September 16, 2011
”If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family (nation.)” Ghanaian proverb.
With Betty’s help and contacts, we are expanding our program to Sierra Leone and preparing to review applications from several candidates for our next scholarship.
September 13, 2011
Next month Isis Initiative, Inc. will celebrate three years of service.
It started as a gesture of thanks that became the seed of an idea that bloomed into a grass-roots international non-profit.
Many of you know the story: how I skipped covering the Iraq War only to injure myself in the Philippines. The young woman, Leah Mamhot, who sat by my hospital bedside, had dreams of attending college and becoming a teacher. The tuition and fees were beyond her means; I offered to pay her way.
When friends–and strangers–heard the story of Leah’s dream and her hard work, they offered to help.
I created Isis Initiative, Inc. with a lot of support from friends and family. From lawyers at Jeanne Smith and Associates in Corvallis, Oregon to Louise Barker and Mike Corwin at OSU Federal Credit Union to Mike McInally, publisher of the Corvallis Gazette-Times, who ran a December holiday story about our fledgling efforts.
Isis Initiative, Inc. is a shared accomplishment. And there are three people–friends and former colleagues–who stepped up and have stayed the course. They have volunteered and served as board members since day one.
Samanda Dorger teaches journalism at Solano Community College in Napa, California, and works with the students at their college newspaper, The Tempest. Sam and I attended grad school in the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University, worked at the Naples Daily News (FL) together and have found ways to meet for adventures in Paris, Lahaina and Anchorage over the years of our friendship. Sam is our treasurer…though her real talent and contribution is design. She created our website and our newsletter.
Melanthia Peterman is a my former colleague at the Associated Press, a wife and mother of two who runs her own business, Little Sprouts Gardening. Melanthia is our secretary and she has offered me the sanctuary and hospitality of her home and garden many times. We frequently hold our board meetings in a teleconference from her Seattle dining room.
I’ve known Alice Anderson since she was a baby. Her mother and father and I attended Oregon State University together…and worked on the college paper. Alice is a senior at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. She brings youth and fresh ideas to our table. She created our Facebook presence and convinced me to embrace social media.
This month, I’m sending them my thanks..and a gift…for their service.
I found the perfect gift…a book by women celebrating women and their wisdom: “I Am Because We Are” by Betty Press.
I first met Betty Press when she and her husband, Bob, were living in Nairobi, Kenya and working for the Christian Science Monitor. We were all covering the famine and civil war in Somalia. They were generous, kind hosts, offering me shelter and hospitality in their home when I would return from the madness of Mogadishu.
Bob and Betty returned to Africa, this time to Sierra Leone, in 2008, when Bob received a Fulbright. They have now helped us identify five young women in Sierra Leone who are candidates for scholarships.
Betty’s photographs and her beautiful book are indeed the perfect gift. Purchasing the books, I support the decades of humanitarian and documentary work of an esteemed colleague. Offering the books, I share the stories and wisdom of African women with my friends, who’ve joined me on a journey to help women get access to a college education…and wherever that journey may lead them.
Thank you for your service. Samanada. Melanthia. Alice. Betty.
August 23, 2009
I walked to Avery Park this morning. I sat on my favorite bench in the rose garden in a patch of sunshine and pulled out Paul Theroux‘s “Dark Star Safari.” I’m 70 pages from the end; yet, I’m a restless soul, so I jumped to the last two pages, to the postscript, dated January 2004.
I mentioned this book and Theroux’s thoughts on foreign aid in my last post. He writes about aid again in the postscript. Here’s an excerpt from page 484, the penultimate page of a fabulous, funny, thoughtful and thought-provoking work.
This excerpt mentions the problems in Zambia and quotes Rodger Chongwe, Zambia’s former minister of justice and legal affairs, and Rolf Shelton, a mechanic, born in Zambia.
“This brought us to the subject of aid. Chongwe said, ‘The donors are making us lazy. The Japanese volunteers are doing what the city council used to do–mending potholes. It is better for us to have potholes. We would be forced to do something about them. We’d have to think for ourselves.’
Another former member of parliament I met was Rolf Shelton. …He said, I get these aid guys at my workshop. I fix their vehicles. yesterday it was the World Vision Land Rover. They’re entrenched. Charity is a business. They don’t even think about leaving. They’ve created imbalances in food, artificial shortages, sudden surpluses from abroad that undercut the local farmers. They make more problems than they solve.'”
As Isis Initiative, Inc. gets ready to award its first scholarship to a young woman, I keep these observations about foreign donors and the effects of their aid in mind.
Leah said that Marethel is working as a maid now. In the fall, she’ll begin her college studies to become a teacher. I hope this solves problems not creates them. I hope this uplifts her and helps her serve her community and her family.
We’re doing our best, eyes and hearts open.
August 21, 2009
I was driving down I-5 on Wednesday, listening to NPR.
They reported a story about bombings in Baghdad, Iraq that killed at least 95 people. And then there was a story about the United Nations’ inaugural World Humanitarian Day, which honors, in part, aid workers who have been killed while rendering assistance to those in need. It specifically remembers and honors Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad in 2003.
I’ve also nearly finished “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Theroux. He writes about his return to Africa nearly 40 years after he lived in Malawi as a teacher with the Peace Corps. He travels overland from Cairo to Cape Town and recounts an Africa that is much changed…and not for the better. He notes the fancy Land Rovers and trademark white vehicles of aid organizations, symbols for him of the entrenched, institutionalized foreign donors and their programs that often do far more harm than good.
Between the broadcast, the book and our recent board meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about giving aid and how to make a difference without causing damage. Actually, I’ve confronted this dilemma many times over the course of my life, particularly in my career as a journalist working overseas in areas of conflict. Sometimes humanitarians are not humane.
I remember well a day at a refugee camp in Liboi, Kenya. A photographer with the International Red Cross was shooting portraits of refugees for an ad campaign. He had a a Hasselblad camera in hand and several assistants culling a line of recent arrivals for the most photogenic subjects.
He asked a Somali mother to remove the cloth she had draped over her baby to protect him. He wanted to see the baby’s eyes while the mother wanted to shield her child from the sun and the flies. He posed the women against the shiny seamless white backdrop. She looked uncomfortable but she did what she was asked.
I was appalled. The eyes of the malnourished and starving are particularly sensitive to light. These refugees had risked their lives and crossed the desert to find safety from war and famine in Somalia. They needed sanctuary not publicity.
The photographer was clearly causing the woman and her child distress. And I said so.
The photographer retorted that he was shooting for an ad campaign that would raise millions of dollars for future aid and relief efforts.
So what, I thought. So what if you raise millions with this photo if you cause immediate harm to the very people you say you are trying to help?
As we offer scholarships and funds through Isis Initiative, Inc., I am aware of the profound responsibility to do no harm with our good intentions.
January 3, 2009
On the edge of my chair, I sat enrapt, leaning toward the TV screen broadcasting the performances at the Kennedy Center Honors last week. Watching Roger Daltrey and Peter Townshend as honorees, I remembered the Who concert I attended as a teen. Three decades later, I found myself marveling at the narrative of their lives, the force and beauty of their songs and their place in our history—and mine.
Who are you?
I believe we are the stories we tell.
As I started this blog, I was reticent—an irony, of course, since I’ve spent my life as a writer and photographer asking people to trust me and reveal their stories, to share their lives with unseen strangers.
Here’s a piece of my narrative.
The daughter of an Army officer, I scanned the black-and-white images from the Vietnam War on the nightly news, looking for my father’s face. At night I’d kneel by my bed in my footie pajamas and pray for his safe return. As an adult, I followed in his footsteps, armed with a camera, tiptoeing among the dead and kneeling besides wailing mothers at their children’s graves. After a decade of documenting the brutality and devastation of war, I was a still photographer in search of stillness, a broken spirit in need of healing.
“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face … You must do the thing you think you cannot do.