Tag Archives: SEI

But Things Just Get so Crazy, Living Life Gets Hard to do

In honor of Naman’s birthday, this is something I wrote about him while I was in Cuba earlier this summer. 

Naman in the Dominican Republic in 2011.
Naman in the Dominican Republic in 2011.

It is inconceivable to me how much harder it is to be here after Naman.  I plan for all the times I will miss him in America.  Graduation, awards ceremonies, memorials, fundraisers, whatever.  But Cuba?  I didn’t expect all of Dominican popular music to follow me here, which I suppose was naïve.

I guess I just didn’t count on it.   I didn’t count on him.

I never thought Havana could surprise me again.  Or at least, I thought it would continue to surprise me in the same sort of ways it always has.  But instead Havana had something new in store: memories of something old.  Of someone who will never grow old.

He was never even here, but now I see him all over the streets of Havana.  I think of him more than the residents of the Real World house, more than last year’s Cuba kids, more than all the Cubans I have left behind.  He’s in the music, the conversations with the people.  The boat rides and palm creations and children’s hand stands.  The silly things the students do, the choppy Spanish and the Harry Potter references.  Accio memories.

I suppose in this way, he will never grow old and will never go away.  He will keep traveling the world as I do, as we all do.  He will show up in Ghana and South Africa, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.  He will be there at every Best Buddies race, and every SEI event.  He will be there whenever I hear Prince Royce, eat a cheap taco, or sing karaoke.

No llorare, no llorare.  No, I won’t shed a tear.  Porque sé, que tu estás junto a mí. 

Naman

In October, we lost someone so magnetic that he’s still pulling us together, even in death.  Someone so funny and kind that at his funeral we laughed (almost) as much as we cried.  Someone so good to the core that he was donating as much time and money as he could, without fanfare or pretense.  Someone who is the only person who would know what to say to during all of these raw times.

I met Naman on my trip to the Dominican Republic in May and June of 2011.  He was on my team, Rojo, and immediately became the most distinctive person on the entire trip.  As many have said, everyone felt like he was their best friend on the trip, because he treated everyone like the most important person he had ever met.  As we rumbled in a hot van with too few cracked pleather seats around that wonderful island country, Naman was always there with a song, dance, or imitation to keep our spirits up.  He always took his work seriously, although he never saw it as work.

Everyone grieves in their own way.  But for people like us, people who can’t sleep at night because we can’t stop thinking of injustice in the world, people who are no fun at parties because we keep talking about this great new NGO or social business we just learned about, passive or solitary grief is not for us.  We have to do something, we have to organize, mobilize, and funderize.  We have to do this not just because it’s who we are, but also because it’s who Naman was.

So we have made the Naman Shah Memorial Fund.  The fund will be used to send students like Naman, students who are passionate, smart, kind, and want to do good by being good, back to the Dominican Republic to learn what he learned, and contribute to the organizations, people, and country to which he contributed.  Today, we will be gathering in the Alumni Center of Northeastern to learn about Akshaya Patra from its President and CEO, Ms. Madhu Sridhar.  Akshaya Patra is one of several organizations Naman supported.  They provide free, balanced meals for school children, because no child should struggle in school because they’re distracted by hunger.  We will also have a silent auction, networking, and an opportunity to donate to both Akshaya Patra and the NSM Fund.

While I would love donations, I would also love non-monetary contributions.

I ask for your connections and talents; if you are able to donate anything to our future fundraising endeavors (a gift card or service from your business, for example), it would help us raise more.

I ask for you voice; if you could publicize the event, the fund, or Naman’s life’s message of living every day to its fullest and helping others to do so as well, it will encourage others to give and keep his memory alive.

And I ask for your presence, which is strangely the hardest thing to ask.  Our SEI family has circled the wagons to care for each other and launch this fundraising effort, which sometimes means crying during meetings and other times means pretending I don’t know the person we’re doing this for because that’s the only way to get anything done.  But most of the time it feels like no one in the rest of my life has any idea that I’ve lost someone, or any comprehension of how impossible it feels for that someone to be Naman.  I would love it if you could join me tonight, to learn about a cause he cared for, to hear his family and friends tell his story, and to support this segment of the Northeastern and Boston communities that is still hurting.

For Naman’s sake, I will try to smile.  I will try not to be “so belidge!”  And I will try to do a really good job.  Because that’s all we can do anymore.

Group Travel: Recognition

In light of my upcoming time in Greece with a group of 145 students, 11 other staff and myself, I’ve been thinking about what has made my past travel groups some of the best communities of which I have ever been a part. 

The way we recognize the members of our community shows a lot about ourselves, and what we value.

A fraction of the students, posing above the city

I’ve had some truly beautiful communities, like the Egypt and DR summer experiences, as well as the past spring’s Model NATO/Model Arab League travel teams.  I’m trying to draw from these good examples when I plan the activities and traditions I want to embed in this year’s N.U.in Greece program.

At the end of our Benin trip, during our wonderful Memorial Day at a Lebanese hotel (read: a pool and American food) we had two great forms of recognition: superlatives and speeches.  The superlatives covered everything, from most afraid of bugs to to most prepared to most likely to eat cous cous again.  With write-ins and multiple winners, it was a laid-back way to reminisce.  After, we gave our speeches.  The day before, each of us had drawn a name out of a hat of someone else on the trip.  That night at dinner, starting randomly and following the chain of speeches back around, we each took a turn to rise and recognize the singular, spectacular achievements and contribution that person made to the group.  While this can be uncomfortable if the group stays sectioned off, it’s a nice way leave everyone feeling good about their time.

When Esther was in Zambia, they passed a baton that had been all over the world.  The idea is to recognize those who have been excellent (diligent, polite, optimistic, helpful, kind) but who have been lacking in attention thus far.  This original baton continues on, and you can track it at The Baton Lives Free.  In order to recreate the awesome of the baton but not have to continually hijack it, SEI has opted to create a new baton or set of batons for every trip.  They are passed from Professor and Esther, and from there they are awarded to students, by students.  Each student adds or alters the baton in some way.  For example, with our capstone baton, Kevin added a star to DR on the globe.  The baton can be anything–for our Dialogue, it was a star wand and a crown.  It’s interesting to see the meandering path of the baton, and the speeches for the next recipient are thoughtful and heartfelt.  People tend to pay more attention to their behavior, too, when they know they could be publicly awarded for it (or not).

Superlatives are a great way of ending your time in any type of group.  It’s important to make sure someone is in charge of it, although I would say not a student, as people sometimes vote for cruel or thoughtless superlatives.  We did these in Benin as well as the DR, and people got pretty rabid in the DR when we delayed announcements in an effort to add photos.  I noticed that the superlatives that mean the most are more creative than “best smile” or “best laugh”, and less obvious than whatever running jokes have been present from day one.

I’m looking forward to adapting these to our large group of 145 in Greece.  We’re going to need a lot of batons.  What methods of recognition have you seen in the past?  Do you have any ideas for how to recognize good behavior and create a strong sense of community in such a large group?

Mata los Indios

This cement housing is typical of bateyes, as it was once used as barracks for sugar cane workers. Now, whole families live in them. This blue section is three separate homes, with a third one not pictured.
This is a playground.
The sweet, quiet girl who came and hung out with me while I was super boring and wrote. She sat on my lap and snuggled up with me for the afternoon. She barely even let me get this picture.
Town Leadership, and a Sister Island Project rep on the left
Ubiquitous trash on the rocky road to Mata
Ninos playing basketball

Apres moi, le deluge

I awoke last week to a facebook update from Angie: Mata is underwater.  Mata is incomunicado.  My reply: come mierda.  Eat shit.  Sort of the Spanish equivalent of the f-bomb.  For Mata los Indios and other bateyes, a flood, even for a short time, can be devastating.  It means the truck with potable water cannot get through, so people go thirsty or get sick from what few water sources they have near their homes.  It means crops die, so what little subsistence farming they have is easily swept away.  It means no new supplies get through, so commerce stops.  For those who did have the money to buy food, the current supply will run out or rot soon enough.IMG_0711

 All that week, I had been working on my project plan, my final paper for the summer 1 classes that I sometimes forget are attached to this trip.  Grades seem like an after thought not because we aren’t learning, but rather because we are so very busy doing it.  We had the option of doing a research paper or some sort of proposal that would concretely help the DR and the populations we saw.  I can easily think of research IMG_0676topics, and love doing that sort of work, but for the first time in my life, a research paper seemed cowardly.  It seems imperative that I at least outline a plan for how to do something, to accomplish some goal toward the alleviation of suffering, even if it is slight.

I don’t know if my proposal is good, or big enough, or business-y enough, and the troop of freshmen who vow to adopt the idea in real life will undoubtedly surpass my goals easily.  But when I think about these faces, think about how muddy the path was in early June, which is just the beginning of the rainy season, it seems like the only option I have is to try.

When we (the capstone class that went to Mata over spring break) first heard about the flooding, we had a collective light bulb moment: build a bridge.  Duh.  How hard can that be?  And if we can’t do it, Engineers Without BIMG_0731orders (EWB) will just get right on it.  Claro.  As so often happens with international aid (because let’s face it, that’s what this is), we weren’t seeing the whole picture.  It isn’t one river that swells and must be forded.  In fact, where that is the case, there already is a bridge.  The problem is that the entire walk, which takes 20 minutes by foot when dry, becomes muddy and flooded.  In June it was taking us about 40 minutes to walk it, and it was even deemed too dangerous for Claire, in that she might slip and fall and agitate her injury.  That must have been so hard for her, to not go back to Mata .  But they were right—we were all slipping, sliding and falling the whole way.  Nonetheless, I probably would have thrown a fit if I were told I couldn’t go back.  In fact, I went every time I could to Mata.

Field Work

Put on:

  • sneakers: anything flip-floppy will get muddy or you’ll feel the rocks through them as you scramble up hills
  • shorts or a skirt that come to the knee, so you attract as little attention as possible.  Even though the people you interview will be wearing less.  and even though covering up more DOES NOT correlate to less attention.  more on that later.
  • deodorant.  so much deodorant.

Leave at home:

  • any flashy jewelry, sine you’re already a big enough target (for…?)
  • revealing clothing, since we’re in a Christian country with a Christian organization and a bus full of gringos is weird enough as it is

Get in a van with 14-16 other people, even if it’s only meant for 10-12.  Hope there’s air conditioning as you turn on your ipod and look out the window.  Try not to get sick from the stop and go city traffic, the lack of lanes and the pock-marked country “roads.”  When you get to a batey:

  • Leave your camera and your water bottle.  Children will want them and you probably don’t have enough to share.
  • Bring notebook, pen, and a translator if you can’t do the job for yourself.  Be prepared for conversations across 3-4 languages.

Days are long, people are unhappy, and the questions get as tired as you will be by the end of the day. You get covered in dirt and sweat and clothes stick to skin as skin sticks to vinyl and we all stick to each other as we bump along the dirt roads.  This particular survey is hard because most of the people interviewed are no longer affiliate with Esperanza.  Many of them think we can offer loans, or that we are interested in deporting or arresting them.  Some cry, some yell, some won’t speak to us.  Some talk about us when they think we can’t hear them, some hug us, some want pictures, some glare.  Almost all ask when we’re coming back.  And the answer is never.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Homecoming

The bog almost looks like a peaceful lake.  Then I notice all the trash and remember that the bottom, only six inches or so from the surface, is covered in pig refuse.

It feels like home.  It feels like where we are supposed to be.  I don’t search for bugs as I walk gingerly in Vitalia’s house.  I don’t panic when I wake up in the beyond-black night.  And when the roosters scream like they’re about to be dinner, I just mutter an expletive and fall back asleep.  The flies don’t bother, the terrain appears under foot s though it knows where I want to go.

“You came back,  others said they would, but you, you came back.”

She wasn’t said or angry.  Vitalia (our once-again house mom) just laughed unceremoniously.  But it’s clear that promises are long and follow through is short around here.  The young women I play cards with lament mis compadres who said they would send photos and gifts but never did.  Those who said they were return or write and have never been heard from again.  And yet, these women remember who is graduating, their countries of origin, their families.

Despite these bits of sadness, everything is calm here and it takes no thought or effort to get food, to play with children or to talk to friends.  I amble around barefoot like I would in my deck and backyard back home.  I know what food is coming, I know where to eat and go to the bathroom, I know how to bucket shower.
I know it so truly and completely that I’m not sure if it didn’t really come from my mouth when Gwen says, ”it feels like home here.  It feels like this is where I should be.”