Nov 11, 2012

Children Cheerfully Change Choices

The three of us go to
Amboseli National Park
If I went back in time 5 years, and asked myself how I pictured things working out there are a few things I expected. I would likely be happily living in Colorado, I'd have some nice office job, and having a baby would be the last thing on my mind. How things have changed. I'm living in Kenya, starting and running a small factory, and my daughter is due in January.

Even though I made every key decision along the way, daily I am surprised when I step back and realize where where this path has taken me. The biggest surprise, without a doubt, is the baby. I never really wanted kids before. I like children, to be sure, but I also like giving them back to their parents. I'd looked at a lot of people around, and wasn't convinced that a massive lifelong responsibility would really improve the quality of my life. Objectively, the decision to not have children isn't hard to understand. There is no doubt that kids are messy, expensive, and a constant drain of attention. I've lived my life in such a way where I would regularly reboot my life, in an exotic land, starting with little more than vague idealistic intentions. I could afford to take gambles like that, because at the end of the day the only person who pays the consequences is myself or another adult that simultaneously chose the same thing.

I moved around a lot of as a child, and was often the 'new kid' at school. And I don't feel bad about it, it was a remarkable childhood that helped me launch into a deliberate life spanning dozens of countries. That being said, I never really had a say in it. Several years ago, I had a friend who was thinking about moving and she talked about how she asked her 5 & 7 year old their vote on it. That struck me as ludicrous, why would an adult who understood the opportunities and challenges for the whole family share massive life-changing decisions with those who most certainly don't. I said as much, and she gave me a puzzled look. She thought it was ludicrous NOT to consult them, as it was their life too. That insight knocked me back, pretty far. A corollary of my 'Live Deliberately' creed is to actively support and encourage others to live their own lives deliberately. Apparently, I'd been operating under the assumption that 'live deliberately' doesn't apply to those under 18, which really doesn't make any sense.

Although I had never really considered having kids before, as this moral insight cut deeper into my thoughts and made up my mind for a child free life. For many years, I've been saying I want to live 'an exceptional life,' and carefully make my own decisions and whenever possible not let any others in a position where they could make them for me. I may be particularly sensitive around this issue, because I had so little say in how my childhood unfolded. This perspective has certainly doomed many wonderful romances, but it also freed me to figure out what I wanted in life and doggedly pursue it without having to ask permission. My family has long since come to terms with the fact that I will go anywhere in the world, and do whatever I want, without asking. In some cases, happily, I found people whose own life path kept us together. When my brother and I quit everything for an extended trip through Latin America we shared a tight bond. I found that bond stronger because I was secure in the knowledge that he was choosing his own path, that he also chose to travel together. There is a real and profound freedom in arranging ones life with only these kinds of relationships. I was wise enough to recognize that if I had a spouse, or a child, their deliberate life might not correspond with mine. Unless I wanted to develop a dictatorial, 'Father knows best,' personality (which just isn't in me) there would inevitably be compromises.

All that still makes sense to me, so I'm more than a little bewildered that I've now come to the opposite conclusion. Although Erin has long wanted a child, I shocked both of us when I told her I wanted one too. What happened is, the whole question got elevated to a another level. This, I think, deserves some exploration.

Although I've always enjoyed playing with little cousins, or tickling friends babies, children haven't been a significant part of my life. Few of my close friends have children, and I never made an effort to seek kids out, so I could easily go months without saying a word to a little person. That changed in Tanzania, quite a bit. Erin was working at a small school, IIS, and very quickly our lives started revolving the school. I started out the endeavor by substitute teaching 10 year olds, and found myself happily enmeshed in almost every school event. The school held regular events, from school plays to fundraisers, and they expected that the teachers, like Erin, would work them. Sometimes that got tiresome, when yet another Saturday night needed 'volunteers' it got frustrating. But then we'd try to figure out what else to do, it usually turned out that the school event was the most interesting thing happening. There is not a lot going on in a small town in rural southern Tanzania, so a Saturday night spent selling drinks to friends at a concession stand was better than the alternative of sitting at home surfing the internet (until the power went out). As I wasn't a teacher I didn't have to volunteer, but most of my friends were doing it, so otherwise I had little to look forward to but a lonely night at home.

Very quickly I realized that none of these parents had given up on their own exceptional lives to raise a family. Quite the opposite, in fact. We became close to a Finnish family with three kids who'd left their lives in the cold north to have a adventure in Africa. About half of the students were children of expats, and none seemed like they were being dragged around the world unwillingly. I remember being fascinated as a child by the animal pictures in my families encyclopedia, so I can only imagine what it'd be like growing up next to one of the largest national parks in Africa. None had X Boxes, but since no one did they didn't whine about spending most of their free time outside and exploring. Their childhood is pretty exceptional in it's own right. Although they had a lot more responsibilities, their parents didn't seem like they were sacrificing as much as choosing different exceptional experiences. Its true that none joined Erin and I on our shoestring Xmas trip around Malawi, including riding the back of pickups. But instead many piled everyone into the family car and went off to see the world. It's a different experience, to be sure, but I was no longer quite so certain that my way was the best, even for me.

Most couples are 'nesting' when 6 months pregnant.
We went to Egypt
Most of what hit home was getting to know the kids. After my brief stint of substitute teaching finished up, I joined Erin to run the weekly chess club, and eventually worked as a science and math tutor. Every day there were little people running around, causing trouble, and innocently commenting on the world in ways I find utterly fascinating. I found that I love explaining things and getting a glimpse of the world from their eyes. Sometimes, rather than looking forward to sending them back to their parents, I was annoyed that their parents were taking them away from me. I'd find myself developing ideas about how best to treat a certain child, but was forced to recognize that I hadn't earned the right to my opinion. Almost by accident, I caught myself daydreaming about 'if I had a kid we'd…' with an impossibly long list of what I'd imagine would be fun for both of us.

All of this came together, but it wasn't an instantaneous shift, it was long and slow with plenty of setbacks. But all the sudden, when I did one of my periodic 'what do I want out of life' gut checks I realized that the deliberately chosen life I wanted included progeny. There absolutely will be compromises I wouldn't choose if I was a bachelor, but that is inevitable in all deliberate decisions. Whenever I choose a new country to visit, I simultaneously don't choose all the others that I would also like to see. I probably can't have all the crazy Saturday nights on the town I've enjoyed so much, but the reality is they haven't been much of a priority for about half a decade. And for all the sacrifices, there will hopefully be a lot of rewards too. I can't wait until my daughter clobbers me in chess or squeals in delighted fright when she sees a herd of elephants. Giving those experiences up so that I can retain the freedom to drop everything and start over alone on a shoestring suddenly seems like the sacrifice.

I won't ever become one of those people that thinks everyone they know should have kids. The world already has more than enough babies and there is no doubt that many wonderful life paths never involve procreation. But if I could go back in time, I would try to soften my own resolve about the issue and would encourage others sharing my former perspective to consider what I've written. If you've got a partner craving kids, or are a confirmed bachelor that isn't quite ready to give up on the idea, it might be worth it to find some way to integrate children into your life for a while. Maybe you'll come around to where I'm at now, or maybe you'll learn for sure that you don't want your own. But either way, it not a deliberate life if you don't really consider what life isn't being chosen.

Then again, my plea for unsure people to integrate kids into their life probably has an agenda. In a couple months, I'm going to want babysitters!

May 7, 2012

The best feeling abstract statistical numbers

  There are a lot of awful news stories coming out of Africa, but it's a huge continent so it's vital to keep anecdotes and meaningful statistics separate in ones thoughts.
Yes, there are armed genocidal maniacs in the Sudan and I have wild lions running free in my neighborhood. But overall that doesn't mean things are getting worse or even stagnating in Africa.  A World Bank report just came out that shows child mortality across 15 African countries is falling faster than almost any imagined possible, an almost 6% drop every year.  That's about quadruple the rate the ambitious 'Millennium Development Goals' aimed for. 

This is an powerfully important statistic for a couple reasons.  One, is that child mortality actually reflects a lot more than the "how many under-5 yr. olds die per 1000 born" number.  It's a simultaneous insight into a whole lot of areas.  Keeping babies alive requires a lot: nutrition, medical care, stability, energy, and a coherent (if diverse and complex) social support network.  You could help child mortality a little in an area by building a hospital, but to really make a difference that child has to go live in a mostly stable home with constant access to healthy food and water.  If a newborn has all of those, there is a good chance that their parents, siblings, and neighbors do too. Although the causes for this massive improvement are as diverse as Africa, it indicates that things are getting better for millions. And FAST.

The second part is what it means about the future.  Many people are rightly concerned about the world population, but it's a tricky to actually do anything about.  Chinas 'One-child' policy has been very effective at lowering the population growth, but not many countries in the world will likely follow their model.  However, when one generation sees that most of their siblings survive there is a lot less pressure to have large families in the next generation.  Both Erin and my parents came from large families in a generation that reaped the early benefits of the polio vaccine, widespread antibiotics and the roaring 50s-60s economy that pulled many Americans out of poverty.  Not coincidentally, I suspect, both Erin and I only have one sibling. If the same pattern holds true here, the smaller families will have a larger impact on societal, economic and environmental sustainability than almost anything else. 
All of this is wonderful news, but it isn't why this feels so wonderful.   Everywhere we go, kids are thrilled to model for our pictures.  Of the 27 kids in just these pictures, statistically more than three wouldn't make it to age 5 in Kenya in 2003.  Today, just a handful of years later, that number dropped to less than two.

Apr 1, 2012

A Nuanced Perspective of Kony2012

Kony2012: Absolutely worth watching, but not the whole story
This internet sensation movie talks about Kony, a leader of the horrible Lords Resistance Army (LRA) that kidnaps and maims children in Central Africa. He is despicable, the organization is terrible, and no one anywhere supports him (except for Rush Limbaugh). The movie itself is very slick, and seeks to publicize his actions so that he will be stopped.

That's all true, but the critics say it's naive and incredibly oversimplified. That is true too. For example, the LRA used to be massive in Uganda, today it is maybe a few hundred soldiers running for their lives in the jungle of a neighboring country. Much of the world mostly ignored the movement in it's heyday, mostly in the 90s and early 2000s, but we are well past that point today. The powers that be in the world have long since actively worked to shut down the LRA are almost done. There are American troops on the ground helping the Ugandan army hunt down Kony with broad international support. The recent huge facebook mobs are quite late to the party.

We found Uganda to be a spectacular and comfortable country
to travel in. The war torn country was a decade ago.
Africans, in particular, seem to be the most annoyed at this movement. Ugandans stormed out of the theater in anger when they saw the movie because ironically they didn't find themselves represented in it. Editorials across the continent skewer it's naivety, and it's reliance on the 'White Savior Complex.' The vast majority of the victims shown in the movie were Africans, the majority of the 'heros' were white people from another hemisphere. However it has mostly been African soldiers and African communities that have beaten the LRA back over the last decade, and so it's more than a little insulting to say that they now need George Clooney to come in and finish him off.

I suppose I am part of the 'White Savior Industrial Complex' and although I won't ever pretend that Africa needs me, I do think I'm doing genuine good. Contrary to the adoring facebookers, or disgruntled Africans I see the movie in a different way. It's far less about what needs to happen now, and much more about what has happened. Jason Russell has spent much of his adult life organizing and agitating for awareness of Kony and the struggles of central Africa. It's impossible to know how much practical influence they have had, but it's likely more than nothing. And now, this long standing campaign is almost over.

The movie, and incipient movement, are most effective with young people.  Although oversimplified, it is bringing an awareness of contemporary history to a demographic known for being apathetic and disengaged from some of the worlds bigger injustices.  It shows how privileged young Americans have been able to make a difference on another continent.  If it engages anyone enough to want to make a difference, and think a little on their own, there are some very real and practical steps that they could take.  For example, the movie points out that the International Criminal Court (ICC) finds Kony to be one of the worlds worst war criminals.  However, the ICC doesn't have much power, in part, because the United States has not ratified it. If an American acted like Kony, and is arrested by the ICC, George Bush Jr. famously said he'd invade Holland to 'rescue' them. A Facebook campaign in an election year really could force politicians to bring the US into the world community.      

Rather than soliciting support for a necessary movement I think the point of Kony 2012 is more subtle. It's inviting an entire generation to join in a victory for humanity.

Mar 3, 2012

Ancestors affect an American-African

My American-African Fiance

I'm now engaged to an American-African. Identity is a fickle thing, legal, social as well as individual.  That's how, after a long and lovely relationship I asked an American woman to marry me. A few short months later, I found myself engaged to a resident of Africa.

A lot changed, and nothing. After the painfully slow machinations of the government Erin got her Kenyan work permit.  That means, at this moment she is legally a resident of two different East African countries. I'm being facetious, but not entirely. Most African-Americans have a much smaller personal connection to Africa than Erin and I do.  At this point we've spent about 5% of our lives in Africa, but most African-Americans haven't stepped foot on the continent, nor have any of their ancestors in living memory.  At what point does ones physical location completely define ones continental or national affiliation?

For me, calling Erin an American-African is an amusing play on words, but for others these kinds of distinctions are vitally important.  I have a good white South African friend here who has told me a bit about his experiences.  During the crumbling of Apartheid in his country the white people had a lot of deplorable reasons to maintain their stranglehold, but they also had some legitimate concerns.  As the black majority began to flex their strength some advocated 'pushing the settlers to the sea.'  That's made for a powerful sentiment, but the reality of it was complicated.  Many parts of Africa had been heavily colonized well before North America was, with the first Dutch settlement established near Cape Town in 1647.  So these settlers had no other homeland since well over a century before my country got around to existing.  Even most black South Africans aren't 'native' depending on how one chooses to define it. The majority of the black populations ancestors moved in from other regions in the north about a 1000 years ago (which means it's closer to today than it is to the time of Jesus).  That's a long time, to be sure, but their people have only been in the region for less than three times the as long as the Europeans.
This fear of being 'pushed to the sea'  is why my friend said 'no white South African in his right mind would have voted for Mandela' (in 1994.) What happens to someone who doesn't have a right to exist anywhere on earth?  My friend quickly followed up his assertion by saying 'but then, Mandela's presidency was nothing short of a miracle.'  Balancing the opposing demands and rights of the whole population looked to be an impossible achievement, but one that has (with some hiccups) come into being.

I focused out South Africa only because it built to a crescendo within my life time, similar stories play out all over the continent.  I spent a a month living on a farm in Tanzania with three generations of farmers.  Although white, they easily identified themselves as Tanzanians in every way that matters.  Serious debates about who 'belongs' in a place is also an active issue in Kenya today.  During the colonial era tribes were pushed around as English settlers claimed vast swathes of land.  In many cases, entire tribes uprooted and moved to the ancestral land of other tribes.  Today on one side you have some angry that they have rights to land because their recent ancestors lived there.  On the other hand, todays residents also justifiably say they have rights to it because they have lived there for generations.

Identity and legal residence has been a vital issue for me too.  There was a time, while Erin and I were living in Tanzania, that I was an 'illegal.'  My visa took a long time to process through, and in the meantime the clock had run out on my three month 'Tourist Visa.'  Suddenly I had to live with the constant fear that if someone chose to make an issue out of it I could be deported on a moments notice.  Although I'm happy to still have an American passport, I didn't have as much to return to as my home, vocation, worldly goods and Erin were all in Tanzania.  If I was robbed, I would have had to seriously debate going to the police because the cost to me could have been far worse than what would happen to the actual criminal.

Sedona Arizona with Rein Teen Tours-4
Arizona, a beautiful place with ugly laws
Suddenly I had a lot more empathy for the illegal immigrants in America.  Although they always disgusted me, I now understand the horror of the recent anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Alabama.  For me, at least I made the decision to come to Africa as an adult equipped to deal with the consequences.  For immigrant children who know nothing but life in America, and want to contribute, their nebulous status is not only dangerous and economically stupid, it's profoundly immoral too.  But it certainly gets worse, at least children born in the US are automatically granted citizenship, this is not true elsewhere.  In China and Switzerland, for example, you can have multiple generations of immigrants born in the country.

The point of this post is to show that, ultimately, our concepts of nationality are fundamentally arbitrary and based on the flawed rules of men not any higher morality. Congress could easily eliminate millions of criminals from the country by simply making their immigration legal. Those freshly minted Americans would have the prospects to add more to economy, serve in the military, pay into social security, and consider the police allies not enemies. It may seem outrageous today, but I see it as inevitable evolution.  Our modern ideas of nationality aren't new, the first evidence of something comprable to a passport was in the Persian empire in 450BC.

If we are indeed living in an era of globalization, it's tragically amusing that we're struggling with problems that exist largely because of concept of nationality established two and a half millenniums ago.

Feb 5, 2012

Identity infiltrates institutions illegally, involving the ICC

Erin, in front of my
favorite map of Kenya
A friend of mine recently complained that outside of Africa, most people would think of him as an African, not a Kenyan.   I teased him about that and said that when I go to another country I'm usually considered an American which really isn't a lot more specific.  Since July, and the birth of a new country, Africa has 54 independent countries while the Americas have a respectable 35.

I'll admit, that's kind of misleading.  When most people say 'American' they are referring to people from the USA much to the chagrin of Canadians, Argentineans and others.  But it's also misleading on the other end because an argument could be made that most Kenyans themselves don't see themselves as Kenyans.  Despite the well intentioned efforts of many, much of this country divides on tribal lines.  This concept of tribal identity makes huge difference here, and has arguably shaped post colonial history more than anything else.

Masai in Tanzania-51
 Masai, like these performing a traditional dance
are found throughout Kenya
Consider this, as the United States gears up for another 'most divisive presidential election' in modern history, the International Criminal Court just ruled that four of Kenyas most powerful people must stand trial for crimes against humanity committed during the last election.  Because of issues drawn on tribal lines in the 2007 election well over a 1,000 people were killed by angry mobs as they burned and looted cities.  High profile politicians (and many others) fanned the flames of violence, even as the then-candidate Obama pleaded with the people for calm.  This is history, but it's in no way the past, many of the same players are positioning themselves for this years election.

This puts things into perspective, doesn't it?  In the US, many are appalled that Newt Gingrich is running for president despite being the only Speaker of the US House in history to be reprimanded for 'Ethical Wrongdoing'.  In Kenya, two current top-tier presidential candidates have been indicted for crimes against humanity by the ICC.

Depending on how you divide it, there are 40 different tribes in Kenya but just a handful have a large enough population to dominate politically.  Since the countries independence whichever tribe had power brazenly shifted the priorities to help out 'their' people as opposed to Kenyans in general.  That applies roads, schools, government contracts as well as truly shocking levels of pure graft.  The book Our turn to Eat is a fascinating, adventurous, story that lays out a lot of this by telling the true and inspiring story of one mans fight against the status quo.
History is alive in Kenya

Before any take this post to be anti-Kenyan, it's definately not.  Nearly every country in the world has struggled with issues of corruption and some form tribalism.  When the US shook the yoke of colonialism and promised freedom and democracy, it shared little of either with any who weren't in the 'tribe' of Anglo-Saxon male property owners.  It took nearly a century before a literal civil war set free the underclass, and another century before the civil rights movement made it a legal reality.  Kenya is a young country, founded in 1963 in the place of a colony where tribal rivalries were created, encouraged and amplified.  Kenya has problems, but it is straining to make the same cultural shift  that the US is doing over two hundred years into a single human lifetime.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  In many ways I'm very nervous about the elections this year, but I am in equal measure excited about it too.  Most Kenyans I speak with are not happy with how things work, despise the tribal political spoils system, and almost everyone is emphatic that things will be different this time around.  Almost two-thirds of the people approved a revolutionary new constitution in 2010 and in many ways Kenya is poised to quickly leap ahead as soon as it can put it's house in order.  One of the biggest indicators of what will happen is this coming presidential election through both how Kenya votes as well as their collective response to the results.

This is all complicated, scary, and profoundly uncertain.  This is one of those fleeting moments when humans get to decide whether their society should evolve.  It's fascinating, thrilling and I'm honored to be a witness.

Jan 29, 2012

Risk is the blade that shapes a life.

Mudds visit Mikumi-244 African wild buffalos are one of the most dangerous animals on the continent, they attack and kill hundreds of people each year. That's why, when we went to the gate of Hell, one of the most terrifying experiences of my life was when I came face to face with an angry bull while on a bicycle.

As we rented bikes to cruise around Hells Gate National Park we asked what animals we would see.  We were told ostriches, giraffes, warthogs, and buffalo.  'Wait, what was the last one!?  Aren't Buffalo dangerous?'  Yes they are, we were (not!) assured, but usually when they're in a herd they don't bother people.  It's actually single bulls that you need be afraid of.  If alone, it means they've lost a fight to dominate their herd and are likely angry, irritable, and anxious to prove that they can gore a living being to death.

Me, biking past a herd of one of
 Africa's most dangerous mammals
With that advice, Erin and I smiled, and started peddling towards the park.  It turns out, both of us are willing to take careful risks even if we don't know exactly what the rewards will be.  It's why we found each other, as well as why we find ourselves in Africa. A couple years ago, we had a little too much wine while in the Colorado mountains and somehow got the idea in our head 'Lets both apply to jobs in Africa, and if either gets one, we go.' A month later, Erin had a job offer for a little school in Tanzania.

Ernest Hemmingway, the author who popularized the idea of the African wildlife safari, once said, "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."  So before we knew it we'd taken an 85% pay cut, rented the house and were on a long journey to Iringa.  I'd like to say it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it really didn't. The world economy was in the midst of crumbling into the deepest financial crisis since the great depression.  In our mid-30s, we both had given up stable and decent professional jobs each doing something we believed in a city we both love surrounded by friends and family.

Today Erin has a job developing the reading curriculum for thousands of underserved Kenyans. I've got a dream job, I'm starting a factory for a company that uses advanced technology to save lives, forests, and money via hyper efficient stoves.  We're engaged, living in a beautiful place in Kenya, and life is coming together surprisingly well.  After living frugally, except for many 'once in a lifetime' vacations, we're now actually saving money every month.  In hindsight, we couldn't have planned this epic journey any better but in the beginning we didn't have much of a plan.  We knew we were taking a big risk and had little but the hope that some unimagined rewards would make it worth it.

That's not unlike the risk of riding a bike through a buffalo infested landscape because we'd heard it was  nice place.  In that case the reward was a gorgeous day, stunning landscapes, and even a heated waterfall cascading down a cliff from a hot spring.  On our ride home sunburnt but smiling our legs were tired and after such a lovely day I was thinking more about dinner than the landscape.

That's why I didn't notice the single male Buffalo until were almost on top of him.  He noticed us though, and was getting visibly angry.  By accident, the road we were following curved along the side of tall sheer cliff, making it seem to the buffalo that we were trapping him.  He was not about to put up with that so started started snorting,  shaking his head and lumbering towards us.

In Africa in general, we're plunging ahead to see what life has to offer.  There, however, we turned around and pedalled back so fast that Lance Armstrong himself couldn't have kept up.

PS)  Speaking of risk, as I write this there are reports that a lion escaped from the national park and is loose somewhere in my neighborhood.  No wonder why I love it here.
Mudds visit Mikumi-600

Jan 22, 2012

Carefully constructing community

Micahs BDay Weekend-13
Birthday with friends
Community is fickle, hard to put your finger on, but vital.  To people like Erin and I, who've started afresh in a new country twice in the last two years, it's something we actively need to think about in a way that our more stable friends don't.  Everyone needs to carve out space in their life for others, but after you've been in the same place for years the idea of establishing traditions and meeting people is something is so so engrained in that's it's hard to examine it separately from everyday life.  If one is lucky it just happens organically.

Being the new kid on the block is not a new thing for either of us.  I changed school districts five times growing up, and moved to a new city for college during which I studied abroad four times.  After school I ended up living and working in three different states and as many countries each time with a new beginning.  As someone who has a natural tendency to withdraw, I've had varying levels of success in finding the community I crave.  I actually enjoy having a lot of time to myself, and have had many pleasant friday nights with the companionship of only a glass of wine and a good book.  However, when the days add into weeks, and then months, without meaningfully connecting with another person it creates a subtly growing depression.

Finding Erin, my partner in crime, helps a lot.  A community of two is a wonderful gift, and it has been on the strength of that that we've both been able to grow. Upon getting to Tanzania we, for the first time in our adult lives, gave up having our own personal space. Erin and I moved into a single room in an apartment with much younger strangers in a small town in an exotic land.  I'll never regret it, but sometimes we called it the 'pressure cooker,' because any small disagreement stewed because there was nowhere to go to cool off and get perspective.  Even taking a long walk wasn't an option after dark when the small threat of crime, and the bigger threat of wild dogs kept us inside.   The only solution was the same as when I sat in my lonely little studio apartment having just moved to Massachusetts: finding a broader community.

Mr MacAllen and Me
That's harder than it sounds, to say the least.  Fortunately, my father unwittingly taught me a lesson early in life that's served me well.  He too craves community, but with a stubborn proactivity that few share.  Shortly after moving our family to NY he wished he had some good friends that he could discuss books with.  So, he declared it.  He got permission from a local church to have a morning 'philosophy group' every Sunday and thereafter every week he dutifully went and made a pot of coffee.  He once let me know that it wasn't that easy, and there were many weeks early on where he was the only person there.  But, as Woody Allen once said '80% of anything is showing up,' so he ignored the lonely mornings and just kept at it.  Today that dynamic discussion group has been around for decades, outlasting him when he moved so far away he can't make it anymore.  But he hasn't stopped there, he brought the same stubbornness to his passion for playing music with people which has evolved over the years into a constantly changing kaleidoscope of bands, events, and now a regular folk music class at a local library.  Although a remarkable person, he isn't a professor of philosophy or an acclaimed musical prodigy that draws people in through his star power.

He does it by simply giving peoples need for community something to crystalize around.  Most humans crave community, and despite the economic boom in 'social media' it is something western society is not very good at meaningfully providing.  Most people don't recognize it, or know what to do about it, even as they suffer measurably from it's lack.  Obviously there are many worthwhile communities that do make the difference in many lives, but almost always their origin can be traced to a single person that willed it into being.  For it to be a success it must grow beyond it's founder to embrace the dynamic nature of it's members to a point where the founding is really just a small blip in it's history.    
Xmas Party 2010-2
We were thrilled when our Christmas party
 had more Tanzanians than expats

When Erin and moved to Iringa we had some great luck.  The three strangers we moved in with quickly became dear friends, and the small school Erin worked at had long been the hub of tight nit local community.  Our household wanted to do our part, so we declared our apartment the party house for faculty and friends.  We spent long happy hours preparing meals, procuring drinks, and begging people to come.  There were game nights, 'movie nights' done a laptop, and an American Thanksgiving (starring a couple small chickens, because turkey is hard to find).  A lot of people worked hard at the community and far more than our amazing wildlife safaris this made our time in Tanzania wonderful.

Kids at the Mesengai Crater
And then we moved north, to Nairobi Kenya and needed to start again.   We ended up in a neat little group called sports for change, which organizes outdoor activities in return for a small donation to a worth cause and started on a hike in the spectacular Mesengai crater.  Jumping forward a few months, moved to a smaller, and far less convenient, house because the new house was on a compound shared with a couple people we met on that hike.  We were lured to the outskirts of the vibrant city of Nairobi by the possibility of living in something more akin to cohousing.

Although it's taken some adjustment we love the gardens around the house, the bird filled trees, and reprieve from the crazy city.  We really like the people from neighboring houses, a motley crew from five different countries, but within a few weeks started missing the community that we'd moved here for because everyone was busy with their own lives.  So, Erin and I declared a weekly gathering.  Erin has long had the same philosophy on community as my father, with the added invaluable skill of being a very clever cook.  So, we invited whichever of our neighbors over for dinner and drinks one Monday.  Most couldn't make it, but some did, and by the end of the evening we let it be known that something like it was going to be a weekly tradition.  A lot more people showed up for the next one, this last week.  And by the end of the evening a couple people let it be known that next week the gathering should be at their place.


Jan 14, 2012

The Wedding-Industrial-Complex

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Storms River, South Africa
South Africa has some of the oldest earth on earth.  Accordingly, it has some astonishing mineral reserves.  Since they started digging for it, it has been one (if not the) leading source of gold, platinum, diamonds (and much else).  This simple fact has altered a country, a race, the continent and the world for generations.  It is why South Africa has developed (and struggled) leaps and bounds beyond any other sub-saharan African country, and has since the late 1800s.  Today, the 18% of that countries economy that mining fuels keeps the country vibrant and growing even when the rest of the world economy struggles.  The simple fact that diamonds are an integral part of todays wedding ceremonies has much more to do with a guy named Cecil Rhodes than a naturally occurring stone.

Cecil Rhodes Straddling Africa
Cecil Rhodes, and his plan
It's not only mineral riches, it's also marketing genius.  Diamonds are undeniably beautiful, but they aren't the rarest gem nor are they the hardest material.  They are an essential part of todays engagement and marriage rituals not because of something inherent, but because of a marketing campaign from the 1930s. But the story starts well before that, with Cecil Rhodes a colonial leader of a huge swathes of southern Africa.  He got his start in South Africa, and ultimately bought out the De Beers family farm and used that to secure the majority control of the worlds diamond output.  He was able to pull off this coup because his domain had the vast majority of the worlds diamonds.  He found that by carefully controlling the worlds supply he could set the price for a diamond to whatever he wanted.

After his death, the De Beers diamond company had a near worldwide monopoly of a gemstone that the world cared less and less about (in 1932 worldwide diamond sales were about $100,000.)  So, one day in the 1930s, they hired a firm called NW Ayers in the US to see what could be done.  They tried to rescue a fading concept, the 'diamond engagement ring' through clever product placement.  By 1979 the the worldwide diamond market was worth $2.1 Billion.  Specifics are difficult to find, but in 2005 the worlds output of diamonds were worth  $13.4 Billion.  More than 80% of American engagement rings have a diamond, at an average cost of about $3,200.

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Me, breaking the (Apartheid) law
That campaign has had an unbelievable impact well beyond convincing people what stone engaged women need to wear.  It changed the economy and power base of sub saharan-Africa.  I won't exaggerate a point, but there is a reason people call them blood diamonds.  They've literally held up apartheid regimes, finance civil wars, and make a lot of beautiful people glitter.

That's only one part of what has become an astonishingly lucrative industry.  What I now like to call, 'the Wedding-Industrial-Complex' has taken DeBeers lead and used clever marketing to convince people that an average American couple needs to spend an average of over $26,000 on a single day.  There is nothing wrong with that, and I'm grateful that I've been invited to some truly remarkable weddings.  At the end of the day, it's a couples decision and whatever it becomes should be considered a generous gift to the friends and family that they invite.  But, when Erin and I talk about it, we found that even if we could afford it, it doesn't fit with our quirky priorities. We can think of other things we'd prefer to spend that kind of money on.  That could be a year-long international adventure travel honeymoon, clean drinking water for about a thousand people that don't have it, or sending 650 poor kids to the schools Erin is developing for a year.

Erin in 'Tano
It's right about here that this whole story collapses into something a lot more personal.  People have every right to have any wedding they want, and I've long known that I'm peculiar because many of my priorities don't align with much of the society I grew up in.  What I find remarkable is, I've been fortunate enough to meet another person who shares my peculiar perspective. I love Erin, and have gotten to a point where I can't really imagine my life without her.  I wanted to ask her to marry me, but was stuck.  I don't want to be that guy so obsessed by history, politics and being manipulated by marketing that I can't let true emotions show.  Unfortunately, I didn't know if I had it in me to buy a diamond.

I asked Erin to marry me in Antananarivo, Madagascar.  I'd been thinking about it for a long time, but it wasn't until we were lost in a conversation about how we both wanted to live an 'exceptional life' that I realized that I didn't need or want to wait any more.  The next morning, we got up early and went shopping for rings in the jewelry district.  I started the day by asking her to choose any ring she wanted, quite literally, and without any caveats.  We looked at thousands of rings.  Most of them, obviously, were diamonds.

For her engagement ring, Erin chose an Emerald.
Erins Ring

Jan 8, 2012

An African account, and an allusive alternative approach

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Dressed in their Christmas best, with 'staches!
This blog has been quiet for a long time, and I'm not happy about it.  In part, because I didn't know what the story is that I am trying to tell.  Moving to Africa about a year and a half ago has proven to be a spectacular journey in many ways with lots of experiences that I'd love to share.  But it has all felt different than the travelogue I wrote in this blog in Latin America. At that time my brother Tyler and I were mostly in motion, here Erin and I are mostly settled down.  We've had a lot spectacular trips, but the real essence of living deliberately in this era of my life is the settling into an exotic local (first, the southern highlands of Tanzania, now the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.)  On one hand, I need to write about the road trips: seeing elephants and giving kids mustaches.  Those will be a fun stories to tell, easily digested into bite-sized pieces.  But while those kinds of stories were much of what the 'Latin American Epic' was about, they are only a side story to what life is about now.

Mudds visit Mikumi-418The way I see 'living deliberately' today has a stronger focus on meaningful living in the non-traveler world.  It's about navigating the vast poverty, wealth, and complexities of life in Africa.  It's about understanding who is really doing good work here, and trying to join forces with them.  It's about being an uncomfortably privileged racial minority.  And it's also about the slow transition of my fierce personal independence to a union with Erin.  And these kinds of topics are the hardest to write about.  It's all a slow evolution, with plenty of stumbles along the way.  So the real story keeps changing, and most of it is likely half a life time away from a conclusion.  

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Although getting chased by an african buffalo, or coming face to face with an lion, is something I can detail in a blogpost they don't really have a lot to say on these broader themes.   But without telling the big story it feels unforgivably misleading to tell only about the vacations.  This has been the hardest (and most wonderful) time of my life so to write only about the good times misses the whole point.  So, to date, I have taken the lazy mans compromise and did neither.   But it shouldn't be impossible for me to write about both, so long as I can get used to telling a small part of a story so vast that  I can't see the edges.  And that is my new years resolution.

So, welcome to the next stage of my deliberate life.  I can actually start this story in the same way another did 99 years ago...
"I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.  The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the north, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet.  In the day-time you felt that you had got high up; near the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold ..." Karen Blixen, in Out of Africa