Showing posts with label aamad. Show all posts
Showing posts with label aamad. Show all posts

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Interview With Humanist School Volunteer and How You Can Help

Maseraka Solomon maintains and augments the computer lab at Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda.
Maseraka Solomon volunteers at the Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda. I've written before about his good work as part of a school staff profile series I did back in April of last year. I also did a post about a letter exchange done with US students which featured a short quote from Maseraka.

Maseraka is a graduate of Information Technology from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda's largest city. Since he has discovered Humanism and atheism, he has found his calling: to volunteer at the school and make a difference for young people in a dogma free environment. Getting children -- many orphans -- in Kasese exposed to computer technology and the Internet is a big step towards functioning in the 21st century workplace and opening their minds to a universe of ideas.

To make this possible, Melissa McAllister, a US ex-pat living in Bavaria, Germany has set up a fundraiser to help fund Maseraka's efforts.

Although Melissa has a disability which prevents her from traveling far from her home. She is now using her networking and crowd-funding skills to raise money to help Masereka do good for children in Uganda.

Awhile back, I set up a banner for the fundraiser on the right side of this blog, but I wanted to do more for him. I thought an interview with Maseraka might also help people know where he comes from and what he wants to do as a Humanist doing good for others in Uganda. You'll find Maseraka's responses to an email interview below. Note that I've corrected some spelling and grammar.

When and where did you grow up? How many brothers and sisters do you have?
I was born in 1989 in a small village called Kakogha Karambi Sub-County in Kasese district western Uganda. I stayed in the village with my mother until the age of five when my father enrolled me in town school where he had his business. My father had many wives and many children of which my mother has two boys and five girls. I am the last born of my mum.
Are your parents religious? Were your once religious?
My father died when I was still young but he was of a different unique faith. My mother is a strong Catholic who thinks everything is from the will of god. Dad was selfless Protestant who later converted to another religion of a man in Uganda who calls himself GOD and claims that Jesus never was. This man is called Ow’ obusobozi Bisaka’ he was a good friend to my dad. 
I therefore can’t say I was that religious because I was exposed to different beliefs. My dad was not strict with any of his children concerning religion. He was free and loving. He was friends with this Ugandan god because perhaps he also questioned the works of religions. He died of high blood pressure and diabetes in early 2000. I think he was a humanist/atheist but never knew how to define himself that because of the community he lived in.
How did you discover Humanism, critical thinking and science?
Sometimes we are made what we are because of the communities we lived in when we were young. Most likely a religious mother and father will bring up a religious child who will later believe the dogmas of her/his parents teach. I grew up in the hands of many parents.

My step mum was a Muslim. I saw how they all prayed. I used to ask my mother why Christians hate Muslims so much. I was never a friend of wasting my time to prayers, my mother knew that since childhood. I used to go to sleep when it was time for prayers.

With my dad it was different. His religion almost had the same Lords’ Prayers but there they are directed to the Ugandan Ugandan God Bisaka.

With all this exposure I was able to discover Humanism, critical thinking and science. I also credit much of the reading material provided by Bwambale Robert who is also a humanist and also my love for reading. I came to Bwambale because he was the only one that easily understand my style of life.
Did you come out as a Humanist or atheist to your parents and friends and family?
Yes, I came out as an atheist to my mother and family members and my friends. It has been hard for both of them to understand how possible it is to live good without GOD. However, I am firm with my atheism and humanism principles when I relate with my family.
Has this affected your relationships with them?
Yes, my relationships have been greatly affected. Some friends have limited their communication with me. I however try my best to explain what I stand for and why. I have also shown them that things are not possible because of god or prayers but because of hard work and doing well to others. I follow no ten biblical commandments, I value the ten principles of a rational world.
Has this jeopardized family support for you?
It has to some extent, but currently they are left amazed because of selfless ideas. I have two sisters who have greatly applauded my activities though they still want me to join them for prayers. I hope one time they will be joining my art of helping people live better lives. I have not distanced myself from my family members. I have worked and helped them in a number of activities. I have also been their best advisor and consultant whenever they have problems not limited to marriage/relationships, sickness, stress, and education. I think my atheism and humanism has positively benefited those around me.
Where are you living now? How are you supporting yourself?
I am currently living in Kasese town and spending most of my time working at Kasese Humanist Primary School Railway Campus. I love the teachers and the children there. We are the only school that has a sense of humanism. We understand our backgrounds and make discussions based on serious positive thinking. We teach just like other schools around but we are open to discuss reason and faith. What is supporting my life here is hard work and use of my skills positively. I think I am doing well to the community and the opposite is true though with a few challenges.

Life in Uganda is not easy unless one understands that Uganda is a developing country which needs to welcome development strategies proposed by different investors and also support human rights basing on reason but not faith. Because Uganda is God fearing state, it’s a big problem to develop positively.
What have been your volunteering duties at the school in the past? What are they now?
My volunteering duties have not been limited to exposing children to computers. It’s been a great deal of volunteering at Kasese Humanist. I have helped pupils write to penpals in other states supported by KidsHeartKids charity, teaching subjects like Social Studies, counselling children when necessary, meeting different people (the teachers) and explaining what humanism is.  Currently I am more than a volunteer at Kasese Humanist. I love the school and hope its quality continues to improve daily.

What do you require the funding for? Projects? Sustenance?
I thank all those who have so far put in a great amount of funds to my fundraiser. I have already paid for the printer and a new laptop, I also have a few plain papers, having enough plain papers, refilling the printer is important in order to keep providing teachers and the pupils with learning materials at Kasese Humanist.

I think humanity can destroy humanity but still humanity has all the power to save humanity regardless of their location, there are a number of problems both students, teachers and parents face as they all to look to have a good life.

Lives need to be improved. Learning environments also need serious improvement so as to have well informed population in future and now. With an informed mass we reduce the suffering and violation of human rights. When we improve our standards, we get life longevity and this is something also important as we fight the death verse. When the populations are having stress factors, they are likely to die young hence aging is disease we can treat by educating and improving or putting a smile on someone’s face.

With the funds, I am sure many pupils and teachers will have a smile and nice moments to remember hence improving their performance in all their activities. A number of projects can be implemented though small but they will mean a lot to the population which will benefit. Pupils face problems not limited to lack of enough exercise books, lack of mathematical sets, dirty uniforms because their parents are so poor that buying a bar of soap is a problem, torn uniforms without even buttons, dirty hair that needs to be clean or cut short, dirty teeth -- they actually miss that basic parental love and they deserve it.

I think helping such a population is perfect and rewarding, funds are wanted not to benefit me alone but they are meant to benefit a good number of children and improving the teaching standards of teachers at Kasese Humanist. Teachers drawing illustrations on chalkboards may be OK but it may also be a waste of time and very inaccurate. With printed illustrations, the pupils will save time and have access to better drawings and understanding improves. Let these pupils and teachers
also have a feel of modernization.
What are your plans for the future? With the school? Outside of the school? Long term career plans
My future plans are positive towards Kasese Humanist. I think following up the old students of Kasese Humanist Elementary School would sound good.

This calls for perhaps a high school with the same aims of exposing what Humanism and living godless lives means. I find it lacking when pupils move out of Kasese Humanist and most of them join high schools that actually consider prayers important for their success. I think my success has been out of good and hard work, you read you pass, you pray you are nothing but a big problem.

We need to bring reason over faith, we need no religious ideas to drive our education systems. I want to implement a number of projects based on the different acts of kindness that you can think of, they are many ways people can bring positive change to their communities.

Directing another secular school in Uganda is part of my plans, I think improving the quality of teaching in schools is key to having responsible and creative people. Ugandans are lacking because of too much religious departments in their schools. This is hard to understand for the Ugandans because even the state house family runs a family church. I am not there to convert people from their religions, I am there to impress Humanism and atheism. I respect no religion but respect science and reason.
Remember, you can  read more about Masereka Solomon and help to support him through a fundraiser being facilitated by Melissa McAllister.

You can read more about the Kasese Humanist Primary School at their website!

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Atheists and Agnostics Making a Difference In the World IV: Raji C.

"I have always enjoyed volunteer work and I do feel that it is fundamentally important to care for one another."

This is the fourth post in a new series of personal profiles of Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists who are helping to make the world a better place.  

Click here for all posts in this series.


I first met Raji six years ago while we were both working at a survey company here in Montreal.  The job was horrible, but I got a wonderful friend from it.  It's truly my pleasure to feature her here on my blog.

Raji was born in Vancouver, Canada.  She studied Psychology at McGill University in Montreal.

She has had quite a few volunteering gigs: 2007, India; 2009,  a primary school in Nicaragua and AIDS Community Care in Montreal; 2010, geriatric centre in Montreal; 2011 - current, fundraising for a shelter in London UK.  This profile will focus on the India and Nicaragua volunteering.

Childhood Influences of Religion

Unlike our previous two volunteers, Raji was brought up with no religion at all.  She comes from a Punjab cultural background (Sikh) but grew up in a self-identifying Atheist family.  Her parents were very politically motivated ardent Communists.  The very sort of people my parents raised me to once believe were "the enemies of the Church and Freedom."
Religion played absolutely zero role in my upbringing due to my parents' political and social leanings. Some might assume that my parents would therefore have imbued us with anti-religious sentiment, but that wasn't the case for the most part.  
The first time that I remember the issue of religion explicitly coming up was when I was about four or five and asked my parents which religion we belonged to. Exposure to other young children in daycare had lead to minor conflicts and questions about these issues arose, but I was told we were atheists and that we didn't believe in any kind of god.  
My father was definitely an atheist, but I would have placed my mother more in the world of agnosticism at that time, although she's now an atheist. My mother never closed the door to religion had I wanted to explore it, and open discussion would likely have taken place, but religion wasn't at all a part of my family culture.

Despite all that, they still saw fit to give me the middle name Kaur (ਕੌਰ) used by all female Sikhs. Go figure. 
So here we have the volunteer with the most extensive volunteering record so far out of all the people I've profiled or am in the process of profiling.  And yet she has the least amount of exposure to religion out of all of them.  Interesting, eh?

2007: India

Raji volunteered at the Care and Counselling Centre in Calcutta India.  She stayed at a guesthouse in Calcutta just across the street from Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity (the very one Christopher Hitchens made a piquant expose of in his controversial documentary Hell's Angel and later book Missionary Position).

While stationed there, she kept a blog who's primary function was to document her experience for people close to her.  The blog gives an excellent window into every day life and culture clashes she experienced while doing her work in the region.  I've taken some of her entries placed them here.  Note that they are not her precise words - I've edited things around for brevity and clarity - but they've nonetheless gotten Raji's approval.  So they are of high enough fidelity.

India: Living Conditions

"Our entrance to the guesthouse. The caretakers' family slept on the front porch, behind the locked green grid. Needless to say, coming home after 10pm posed a bit of a problem."
"The guesthouse is an idyllic place, behind the St James Church, set back far enough from the street that some of the constant cacophony of traffic and honking seems to fade a little into the background. It was actually quite pretty, with a small garden, and totally off the beaten path. The only people who usually stay here, besides other volunteers in my group, are volunteers at the mother house."
"But the noise was still quite appreciable. Particularly the family of barking dogs, the youngest of whom would squeal loudly, which would always give me the rather "unsettling" feeling that it was being tortured (it was not). And we could still very clearly hear the incessant drumming leading up to day of Ashura."

The guesthouse was set up dorm style, and I shared a four-bed room with one other volunteer.

"When this photo was taken, there was only one other person living in the room (bed not pictured here).  So it wasn't so bad."
An Italian woman, who didn't actually live at the guesthouse, but who spent an inordinate amount of time there, once referred to our room as "a pigsty". With four people in such a tight space, her descriptor was certainly true.

Raji originally shared the room with one other volunteer from Melbourne. Eventually two older women, one from Italy and another from Spain, arrived.

Raji goes on to mention the bathroom where she befriended a large patch of mould on the ceiling and named him Frank. He apparently grew strong and healthy from the volunteers' daily showers.

Frank, not pictured, lives a little above the green water heater.

The bathroom. You can see our shower on the far left. We were blessed with access to hot water. We had to turn a switch on, which would activate the water heater, and if you were smart enough to figure out the knobs, you could avoid being scalded.

There's no curtain, so the floor would be soaking wet after one shower. I, luckily, had shower shoes which kept me from having to walk on a dirty, wet floor (after I made it dirty and wet). Come to think of it, I think I forgot them there!

To relax in the evening and connect with other volunteers, impromptu nightly Yahtzee tournaments were held.

Yahtzee was our nightly ritual. We started keeping our scores in the Holy Book of Yahtzee, which included player bios. We'd set up after dinner and gorge ourselves on chocolate, biscuits and tea. I usually came in last (or second last).  I think Yahtzee is about as boring and annoying as pool (maybe because I suck; or maybe I suck because I  don't like it).  I continued to play because it was a socializing opportunity.

India: Poverty

Apartment unit on Elliot St. Calcutta.
Raji's blog contains a good deal of outward observation and inward introspection.  Here are some of her thoughts on the situation in the part of Calcutta in which she volunteered.
The poverty is immense, and I haven't even seen the slums. People literally set up camps on the sidewalks and they live there. Year round. It's their home. It's pretty spectacular.

For starters, I find it boggling that in West Bengal, a supposedly Marxist state, one can find the level of poverty displayed here. Apparently it has the longest lasting, democratically elected Communist government in the world, and everywhere you turn, you see CPI and Lenin graffiti. Despite this, people's basic needs aren't even accounted for - half the population lives in slums...
Raji had assumed that there was no public healthcare or public schooling in the region based on the abject poverty she witnessed.  She recently informed me that this is not actually the case - they do have public healthcare and education but they do not seem to be very effective and NGOs are still doing a lot of the work.

India: Volunteer Work

Raji was placed at a school for the mentally and physically challenged with no clear job description.  The school itself has to accept whatever the parents can afford, which is sometimes as little as ten rupees (25 cents) and these are by no means the poorest children in the city.  The school seems to require resources that are not available and gets no government aid.  Only two of the teachers spoke any English.

Here is an entry from Raji's blog from that time.
As it stands, I am being placed at a school for mentally and physically challenged students. They're so cute and sweet, it is absolutely unreal. Their problems range from Autism to Down Syndrome to hearing impairment. The hearing impaired kids are the only ones who receive any real academic training, the others get training which will help them to integrate and be self-sufficient down the road (like vocational training). There's no mental health component at all, and I have no skills to be useful here, but I am going to try and do some quick research so that I have more than a superficial understanding of the problems and rehab and try my best to be helpful in some way.

"The picture was taken the day after my last day, when I took a new volunteer to the school. I was kind of disconcerted  by the fact that he didn't seem to notice me when I came by.  When I attended the school every day, he seemed more alert and engaged and would regularly make eye contact with me, but this was taken only one day after I'd stopped coming and he barely noticed me. I guess that's just the nature of the disorder, or the nature of my imagination and wishful thinking."
Eventually, after asking the school direction for a task, she was assigned to one-on-one work with an autistic boy who was around seven years old.   He needed individualized therapy but, due to lack of available staff, didn't really get it.

I felt much more encouraged by that, because even if I have never worked with autistic children before, at least it's gives me something tangible to learn about and work on. It was a bit of a battle at first, because he wouldn't cooperate with me, and being that I was a veritable stranger, that doesn't surprise me. Over the course of three days, however, he seemed to have warmed up to me a lot and is much more cooperative (unless tired or bored).

Classes are taught in a less structured manner at the school.
I've noticed that teaching and disciplinary methods are very different than what I'm used to. The classes are structured differently and on the surface don't appear to be as productive as I remember my own elementary school classroom to be, and the teachers I observed didn't always give the reinforcement or guidance I would have expected.
"These are some of the older hearing impaired kids.  They would spend their afternoons doing recreational activities on the tiny roof on top of their school, including badmington.  They were constantly losing badmington birdies into
their neighbour's alleyway below."

2009: Nicaragua

"The kids in Nicaragua were fantastic. Very positive and quick witted and willing to adapt to anything. This photo was taken on the day we took the primary students to the river. While leaving, the truck got stuck in the mud and everyone pitched  in to to try and clear the wheels and push the truck free. In the end, it took some extra help by a man passing with some cattle to pull the truck out of the mud."
"There were, of course, also amusing observations about the fact that three years old can barely walk well, but they still know how to dance better than most adults in Canada."

Raji volunteered with Dianova Nicaragua at the Las Marías Center, a primary and secondary school. It was located about an hour from Managua off the pan-American highway.

Nicaragua: Living Conditions

Much like her experience in India, Raji had to make some adjustments in her day-to-day living.
Life in rural Nicaragua is certainly not like life in Montreal. We did not have consistent daily access to running water in all areas and on off-days we had to collect water from a storage tank. If you needed to bathe or flush the toilet, you did it with the water you collected in the morning. It was three months of cold, inconsistent showers. They also have a lot of scary creatures like tarantulas. All that is minor and one adapts quickly and beyond that it's more or less how you would expect life to be in a rural area anywhere on earth.
The biggest challenge was language but Raji also found it tough to live on site 24/7 going to sleep and waking up with children always outside of her window.  Privacy was non-existent and it was difficult to develop any kind of personal life outside of the school.  Gossip was rampant and no action ever went unnoticed.

Nicaragua: Volunteer Work

The main building, housing the girl's residence, the cafeteria and the staff administrative offices.
Raji worked with the around 80 of out of the 300 students were residents who lived on the site. 
Many of the children were not able to go home every weekend and therefore I initially intended to complete a project and to try to establish a peer education and counselling program so that older students could help younger students deal with the demands of living apart from their families and to coach them in life skills. Unfortunately, this did not transpire owing to the size of the project, my limited time and my limited Spanish abilities. Nevertheless, I spent the summer assisting at the school where I could.

Nicaragua: Difficult Contradictions

Nicaragua is a religious country with a Catholic majority.  It would appear that this has had some influence on public policy.
Much like India, I wrestled a lot with seeming contradictions: for example, during my time there an absolute ban on all forms of abortion was introduced, including therapeutic abortions. Meanwhile, there is an extremely high teenage pregnancy rate and high maternal death rate.

Nicaragua: Some Reflections

Raji made a special friend while staying at the school: Moncha the monkey!
Monkeys are deeply social animals, but Moncha had to sit chained by herself with no monkey companions. The kids were quite afraid of her, so she had no real human companions either.
As an animal lover, Raji immediately felt bad for her and visited her daily.  It didn't take long for them to become the best of friends.
If I wasn't fast enough in getting away she would wrap her tail around me, crawl up my arm, wrap her little monkey arms around my neck in an embrace and refuse to let go.  All she wanted was a hug!
I'm happy to report that Raji has learnt through the grapevine that Moncha has been donated to the local zoo to live with the other spider monkeys.
Would be nicer if she were in the wild, but she'd probably been in captivity too long and it's better than being chained alone to a tree!
Raji shared some of these final thoughts about the experience with me.
I was also able to build on my insights and reflections from India. The experience did drive home the importance of persistence, self-awareness and adaptability in working in a culture apart from one's own. Further, psychology and other helping professions can focus very heavily on the individual, but going abroad and being able to observe as an outsider heightened my awareness of the tangled relationship between society, economics, politics and individual well-being and that these different dimensions can not be separated.

Raji says the children had boundless energy!

Why Raji Volunteers

I asked Raji why she puts in such consistent time volunteering.
I think that it's part personal ambition, part upbringing and part personal neurosis.
Obviously my parents' attitudes had a big impact on my values, but a number of personal experiences also lead me to want to work in a profession that served vulnerable people. As a result, I have always enjoyed volunteer work and I do feel that it is fundamentally important to care for one another.

A degree alone won't get you far if you want to work in a helping profession, so I did a lot of volunteer work not only because I enjoyed and valued it, but because it helped to refine my interests and to narrow down areas that I may wish to pursue professionally. In addition, after graduating, I was working in a bank and protecting a bank's assets wasn't exactly the common good that I was thinking of, so volunteering was a good way to pursue my genuine interests outside of work hours. Volunteering internationally came about as a result of a desire to travel and get away from traditional tourist attractions and to gain a richer understanding of everyday life for people within a particular city or country.
Obviously the learning experiences were one of a kind and I wouldn't give-up volunteerism or travel for anything.

“The Mouth of Hell” or the Masaya volcano. One of its three craters is still active. The smoke you see in the photos
 is a toxic gas being emitted from the volcano.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Atheists and Agnostics Making a Difference in the World III: Daniel Loving and The Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda

Daniel helps Annet, 19, with her studies.
This is the follow-up post to  Bwambale Robert and The Kasese Humanist Primary School in Uganda.  It is also the third in a series of personal profiles of Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists who are helping to make the world a better place.

I am focusing on people who are making a difference for others. They are examples of Humanism in Action.

Daniel was nice enough to take some pictures and send them along with his responses.  I'll be peppering this post with some of these.

Daniel Loving grew up in the Chicago area.  He was raised in a religious family.
"I was raised Catholic but around the age of ten I realized that I could not really lie to myself anymore. That was the beginning of my becoming an adult. I do not know why it was so easy for me to leave my beliefs behind. Many of my friends are very intelligent people and I have a great deal of respect for them but they did not lose their faith." 
"I think the catalyst for my losing faith was the value others placed on my intelligence. Growing up everyone including the Nuns who taught in the school encouraged me to develop my intellect. My intellect had a real social currency and would always ensure that I would be socially accepted and respected on some level even though I did not share their beliefs." 
"I am usually a very antagonistic person. Anyone who makes a claim should be able to back it up. Even if we agree."
I asked Daniel what his stand on God and religion are now and whether he considers himself to be an Atheist, Humanist or Agnostic.
"I really really hate labels. I believe things because I find the evidence convincing or an expert is able to produce results. Game theory explains why I do what I do. If you would like to ask me how I would handle a situation I would tell you very quickly."
He joined on with the Kasese Humanist Primary School on May 12 and this is his first ever long-term volunteer commitment.
"Before college I have some time off and I wanted a bit of a change from what I was doing and this was a perfect fit.  Everyone told me I would go through culture shock. If I did go through it, I have no idea when. I have adjusted very well here."


Since this is his first volunteering project overseas, I asked Daniel how he was coping with the changes in general.
"Things are great for me at least but death is a constant thing here.  People die here quite often."
"There but for the grace of God go I" frequently pops into my mind not so much as a reference to the Almighty but to the similarities I share with everyone I meet.  I frequently ask: "Why is it that this person is not as well-of as I am?"
Daniel is living very near to the school - just a fifteen minute walk away.  He has running water and (surprising to me) wireless internet.  The power is not 100% reliable and the bathroom situation is not what you'd expect.

Volunteering overseas requires some adaptation to different ways of living.
"I have just figured out how to wash my clothes by hand which will be a big step in me being socially accepted among the people they were starting to smell a bit too much."
"I can drink the water.  Most people can not drink it. I have a special stomach that has been in restaurants for several years."
"Another thing is the sweeping. I personally can not stand dust. I have bad allergies. But the good news is that I have figured out how to sweep and teach at the same time. The student usually laugh at me but it is alright."
As I chatted with Daniel over Google Chat - with my Keurig instant coffee machine a mere 10ft away- Daniel added this comment.
"I would love to be in Montreal right now.  I am going through latte withdrawal!"

Teaching Computers, Math and Critical Thinking

I asked Daniel what his duties were at the school.  He started out a wee bit sarcastic by humorously pointing out that his tasks are not exactly labor intensive.  But we'll later discover that this is not the case at all.  Daniel performs many duties above and beyond sipping tea.
"Well my duties are to drink tea and relax in the shade. My biggest problem is waiting for it to cool down. Sometimes it burns my tongue. I have also made far too many friends. Friends require attention of which I am usually short. Life is good but I have to go and teach the children, teachers and administration how to use the computers."
More seriously, his two main principle duties are teaching computers and mathematics.  He is also trying to set up a weekend adult computer training courses for the parents.  I asked him how important computer literacy is for Ugandans.
"Name me a job in the world that a computer can not improve and I will eat my shoes which have been spending too much time in cow dung as of recently.  I personally do not remember what m life was like before the internet.  It's information all the time at the tip of my fingers.  I swear to you that I would have given you two fingers from my left hand back in 1990 for access to Wikipedia. Developing computer skills will give every student the ability to be more productive and hopefully make more money and be better informed."
"Just having Wikipedia access would greatly beneficial to people here."
Indeed, there are several articles and resources on the web that also stress the need  for increased computer literacy in Africa.  Innovative pilot projects such as Digital Drums in Uganda and the installation of computer labs in Ghana and South Africa and Kenya.  Touch challenges that must be faced are discussed in  Basic Challenges Facing Computer Literacy in Kenyan Schools.

But an underlying goal to his work is to instill, as much as possible, skills for critical thinking, skepticism and the questioning of all information - regardless of its source.
"They asked me to teach about Humanism and I went in there and taught about evidence and why you should ask for evidence for everything you believe - even from the school administration. We always need to know 'why'."
Daniel says that most of the students are raised with religion at home and within the broader community.  The strong religious indoctrination can sometimes cause a clash of philosophies as it is the school's mission to counteract indoctrination and break the spell by encouraging active questioning of blind religious dogma.

There is a mosque just down the road from the school and there are constant inescapable reminders of religion even at a Humanist school.
"The Allahu Akbar is annoying.  They yell it over the loud speakers five times a day."
Daniel is attempting to use his presence as an extra resource to awaken minds that have sometimes been dulled by the numbing effects of rote learning.
"Since the student to teacher ratio is better here I am trying to get them to go in depth on subjects rather than training students to regurgitate information. There is a lot of rote learning and many of the teachers basically teach the children just enough to pass exams."
"But there is not much that can be done about that because they lack resources and are often hungry."

Food for Thought: Just twenty cents American buys three eggs for any child.

Three eggs cost around 20 cents US.
The United Nations World Food Programme states the following in its Overview of the situation in Uganda which it ranks as having moderately high hunger-level on the whole (20%-34% malnourishment).
"Uganda was ranked 161 out of 187 countries on the 2011 UNDP Human Development Index, with half the population living below the international poverty line."
Karamoja may be the most serious area for hunger in the country but Daniel sees the effects of malnourishment at the school every day.
"I would say nearly everyone at the school both administration and students is suffering from some level malnourishment. So sometimes a few times a day I go and get extra food for the students. It makes them more placid and easier to teach. If there brains are working properly I do not have to repeat lessons either. "
"There is more starch here than you can eat. They need B12 vitamin (e.g. meat or eggs). Three eggs will run you just around 20 cents American here."
There are self-sufficient farmers in the area who sell produce.
"There was one child who climbed a tree to get mangoes for me. He was a good ten meters off the ground on a hill. He does not go to school. He is under-sized for his age. He risked his life for a good 70 cents so I could have some mangoes. Really, if anyone has a problem with this they should do something about it. Don't act like you care and do not do anything."

Personal Stories

Daniel regularly meets challenges that are completely unrelated to teaching math and computers.  One day while we were chatting on the Internet he sends me a gruesome picture of what looks like a burnt leg.
"I get in that morning and this girl has fallen down. She is really crying hard. She is bawling and not the kind of crying just to attract attention either so I rush over to see what is going on. It looks really bad and is covered in dirt and grime. She can't walk so I carry her to the office which I had thankfully stocked with cotton and iodine. I spend a good hour cleaning and cutting away the dead skin. As I am doing this, I find out she is an orphan and her grandmother, who usually looks after her, is in the hospital." 
"She got the burn because she was trying to cook. I'm guessing that she's about six or seven years old. She managed to take care of herself enough to make it to the school fully dressed in uniform and everything on her own - even with this burn.
So after I am done cleaning the wound I find out there is no tape to bandage the wound and have to spend another hour tracking down adhesive."
"So I took those pictures to send to a doctor that I happen to know."
The theory is that she fell somehow onto a charcoal stove and severely branded herself. I asked him whether she was intentionally keeping the wound a secret from the school. Daniel's response made me realize just how much I take my family and the Canadian social safety net for granted.
"Who would she tell? She only has the grandmother and she was in the hospital."
This child has a damaged tooth.
Unfortunately, her father cannot
afford the $10 required to get it 
Daniel updated me today on the status of this little girl, who's name is Nisima.  He had gone to her house to visit her only to find her playing in the sewage.  He ended up taking her back to the clinic today to deal with possible infection.  She is doing well now.

Basic knowledge of germ theory in the area could be greatly improved with more education.
"Last night I was trying to explain to a person that putting water from a holy lake into someone's eye socket after they have had their eye removed is a very bad idea He will not even boil it."
The very same day he brought Nisima in for the burn, he brought another boy to the clinic who's knee was the size of a small watermelon.  He now seems to be getting worse and it's possible he had a stroke, as an entire side of his body is difficult for him to use.

How Can We Help?

Wyclif, 7, is exceptional at English.  Everyone calls him
grandfather because he looks quite old for his age.
The Kasese Humanist Primary School is doing fantastic work and is having a positive impact on the community.  But I wanted to get Daniel's perspective on its needs based on his observations as a fresh new face at the school.

"Well I have a list of things a proper computer room requires.  But there are many ways you can help.  If you would like to donate something specific the school has a large list of needs."
"The school needs everything from volunteers to cement to safety equipment to medical supplies and school books.  If you personally feel like you could provide something of value do not hesitate!"  
"Whatever strikes your fancy:  a real soccer ball;  proper (durable!) shoes for students;  geometry books or any electronic gadgets." 
"The teachers could use coffee or tea!"
I have set up a Kasese Humanist Primary School page.  It contains some links to information on how you can help the school.

Looking Forward

Over the next few weeks I plan to investigate how I can set up fundraisers and build links with reputable local Ugandan businesses to try and provide some of the following items to the school.
  1. Eggs (from local farmers).
  2. Medical Supplies.
  3. Pens, school books and USB keys.
  4. Durable shoes.
  5. Soccer balls and cleats.
  6. Anawine munches on some sugar cane.
  7. Fans for the classrooms.
If you know anyone who would be helpful with this, please let me know at

    There are many more items the school can use.  If you have anything you could donate, don't hesitate to contact the school.  These are just some things I feel I could work towards getting to them.

    I look at some of the items and wonder how I'd ever be able to send some of these things.  But hopefully this post will make some of the needs known.  Once the needs are out there, they become problems to be solved by dozens or even hundreds of people each with hundreds of connections and resources within reach.  Things can start falling into place. Great things get done and the impossible can become the possible.

    Wednesday, 6 June 2012

    Calgary Herald: Cornish balances out field work with volunteerism

    Photo: Calgary Herald
    Here's something for all you Canadian Football fans out there. Jon Cornish, the football running back who currently plays for the Calgary Stampeders who came out as an atheist last year is being featured in the Calgary Herald for his humanitarian side.

    Cornish balances out field work with volunteerism: Stamps running back helping out kids while working toward CFL stardom

    Friday, 1 June 2012

    Atheists and Agnostics Making a Difference in the World II: Kenji Yamada

    Kenji accompanied his Albanian host family to
    Orthodox Christian Easter Service.  Although
    somewhat ironic, I know, it's a good photo!
    Kenji Yamada, 29.

    This is the second post in a new series of personal profiles of Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists who are helping to make the world a better place.  

    Click here for all posts in this series.

    Kenji was born in Tokyo and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He studied Linguistics and Ancient Greek at UC Davis.

    A desire to volunteer brought Kenji to Albania with the Peace Corps.  After his Albanian tour of duty he spent two years helping out in a hospice. Kenji's e-mail responses to my questions were detailed and excellent.  Much of this post is just me relaying what he wrote back to you.

    Religious Upbringing

    I asked Kenji what kind of exposure to religion he had growing up.
    My mom's side of the family plus my dad are all evangelical Christians. Dad's family are Japanese Buddhists.

    My parents placed some religiously motivated restrictions on my sister and me when we were growing up, but I wouldn't call them extreme. We weren't allowed to watch or listen to some media because of events shown or words used. Here's one example I remember: We weren't allowed to watch Sesame Street because my mom thought the kids on the show were too disrespectful to the adults on some occasion or another. My mom doesn't remember that, and both she and I find it funny now. Another is that when we were small, we had to show the library books we wanted to check out to our mom so she could make sure there was no unsuitable content.
    That's about it. We weren't restricted in any way I can remember as far as how we dressed or who we were friends with. But then again, we weren't likely to push any boundaries in those areas because we were homeschooled. Part of my mom's reason for homeschooling us was to shelter us from ungodly influences in the public schools. We had a gradual transition into the wider world starting from 10th grade in a small Baptist high school. After we graduated high school, I went on to a state university (UC Davis) and my sister went to a Christian college. Our parents didn't put any pressure on us about those decisions.

    Leaving Religion

    I asked Kenji when he left religion, what some of the motivating factors were and if there was any fallout.
    I gradually apostatized starting from early college.  It was mostly just an intellectual matter for me, not much anger or resentment involved.  I gradually shed assertions as I found I couldn't justify them intellectually. I think the first milestone was biblical infallibility, then the deity of Jesus, then theism altogether.

    There were some consequences. My mom and dad were pretty hurt by my apostasy, especially my mom. They were very restrained in expressing that, but I could tell. I put off telling my mom for a while because that's what I expected.  I don't mean "hurt" in any angry way. More like sad and concerned. There were also consequences for my college roommate, who was a close friend from high school and himself a Christian (he still is).  He was having trouble finding people at UC Davis who he could connect with on a deep level and he felt even more isolated after he didn't have me to count on as a fellow Christian.  I also gradually drifted out of contact with a very close friend from high school, and I think the fact that we no longer had our religion in common was a big part of that.
    Kenji now self-identifies as atheist when asked about his religion.  For awhile he used  secular humanist because it focuses on a positive belief rather than mere non-participation in someone else's belief.  He gave up using secular humanist as a label "because it implies a higher priority for the interests of humans over those of other species." (Read: Speciesism).

    Motivation for Volunteer Work

    I asked Kenji to tell me what inspired him to join the Peace Corps and how long his tour of duty was.
    I joined the Peace Corps (PC) to get some experience in development work. At the time I wanted to work for Oxfam or another international development organization. That plan changed over the course of my PC service. This was a possibility I was aware of and open to when I applied. I completed my 27-month commitment. That's the standard term of service for every Peace Corps volunteer.

    Peace Corps in Albania

    I then asked him about where he was stationed in Albania and any challenges or inconveniences he had to overcome as someone accustomed to an American lifestyle living there.

    Kenji's host family's house was on this road in 
    Peshkopi Albania.
    My site was a smallish mountain town called Peshkopi in Albania. There were a few material challenges in the form of poor roads and frequent power and water outages, but I got used to those relatively quickly. The biggest challenges for me were cultural ones, the way people thought and acted.
    For example, everything in Albania gets done through personal relationships. People often can't be relied on to follow institutional procedures. This has a good side and a bad side. On the one hand, people really take care of their friends and family. That works out pretty great if you get to be friends with somebody. I remember quite a few gratuitous kindnesses done to me by Albanian friends and friends of friends.
    On the other hand, that same personal loyalty could also fairly be called "nepotism" when it happens in public institutions, which it frequently does. Public-sector jobs in Albania are awarded for one of three reasons: 1) personal or family connections, 2) bribes, or 3) political party loyalty - and that includes teachers and street sweepers.
    Kenji goes on to recall a story about the fate of someone who tried to break the nepotic culture from the inside.
    I was once sitting down at coffee with a good Albanian friend of mine, whom I trust and respect highly. At the time we spoke, he was the foreign language inspector for the school district. I had been opining about how more honest people needed to get into Albanian politics and displace the crooks. My friend gave me a look that I can only describe as "I'm real sorry, son, but your dog just got run over" and said "Let me tell you a story." Apparently he had once been appointed as school district superintendent. At that time he was a member of the Socialist Party, and that party held the parliamentary majority, so they got to dole out jobs. He was sitting at coffee with various Socialist luminaries, including the party chairman, who was Prime Minister at the time. My friend made a comment to the effect that in his new post as district superintendent, he intended to start appointing people to jobs based on their professional qualifications instead of their party affiliation. Not long afterwards, he was informed that his own appointment had been rescinded.

    Volunteer Work in Albania 

    Kenji's summer English course.
    While in Albania, Kenji was able to put his knowledge of language acquired from his study of Linguistics to good use.
    The only problem I definitely helped solve was the low English skills of a few English teachers in my town and from the surrounding villages. We made some clear progress there.
    Other than that, I think I introduced some of my high-school students to some perspectives and ideas they wouldn't have encountered otherwise. It's hard to say what further downstream effects that will have, if any. I'm still in contact with some of them on Facebook, and we occasionally discuss Albanian current events in both English and Albanian.

    Atheism in the Eyes of the Locals

    His lack of religion didn't seem to come up too often for Kenji, but he does relate this story.
    Religion came up in several conversations with different Albanian friends and acquaintances.  The one that sticks out in my mind most was when I was invited to attend a student performance of some English-language songs and poems at a village school near Peshkopi. Afterwards the school principal invited me and a few teachers to his office to eat some snacks and chat. He was asking me about my personal background and it got to the topic of religion. The principal said, "You know we're Muslims here. So you're from America - that means you're Protestant, right?" I started to say no. He interrupted, "Ah, Catholic?" Not that either. "Orthodox?" I said "I'm an atheist." "But you believe in God," he assured me. I denied this. One of the teachers broke in, "O director! Atheist means he doesn't believe in God!" The principal was still smiling, but he had one word for that: "keq", which means bad.

    To be fair, the word "ateist" for Albanians of a certain age has associations with the past communist regime, which severely repressed religious expression of all kinds. Most Albanians today will say they're Muslim if you ask their religion. Only a small minority of the "Muslims" are at all devout or even knowledgeable about Islam. I asked some "Muslim" acquaintances what it meant for them to be Muslims and they told me it meant they believed in God and prayed sometimes. I asked them if they had any interest in the hajj or the Qur'an and they said no, that was for people who were "shumë besimtarë" (strong believers).
    The new mosque (xhami) in Peshkopi.
    There was a small community of serious Muslims in Peshkopi, who I think attended the new mosque that was built during my time there. They were easy to spot because the men had beards, highwater pants and skullcaps, and the women wore full-length head-covering dresses. Non-elderly Albanian women, including "Muslims", don't generally cover their heads, so these women stood out extremely.
     But generally in Albania religion is an appendage to nationality and usually takes back seat to it. An Orthodox Albanian will feel solidarity with a Muslim Albanian, not an Orthodox Greek.
    There's a famous 19th-century Albanian poem in which the author exhorts his Albanian readers, "Look not to churches and mosques, for the religion of Albanians is Albanianism." This after several verses describing how the Albanian nation was divided among competing religious loyalties:
    Sa thone kam fe sa thone kam din; Njeni:" jam turk", tjetri:"latin" Do thone: " Jam grek", "shkje"-disa tjere, Por jemi vllazen t'gjith more t'mjere! Priftnit e hoxhet ju kane hutue, Per me ju damun me ju vorfnue! (Some say "I have faith", others "I have knowledge";
    One says "I am a Turk", another "a Latin".
    They'll say "I am Greek", "Slav", various others,
    But we are brothers all, O unfortunates!
    Priests and hodjas have confused you,
    To injure and impoverish you!)

    Hospice Work

    When Kenji got back from the Peace Corps, he signed up to be a hospice volunteer at an outpatient hospice program at the Martinez campus of Kaiser Permanente back in California.  He remained at this program for two years.
    Martinez campus of Kaiser Permanente HMO.
    I first signed up as a hospice volunteer because I was home from the Peace Corps and didn't have a job, so I checked out Craigslist for ways to volunteer my time and an ad for this hospice program was there.  
    It caught my attention especially because one suggested activity with patients was recording life-history interviews with them. I love doing that. I didn't end up recording anything with any of my patients, but I've recorded little interviews with several family members, people I knew in Albania, and some random people on the street. It's a deeply satisfying and life-affirming activity.
    The work involved sitting to talk with hospice patients and performing small non-medical tasks for them, like getting groceries, vacuuming, that kind of thing. It was very meaningful and it taught me a lot about death, as you'd expect. Especially about what death means to a family.
     I asked Kenji if the topic of death and the after-life ever came up with the patients.
    The topic of an afterlife only came up directly with one of my patients. I didn't bring it up. She was an Orthodox Christian and her views on it were normal for that religion. She frequently expressed her view of death, including her own impending death, and it went like this: "We're all gonna go when we're supposed to go and there's not a thing anybody can do about it. Doesn't matter if you want to or not. When your time comes, you'll go, and that's just how it is."  I don't remember her going into any detail about what she expected in the afterlife.  Heaven, I guess.
    He had more frank discussions with another Orthodox Christian patient.  This was the last patient Kenji  spent a lot of time with, around eight months altogether.

    I felt closer to her than to any of my previous patients, for a few reasons. She knew I was an atheist because on a few occasions she had asked what I thought about general religious questions like the afterlife. She herself was very deep and devout in her faith. One of that kind of Christian who takes a great interest in the history of the church, who could tell you what theological ideas distinguished John Chrysostom from his contemporaries, things like that. She had plenty to say on a lot of subjects, including religion, but I think she was a little reticent discussing religion with me because she knew I disagreed. A really special lady. 
    I had the privilege of being a pallbearer at her funeral at the request of her son (who is a college philosophy instructor and, I think, an atheist) and it was a deeply meaningful occasion for me. I still think of her often.

    Having witnessed my grandfather die a slow death to heart disease and having experienced the pain of watching my grandmother fade away to Alzheimer's disease (more on this in a future post), I was curious how hospice work affected Kenji on an emotional level.
    I didn't find hospice volunteering sad, for some reason. It wasn't painful for me either. It doesn't feel very difficult to me to accept death as a normal part of life. It feels pretty intuitive, even comforting sometimes.
    A materialist outlook on life gives Kenji comfort and meaning without any belief in the supernatural.
    More so now as a materialist than back when I believed in souls. This is purely a matter of how your brain cooks up your particular feelings, so no generalizable truths here, but I personally find life much more meaningful not believing in an afterlife than if I believed in one. It's not practice or preparation for anything. This is the real deal. I don't look for a "higher purpose" or expect any kind of meaning to be delivered to me by some other party besides myself. 
    Meaning can be found in the here and now.  There is no need for purpose or meaning to be injected from some divine outside entity.
    I can look at the most mundane events and situations and really feel and believe with considerable satisfaction: This is the substance of life. It doesn't even matter if there are deities. They can pursue their own business if they're around, and if they propose to interfere in my life, I'll figure out how to deal with that when and if I encounter it. I know what's meaningful to me and that's not affected by whether I was created by invisible celestial powers.
    I would think that this may have been much less distressing for the patients - if I should have the audacity to project myself into their position.  Even if they didn't know his materialist views, they would pick up on his behaviour.

    Perhaps watching my grandparents waste away over an extended period didn't put a fear of the afterlife into me - but rather a dread for the dying process itself. (A future post will cover my thoughts on assisted suicide/euthanasia).  I think that this is probably the case for most people.

    The prospect of physical suffering during the dying process is a little bit scary to me, but not that much. I don't know how or whether that will change when it becomes a more imminent reality.
    In the final analysis, I think just being there for elderly people in their last days is a marvelous service.

    What Now?

    Kenji is currently taking a break from volunteering and is doing some clerical work.

    He has begun building a new website on his own time.  This will be the first he's made in years, so he's busy catching up with current web coding techniques.  The goal of the site is to give discussion-minded people an easy way to lay out their belief structures and get feedback from others about them.  It sounds interesting to me!

    How You Can Help

    If you are a US citizen and would like information on what the Peace Corps is and how to join a volunteering mission you may visit the site at:

    Blackboard-shot from Kenji's Albanian English class.
    The Peace Corps maintains a fascinating collection of volunteer submitted stories here:

    A simple Google query will get you more information on how to volunteer at a hospice:

    Google usually sorts results based on geographic proximity to where you're at (or at least that's how it seems to me).

    Editor's Note: All of the pictures in this post except for the Kaiser Permanente building are taken from Kenji's Albania photostream on Flickr.

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