Thursday, October 23, 2014

A blog update has been long overdue.  Since the time I left Africa, I haven’t updated it as often.  Mostly, I’m not sure what to write about.  I often want to write the same kind of theme as what I wrote about while living in Africa – a story of someone who I’m hoping to help with education or to set up a business, or something along those lines.  I’m not sure if I should write more of these stories, so I hesitate (even though there are two or three remaining people who immediately come to mind who I’d love to help with their education and who only need about $600 – more or less - per semester and for whom I already have stories written ---- just a small reminder/plug that there are still a few people out there… who I know… who would do well if they could complete their education… etc. etc.). 

Another big, obvious thing to write about is the ebola crisis.  Some of the people I’ve written about in the past are now back in Liberia, along with other good friends and former colleagues.  Everyone is affected by the disease.  Schools are closed, businesses are shut down, prices are over-the-top, pharmacies are closed, and hospitals are seen as frightening places of possible contagion and are often closed.  People are afraid to go for healthcare if they have regular medical emergencies (malaria, for example) because they’re understandably, and possibly justifiably, terrified of contracting ebola at a hospital or someplace where someone infected has been. 

I heard some statistics (but don’t have them available to quote specifically or refer to) that more people have died of malaria in the same time period as the current ebola crisis, and more women have died in childbirth in the same time period.  Ebola is terrifying because there’s no effective treatments, etc., but these statistics are shame-inducing since malaria deaths and childbirth deaths are mostly treatable and/or preventable.  (Probably most people who might read this are more up-to-date on the news about all this than I am. I haven’t been on top of the news lately, and just have personal communications.) 

I just talked with Samuel the other day (I have talked with a couple of others, too, but I’ve known Samuel for over 20 years, so I use him as an example. Then there are some others I haven't yet been able to reach. This is a link to one of the more recent things I wrote about Samuel back in May, 2013, about halfway down the page.).  Happily, he and his family are all fine.  But, the kids can’t go to school (since the schools are closed), even though his son has just started 3rd grade.  With some money Samuel recently earned through writing a project proposal for an organization that had hired him for that purpose, he has been able to pay to download some math, English and other lessons to give his son at home so that his education won’t be interrupted in the same way the previous generation had happen to it over the past 20 years due to the civil war.  Samuel’s wife, Alfreda, works with Social Services, helping families that have been affected by the virus.  Fortunately, Samuel and his wife have a minimum income to help them at this time. 

Everyone is afraid to let their kids play with friends and neighbors – it’s not possible to control what enters the house when other people come inside.  So . . . at home . . . inside . . . no friends to play with . . .  sorry for the kids . . . and sorry for the parents.  People say that the crisis is worse than the civil war that went on for over a decade.  At least with the war you could see/hear when your village was being attacked and you could run.  But, you can’t see ebola and you can’t run and hide from this enemy.

Samuel and others I talked with say that what is most needed is money to help people get by.  Samuel is managing in the meantime, but mutual friends/colleagues of ours are facing bigger struggles with food, water and other basic necessities.  Most people can’t work, yet they still need to pay for so many things in order to live.  I don’t enjoy helping in this way – just sending money, reacting in crises rather than preventing the crises.  For me, the way in which I tried to help in the past (thanks to so many donations from people who read this blog) – education, especially – is a much a better way.  “When people know better, they do better,” as a good friend used to say to me when I was working on the refugee camp.  In the long run, many crises could, maybe, be averted prior to becoming a crisis if people are educated and have their awareness levels increased.

But, ebola wasn’t avoided (and education may not have precluded its arrival, but could have hindered the epidemic).  Sending money directly to people at this time helps them to survive, but is basically a bandaid for the problem.  Yet, it seems to be a necessary bandaid for now.  Phew.  So, I find myself doing what I’ve tried not to do in the past – just sending money to help people buy food, just providing the bandaid until something better comes along that makes it possible for people to do more than just survive.

Friday, May 02, 2014

In November, December and also in February, the above pictures were my view on a daily basis.  Five days/week, I’d do a brisk 20 minute walk at around 8:20 in the morning so I could catch a bus to take me down via Gregorio VII (it’s always just referred to as “Gregorio Settimo”) towards the Vatican.  Shortly before the bus reached my school, the road curved and the above view of the Vatican loomed ahead.  I’d get down from the bus before it reached the Vatican, which was just another few minutes, or a 10 minute walk from the school. 

I just received an email from a long-time friend who had supervised me almost 30 years ago when I was getting my Bachelor’s degree in Social Work.  I volunteered in a program that did some small group counseling/therapy sessions (the Deferred Prosecution Program), and she was the Director.  (Actually, on a side-note, I apologize to many of you who probably received a request from me about LinkedIn – ooops.  I signed up for LinkedIn so I could stay a little in-tune with things in Occupational Therapy, and maybe international work, etc., and didn’t realize that an email would be sent to anyone I had ever emailed.  The plus side is that a few people have been back in touch with me since then.)  She received that LinkedIn invite and wrote back, mentioning that it must be humbling to be surrounded by the huge monuments reflecting so much history here.  And mostly it’s true - - but, actually I fluctuate between feeling humbled, and not even noticing.  Like the above view of the Vatican – some days I thought how incredible it was that this was my daily view.  Other days I walked along whistling, “ho hum ho hum, it’s off to class I go”, excited about going to class, and forgetting to pay attention to the rest of the experience. 

It’s kind of like when I was in Africa -- there were moments where I’d be in awe of where I was and grateful and amazed to be in Africa, doing work that I cared about and felt fulfilled to be doing, and other days when I’d think, “ho hum ho hum, it’s just another day.

Actually, I think I like that.  I don’t know if I want to be amazed in that way every day.  I don’t know that I want to feel humbled in that way every day.  I also don’t want every day to be ho hum ho hum.  I like the mix.  I remember in the past when I visited Rome that within a day or two I’d be thinking, “OK, enough of the archaeological sites; enough of the broken down buildings; enough of these huge monuments. Let me get some ice-cream.”  Maybe it was too much – I don’t know.  This time around, though, while living here, I haven’t had that feeling of “enough” --  but I have had the feeling of “let me get some ice-cream.

Anyway….in January I was fortunate to go back to Ghana to make a site/support visit to Joe, who I wrote about in my last entry.  And, of course, I took some vacation time while there to also see some of my former colleagues and my friends.  I also mentioned in my last blog entry that I would again write about some of the people I know since, no surprise, there are still some who hope for school or small business assistance, etc.  And, hmmm, again no surprise, there are a few people I would love to help.  At the same time, several months ago I still made the decision to stay in SMA, which resulted in me still, frustratingly, not being able to actually help too much on my own.  When small emergencies here and there come up, it’s manageable, but school fees? small business development? – not so manageable. 

I’ll start with the lightest one and a familiar person who I’ve written about in the past.  I first wrote about Thomas back in October, 2010, when I was writing about some of the people I was working with on the refugee camp, but I wrote more specifically about just him and shared his story in January, 2011.  In response to that blog post, someone helped him to be able to pay for the exams he needed to take so as to complete his degree in shipping.  He’s still on the camp now, still helping Elizabeth at the Harmony Center, and I think it was finally last year that he was able to complete all the exams needed.  Now, though, there’s a class he hopes to take which will give him one more important and useful skill for when he returns to Liberia.  The class costs a little under $250 - - and I think it’s about 1 ½ - 2 months long.  He is hoping to return to Liberia before the end of the year.  If anyone wants to help him out, let me know.

Meanwhile, for the past few weeks, Rome has been filling up.  A couple of weeks ago was Easter – many many people were here for that. 

Easter at St. Peter's Square

More Easter at the Vatican


Last week Sunday was the biggest shindig that has taken place here in many years.  I heard 3 million visitors were expected.  Popes John Paul II and John XXIII were canonized on Sunday, 27 April.  The city was packed.  The house we live in was full, too – and it was nice to see some familiar faces and to have some variety tossed into the standard group that’s usually around.  At the same time that it was nice to see a few familiar faces from the years in Africa and to have the variety, I ran from the house and the city and have escaped all for a few days.  May and June are promising to be busy and it's nice to have a quick break before the intensity starts up.  However, even if I hadn't run from Rome on the morning of the canonization, I still wouldn't have any pictures to put here - I had planned to stay home and watch it on TV - which is the same I ended up doing anyway.  Imagine the above pictures having been taken from further away, with even more people --- and with rain and umbrellas -- and then you'll have an idea of how my experience at the canonization would have been for me if I'd gone.  Anyway... it was a special day for the Catholic Church, and, as with many things, mixed with a little controversy.  However, all that aside, Pope Francis continues to inspire me and give me hope - he's simple, unencumbered by, even just puts aside, a lot of the usual protocols, and gets close to people.  Even on the long day of the canonization, which followed a couple of long weeks with Lenten and Easter celebrations, in spite of probably being tired out, he still lived what he spoke, got down, and mixed with people who were in the crowds.  He got close to people,touching them, being touched, looking them in their eyes, and letting them know he cared and felt for them.  The highest guy in the Catholic Church is doing what he can to live what everyone is always preaching.  It's a little sad to think that this is revolutionary.        

Sunday, February 16, 2014

During the past couple of years I never updated my blog much.  I don’t think I was the best match for the life I was living.  I love – like family – the people I was with, but … I was also missing my friends and family in Ghana.  I missed being busy; I missed having responsibility; I missed being trusted to actually do stuff, make decisions and see them through, even if it goes another direction from how things have been done.  I missed having to think, being challenged in ways where the outcome actually matters.  I missed also living and working in an environment where I could play an active role in making decisions for things that seemed important, where it felt my input mattered and I played a role and had responsibility towards the outcome – whichever direction that might go.

I also suddenly had wifi service and needed to learn how to manage unlimited internet browsing.  It was amazing how much more I could do when I turned on my laptop to do some work while in Africa and that was the only option I had – to do some work.  Suddenly, I could turn on my laptop and every time (well, most of the time, since the wifi wasn’t always working), headlines would appear!  Latest, breaking and oh-so-important news was right before my eyes – who wore what to the Oscars!! How big was that snake living under the house in Florida?  Who said what?  I’m still working on controlling this --- the most inane stuff suddenly becomes fascinating and takes up valuable blog-writing time (how much time did I just spend finding and watching the video of the cat jumping that a friend just told me about? And then links that came from it – and I’m not even a cat person!).

Anyway --- there were definitely some high points.  Aside from being closer to family and some friends in the US (definitely the best part of the past couple of years), one of the next best parts was when I did the field visits to our lay missionaries in West Africa about a year and a half ago.  I was actually trusted to have time with them, talk with them, observe how it’s going for them and for their mission assignments, their community life, their adjustment to African life, and for some, their preparations to leave all that and return to the US, seeing what’s next, etc.  I got to listen, be engaged, be responsible, and play a role with no micro-management going on over me.  Another high point was last year in April/May when I came to Rome for 4 weeks of meetings (yes, meetings were a high-point – can’t believe I say that).  All the SMA lay groups internationally were asked to submit a name of one of their lay missionaries to go to our General Assembly, where the heads of SMA meet every 6 years to vote for the leaders and the priorities for the next 6 years.  From the names submitted, the leaders in Rome at that time chose me to come represent all the lay missionaries at the Assembly.
St. Peter's Square, the Vatican, from the cupola of St. Peter's

me, on the cupola, after our meetings finished (pictures from the meeting wouldn't be interesting to show here)

Another high-point was our training from Jan-March last year.  I was the “tracker” for Jean, meaning that I met with her weekly to discuss how it’s going from her perspective and also from the perspective of the lay program.  It helped that she was from Wisconsin, so of course she had to be good (heh heh).  I enjoyed our tracking times – the exchange of honest communication and feedback.  And now she’s been in Tanzania for a year, and I love reading her blog updates – she’s a beautiful woman.

And then, there was "riding the pines" with Dan, Joe (more on him below) and Kyle - doing what's most important in life: just spending time with people you care about.

Back in June, last year, I got a call from our newly elected General Superior (can anyone believe it’s common to still use words like “superior” to refer to someone in a leadership position?  Anyway …. I guess that makes the rest of us … inferior – heh heh).  He asked if I’d be willing to come to Rome for the next 3 years and be the English Secretary to the General Council – or, the Anglophone Secretary to the Top Dogs – or, as someone said I should call myself, “SMA’s Secretary General”.   I had a week to think about it, and daily went back and forth on the decision.  “Live in Rome for 3 years!!! Hell yeah!!”; “Go be a secretary for 3 years …. uh …. what? Really? Am I really thinking about doing that? That’s crazy – my mind doesn’t stay awake in meetings.”  So, after the week of thinking about it, I told the General Superior that I didn’t know if it would be a good idea since I enjoy being “in the field” and working with people and I’ve never done this kind of work before – if I suck at it, then they’re stuck with me for 3 years (of course, there would be ways out, I’m sure), and if I don’t like it, then I’m stuck for 3 years (and I wouldn’t necessarily feel free to take a way out).  He suggested we could try it for a year, see how it goes, and take it from there.  I wasn’t used to a “superior” like this – who listened to my feedback and actually considered it, reflected on it, and came up with a reasonable suggestion.  Wow.  (And he doesn’t even know I have a blog, so it’s not like I’m sucking up at this moment.)  But, hearing his response encouraged me to accept this position (Secretary General – heh heh) – I’d be working with someone who takes input and feedback and actually thinks about it and comes up with some sort of option outside the box.  I liked the idea.

So – I moved to Rome at the end of September.

soon after arriving in Rome; 
with Joanna and Arie who were visiting.  It turns out these were not the Spanish Steps -heh heh 

And I’ve found it kind of amazing that I love it; I’m enjoying the challenge of a completely different role.  I enjoy translating from French to English – it’s like this puzzle, not just word-for-word, but trying to get the spirit and intentions of those words (who knows if I’ve been as successful with this as I hope I have been).  I’ve enjoyed (mostly) being focused in meetings and trying to get the key points out of all the rest of the talk that goes on.  And I’ve enjoyed the atmosphere of Rome, meeting the range of people who pass through the SMA house and the Italians I’ve met since being here.  I’ve enjoyed the attempts to learn Italian beyond being able to request pizza and bierra, or pasta and vino rosso. 

I also was given the opportunity to do another field visit to our lay missionary in Ghana.  He’s also amazing – he had returned to Ghana for his second commitment to working with the Liberian refugees, especially children with disabilities and malnutrition.  I was there 3 years ago when he first arrived and had his first 6 months in Ghana, then visited him a little over a year into his commitment for the field support visit I mentioned above, and saw him again last year in the US when he was back on leave.  Now, to see him in action again – he’s such a natural part of the life, and his heart is with the children and people where he is living and working.    
Joe, with one of his beautiful kids -- Sharon

All around – it was a good, inspiring and motivating visit for me.  Of course I took some vacation time to see my friends and the projects where I had been over the years:

me with Jethro, who I've written about, at Harmony Center

- -and (of course) there will soon be a blog entry about the visit, because (of course) there are a few people I’m still hoping to help with education and have no idea where to turn (as usual).

I’m a little envious of people in the US with this spectacular winter they’re having.  Wow.  Here, on 16 February, I sit on the floor, bare feet and window open.  Yesterday I had a picnic on a shore of a lake just outside of Rome.  It’s an unusually warm winter here.  My big decisions this winter have been, “hmm, how wide should I leave my window open today?”  I love the wintery winters of Wisconsin (OK, spring-like winter in Rome is also OK, but ….), where you run the risk of your nose freezing and falling off your face within 6 minutes of stepping outside.  It’s like how I remember winter from growing up, but…my memories could be off – maybe it was just a few days every year that were like that, and those wintery, blustery days stand out and override all the other days.  Anyway …. Enjoy.