All of the Good, None of the God, Part Five: Launching the Humanist Service Corps

This is the fifth and final article in my series about Pathfinders Project for American Atheist magazine.

Looking Back

Listening to the Kukuo tendaana explain local customs and beliefs

Listening to the Kukuo tendaana explain local customs and beliefs. Photo by Wendy Webber.

In my earlier articles, I made frequent use of the phrase “humanist service” as though it is self-evident what the phrase implies. But what is humanist service, really? I don’t just mean service done by humanists; I mean service designed by humanists as an expression of humanist principles. What does that look like? How should the Humanist Service Corps differ from religious service programs or even other secular service models?

When I first launched Pathfinders Project, I hadn’t fully formulated those questions, but I did attempt to put human interaction front and center. I hypothesized that the service we completed would provide a meaningful context for intercultural exchange and build the trust necessary to have fruitful conversations about differences in religious beliefs. This turned out to be true for each of our ten projects. Many of the devoutly religious people we worked alongside appreciated the fact that we were there neither to convert nor to deconvert them. Others freely admitted that until they collaborated with us, they had assumed all atheists were immoral.

With the easy success of these conversations came the realization that we had been posing the wrong question. Instead of asking where we could travel safely as atheists, we should have been asking how we could volunteer internationally without causing harm. This is a question demanded of us by our humanism because even careful volunteers can do damage merely by being visible in otherwise homogeneous communities. It is difficult to “first, do no harm” when the very image of the foreign volunteer reinforces the colonial concept that change—whether desired or undesired—is driven by forces external to the community.

Kukuo borehole

When the Kukuo borehole dries up each year, the women walk to the river to fetch water. Photo by Wendy Webber.

If there is a responsible way forward, perhaps we can find it first by looking at counter-examples. We know that many volunteers fall into the trap of wanting to personally do as much as possible in the short amount of time they have. Although the volunteer may find such work fulfilling, the number of children they teach or the number of wells they dig do not necessarily create sustainable change for the community. In fact, programs that use volunteers to fill existing skill gaps—rather than to train locals to fill those gaps—directly undermine sustainable change. Sometimes there is no skill gap at all, and insufficiently trained volunteers compete against local professionals who are at a competitive disadvantage in a resource-poor environment, since the volunteers work for free. When these programs move on to other locations, they often fail to leave behind trained teachers to continue the education or skilled technicians to maintain the wells.

The volunteers who participate in these programs tend to focus on what they bring to the situation. But when volunteers see their worth in terms of the gaps they can fill in a community, they necessarily emphasize what the community lacks, rather than what it has. A better approach is for volunteers to help the community leverage its strengths to design and implement solutions for what it needs. Volunteer programs of this kind should always be moving toward the point where they are no longer necessary. If the solution includes a permanent role for volunteers, something is amiss.

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Training. Photo by Wendy Webber.

This admonition against focusing on deficits might seem to contradict the fact that most service programs exist to address serious problems like insufficient access to clean water, poor sanitation, and lack of resources for school or healthcare. But a community is so much more than a list of problems to solve, and we can’t approach our work with a formula like “community lacks X, volunteer brings/builds X, problem solved.” This thinking is not only dehumanizing and debilitating, it is also demonstrably false. Volunteers who approach communities without an openness to learn from the residents overlook one of the most fundamental aspects of meaningful human interaction: that we often give most profoundly by receiving.

Programs with good intentions and negative consequences give us a pretty good idea of what humanist service is not. It is not service that blithely or purposefully puts the contribution of the volunteer on display for locals. It is not service that sees the assets of volunteers as the permanent solution to deficits within the community. It is not service designed without the input and oversight of local leaders.

So, what is humanist service?

Humanist service focuses not only on what resources the community lacks, but also on the emotional and psychological needs of the people involved. Humanist service seeks neither to convert nor to deconvert. Instead, it aims to connect by focusing on shared values. Humanist service emphasizes the growth rather than the sacrifice of the volunteer.

Above all, humanist service empowers communities. The first way we can do this is to wait for an invitation to collaborate before volunteering in communities that are not our own. The second thing we can do is just that: collaborate. Although we may bring valuable skills, perspectives, and resources with us, this does not entitle us to dictate what solutions to implement. Even when we think we see a more efficient or effective way to do things, we must weigh that relative value against the immense value of a community’s self-determination. Sustainable change occurs when community leaders develop their own skills and confidence by taking the lead in designing and implementing community-driven solutions to problems identified by members of that community.

Looking Forward

A young caretaker uses every ounce of her body weight to pump water

A young caretaker uses every ounce of her body weight to pump water. Photo by Wendy Webber.

In 2015, Humanist Service Corps volunteers will work in Northern Ghana to support a program that restores dignity to women who are victims of witch-hunting. These women have been banished from their communities to live in “witch camps” on areas of land that are believed to rob them of their powers. Although the women are relatively safe from violence so long as they remain in the camps, the living conditions are deplorable. They do not have adequate access to clean water, nutrition, shelter, or healthcare, and they are unaware of or are unable to exercise legal protections under Ghanaian and international laws. (These women were the subject of my article in the Second Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist.)

For at least the next 3-5 years, the Humanist Service Corps will place four volunteers a year in Northern Ghana. The short-term goal is to improve the standard of living in the witch camps. The long-term goal is to eliminate the dynamics which lead to the violent exile, and sometimes even the deaths, of these women. Consistent with the principles outlined above, we are returning to Northern Ghana after receiving an invitation to do so from Songtaba, an advocacy organization that empowers women and girls to take up leadership positions in their communities, schools, and local assemblies. We will support Songtaba in the design and implementation of programs that bring community organizations together and train local leaders for effective community outreach. You can learn more about our work at HumanistServiceCorps.org.

Originally published in the Fourth Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist Magazine: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought

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Facial Hair Fundraiser for Foundation Beyond Belief

1622636_10100437868285244_1231937514_nAs many of you are aware, I decided not to shave for the duration of Pathfinders Project. I buzzed my hair and my face early in the morning the day we left for Cambodia, and didn’t alter it again until well after we’d returned to the United States. To this day, more than 14 months later, it’s only received one small trim.

What started out as a gag turned into something more meaningful than I could ever have predicted. When I say that my beard had a profound impact on the Pathfinders Project experience, many of you will think I’m just being, I don’t know, silly. Dramatic. Self-absorbed.

But it did.

1384331_10200940950826824_1197467216_nAnd I’m not merely talking about the fact that my beard contributed to me being taken in for questioning as a suspected terrorist in Uganda. Fortunately, that scare was over almost as soon as it started, and, contrary to the fears that many people had after that incident, I was never again viewed with suspicion as a result of my beard. True, some shouted “Osama!” in the streets, but it was always with a grin on their face and they called me Moses, Abraham, and Peter far more often. Apparently, I also resembled recently-deceased Cuban leader Fidel Castro, hip hop mogul Rick Ross, and WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan.

Many people also thought I looked like Jesus. One day in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, Wendy and I turned a corner right as a young girl did the same from the opposite direction. Her eyebrows rose right off her forehead and she exclaimed, “Jesucristo viene!” I doubt she actually thought I was the second coming of Christ because she giggled when she realized what she had said, but Wendy and I thought the moment was priceless. So did the women selling fruit on the sidewalk – they didn’t stop themselves at giggling.

I had assumed that the beard would be a barrier to social interaction in the sense that people would find it unattractive. With the exception of the disapproval our Cambodian friends have expressed through comments on pictures posted to Facebook,

“when shave very handsome bong”

“oh bong where is your mouth?”

(bong is the Khmer word for older brother or sister, used as a term of endearment between friends)

the beard seems to have facilitated rather than impeded social interaction, and for reasons having nothing to do with attractiveness. Anyway, the number of people turned off by it seem to be balanced out by the number who think it’s an improvement.

No, I said MEMORIES in my beard. Not paint.

No, I said MEMORIES in my beard. Not paint.

I have a pet theory about why the beard would be a help rather than a hindrance in social situations. It seems people have an association between having a beard and being laid back. On the one hand, this is why the Guatemalan teachers initially doubted I’d be able to help them with reading intervention, scaffolding, and differentiation. They shared this with me at the end of our time in Guatemala, well after they’d gotten over it. And on the other hand, it seems to have resulted in people finding me more approachable.

Suffice it to say, I’ve got a lot of memories in this here beard. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to shave it off to raise money for Foundation Beyond Belief.

The fundraising gimmick is simple: I’ve set up four separate fundraising teams representing different humiliating facial hair styles (Team Chintails, Team Fu ManchuTeam Mutton Chops, and Team Halfbeard). A week from now (11/27), the team with the highest fundraising total wins, and my face loses. For every $100 raised by all pages, I’ll sport the new style for 24 hours – up to one full week. I’ll post photo evidence of my public humiliation here and on social media after the deed is done…

So, cast your vote and spread the word. It’s all in good fun and it’s for a great cause. Thanks for reading!

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All of the Good, None of the God, Part Four: Latin America and the Caribbean

The newest issue of American Atheist magazine is now on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, and it includes the fourth article in the “All of the Good, None of the God” series about Pathfinders Project. In Part One, each of the Pathfinders shared their reasons for embarking upon the yearlong international service trip. For Part Four, I asked the others to join me in sharing lessons learned. Our reflections are below.

 

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If you’ll permit me to use some religious language here, I’d like to propose that Pathfinders Project is an atheist pilgrimage. After all, a pilgrimage is any physical or figurative journey in search of an object, place, or state of being that has personal significance and meaning to the traveler. The expectation is that the pilgrimage, whether to the Wailing Wall, Mecca, or Graceland, results in a transformation or redefinition of self. You could argue that such a definition is so broad that it’s almost devoid of meaning. After all, isn’t travel always transformative on some level?

The key is the intention. A pilgrim is a traveler who, when setting out on a journey, takes an active role in the transformation through ritual and reflection. As in a religious pilgrimage, an atheist or humanist pilgrimage is punctuated by offerings and rituals. But it’s the connections they create among the participants that gives them their significance.

Through Pathfinders Project, the four of us set out to forge connections that transcend the boundaries of geography, culture, religion, and language—while transforming us as well. Our rituals consisted of greetings, conversations, meals, games, and good-byes. Our offerings, both tangible and intangible, consisted of the classes we taught, the latrines we built, the hugs and high-fives we offered and accepted, the empathy and compassion we exchanged, and the hours spent with others simply coexisting despite our differences.

Pilgrimages are almost never undertaken in isolation; we do not learn or express our values in a vacuum. Indeed, we grow especially well when we work to resolve our differences with those who share our values. This is why I believe in building a humanist community. This is why I started Pathfinders Project. And this is why I will be working to launch the Humanist Service Corps.

Long before I ever identified as a humanist, I identified as a feminist, straight-ally, and social-justice advocate. But it took going on a yearlong international service trip with other humanists for me to truly begin to understand what any of those labels meant in practice. More to the point, it took going on this trip for me to start recognizing my privilege. I used to think of myself as a great friend and a great communicator. I did a whole lot of talking and gave excellent advice that no one ever seemed to take. That’s because I never did much listening. I assumed I didn’t have anything to learn from people who weren’t as content or well-adjusted as I was. This trip changed all of that.

For example, in the Dominican Republic, we met a Ghanaian American woman named Barbara. Just out of Middlebury College, she was traveling the world on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. Her research focused on the influence of European standards of beauty on the self-perception of women of color in Africa and the African Diaspora. As we walked and talked in the capital city of Santo Domingo for a few hours, I suggested to her that any further research should look at how communities of color reinforce aesthetics internally. My reasoning was that even though those pressures are rooted in colonization and slavery, they now operate independently and are therefore separate issues. While Barbara readily agreed with me, she pointed out that they’re just not the focus of her current work. As a student of critical race theory, she was familiar with the concept of internalized racism and so had already considered, far more deeply than I ever could, how it relates to the question she was already tackling.

Another example occurred in Guatemala, as we were packaging household items for families who survive primarily by scavenging from the Guatemala City garbage dump. The volunteers were of all ages. Two of the male volunteers not yet in their twenties passed the time by unleashing an unrelenting stream of “That’s what she said!” jokes. Everyone else remained uncomfortably quiet. One of the guys even asked a woman in the group if she wanted him to stop. She said nothing, so I said nothing, and he didn’t stop.

Later on, I asked myself why I offered unsolicited advice when I should have listened in the Dominican Republic and why I stayed silent when I should have spoken up in Guatemala. Those two regrets are not isolated incidents in my life. This pattern of behavior extended at least as far back as high school and it affected my interactions with my fellow travelers. At the start of Pathfinders Project, I saw my role as the group leader who would help the others get as much as possible out of this journey. In essence, I tried to manage their pilgrimages. That wasn’t possible because we all experienced our challenges differently, even though we faced many of them together. No amount of advice on my part could have changed the fact that I feel safe going out alone at night, while legitimate fear keeps Wendy home. Nothing I can say will ever alleviate Ben’s concern that he will be mistaken for the wrong gender or that he feels he has to act “macho” in certain situations in order to avoid being killed.

As a person of privilege in these situations, it is important for me to remember that the ease of my travel does not necessarily put me in a position to advise my companions. I’m not a better traveler than the others; my travel is made easier by the fact that I’m a white, heterosexual, cisgender male. If anything, I’m the one who has most to benefit from lessons in resilience, perseverance, and overcoming adversity. More often than not, I am the one who should be listening and asking for advice.

Privilege is not a number on a scale. It is not a zero-sum calculation. It is multi-faceted and variable. Because everyone has things to impart, the beauty of service is its potential to bring diverse individuals together who all benefit when they listen to each other. Pathfinders Project has harnessed that potential to effect change not just in each place we visited but also in each of us.

 

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While I am aware of the prejudice atheists face in the US, I’ve never experienced it in any significant way. I have, nonetheless, decided to dedicate my life to securing equal rights for agnostics, atheists, humanists, and nones. Before I began this project, I knew about the religious climate in the nations I would visit. But knowing is one thing and experiencing is another.

In many of the places we visited, prayer in public spaces is quite common, including in schools.

In Guatemala, we had to design our days carefully if we wanted to avoid being waylaid by Lenten observations. We met a non-religious family in Guatemala that simply does not leave home over Easter. On Christmas Day, we arrived in Santo Domingo, the capital and largest city of the Dominican Republic, only to find absolutely everything closed except one restaurant. Even finding an ATM so we could buy food at the one open restaurant was a challenge. In Ecuador, I was approached on the street, twice in one month, by missionaries with pamphlets. And at least twice they came to the door of our host family.

But this is exactly why I wanted to become a Pathfinder. I knew social justice was hard work. I knew there would be logistical and bureaucratic obstacles. But I was excited to tackle them. After two years of graduate work in divinity school, I was eager to put all that theoretical peacemaking into practice. I wanted to demonstrate that atheists and humanists can work together with the religious because the only beliefs that matter are a commitment to caring and equality. To be honest, I wasn’t sure that would be possible. I worried that our avowed non-belief would hinder the work we had set out to do.

Luckily, I was wrong. In the vast majority of cases, our atheism was of absolutely no significance to the work. In both Ecuador and Guatemala, we stayed in the homes of devout Catholics. Neither family attended church, but Catholic iconography adorned their walls, grace was said before every meal, and religious literature was everywhere. At first, I was concerned that once we revealed our lack of religious belief we would be sent packing. But in both cases, the revelation sparked lively discussions that concluded with everyone agreeing that a good heart is more important than sharing religious beliefs. And in neither nation is lack of religious belief taken lightly.

I find it ironic that my most significant experience on this trip was to feel, for the first time in my life, like a religious minority. And my biggest lesson was the irrelevance of our atheism to the work we did. I have a much greater understanding for the struggles that nonreligious people face in the US and around the world. But I also have more hope than ever in humanity’s ability to work together despite our differences to make the world a better place for all.

 

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More than anything else this year, I have learned about community. The importance of community was evident everywhere we went. In the small Haitian town of La Fond-Jeannette, it was the drive of the community that made our latrine-digging project a success. When we went to the first house to start construction, we expected that in addition to the representative of the local organization and the mason, a few residents would show up to help. Instead, we were greeted by a crowd of people, all wanting to help because they recognized how beneficial this project would be for the entire community. Even the people who would not be getting a latrine in their home understood that it was really an issue of public health, which affects everyone. The families that did receive latrines always demonstrated hospitality and gratitude by providing everyone with coffee and bread. At every house, there were too many volunteers to give everyone something to do. But they showed up anyway because of the genuine drive to help.

We faced very different issues in Minca, Colombia. Minca is becoming an ecotourism hotspot, but the community itself was not environmentally minded. The head of the local organization we partnered with was a very passionate and sociable woman dead set on protecting the environment before it slipped away entirely. Whereas the community of La Fonde-Jeannette had the drive to drive to improve but simply lacked the resources, the Minca community needed education and training.

In Minca, we built composters designed by the organizer herself and taught the local children the importance of using them. We also assisted an expert from a nearby community in repairing Minca’s water system because very few locals realized the severity of the problem, and even fewer knew how to deal with it. But in both cases, the people were eager to help. The children’s parents donated materials and their time to help with the composters, and a dozen men came to help repair the water system. Once again, the worth of the community was not in skills or expertise, but in the drive to help.

When I started this trip, I didn’t realize just how important the atheist community was to me at home. Now that I’ve been away for a while, I have grasped just how much of a network and family I have.

 

Originally published in the Third Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist Magazine: A Journal of Atheist News and Thought

 

 

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Reimagining Volunteer Service: Lessons Learned from Pathfinders Project

originally published on the Foundation Beyond Belief blog 

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After talking about it for almost the entire trip, the Pathfinders finally watched The Princess Bride together in Guatemala. And now that I am tasked with writing a wrap-up piece for this incredible, indescribable first-of-its-kind year of international service, I cannot help but think of Inigo Montoya’s famous line as he prepares to describe the predicament faced by the heroes at the end of the movie:

         “Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.”

So let me sum up. From July 2013 through June 2014, the Pathfinders contributed approximately 6,000 hours in support of education, human rights, environmental conservation, and clean water organizations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. We taught basic English to children and monks in rural Cambodia, and comparative religion, computers, science, math, and literature to students in rural Uganda. We raised money and the online profile for a women’s rights organization in Accra, Ghana, and furthered the research into human rights abuses against alleged witches in the Northern Region. We worked alongside Dominicans and Haitians to construct twenty latrines in the mountains of La Fond-Jeannette, Haiti, and beside Ecuadorians to construct a purification center that is now bringing safe, affordable water to the residents of Isla Puná. We helped implement sustainable environmental practices for several businesses and families in Minca, Colombia, while also developing classroom resources to aid the educational programs there. We helped provide a safe after-school environment for at-risk children from the slums around the Guatemala City garbage dump and increased access to technology and special education resources for students and staff in three Mayan communities in rural Guatemala.

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These projects gave us the opportunity to break through strong cultural, linguistic, and religious barriers and forge lifelong connections with the people we met and with each other, proving that values transcend belief systems and can be an alternate source of affinity among people of diverse backgrounds. Moreover, these connections are a testament to the potential of shared work to bind people together in service toward a common cause.

As the Pathfinders worked alongside community members to implement sustainable solutions, we also learned invaluable lessons for the development of the Humanist Service Corps. The most critical of these lessons was that the amazing power of service to bring people together can only be harnessed if we face, head-on, the biases we have about volunteering. And this is exactly what we must do if we want to depart meaningfully from the many harmful service models that are out there, if we are going to launch a Humanist Service Corps that is more than just humanist in name.

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Our goal as humanists is to empower others through service, and we should do so by designing and participating in projects that address existing resource imbalances without reinforcing the social consequences of those imbalances. This means, first and foremost, that volunteers should seek to work where they are invited. For local residents and organizations, the solicitation of assistance and partnership from volunteers can itself be an empowering first step.

Wherever possible, projects should find ways to leverage the strengths of communities, not focus on their weaknesses. Service should not imply a relationship in which the volunteer gives and the member of the served community receives. This is as much about reframing the way we perceive the people and communities we help as it is about reframing the way they perceive themselves. And it is about reframing the way we think about service. Service should be a relationship in which volunteers work hand in hand with the members of the served community to solve problems the community identifies and implement strategies the community devises. Through such a relationship, the volunteer celebrates what the members of the community served have to offer, rather than the other way around.

Pathfinders Project was an important step away from deficit-minded service toward a volunteering model in which the experiences, skills, and ideas of all involved are leveraged to realize the vision of the community being served. The next step is to build from that philosophy and the data collected by the Pathfinders to launch the Humanist Service Corps. Want to be a part of the next phase of humanist leadership and service, the first permanent international humanist volunteering initiative? Sign up here to receive updates about Humanist Service Corps developments.

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On Safari in an ’88 Corolla – Part Two

I can admit to you now what I didn’t reveal in my first safari post: 95% of the mission on the first safari was to get Wendy up close and personal with some elephants. We saw one on Saturday, but it was shy and stayed behind a tree. Wasn’t gonna cut it, lifelong dreamwise.

So we returned to Queen Elizabeth National Park on Sunday.

Just before 6 a.m., the four of us piled into the burgundy ’88 Corolla that KHPS Director Robert had loaned us and rolled off toward the school to meet Deputy Head Teacher Gideon, who had asked if he could join us.

We needed to get gas, but we were otherwise in good shape for getting to the park in time for a guided game drive. That is, we would have been in good shape if the gas stations on the way out of town hadn’t been closed. The guards were there, but they were sleeping. Not like they would have pumped the gas for us anyway.

At the Kazinga Channel, we began to panic ever so slightly because we still hadn’t encountered a gas station awake enough to put petrol in our relatively fuel-efficient vehicle. But we apparently weren’t the first people to be caught in between stations in that precise spot, because we found a man who sold gas by the jerrican at a reasonable markup given his monopoly and transportation costs. We bought 50,000 UGX-worth, or about 10 liters.

From the Kazinga Channel, we headed toward the park and reached the gate by 7 a.m., just as several vans and trucks were leaving to go on game drives. We turned around and followed them. Even before we reached the point at which we were to pick up our guide, we were stopped by a herd of at least twenty elephants. They came up the hill toward the road with the sun rising behind them, crossed in front of us less than thirty feet away, and continued west.

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While the rest of us pressed our noses to the windows and made nonverbal noises, Wendy tried not to bounce too uncontrollably with giddiness as she got trigger happy with her camera. Fortunately, she has one of the ones that refuses to take fuzzy photos.

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Mission accomplished.

Continuing on, we grabbed a guide from a gated checkpoint. Four Pathfinders plus one Deputy Head Teacher plus one official Queen Elizabeth Ranger equals six people, and the ’88 Corolla isn’t exactly built for a party. Michelle had to sit on Ben’s lap to make room for the guide. In my opinion, the guide wasn’t worth the 52,000 UGX she cost, and I’m guessing Michelle would say she wasn’t worth the space. The guide didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, and every time we asked her to identify an animal for us, she was unable to. But, rules are rules, and you’ve gotta have a guide to do the game drive, so we got cozy.

Shortly after we picked up our guide, we came across the same pride of lions we saw on Saturday. This time, though, they were feeding on a kob. The guide had at least brought binoculars, which we took turns using to see the animals up close as they got down to it.

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To our surprise, a herd of kobs grazed on the grass directly across the road from the lions. The driver of the car ahead of us (not our own guide) explained that the kobs like to keep an eye on the lions in their territory. Since the lions were eating, they weren’t currently a threat and most likely wouldn’t be again until the next day. From the haughty perch of his open-roofed, mountain-conquering four-wheel-drive vehicle, the driver cast an insultingly dismissive glance upon our dependable ’88 Corolla. He told us not to call him for help if we got stuck. Then he drove off.

The male kobs nearby began fighting, ramming their horns together repeatedly.

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The crashing drew the attention of the senior lioness, who got up from her kob skull and walked across the street toward the fighting kobs.

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She strode confidently between the parked cars as we all took as many photographs as we could.

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Then some bozo drove up and passed the parked vehicles on the right, drawing the kobs’ attention and sending the lion back toward her fellow hunters.

We stayed to watch the lions a while longer, until all but one of them disappeared into the tall bushes that serve as their shelter from the midday heat. Then we drove until we saw three crested cranes walking along the road, stopping so as to photograph the birds without disturbing them. But, once again, two vehicles passed us and unsettled the creatures.

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Aside from waterbocks and warthogs aplenty, we also saw a dozen or so hippos in a group in the shallows along the shore of Lake George. We could see the air bubbles of other hippos submerged, but the residents of the fishing village went about their business in the water as though the dangerous creatures were not there. This despite the fact that one of their number had been killed by a hippo the day before. Just a fact of life for them.

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On the way back, we passed the same pride of lions. It was a cool day, so they’d come back out and crossed the street.

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We continued on, skirting the dangerous, muddy patches on the road by driving on the grass alongside. The ’88 Corolla was performing beautifully. I smiled to myself. We will finish the drive, proudly, passing the contemptuous driver in his all-terrain vehicle, and I will give him a meaningful look. Then the tires started to spin in wet grass alongside the road. Uh oh. I immediately stopped and got out to push.

Wendy exited at the same time, in haste, asking the guide if it was safe and acceptable for her to disappear behind a bush for a “long call.” The guide said it was no problem, and our most veteran traveler grabbed her handy wipes from the trunk and headed for the nearest coverage, thinking, I’m sure, about how we’d seen the lions disappear into the exact same sort of thicket earlier in the day.

Already positioned behind the car, I asked Gideon if he could drive as I pushed. He declined, followed by Michelle, for lack of experience. Ben hopped in the front seat and I instructed him to give the car only a little gas, so as not to kill the traction. I pushed and he pushed. The engine revved, but nothing happened. We tried again. Still nothing. Then I realized he still had the car in park. “Rookie mistake,” he said. With the car properly in drive, the car pulled easily out of the soft patch.

We finished the tour without further event, dropped the guide back off with her undeserved 52,000 UGX, and exited the park, right behind the driver who’d preemptively declined to be our ghostbuster. Well done, ’88 Corolla, well done.

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On Safari in an ’88 Corolla – Part One

In order to tell the story of the day we went on safari in an ’88 Corolla, I have to first tell you about the day prior – the day the 19-member staff of Kasese Humanist Primary School went on safari in a 14-person mini-bus.

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19 people. 14 person vehicle.

That Saturday, Wendy, Ben, Michelle, and I arrived at school at  the appointed time, 7 a.m., dressed in boots, cargo pants, lightweight shirts, and sun hats. You know, safari clothes. I looked around for Head Teacher David, because he and I were supposed to go pick up the mini-bus for the day, but he was nowhere to be found. We did find several of the other teachers there, in their classrooms, helping each other with cocktail dress-zippers and neckties. Applying makeup, perfume, and cologne.

It was clear that the DEET-smelling Americans and the sweet-smelling Ugandans had different ideas about what it meant to “go on safari.”

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Me, with Head Teacher David (right) and Deputy Head Teacher Gideon (left).

David showed up in a three-piece around 7:45. When he and I returned with the minibus at 8:30, the other teachers were still not fully present, accounted for, and/or ready. We finally pulled out at 9:00 on the dot, an hour late and already cramped and sweaty, only to be stopped by the sight of Madame Elson bouncing across the soccer pitch on a motorcycle, side-saddle in an evening gown, one hand holding tight to the driver, the other to her church hat. Somehow, we made room for one more.

Originally, the plan for the day had been to go on a game drive in the morning, then head to the Democratic Republic of Congo border for lunch and spend the afternoon at the market there. The shopping is what attracted most of the teachers. As it turned out, the majority had little interest in seeing the animals.

The vast swaths of protected lands in Uganda draw many international tourists, but few national visitors. In fact, as the economy stagnates and Ugandans struggle to find work, many Ugandans support the idea of removing the protections and using the park land for agriculture.

“Don’t you have these animals in your country?” The teachers didn’t understand our excitement. In fact, they were shocked to find out that we never had lions or hippos and that we’d driven all of our large beasts to extinction. But it felt impossible to gush about how amazing it was that Uganda had preserved so much of its land and protected its creatures, even using America’s failure to do so as a foil, without sounding paternalistic and, well, colonialist. After all, we were about to go on safari, itself a problematic concept, in lands named after Queen Elizabeth.

“I’ve seen all these animals at the zoo,” Madame Ruth said. “I’d rather be at the market.”

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The Pathfinders and KHPS staff

Unfortunately, no one really got their wish that Saturday. After stops at the Uganda equator and the Kazinga Channel connecting Lake Edward and Lake George, we arrived to the park around 11 a.m. to discover that we’d missed the morning game drive and were several hours from the one in the evening. The animals were most active during the relative cool of dawn and dusk, so that’s when the scheduled tours happened. Since our driver knew the game drive route well, we decided to try our luck after lunch. But this meant no trip to the market.

Even before we set out on our unofficial tour, Wendy, Ben, Michelle, and I decided that we would be returning the following morning. Our tickets were good for 24 hours, and we wanted to do it right.

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A salt pond at Katwe Salt Lake

In truth, despite our group’s tardiness, our Saturday excursion was a wonderful experience. Because of the expertise of our driver, we visited sites on Saturday that weren’t even a part of our tour on Sunday, such as Katwe Salt Lake, where locals have been harvesting salt the same way since the 1400s. And because of the company of the other teachers, our Saturday trip was full of comedy and camaraderie. Our Ugandan colleagues survived the cramped conditions of the mini-bus with us, overcame their fear of water to paddle with us in a canoe on Lake Edward, and could be counted, male and female alike, to balance our “oohs” and “ahs” with comments about the size of the animals’ testicles.

But it was also precisely because of the company of the other teachers that we knew we needed to go again. The disinterest and disappointment of the majority made us curb our own excitement, made us limit the outward expression of the awe we felt in the face of the nature they took for granted. So we returned bright and early the next morning in the car loaned to us for the duration of our time in Uganda. On Sunday, we went on safari in an ’88 Corolla.

To be continued…

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Story Time!

I’m proud of the writing that has come out of Pathfinders Project – I think it has demonstrated some of the best of what each of us has to offer. But it has almost always been somewhat self-consciously, even rigidly focused on promoting empathy through somber reflections about our experiences. As though, since we are traveling to developing nations and working with impoverished communities, to acknowledge that we are stretching ourselves to our emotional and physical limits AND having a blast would be to insult the people supported by the work we are doing.

But it is just as important to talk about humor and happiness amid hardship as it is to discuss injustice. It’s time to tell the other half of Pathfinders Project.

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Playing basketball in Xeatsan Alto, Guatemala

Back in January when we were up in the the hills of Haiti, we began compiling a list of happy memories, and we’ve continued adding to it as we’ve moved through Latin America and the Caribbean. With a month and a half left to go, the bulleted list of one line reminders is more than ten pages long (and needs to be updated). It’s not my place to tell all of the stories on the list, but I’d like to begin telling some of them, and I’m asking you to help me decide which ones to tell first!

Below are teaser titles for 40 Pathfinders Project highlights. Please take a look and like the ones whose titles pique your interest. There are no voting rules – no minimum or maximum number of stories you can like. The stories with the most likes are the ones I’ll tell first!

If you don’t have Facebook, comment with your favorites and I’ll add your votes at the end.

One Week in a Cambodian Stilthouse
Rope Swing on the Nile
Reggae Night at Labadi Beach
Album Party at +233
Khmer Lessons with Piseth
Biking to Tonle Sap Lake
Caught in the Rain at the Kasese Market
Guac Party!
Ugandan “Rolexes”
Safari in an ’88 Corolla – first place! Published on 5/26
Drinking Marua
Basketball at Kamuli Technical
Football Match in Accra
Female Members of Parliament Exhibition Netball Match
Car Keys in the Charcoal
Khmer for “Cheers!”
Despicable Me at the Peace and Love Spot
Pork, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Coconut Water.
Cards Outside the Corner Store
Miscolored Crocs
“Welcome to Ghana”
Taking the GRE in Kampala
Tro Tro Adventure #1
Tro Tro Adventure #2
Madame Elson Steals our Chapattis
Visiting the Orphanage in Kisozi, Uganda
Fun with Language Barriers
Cape Coast Weekend
Watching the Super Bowl on Isla Puna
Alfa & Omega Hamburgers
Concussion Scare
Dancing Dogs
Colombian Cloudberries
Politics in Puna
Pick One: Power or Water (You Can’t Have Both)
Xmas in Santo Domingo, New Year’s in Pedernales
Lent in Antigua
Huesito, Conor’s Best Friend
Chachafruto, a Poisonous Bean That Will Save the World
City of God, Trash

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The Women of Kukuo: Aminetu Iddrissu

Aminetu Iddrissu is the third alleged witch I profiled in my article about Ghana for the Second Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist magazine.

The article also featured stories of Shenka Kwame and Senetu Kojo.

Aminetu Iddrissu (left) with her daughter and grandson

Aminetu Iddrissu (left) with her daughter and grandson

When we met Aminetu Iddrissu, a Muslim in her seventies who hardly speaks any of the local language, she was Kukuo’s newest arrival. She is there with her 30-year-old daughter, Nafisa Iddrissu, who translated for us. While we were there, Nasifa’s two naked boys, four-year-old Ibrahim Gafaru and six-year-old Abdulrahaman Sayibu, bounced around the hut grinning at us.

The bulk of Aminetu’s life passed normally and peacefully. While raising five boys and three girls, she ran a successful second-hand clothing business after her husband died. She was in a position to help other women and young people with loans, and she did so freely. When one of the women she had supported died during childbirth, Aminetu was blamed. So after coming to Kukuo for purification, she relocated to a different community and lived there with a couple she knew.

When that woman also died during childbirth, Aminetu was again blamed, despite the fact that the purification should have taken away all of her powers. Even though Aminetu was a friend to these women, even though she was not their midwife, and even though dying in childbirth is common in Ghana, the coincidence was too much for her neighbors. Aminetu was again sent to Kukuo.

Nasifa supports her mother and her two sons by working as a seamstress on a hand-crank sewing machine. While we were there, her younger boy nearly trampled all over the fabrics laid out for cutting. Toward the end of our conversation, some women arrived to pick up dresses Nasifa made for them. What they paid her was next to nothing.

Nasifa is at Kukuo out of necessity. After Aminetu’s second banishment, Nasifa’s husband divorced her because he refused to be married to a witch’s daughter. Nasifa will soon look to remarry, but for now she is doing what she can.

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The Women of Kukuo: Senetu Kojo

At the end of December, I published the story of Shenka Kwame, one of the alleged witches at the Kukuo camp in Northern Ghana.

I included Shenka Kwame’s story and the stories of two other alleged witches in my article about Ghana for the Second Quarter 2014 issue of American Atheist magazine.

Below is Senetu Kojo’s story.

Senetu Kojo

When we met Senetu Kojo, she was lying down inside her hut. Her cheeks and forehead were covered with an herbal remedy for her swollen face. The women in the camp are enrolled in the national health insurance program, so Senetu was able to go to a clinic for an illness she had been suffering. But because the drugs they gave her caused her face to swell and she never understood how the drugs were supposed to work, she abandoned them for an herbal remedy to treat the inflammation but not the illness that sent her to the clinic in the first place.

Senetu’s early adulthood was happy, even though there was some hardship. She had two children with one husband before he died. She then had five more with another husband, but only four survived. When he died, she went
to live with her brothers.

Things were peaceful for a time until one of the brothers started to compete with another man for the attention of a female neighbor. When the other man and the woman got sick, they blamed Senetu. Rather than exiling her violently, they tricked her into leaving the community by telling her
that her mother was sick.

The fact that her mother was in Kukuo likely had something to do with the accusation. She went to Kukuo and found her mother well, but her brothers’ community would not allow her to return at first, until an uncle who
was a military officer was able to sort out the situation. But when her brother’s rival died of the illness Senetu was accused of causing, she was attacked and sent back to Kukuo. By that time, her uncle had also died and could no longer help her.

Senetu’s granddaughter lives with her to help, but she has a disabled leg and is unable to fetch their water, so they sell firewood to pay someone to bring water to them. Their primary means of food are the stray ears of corn
overlooked by harvesters that her granddaughter finds in the fields. Because they can’t afford new thatch for their leaky roof and they can’t repair it themselves, they must stay awake on the nights that it rains so they can mop up the water.

It wasn’t until after her departure that each of her primary accusers, as well as her brother, died. Senetu points to this as evidence of her innocence. Nonetheless, she believes that witchcraft is real.

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