Saturday, October 30, 2010

New Website

Please check my new website/blog at
From now on I will be posting to that site. Thanks!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Engineers Without Borders: Outside Looking In

In my last blog I mentioned that EWB "galvanizes young people to engage in work that has the potential to bring about significant change, particularly in Africa". That only describes part of the organization's focus. Their mission does involve "creating opportunities for rural Africans to create positive change in their lives" and much of this is accomplished through linking volunteers with agencies in certain African countries, and motivating those volunteers to become deeply engaged with the people of rural Africa. But there is another side to EWB's work, which is to raise awareness and understanding of African issues in Canada.

I'm wading in here from a position of relative ignorance. I haven't attended any EWB workshops or seminars. I've explored their website and read some of the volunteer blogs. I've listened to my son and other members of EWB talking about their experiences and their goals. I'm not sure exactly what they are accomplishing in Africa, but from my vantage point, they are doing an unusually effective job of raising awareness in Canada, without even really trying.

Perhaps that is part of the key to EWB's power. They don't pontificate. They don't directly attempt to institute change. They don't rush in with solutions to problems or try to supply resources to African communities that they think will help. The volunteers immerse themselves in the culture of their host country. They do their best to live like those around them in order to experience their struggles and joys in an immediate way. Volunteers seek to understand the root causes of problems affecting the people with whom they live and work, so they can attempt to address those causes, rather than the symptoms. They also try to discover ways to help Africans help themselves - so they can take ownership of the change they're involved in initiating. As least that is how I understand it, on the outside looking in.

The experience is profound and individual - and dramatically changes the way the volunteers think about Africa. There's a remarkable commonality in the blogs: the volunteers have deep respect for the people with whom they engage - for their courage, their optimism and the simplicity of their lives. Of course the volunteers also develop an intense awareness of the struggles, the limited opportunities, poverty, disease, and lack of education, but they feel immense hope - and repeatedly reiterate that there is much more to Africa than poverty. They love being there, they want to return, they believe the people of Africa will find their feet, in their own way.

When my son went to Zambia for 4 months, I worried. It seemed so far away, so potentially dangerous, so foreign. How would he, at age 22, manage?

Now, as he prepares to head off to Ghana for two years, I feel differently. I will miss him, of course - it's a long time. But his first experience in Africa was so life-changing and enriching that I embrace this second opportunity for him to grow.

In the same way that the experience of being immersed in African culture changes the volunteers, so my experience of their transformation has changed the way I think about Africa. Like them, I want to learn more and I feel hopeful. If that is one of EWB's goals, they're achieving it.

I am fascinated by the way EWB inspires these young people and prepares them to be so open to and reflective about their experiences in Africa. There is some magic at work here and I want to learn more about that, too.

I welcome your input!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Change (Mid Life Crisis)

I'm changing the focus of this blog because my life has changed. My youngest son has just left home to study in Montreal - an eight hour drive from Stratford, where we live. My oldest son will soon be departing to spend two years in Ghana, Africa, on a volunteer placement with Engineers Without Borders. The nest is empty.

For the past ten years, I've served as trustee on the local public school board. I chose not to run again because my children were grown and ten years seemed long enough - but it will leave another hole in my life. I published my first novel, a ten-year work in progress, last fall. Although it has received modest recognition, it hasn't changed my life.

I'm astonished to find myself at sea, with time on my hands and no clear purpose. I always thought I'd revel in such freedom. Instead I feel aimless - and ridiculous about it. What a luxury of freedom. How many people in the world are caught in situations where they have no freedom and an all-absorbing purpose: to survive?

Yet it is intense, this sense of meaninglessness. For my whole life I have been driven, mostly by personal concerns: getting an education, earning a living, managing a home, raising a family. I'm educated, make enough money to live in relative comfort, my children are launched on interesting lives, my home is as well-decorated as I care for it to be. What now?

It is important to have a reason to get up in the morning.

My son Mike is a source of inspiration. A recent graduate from the University of Toronto in engineering science, he has found a calling with Engineers Without Borders (EWB.) This extraordinary organization somehow galvanizes young people to engage in work that has the potential to bring about significant change, particularly in Africa. When Mike was in Zambia last summer, he wrote a fascinating blog about the experience  which changed my view of Africa, of aid, of how change can be effected. I continue to read blogs written by EWB members. I'm interested in supporting - and further exploring - their cause.

In Canada, I have long held strong feelings about two particular laws that I think deprive people of personal choice, the law prohibiting assisted suicide or euthanasia and the law that makes possession and personal use of marijuana illegal. Laws against. Theoretically they're intended to protect people, but actually they deny people the right to make personal choices that impact only themselves. I'd like to see these laws changed - although I know there are many, many people who would oppose such change.

So maybe these are the reasons to get up in the morning. Maybe these are things to write about.