Saturday, April 30, 2011

A story about a girl’s school

 My plan for the day was to go with one of the men’s teams to see their progress on an agriculture project.  The project was a large grape arbor, funded by a British group, and built in the yard of a girl’s school in a near village.  As we drove to that village, I had in my mind a picture of one of the many well-funded but poorly-built, poorly-equipped, and poorly-attended schools across the rural districts of this country.  Many of the schools in the central province we previously worked in were hollow buildings, empty of anything that resembled education.  I was taken aback when we drove up the hill and into the yard of this girl’s school.

The school sits on a perfect plateau, above the rest of the village, and it is completely engulfed in green gardens and fruit trees.  The school itself is just 1 building, but the yard around it spans about 10 acres, and it is beautiful.  Every type of fruit tree I could think of was present, as well as patches of root vegetables, varieties of lettuce, beans, radishes, cauliflower, and tomatoes.  All the gardens were well kept, irrigation canals had been fashioned to sustain all the plants; clearly much care had been given to this land. 

Being drawn in by the land, I looked more closely at the school.  Built in 2006 with funding from a large Scandanavian organization, this 10-room school building offered local girls courses from grade 1-10.  The building was different from the standard national design, it had been custom designed by a European volunteer who had worked in M-ville for many years.  Like the grounds, the building was extremely well kept and attractive.

On the side of the school I noticed quickly that our project had been here previously, addressing water and sanitation needs.  Three of our Biosand Filters were lined up by the school, and all three were gradually filling the buckets in front of them.  A handwashing station was beside these filters and the latrines further away.  The large latrine structure was also impressive to see.  Usually large public latrines are a horrible site because of the volume of people that toilet around the outside perimeter of the latrine rather than inside.  Not so here, there were no messes around this latrine.  I was so surprised by the site of fully-functioning water and sanitation facilities that I could hardly say hello to the 5 or 6 year old girls that came out of the school to get a drink.  One of the school janitors was there, filling a cup and offering it to the girls, and then making sure they put it back in the right place so it didn’t get dirty.  As the girls returned to class the janitor made his way to the front of the school building, picked up a large steel bolt, and struck it against a large steel gear from a truck axle.  At first this action did not make sense, until he persisted to strike the steel pieces together until the sound of students changing rooms came out of the windows.  He had just rung the school bell. 

Noticing my observation of the school, the headmaster came and introduced himself, and invited me to tour the school.  He first sent me around the grounds with a staff who pointed out all the varieties of trees and plants.  The produce from all these plants, he said, goes first to the students, for their families.  As we walked he told me the history of the school.  Long long ago the plateau had actually been rolling hills, just like the ones around the plateau, and the hills had been an ancient graveyard.  Some two decades ago, the community gathered and decided that this ancient graveyard was no longer of much use to them, and they wanted to reuse this land for the community.  The village all took part in paying for a bulldozer to level the hills and graves, and create the plateau.  The land had been developed for agriculture before the notorious anti-government group (NAGG) came to power, but much of it was destroyed in their time, as well as the small girl’s school.  After the NAGG was pushed out, the community decided they wanted the plateau to become the girls’ school, and they petitioned the European engineer and Scandanavian donors.

Back from the tour, the headmaster invited me to come in the school and take a look.  Together we peeked into one room that was bouncing with 1st graders.  The headmaster said how sorry he felt for the 2nd grade teacher today, who was doubling on 1st and 2nd grades because the other teacher was gone.  There were at least 30 very naughty looking 1st graders in that room.  We then went down the hall and I noticed how well the building let natural light in, and how clean and nice the building had been kept.  The headmaster pointed out that not a single fan or switch or window were broken, not a desk or wall marked on, because these students and teachers cared about “their” school.  I asked, and was blown away to hear that 600 girls attended this school between morning and afternoon sessions.

Without a warning, the headmaster led me into a room full of 10th grade girls, and asked to see their artwork.  The surprised girls all stood to their feet to welcome a visitor, then relaxed when the headmaster told them I was with the organization that brought the water filters.  A stack of artwork came together, and the headmaster proudly showed off what these young women had been creating recently.  There were pencil sketches, portraits of historic leaders and family members alike.  The pencil shading on some of these works of art made the faces as real as could be.  There were also calligraphic poems and verses about philosophy and life.  Lastly there were watercolor and oil-based painted pictures.  The watercolors had been painted with a variety of brushes and creative finger strokes.  Each of the paintings was a lesson.  Some were about clean water, sanitation, nutrition, and others about agriculture.  The colors, designs, and truth in the lessons were utterly amazing. 

My favorite painting of all was divided in half, with a good side, and a bad.  The good side of the painting depicted a beautiful village home, surrounded by gardens, animals, and happy people.  In this half of the picture the sun was setting, and a man was coming home to his family, tired, but pleased with the days’ work.  The other half of the picture was an elaborate, almost woven field of opium poppies.  In the center of the tall poppies, surrounded by two great flowers that circled like snakes, was an erect and eerie human skeleton.  No words were necessary on this painting; it clearly depicted that this girl had seen both realities, and wanted to show the world the pain and longing she felt. 


This is the end of the story of my observations about this school.  I will continue in the next post by drawing some points out of this story, to clarify what this school does and does not mean about education, change, and women in this country.  But I made this separation between the posts because I want you to savor this amazing story with me.  My visit to this school has given me fresh hope that despite all the things that are against good change, it is possible.

Some conclusions on the girl’s school

 This is part 2 of a 2 part blog.  You will want to read the above post “A story about a girl’s school” before continuing on this one.

The true story I have told you about this girl’s school does not mean that all schools in this country are like this.  Many schools are nothing more than useless building.  In development, too often buildings are put first, as an assumption that it will encourage people to take responsibility to fill in the rest of the program.


The girl’s school does mean:
  • ·      Some communities do value education, and will make sacrifices to establish the human infrastructure for educating their kids.  This community leveled an ancient graveyard and used it for a school, because the land was too old to be claimed as private land, so it was equal access for all.
  • ·      Communities that value education have amazing potential, but sometimes fall short on the resources to finish their dream of education for the next generation, and they need donor support for buildings.
  • ·      Donors pay for buildings, but the people make the schools.  The donor’s name was on the plaque outside, but little touches like the school bell indicated that this truly was the community’s school.
  • ·      When the above happens, everyone wins: donor, engineer, headmaster, community, and most importantly: students.

The girl’s school does not mean:
  • ·      Does not mean that all the buildings built and called “schools” will turn out this way.  Too many building projects are donor driven, and do not pick up the warning signs that the community is not ready to send their kids, let alone take care of the building.
  • ·      Does not mean that everything in this school is perfect.  The 10th grade class was all uniformly dressed in black uniforms and white headscarves, but the 1st graders were a mix of uniforms and village clothes.  This indicates that in this school as well, classism thrives, and the families that cannot afford to buy uniforms for their daughters are probably pulling their daughters out because of teasing, or because the girl’s have chores at home.
  • ·      Does not mean that the future is bright for these girls.  Unless dramatic and unlikely changes happen, these girls will still be expected to marry in their teen years, and then assume a suppressed domestic role.  Some of these girls will marry men a generation older than them, a generation that has no respect for educated girls, and does it’s best to beat the empowerment back out of them.  
  • ·      Does not mean that there are jobs for these girls.  Other than a few nurses, a few teachers, and a few NGO jobs, no woman works outside the home here.  Who sells women’s clothes?  Men.  Even underwear?  Yep, men.
  • ·      Does not mean that we will ever see the creativity or artwork of these girls again.  From the time they are married, these women will have too many chores and children to take time for art.  Even if they did, how would women, who cannot even go to the doctor without a man coming to speak for her, be able to show her heart and skills to the outside world?

But the girl’s school does mean that good change is possible, despite all the forces that work against it.  The status quo here says some horrible, horrible things about the female race, but some are willing to challenge it, and some girls themselves find enough freedom to dare to learn, express themselves, and be women created in the image of God.  I am glad that this special school does not have wide press or special documentaries about it.  A school like this needs it’s own privacy, and some decades of security, and it will produce a new generation of mothers that can gently but definitely influence this place.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011


The title of this blog is the word that has been around the office for about 2 months.  When my local co-workers learned that my son had learned to walk, they immediately clapped their hands and started saying this word.  Then they politely explained that in this culture, a historic tradition is that when a baby first learns to walk that the family celebrates by having a meal called qalapoycha, which literally means: sheep’s head and feet.

Sheep’s head and feet did not sound like a great meal to me, but I liked the idea of hosting a celebration that would really please my co-workers, so we put the plan in motion.  First there was a debate about how many sheep’s heads and feet would be needed to feed our group.  Then we had to guess how many hours it would take to strip the wool and wash the hooves and the whole head up.  Three women committed to take a whole day and evening to do all this preparation, and spend the following morning cooking all the bits.  It was beginning to feel like the buildup before Thanksgiving meal.

Finally the day arrived, and everyone in the office was clearly thrilled that I had followed through and prepared and paid for this meal.  Right before lunchtime most of the staff were either in the kitchen or giving advice from right outside the door.  Feet were being sorted into bowls, along with a barley soup, and heads were arranged on platters.  Finally everything was hauled into the women’s and men’s separate rooms for eating, and everyone grabbed a cushion and scooted up to the table cloth, ready to dig in.

As nice as I am making this sound, I will admit, this meal tasted terrible.  There was nothing on the feet that I would describe as meat, rather it was all skin, tendons, jelly-like stuff, and the actual hooves.  The heads had a wider variety, as they divided up the jelly-like cheeks and lips, the tongue, and the eyeballs.  The barley soup was almost worst than anything, because it tasted not at all like barley soup should.  To be honest the headbits were tolerable, but the soup tasted like death.  I hadn’t eaten much, and the guys were harassing me about this, but they told me not to worry, the brains were yet to come.  The cook then brought a rock into the room, and they turned the heads upside down, raised them above their heads, and then crashed the sheep skulls down upon the rock to break the skulls so they could access the brains.  They then spooned the brains out, mushed them up on a plate and passed them around.  I hope it doesn’t put you over the edge to hear that the brain was actually my favorite part of the meal, because spread on bread, it was quite similar to a tuna salad sandwich. 

What else did this special celebration entail?  Not much really.  After the meal I brought my son over to have tea with the men and he wooed them like usual.  His mother was happy to get rid of him, he has become a bit of a terror eating with the women. 

So what do you think of qalapoycha?  I think I could go the rest of my life without eating it again, and be just fine.  But I don’t regret doing it once.  I don’t say this because I’m an adventurous guy and like to add freakish meals to my list of crazy accomplishments.  I don’t regret it because it meant a lot to my co-workers that I bought and ate this meal with them.  By participating with them in things that are uniquely “their culture”, I show them that I respect and care about them, and that I have not come to push my agenda for change on every aspect of their culture.  You see, when you come to another culture with a hope to facilitate or inspire change, you have to set priorities for the issues you want to work on, choose your battles carefully, and give some ground on other issues so that you don’t lose the respect of the communities you’re trying to help.  So, in that light, bring on the qalapoycha, I have more important things than traditional meals to work on changing!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Overcome evil with good

My last post was strong, I'm not sure how it settled with you.  Tonight I'd like to take you to three passages I like a lot.  Each one challenges me and reminds me how to live in a place that is not always safe.  I'd like to think that these passages could be good reminders as well for people that are feeling insecure about global trends and unrest.

Eph 6:11-13 NRS  Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Romans 12:19-21 NIV  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; 
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. 
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Proverbs 16:7 NRS  When the ways of people please the Lord, he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them.

What sounds better, doing all you can to control defenses against your human enemies, or being at peace with them in order to thwart the enemy of all human life?  It's a paradigm shift I pray we can all progress toward in these days.  

Monday, April 4, 2011

Why a pastor who burns a Qur’an is in the wrong.

 I’m not sure how you feel about the recent news of a pastor burning a Qur’an.  I have quite strong feelings about this, because more than 20 people have been killed in protests, our work has been stopped this week, and we’ve been on the lookout because we’re all in direct danger here.  I don’t entirely blame this pastor for what has happened here, but he did have a very negative impact on our security, and for that I am upset.  I would like to back away from the center of this controversy for a moment however, and talk about the basic matters of culture, faith, humanity, and Christlikeness.

It seems that the pastor’s intent in burning the Qur’an was to urge Muslims to stop reading the Qur’an and stop being Muslims.  The question is: how do you change people?  Can you force a person to change?  How do you respond when someone tries to force you to change?  Are you happy to listen to them, eager to change for them?

Perhaps you utterly hate Muslims.  That’s fine.  Some people, in the name of Islam, have done atrocities to Americans and in America.  Given that, what would it take for YOU to actually respect a Muslim or listen to what they have to say?  What would they have to do to earn your listening ear, for you to welcome them to your home?  They would have to do something, right, because you’re not going to automatically trust them, there’s too much negative sentiment about them for you to just let them come near you.  So then… why do we think that they should listen to us, when a Christian leader does something that they consider an act of war?

Let me challenge you with some points that I also challenge Muslim friends with.  You see I’m in the middle.  I know Americans who hate Muslims, and Muslims who hate Americans, and I see the futility and the endless destruction that lays ahead if we do not work on our attitudes and approaches to one another.

Here’s my list of attitudes, actions and assumptions to avoid, if you want to maintain a positive influence on people from a much different culture and/or religion: 

-Do not generalize: 
If your nation and religion were summarized in a 30-second speech by someone from the other side of the world, do you think it would accurately represent who YOU are?  If not, why do you listen to other people who make these summaries?  If you use “Muslim” as a blanket over all Sunni, Shiite, Ishmaeli, Sufi, Wahabi, Arab, Palestinian, Afghan, Kurdish, Al Queda, and Taliban people, but cannot tell me the distinctives of each groups, what makes you so sure that fundamentalist Muslims will know the difference between Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Charismatic, Calvinistic, Health and Wealth doctrine, (shall I go on?).  Do you like being lumped together as one big groupie called Christianity?  If you would appreciate being differentiated from all the random things that fit into a Muslim’s definition of a Christian, then work on your definition of a Muslim, and let your respect and knowledge of the other to trickle into your communities.

-Do not compare “our best” to “their worst”:
  I hear it all the time, statements like, “our culture is like this…, but that other culture, ugh, they’re like this…”  When people describe themselves in comparison with a radically different culture, the inclination is to state what our ideal culture is like.  Then when we describe the other culture, we point out the very ugliest aspect.  An example?  Christians say, “we love our women, we only practice monogamy, Muslims are despicable womanizers, they marry multiple women.”  Muslims say, “we love our women, we ensure that every woman is protected and provided for, Christians only love themselves, half their marriages end in divorce.”  Get over your pride, take a honest assessment of both the good and the bad coming from any and all cultures.  You’d be furious to know all the stereotypes that I have heard some Muslims state about Christians, based on unfair comparisons.  Take the higher road, stop doing this in reply.

-Do not slander “the others’ sacred”:
            Honestly, if you want to be influential in changing someone, you can’t immediately impose your opinions on what they consider sacred.  I don’t care how wrong you think the Qur’an is, you will NEVER convince any Muslim of this by burning it.  Holding the truth is not effective if you use it as a jackhammer to the heart of the person you’re trying to help.  Your truth and your opinion have to wait until respect has been shown, relationships have been built, and ears and hearts are open, otherwise, you’re just a crusader, and you’re going to die for foolish reason. 

-Do not assume that history is the same from every culture’s perspective:
            Though historical events happen in real time and space, the memory and record of them is depicted through different cultural perspectives.  Within the differing accounts of history there are deep sensitivities, which, if ignored, will cause a lot of tension between cultures.  Examples?  How would the written or oral history of the USA differ between Americans and Native American Indians?  How would it differ between Israelis and Arabs?  Simply put, history is remembered different by dominant countries, than it is by ones that were suppressed.  Just because one country beats another and stamps their name upon a place, does not mean that the losers will not harbor resent that will fester for decades.  The rage coming out of Afghanistan, for example, is not new.  Americans think that doing war there for 9 years is way too long?  Afghans have lived through warfare for over 30 years.  If you judge what we see today within a 10-year context, you’re missing the whole picture of what Afghans are expressing.  The point here is: don’t assume, listen and learn.

That is the end of today’s list, but I’m not done yet because something should be said about tolerance.  The word ‘tolerance’ is not popular where I come from.  We all wonder, how could we combine Truth with tolerance?  Truth does not make us more than humans.  As humans, we have to humble ourselves to the fact that we are trapped in flesh and culture, we have a limited perspective on truth, and we make mistakes in implementing it.  Truth does not trample on the very people that lack it.  Truth does all it can to woo the one who lacks it to taste, see, believe, trust.  There has to be some human decency and tolerance offered, in order for truth to be transmitted.

There are many BUT’s to what I am saying.  The reason is, many Americans have accepted extremely unhealthy attitudes about the people behind the label “Muslim”.  These attitudes prevent you from seeing these people as Christ sees them.  Do you find it hard to think nice thoughts about Muslims because they seem so unrepentant?  What should we do with their sin, make them correct it?  What did Christ do with our sin?  The believers and followers of Christ should be the leaders in humility, love, and forgiveness.  Even though you deserved death for your sin, you were given life.  Why do we care so little about the life-less ones?

It’s easy to hate the sin of another person, but be blind to our own.  Therefore any quest to purge “the other” of their sin is precarious.  Like I asked before, what is necessary for one person to gain influence in order to change another?