Mamajojo's Muse

"Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: To loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and He will say; here am I.
If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.
Isaiah 58: 6-11

Friday, August 9, 2013

Shopping, Sustainability, 800 Wonders

Even before we started the workshop, our team enjoyed a visit to a local craft center. About 20 or more tiny shops circled a handful of tourists and visitors.  Shopkeepers beckoned from all sides, and shoppers are expected to know how to bargain for the best prices.  Many visitors find the whole process a bit intimidating.

I enjoy bargaining by now, after ten years living near a Tanzanian market. (Ask the price, look shocked, offer less than half, continue from there to shake your head and make small increases until you are satisfied or walk away...) There is no better way to meet people or get a sense of local hospitality and humor! It was hard to choose, but I found a few bargains: bags and bracelets.
 I tried to limit my spending: I had brought the money that I thought we would need to pay for all our expenses and those of the participants: room, board, and transportation for 20 new writers.  Would the amount I had brought cover all that?  All week the final tally of our budget worried me. Peter, their bookkeeper, tracks every meal, overnight stay, and water-bottle, with great precision. My concerns started back in the US the week before: I had expected to get another check for running the Drama Club at school, but it turned out that I had already been paid the whole amount earlier in the year. "Pray for my money to stretch!" I asked Suzie, our school secretary, when she told me about my mistake. Would my miscalculation make me $800 short at the end of the week?
Our workshop was five days long, and I was invited to attend the installation of the new Baptist Bishop of Rwanda on the following Sunday.  The staff at ALARM offered to take me on a tour of the local fabric shops, searching for the perfect traditional dress . This was to be a big event at the local stadium, with great choirs and traditional dance, and everyone decked out in a new outfit.

Cecile, a brilliant ALARM staffer, is now my new "shopping sister."  She led me to five or six fabric shops until we settled on this silky green and silver cloth. 
I waited patiently in the local "sweat shop" as my dress was created.  Actually, the tailors all make their own money there, elbow to elbow at their machines and ironing tables.  Only the temperature made it a sweat shop!  There was much laughter and gossip, as perfectly fitted suits and dresses flew out of foot-powered sewing machines. 

Her friend joined us in the search, and turned out to be the tailor that created my skirt and wrap in about 45 minutes. 

My dress was a big success at the Bishop's event, which I attended with Benjamin Nkusi and his wife. The Celebration was a five hour extravaganza, and we were then invited to a pool-side dinner at a beautiful local hotel. Rwandan food is truly delicious: chicken, beef in a great sauce, cooking bananas over rice, several kinds of potatoes, local veggies and fruit, and ever-present soda.
All through the week, as I worried about financing the workshop, I also spent time brain-storming ideas for the ALARM Center to develop sustainable businesses.  Contributions from the USA and England dropped off during the recession, valuable staff members had to be let go in each nation where ALARM works, and building stopped on the new conference building in Kigali. How could they become financially independent?
ALARM hopes to develop small business ventures such as a full-service restaurant,  event hosting, increased guest-house use, etc. I added some ideas to the mix: how about hosting language training in Kinyarwanda for new ministry and aid workers?  And, instead of sending all the craft and gift profits to outside shops, why not have a small gift shop for visitors? Many westerners are uncomfortable bartering for goods, and feel pressured to buy at the craft center. I suggested a set of hinged, locking bookshelves to hold tee-shirts, jewelry, carvings, baskets, etc. for ALARM's many visitors, who would be happy with a set price and no pressure to buy. 

 In fact, the same six-foot tall set of shelves, hinged together and lockable, with wheels on the bottom to easily move them from room to room, would also work for the "resource center" we planned.  New writers need examples of great writing, so our team had brought a big suitcase full of first-rate books for children. Writers can gather at the ALARM center to learn from the resources and discuss their own stories, and local kids can access the books, too, on planned reading days. When conferences or weddings take up the meeting room, the shelves can be moved out to the storage areas. 
But what would these shelves cost? This called for more shopping at the huge lumber yard/carpentry workshop down the road from the ALARM center. The smell of fresh woodshavings and the sound of hammering floated over the neighborhood every time we drove by. I had always tried to catch a glimpse of the beautiful, hand-carved furniture that was made in dozens of stalls under the tin roof or out in the open.  Finally I could see it first hand. 
And what would two sets of wheeled, hinged, double book shelves cost? $800: the $800 that I had NOT received when I expected it to come the week before our trip. Drat!  I would have to fund-raise for shelves as soon as I got home. 

This, of course, called for more shopping. Visiting the smaller shops in town, I was able to see how cheaply I could get earrings, bracelets, and other small items for a potential shop. When buying in big numbers, like 30 pairs, I could get them for one dollar each! This could be really profitable, and visitors would see a price of three to five dollars as a great deal.  

Thirty pairs of earrings went into my bag, possibly for selling at home to raise my bookshelf money.  But, to be honest, I was awfully tired of fund-raising.
By now, it was the end of the week, and I STILL didn't know how short our budget might fall, and how much I would have to add to it to pay for all our expenses. Not until the day we flew out of Kigali did I find out that, instead of falling short, we had a rather tidy balance on our account. How much? Almost exactly...
The money stretched to cover the needed shelves exactly.
The only thing wasted was time spent worrying.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rwanda: my third visit, this time to facilitate a Writing-for-Children workshop. As we flew to Kigali, I wondered if we could really pull this off. My writer/trainers were excellent, but I had no idea who might show up to participate, or if they all would be committed to developing books for kids in East Africa. Benjamin Nkusi, country director of ALARM in Rwanda, had lined up the participants. Would they buy into this concept? Would it be completely alien to them? Worst of all: would they nod politely as we presented and whip up some stories to please us, and then forget about it when we handed out certificates and praise and disappeared from Kigali?
Kigali, Rwanda: a busy, developing city, full of motorbike taxis, new construction,  and commerce
Our team: Pamela Schembri, Peter Catalanotto, Kristen Swanson, Guy Macdonald
20 participants gathered for group instruction led by Peter Catalanotto
From the first day, we realized that Benjamin had done his preparation with extreme care. Each participant had stories to tell and a commitment to put them in written form for children. Our group included several teachers, youth workers, two headmistresses of secondary schools, students, ministry workers, and a civil engineer who arrived with his guitar and a head full of great songs. Many of the participants had not known each other before, but from the first notes, four part harmonies and joyful dance burst out of the group. The harmony surrounded our team of trainers, as well, who meshed easily into the framework provided by Peter Catalanotto.

Each session began with a song
Coaching was provided on children's stories, personal histories, young adult novels
Individual coaching with Guy Macdonald

French... Kinyarwanda...English...Swahili... Communication happened brain to brain and heart to heart

Table groups shared stories, designing the character's "want," problems, and ending  

Our amazing group of writers
ALARM offered GREAT food, helpful and friendly staff, and another place to share stories

We stayed in ALARM's octagonal guest house: great rooms, hot showers, sitting areas and internet
Our target audience: Rwandan kids!

Thanks to all who supported the project, which will continue next year. Thanks, especially, to our Kickstarter friends and Orphans' Promise, who made this possible without even knowing the participants. I will add more stories and pictures to the blog, and soon our "Rwanda Writes" blog will be up and running. There you can see each participant and read drafts of their stories as they are submitted. Stay in touch, and see what happens next!

Friday, July 5, 2013

A New Adventure!

     Hobbits didn't travel by Brussels Air, but I still feel a bit Hobbitish about this latest trip to Rwanda. At times, preparation for this journey seemed to fall into place as if by magic...
     Since our 2011 trip to Kigali and the Institute of Women's Excellence (IWE), much has taken place. (Previous blogs were about that trip) As we were flying home, we were struck by the request of the students at IWE: several of them asked if we had books to leave behind for them to read in English. We were a bit surprised by this, because English had just been introduced as the medium of instruction in schools, and their skills in English varied widely from none-at-all to struggling-for-fluency. But someone had left a copy of "Like Water for Elephants" behind, and the girls had devoured it. We decided that it would be a great gift to send a few boxes of books for them to read in English.
     "A few boxes of books" turned into over 5000 donated books, an entire library, for the girls at IWE! People in our local community donated used books of amazing quality, in all areas of fiction and non-fiction, for the school. A whole library!  The intimidating shipping costs were donated by an anonymous "angel," and a gala evening at Calvary Church brought in more than $12,000 to build the library room at IWE. We learned that there is only one other library in Rwanda, in the capital city of Kigali, donated by Rotary.  These precious girls, mostly orphans of genocide and AIDS, and often rescued from street life, will have an impressive library of their own. We had never imagined such an explosion of our small idea of sending "a few boxes of books!" I was a minor volunteer in this project: Ally and Diane (Telly) Pennell were the planners and organizers, and our librarian at Penn Central Middle School, Mary Lou Ashworth, invented a system to organize and pack the books. About 50 volunteers from our school community showed up to pack the books, on a Friday evening and Saturday morning.

     We packed the books in February, just about the same time that I heard from ALARM in Rwanda, inviting me to do the writers' workshop that I had suggested 18 months earlier. I had not heard from them in a long time, and had decided to put the idea off for another year. After a non-stop year as Drama coach and English teacher, a switch from 12 years of leading Gifted Seminar, I thought a quiet summer of writing and relaxing sounded rather wonderful! (Staying in my "Hobbit Hole...")

     But being invited to organize a writers' workshop? I had to say yes!

     I am a novice writer. I have a couple of middle grade novel starts that I work on when I can, and I have written some drafts of picture books about malaria and other African stories, but I am not qualified to run a workshop introducing adult writers to the nuts and bolts of writing for children. This was really over my head! Where could I possibly find experienced writer/trainers willing to go to Rwanda, and most likely pay their own way? There were so many ways this project could end in an embarrassing melt-down of failure.

     Within a week, I had my writers.

     Yes, there is karma, and coincidence, but I can only say that this was one of those God things... one of several. I asked Mary Lou, our librarian, if she knew of any good writers who might want to go to Africa.

     "Try Peter Catalanotto. He presented at my elementary school and was really great." I knew he was from nearby, but couldn't find any address or email. Then I tried LinkedIn, and Bingo! we connected.  For some reason, he said yes, almost immediately. I didn't know much about him, and I could have been any crazy person as far as he knew, but he was in. I also didn't know that he had had an idea growing that he wanted to "give back" in some way... and that he had signed on to LinkedIn that day. "On a lark."

     Peter recommended Pam Schembri, a friend, librarian, and writer from New York State, as another coach. Pam had heard about the library project, and had driven down to PA just to help with packing books and to find out how she could help with the set-up in Rwanda. She was on board immediately for the workshop, and to help with the library.  It turns out she is the perfect match for this adventure.

     Guy Macdonald, from outside London, was our tour guide all around Great Britain last summer, when I took 16 teachers on a two-week tour.  I was impressed with his knowledge and love of literature, and it turned out he had written a tour guide to England and some middle grade novels. Perfect! We could include that age level in our training, if I could get him to come too. I felt strongly that his heart would connect with the writers we would find in the workshop, and he is joining us: flying out the day after he finishes his first year of teaching primary school. A perfect fit!

     I had to tackle fund-raising, but there was little time and few connections that would find this project irresistible.  Churches, foundations, service groups... they all liked the idea, but it was too short notice. They had already committed their money to other projects for the summer. A former student had raised money on Kickstarter, a website that connects arts projects with potential donors. Becca had raised enough to make her first CD of her original music. Would Kickstarter work for a writers' workshop in Rwanda? (You can check out the site and my embarrassing video at,  search "Rwanda Writes.")

     I didn't take it very seriously at first, and on a lark, set my goal at $6,000.  That was the bare minimum that I thought would make our project, now dubbed "Rwanda Writes," possible. As soon as the site was up, friends and even strangers began to donate! Hmmm... this might work. Cruising on Kickstarter, I could see that thousands of dollars had been pledged for a coffee-table book of celebrities in their bathtubs. So why not my workshop?! But the deadline was 30 days, and I had to get my entire goal in pledges, or not get a dime. Slowly it climbed. Friends added bit by bit... my son, recently gainfully employed, added a chunk, and I waited. It seemed to freeze at $2000.

     With less than a week to go, I mentioned it to my sister, who suggested I approach Orphan's Promise, a foundation that assists one-time efforts to aid orphans around the world. In a flash, they added the missing $4000, and we were on our way! Whew... that was a close one.

     The rest has fallen into place rather easily. A good thing! I had a busy spring, directing "Cinderella,"  and teaching middle schoolers everything they never wanted to know about the English language. I will keep up this blog through the trip and beyond, knowing that there will be stories that I can't even imagine yet. You are welcome to "follow" the blog if you want to be notified of new posts. Welcome to this year's great adventure!