Saturday, June 1, 2013


altruism: "The quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others"

I recently signed on to do a volunteer gig for a local non-profit to help them implement a fresh website. I believe in their mission of ending loneliness in institutions like nursing homes and one person, one friend at a time. Because I frequently visit a family member who resides in such a place I am constantly confronted by the loneliness of some of the other people there. It's heartbreaking.

At the same time, I am using this as an opportunity to refresh my stale technical skills, to acquire recent work for my portfolio, and hopefully to get a good reference. All of these I'm very conscious of. So this volunteer project is hardly "altruistic" in its true sense. There's too much of a quid pro quo.

What about our three years in Tanzania? Going off to East Africa to an alien, Swahili-speaking country, living in an oppressively hot climate with lots of bloodsucking malaria-infested mosquitoes, and facing demanding work for which I am not at all qualified (teaching adolescents in a secondary school) are not exactly my idea of fun, LOL. Does this qualify as altruism?

It was certainly a sacrifice of physical, psychological and social comfort. I had to push myself past my fears. Yet after the first several months of setting up a new household, getting familiar with our town, and making a routine for myself at work, it felt like a new normal. Beginnings are the most difficult times when you're going through transitions. After that, it's a lot easier.

Far more than that, though, now that I've completed those three years and can look back on them, what I remember is the experience of a lifetime, unique and fulfilling. What I feel is a sense of having answered what my life was calling me to do, of continuing to move towards the person that I am meant to become. If that's what's happened, then aren't I attaining a higher level of happiness and satisfaction that benefits me to a very high degree?

Maybe it's a false dichotomy. From a Christian viewpoint, each of us is made in the image of a G-d who is infinitely compassionate of all human beings without exception, in which case it is in our very nature to try to act likewise. From a Buddhist viewpoint, all beings are interconnected; separateness is a delusion; there is really no fundamental difference between my wellbeing and yours.

I leave off with two articles that got me thinking about this.
  Is Pure Altruism Possible?
  Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving

From the latter here's a quote:
"The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people," says Brian Mullaney, co-founder of Smile Train, which helps tens of thousands of children each year who are born with cleft lips and cleft palates. Mr. Mullaney was a successful advertising executive, driving a Porsche and taking dates to the Four Seasons, when he felt something was missing and began volunteering for good causes. He ended up leaving the business world to help kids smile again — and all that makes him smile, too.
   . . . .
Let’s remember that while charity has a mixed record helping others, it has an almost perfect record of helping ourselves. Helping others may be as primal a human pleasure as food or sex.
- Earl

Friday, March 22, 2013

Doing Good? Making a Difference?

It's been several months since we finished our three-year term in Tanzania and since my last posting. I could leave it at that, but I feel a lack of closure with this blog. Reaching completion on things is really important to me. So I'm going to write a bit more about our stint abroad.

"... when it came to the crunch they seemed to accomplish very little. For every problem they solved they created two more. I rather felt that it was people who claimed to be the sole possessors of the truth who should be ill at ease for the disruption they caused in others' lives. At least one can say of the anthropologist that he is a harmless drudge ..."
From The Innocent Anthropolist: Notes from a Mud Hut, by Nigel Barley, after he had a conversation with an agriculturalist whose promotion of growing cotton in Cameroon resulted in a shortage of food.
I think it's fair to say that for almost everyone who goes to a developing country for volunteer work a primary motivation is to do some good for the people there. (There may, of course, be other reasons as well — our egos and our ethnocentrism are always in play.)

As Westerners we like to get things done, to make a difference. In a field such as health care a physician may be able to see immediate, measurable, tangible results. If you're delivering food to an area of famine you can get satisfaction from simply keeping human beings alive.

For those of us who do what is generally called "development work", though, it's really, really hard to know what the consequences are. We as outsiders are dealing with histories, traditions, cultures, ways of living on the land, politics, etc. that are not our own. That ignorance provides a minefield to step through — and sometimes we don't even know what kind of explosions we're setting off. Our very presence may be a disruption of the local life.

I do in general believe in the value of education, in the teaching of literacy in English and Swahili, science and math, African history, and computer skills. In our case we were invited by the local Tanzanian bishop to a school founded by Tanzanian parents and governed by a board of Tanzanians. I have very moving, positive memories of moments when I was in the classroom or the computer lab. I knew that I was supposed to be there.
"... in Zen meditation we cook ourselves into a state of even-minded ease with things as they are. Tasks are undertaken not because we want to do them, or like to do them; not because we choose to do them; not because we have suitable talent, temperament, or ingredients; not for reward or appreciation; but simply because it is time. Without thinking, we engage wholly in tending to needs as they appear and, in this way, live with clear purpose and total fulfillment."
From Hand Wash Cold: care instructions for an ordinary life, by Karen Maezen Miller.
Karen Maezen Miller was writing about finding contentment in the tasks of ordinary daily life in an ordinary setting. But her description can apply really well to a larger task such as stepping out to a distant land, albeit with some thought beforehand. Diane and I heard such a calling and answered it because it was our time.

Nevertheless, I find myself still left with feelings of unease about the consequences of doing so. They come with the ambiguity that I will always live with.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

"A Prayer for Those Who Have Too Much"

To my brothers and sisters in developing countries:

While I was deciding which oat bran cereal to eat this morning, you were searching the ground for leftover grains from the passing wheat truck.

While I was jogging at the health center, you were working in the wealthy landowner's fields under a scorching sun.

While I was choosing between diet and regular soda, your parched lips were yearing for a touch of water.

While I complained about the poor service in the gourment restaurant, you were gratefully receiving a bowl of rice.

While I poured my "fresh and better" detergent in the washing machine, you stood in the river with your bundle of clothes.

While I watched the evening news on my wide screen television set, you were being terrorized and taunted by a dictatorship government.

While I read the newspaper and drank my cup of steaming coffee, you walked the dusty, hot miles to the tiny, crowded schoolroom to try to learn how to read.

While I scanned the ads for a bargain on an extra piece of clothing, you woke up and put on the same shirt and pants that you have worn for many months.

While I build a fourteen-room house for the three of us, your family of ten found shelter in a one-room hut.

While I went to church last Sunday and felt more than slightly bored, you looked out upon the earth and those around you and felt gratitude to God for being alive for one more day.

My brothers and sisters, forgive me for my arrogance and my indifference. Forgive me for the greed of always wanting newer, bigger and better things. Forgive me for not doing my part to change the unjust systems that keep you suffering and impoverished.

I offer you my promise to become more aware of your situation and to change my lifestyles as I work for transformation of our world.

By Servite Sr. Joyce Rupp, after visits to Guatemala and Liberia.
[ ? Published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, summer 1997. ]

Monday, September 3, 2012

Change and Transition

Change is the exterior events that are readily visible. Diane and I are going through a lot of those: packing up and leaving our home in Tanzania; riding a ship across the Atlantic; setting up a new home in New Jersey; becoming caregivers; and looking for paid work. Change is easy to describe and to talk about.

Transition  is the interior process of meeting and adjusting to change and to what it means. Some transitions are more or less universally understood: grieving for friends and colleagues whom we will not see again; saying goodbyes to places such as our town and the surrounding East African savannah; facing the anxiety of how to make a living; and taking on the responsibility of care for a family member. Those are difficult enough in themselves.

But how do I explain being in a restaurant in Oakland and having to suppress the urge to speak Swahili to the Chinese waitress ... or moments of sadness at the casual ease with which my compatriots accumulate so many things in their homes, in their lives?

How do I tell you about standing in front of a picnic table in L.A. with tears at the sight of all the wonderful abundance and variety of food ... or wondering why everyone is in such a hurry?

The most important thing I got from the re-entry program of our organization was the reminder that transition takes time and often continues long after the corresponding changes have taken place. -Earl

I beg assistance, God of my journey.

To accept that all of life is only on loan to me.
To believe beyond this moment.
To accept your courage when mine fails.
To recognize the pilgrim part of my heart.
To hold all of life in open hands.
From Litany for Times of Journey and Transition, by Joyce Rupp.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Coming Home

A paradox that has much exercised mathematicians is that of the Einsteinian space traveller. Having journeyed at great speed for several months around the universe, he returns to earth to find that whole decades have passed. The anthropological traveller is in the reverse position. He goes away for what seems an inordinately long period to other worlds, ponders cosmic problems, ages greatly. When he returns, only a few months have elapsed ... only his closest friends have noticed he has been away at all.
It is positively insulting how well the world functions without one. While the traveller has been away questioning his most basic assumptions life has continued sweetly unruffled. Friends continue to collect matching French saucepans.

From The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley

I'm feeling so liminal. After leaving our town of Mtwara, there was a week of being in transit; then a week on the Queen Mary 2 passenger ship; then a week in a small town in New Jersey; and as of this writing the start of a week in Los Angeles.

There was something about arriving in this sprawling metropolis that finally set in a feeling of being overwhelmed by the differences in coming home. Driving along Century Boulevard felt like landing on another planet. It was like being a space traveler looking out the windows of a spaceship on to a strange landscape.

Earlier today I walked into a Ralph's supermarket. It's nothing particularly unusual for the U.S. But it's a massively large store. I tried to imagine what it would be like for a Tanzanian to see this. The incredible material abundance, aisle after aisle of foodstuffs, housewares, dog food (!). The shock of how expensive things are as he mentally calculates from dollars into shillings.

Of course, it's all terribly familiar to me too. It's a relief to be back in the English-speaking world, to be able to understand what people are saying to me and to each other. It's a joy not having to struggle to express the simplest things. How easy it is to take language for granted when it is one that is native to you.

Life has indeed continued as usual. The people I know have, for the most part, kept on much as they did when we left. I, on the other hand, am in the midst of passing from one world back to another. I've been through this before. But this time I've been away for three years. -Earl

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On Board the Queen Mary 2

I loved crossing the Atlantic Ocean on this beautifully built passenger ship, coming home using a means of travel that feels timeless. Luckily, the seas were calm all the way across. It was wonderful to be on the water and to be outside on deck even though the North Atlantic chill made it hard to stay out for long.

I had expected to experience some serious reverse culture shock on board. But it didn't happen. I had not left Tanzania for more than three years but there was a part of me that never lost connection with the U.S. thanks mostly to the Internet. The shipboard environment had an immediate familiarity to it.

Like most passengers I right off got into overeating at the endless endless endless buffet of food. Besides stuffing my face (after five days of which my gut started to rebel), I spent time studying software materials and Swahili, reading a novel, attending a few talks and performances, and napping a lot.

I spent time gazing at the ocean, physically and emotionally leaving behind the places, the people, and the home that my life had encompassed.

A couple of weeks ago I was enjoying chipsi mayai at a totally dumpy eatery on a side street in Dar es Salaam. Our last night on the ship I had a club sandwich in our stateroom, compliments of room service on the Queen Mary 2 luxury liner. -Earl

[ Diane looking at the Statue of Liberty as we arrive home ]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Staff at Aquinas Secondary School

I got photos of almost all the teaching staff and quite a few of the non-teaching staff as of the end of the first term, June 2012.

I labelled each photo with how I normally address the person, "mister" for male teachers, "madam" for female teachers, sometimes with their first name, sometimes with their family name. The term "mama" is a respectful title often used with women who are a little older and more senior.

It was hard to leave our school and to leave Mtwara. This set of photos is to help Diane and me to remember. -Earl