We Need a Little Light

What interesting parallels I’m having this week with the stories I wrote ten years ago as the Slate Diarist not long after 9/11. There was a lot of talk in the media then about how 9-11 had changed everything, but I suspect that less changed than we predicted. Ten years ago I was trying to shape my thoughts about writing simply, about telling stories that move me, and about my recently published Christmas book, When Angels Sing that has this past year been made into a feature film.

I was even more focused on my script, Waiting for Gordo, a South Texas adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s classic that I had set on the border, not far from where I am writing this week on the Rio Grande River in and around Laredo. Gordo was a small effort to personalize a story that is too often dehumanized and always politicized.

A decade later, the eight candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination – arguing like an octopus turned on itself – are arguing about border immigration and freeloading illegals in the same tone I was hearing then.  I’m not going to hold my breath for a solution, but I have learned this week that border intervention is a huge business and not likely to ever become a smaller one. It’s been an honor to look for a little understanding of border issues in the company of Time Magazine’s Joe Klein and one of the greatest and bravest photographers of our time, Lynsey Addario. Watch for Joe’s stories and Lynsey’s photos on Joe’s Swampland Blog and in Time Magazine for the next month.

But first, here’s my Slate Diary Blog from soon after 9-11 – a time capsule to a me that I hope I can hold onto.


The beauty of being a free-lance writer is you get to pick your subjects, themes, and characters. Unless they pick you. The age-old dictum, of course, is to “write what you know,” a philosophy that works for a time, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a tattoo. Much better to write what you learn.

So after a long day on a film set watching my words turn into pictures, the questions before me tonight are: What did I learn today? And what can I write?

Foremost, I learned that my daughter is not the only one plagued by dreams hanging on our fears of a darkness that threatens to envelop the earth. This morning, one person after another related their sleepless experiences until it seemed like half of America must have awakened at 4 a.m. from what I can only describe as a collective nightmare. Oh, if this war were only a dream, how sweet would be our waking tomorrow.

One thing I learned in that quest today, learned and relearned as I have to learn nearly every day, is the aspiration to write simply. Misquoting Faulkner—but raising a glass to his spirit—my goal is to write from the heart, not from the balls or brains (though those can be handy in a pinch).

A few years ago, while a guest on Sky TV’s literary talk show from London, I was talking with Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass series and other timeless tomes. Pullman is a former schoolteacher who started quite a row in the literary world by saying the art of storytelling had been foolishly devalued by hip literary stylists. I believe Martin Amis was one name that he singled out, though I don’t intend to reduce one great writer to hoist up another. But I do think Pullman was right to wonder if the literary hipsters weren’t forgetting to give something back to their readers.

I later shared a few ales and words on this subject with Richard Cohen, the British publisher of my novel, Fast Greens, which I was promoting at the time. Richard fell more into the Pullman camp than the Amis, saying that he had once worked for a marvelous publisher who only asked one question when Richard found a novel that he wanted to publish. “Did itmove you?”

Cohen also gave me a piece of advice I’ve carried ever since. One of the advantages of being a Southern writer (or a Texas writer), he said, is that the innate style and language of our region enables us to write close against the line of sentimentality. (He neglected, however, to mention the Sisyphean nature of defining the line that separates sentiment in its true light from blatant sentimentality.)

A couple of years ago, I wrote one of those little Christmas novels that a cynic might think the product of monetary desperation. But this was a story that chose me. I’d been thinking of writing something for my family’s Christmas but had no solid ideas. Then one morning I awoke from a late night’s reverie and began to write. Twenty days later, I stopped writing and sent the book to my friends and family as a Christmas present. One week more, and the editor of Algonquin Books called to say she’d like to publish When Angels Sing, which most critics lauded as a heartfelt story simply told. But two critics (fans of Martin Amis, I imagined) absolutely loathed my story of a man who had to shed his hatred of Christmas in order to hold the love of his son.

I dashed off irate letters to these reviewers—letters I later regretted, learning the hard way that it’s better to offer thanks to those who give us praise. I also learned a more valuable lesson—that we can’t make the entire world into what we want it to be. The writer’s job, if you put your faith in the verities of old, is to shine a light on what is already there. To help us all awaken from the dream within a dream so that someday we may realize the dreams within our hearts.

Samuel Johnson wrote that we tell each other stories in an attempt to be made whole. Through storytelling we reveal who we are at the core; through storytelling we lay bare the hearts and souls of humankind, 6 billion people whose DNA can all be traced to a handful of common ancestors. Can there be any wonder that we share the same dreams?

So let me tell you a story from the set of Going to California—a story that even a sentimental writer wouldn’t have the balls to make up. In my episode, “Waiting for Gordo,” the two guest roles are Pucho and Fortunato, Latino characters inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Pozzo and his slave, Lucky. As the coyote Pucho, we enthusiastically cast Tony Amendola, the kind of actor you always dream will say your words. A man of infinite moods, Tony moves so deftly from darkness to light and back again that I wish I could be his full-time scribe, following close behind and whispering everyday lines into his ear just to hear him make me sound brilliant.

More important to today’s story, though, is the young man cast as Fortunato. The show’s producers knew only that on videotape, Bernardo Verdugo seemed to be an angelic natural as an illegal alien who is discovered in the trunk of a car where he has been locked by a coyote. Like so many people from so many parts of the world, Fortunato’s great aspiration is to come to freedom, to make a new life in America. After the first few scenes this morning, I complimented Bernardo on his performance, and he said that it was not a difficult part for him. Six years ago, well before he got his green card and residency in the United States, Bernardo was brought to America by a coyote.

“How did you cross the border?” I asked.

“Locked in the trunk of a car,” he said.

And then I watched him climb back into the trunk of a car. The lid slammed shut, and I thought of him there in the darkness, wondering what awaited him. Cameras rolled and our director softly said, “Action.” As the trunk came open, the sun peeked out from behind a tall cloud, and long rays of light shone in upon the face of Bernardo Verdugo.

And on a film set high atop a hill on a ranch outside of Austin, the shared dreams of a young man from Mexico and a writer from Texas came true.

We finished the scene to everyone’s delight, then the sun slipped back behind the clouds. That’s when I heard someone say, “We need more light.”

Ten Years After – My Slate Diaries in the wake of 9/11

In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood.

Writer and filmmaker Turk Pipkin looks back at some of his writing in the wake of 9/11 when he was the weekly diarist on Slate.com.

Turk Pipkin: In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood. Rereading this story is a great reminder of the life I used to live, of the lives many of us lived in the decade before 9/11 when the economy was fairly good and the worst thing the fine members of America’s Congress could imagine was a blow job.

A decade later, we’ve blown three trillion dollars in two lost wars, bailed out billionaires with government money while hard-working men and women discovered that the hardest thing about work is finding it. For a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had the whole world with us, but we blew it all away with hubris, lies and a ten-year battle without end that has destroyed far too many lives and has fractured America into groups that are unable to recognize their common ground because of the massive focus placed on their differences.

 Frustrated at America’s response to 9/11, my wife and I ended up founding The Nobelity Project and, like so many people who care about a better way ahead, are trying our best to be a positive force in a world that needs us all. Here’s my Slate diary from October 8, 2010.


It was a beautiful weekend. There was a chill in the air, and the monarch butterflies were winging their way to Mexico. I set all my writing aside, left my computer at home, and drove with my wife and kids to the Texas Hill Country, where I’ve been building a cabin overlooking the Llano River. Every trip I make to the river is a pilgrimage, for I spent much of my childhood at my grandmother’s ranch on the river’s headwaters—wading, swimming, and fishing in the cold spring water that eventually runs over the granite outcroppings at the property we now own. My family lost my grandmother’s ranch when I was in high school, and I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how to get back a piece of the river.

But as a comedian, then a free-lance writer of books and television, the price of waterfront land was always just out of my reach. Whenever I started to make more money, the prices went up. Then on Valentine’s Day, 2000, while I was writing a magazine story in Belize, my wife sent me an e-mail saying her mammogram had shown something suspicious. I came home to a diagnosis of DCIS—Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. We went from doctor to doctor and the word “mastectomy” kept hitting us like a hammer. Eighteen months later, I still couldn’t say which one of us was more scared.

Running from what we could not escape, one day we dropped the kids at school and headed for the river, driving on back-country roads till we came to a low-water crossing built by German settlers in the 19th century. In the space of one day, we fell in love with the land overlooking that crossing, learned it was for sale, and made an offer to buy it. Eighteen months later—with my wife having beaten her breast cancer and having begun teaching yoga for a living—the river has become a central part of our lives.

We have no television or radio at the cabin; it’s too good here for all that. This weekend, with the wind blowing cool out of the north, we built a campfire in the late afternoon, then grilled steaks and vegetables by the light of an orange and violet sunset. Within an hour, the sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way shining bright from horizon to horizon. Just before bedtime, my daughters and I looked up and all saw the same shooting star.

It’s never easy for me to escape my work. People tell me they envy my carefree life as a writer, but they don’t have any idea how hard I have to work to keep from having a job. To cobble together one real income, I write for television, film, magazines, and try to turn out a book every couple of years. That means long, butt-throbbing hours at my desk and very short nights in bed. It’ll be a miracle if I get any writing done this week. A one-hour episode I wrote for a great new Showtime series—Going to California—will be filming in Austin, and I’m hoping to see as much of the action as possible. I’ll also be working on a documentary on Willie Nelson for American Masters on PBS, and I’m moderating panels and hosting events at one of my favorite events of the year, the Austin Film Festival.

At last year’s festival, I chaired a panel with David Chase, the creator and executive producer of HBO’s hit, The Sopranos. Before the panel, we talked a bit about my experiences in Italy interviewing lawyers and hitmen for the ‘Ndrangetta, the fearful Calabrian mafia. When the panel started, David was looking at me kind of funny, and I thought I must have said something wrong. Far from it—a couple of days later, the casting director of The Sopranos called to see if I’d videotape an audition for the show. The role was a total hoot—the born-again, narcoleptic boyfriend of Tony’s sister Janice. They faxed the script, I sent back a tape, and a couple of weeks later I was in Queens falling asleep on Tony Soprano’s shoulder and having him bounce walnuts off my sleeping noggin at the Sopranos’ Thanksgiving dinner.

For a writer whose future depends to a great extent on a larger audience discovering his work, this tiny brush with fame was a dream come true. All the better when the show brought me back for a couple more episodes, giving me some fun scenes with Aida Turturro, a wonderful actress who makes Janice one of The Sopranos‘ most memorable characters. When Aida was nominated for an Emmy for her work this year, I felt sure I’d soon be in front of the TV watching her accept her award.

NYC skyline and sunset from La Guardia just before 9/11

Then came Sept. 11. The week after the bombings, I could not look away from the television. I had to know everything, had to e-mail everyone I knew. For some reason, I felt a compulsion to be a reassuring voice, to tell my friends and family that somehow everything would be OK. A lot of nice words came back for my efforts, but I also got the worst possible news from too many friends whose family members, business associates, and college buddies had been in the Trade Centers. On one of my trips to film The Sopranos, I’d taken my 10-year-old daughter to the top of the World Trade Center. Now she wanted to know about the people we’d seen there, and what would happen to the children of those people who’d died. My voice began to sound less and less reassuring. And our refuge at the river began to seem more and more important.

It was still cool this morning when we hiked down the granite point to the river’s edge. It was a little late in the year for a swim, but I waded in till my knees were wet, decided it was too cold, and turned back to shore. Then I slipped on the slick rock, and the river gave me my baptism anyway. Once I was wet, I went ahead a paddled around in what turned out to be the best swim of the year. And then I headed back to Austin to watch Aida win her award.

It was a beautiful weekend, but then I turned on the TV. America Strikes Back was a harsh return to reality. The awards, of course, were pushed from our concerns, and the war had started without me. Now I find myself trying to remember my long-ago friends, David and Lynn Angell, who died on American Flight 11; find myself trying to imagine rushing to the rescue of innocent men, women, and children, knowing you might never return, or what it must be like to be under bombs and missiles raining down from the sky. I try to think of all the things we need to think of when our country is at war, but instead my mind keeps returning to the monarchs, their orange and black wings brilliant in the sun as they fly unknowing across the borders of man in their ancient pilgrimage of life.

And the week is just beginning.

Learn more about The Nobelity Project and watch the trailer for Building Hope at: www.nobelity.org

I’ll try to update some of the other diaries this week, but in the meantime, all five of my daily posts from the week are archived at: http://www.slate.com/id/116912/entry/116920/



From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy: What Will It Take?

[caption id="attachment_9047" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Helen Zia, activist, author, former editor of Ms. Magazine (San Francisco Sentinel)"][/caption]

My eight years working full-time in the movement to end violence against women have left me a little jaded. I realized this a few days ago when, at a team meeting, some of my colleagues were discussing The Family Violence Prevention Fund’s new name: Futures Without Violence.

“Ugh,” I said. “Who do they thing they’re kidding?”

My colleagues laughed.

“Better turn on your light box today, Mary,” one of my colleagues quipped.

So it was with mixed feelings that I prepared to travel to San Francisco to attend the Asian Pacific Islander Institute on Domestic Violence’s (APIIDV) 2011 National Summit entitled: From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy. What Will It Take? A snarky voice in my head said: “From Gender Violence to Gender Democracy? Good luck with that one, ladies.”

My tenure as an advocate in a domestic violence shelter followed by years working on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, followed by my current work as a Public Policy Analyst at the Texas Council on Family Violence have left me with a keen awareness of the overwhelming problem of violence against women, a problem that I believe to be rooted in patriarchy and gender oppression and inequity.

While working on the National Domestic Violence Hotline, I answered over 25,000 calls from domestic violence victims and their friends and families, and in doing so I developed what I consider to be an extensive anecdotal understanding of the triumvirate of race, class and gender oppression in America. Take for instance, a call I received from a Mexican immigrant woman whose physically and sexually abusive husband had left her alone with her two children and no income. She’d been pounding the pavement for weeks looking for work, but because she had no work permit she had not been able to secure employment. And because she was a monolingual spanish speaker without state identification, she had been unable to find and access a local food bank.

“My teenager understands why we don’t have food,” she told me. “But I’ve had nothing for my two year-old to eat for three days except sugar water, and she doesn’t understand why she is hungry.”

Because of the secondary trauma and sadness that the heightened awareness of gender violence has brought about in me, I had a hard time believing that attending APIIDV’s 2 ½ day summit would truly energize me to continue my work to cut through the barriers to services for all victims of gender violence, or allow me to believe that this cause for which I have worked for so long is not painfully, terribly hopeless.

But Helen Zia, the summit’s first speaker, changed all that for me. Zia, a long-time activist, author and former editor of Ms. Magazine, took the stage and immediately addressed this issue with which I had been grappling.

Zia spoke on the title of the summit, saying that when she thinks about moving towards the goal of gender democracy she is reminded of how she, as a lesbian, used to feel about the Gay Rights Movement’s fight for legal marriage for gays and lesbians.

Zia said, “I had to ask myself, is this worth fighting for? Because:
a) It will never happen anyway, so what’s the point; and
b) What’s so great about marriage anyway?”

The audience laughed; and I realized that I had found an iconoclastic activist with a sense of humor dark enough even for me. Zia went on to say that in the 1950s, African-Americans had to sit at the back of the bus; they had to drink water from separate fountains. And when they were finally allowed to sit at the front of the bus, they found the front of the bus was cleaner. And when they were finally allowed to drink from the forbidden fountains, they found that the water was sweeter.

Zia said that when she and her wife Lia legally married in California, they found that the water they had finally been allowed to drink was indeed sweeter. Her marriage brought about unexpected and beautiful things; because Zia and her wife had finally wed, the members of their two families began to consider themselves to be truly related, and made overtures to spend more time together and develop relationships with each other. As a result of their marriage, the two women’s families changed and grew closer. This was a wonderful benefit of marriage that Zia had not been able to anticipate or imagine. Zia used this personal experience to illuminate the title of the summit. “If we assume that gender violence will always be there,” she said, “then we will not bother to envision a world without violence. Thinking that way will ensure that a world without violence won’t happen, exactly because it will keep us from working towards it.”

Like Helen Zia, who did not know what it would be like to be married because she had never experienced it, none of us know what it will be like to experience a gender democracy because “we haven’t been there. But we are going to create it.”

Zia went on to say, “We can’t imagine what a gender democracy will be like. But we can know gender democracy will be better for women and girls who will be able to go to school or to the corner store without being snatched and trafficked,” will be able to walk across university campuses without being sexually assaulted, will be able to live safely in their own homes without fear of being abused by their intimate partners. “In a gender democracy, abusers will not be protected, no matter how rich and powerful they are.”

Zia’s powerful speech stripped away my feelings of hopelessness created by my hyper-awareness that gender oppression has both a long history and deep roots in our current society. Zia reminded me that it is possible to keep the snarky, dark humor that gets me through while maintaining an optimism and commitment to my work to bring an end to violence against women.

Helen Zia’s book “Asian American Dreams: the Emergence of An American People” is available for sale on Amazon. To read about or purchase the book click here.


Towering Humanity: Turk Pipkin’s Building Hope

Disabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction.

Building HopeDisabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction. And I am not the cheese here. This entirely true story of Turk Pipkin and the Nobelity Project’s tenacious creation of Kenya’s Mahiga Hope High School won the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival Lone Star States Audience Award. It’s not important exactly how I know that you cannot jam that ballot box— the point is that Building Hope is a bona fide “feel good” movie (which is normally just marketing parlance for a trite and predictably happy ending). Also, insipid rom coms are not actually great date movies. Building Hope is (unlikely as that may sound at first blush). But really now, did the latest Kate Hudson vehicle (to pick a name) put you in touch with the energizing wonder of human existence and possibility? When the lights came up, my spectacles were quite literally spotted from teardrops (mostly from the joy of my heart melting but also from moments of it breaking).

Building Hope is populated with a gallery of inspirational and selfless folks, not the least of which are the students of Mahiga (whose smiles, especially on class picture day, are indelible). Amongst these folks are Greg Elsner, the volunteer on-site “hippie architect from Minnesota,” local educator and point man Joseph Mutongu, executive producer and international non-profit darling Christy Pipkin, and the three young Austin siblings who raised $10,000 for substantial kitchen improvements. A vital construction component is the RainWater Court, which collects and stores drinking water with solar powered purification for the drought prone rural area and also serves as a full basketball court. Mr. Pipkin introduces the sport to the community for the very first time. From demonstrating the concept of dribbling, to the initially carnival midway-esque and comically under-sized homemade rim, and to the students eventual mastery of the game is one of the exemplary narrative arcs of concrete progress that will make you marvel.

Mahiga Primary Choir at the High School grand opening
Mahiga Primary Choir at the High School grand opening

All proceeds from the forty-four screenings at the Violet Crown Cinema June 3rd – 9th, 2011, will benefit the Nobelity Project’s Kenya Schools Fund.

The following is a transcript of the impromptu visit I had with director Turk Pipkin right after the June 1st Crown Violet screening.

Steve Birmingham: I was struck by the statistic that it would cost 11 billion dollars a year to educate every child in the world through Grade 8 and, for Americans, 11 billion is less than our military spends in one week.

Turk Pipkin: You’ve zeroed in on something that’s fairly imprecise. That’s a quote that actually comes from Queen Rania [of Jordan] that was actually in One Peace at a Time [Pipkin’s previous film]. I talked to her about it at Clinton Global Initiative a couple of years ago after she had spoken there [See Pipkin’s Sept. 13, 2009 “One Peace at a Time – The Right to an Education”]. Later in the film I talk about the idea of universal secondary education and then we’re talking about much larger numbers. Free, universal secondary education is one of the Millennium Development goals. But when they started in 2000, there wasn’t even universal primary education. What happened in Kenya is in the early ‘90s the World Bank advised Kenya to quit paying for primary school (“Let parents pay for it”) because they weren’t paying back their debt to the International Monetary Community. So they suspended free primary school on the assumption that parents could pay a few bucks a month. And half the country no longer went to school. Which, in my belief, is one of the reasons that country was primed to have post-election violence a few years ago because there’s a big generation of young people that didn’t get educated and they don’t have any opportunity, they’re living in slums, and there’s political unrest. They’re easily swayed to go one-way or the other and, actually, they’re for hire (which is a lot of what happened in that political unrest they had for the contested election). So, in ’03 they reinstated free primary education but now we’re eight years later and what’s really happened is all those kids have come up and (just like there was in the first five or six years with the primary school) there’s not enough places for them to go to secondary school. But it’s not just in Kenya; it’s all across Africa. Worse there than other parts of the developing world but it’s ridiculous to think that the developing world is going to change in substantive ways if kids don’t get a high school education. What do you do with an 8th Grade, y’know?

SB: Exactly. And yet, again, that figure was approximately one week of the U.S. military budget?

TP: Yeah, less than a week. I think the new budget just passes in the 700 billion range but that doesn’t include the money we’re spending in Iraq and Afghanistan which is special appropriations, so we’re more in like the trillion a year— not counting covert money that we don’t hear about. So, what would it cost everywhere? It’s hard to say. But, in this community, which is really what I was going at, we ending up spending… probably not all in but with the new preschool, with all the high school and with everything else, and with rebuilding the primary school, we really built a functional facility for 800 kids from age four to eighteen for about $300,000.

SB: I was really taken with how positive the students are despite their economic station in life and the community also seems so wonderfully jovial. I’m just curious from all your travels…

TP: You know, it’s interesting, people say “Why Kenya?” And one of the reasons for Kenya was just luck. I’ve worked in a lot of countries in the developing world and Wangari [Maathai of the Green Belt Movement] got me there and Joseph [Mutongu of Mahiga] got me there, and so it was really kind of a series of luck. It is easier for me because Kenya is an English speaking country— more Swahili than English every year. This really is a great community, it really is. But truthfully, I think that the perception that we get in America of the rest of the world and of the despair in Africa and how messed up everything in the world generally is— I think most of that is horseshit and that wherever you go, the people are actually just like that. People are exactly like people are here if they were living in dire circumstances. They’re just parents and kids and they all want their kids to have a better opportunity. The kids are not spending their time going, “Oh, why don’t I have a Porsche?” The kids are spending their time with their friends and their family and they’re enjoying life. And school is one of the things they enjoy in life.

SB: Because education is not something they take for granted… there was the sixteen-year-old young lady who said that her favorite class was physics and that she wanted to be a journalist. I wonder how many other American sixteen-year-olds would say that physics was their favorite class?

9th and 10th graders at newly completed classroom building
9th and 10th graders at newly completed classroom building

TP: Yeah, and that girl is an orphan who’s had other family loss since this film was made. And she still perseveres. I dunno. They are a very special bunch of kids. It’s not like there’s no problems, y’know, but they deal with them. Every once in a while the school committee or Jane Wainaina, the new principal who’s great, will call us up or send us an email and say, “Oh we had a problem with something and what do you think we should do?” And we say, “Whatever you think, it’s your school” [laughs]. And they’re, “Oh, we were just checking to see if you had any input?” “Yeah, we do. Whatever you think.” So the autonomy that comes with that and I think it’s the same thing for the kids— the kids realize, “No it’s not about [The Pipkins].” It’s actually about them. They like it when we come over and I’ll be over in a few weeks but it doesn’t really change the school situation. We still have teachers that are probably not quite as qualified as the teachers in Nairobi. We’re still going to have challenges on the KCSE [an exam for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education] when you finish high school. We’ll only have our first senior classes next January, so we’re a year and a half away from trying to send our first kids to college. It’s going to be a challenge with the rural area and getting these kids accepted into college, but they’re trying!

SB: It was quite moving to learn that the students hadn’t visited these incredible nature preserves that are so frequented by tourists but are just a few miles from their homes. What was that like for you to see them witnessing this wildlife and having them being introduced to the idea that they are to be the stewards?

TP: It was great. And we were developing a mentor program for the school. So one of the mentors, Joseph, he’s a guy who was just lucky to get someone to sponsor him and go to high school and they he earned a scholarship to go to England and study to be a naturalist in a special program and he went right back to his community. He’s really quite a brilliant naturalist. But the preserves are there and they have to be there. You talk about the encroachment; Joseph talks about the elephant migratory route between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, which is gone now. And he’s one of the many people trying to restore that route but it’s not likely to actually ever happen. It’s just become too over-settled. The Aberdare National Forest has the rhino fence. It was just completed last year. Heck, we have a new school project that’s right next to the rhino fence. But, it’s the longest game fence in the world. It’s 400 kilometers of super high voltage electric wire— strong enough to hold elephants in. Although, elephants are so smart that they can work in concert. They can go up to five or six concrete pylons in a row, and in unison put one tusk against the concrete pylon and push the whole fence over and hold it down while others step over to go raid farmers’ fields when their corn is ready. They go to Joseph’s house where his wife hand tills an acre field of corn every year and the elephants come in and raid it right before they’re going to pick it— three years in a row. What are you going to do? So the fences are there for good reason and the preservation of these forests and of these animals is absolutely essential but it costs money to go inside. For tourists, it costs sixty bucks a day. For the locals, it costs like less than a buck but you got to get there and you got to be in a vehicle and they don’t have a buck and they don’t have a vehicle. So, taking them there is really cool and that’s something we’re going to continue to do.

SB: With any construction project, there are always delays and expenditure overages but yet you’re doing it in Africa where things like roads, basic materials, and equipment are a real challenge. You had the rains and the RainWater Court project manager just disappeared. What was the biggest logistical challenge? But it didn’t seem that it was ever radically off-track compared to people who just build here in remote areas.

TP: No, it wasn’t. Well, if you look at Madonna trying to build her girls school in Malawi— where she took the opposite approach. Rather than partnering with the local community, she said, “I’m going to go take charge of an area. I’m going to buy land. I’m going to hire staff. I’m going to do everything.” Y’know, the way an American or foreigner would envision that this would be done. We could’ve built almost twenty Mahiga Hope High Schools for what she spent before she abandoned and fired everybody and never even bought a piece of land. And she’s about six million dollars into it. She still says she’s going to build it and I hope that she will but I think the lesson is if you have the community as a partner and you’re not pretending that you’re the person that knows the best thing in the world about how to operate a school in another culture, you know. They have a great education system in Kenya; they just don’t have enough funding to run it. Actually, the Kenyan government spends a higher percentage of their tax revenue on education than any country in the world. They’re number one— twenty-seven percent of their federal tax revenue. If you look per capita, they’re 125th. They just don’t have enough tax revenue. The biggest challenge… I don’t know. The classroom building turned into a money challenge and we found the money. We had a lot of people and support here. We just continued to raise money here, longer. But the vision of the school grew a lot. We built a full soccer pitch on that sloping field which had eight feet of incline and the first bids to build that soccer pitch were about twenty-five grand. I basically turned the school committee loose on it and [Austin’s] Westlake High’s soccer team raised a thousand dollars and a couple of other people donated about $500 and we built a twenty-five thousand dollar soccer field for about two thousand bucks. So, there were a lot of places where we went way under and were able to do a lot more. Just from a personal point of view, Christy fighting cancer was by far the hardest part of it. And it’s also very hard to build a school and do a project and make a film at the same time. We don’t have a lot of the coverage that we would have because when I’m in meetings I’m not shooting. And there’s no crew. I mean it’s just me and George [laughs] [George Abraham, a student on a journalism scholarship shot footage of the RainWater Court’s stormy raising]. And it turned out Greg couldn’t shoot. I don’t know. Greg was not a good shooter. He’s a better architect than a shooter. It’s absolutely crazy. Look at the credits— they’re tiny. It’s really crazy that this little core of people [made] this movie. I’m not foolish enough to edit the movie; I did have Molly [Conway] and Matt [Naylor]. Mostly, it was just a lot of eighteen-hour days for about two years straight.

SB: Just a small aside. What kind of travel time is it to fly?

TP: It’s about twenty-four hours… in the back of the bus.

SB: And not to be “poor Turk” but does the accumulation of that much back and forth traveling get taxing?

TP: Yeah, I guess it is but you get to the point because of the time and the money involved… I fly back of the bus. The cheapest ticket you possibly can. The B.A. flight from London, there’s four classes. So you really are with the chickens back there. In the second cabin I think they cook the chicken but back there, they’re in boxes. You know, we hit the ground running over there. We get to the hotel at midnight and the next morning we’re at the bookstore when they open at 8 o’clock in the morning, shopping for the library. We’re at the computer store at 9 o’clock. We’re on the road at 10 o’clock and we work straight through until you leave the country. There’s no jet lag allowed in international development. Malaria medicine? Forget it. You don’t take antimalarials. You don’t rest for a day when you get there or when you get back. You just say, “This is it, I’m not taking anything else for an answer.”

SB: Now that this film is being released and getting out there, what is your sincere hope that audiences take away?

TP: Well, I’d really like for people to spread the word because we don’t actually have distribution on the film and we’re just taking it one day at a time. But from the issue point of view, I think that I’ve gotten more out of this film than Joseph Mutongu got out of it and my kids, in the long run, may get more out of having built this school than his kids will get out of going to it. And the love that you take really is equal to the love that you make. Bhagavad Gita and the Beatles had it right all along. I would like people to see the opportunity to become engaged with other people. It doesn’t have to be in Africa. It can be anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be in East Austin. We live in an increasingly isolated world. I think it’s just a symptom of our times in that the more crowded the world is the more you tend to live in an isolated circle. People coming to this movie probably will know more than most people but most Americans don’t know much about the world other than what they see on TV about a war or a natural disaster. What do we see from Africa? The Sudan? What’s the last thing anybody knew about Kenya? That Barack Obama wasn’t born there, you know, and there was election violence and that there was an al-Qaeda bombing of the embassy there— that’s it. And more people learned about the Kenyan Olympic gold medal runner [Sammy Wanjiru] when he killed himself than when he actually won the gold medal. What does that say about our knowledge of the world? So… for people to engage. Whatever it is— across the street or across the world. It’s for your own good. What do you put here on Earth? The idea of universal secondary education, to me it’s as big of an idea as the Girl Effect (the idea of changing the world through empowering girls), and as clean water (which has made amazing things happen all over the world and continues to). It’s the next logical step but right now unfortunately it’s coming at a time where the world doesn’t seem to have a lot of resources to focus on it.

For screening and other information visit:

There’s a reception with the filmmakers in the lobby every evening at 8 pm. If you attend the 7pm screening, they’ll be waiting for you when the film ends. If you attend the 9 pm, the reception will help warm you up for the movie. And the Violet Crown is offering happy hour specials every night.

Tahrir Square and Me

Egyptian fireworks

Egypt and I go way back — forty-one years, to be exact.  That is a bare blink of an eye for a country that is over 5000 years old, but for me, forty-one years is a long time.  I first set foot in Tahrir Square in January, 1970.    I was twenty-three years old, the same age as many of the young demonstrators who swarmed central Cairo in January, 2011, to reclaim their futures from corrupt and oppressive rulers.   The Tahrir Square I knew was not a place of peaceful encampments and chants of freedom, but a traffic-clogged vortex of car horns and exhaust fumes.

I had just married my college boyfriend Larry and followed him to teach and study at the American University in Cairo.  I thought myself sophisticated — I had bummed around Europe in my teens and studied in Greece for my junior year abroad —  but I was not prepared for Cairo.  Some mornings Larry and I walked from our apartment in Zamalek to the AUC campus on the far side of Tahrir Square.  I can still remember the flood of relief I felt as we rushed through the gates of the school and sank into chairs in the back garden, where bougainvillea dripped from the balconies and kindly assistants served us mint tea or Turkish coffee.  Tahrir was a scary place  — vast streets pouring in from seven directions, no cross-walks for pedestrians, ancient buses tilted permanently to the right from the overload of passengers hanging on the doors, and pent-up taxi drivers honking and cursing and driving like fiends.

Tahrir at night

I wonder now why we ever walked to school, since it required us to cross through the heart of chaotic Tahrir!  Maybe we were lured by our charming neighborhood with the peanut vendor wishing us a morning full of light and flowers, and the portrait painter, Samir, greeting Larry as “my darling” as he kissed him on the cheek.  Maybe it was the immense and sculptural Banyan Tree on the corner, graceful and exotic, in spite of its urine stench.  Maybe it was the walk across the Nile, that river of Biblical lore, where we could look out at the island of Roda in whose bullrushes Baby Moses is said to have been found.  Or maybe it was the pull of the Egyptian people themselves, welcoming and warm, humorous and endearing as they spilled into the streets to chat and drink tea and exchange the latest jokes.


Flash forward to January 25, 2011, when the streets of Tahrir teem not with traffic but with pedestrians.  Demonstrators carry signs that read “Mubarak leave!” in both English and Arabic, for broadcast over Al Jazeera and YouTube.  Such brash confrontation has been unthinkable for decades under the despots that have dominated Egyptian life.   A day or two into the uprising, Mubarak’s state police crack down on the marchers with tear gas and truncheons, beating them until they retreat behind make-shift barricades and hurl bits of rock and broken pavement in self-defense.  Armed men in uniform literally pound on peaceful protesters in the middle of Tahrir Square with the world watching.

Roberta and Larry Wright in Egypt (far right)

Friends from my AUC days begin to email that the revolution will probably fail.  The Middle East has delivered disappointments before.   Why would this be any different?  I watch TV almost obsessively as, day after remarkable day, the brutality seems only to stir the determination of protesters from Alexandria to Aswan, and Egyptians pour into the streets in ever greater numbers.  They link arms in Tahrir Square to protect their museum.  They set up sound stages to rally the crowds and medical units to treat the wounded.   They turn chaos into a freedom encampment right in the center of the square.  “Tahrir” is Arabic for “liberation”, as Anderson Cooper reminds us again and again.  Maybe, just maybe, the name will now hold real meaning.

Adventures of a Young Man: That Time in Cuba

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Our delegation was supposed to be about culture and history but nobody ever went to Cuba without a political intent.  The organization was a Latino group from America and they had already made many public statements about normalization of relations with Cuba but they knew the chances were not good for that to happen during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  I did not want to think about the politics but when you walk around old Havana and visit the farms and talk to the people and see how they suffer then you know that everything in Cuba is related to politics.


“We have a problem here on our island.”  Our driver, who was more of a “minder,” began speaking as we rolled away from the hotel.  “This artificial sweetener is hurting our people.”

“What artificial sweetener?” I asked.

“They are beginning to use it in some of the Coca-Colas now,” Armando said.  “This is very painful.”

“I guess I don’t understand.”

“We grow and sell sugar here and it is bought by countries all around the world.  Now there is less demand.  These doctors are saying sugar is bad.  Do they know what this Nutra Sweet might do to people?”  Armando turned around to look at me when he finished his question and one of his eyebrows was arched and he had drawn his lips together so tightly that they exaggerated the wrinkles around his mouth.  He was surely in his mid fifties but his hair was suspiciously lacking any trace of gray.

“Yeah, probably ought to find that out, I suppose.”  I was thinking, however, that my own beloved country was a bit foolish to be worried about a small island nation that might have its economy brought to grief by an artificial sweetener.

Forever Summer City

Armando drove my cameraman Vicente and I along the low stone seawall that traced the curve of Havana Bay and toward the green fields to the east.  We were supposed to be getting a briefing from a Cuban government agency and then we all were to be taken to see a master cigar roller.  This job was one of the most honored in the island’s culture and required years of practice and accomplishment in turning a tight leaf around the tobacco.  I was wondering how I might construct any of this into some kind of meaningful news report but my main interest was in making certain I did not miss any single sight or taste or sound.  I had not ever been to such an exotic place and was determined to visit the Floridita bar where Hemingway drank and the Finca Vigia, his farm in the hills where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.

Vicente and I had been forced to share a room in the old Riviera Hotel and it towered above the Caribbean Sea and all of old Havana.  The rooms smelled of mold and decades of humidity and the paper was curling away from the walls where it had once been seamed.  Furniture in the lobby was discolored by time and the Formica on the tables and counters in the café was without color and worn thin. The Riviera, though, had once been glamorous and glorious and was filled with beautiful people with mysterious backgrounds during the years that the American mob ruled Cuba and ran gambling, drugs, and alcohol. I still had trouble envisioning women in low-cut beaded gowns gliding over these scarred floors carrying champagne flutes in their hands and gaudy jewels around their necks as men with greased hair chased after them in tuxedos. Those people shared their money with the brutal US-backed dictator Fulgencio Bautista, who also made the campesinos cut tobacco and sugar cane for pennies a day so he might get even richer.

“When do you think we might meet the premier?” I asked Armando.  Brightly painted buildings were passing behind us and giving way to open country that was outlined by low hills.

“This we cannot know,” he said.  “The premier moves about.  No one knows where he sleeps.  It is a different place every night.  Your American CIA tried to kill him, as you know.  We must be very careful.”

“But we are going to meet him, are we not?  It’s part of why we are here.  I think the delegation wants to personally express interest in trade; at least that’s what I was told.”

“Let’s hope this happens.”

Vicente was quiet and sat in the back with his bulky TV camera bouncing on the seat.  He had not spoken much since the first night because he had a Latino surname and everyone had expected him to know Spanish but he grew up in Texas during a time when Mexican-American parents were embarrassed to have their children speaking anything other than English.  Our first night in the hotel restaurant a waiter had approached our table and asked if two of our four chairs were taken.  The question had been spoken in Spanish and Vicente responded with an embarrassing answer.

“Si, dos cervezas, por favor.”

Vicente was wide and strong with thick arms and legs and when he pointed a TV camera at people and told them what he wanted them to do they obeyed his instructions.  His constant facial expression was confusion even though he seemed to be trying to make everything in his immediate vicinity fit to a vision he had of what he wanted to happen.  All of the Mohitos that were brought to us in government and business lobbies did not loosen him up and make him more talkative even though most of our hosts spoke fluent English.

“Where are we going? Is there a problem?”  Armando had suddenly turned into a dirt lane on the edge of a tobacco field, stopped abruptly as if he were in a hurry, dropped the car into reverse, and backed onto the highway to return in the direction of the city.

“I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say, senor.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I wish I could tell you.”

“Hey man, we got a right to know what’s goin’ on.” Vicente had leaned into the space between the two front seats and was trying to be intimidating but there was no response from Armando.

“I told you we had to be careful.” Armando offered nothing further as he sped back toward the city.

“Should we just hop out when he stops at a light or somethin’?”  Vicente had lifted his camera from the seat and was holding it in his lap and he was ready to jump.

“I’m not sure what to do,” I said.  “We can’t exactly grab a taxi very easily out here.”

“Yeah, but this is a communist country, man.  And they mostly don’t like Americans and especially our media.  Who knows what they might be planning on doing to us?”

“You’re right.  I’m pretty sure they are going to take US reporters to a field and cut us down while they are traveling with a high-profile Hispanic delegation.  Stop being ridiculous.”

Down to thee Banana Republic

A long fence line appeared on our left and we drove along its length until a gate appeared and we saw that we were at the remote end of an airport runway.  Our delegation was gathered around a white, turbo-prop aircraft and a few of them were already climbing stairs to board.  I stepped out before the car had stopped rolling and went directly to the government official who served as our host.

“What’s going on?”

“We are going to Isla de Juventud.”

“Why the change in our itinerary?”

“I cannot say.”

“Of course not.  Nobody can say anything in this country.”

The island was mostly a volcano risen from the Caribbean that was covered with palms and long grasses.  Two dirt lanes crossed near what appeared to be the middle of the island and there were a few stucco-walled buildings standing in clearings.  I had the notion that Hawaii must have looked this way before the condo-builders arrived from California.  Fidel Castro’s government had decided to use the island off the southern coast of Cuba as a preparatory school for his country’s best and brightest and teenagers lived in cement block dormitories and took classes in rooms with three walls. The taunting sun beat out on the pathways that led to the mysterious jungle only a few feet from where they were opening their books.  Our gathering must have looked absurd to them as we shuffled along on a tour and sipped Mohitos and dark coffee and asked mundane questions.  There seemed to be no connection between this place and the contemporary world and I wondered if it were possible these young people had ever seen pictures of Los Angeles or Paris or even had enough information to formulate a dream that might lead them beyond Cuba. Castro had spent a few years here imprisoned at the Presidio Modelo before he began planning his revolution while in exile in Mexico.

“This place is fascinating,” I said to Vicente that night in our hotel room.  “But I’m getting tired of the games and I’m just going to bail out of the itinerary and go to the Floridita tomorrow if they won’t answer questions about when we get to go there.”

“I doubt we’re going to get there,” he said.  “Doesn’t seem like they want to emphasize an American writer or anything else American, for that matter.”

“Maybe not, but he was a hero to the Cuban people.  He drew a lot of positive attention to the island during the political change.”

“I don’t know nothin’ about that but I’m always up for another Mohito,” Vicente laughed.

In the morning, Armando gave us the news that we had a visit to a large health clinic on our schedule and then we were to stop at the famous Floridita bar where Hemingway was a habitué during his years in Cuba.  When we walked in a few hours later I saw several photos of the writer that were tilting awkwardly along the walls.  There were also framed articles that had been published by American magazines and newspapers that profiled the American ex-patriot.  I liked the photo of him with his defiant eyes and tight grin as he stared into the camera with his arm around Martha Gellhorn, the glamorous UPI correspondent he had seduced while married to his second wife.  All of the journalists in our delegation sat at the mahogany bar and drank to excess for several hours and ignored the pleas of Armando and our host that we return to the cars for a ride back to the hotel.  Each one of us thought we might be fine writers, too, and become best-selling authors if only we were able to get away from daily reporting.  When you are young and in Cuba and there is rum in your belly you do not think about mortgages and car payments and living on a cul-de-sac.

We finally met Castro a few days after we had stopped expressing interest.  My Spanish was not adequate to understand the conversation but he was as animated in the small conference as he appeared in the TV clips that were excerpted from his legendarily long speeches.  The premier refused to speak English on his home soil so there were only a few people in our group that were able to later talk about what he had said and how he felt about the current American president.  The deprivations of his people would disappear if the US were to simply buy cigars and rum and sugar from the island but he knew no such commerce was likely under a conservative administration.

Castro’s energy seemed to perceptibly change the air in the great anteroom outside of his office and I had no difficulty understanding how he inspired a small band of revolutionaries to cross the Gulf from Mexico.  I easily saw him at the helm of the “Granma” as it topped wave crests and he leaned his head in the direction of Che so that they might contemplate the form of their struggle and scenarios for success.  They went to the mountains, of course, and moved closer to Havana with each battle and they owned the hearts of the campesinos almost from the day they landed and stories of their presence spread across the land.  Che did not want to govern, though, and left for Bolivia for a new struggle but he was undone by his asthma.  He built great fires in the jungles each night to breathe warm, dry air and clear his respiratory system but the blazes enabled the CIA to track the revolutionary and kill him before he achieved another overthrow of a government friendly to America.

There were only three days left on the island for our trip and we had completed all of the interviews that needed to be taped.  My goal was to spend the remaining time as a tourist and walk neighborhoods with a translator or sit on the seawall and drink cold beer and contemplate how I might spend my years traveling to other locales like Cuba.

“We gonna shoot anything else, tomorrow?” Vicente asked as he plugged in batteries for charging in the hotel room.

“Nope.  Tomorrow we are going to Papa Hemingway’s farm.”

“Yeah, right; you know these guys aren’t going to leave us alone.  They damn sure have other plans for us.”

“I don’t care.  We’ll meet them at the car when we walk out and just tell them we are hiring a driver to take us up there.”

“Sure, pal.  Whatever you say.”

In the morning, Armando was sitting in the hotel lobby and sipping a tiny cup of coffee with a broad smile.

“Do you wish to see the Finca today?” he asked.

“Yes, of course, we do; we’ve wanted to see it every day since we’ve been here.”

“Very well, then; let’s go.”

“I thought you had two more government agency visits or something for us today and that we were supposed to see the sports training facilities.”

“No, no, that is not important.  Perhaps tomorrow.  We’ll go to the farm today, as you wish.”


The Nobel Laureate’s residence was in a serious state of decline and vines were reaching out from the jungle to cover walks and fencing and they snaked up over the edges of the patio.  Our tour was not constrained, though, and I saw his bookshelves and the table where Hemingway wrote in longhand at the peak of his literary powers, sober and focused until midday and then drunk and complicated as the afternoon passed.  A picture of his boat, the Pilar, hung near his desk and there was also the inevitable photo of him standing next to a great swordfish he had landed with a gaffe somewhere near the Gulfstream.  A kind of magic had happened inside those four walls but the uninitiated would have seen only a crumbling farm nestled between low hills.  I still see that house some times in my dreams and it appears to be filled with words that are rusting and rotting from going unused.

The next few days I slipped away from Vicente and Armando and walked the old neighborhoods of Havana.  The streets were busy with people and 1950s era US automobiles; there had been no American imports since Castro had won control of the government.  I did not want to leave because there were endless things to know and life was outdoors and simple.  Everyone danced and drank in the streets and there was no place to walk without hearing music.  The air was wet and warm and tasted of the ocean and hills and cigars and cooking meat.

After the delegation’s farewell dinner the night before our departure, Vicente and I walked back to the Riviera and argued about socialism and capitalism.  Politics is never a good subject but it is even worse when you are debating with a professional colleague and opinions are inflamed by alcohol.  We were still bickering an hour later in the room as we packed our TV gear but Vicente had a greater concern than politics.

“We’re idiots, you realize,” he said.

“Yeah, but why?”

“How many weeks have we been here?”

“Several.  You know.  Why?”

“Because it’s one in the morning and our charter leaves at five and we have no rum or cigars……..”

“And who the hell goes to Cuba and comes back without rum and cigars?”

“We aren’t going to get any either.  It’s Sunday night or Monday morning or whatever the hell it is and there sure isn’t anything open at this hour.”

“Guess not.”

“Holy shit.  Travel to Cuba and forget to buy rum and cigars to take home.  Who in the hell is that stupid?”

“Us, I reckon.”

We finished loading the camera and batteries into Anvil crates and packed the tripod into its tube.  I went to the window and stared out at the lights down the shoreline from a vantage point seventeen floors above the surface of the sea.  I convinced myself I was to return and know Cuba and that my first impressions were to become a love of the culture and the people.  Sitting in the chair by the window I fell asleep for a few hours without undressing and I jumped when the wakeup call came from the front desk.  Vicente opened the door to begin stacking luggage and crates in the hallway and he nearly tripped over two baskets sitting outside our room.

“I don’t believe it,” he said.  “Look at this.”

“What?  I walked out from the bathroom.  “That is hilarious.  No way.”

There were four bottles of rum, two white and two dark, and two boxes of Montecristo cigars.  A small, white card was taped to each of the dark rum bottles.  I picked one up and read the words: “Republica de Cuba.  Fidel Castro Ruz Presidente Del Consejo De Estado y Del Gobierno.”

Fidel Castro's Calling Card

I still have Castro’s calling card.  I carry it in my wallet.  There are times when I take it out and look at it and wonder what might have been for Cuba.   Everyone doubts my story, though, and no one thinks the card bearing Castro’s name is real.  I do not care about that indifference but I wish that I had made another trip to Cuba.  I have not been back yet but I am going.

I know that I am going.

The Right To Education

It’s been just under a year since I wrote a story for DogCanyon on The Right to Clean Water bemoaning the massive number of kids in the world whose lives are permanently derailed by lack of access to clean water. A year later, the situation is at least moderately better, thanks to a number of efficiently run nonprofits who’ve been chipping away at the problem one community at a time. This weekend I ran into my friend Scott Harrison, founder of Charity Water (charitywater.org) who’ve now funded 2,900 water projects in 17 countries, providing clean water to 1.25 million people.

Charity Water just launched their Born in September Campaign. If you’re a September birthday (others welcome too), they’d like you to forego the stupid birthday presents in favor of your friends giving you a well for your birthday. Their mission for September is to provide clean water to ALL of the Bayaka people and many others in the devastated forest regions of the Central African Republic. The goal is to raise $1.7 million dollars to provide clean water for 90,000 people in a single month (that’s a cost of $20 per person served) and one of those great ideas that, once you’ve got it in your head, it’s impossible to rid yourself of it short of doing the right thing.

And that’s not even the subject of my blog this week so let’s turn to education. My interest in the basic rights of every child are the focus of my feature doc, One Peace at a Time (now out on DVD and easy to find online). The film is produced by our education and action nonprofit The Nobelity Project (at Nobelity.org). The ultimate goal of the film is to convince people to “pick and issue” and take action on a problem that speaks to them.

Having previously done a good deal of water work, The Nobelity Project shifted our action focus last year to the right to education. We’d already helped to bring water, electricity and more to the rural Mahiga Primary School in Kenya. But at a celebration of that work, it really sank in that clean water and an 8th grade education wasn’t going to be enough for these great kids. The majority of children in Kenya and most of Africa don’t attend high school, and I concluded we couldn’t do anything about the larger situation except perhaps to ensure that the kids of Mahiga did have an opportunity to graduate from high school. If that went well, perhaps our project would be a model for other rural education programs in Kenya.

Once we’d committed to building a secondary school, we realized that every year we delayed, another class of 8th graders would drop out of school forever. So we determined to build Mahiga Hope High School, and decided to do it in a year. We didn’t have a plan or the funding, but knew the community would be part of the planning, and felt that we could reach out to the fans of our films and find enough support to fund this school.

That was one year ago and I couldn’t be happier about the scheduled October 1 ribbon-cuttings for the new classroom and libraries building, a new kitchen and dining hall, the RainWater Court – winner of Nike’s GameChangers Award – and even a new pre-school for a dramatic expansion of the number of 4- and 5-year-olds prepping for big-time first grade. (And while we’ve been building, this great community has already started 9th and 10th grade classes in temporary classrooms.)

The multiplying factor of the GameChangers Award was a big first step. The RainWater Court is a full basketball/multi-sport court with a giant roof that collects and stores 30,000 liters of purified drinking water for the school. There’s also a stage that makes it a performance space and an outdoor classroom. The funding that came with the award included an Architecture for Humanity Design Fellow for one year. Greg Elsner has been living in the community, refining and designing, building and generally becoming a valued member of the local community. He’s the only guy I know that’s build an entire campus in a year, though he has had the support of community labor and up to 100 skilled, paid labor on some of our busiest days. (Check out my short film A Day in the Life of Mahiga at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FTpnycMoiQ)

Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks and lots of other great Texas artists stepped up our fundraising outreach, and enabled us to consider truly fundamental ideas about education. If you had the money to build a great school, wouldn’t it have a community lending library with thousands of books, a computer/tech library with internet access and a sister school (in Texas), science labs for chemistry (with lab sinks and Bunsen burners), physics and biology labs (with an organic garden and an orchard), a kitchen with wash sinks and high-efficiency stoves  (instead of open fires destined to blind and poison the schools cooks). Add in that pre-school for 60 kids, and how much have you spent?

Well, the numbers aren’t final, but we’re looking at a total a little north of $250,000. Not for a classroom or a building – for a school. A school with a mentor system and some job training, with HIV counseling and organized athletics and music programs. That’s education at a level that could be replicated in thousands of communities and not come close to the cost of another wasted war.  There’s no reason why the things we take for granted in the developed world – whether it’s water, food, education, health care or other basic rights – should be considered a luxury for kids in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. You want a peaceful world? Start with a just world – where children don’t die in huge numbers before their fifth birthday, where water-borne illnesses don’t take many more, where illiteracy is rampant.

If you’re motivated to forego your birthday and fund a well with Charity Water, then that’s an issue you should act upon. Your life will be better for it. And so will the lives of the beneficiaries. You’ll be forever connected to those people who have received your gift. On the other hand, if the idea of helping provide opportunity and true hope to high school kids in a great community rings your bell, then the Nobelity Project could still use your help at Mahiga. We’ve funded 90% of this project. Some small part of what’s left may have your name on it.

Here are some links worth exploring:

The Nobelity Project: www.nobelity.org

Our Video Channel: http://www.youtube.com/nobelityproject

The Nobelity Blog: www.nobelity.blogspot.com

The RainWater Court: http://openarchitecturenetwork.org/projects/rainwatercourt

Evangeline, the Oil Spill and Highway 61

Evangeline, by George Rodrigue

I was 18, skinny, out of money and in New Orleans for the first time after some Appalachian adventures and a visit to Nixon’s D.C. I faked a cocky walk into a French Quarter piano bar and stayed until closing time when the brunette singer in a sequined costume gown took pity on me. We went to an all-night place to eat. She picked up the tab and sent me gently on my way, and I still don’t know who pays the angels.

I headed out of town on Tulane Avenue under a high, gray light filtered through very low sky. At the Broad Street red light a man in a rumpled coat and wrinkled trousers stood in the intersection. He swayed on unsteady legs and waved his arms as blood sprayed from his neck. A cop in his car at a gas station on my right saw the same thing I did, looked at me funny, punched his siren and flashed across the intersection. A road sign I hadn’t noticed before slapped me hard with the Dylan verse: “God said, Abraham kill me a son.” The man’s throat was cut near the end of Highway 61.

I’d had a youthful tour of the Museum of America, from John Prine’s Paradise to Washington’s Marble Presidents, from the Encounter With the Compassionate Stranger to the Diorama of Violent Death. I drove on home to Houston, where everyone said I looked gaunt.

I’m spending a lot of time in New Orleans these days. The town, still recovering from the Storm, is bracing for the economic gut punch of the Spill. If I were Pharaoh of New Orleans, I’d let the people go before the Mississippi turns to blood and frogs fill the Superdome.

Already some LeBlancs and Toussaints have escaped to HBO, not the promised land but a virtual home for a spirited, impressionistic filmsong of New Orleans, Treme. Sandra Bullock’s moved to town and adopted a motherless child, and in the French Quarter a guy in a cop costume tosses you a Saints cap and asks for a twenty-dollar food-drive donation. Hat in hand, the role reversed, you give it up for an angel not forgotten.

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Collision Courses

Last week I was hit by a motorcycle and by a new language. I keep waiting to see if one of those will leave a mark. The bike accident wasn’t as bad as you would think, but I wish I could clearly remember what happened, where the guy came from. I’m paranoid that it was my fault and that after the driver flew off his bike and went head first into a tree and hopped right back up, helmet intact, he developed some terrible spinal injury and died, and now everyone in town knows I’m the stupid American woman who killed a young man. A couple of days later I was standing on my hotel room balcony and noticed a guy across the street taking pictures of the hotel, of me? I turned my back, but I could still see him there in the reflection of the glass, snapping away. I became convinced I was going to be called in for questioning, about the accident, about what I’m doing here. So far that hasn’t happened, but the worry lingers, long after the soreness in my back from the wreck has faded. I’m here on a tourist visa, which the local police know because they record the details from everyone’s passports. Research and journalism are not allowed on a tourist visa in Vietnam (little do they know that I’m pretty incompetent at both those things). In my worst moments, however, I worry about this a lot.

Bikes in VietnamDetails of the accident are fuzzy. I think he hit my front wheel and I flew off the bike backwards and landed flat on my back without a scrape. I managed to keep my head up and not let it slam into the pavement, causing minor neck soreness a few days later. My sunglasses traveled 15 feet.  I anticipated huge blooming bruises on my back and hip, but for reasons I cannot explain none ever appeared. I did suffer from agonizing back spasms for several days, and endured the long, painful, sleepless first night when I was convinced I had some ghastly internal injury, like a ruptured spleen, wherever my spleen is. But, since there appeared to be no real harm done, I got back on the bike gingerly the next day, and I just gradually got less and less stiff and sore day by day. But I was scared and hurt and lonely. And that, too, got better day by day.
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Report from Haiti

Traveling and working in the developing world, I’ve discovered that I’m a fairly positive person. In the cholera-ridden slums of Nairobi and the heroin-shooting galleries of Dhaka, Bangladesh, I’ve managed to find things that left me hopeful that solutions were more a matter of will than way. And then came Haiti.

I arrived in Port au Prince on a search for how The Nobelity Project – and anyone who wanted to join us – could make a real difference in the long-term rebuilding of Haiti. I was prepared for bad, but what I found was worse. In a city of six million people, one out of two buildings destroyed or seriously damaged. A million people living in tents. Major fuel shortages. Disaster pricing for essential commodities. Schools that remain closed many months after the quake. Hurricane seasons coming fast. And never far from anyone’s mind – the Haitian’s continuing shock and mourning over the loss of 300,000 friends and family members. 300,000 – what portion of your city or county would that be?

I was in the company of  our partners, Architecture for Humanity, who have an office in the country and have emerged as one of the most-respected voices for understanding the long-term nature of this disaster. AfH’s knowledge has been hard won through multi-year perseverance after the Tsunami and Katrina, and they’re committed to a long-term school reconstruction effort here, and to providing advice, design and engineering services to help build it back better.

“Before the quake, there was only one seismic engineer in the whole country,” founder Cameron Sinclair told me as we tried to drive through the city’s rubble strewn streets. “That engineer reported that the only building in the country that could withstand a major quake was the Presidential Palace. And it fell down.”

Shortly after the quake, The Nobelity Project offered my film One Peace at a Time to Architecture for Humanity chapters around the world for Haiti fundraising screenings. The Austin screening at the Paramount Theatre raised well over $10k, with more funds coming from events across the country and as far away as Bangladesh. (That’s right, people in Bangladesh – one of the poorest nations on earth – are raising money for their brothers and sisters in Haiti. So there’s a little hope for you.)

Cam Sinclair had enlisted many other supporters. Ben Stiller’s foundation Stiller Strong and director Paul Haggis through the L.A. based Artists for Peace and Justice were partnering with AfH in Haiti. APJ has raised $6 million for Haiti, but I was equally impressed by their commitment to the idea that a star has to do more than just donate money to be a part of this work. Haggis, Stiller, Gerard Butler (of the amazing “300”) and House’s Olivia Wilde were on the ground working hard on APJ’s effort to build a new high school. And while visiting St. Julien’s Hospital, I discovered that Olivia has a real knack for producing smiles on kids who were very much in need of smiles.
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