Finding the Pearl of Friendship in Uganda

Everyday Stories of Peace,
Green Scarf Stories, entry eight, July 14, 2014

Free and compulsory education until (at least) the age of twelve may be a universal right, but it is not equally or universally accessed by all children. Look at these two facts about education in Uganda.

In Uganda, only 40% of children complete primary school.

In Uganda, only 12% of children go on to secondary school.

Because of the inequalities in access to education around the globe, organizations like the Kasiisi Schools Project (www.kasiisischoolsproject.org) are essential to closing the gap in enabling all children to realize their right to an education, as well as good quality education.

Yet there is another benefit of organizations like the Kasiisi Schools Project which sponsor promising students. This is in the personal connections and friendships which are made between people who live in different countries and may otherwise not have the opportunity to meet each other. In the long run, this builds peace through understanding.

One of the best things about going to Uganda last month was being able to meet Ategeka Christopher, a dedicated student whose education our family has sponsored through the Kasiisi Schools Project since 2008. Here he is, a handsome graduate from what would be the equivalent of high school in the United States, or gymnasium as it is called in Sweden.

IMG_1356Through our correspondence with him, we have been able to follow his progress and growth, as well as his determination to pursue his education and make plans for his future. But before I share a few details about our cherished time with Ategeka Christopher, who is about the same age as my son Erik, I want to give you a description of both boys from about five years ago, who found out through their correspondence that they had a lot in common.

2009. Near the Kiblae National Park in Uganda lives a boy named Ategeka Christopher with his mother and five siblings. The oldest boy in his family, fifteen year old Christopher studies diligently and is third in his class of 102 students. Erik is also fifteen, the oldest boy in his family and a good student. Both like music, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette, and are serious about the subjects of math and science. Each helps with family chores (Erik empties the dishwasher and mows the lawn; Christopher and his siblings fetch water from the borehole three times a day and help with the family’s crops). They each speak a language at home which is not taught at school (Erik speaks Swedish and Christopher speaks Rutooro, the language of his native Toro tribe). Ategeka Christopher and Erik alike have thought about the possibility of becoming President of the United States, even though by place of birth, neither would be eligible (“I may be the second black president of the U.S.A., you never know,” wrote Ategeka Christopher in a letter to us.)

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So when we were finally able to meet Ategeka Christopher a few weeks ago, we already knew a lot about each other. It was a friendship that had begun years earlier with our initial correspondence. The time we shared together in Uganda was a treasure. We even had this amazing full moon with a wide white ring around it to help us mark our days together.

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Here is Erik’s photo of the sunrise, taken one morning before he met up with Ategeka Christopher.

IMG_1574It was Ategeka Christopher who gave us our pet names (or empaakos), something essential to being part of the community in Uganda. These empaakos are used before your first name, and it is considered disrespectful to not include them when you greet a person. Erik became “Amooti Erik” (Amooti means king), and I became “Akiki Sara” (Akiiki means a great person, a name also used by Ategeka Christopher’s own mother). Atwooki is Ategeka Christopher’s empaako, we learned, which means bridegroom (or bride, when used as an empaako for girls). Atwooki Christopher, therefore, is a fitting name for a handsome young man. In any case, we felt that we couldn’t go wrong with our new empaakos.

When you land at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda, you are greeted with a sign that reads “Welcome to the pearl of Africa.” For both Erik and myself, the real pearl of Africa, and Uganda in particular, was found in the ties of friendship. Ategeka Christopher kindly gave us this beautifully hand-carved plaque which is now hanging on the wall in our home.

IMG_2492Of course another great part about going to Uganda last month was being able to spend some quality time with my son Erik. Here we are standing in separate hemispheres, but finding some common ground on the Equator.
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Stand tall inside yourself: Teaching yoga in Uganda

Everyday Stories of Peace,
Green Scarf Stories, entry seven, July 13, 2014

IMG_1391cYoga came into my life by chance a few years ago – a notice on a signboard which caught my eye. It was love at first breath. I loved yoga’s universal appeal which looks beyond nationality, religion, gender, age, and income to the things which bind us humans to each other. I fell in love with the asanas, or poses: the pigeon, the headstand and the wheel. I loved learning about the yoga philosophies and the long history of sages who took the gift of yoga, added their wisdom to it, and passed it on as a tool box of ideas and techniques for ways to have a good life, a loving life.

That I would eventually travel to Uganda to share this yoga toolbox and teach my first yoga class seemed something so far from the comfort zone of my neatly rolled out yoga mat at the local yoga studio. But that was where I found myself a few weeks ago, near the equator, shoeless feet on the grass, teaching yoga while wearing a skirt. It was a wonderful off-the-mat yoga experience.

My oldest son Erik and I went to Uganda in June to visit the Kasiisi Schools near the Kibale Forest National Park. (Here is their website: www.kaiisischoolproject.org.) We spent our days there learning about the school’s various projects and sharing a presentation about Sweden with students and teachers.

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I was also able to hold two English language teacher training sessions (including mini-yoga classes for the teachers), as well as introduce yoga to students from year four, five and six. Classes were large so we formed a circle on the field in front the school.

IMG_1463Tree pose was a bit challenging while wearing skirts, but we managed!

IMG_1371I even had a little yoga class with the preschool.

IMG_1322It was their first encounter with yoga, and everyone seemed to have a good time. “Thank you, Sara, for sharing the 5000 years old secret of yoga with us.” These kind words were a gift from one young girl. But the gift, really, was the opportunity to be a vehicle through which yoga could be shared in a place where it had never been shared before.

Thank you to the teachers and students at the Kasiisi Schools who let me share the gift of yoga with them.

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Thank you to my yoga teachers Caroline and Ratheesh who encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and find new places to share yoga. It’s just one small step towards realizing a peaceful world for our children and grandchildren.

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Shrinking down to essentials

Everyday Stories of Peace
Green Scarf Stories, entry six, July 12, 2014

Jasmine in full bloomThe jasmine is in full bloom right now. Taking a deep breath of its light fragrance makes you wonder why we spend so much time on unnecessary distractions when one can merely stand next to a jasmine plant for a moment of heaven on Earth.

Shrinking down to essentials has been one of my summer projects. I want to simplify and focus on the things which matter most, such as smelling the jasmine in full bloom, or learning how to match food choices with the exact nutritional needs of each family member, or maybe even discovering ways to better show our love for each other. As I’ve been sifting through my family’s stockpile of everyday distractions, I realized that all I really want is a clean and non-cluttered place in our home where we can sit quietly with each other, deepen our spiritual side a little, and perhaps even practice yoga a few times a week. But getting to this point, all together and at the same time, has its challenges. Like other families, we have a hectic schedule, as well as divergent personal agendas, not to mention the distraction of various kinds of media and electronic devices. There’s also the practical task of dealing with the household stuff: toys, furniture, books and more stuff. And of course there is my great aunt’s old worn chair which really needs a new home at the recycling station.

What I really wanted, I thought, might be found under the clutter in the upstairs room. It seemed an impossible mission, like finding a needle in a haystack. The thing I really wanted took two full days of scrubbing, sorting, and shifting things around. My husband put a table on wheels so that we could move it out of the way. I found a spot for yoga mats and a place for a candle. We shrank ourselves down through some of the family clutter.

After moving a lot of stuff around, I realized that there was another thing I really wanted. The essential thing I wanted was a vase to hold a few roses in the upstairs room so to introduce yoga into my family’s life. It took a few more days before I found it, right where I had left it, in the back of a fully-packed cabinet. Finding again my great aunt Grace Brunner’s rose vase was a gift at the bottom of all our clutter. She and her husband had no children and spent their days travelling and collecting things like small green vases from Italy. It was part of the inherited clutter which I wasn’t quite sure what to do about except leave at the back of her cabinet which had made its way into my dining room. When I found it again, I knew that it had finally found its dharma as a rose vase in the now clean and almost de-cluttered upstairs room where I hoped to share the 5000 years old wisdom of yoga with my family. Here it is, filled with Astrid Lindgren roses, welcoming yoga into the rhythm of my family’s life.

rose vase

Yet there was one more gift to be found among the clutter in that upstairs room; the most essential thing which I really wanted had been there the whole time. It was the television screen, taking up space, yet providing the space to bring yoga into my family’s life. We put two of my favorite yoga teachers, Caroline Westling and Ratheesh Mani, up on the screen and there we found ourselves, the whole family, in a clean and non-cluttered place learning how to stand in Tadasana. We’ve gone through several routines together. Postures are improving, and we’re becoming more flexible. Practicing yoga as a family in some form or another is something I hope we can do forever.

Here’s a link to the thing which really matters:
Yogamakes.com with Caroline Westling and Ratheesh Mani

The peace of wild things: two doves sitting in an elderberry tree

Everyday Stories of Peace
Green Scarf Stories, entry five, July 10, 2014

The quiet season of summer here in Sweden brings with it long days of light. It’s that time of year when we slow down, recharge and refocus by doing absolutely nothing at all. A few evenings ago I left my computer, to-do list, and worries about the international news to go out into the sunshine of the back deck and do nothing but sit. Outside is where the peace of all things wild carries you away with its ebb and flow if you let go of the reigns of trying to make your own contribution to the everyday hustle and bustle.

My dove in residence He landed barely a meter away with a twig in his mouth and an indignant look in his eye which disappeared once he realized that I sat there only in complete admiration of his stick-gathering skills. Some kind of collard dove, or ringduva as they are called in Swedish (more scientifically categorized as a Columba palumbus), with a patch of white by his neck and a bobbing head as he walked along the deck railing. He and his mate, a slightly more robust copy of himself without the patch of white, have been especially busy these past few weeks gathering twigs for a nest in the elderberry tree. Flying in a direct, powerful line towards his source of building materials, he came back and landed in the same spot, seemingly pleased to show-off his contribution to the family home. Honored that he shared his eagerness with me, I was an up-close and personal witness to the fuss of their nest-building. The truth is, I’m as fussy if not more about my own nest. I like a clean and cosy abode, and therefore I had spent the afternoon preparing a spot upstairs where we could sit as a family. Adjusting the nest, taking away this chair and moving that table, adapting; choosing one stick over another just like the doves. The evening’s long rays of sun spotlighted his journey; his earnest pursuit of building, pleasing, flying — just being a dove and doing the things which doves do this time of year.

Flying to his mate

Their whole process of nest-building was something I had been witnessing without meaning to do so. Every time I had tried to sit for a quiet moment on the outside bench, their drama was in full-swing. First was the journey to find each other, which began mid-spring. The cooing, from a distance, and the cooing back echoed throughout our quiet neighborhood for weeks, followed by the noisy, almost clumsy flapping of wings in various kinds of trees. Their wings flapped awkwardly in each apple tree, followed by the birch, then in the not-quite-so sturdy chestnut sapling before they decided upon the elderberry tree right in front of our living room window.

Sitting quietly in the nest.

With the nest now fully built, the elderberry tree has become very quiet as she sits and waits. They don’t seem to mind my presence. By now I’m just part of the landscape of their backyard. We’re cohabitating peacefully, respecting the privacy of each other’s nests, hers within and mine beside the elderberry tree. I wonder how many young ones they’re expecting this year.

Being a witness to the wild happenings in my backyard brings an inner peace. Like a blessing in disguise, there is freedom in the grace of things unchanging, like the powerful swoosh of my backyard dove’s wings and the cooing of his mate, her silent breath as she, too, sits in peace only a heartbeat away in her nest. Nature has her own wisdom, the peace of wild things, beautifully described in the following poem by Wendell Berry.

The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.

The Amazing Next Generation

Green Scarf Stories, entry four, June 2, 2014

It was another one of those days when I find myself totally amazed by the wonderful things coming out of the next generation. Kids are powerful. When they put their focus on something that motivates them, they can move mountains. At least it felt like a mountain which was moving today at noon when students swarmed out of the nearby high school to buy an ice cream in the school courtyard.

This wasn’t an ordinary ice cream stand. It was a fund-raiser organized by gymnasium students with their class mentor, Ann, to raise money to fund the boys’ peer education programs at the Kasiisi Schools in Uganda. (Here is their website: www.kaiisischoolproject.org ) They put the whole event together in just a few weeks, and even created a Facebook group to publicize the event, “Ice cream 4 change,” with the heading, “Buy an ice cream, change the world.” Every single student in Ann’s mentor group is absolutely amazing.

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School is almost out here in Sweden. In four days, Erik and I will be heading to Uganda and we are so very grateful to the many people who have helped us pack our bags.

Kindness is filling up my suitcase!

Green Scarf Stories, entry three, May 29, 2014

Kindness is filling up my suitcase!

Today I’m feeling grateful for the many unexpected acts of kindness which have come my way. My eldest son Erik and I are packing our bags to go to Uganda next week, a trip which has been on our bucket list for a long time. We will be visiting the Kasiisi Schools which are near the Kibale Forest National Park. Here is their website: www.kasiisiproject.org

There are several reasons we decided that this is our year to visit Uganda. First, a student whose tuition we have sponsored through the Kasiisi School Project has graduated and is going on to University. He is about the same age as Erik and we have corresponded with him for several years. Many of his letters end with “When are you coming to Uganda?” We also have had the pleasure of meeting several of the Kasiisi School teachers when they came to visit the school system in Weston, Massachusetts where we lived in the United States before we moved to Sweden. The third reason is that we’ve long admired the work of Elizabeth Ross, the Director of the Kasiisi Project, whose tireless efforts have broadened access to education for numerous boys and girls in that part of Uganda. She is one who truly lives out Nelson Mandela’s famous quote, “Education is the most important weapon which you can use to change the world.”

So we are packing our bags with the help of many friends. One kind woman named Nina heard that I will lead a few yoga classes for the children at the school, and materialized twelve new yoga mats for me to take along. Here they are.

ImageOther kind parents of my own students have donated crayons to add to the craft supplies and books we will be taking with us. Here are the crayons ready to be packed in our suitcase.

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On Monday of next week during their lunch hour, students at the local high school will host an ice cream social to raise money for the boys’ programs at the Kasiisi Schools. Our bags are fully packed, thanks to the kindness of so many people. Uganda, here we come!

A Green Scarf Party – providing supportive energy

Green Scarf Stories, entry two, April 29, 2014

Peace comes in many different forms. Sometimes it can be as simple as providing the space for conversation. One particular discussion I’d like to share occurred with a group of friends here in Stockholm as we were catching up over dinner after a long winter. All of us had attended Mount Holyoke College, the oldest women’s college in the United States. Our conversation focused on fellow alum Rita Banerji’s work to promote the rights of women and girls in India through the 50 Million Missing Campaign (www.50millionmissing.info). This is a zero fund campaign which focuses on the issue of femicide (female genocide). For many years, Rita has been trying to give voice to the issue of femicide, and recently went to the United Nations’ first international conference on femicide to expand the conversation about why the UN needs to push for recognition of it as genocide under the 1948 Act.

We decided that being part of the conversation on human rights is a necessary first step. So we snapped a photo of our group wearing green scarves and sent it to Rita, as well as our college magazine to see if we could expand the conversation about femicide in India to include other classmates with their own networks and friends. Here we are.

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FROM LEFT: (FRONT) Peppe Kuhavuori, Anneliese Lilienthal, and Alexandra D’Urso with baby Solenn (BACK) Sara Hendey, Nisha Nilsson, and Lena Landstedt-Hallin

Of course this conversation is far from over, but it was one step towards expanding it. Mobilizing support for the well-being of all people on a greater scale world-wide is a huge task, but every small step creates the momentum for social change.

A Green Scarf Party

The inspiration for our Green Scarf Party came from a You Tube clip about Afghan women wearing green scarves to promote peace in their country. Many people after viewing this video have taken a photo of themselves wearing a green scarf and added it to a media campaign to support Afghan women.

YouTube: Green Scarves for Solidarity #Afghan Women on October 6, 2011

Another deeply inspiring story is the Facebook campaign to create peaceful ties between Israel and Iran. People have been taking photos of themselves with a green heart and the caption “We love you” and posting it on Facebook. This video shows an amazing story of how the media can be used to promote peace.

YouTube: Ted Talks Israel and Iran: A love story? On December 21, 2014

 

A Place to Start

Entry One,  Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stepping into an unknown orbit.

Fear. Putting my words onto paper and then onto the web seems like such a scary endeavor. Letting the world into the privacy of my inner thoughts is like putting the depths of my soul up on a screen for free viewing. But friends have been pestering me, jostling me, really, to put my words on the web. So here it is, a place to start, on Easter Sunday in Sweden under blue skies and unseasonably warm weather.

Have you noticed more people wearing green scarves lately? People wear green scarves to show their support of social change worldwide. Green means peace. Each one of us has a different picture of what peace looks like. It may be a thousand more years or so before we humans figure out our shared purpose on Earth and how to find the peace within our own hearts, with each other, and with our surroundings.

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Here is my green scarf. It is two meters long and two different shades of shimmery spring green. Having no fashion sense, a friend kindly helped me pick it out when we were in India together a year and a half ago.

There are so many stories about the journey to get right this game of life. In this blog I hope to explore some of the everyday stories of peace. It’s a collection of green scarf stories. More coming soon!