Monday, April 22, 2013

AFS: Touch a Life, Connect with the World

Thea was a foreign exchange student from Norway.  She lived with us for a year, ten years ago.  She shared her culture, language and poetry, literature and food.  Her smile, her successes and fears, her strength and  her good humor, her enthusiasm for life.  For a year she was part of our family, sister, daughter and friend.

In a recent note she wrote:

Right now I am sitting in a brownstone building in Brooklyn, eating a granola bar and drinking a cup of coffee. I arrived yesterday and I am staying in NYC until the 28th of April. I am here because I have been invited to speak about Georgian refugees at a conference at Columbia University tomorrow. I can't help to think that somehow my life took a turn staying with you guys ten (!!) years ago; my interest in refugees began when I volunteered with the Somali refugees with you guys, and my interest in Russian began with Shamshod( Thea's exchange brother from Uzbekistan who was our AFS son at the same time) teaching me the cyrillic alphabet at Starbucks in Squirrel Hill. I just wanted to let you know I really appreciate it and I am so happy you were my hosts. I've had so many adventures since then that I am incredibly grateful for, and it all began with you!
I wish I had time to visit you guys while I'm here, but taking a look at your pictures of the massive amounts of sand everywhere I think I might have to come back sometime the climate is a bit more forgiving:)
Hope all is well with you,

She credits her success in life in part to her time spent with us.  It is gratifying to know.  I suggest that we all need to let the people who have influenced us positively in some small way know what they have done and that we are grateful.

On the other hand these kids who come to a new country alone and have to navigate the teen life in a new world, a new high school, a new language, make friends and a new life already have what it takes to succeed.

Thanks, Thea.  We are happy for you and proud too.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Where I Was 30 Years Ago Part Two: A Poem in Memory

In my last post I noted that I was in the Peace Corps in Malawi 30 years ago.  I was a teacher.  Recently  a student found me on the Internet and sent me a letter.  I included excerpts from that letter.  Since then I have had a few more emails from my student.  He listed ten students from my class who have died of aids since I was last in Malawi.

When we were there Steve would come home from the operating room covered in blood to his underwear.  It ran off his body in pools of red in the shower.  The sterile gloves were used over and over again.  He often tore his finger through a glove doing invasive procedures.  We did not know about aids then.  When he got home and began reading the medical literature, Steve knew he had to be tested.  Malawi was one of the places where aids had been initially discovered.  Blood could be deadly.   In retrospect we were lucky.

Much later I wrote a poem based on my teaching experiences in Malawi.  I offer it here in memory of my ten students, the many others, friends, some like family, others co-workers who we know have died and those we do not know about.


                                                           Nsanje Malawi, 1980

Bat guano leaks through
                                    the ceiling onto pages of my
notebook writing it’s own story.

And school boys jump up
                                    to move the desk of their teacher, they
 carry my books for me, call me Madam.

In the ass end of this country, in the still dark morning they
 come, uniformed in frayed  white shirts( dotted with pin prick
holes from the sparks of coal irons).

Where we study Solzhenitsyn, browned pages falling
                                    from one single copy and 40 boys sit at shared wooden desks cannot  hear  the teacher, rain a drum pounding, their heads down.

Where President Banda is for life and we dare
                                    not discuss politics, wide eyed smiling, shining black
broad muscled, 25 year old “boys” still in secondary school.

Praying to god and to the spirits because
                                    they have seen hyenas turn into witches and fly
through the night in baskets meant  for winnowing the rice.

Where it is the only rain to fall in one year
                                    because God has forgotten us and if only
our fore fathers had been slaves we would be Americans now.

I love your eyes, your voice like music  they write in love
                                     letters to me and  I lie to them and say, you
 can be anything you want.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Where I Was 30 Years Ago: PC Malawi

 To begin with 30 years ago I was younger...a lot younger.  I was in the PC in Malawi with my doctor husband and first one child(Peter who came with us) and later two children(Christopher was born there.

I was a teacher in Nasanje and taught English Literature and English as a second language.   I taught about 40 students who shared desks.  When it rained on the tin roof, it leaked and the pounding was so loud that the students put their heads down and I had to stop teaching.

I was required to teach selected short stories by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  I had one book for 40 students I could not imagine that many of them got much out of that book.  

 I was teaching in the poorest part of one of the top poorest countries in the world.  I did not have a lot of hope for the future of the boys I taught but I tried to be hopeful for my students.  Like I said it was a long time ago, a lifetime it seems.

So imagine my surprise and the gratification when I recently received several emails from a former student:

I am so happy receiving your response. Happy too that you and doctor are all fine.
When I saw your face at your website you looked the same despite the fact that it was 30 years ago we last met.
Many people in Nsanje are still remembering 'their doctor'. He was and I believe still a dedicated doctor.
Happy also to learn about Peter and Christopher. I am happy for them.
Please when you visit Malawi let me know so that we meet.
I am married to Florence with five girls. The first two are at the University.
After my secondary education I left for South Africa where I did library science and worked for 7 years and returned home, did law diploma and later joined the Office of the Ombudsman. I am working as an investigator against the abuse of power and human rights by government organs or officials. I am based in Blantyre. I am currently studying law degree with Blantyre International University.
Many positive changes has taken place since you left. There are no longer faked 'car accidents' as was the case then. Democracy and rule of law is now the order of the day. People are able now to criticize their leaders and are free.
I do not know what  to say or write, Madam I am so happy knowing that you are still there and alive. T I lost hope of meeting you again in this life time. 

And this:

You also contributed a lot to this life of hard work and discipline. You know you never missed a class and you were always happy before us as if you had no problems of your own. You were a dedicated teacher. You remember the parties you hosted for those of us who did well in English. We tested the cookies then. It was a good experience. Getting good education for the girls has not been easy but I have to save the money I receive as salary so that I see them through college. I am trying and I believe God will always guide me.
Indeed I was employed in an important Constitutional body that safeguards the rights of Malawians and rule of law in all aspects. I believe you are aware that in 1994 we kicked out the dictatorship and Malawians vowed not to go back to the backward system. Malawians said enough is enough. We had a complete new Constitution based on liberal democratic principles. Constitutional bodies like ours were created as checks and balances. Malawi is now doing very well in terms of good governance though we are only 19 years into the new dispensation. For your information we have a female president and she is currently visiting the U.S.
I am in touch with so many classmates but many have been lost along the way due to aids which had claimed its own. I will share with friends your email address so that you can also hear from them. They will be very delighted to learn that you are fine. They miss you too.

******When I lived in Malawi, President Banda was a dictator for life.  Aids had just begun to take the lives  of often the strongest and brightest,  in come cases whole villages have been devastated leaving only the very young and very old to try and make a new life.

Malawi and this young man have come a long way against great odds with determination and hope.  This correspondence is part of what the Peace Corps is about and in the end as is so often the case I believe I have received so much more from the experience than I ever gave.