation is not rewarded.

Before our build with Playground Ideas, we had a small, somewhat neglected playground on site. It contained the basics of the playground cannon, and as is standard for most playgrounds in Uganda, was constructed from fabricated steel, a material expensive to repair and often dangerous for kids. To improve this play space, we first carried out a series of discussions with our teachers and nursery students in which we brainstormed what their priorities for the space where and what kinds of play are unique to Uganda and the kids of St. Monica’s. This input was converted into a design scheme and local builders were relied upon for identifying cost effective, environmentally appropriate materials. We moved the existing elements to a shady area and augmented them to fit international safety standards. Then we added in elements that could facilitate multiple incarnations of child-directed play: a sand pit, a children’s village, a dancing stage, a clay molding table, and a dry riverbed run.

Over the course of eight dawn till dusk, volunteer packed crazy-days, the “dream playground” came to life…

More pictures of our nursery school playground before and after can be found here.

The second playground on our site has been designed specifically for our infant/toddler age children. Their mothers live on site and attend classes at the vocational centre during the day while the children are looked after by daycare staff.

Construction has completed, painting and final touches are currently underway, and pictures of the completed site will follow.

For the past few weeks, I’ve spent many of of my hours on the second construction site. Most days a scattering of kids from the St. Monica’s community pop in and out. Sometimes they observe the work and often they help out, but mostly they come to test-drive the new elements. One afternoon a seven-year-old kid wandered in to survey the work. The crew had just finished putting in place a tire maze and he quickly zeroed in on a set of three car tires, half buried in the ground at seemingly equal distances apart.

The kid quickly formulated his mission: he wanted to jump from one tire to another, all in a row. Uneasy of the distance, he called me over for backup. We tried the first jump a few times together. He leapt from the first tire and I caught him as he landed on the second. Confident he could now master this feat on his own, he chased me away and got back to work. The jump was attempted several times alone, but he couldn’t quite master balancing on the second tire after he landed. He always wobbled and had to step off. Then an idea struck him and he tried the puzzle backwards. Starting on the third tire, he leapt to the second and remained balanced atop on the first attempt. What happened? While at first glace the tires looked evenly spaced, the second tire was just slightly closer to the third than it was to the first. High off his success, he climbed back up on the third tire, sprung to the second, steadied his balance and hopped to the first. Then he swaggered, yes, swaggered, off the playground, head held high in triumph.

In this outwardly simple game of a kid fooling around on tires, a profound mass of learning transpired. He employed a systematic thought process as he charted out a goal and a plan to reach it, utilized spatial reasoning and mathematics in his distance calculations, and exercised critical thought in his problem solving. Perhaps more importantly, he was developing tools that IQ tests and school exams don’t measure: curiosity to embark on new challenges, creativity to formulate innovative strategies, grit* to get up and try again when he fell flat on his face, and the self-assurance that comes from mastery.

No one knows for certain what the world will look like in twenty years, when this seven-year-old has left the womb of the education system and is making his way on his own. In order to survive, he will certainly need the knowledge he is learning inside the classroom: literacy, mathematics, a grounding of history, and knowledge of the world around him. But in order to do his part to address the looming global challenges of over-population, global warming, food scarcity, and regional conflicts, it is vital that he cultivate the knack to be industrious, to think critically and collaborate with others. He’ll need a keen imagination to visualize what could be, courage to take risks, and a whole lot of grit to try again when he fails. This toolkit simply can’t be acquired through lectures and workbooks.  It is the kind of learning that happens only in make-believe games, schoolyard scuffles, and not without a few scraped knees. Protecting and improving the physical spaces where this occurs is one way to make certain that kids like this one can swagger through a new world with heads held high.


*no really, click that link.


let’s hold hands and balance cars on our heads

February 14, 2012

We are currently scheming up plans for a new playground at our nursery school. Today we asked the kids what their dream playground would include. This is what they “said”:

More pictures here

nyiragongo: the manifestation of the bleeding volcano

February 13, 2012

The idea of vacationing alone has always struck me as something like a grandiose version of taking oneself out to eat at a nice restaurant. It is perhaps lonesome at first glance, but also somewhat brave and delightfully unconventional. So when visa complications arose and my traveling partner had to back out of a trip to climb a volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I decided to give it a try. Climbing what is, by some estimates, the most active volcano in the world in war torn country of whose language I speak none of sounded like a swell idea.

Nyiragongo is an 11,384 ft. stratovolcano located just north of the city of Goma. Goma is a town of which I know little, save passing mention in dire news reports from the region. In navigating from my hotel in Rwanda, through Goma and to the base of the volcano I relied fully a guide from the tour company through whom I had booked. The adventure began on a drizzly morning with a surprisingly flawless pass through the border. My guide and I emerged victorious, passports stamped and visas in hand only to find no driver on the other side to meet us.  A flurry of phone calls later and we learned that the road to the border was blocked, as there was a “manifestation” in town.

“Oh, like a political demonstration?”I asked. Embassies had warned of the potential for political unrest leading up to this month’s presidential elections.

“No, not a demonstration. A manifestation.” My guide asserted.

I don’t know what a “manifestation” entails, but I do know there are situations that arise when traveling where less knowledge is better; times when you’re in too deep and it is best to simply trust those in whose hands you are placed. This was one of them and I decided not to investigate further. Before long our driver reached us and after zig-zagging through a few back roads we were leaving the city behind us, “manifestation” and all. On the outskirts of Goma the rains began to gather speed, windshield wipers flying frantically to clear our view. My guide asked if I had brought raingear. When I claimed that the jacket I was then wearing was my raingear, it was clear that was not quite what he had in mind. “But what about rain pants?” I shook my head. He giggled nervously and turned back to his seat. A few moments later an umbrella appeared from out of his briefcase. “Maybe you could use this?” The idea of trekking up the side of a mountain Mary Poppins style sounded ridiculous, but if this man who made his living climbing this rock seemed to think I required this addition, I was in no position to protest. I was beginning to get the feeling that perhaps I had not prepared well.

Upon reaching the basecamp, we met up with the other climbers I was to join. Our group consisted of two French speaking Congolese park rangers, my English speaking self, and half a dozen Austrians with limited French and very limited English. As I cannot say a word of German, I began mentally scrambling to tally what few French terms I know. The list was not long. I can say hello and thank you, and name a handful foods and beverages. I am aware that one can tack on a “bo-coo” sound to the end of “merci,” which I assume gives your “thank you” a little extra kick. I once lived down the street from a bakery called “Le Petit Chat.” The translation I inferred from the kitten motif prominent throughout the décor. I rearranged the combinations of my narrow vocabulary in my head like a set of magnetic refrigerator poetry. My French haiku would be something along the lines of,

Hello small cat,

Baguette? Champagne? Crème Brulee?

Thank you very much.

More difficult than composing verse was imagining a scenario on the climb where this little ditty might come in handy. Confidence in my ability to communicate further crumbled when I was introduced to my porter, a man of slighter build than I with green galoshes and a purple windbreaker tied in a turban as a rain hat.

“French?” he inquired, extending his hand in my direction.

I shook my head apologetically. “English?”

He shook his. “Somewhere,” he stated, patting his chest.

Maybe I’d been spending too much time with the Mennonites, but I took this to be a gesture of cross-cultural goodwill. In one word this man seemed to say, “Perhaps you don’t speak my language and I don’t speak yours, but ‘somewhere’ in the middle we’ll meet, and together we will climb this mountain.”

“Yes, somewhere!” I smiled, spreading my palms to the common air between us.

“No, no,” my guide intervened, “His name is Somewhere.”

For the man I was to trust with transporting my sleeping bag, my water, my meager goods responsible for keeping me alive on the rim of molten lava, a name like, “Somewhere,” didn’t exactly inspire confidence. “Where is my pack?” I’d wonder throughout the climb, peering back through the jungle, searching for a glimpse of my purple turbaned friend. “Somewhere,” I’d think, answering my own question.

Unlike me, the Austrians had not hired porters. Also unlike me, they were outfitted from head to toe in gear appropriate to endure a hurricane. This left me feeling simultaneously under and over equipped, like showing up to a cocktail party anticipating a potluck. The industrial strength rain gear of the Prepared Austrians was tucked at the ankles into calf high hiking boots and each carried a pair of poles as if we were about to embark on a cross-country skiing trip through Central Africa.  I was wearing yoga pants and running shoes that had seen better days. They noticed.

Their leader approached me,“You coming with us?”

“Yes, I am.”

“In those shoes?” He looked me up and down, eyes resting on the hole next to my big toe; sock peeking through, and uttered the only full sentence that escaped him for the entirety of the trip.“You know you could have saved the $24 you spent on a porter, carried your own stuff and bought some decent shoes.”

This is categorically unhelpful advice. At the trailhead, payments made and gear donned, I would much prefer the offertory of a silly umbrella and a nervous laugh. This gift was not necessary for the Prepared Austrians, as they had each brought along water resistant ponchos individually designed for their packs. Elastic bands cinched around their loads, ensuring not a drop of moisture would meet their precious possessions. As I watched them assemble their outfits I thought of my food supply. It consisted primarily of three days worth of contraband from my hotel’s continental breakfast. This was supplemented by a jar of peanut butter I had picked up en route, whose suspicious coloring suggested the emphasis was on the butter, not the peanut. As the rain beat harder, I pictured my carefully smuggled croissants dissolving into a doughy mess just inside my pack.

The comments of the Unhelpful Austrian coupled with my apparent lack of forethought led my brain down a rabbit hole of possible mishaps. I hadn’t packed a tent as the park’s website boasted newly constructed cabins at the summit. Construction had indeed been completed…hadn’t it? It was then that I remembered I had also neglected to pack a pair of spare glasses; the thin disks of silicone resting on my eyeballs the only thing between me and legal blindness. An image loomed in my imagination. There I am, drenched as a dog in the rain, huddled in my wet sleeping bag atop the rough lava. Exposed to the elements, shivering and blind, I lap pitifully at a jar of peanut flavored lard.

My guide waved goodbye, the park rangers hoisted their Kalashnikovs onto their backs and we set out on what I was now quite convinced was a very stupid idea.  The climb began in a rainforest; muddy path and overhanging vines. It wasn’t long before I picked up a few language skills to help me survive. Not words, per se, but the meanings they carried. I learned that if a single syllable was ferried down the line in shouts I should look down for a trail of army ants crossing the path. This was a warning I was particularly careful to heed as at this point the necessitation of stripping naked and beating flesh eating insects from my body just might have been the last straw. Thankfully an hour and a half later all emerged from the forest clothed and uneaten. By this time the heavens had ceased their downpour; only lingering fog now obscuring the peak ahead of us.

Prior to climbing Nyiragongo I did minimal research on the volcano. I read enough to know what to bring and if an eruption was eminent, but for the most part I didn’t want to spoil the surprise of what I was to learn during the hike. In end, what with the language barrier, I think I know less about what exactly is going on atop that rock post climb than I did before I started. After the rainforest, we reached a plateau with several small towers of steam whirling up from holes in the ground. These I knew, thanks to Wikipedia, were fissure vents. Upon spotting the fissures, our park ranger in front pointed and made a statement in French that included the word, “problème.” The man ahead of me then turned and calmly announced, “The volcano is bleeding.” This was another manifestation I determined was best to leave alone.

We continued on for a few hours, the path getting steeper and rockier as we went until we reached the final resting point before the summit. Here the Unhelpful Austrian ducked to the side of the trail, panting heavily and reshuffling his pack on his shoulders. I smirked and skipped ahead to the front of the group thinking, “You know, you could have saved $24 on less fancy shoes and paid someone to carry your stuff.” While I had been preparing this retort since the trailhead, the altitude was beginning to catch up with me and I didn’t have the breath to spare.

The last stretch was a steep scramble, each climber finding their own switchback up to the summit. One by one, we reached the top, stepped to the edge of the crater and peered down.

Awe is the same in every language. The crater transfixed us all evening, and as darkness set, she came into her glory.

All perched on the rim until one by one the surprisingly cold night chased us to our beds. Along for the climb was a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a short but substantial read, appropriate for the evening. For where better to contemplate life than on the edge of fiery death? Tucked away in our cabins, we were lulled to sleep by the sound of flowing lava: rolling like the waves of the ocean. This, after an international assembly was summoned in one cabin for the passing round of a bottle of whiskey in makeshift water bottle shot glasses. Those Austrians sure do know how to pack.

The next morning we awoke at dawn, sprung from our bunks and scrambled back to the rim to watch the show. Our heads whipped back and forth between the rings of fire below and above us, undecided as to which was more impressive. As the sun slipped above the horizon, I noticed a peculiarly shaped cloud bulging opposite the crater that had not been there the evening before. Prepared Austrians and park rangers were pointing at the cloud and discussing so I wandered over to join. Noting my curiosity, one of the rangers gestured to the cloud and declared, “Volcano.” I smiled and nodded.

The climb down took around four hours. We descended from the summit with the lights of Goma twinkling through the morning mist below us. The rains of the day before were replaced by a humid heat that grew as the morning wore on. We broke through the rainforest and back to the base camp sweaty and triumphant to find the next climbing group was there waiting for us. A pack of bright eyed American college students eager to conquer the challenge ahead rushed to greet us,

“Did you see the eruption??”

“The what?”

As it turned out, while we slumbered on the rim, the neighboring volcano, Nyamuragira, a 20 km distance away, had erupted, spewing lava in its path. I recalled the explanation of the mysterious cloud by our park ranger that morning, “Volcano.” He was right.

To anyone who asks, I would recommend the climb a million times over. There is perhaps nothing else on earth quite like watching a violent lava lake boil before your eyes. If you do go, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to bring along some legitimate raingear, decent hiking boots, or at least a change of socks. But if, like me, you are young and naïve, careless and cheap, fear not. For the rainclouds will have mercy, Somewhere will carry your load, and the Prepared Austrians will share their whiskey to warm your bones.

through tinted glass

November 9, 2011

The window seat on a 9 hour Kigali to Kampala journey by bus:

Soundtrack: “Down in the Valley,” The Head and the Heart

never, never Good News

October 24, 2011

War is Never Good News

– John Baptist Odama, Archbishop of Gulu, member of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative 

War is never, never Good News for humanity.
Its children are:
Destruction, it destroys what it claims to defend, save,
Loss of property, misery,
Desecration of human life
Falsehood, counter-accusations
Broken relationship,
Self-defeat of humanity,
Hatred, anger, revenge
Trauma, etc.

Those who intend
And plan to go to war
Or have started must know that the cry
Of the innocent like
Babies, children
Their mothers,
The elderly, indeed
The majority, will
Reach God.

Those architects and
Contractors of war
Will have to be accountable,
First witnesses
Against themselves
In front of God and

Let reason, trust, hope, courage and love
Dialogue triumph to
Save the sacred and
Precious human lives
In whichever country.


in the news

September 28, 2011

The work of St. Monica’s was recently featured on CNN. Check it out!

As mentioned at the bottom of the article, if ever you wish to make a donation to the school you can do so through Rural Hospital Relief Fund.  Follow the instructions at the bottom of the page.

new favorite

September 26, 2011

The Acholi diet is not big on dairy products. Fearing adult onset lactose intolerance, I’ve decided it is imperative to my health that I drink fancy iced lattes on a daily basis. Unfortunately my Mennonite “simple living” monthly stipend does not agree. Yet day-old french press tossed over some ice and milk just ain’t gonna to cut it for this Northwest coffee snob. Enter my new favorite thing: cold brew coffee. The difference? Coffee brewed without heat is less bitter than cooled hot brew and is lower in acidity, which makes it seem sweeter and brings out the flavors of the roast. Cold brew is also much stronger than regular coffee, similar to espresso, which makes it perfect for latte creations. I’m not the only fanatic out there. Give it a try…

Step one. Mix 1/3 cup coffee grounds with 1 1/2 cups room temperature water. Cover and let sit overnight.

Step two. After 8-12 hrs., strain the coffee through a filter or cloth.

Step three. Mix about 1 part magic cold brew potion with 2 parts milk. Add
ice. (Store extra cold brew in the fridge for later use.)

BAM. Fancy iced latte.