Humanitarian Work

This category contains 7 posts

In Memoriam: Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman

Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman was a young Syrian doctor who gave up his job to care for those injured in democracy demonstrations and justifiably afraid to seek medical treatment in regime-controlled hospitals.

He was known as the “Doctor of the Revolution” and co-founder of the Physicians Coordinating Committee in Damascus.

This video shows Dr. Ibrahim ‒ he was often called by his first name ‒ preparing a field operating room, explaining to a reporter how he was able to treat some patients with so little, and how others died because he could do nothing for them, their injuries were so great.

At the very beginning of the revolution, when an activist asked him to help with the injured, he answered, “Give me an hour to say goodbye to my parents because I might not come back.”

After months in hiding as one of Assad’s Most Wanted, Dr. Othman was shot and killed on Dec 11 (according to Syrian Local Coordinating Committees, other sources report Dec 12) by regime intelligence forces as he tried to escape to Turkey.

You can read his obituary in English on and read the Facebook page in Arabic created in his honor.

The French Ministère des Affaires étrangères released this statement:

“France strongly condemns the despicable murder of Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman by Syrian forces.

A man of peace, Dr. Ibrahim Nahel Othman had, through his courage and action in coordinating Damascus Doctors, achieved unanimous recognition and respect, particularly for his constant commitment to treating the injured without discrimination.

Through him, his murderers sought to prevent free access to the victims and to treatment.

At a time when this crime arouses a strong sense of indignation and deep shock in Syria, France reaffirms her determination to stand alongside the Syrian people in the face of the relentless crackdown to which they have been subjected for more than nine months.

France, more than ever, is mobilizing her efforts in all international forums in order to bring an end to the crackdown in Syria.”

Dr. Othman, of Barzeh, Damascus, was 26 years old. He was one of 19 Syrian doctors to be killed by the Assad regime during 2011.

Unedited translation of testimony given by a doctor from Mujtahed Hospital about the bombing on 6 January 2011, as reported to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria. The LCCs have been collecting such eyewitness testimonies and publishing daily statistics – with full names and home towns, when known – of the dead, wounded, and disappeared since the protests began and their data is being provided to the Arab League monitors. (What the monitors do with and about this information is another post.)

“I participated in rescuing the victims of the bombing that happened in Midan today, most injuries of security agents were as a result of gunshots not fragments of explosives nor the bombing itself, nurses were able to identify injured security agents and their names.

We’ve been told that the bombing targeted 2 security buses parked near Midan police station, security forces were deployed heavily in the hospital while we were treating the injured, there was a dispute between security administrations about who is to take control.

After 2 hours injured people from demonstrations started coming to the hospital, nurses refused to take care of them or even rescue them, cleaning workers also refused to help on the grounds that they are “intruders” and “traitors”, we were also prohibited from helping them.”

Syrian Forces Kill Red Crescent Volunteer Hakam Al-Siba’i in Homs

This hits very close to home for those of us who have either been Red Cross or Red Crescent volunteers, or have worked alongside them as disaster relief volunteers for other organizations, in many countries for many different disasters.

Unpreventable natural disasters are terrible enough, but we all understand that they occur periodically and skilled people do what needs to be done. Preventable human disasters by amoral dictators and their mindless followers, driven by power and greed, are unconscionable.

There is no possible justification for wounding and killing humanitarian workers, especially your own citizens, volunteering at home.

Hakam, from all of us: we know the risks you and your loved ones took when you decided to volunteer and we thank you for your service and sacrifice.

Yesterday’s social media press statement combined reports from 2 different Syrian activists:

HOMS (17/9/2011): This is the funeral of the martyr Hakam Al-Siba’i, a Red Crescent volunteer whose ambulance was attacked by security forces on 7th September. He was on his way with the ambulance crew to Bab al-Aldreb during the invasion of the neighborhood and came under fire from security and Shabiha, including snipers, wounding three ambulance crew members and even the patient himself. Hakam died of his injuries on 15th September. You can see many other Red Crescent workers and volunteers are attending the funeral in their uniforms. They are doing a brave and priceless job even in peaceful times. They are our heroes.

Update: As of 31 December, the Red Crescent has discontinued its services in Homs because of the risk of death and injury to its staff, volunteers, and patients, as well as ongoing destruction of Red Crescent property and harassment by regime forces. There now remains no humanitarian medical organization operating in the city that has borne 40% of all civilian deaths in 2011.

Tsunami 津波 Hanami 花見

Washington, DC is a distant runner-up…in the cherry blossom department.

As much as I love springtime in the nation’s Capitol…

…strolling along the Tidal Basin on crisp, sunny afternoons, the Jefferson Memorial in the background, under canopies of cherry trees in various stages of bloom (because they’re not all the same variety, on purpose)…

…it will never, ever be the same as April in Japan.

Welcome to Hanami, the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival!

It’s the one week of the year that your otherwise inflexible Japanese boss gives you a day off ‒ with pleasure, even ‒ to picnic under the sakura (“cherry blossoms”) with your friends, family, and first-timer American expatriate colleagues for whom Hanami is a puzzling new experience. (How could a national picnic so capture a people’s imagination that it’s exponentially bigger than the Super Bowl?)

Maybe even 2 days off, so you can stake out your picnic spot well in advance. Competition is just that fierce.

I’ve been on many of these picnics in Hanamis past. At Oeno Park, central Tokyo. In the lovely garden of Kenrokuen in Kanazawa. Along Tetsugaku no Michi (“Philosopher’s Path”) in Kyoto, home of the formidably picturesque Japanese Imperial Palace.

Every year since the 7th century, the über-rich Japanese ruling class ‒ the only people who had time to care about trees that didn’t bear any actual fruit ‒ used to look out at all those beautiful blossoms and write beautiful poems about them.

Less than a month after the devastating March 11th earthquake and tsunami, with almost 250,000 Japanese citizens living in shelters, having barely escaped with their lives and still under radiation threat, nobody’s in the poem-writing mood these days.

But the sakura don’t know any different and they started blooming this week, like always.

Japan, a long and narrow country with great climatic variety, can actually celebrate Hanami for 6 months a year. In Okinawa, the far-south tropics, Hanami is in January; in Hokkaido, the oft-snowy north, Hanami is in May.

But in central Japan, Hanami in early to mid-April, Mother Nature permitting, ushers in the best of Japanese spring.

I once celebrated Hanami in the Tohoku province, at Tsurugajo Koen. In the Fukushima prefecture, where the major geologic event is usually the haru-ichiban, the south-west wind that marks the end of winter.

Here the tsunami dealt a devastating head-on blow.

Sakura viewers who’ve traveled all the way to Tohoku for Hanami continue by auto-pilot to Hirosaki Koen. A few thousand magnificent cherry trees against a dramatic castle backdrop.

I like Tsurugajo Koen better. It’s a nearby “rival” castle ‒ not as crowded, just as impressive ‒ built in the 14th century and meets all the classic castle requirements, including a moat and a “donjon” (castle keep)!

“Just” a thousand cherry trees, perfectly illuminated bright white.

If memory serves, you take the JR (Japanese railway) from the Aizu-Wakamatsu station. Get off at the Tsurugajo-Kitaguchi station and take a bus into Tsurugajo.

Follow the crowds, because in Japan even the less popular venues draw a million people.

Breathe deeply. Picnic sumptuously. Enjoy some of the best scenery Japan has to offer, absolutely free. At prime photo-taking locations, practice graciously sharing small spaces, a useful social skill throughout Japan.

(Please promise me that when and where it’s safe even before it’s over, you’ll go to Japan as a tourist or business traveler, to support recovery efforts there.)

It’s not hard to find Fukushima on a map nowadays. It’s the home of the nuclear power plant that was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami and continues, ominously, to leak high levels of radioactive iodine into the Pacific Ocean.

Also into the ground in a half-dozen places near the plant, expanding the mandatory evacuation area. Also into the air in tiny droplets that are falling far from Fukushima.

Most recently, tiny amounts of radiation have been found in milk more than 6,700 miles/10,790 kilometers away in California and Washington state, USA.

All it would take after a nuclear meltdown is just the right wind for a significant amount of radiation to find its way to other major Japanese cities, and major population centers in neighboring countries, near and far.

The “Fukushima 50,” a brave group of expert TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) employees, are risking their lives to turn the tide at the Daiichi reactor.

Some of these employee’s families, friends, houses, even entire hometowns were undoubtedly washed away by the tsunami and never seen again. Rather than focus on their own losses, these people ran toward ‒ not away from ‒ the reactor, to prevent further losses of life.

For some, at the eventual expense of their own.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen first-hand how much damage a massive earthquake followed by a massive tsunami can cause, having spent 6 months in Southeast Asia in 2005.

I learned something very important about grief when, come the Water Festival, Songkran (New Year’s), almost 4 months to the day after the tsunami, the Thai people let their departed loved ones go.

สุขสันต์วันสงกรานต์ (pronounced “suk-san wan songkran”) means “Happy Songkran Day,” emphasis on “happy.”

Every year on December 26th, Thailand welcomes from overseas thousands of tsunami survivors and families and friends of victims. Memorial events are held diligently and kindly…primarily for the benefit of foreigners.

Because the Thai people have long since folded up that time and gently put it away.

There was a calm in the face of those devastating losses that I just couldn’t comprehend…and I’m getting glimpses of it all over again from the tsunami zone in Japan.

We’re thankful that our extended family lost no loved ones in Japan. I have friends in Thailand who lost more than a dozen family members. All of their childhood friends. Their businesses, and every one of their employees.

Their babies, ripped from their arms.

Although many of the southern villages where I was happen to be majority Muslim, Thailand is over 90% Buddhist and Songkran is a national, not religious, holiday. I asked a disaster relief colleague, a Thai-French national who happens to be Buddhist, the significance of all this.

His answer, loosely translated: “The real difference between us and you is that we see death a long time coming.”

For real, not just the concept of it.

I began to understand that, in Thai culture, loss through death is only painful if we become too attached to this impermanent and not-ours-to-keep life.

Dealing with death, both your own that you know is coming or someone else’s close to you that catches you by surprise, should be the same as dealing with life: be positive. This brings calm, and ultimately happiness, to you and everyone around you.

That’s the work of a lifetime.

Even though I don’t qualify to be a citizen, Japanese border control never fails to notice “Country of Birth: Japan” on my passport. No matter where I’m living at the time, that kind gesture ‒ from the people in the place where I began ‒ always makes me smile.

Says the immigration officer, waving me through: “Welcome home.”

Congressional Lobbying for Good Guys 102

Picking up where we left off yesterday in Congressional Lobbying for Good Guys 101, this is day 2 of 2 of my grassroots lobbying cheat sheet, helping you call your elected officials’ attention to an issue you care deeply about:

Know the official name and number of your bill
If there’s already a bill on your issue in committee, know its number. Federal bills are either HRnnnn – numeric variables in italics – for a House of Representatives bill or Snnnn for a Senate bill.

In state legislatures, this syntax is roughly the same. In the California Legislature, for example, SBnnnn is a state Senate bill and ABnnnn is a state Assembly bill.

Next, find out the official name of your bill. What’s commonly known as the Farm Bill is in fact the Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act, in which farm subsidies and anti-hunger/nutrition funding are multiple line items. (These issues appeal to very different groups of voters, but they’re interconnected…which is exactly why they’re together in the same bill.)

Another example: our recent health care reform law had 12 different informal names as the bill made its way through the legislative process.

Senators and Representatives whose votes might be crucial might not have perfect recall of either, if it’s not a high-profile bill. Don’t make their offices hunt around, or guess.

Learn to love pretzels and hot dogs
Anybody who’s hung around Capitol Hill for awhile knows the few restaurants very nearby are crowded and bad. So, if legislators or their aides have 5 minutes between meetings, in reasonable weather they might just hit the food stand down the street from the Hart Building. Do likewise.

When you make a request over instant cocoa and spicy mustard, it’s amazing how generous people can be. Ask me how I know this.

Know your guy (or girl) on sight
You’ve seen Law & Order: SVU. Think about it: would Detectives Benson and Stabler ever leave the station house without a current photo of the perp?

Make sure you introduce yourself to the right person. Look at constituent Web sites for photos and office addresses. No need to be a stalker; just use this information to plan your visits effectively.

Construct and deliver a 3-sentence pitch
If you had less than 15 seconds ‒ I timed my example below ‒ to get an elected official on board with your issue, what would you say?

Your 3 brief sentences: introduce yourself, make your case, ask for action.

The Farm Bill pitch is a good template (again, variables in italics): “Hello, Representative or Senator, I’m your name. Did you know that 50 million Americans, 1 in 6 adults and 1 in 4 kids, go to bed hungry: number or % of kids and/or number of % of seniors in your district or state? Can I count on your support for food security and nutrition funding in the Farm Bill?”

That’s right: 15% of American adults and 25% of American kids today are “food insecure.” Meaning, they aren’t positive where their next meal is coming from.

Rarely you get an on-the-spot yes, but don’t expect it…and would you really want your elected officials to commit to voting for a bill they knew that little about? This brief contact tells the lawmaker you’re serious and knowledgeable and simply opens the door for further contact. Suggest a meeting to provide more details. Offer to send more information to their staff, then follow up. Give your sincere thanks, right then and afterwards in writing.

Sometimes advocacy groups have already articulated these “calls to action” for you. Plagiarize them; they’ll love you for it. From your blog, include links to these organizations and invite your Facebook friends to become Fans, too.

Be sincerely extra super nice to the staffers
Some staffers are paid career people, but some are interns getting zip to be barged in on and yelled at all day by self-absorbed whoevers demanding their stuff yesterday. It’s cool to intern in the nation’s Capitol, but not that cool.

In many political situations, being calm and considerate helps you really stand out. Wait in line. Offer to stay on hold for awhile. Be timely and organized in all your requests. Come to meetings impeccable prepared. Take responsibility yourself for any follow-ups required.

If your nonprofit doesn’t provide business cards to volunteers, or you’re on your own, print your own cards, using the title “Community Activist, Your Cause.” Besides your email address, cell phone number, and links to your new blog, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn if appropriate, include your street address so your legislator can confirm that you are indeed a constituent. (Yes, they check.)

It goes without saying that you need to be a registered voter with a solid voting track record. Take time to read those pesky local initiatives and obscure judge bios in off-year elections. People who can’t be bothered to vote have no business asking for anything in their state or nation’s Capitol.

Blatantly ask for the sale
Marketing 101: never leaving a meeting without asking for exactly what you want the person to do for you! “Can I count on your support for my bill?”

Position your request a way that resonates with the legislator politically. Give them a sound bite they can give in an interview later. How does this bill benefit their constituency specifically? Does an egregious example of injustice that this bill would fix come from their district? Does this bill further other causes they endorse?

While you’re at it, ask for a referral to one of his/her colleagues who you’ve had a hard time reaching. In my experience, if you’ve been convincing, he/she may even proactively offer to do that.

Close with “Thank you very much. I greatly appreciate your time and interest in my issue. I’ll follow up tomorrow with answers to the specific questions you raised today.”

You get one shot at these people. Make it count by committing to the advance research it will take to customize your request.

Bottom line: Democracy works! Try it!
If you have a specific issue in mind, contact me. Who knows? Maybe I can connect you with somebody helpful.

For more information about hunger in America and what you can do about it in your community, contact Feeding America, formerly called America’s Second Harvest. I sometimes donate my public speaking fees to this nonprofit organization.

Congressional Lobbying for Good Guys 101

People often ask me how I got into Congressional activism. First, I got my Ph.D. in Getting People to Do Stuff for Me for Free, an essential skill both in private industry and in volunteering for nonprofits with big charters and tiny budgets.

I’ve lobbied on a variety of issues, from health care reform to child nutrition and food education to medical research funding. Not to mention cyber security, disability legislation, and international human rights.

Some issues I’ve chosen due to personal interest or history; others I’ve taken on as favors because I had a little useful knowledge. I’ve gotten involved in a couple simply by sitting next to somebody on a flight to Washington, DC who was on his/her way to testify on Capitol Hill.

I found out that I liked lobbying and was pretty good at it.

In his memorial tribute in Arizona, President Obama strongly reminded us of the important privilege and responsibility of participating in the democratic process. That means me, and you, and you.

With the long slog of mid-term elections behind us and the 112th Congress in session (and we hope with a tenor of civility we haven’t heard in awhile), we citizens now know ‒ for better or worse ‒ who we’ll be dealing with. Now we need the what, where, when, and how.

So, here’s a 2-day Congressional Lobbying Cheat Sheet, based on my personal experience, to help you with that. Tips on how you, one of us regular people, can move your cause forward ‒ no matter what it is ‒ in 2011.

Know your issue inside, outside, and sideways
The more stake you have in the issue, the more persuasive you’ll be. Most people lobby Congress not because they thought it would be fun to hang out with Senator So-And-So, but because something happened to them or a loved one – often terribly wrong, but perfectly legal − that they never want to happen to anyone else.

Ever wonder how we got Amber Alerts for missing children? Sex offender registries? Internet safety and stalking laws?

Job protection during maternity leave? Child support payment enforcement? Consumer product safety, including product labeling, recalls, and prohibition of toxic chemicals?

Who closed blatant loopholes for drunk drivers? Who held companies accountable for environmental cleanups in residential areas? Who fought for respite care for Alzheimer’s patient’s families?

Just a handful out of hundreds of examples over the last 30 years.

These laws came to be in part thanks to ordinary people with no legislative experience, no law degrees, and no initial funding, who believed in their cause and gathered support for it ‒ the hard way.

You’ve likely got a steep learning curve, so get going. Start with Web research on the general topic. Once you identify what blanks you need to fill in, start assembling your personal “advisory board.”

You can get 15 minutes on the calendars of even the busiest subject matter experts – scientists, law enforcement officials, business executives, physicians, community leaders − once their staff understands exactly what you need to know, and why.

First, sell any gatekeepers on your idea. State your motivation, or briefly recap your personal story. Confirm you’re an uncompensated volunteer. Appeal to his/her sense of community responsibility.

Once you do get an appointment (face-to-face, by phone, on Skype), be prepared to make every minute of those 15 count and commit to reporting back in writing on your issue’s progress, either on the new blog you just set up on, which hosts the free blog you’re reading right now, or as a column on the Web site of the nonprofit you’ve partnered with (keep reading).

Don’t neglect university professors who’ve published papers on your subject, and graduate students willing to get involved in your issue as field work, or for a thesis. Simply call up the graduate school and say, “Who’s your resident expert on my issue?”

Keep an online document archive of “Everything I Know About My Issue” that you can share out as needed. Politics can still be old school, so be prepared with appropriate paper copies to leave behind.

Arm yourself only with data you fully understand and can explain because the people you’ll be talking to, while maybe having an interest in an issue’s outcome, may not have much background.

Find like-minded community partners, allies, and fans
Whatever your issue, there are potentially lots of other people who care about it and have done leg work you can leverage rather than repeat.

I use the word ”community” loosely. Seek out local chapters of national organizations, online communities (especially of people who’ve personally experienced whatever your issue addresses), and support groups, on the Web or in your city.

Every person you talk to, ask him/her to recommend the one person or organization you should talk to next. Ask for a referral or introduction, and reciprocate liberally.

Many causes have annual conventions where you can network. Attending one might be the best $250 you ever spent. If you’re volunteering for a 501(c)3 nonprofit ‒ carefully select one that’s both respected in the community and financially transparent ‒ your travel and other expenses may be tax deductible. Check with your accountant.

There are grassroots lobbying laws ‒ or bills in process ‒ in more than 35 states that call for financial accountability, to ensure grassroots organizations are truly community-based and not simply fronts for professional lobbying organizations. If you’re working independently and not through a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a tax ID, this can mean some paperwork, but ultimately it’s to your benefit. You’re a volunteer activist with no financial interest in any legislation’s outcome and you can prove it. Especially if you raise money, you may need to register with your state. Please don’t mistakenly go to jail over a $1,000 backyard barbeque fundraiser.

Find out if there’s a state or national day or week of the year devoted to your issue. Look for celebrations, awareness events, media coverage, etc. Don’t underestimate the power of a homemade video testimonial, or a longer podcast. Let kindred lobbyists find you on YouTube.

Lobbying can be even more effective if you and other activists organize yourselves by state or region. If you approach your elected official(s) together, that’s power.

As you secure partners, endorsements, and perhaps donors, give these people and organizations verbal and online credit ‒ with their permission. If you’re being interviewed, mention your “generous friends at…” who’ve been so helpful.

Start with your own elected officials
The magic words are, “I’m a registered voter in your district (or state).” Doesn’t matter if you voted for the person or not; he/she now represents you and your viewpoints.

If your issue is local or regional, start with those lawmakers first; if your issue is national, Washington, DC is your town and your own Senators and Representatives are your first stops.

Find out what committees your elected officials sit on, then look horizontally. Who else sits on those committees? What other committees do those people sit on? Who have your guys allied with on other issues in the past? Look up their voting records and see who sponsored the bills they’ve voted for. Are these related to your issue in any way? Add this intel to your dossier.

Next, make appointments to see the appropriate people. Take advantage of any group lobbying opportunities you found earlier.

Find out which other legislators care (hint: maybe not in your political party)Take the issue of hunger, which I care a lot about. (Read my post The Outer Perimeter of Normal).

I’ve volunteered at emergency food distribution centers and food banks in several countries over lots of years. Never once have I heard a volunteer ask a recipient his/her political affiliation.

Because it’s a non-issue. If you’re hungry, for whatever reason, let us help you.

Here’s why hunger in America is a bipartisan issue today:

In traditionally liberal states with high unemployment and high home foreclosure rates, working families are suddenly finding themselves in untypical, desperate situations. In traditionally conservative states with high populations of seniors on fixed incomes, severe cutbacks in community services are resulting in risk of malnutrition. (I’ve seen seniors at food banks pushing other seniors in wheelchairs. That’s just wrong.)

Kids from families below the poverty line, or homeless, and kids in foster care, who’ve all relied on free or subsidized school lunches during the year as their one square meal of the day, start going hungry as soon as seasonal school vacations begin.

(While we’re here, one particularly worrying public health statistic: the huge increase in numbers of obese children and teens with diabetes and hypertension. More and more, younger and younger. This is partly genetic, partly habit, and partly this economy, in which nutrition goes by the wayside in favor of plain old calories, wherever they come from.)

Adding to this, people across the country whose budgets have been devastated by serious illness or injury, or by pre-existing conditions, who’ve been uninsurable up until health care reform and still may not be able to obtain or afford insurance coverage until 2014. Some of them may need temporary help, too.

Notice I say temporary. For the vast majority, it’s not a lifestyle choice. People who tell you these are all lazy opportunists (or, in some states in this country, illegal immigrants) who would rather be standing in line at a food bank every week for the next decade, rather than working to buy their own food, have never set foot in a food bank, nor met anyone who had to go to one, nor ever missed a meal except on purpose…nor ever had their homes destroyed by a natural, industrial, or criminal disaster and barely escaped with their lives.

When one of these situations happens to you, you can get back to me on whether you still think emergency food distribution is a “crutch.”

Two members of Congress in particular are known as longtime champions on issues of global hunger and food policy: Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-Missouri) and Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts). I met them both in Washington, DC several years ago and was impressed.

Get my point? Talking only to “your guys” limits your reach, which limits your effectiveness as a lobbyist.

Continuing tomorrow with Congressional Lobbying for Good Guys 102!

Dancing With Widows, Act 2

Before the intermission yesterday, we wrapped up Dancing With Widows, Act 1. Welcome back to the Kenyan Public Health Theatre today for Act 2.

OK, let’s say you manage to avoid being sexually assaulted by a stranger – or, worse yet, by someone in your circle, someone you know well − and you also choose to avoid engaging in voluntary unprotected sex. What if you’re married and faithful but your husband isn’t?

Abstinence obviously isn’t a realistic option. Condom use is rare (and strongly resisted by men, not surprisingly). So, at best, even if you’re successful at everything we’ve talked about so far, you’ve addressed only 2/3 of the HIV infection picture.

In some villages I’ve been, the HIV infection rate among adults is 30-40%. Not to mention children born HIV+ who develop AIDS by pre-school (“baby school,” as it’s called there).

I remember one sweet little child, Charity. (Many Kenyan children have Biblical names.) Her mother told me she was 4 years old, but she looked much younger. While I was sitting on the ground, she climbed into my lap, arms around my neck.

I wondered whether it was a blessing that she and her mother, Constance, also with full-blown AIDS, might pass away together.

After dancing with the widows, we ate the delicious lunch they prepared. They got a huge laugh at our expense as we cringed during the chicken butchering, which erased any residual doubts about chicken originating from Safeway.

(It doesn’t take long to get so used to the local cuisine that even when visitors “treat” you to outrageously expensive meals in Nairobi, you look at the menu and everything sounds way too rich, so you say to the stunned waiter, “Excuse me, do you have sukuma wiki (a traditional Kenyan dish made with kale, tomatoes, and shallots)?” I once walked away from a restaurant salad bar at an exact replica of California Pizza Kitchen, not because I was afraid of eating the fresh produce there, but because the number of choices was overwhelming and most of them weren’t even salad.)

Then, after even more singing (for which, thankfully, I have some minor talent) and dancing (and realizing my dancing skills were so sadly deficient that years − even decades − of public health work in Africa were never going to fix that), we drove away to the next village. Charity ran alongside the car, slowly, for as long as she could, waving.

I know by now she’s long gone, as is her mother, as are many other women and children I met that day.

All over the countryside, I saw what I thought were ruins, common in Europe. Buildings in their prime 1,000 or more years ago that have been taken by time and weather, but remind us of the golden years. I came to understand that in Kenya these are not ruins; they’re modern family homes begun but never finished because the father died of AIDS first.

I’m convinced that if African women formally organized, they’d take over the world. They’re that tenacious, street smart, and able to work miracles with nothing. These attributes have been borne out of necessity. That’s why some of these “ruins” in Kenya are being finished. In the style of an Amish barn-raising, these widows pool their meager finances and sweat equity and are finishing these houses, one brick at a time.

These HIV+ widows know that, since treatment is too far away and too expensive to contemplate, they might never see the completion of their own homes. However, they labor willingly on the homes of the other widows, knowing that these women may very well take in their children when they pass away, because their deceased husbands’ extended families will be interested only in the healthy ones.

Violet’s home was first, because it was the closest to completion and she’d managed to keep a tiny savings hidden from her in-laws, who’d arrived on the day of her husband’s funeral to carry away all of her household goods: furniture, dishes, animals, and everything else of value. They weren’t successful in taking “his” children as well only because Violet physically resisted, which must have taken them so by surprise that they backed off.

I went to Violet’s home for tea and biscuits. In the sitting room was a lone chair, which she offered to me. The dirt floor was immaculately swept. There were lace curtains over the window openings.

Violet has only 3 children of her own because her husband had several wives before her and passed away before they had any more children. By some miracle, she’s HIV- thus far and is stepmother and “auntie” – in the loosely-defined African sense − to 22 children among her circle of friends and relatives.

22 orphans or soon-to-be orphans, in just one group of widows, in just one small district in Kenya.

Violet, for all her weighty responsibilities, thinks people who try to give their children away to foreigners “to give them a better life” are wrong and misguided. Kenyan children, in her view, should be raised at home, in their own villages, with their own people. (If there’s opportunity for higher education abroad, that’s a separate issue.)

With regard to HIV/AIDS and everything those acronyms imply, it just can’t be true that the only way things get fixed around here is for foreigners to do it for us.

I find her views both sadly atypical and downright encouraging.

My theatre critique: all the condoms in the world and all the vaccines in the world will ultimately be ineffective against HIV/AIDS in Kenya until and unless there’s a change in thinking, followed by a change in behavior. By everyone.

Violet is a seamstress and she’s sitting on that chair now, measuring me for a dress. (I still have it.) She’s making it from bright yellow fabric.

The same fabric as the dresses the dancing widows wear.

Dancing With Widows, Act 1

Why doesn’t somebody offer a dual Masters of Public Health/Theatre Arts degree?

Kenya has taken HIV/AIDS education to the stage and it has the potential to make more of a life-saving difference than all the condom distribution programs to date, and all the immunization programs in the future.

In a country in which not knowing how to sing and dance is a serious disability, musical community theatre might be a more effective health education platform than any public service announcement, any sermon from the pulpit, or any lecture by a Western doctor who’s passing through for a week and knows nothing about Kenya…or about Africa, for that matter.

The message from one Kenyan woman to another, in particular one HIV+ Kenyan widow with infected children to a younger HIV- woman who still has a chance, is crystal clear: unprotected sex causes HIV, which causes AIDS. Either you get it by having unprotected sex yourself, voluntarily or involuntarily, or you get it from your husband who has had unprotected sex. Either way, you die, and probably give it to your child, who also dies.

Harsh, but at this point Kenya desperately needs harsh.

Here’s how things play out today, says the play, and here’s how they need to play out tomorrow so that you and your children live. Dance, sing, and learn.

The most striking thing about these HIV/AIDS theatre works is how the women portray the arc of seduction. Nothing like dancing with widowers, I’m sure, although the story starts out exactly as predicted and you don’t need to understand a word of the local language to follow this plot.

First, “I think you’re beautiful and I’m going to follow you around everywhere.” OK, fine. Next it’s, “I’m begging you and touching you any chance I get. You’re reluctant, but you’ll come around.” We get the picture so far.

At this point, the female actors in this play come to the predictable fork in the road. Option #1: keep running away, keep saying no, and eventually he’ll give up and go bother somebody else. She hopes. Option #2: say yes, but insist on protection. Right. Even in the play, these lines are spoken with irony.

But the fact that they’re spoken AT ALL speaks volumes for the urgency of HIV/AIDS education in Kenya and the acknowledgement that exceedingly blunt, normally taboo messages are sometimes the last hope of turning around a caravan of a country speeding headlong towards a public health disaster.

The play continues at the point Option #1 goes bad. She’s in danger and if it were any of us, we’d be calling the police, calling CNN, calling somebody.

The humiliation. The threats. In the USA, we have legal terms for these behaviors: “sexual harassment” and “stalking.” Also, “criminal complaint” and “restraining order.”

(Amidst policy discussions about instances of unfair and unequal treatment of women in America − some absolutely legitimate, others just plain whining − never forget: we’re the luckiest women on the planet.)

Or maybe we’re in criminal territory immediately because this is an ambush. I’m going to take you anyway, so you might as well go willingly, or at least pretend like you are. I’ll do everything I can to get you alone, where nobody can hear your screams.

(This is a favorite tactic used against young girls during typically very long walks − several miles − to and from school. I know 4 girls to whom this happened: three 6th graders and a 5th grader. One girl is an exceptional athlete who outran their attackers to get help. Unfortunately, help arrived too late for the other girls. Heartbreaking, and heartbreakingly common…and a sure way to end a girl’s education much too early because the parents understandably take their daughter out of school rather than risk her safety again.)

Afterwards, if you have the money to go to a clinic, which is unlikely, you’ll never have the courage to tell anyone there what happened to you, although they’d figure it out anyway and not be surprised. As a bonus, I’ll make sure your extended family hears rumors of all the gory details, so they’ll shun you.

Even better if I get you pregnant, so you’ll have a reminder of me for the rest of your life. It’s my goal to make you unmarriageable − or divorceable − and to turn the wonderful experience of motherhood into something you’d do anything to forget.

While rape is on the books as a crime, in real life it’s not a punishable offense in Kenya. Any man accused of sexual assault can walk in the front door of the police station with a few hundred shillings – 80 shillings is $1 USD − and walk right out the back door. Everybody knows this, the rapists most of all.

Imagine, too, the retribution on the woman or young girl and her family after a “false arrest.”

There are people to whom this reality doesn’t apply. I know some of them. Without exception, they’re prosperous people who can afford a higher quality of life, a more protected lifestyle. There would be serious repercussions in a community if somebody assaulted a government minister’s daughter, or the wife of an important businessman providing jobs and foreign investment.

That perpetrator wouldn’t even make it to police station.

Jacob, our driver on theatre day, was a biology undergrad driving a makeshift taxi to pay his tuition and hoping to meet some future mentors in the field of public health, which he did. Although he knew we needed some freedom to do the work we were in Kenya to do, he remained militantly militant about our safety.

Even if you’re well-traveled in the developing world (we were) and can handle yourself (we could), you’re always a juicy target – and your mere presence paints targets on your local friends, too − if your supplies and equipment have significant street value. Even in a city of 200,000 people, it takes less than 5 minutes for everyone in town to know you’ve arrived.

If it makes you feel any better, it’s rarely cold-blooded murder. It’s usually an armed robbery gone awry, in the context of – once again – ineffectual, corrupt law enforcement.

But trust Jacob on this: you’re just as dead either way.

Can we stop here? No. Can we walk over there by ourselves? No. Can we meet our (local) colleagues across town for dinner? After dark? Are you crazy?

Absolutely not.

Sometimes, when he had to step out of the car for a moment, he’d say, “Do not get out of the car, keep the doors locked, and do not roll down the windows.” (Fine advice, except that many of the windows didn’t actually roll up.)

At first, some of my foreign colleagues who were new to the country thought this was unreasonable, bordering on extreme. Come on. The whole world isn’t out to get us. They shortly came to realize what the rest of us already knew: they should obey Jacob unquestioningly.

I also came to realize that he’d put his life on the line if it meant protecting mine. It was truly humbling.

After a short (1-day) intermission, we’ll be back with Act 2 of Dancing With Widows.