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Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pausing in Attir

Sometimes you need to press pause
to let everything sink in.

                                Sebastian Vettel

It has been pretty much go, go, go for five days. And now, having arrived at Attir, we stop. After leaving the Land Cruiser, we greet a good number of the men and women of the village under a some trees providing welcome shade. In this place we will discuss issues of a level of importance that is hard for us, who have so much, to fathom.

As we drive up, we see two women coming into the village, each carrying one of the ubiquitous 20 liter yellow containers they have filled with water at a stream about 3 miles away.

And we see a water tank sitting on a tower about 10 feet above ground. This must be a good thing.

Everyone seeks shade, whether it be under a tree or the water tank

Habiba addresses the good sized group from the village assembled under two trees whose branches intertwine, providing shade for the meeting. Speaking in Turkana, she is, I think, more or less introducing us and explaining why we are here. As I have said, this is the first visit by GHNI with people from outside of Africa. But Habiba, Wubshet, Martin and Dire, all representing GHNI in Isiolo, have been involved in the preparations for initiating the TCD program for some time now.

Habiba addresses the villagers in their tribal language – Turkana; she translates for us. This picture came from later in the meeting, after we had asked permission to take photos.

As is usual, the men and women congregate in separate groups, the women at or beyond the fringes of the shaded area. Habiba later tells us that the two groups are closer than normal, this in some way influenced by our presence.

Remember that quote I had stumbled upon on the long flight to Nairobi - "It's not about what is best. It's about who gets to decide what is best." Well, it starts here. One of the village leaders is going to tell us about the issues facing the village. Access to sufficient clean water is at the top of the list. No surprise here.

He is speaking for the village, we listen

Then, we hear about the tower...

"It's our statue," he tells us. No water in it. No way provided to get water in it. There are many sides to the story, I suppose, but here is the story from the viewpoint of the village: A group came in to offer aid. Arriving in newer, four-wheeled drive vehicles, they took pictures, made some assessments and apparently decided on providing the tank without a lot of emphasis on partnering with the village. Once it was erected, there was (little or) no additional contact. "We would like to tear it down," we are told.

Water tank in Attir. But, no water.

The challenge is to create a partnership to pursue development that results in measureable improvements in the quality of life that can be sustained without additional outside investment.

In addition to the obvious issue with water, we hear of the need for school facilities. Primary school children must make a dangerous walk to one of two schools in adjacent villages; we are talking about 2 to 3 miles each way. There is an abandoned church building a kilometer or so outside of the village. During the last period of fighting in the area, it was too far away to be used on a regular basis. Now, the village suggests dismantling it and rebuilding the structure nearer the village center. There, it would serve as a school facility. Seems as if this would be a good idea.

Jeff speaks for GHNI, validating the input from the village and addressing concerns that stem from the water tower, not by mentioning that issue at all, but by simply providing simple, direct communication of GHNI's intent and expectations.

Jeff waits to speak to the village, providing a promise and outlining expectations

I do not have a recording and there are only a few lines in my journal about the talk. So, this is the way I heard it:

Jeff explained that GHNI was ready to partner with Attir in a meaningful way. They were ready to provide "small support" to go along with the large amount of hard work that the villagers would put in to the projects. He talked about the plan to provide teaching, mentoring and encouragement, this to help achieve development that would make a long term difference; it would be aimed directly at the important issues we were told about; it would provide the village a chance to plan and carry out meaningful work that was to their long term benefit; it would be sustainable. He also reminded the villagers of the success that other villages in the area had already experienced as a result of to their participation in this same sort of cooperation.

Thanks to the wonderful work by Habiba and the Isiolo team, the village already has working teams assigned to each of the five areas of focus in the TCD program: water, wellness, education, nutrition and income production. Leaders in each area introduced themselves. Each team has 5 members: 2 or 3 men and, correspondingly, 3 or 2 women. So much of the success that will be achieved will come from the talents and commitment of these groups.

In my work with a number of missions and development projects, I have heard that one of the most important things to keep in mind is to not promise something you cannot – or will not – deliver. Jeff stood before the village and promised that GHNI would stand with them for five years. And reminded them that this was a promise with a condition, that they must do their parts. This was a big moment.

It is hard for me to gauge the villagers' feelings. They have said that the trees are tired of hearing a lot of stories. But, there is excitement at the promise. Before we break up, we are each given a Turkana name. Mine is Lokure. I am told it means "thirsty." However, some discussion later leads to an explanation that it is a bit more complex than that – it is meant to convey an ability to go a long way without water. As we are each endowed with our names, there is applause and laughter. There may be a joke or two in all of this, but it is all in the spirit of being accepted and honored.

Our pause in the literal travelling was coming to an end. We would let all of this set in in due time. Now, we set out to explore the village, visit the remote church building and walk to the water source.

Next: Walking Attir

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Road to Attir

Most roads lead men homewards,
My road leads me forth.

                        John Edward Masefield Roadways

We are far from home, having covered miles and miles in cars, planes, trains and busses; and one matatu. Today, we travel the last short distance to Attir, and end up farther from home than ever imagined.

On the way to Attir, we shared paved roads with motorbikes...

and cattle;

There were dark dirt roads with tuk-tuks...

that narrowed and changed to red...

then rough and rocky.

We went down, we went up...

until we reached the end of the road...

and the beginning of a new part of the journey.

To be continued...

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Road to Isiolo

“Roads are long; make them short
with good company!”

                          Mehmet Murat ildan

Jennifer and Kieran join Jeff, Martin, Tony, Chris and me; Martin, with GHNI in Isiolo, has come to accompany us. He arranges for a matatu and we head out for Isiolo, the capital of Isiolo county in what was Kenya's eastern province (divisions in Kenya changed with the adoption of a new constitution in 2013). Big changes around Isiolo are anticipated as part of the development plans outlined in Kenya Vision 2030. We have our sights set on changes, too. Not as sweeping, of course, but certainly important to the villages participating in the GHNI Transformational Community Development program.

We have our own matatu for the drive to Isiolo

On the way to downtown Nairobi where we met Jennifer, we went by a bus. The bus was identified by these words, painted on the side under the windows: Kenya Prison System. Inside the bus, about 100 primary school students. You need a bus, you use the one they send you. Maybe they should consider driving prisoners around town in a bus proclaiming Nairobi Kindergartens.

Once again we travel the new, four lane, divided highway north out of Nairobi. It just like the interstates in the U.S. Except maybe for the towering speed bumps at the crosswalks. I am not making this up – there are crosswalks all along the way. And, pull off areas for the matatus where the drivers can drop off and pick up passengers. These areas also attract vendors who offer their wares by pushing hands full of fruit, meat on a stick or cell phone accessories through open windows. This all adds a bit of sporting challenge to drivers who need to maneuver around, through or over these obstacles.

There are other reminders along the way that we are not in Kansas anymore. Names of businesses and organizations have a special charm. A few of my favorites are:

Spring of Living Word Church
Seldom Nursery
Highway of Holiness Center
Hot Pot Hotel
God is Able and Boutique

I am still trying to sort out that last one. We also stop at an OiLibya service station (pretty sure we do not have any of those here) and see a Starbucks. Sort of.

OiLibya station in Kisumu; restrooms, snacks. And ---- Coffee!

Starbucks right next to the Chicken Inn; too bad, but we
did not have time to check them out.

Farther along, Jeff points to a cloud covered area in a range of mountains to the east. He says that the peak of Mount Kenya is in the clouds. This is typical he says; you almost NEVER actually see the peak. Sure, Jeff…

Jeff: "The Mount Kenya summit is almost ALWAYS cloud covered."

Once again, we stay at the comfortable Bishop Mensa Pastoral Centre. We go in to town and get oriented. Jeff points out the new construction recently completed or still underway. As noted earlier, the Kenya Vision 2030 program promises to bring some big changes around here. There is already an airport capable of serving international destinations – nothing yet, but it is there and ready. One of the newer buildings is a more contemporary hotel.

New construction in Isiolo. Scaffolding and supports are typical.

However, Isiolo, to me, still has the frontier town look. The paved, two-lane highway goes through it, but the brightly colored stores and shops are set very far back and fronted by dusty streets used in a rather free form way by vehicles, pedestrians and the occasional cow and goat. There are a couple of small grocery stores where we can buy bottled water, supplies for lunches in the field and even ice cream treats and cold coke!

Shops in Isiolo town

Jennifer and Kieran at SDJ Supermarket

Back at the center, we meet in the cool garden and talk about what to expect tomorrow – for those of us who do not live in Kenya, the day when we visit Attir for the first time. Habiba and Martin from GHNI in Isiolo are with us; they have worked hard to connect with Attir and set up the TCD program with them. Jeff goes over the elements of the program, which are: Water, Wellness, Nutrition, Education and Income Production. We learn there are about 180 families in Attir, living in homes that are scattered around in a fairly large area.

Meeting area at the Pastoral Center

Water, Education and Wellness are the high priority issues for Attir. Women in the village must walk 5 km (about 3 miles) to get 20 liter containers of water filled in a stream of dirty water, then carry the load back, most on their heads or on their backs, supported by a cloth sling wrapped around their foreheads. Primary school students must walk to one of two “nearby” villages – again, walks of about 5 – 7 km. There is a church building that was damaged in fighting during the Isiolo wars; the people in Attir would like to dismantle the building and move it closer to the heart of the village to use as a nursery school. Martin, a trained clinical officer, is teaching various wellness classes. He told us a few of the challenges he sees, which include a reluctance to use latrines.

The approach is to help the village with development in these areas, not by bringing in and executing big projects, but to offer small levels of resources, but a big dose of teaching and mentoring. For me, I know this means a lot of learning.

Thus armed with this introduction, we share dinner at the center before retiring to prepare for the first real day in the villages – the reason we are here.

My room at the center. The mosquito net is the best I've seen
I got it at Long Road Travel Supplies

En suite! Toilet and shower to the left

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Road to Kijito

It is a rough road that leads
to the heights of greatness.

                            Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Five hours of sleep seemed, when I awoke, to be enough. That observation would prove to be a little less than accurate later, but it was a beautiful morning and, there was coffee available in the breakfast room! I was up and ready to go.

Going to breakfast at the peaceful guesthouse in Nairobi

Dining room at the guesthouse

There would be three other team members arriving tonight: Heather, Chris and Tony. Tomorrow, we would collect Jennifer and Kieran from a hotel in downtown Nairobi and head north to Isiolo. But today, it was just me, Jeff and Wubshet. A visit to Kijito was the primary item on the agenda and after breakfast, we headed north towards the town of Thika.

At the end of today's road trip, I would find familiar ground, a unique and impressive individual and the foundations of possible future involvement in the work around Isiolo.

A major Chinese road building project has resulted in much improved conditions for driving north out of Nairobi. There is an exit ramp into geopolitics here, but I won't take it. Instead, let's travel on to the area of Thika where we get off of the paved, multi-lane highway and quickly onto a rough, dirt road in the direction of Kijito.

The road has some very picturesque stretches lined with trees blooming with brilliant red and pink flowers. We go over an earthen dam, then, as we get closer, through a security gate. Before we get to our destination, we navigate two ROUNDABOUTS! On this dirt road in an area in which if there were more than two cars moving at any one time would surprise me. The colonial effect in effect, I think.

The drive in to Kijito ... Flowering trees on the side of the road

... Crossing the dam

Kijito is not a village. Rather, it is a business run by Mike Harries. What do they do here in rural Kenya? They make windmills or, more to the point, windpumps. We are here to talk about a few issues that need cleaning up at the site in Gambella, the most recent graduate of GHNI's TCD program. A borehole drilled some time ago was topped more recently with one of Kijito's larger windmills which drives a down-hole pump. We would meet with Art, the well driller, for discussions which led to a plan to get a larger pump into the well and therefore set us up for the next stage in the project.

There were some sticky issues and I was quite impressed with way in which the discussions were handled. All parties stood on principles of their faith and a common desire to help people with great needs in the most appropriate ways. It was refreshing.

Wubshet, Jeff, Mike and Art discussing the well and pump at Gambella

While we were waiting for Art to arrive, Mike told us his story. Disclaimer: I listened attentively, but recall the state of "sleep deprivation induced stupor" mentioned in the Road to Kenya post. It wasn't quite that dramatic this morning, but, you get the picture. So, a few of the facts may be not quite right. However, we can't let that get in the way of a really amazing story...

Mike's grandfather went to South Africa in the late 1800's and moved to Kenya in 1904, setting foot there first at the port city of Mombasa. He was looking for a place to settle and LITERALLY walked around the country before finally settling on 5,000 acres in this area near Thika. No big deal, right? After all it is only 315 miles from Mombasa to Nairobi. Did you pick up on that comment that he WALKED!?

Bobs (that is spelled correctly), Mike's father, was born in Kenya as was Mike. Now I think Mike is a citizen of the UK, but has spent virtually his entire life in Africa. He earned a Master of Arts degree from Cambridge but came back to the farm after completing his studies. You can read more about the history and background of the operations at the Kijito / Bobs Harries Engineering, Ltd website.

Mike talked about a few of his experiences, which include him being an advisor to the president of Kenya. He also spent some time in the U.S., consulting with police departments in three states about their chaplaincy programs. But perhaps the most interesting story, considering our purpose in Kenya, was one worthy of the old BBC television program, Connections.

In addition to the above mentioned activities, Mike, a pilot, spent some time flying eye doctors around the country in order to provide much needed care for people otherwise disconnected from any source of medical aid. During his trips, he saw many cases of trachoma. This is a bacterial infection of the eyes and is often transmitted by flies in areas without good hygienic practices. Children with this problem have runny eyes which, if not kept clean, attract swarms of the disease carrying flies. Lack of clean water was one factor in the chain and Mike decided he needed to get involved.

There was a windmill design project that (I assume) about this time was looking for investment partners to finish work on a low cost, effect device and Mike was one of five businesses that joined. In the end, his was the only one that stayed on; he eventually made a large investment in development to bring a useful design into production, the business of Kijito.

Another branch of the story involves the family farming business. The family actually introduced pineapples to Kenya at the farm; coffee is also grown here. Mike told us that after he returned from Cambridge, he was engaged in the farming. However, while the coffee business was good, he found it unsatisfying in that it was the same process, repeated over and over every season. Plant – tend – harvest – etc. Whatever you do to grow coffee. I don't know. Mike wanted something where he could be more creative and certainly something that could be used to serve the people in the area. Hence, his interest in the windmill opportunity.

Kijito now has over 500 windmills in East Africa, most in Kenya. Mike gave us a tour of the factory and this officially became an engineer's trip! Following are some highlights of the tour in photos...

In the Kijito Factory... Left: Facing a flange; Top right: A Kijito technician machining a brass part for a water pump; Bottom right: A machine designed and built at Kijito for rolling a stiffening groove in windmill blades

Left: A brass down-hole pump; Top right: Wubshet examines the flame cutting station; Bottom right: The five sizes of windmill blades, color coded by length

So the end of the rough road with the roundabouts brought us to place that has risen up to offer much to the people in the water-poor regions of East Africa. Their engineering is not aligned with my areas of expertise ( analytical fluid- and thermodynamics) but because of my long association with the more mechanically oriented design engineers at Trane, I could appreciate the progress made in arriving at the windmills and pumps manufactured by Kijito. They are elegantly simple and, by all reports, reliable and effective. Plans for the one in Gambella offer the possibility that it will serve an even more important role than just the pumping of water. More about this as we proceed down the road...

You can learn more about Kijito using the link in the text above. You can also Like Kijito on Facebook; they are there as Kijito Windpower Limited.

We drove back to the guesthouse. I was able to unwind, but Jeff and Wubshet still had work to do. They would be back at the Nairobi airport to meet three more of the team flying in on separate flights. I stayed at the guesthouse since the car we had hired would not accommodate all of us and the luggage. I was only just a little disappointed!

It was dinner at the guesthouse tonight – tilapia. But this is not the tilapia we are more accustomed to. Most noticeably, we are offered the entire fish for our dining enjoyment. It was cooked in a way that rendered it pretty dry, but this provided a functional benefit we here in the U.S. do not often consider. The fish had been scored deeply and I found, after struggling to get a piece off with a knife and fork, that the scoring provided the option to break off french-fry like pieces with your hands. One real advantage to this approach is that you get pieces that are mostly bone free; and, if there are a few bones, you can feel them before putting them into your mouth. Brilliant!

Tilapia, African style!

Much later, Jeff and Wubshet returned with Chris and Tony. But no Heather. And in this, there is a lesson. When it comes to international travel, your passport is effectively expired 6 months before the date printed on the photo page! Heather had gone to the airport with her e-ticket confirmed. However, she was told that she would not be allowed to travel because her passport expiration date was only about 4 weeks out. No exceptions, no recourse. Bummer! But now you know – keep a close watch on the dates as you plan your next international trip.

Coming next: The Road to Isiolo

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Road to Kenya

I'm leaving, on a jet plane...
                         Leaving on a Jet Plane, Peter, Paul and Mary

Before we get too deep into looking at the road as metaphor, remember that most of our journeys include some literal legs. In other words, we actually have to get out of our recliners and go. Now, that shouldn't be too hard to convince us to do if we accept what Cunard Lines was so fond of telling us...

That's been your experience, right? No? Oh well...

Getting to a small town in central Kenya from a small city in the U.S. upper midwest is a bit of a challenge. But let's face it, the fact that this even can be accomplished at all borders on magic.

Step-by-step, the process was as follows:

(1) Get up at 7:00 a.m. Have breakfast with Shirley. Drive to the airport in La Crosse. Fly to Chicago. Wait. Eat a light mid-afternoon meal. Wait. Take bus across the taxiways to the international departures gates. Wait. Have some coffee.

Small plane, short flight to start; Sushi in the Admirals Club at O'Hare; The wasabi earned separate billing for being HOT!!!! I might never need an antihistamine again.

(2) Fly to London; eat two meals in flight; take a bus to terminal 5. Wait. Have coffee and a croissant. Take the underground train link to the satellite departure gates. Get a bottle of water for the long flight. Wait.

(3) Fly to Nairobi; eat two meals in flight; take a bus to international arrivals.

The engines on the BA 777 were big. But not big enough to get us the last 100 feet; Waiting at the gate at LHR to take us to NBO; African chicken stew to get us acclimated to life in another continent; Night arrival at NBO - the KLM flight seems to have made it to a jet bridge.

(4) In a sleep deprivation stupor, muddle through immigration, baggage claim and customs. Exchange a little money for first day cash reserves. Meet Jeff and Wubshet in the arrivals hall. Drive to the guest house. Crash at 1:00 a.m.

Four easy steps - that's all there is to it. For the most part, things went smoothly. Layovers in Chicago and London were 5 hours and 4 hours, respectively. There really were not so many options and I do tend to favor longer layovers as a cushion for delays. There might be two or three opportunities per hour to get from Chicago to New York. But realistically, you have only one chance per day to get from La Crosse to Nairobi.

The one exception to the problem-free trip was in the last 100 feet of the journey. I am not making this up – our plane stopped at the terminal in Nairobi and the pilot shut down the engines. People got up and started the process of gathering all the belongings they had accumulated over the entire course of their lives (OK, maybe I exaggerate. But only a little) to prepare for deplaning. But, the pilot announced that we had not reached our actual parking spot. Further, instead of using the engines, which were each the size of a small house, to get us there, we would wait for a tug. I have no clue...

About 20 minutes later we were in the proper location. Then, we waited for another 15 minutes for buses that would take us to the arrival hall. Perhaps our arrival caught them by surprise, what it having been only 8 hours since our on-time departure from Heathrow.

But they did show up - a diverse collection of bus styles, sizes and appellations. I got in a relatively tricked-out vehicle with a sign on the side saying "Kenyan Youth Organization." Apparently the airport brought in busses from all available sources as they are still dealing with the disruption caused by the substantial fire in the international arrivals area last August.

Jeff and Wubshet from GHNI (Colorado and Isiolo, respectively) waited through it all. It was good to see them there on the other side. On the ride to the guest house, we talked briefly about the next day's activities, which would mostly involve a visit to Kijito.

So, I got into my small but comfortable dormitory style room, took a shower in the bath down the hall (only one chameleon in the shower stall) and settled in for a good night's sleep – a mere 30 hours and 7 meals after I had gotten up in La Crosse.

Netted in for the night; Visitor in the shower

Up next: The Road to Kijito where we get on with the work of Transformational Community Development

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Hard Roads

With GHNI in Kenya, March 2014

The long white line meets the equator…

“There are roads
in this life that we all travel
there are scars and there are battles
where we roam...”
                                       Roads, Chris Mann

In song and poetry, our life’s path is often equated to a road we travel. A simple, everyday experience – traveling on highways and byways where we live – becomes a framework on which to anchor the abstract aspects of our lives and our reactions to events.

While I doubt there will be a country song written about the events I will share with you in the next week or so, I will use the road metaphor to introduce you to my travels, literal and otherwise, to the northern district of Kenya. In two trips to this ecologically inhospitable place, I have visited five villages in the area around the town of Isiolo: Bulesa Dima, Shambani, Ola Nagele, and Gambella in 2011 and again in 2014; and, in this latest trip, the village of Attir.

To say that the people in these villages have hard lives does not do justice to the difficulties with which they must deal on a daily basis.

Water is scarce. Rainfall totals are moderate and most of what falls comes in short “rainy” seasons. The average is 2 inches per month. But, rainfall from June through September in total is only about one inch. April and November bring some relief with a bit over 5 inches of rain each. However, there are also periodic droughts making the situation considerably worse than even the relatively low average rainfall amounts hint at.

The tribes in the area, in particular Turkana, Borana and Somali, are disenfranchised, living on the edge. They are generally pastoralists, shepherding herds of goats, cattle and camels around the area, seeking elusive grazing areas and water supplies. Increasingly, however, villages are settled and attention turns to farming. This is what we see in the villages we visit.

I use the term “we” to make the connection to Global Hope Network International (GHNI). This amazing (in my opinion) organization has created a program called Transformational Community Development (TCD) to help disenfranchised peoples meet their most pressing needs in ways that they can sustain after they "graduate." To find out more about the program itself, click here.

I was reading a novel on the long flight to Nairobi and came across this quote which I think captures a key concept for setting up the development process for success: "It's not about what is best. It's about who gets to decide what is best." It seems pretty clear what the big problems are in the villages we visit. And, it is easy to imagine that we could cut right to the chase – drill a well, build a school, supply a wellness center, and so forth. That's the "we (outsiders) get to decide what is best" approach.

A quiet moment in the garden at the guest house in Isiolo gave me a chance to experience how this might play out. Two women were tidying up in this cool, green oasis in semi-arid northern Kenya. They were sweeping the sidewalks; nothing so unusual about this, except they were using short bundles of straw that required them to bend as you can see in the picture. I have seen this method of reaching the ground – locked knees, bent over at the waist – in Uganda and Kenya in sweeping and in tending the fields in farms and gardens. It looks uncomfortable and I think, "I could fix this problem in a heartbeat. Brooms with handles. I'll just buy a hundred and gift them to these hard working ladies. Brilliant!"

And there you go – I would have decided what was best. No consideration of just why the women go about their tasks in this way. I doubt it is because they never thought of long handled brooms. So I let the moment pass, dropping the idea of providing aid in the form of my view of a material solution to their "problem."

One of the hallmarks of TCD is the way in which the cooperation between villages and GHNI is planned. Very early in the course of engaging a village, there will be a meeting with the village leaders where they will explain the situation they are in and offer their input into what are the pressing needs and what the priorities are. There is give and take, of course. Discussion of options is OK and there is serious discussion on the expectations for both GHNI's part and the role that the village is expected to play – a large one, actually, a key factor in sustainability.

This is my unofficial view of the GHNI program. It should be clear that I am impressed with what they have learned from working with villages around the world over the years. I would guess there have been a few mistakes made. The program does have some built in flexibility though and I am sure it is still evolving with every new village. But the important thing is this: it works. One of the Isiolo area villages I visited in 2011 has since graduated and the situation for the people there is greatly improved. GHNI has been invited to be an advisor to the United Nations in this area.

In future posts, I will talk about the roads we traveled during our visit, both literally and metaphorically. During the week, I visited Kijito (not a village, at least in the traditional sense), Attir, Shambani, Bulesa Dima, Ola Nagle and the most recent graduate from the TCD program, Gambella. We were bounced around in the Land Cruiser and pummeled by sights from villages where almost every bit of people's energy is devoted to barely meeting the most basic needs of life.

In spite of these harsh realities, I can also say I was humbled by the graciousness with which we were treated, impressed by the toughness of the people, which matched that of the environment, hopeful that the changing attitudes in the villages would lead to long term improvement and encouraged by the obvious strength of the TCD program.

Up next, the account of the trip from La Crosse to Nairobi.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

English Mustard

We each have that seminal moment when we suddenly realize we know everything there is to know. I've been there myself, what with my advanced age and the attendant accumulation of experiences. Well in all honesty, I have been there several times. As sure as day follows night, as soon as we reach that nirvana of complete knowledge of all things, we will have an English mustard experience...

It is not unusual to find black pudding on the breakfast table in English hotels. This is a savory concoction of parts that do not quite achieve the level of "meat," masquerading as a sausage. And by savory, I mean "Yecch!" I happened to express this opinion with colleagues I was working with in Rochdale, England during one of my visits there and discovered that they did not share my lack of enthusiasm for this tasty, nutritional product ("Yecch!"). In the ensuing discussion it was revealed I had not used mustard; the obvious conclusion was that I could not lay claim to having had a proper black pudding experience. They would fix that.

At dinner, I ordered the black pudding appetizer, a specialty of the restaurant. It was served on a plate accompanied by a pot of yellow mustard, looking for all the world like the stuff you squeeze out of a plastic bottle onto your hot dog. I put a generous amount on the "sausage" and took a bite - "Yowww...!! -- Yech!"

A couple of things became crystal clear at that moment. First, in England, the word "mustard" is short for "fortified wasabi." I did not know that. And, with the possible exception of the numbing effect of searing taste buds, it improves the black pudding experience by exactly zero percent.

It is actually nice to know that you do not know everything because learning something new is, in the end, a satisfying experience. And, since I do not, in fact, know everything, one that I get to enjoy quite often. Like this example...

You would find Rotary International in the long list of things I knew little or nothing about. Nonetheless, In 2011 I was invited to present our work with schools in Uganda at a meeting of a local club: Rotary After Hours. Interest expressed then has turned into a plan for the group to get involved with a club in Uganda for the benefit of primary schools in the eastern part of the country. I was back at the club's meeting about a week ago as the project is starting to get some real momentum.

At the Rotary Meeting in October

Getting to know more about Rotary in general and this club in particular was another of those "English mustard" things. I might have thought I knew what it was all about, but once I got involved by talking about the schools and opportunities for helping, I had a real ah-ha experience. A club meeting is an impressive gathering of people with energy and enthusiasm, committed to serving others and taking seriously the Four-Way Test:

Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Is that good or what?

You can be sure I am thrilled that the club has chosen work with the primary schools in eastern Uganda as an international project. But whether it is this project or some other avenue of service, I would still be impressed with this group that I did not know much about. Until that jar of mustard got opened...

You can find information about the Uganda project and a December fundraiser here -- OneUgly5k

Check it out. Sign up for the run. And start looking through your sweaters!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Nelson Algren wrote, "Chicago is an October sort of city, even in spring." This isn't Chicago, but we are close enough to know exactly what he means...

It is now two-thirds of the way through the season formerly known as spring. Signs that things are improving are popping up here and there, although their appearances are sporadic at best. In the 65 days since the calendar reported our latest seasonal transition, I have ridden 36 times, 18 of those on a real bike. Outdoors. But, the last 14 in a row have had me out of the basement and onto the highways and byways that make this region so good for bicycling. A few of the rides were even accomplished wearing only shorts and a jersey; however, many have required base layers, tights, arm warmers, leg warmers, shoe covers, vests and jackets in various combinations.

These early, tentative, mini-tours do provide opportunities to witness the emerging signs of our next season. We might call it summer, but it will have to earn the right to be so named. And even though the pace of seasonal change has so far been glacial, I'm guessing summer is going to drop in on us like an Acme safe in the desert.

In the meantime, here are some of the sights and signs I've captured during the early days of this year's riding season.

This one should be obvious. It's a sign that there is an engineer on the bike. A ride computer, just visible at the bottom of the picture, AND a GPS. You say "superfluous," I say "necessary back-up systems."

The GPS is on board so I won't get lost. On my way down the highway that hugs the river. With few opportunities to turn off. But, you cannot be too careful, you know.

This small pond is at one of my favorite spots on the route I take often, going down the river to Stoddard than out a ways into the valley that runs east. It was a jacket and shoe cover kind of a day, as you might have guessed from the ice still on the surface. But, as you can see if you look closely at the second picture, the geese have found enough open water to keep them happy.

Regrettably, this is another not so uncommon sign of the season - various forms of wildlife that insist upon crossing the road, in spite of overwhelming evidence that such an endeavor is fraught with danger. You should be aware that neither I nor my bike were factors in this poor fellow's situation. By situation, I mean dead. And, if you knew anything about my affinity for snakes, you would know that he was dead because there is no other way that I would be where I was, stopped on the road, taking a picture.

One of my ride projects this year is to photograph another of my favorite spots, this one at a farm on top of the ridge. It changes dramatically during the course of the year and I hope to capture the effect by riding up three or four times a month and snapping a picture from the same point. Here are shots from early April and mid-May. A sure sign that things are looking up.

Some signs are omens and others portend good times ahead, like these two at the start of the descent down County O. A couple of my favorites in one place.

Finally, a sign of riding in wet weather, which creates an urgent need to clean the bike. It is surprisingly satisfying to do this after a long ride. Perhaps it is because it signals being ready for the next one.

Are there signs of spring where you live? Or perhaps even of summer?

In closing, if you know where the Acme safe analogy comes from, then, I am sorry to say, you are as old as I am.