Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Young of Belfast

Though religious conflict was always a part of my childhood in Northern Ireland, it did not erupt into violence and death until after we had emigrated to Canada. From across the sea, I watched in horror as the Troubles escalated and families lost their children, their security and their way of life. I have always been grateful that I did not have to raise my sons in that state of oppression. My heart still breaks for the mothers who did, and who suffered horrendous loss because of it.

I am not a poet, but was moved to write this piece in 1985 after watching yet another mother grieve for her son, his life now reduced to a headline on the evening news...

The Young of Belfast

Suckled on mistrust, the young of Belfast
learn early to hate.
They know fear from the first nervous clutch
of a mother's arms,
And anger from the stiff, defensive line
of a father's back.
Rage is their heritage; a birthright passed
on from generations
long nurtured on the feast of prejudice.
Through streets divided,
memory dogs their steps with practiced zeal.
Young mouths taunt...
Young hands hurl rocks in a battle that was
promised to them
long before they were born to wage it.
Children fight children
in imitation of hurts both real and unreal,
and childhood games
meld into the adult world of reality.
More than bodies lie wasted in the struggle.
Dreams fall to ruin
beside innocence early vanquished;
and victory gained
only serves to lock the narrow cells of embittered minds
that shroud themselves in righteousness.
Good soldiers all,
the young of Belfast obey rules they
were not free to choose.
In this war of liberation, they have become
the true wounded...
The photo above is one I took of the many murals still seen on walls throughout Belfast..grim reminders of a time when violence so easily conquered reason.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hot-Air Balloon Over the Serengeti

Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away...

Surely, few things could be more breathtaking than a hot-air balloon ride over the Serengeti Plain.
In planning our long-awaited trip to Africa four years ago, we knew it was something we had to do.

Our arrival in Tanzania came a week into the safari. Already dazzled with the beauty that met us everywhere in Africa, I was sleepless with anticipation at the prospect of seeing it from the air.
Rising at four a.m. to set out for the airfield, we were a groggy group of tourists, but once aloft - in time to see the sun rise pinkly over the horizon - we were wide awake, and knew ourselves to be more alive than we had ever been before.

Below us, mile after mile of open grassland swept into infinity, studded sparsely by groves of spiked Acacia trees and gentle meandering streams.
Morning light bathed all in its amber glow, and edged each leaf with gold.
For a time, we were low enough to see
elephants make their way across the plain, and to watch in wonder as a lone lion stopped on his journey home to regard us quizzically.

We said little, the dozen of us on board, rendered speechless by our effortless glide
across across the silent morning plain, its stillness broken only by an occasional whoosh of flame as the pilot took us higher and farther.

My soul filled with a sense of rightness and joy. In that space in time, life was the magical journey it is meant to be and I was an undeniable part of the magic. That moment of perfection is mine to treasure forever.

After an hour aloft, we began the descent that would bring us back to ground, and to the campsite already set up for us. As we'd been gliding across the sky, trucks had wound their way along trails below us, carrying tables and chairs, and copious amounts of food. We disembarked to be greeted with flutes of champagne and orange juice to celebrate our successful flight. After much giddiness and chatter now that we'd found our voice again, we were led to table and fed a sumptuous breakfast of egg and sausage, rinsed down with strong cups of coffee and piping-hot Earl Grey tea.

I have rarely been gripped with the euphoria that coloured that day. I can only compare it to the birth of my children, or the sureness in knowing the man I was about to marry was my soulmate for life.

Life is a miracle each and every day, but it is not every day that one's dreams come true. Mine did for me, that day in Africa, and I will hold the wonder of it in my heart for all time...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

An African Morning

Morning comes gently to the African savanna. As the sun creeps up through the early haze, an abundance of wildlife begins to stir. Baboon troops clamber down from their treetop nests, yawning adults patiently bearing the frisky antics of youngsters eager to greet the day. Wildebeest and zebra quietly make their way along well-worn trails to the water hole; there to be joined by tawny gazelle whose dainty sips barely ripple the lambent surface.
Stillness hangs in the air, broken only infrequently by questioning cries from the bush. Scattered dust casts the air in golden hues and pale amber grass flutters softly in the long morning shadows. Time stops in its track, as if to rest for the game of survival that will shape the remainder of the day. It is a time of magic - luminous, brief and radiantly beautiful.
The first time I awoke on the African continent, I felt I had come home. From an early age, pictures of thorn trees at sunset, of lions and elephants, took my breath away and filled my heart with a longing that never left me. Time cemented my love of this land that beckoned with each passing year. It seemed I knew instinctively the breadth of its spacious grass lands, the deep blue sky stretching into infinity, even as I played on treeless streets caked gray with the residue of countless coal fires and factory smokestacks. Although a world removed from the dank, impoverished landscape of my Irish city, I knew I would one day seek this Africa of my dreams.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Immigrant Experience

Cameras played little part in my childhood. This is a rare, early photo of me with my brother Martin.

I came to Canada as a child, caught up in the wave of hopefuls who fled Great Britain in the difficult years following WWII in search of a better life. Like many, circumstance forced me to adapt to a culture very different from my own. Such a move required courage and determination, and I lacked both at the start. Strange sights and sounds overwhelmed me. I longed to go back home, sure that I could never be happy here. Time proved me wrong and I adjusted to Canadian society with relative ease, building a good life among people who accepted me as one of their own. Even as a child, I recognized that my smooth integration differed markedly from that of other newcomers, particularly those whose ethnicity spoke out in the colour of their skin. I came to understand that the elitism facilitating my assimilation made sure others would remain forever on the outside, no matter how long they might live in their adoptive country.
Bigotry darkened my childhood from birth. As Protestants in Northern Ireland, my parents charged me to hate Catholics...they were not our 'kind'. Exposed to Canada’s diverse range of cultural groups, my father developed a wide spectrum of racial slurs. One day, after listening to a vitriolic tirade about foreigners taking over the country, I reminded him timorously that we were not born here either. My father responded with raised eyebrows and imperialistic indignation, “Why, you cannot compare us to outsiders. After all, we're white..and we're British!” I understood that his specious logic was the only justification needed to vilify real foreigners. Helplessness silenced me, even as I sensed an underlying truth behind the arrogant words. I could not deny that my fair skin and Irish background influenced people to welcome me warmly. My old-world ways matched their preconceived notions and granted me easy access to where others were denied admittance.
While many emigrants struggled to be understood, my Gaelic lilt guaranteed an instant smile. Given unaccustomed foods like hamburgers and pizza, the fact that I cut them up neatly with a knife and fork made adults beam approval at my manners. I never had to deal with disparaging remarks about what I ate or how the scent of that food lingered on my clothes. Although this high level of acceptance helped me adjust to my altered life, being singled out embarrassed me. I wished only to belong. With haste, I swapped my school blazer for flip-flops and became so fluent in the local vernacular that I looked and sounded exactly like my Canadian playmates. I knew this was not the case for those whose customs were more difficult to merge. Although I abandoned much to fit in, others gave up more for a smaller return.
I no longer stand silent and condone exclusion based on stereotyping of any kind. If I judge someone, I will base that opinion on an individual’s contribution to society, not on a race or creed. In conversation, I seek words of tolerance and inclusion, regardless of accent. I am part of a cycle greater than my own life. This planet is my home and every inhabitant on it my brother or sister, forever linked to me by bonds of responsibility and compassion. I want to hear the stories they tell and embrace the differences that have shaped our diverse lives. Each one of us must reject apathy and actively make this a world wherein mercy and equality are the birthright of all people.
That change begins with me.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Giraffe Rescue Centre, Kenya

Just outside Nairobi, there is a sanctuary that rescues and rehabilitates giraffes . Tall platforms let visitors feed the giraffes by hand and stroke their velvet noses. Fortunately, most are happy to buy the animal food provided...the centre needs all the help it can get.

The day we visited in 2006, a bus pulled in full of children from the Precious Gifts Daycare. The children were incredibly sweet and well-behaved in spite of their excitement. I spent more time watching them than the giraffes! Like parents everywhere, moms and dads plopped their kids onto a wall to
get pictures of them with the animals in the background.

I'm not sure these boys were altogether
thrilled with the experience! They were eager to feed the giraffes and raced off as soon as they were finally lifted down...

This cute baby came galloping toward us looking for all the world like any clumsy colt. The giraffe became one of my favourite -and most frequently photographed - animals of the trip

Our time in Nairobi was brief, before heading off on our photo safari, but it was a wonderful introduction to our African holiday...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Forgotten Generation: AIDS Orphans in Africa

I wrote this essay for an anthropology course some years ago.

Little has changed for the better and the numbers quoted have escalated drastically...

An estimated fourteen million orphans throughout Africa live in poverty because AIDS took their parents’ lives; yet the globalization that opened up the world to many, has effectively cut these children off from the help they so desperately need. Without adequate food, health care and education, they cannot change their lives for the better, and stand little chance of survival. For 315 million Africans living on one dollar a day, resources are nearly impossible to access. Brand-name medicines are costly and without them, an entire generation of adults in the childbearing years is losing its fight with AIDS. Those orphaned by this disease must watch one, or both parents die a slow and agonizing death. Grandmothers take in their grandchildren whenever possible, and when the grandmothers die, the eldest child in a family becomes head of the household, looking after younger siblings. Penniless, parentless and forgotten, the orphans of Africa fall into obscurity, their needs unmet by the world, their futures devoid of promise.
Child-headed families struggle daily to find food and shelter. Attending class is not an option; they cannot afford the mandatory user fees imposed by aid agencies; and even in countries where those fees are waived, the cost of books, supplies, and uniforms remains outside the reach of most. As a result, roughly 44 million children are excluded from primary education in Africa. Those without parents or teachers lose valuable access to the knowledge and tradition normally passed along from one generation to the next, and to the absorption of family and group values that provide children with confidence and a sense of place. World governing agencies agree that education is key to the survival of these vulnerable children; yet funds donated to local governments for use in health and education rarely reach their target. Budget cuts, corruption and mismanagement mean that up to 90 percent of the national budgets in some countries goes toward government salaries, leaving little else to cover the larger demands.
Education and health care are equally hard-hit by international policies put in place with good intent that still miss their mark. A loan to Africa by a body such as the World Bank often comes with binding conditions. This impacts medical care when severe pay restrictions and hiring policies force many health-care professionals to seek work on other continents. Additionally, AIDS takes not only the lives of Africa’s mothers and fathers, but those of its doctors, nurses and teachers, leaving in its wake a modicum of trained personnel to cope with the millions of families affected by the disease. Mass privatization of resources dictates that only brand-name drugs be used, and patent restrictions prohibit the development of generic medicine that would be a fraction of the cost. Many orphans left behind are themselves HIV-infected: 90 percent of all children with the virus contract it from their mother at birth. A single dose of a drug called nevirapine given to the mother in labour and to the child at birth, along with a Caesarean delivery and formula feeding, lowers the risk of passing on the virus to less than 2 per cent. Even if the drug was more affordable, limited access to health facilities means that 700,000 African children are still born infected each year to potentially become the next generation leaving its orphans behind.
The African continent has serious economic and social issues to address. Eradicating AIDS remains its main challenge, because while this disease continues to spread uncontrolled, it compromises every other aspect of development. Following decades of colonialism, sub-Saharan countries struggle to take their place among the family of democratic nations. Debt, corruption, and tyranny have left much of the continent crippled with overwhelming debt. Resources generated by global governance are often mismanaged, rarely translating into improved infrastructure or technological development that would facilitate Africa’s move toward self-sufficiency. In the midst of widespread machination, the plight of AIDS orphans escapes notice.
Tucked away in villages far from main roads, bereft at the loss of parents and grandparents, families of small children are malnourished, lonely and afraid. Their needs appear simple; yet remain well beyond any chance of attainment. As well as education and health care, providing basic resources like water, nutrition, sanitation, and instruction on the tending of small crops would drastically improve the lot of these youngsters and offer them the chance of a future. Most African countries do not have a tradition of orphanages in the Western sense we have come to understand. Family and community once formed a safety net to care for orphaned children, but AIDS has ripped away this net and destroyed village life, as it was known. We must make constructive resources available to these children if they are to build new communities, forge lasting connections, and develop the means to get on with their lives.
Twenty-five years into the pandemic that has ravaged the African continent, there is still no master plan in place to help its orphans, in spite of global efforts to improve finance, health care and education. The chaos created by this disease has gone on so long that the original orphans are now adults, who risk the same fate as their parents because they lack information and services that would help them to make safe choices. For children orphaned by AIDS, schooling is vital. Beyond its traditional role, a school is a centre for immunization, for meal programs, and for much-needed education on HIV/AIDS. Without primary education, children cannot go on to university or acquire the trade skills needed to support themselves as adults. The wealth of creativity, intelligence and innovation these resourceful young people might contribute is beyond measure; tapping that potential may be the best tool in reshaping the future of their continent and the upcoming generations who will inherit its problems.
Stephen Lewis tells us pointedly...“Allowing world economic problems to be taken out on the growing minds and bodies of young children is the antithesis of all civilized behaviour” and “it shames and diminishes us all”. Africa is a continent wherein children are raising children. If the world has become a global village, these are our children in this new extended family, and they need our help to learn to help themselves. Their lives are in our hands now; we cannot, and must not, let them down.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Dreams of Africa

What do you want most in the world? What dream sustains you through the everyday, and promises so much joy and satisfaction that you quiver just at the notion of this possibility coming to pass?

As a child growing up in Belfast, my dreams were of Africa. The drab, sparse streets of industrial Northern Ireland were so far removed from the endless sky and rolling grasslands of Kenya to be found in books that my soul was captivated from the start. Eventually, my family emigrated to the West Coast of Canada, putting even more space between me and my heart’s desire.
But the dream to see Africa stayed with me. When a chance came in 2006 to make the trip of nine thousand miles to Nairobi, I was warned by well-meaning friends that the reality of the continent could not possibly live up to my decades of anticipation. How wrong they were...

Africa was every bit as magnificent as I knew it would be. I embraced it eagerly...the boundless savannah...the spacious skies...and, of course, the beautiful, glowing children. The shy smiles of youngsters we met in a Masai village is something I call to mind often. It is a memory that never fails to fill me with joy and wonderment.

I have a new dream return to Africa,
this time not to take
but to give back. The chasm between the 'haves' and
'have-nots' looms large in that continent ravaged by AIDS,
mismanagement and corruption. I have taken Africa to my heart,
now I must act on my heart's desire to help. It will not be
this may not be next..but I will return one day to
the Africa of my dreams...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What's on Your Bucket List?

..............These are the ten top places I would still like to visit before I die.

I've put them in order of preference...but given the opportunity, I would jump on a plane to any one of them at a moment's

1) Potala Palace...Tibet

2) Machu Picchu...Peru

3) Ruins of Pompeii...Italy

4) Namib Desert...Namibia

5) Antelope Canyon...Arizona

6) Mt. Kilimanjaro...Tanzania
7) Christ the Redeemer...Brazil
8) Monument Valley...Arizona
9) Terracotta Army...China
10) Angkor Wat...Cambodia
.......So what's on your Bucket List?.......