Don’t Be a Bully: Let e-Cigarette Smokers Light Up

A few years back, I was disappointed when Bemidji State University–the college nearest where I grew up, where I attended music camp, and where my brother graduated–initiated a strict no-tobacco policy.

I was disappointed because under the guise of providing “the public with a safe and healthy work environment” the ban included snuff, which hurts no one but potentially the user. And “to establish a tobacco-free environment,” the ban included eCigarettes, which don’t even use tobacco.

It seemed the desire to “do good” got the better of BSU, drifting their policy into the territory of controlling, intolerant, and doing so by targeting a particular population whom Progressive society has deemed it okay to pick on: tobacco users.

The bullying continues.

Three weeks ago, Hennepin county voted to 6-1 to ban the use of electronic smoking devices in any public, indoor facility. There’s no evidence of physical harm to others when these devices are used. This study found that the vapor exhaled from an e-cigarette does contain elements of nickel and chromium, but the blanket policy of BSU and now Hennepin county isn’t about such considerations.

To them, smoking is evil. Period. And such simplistic thinking leads to bad policy.

Beyond being unreasonable, such policy is harmful. Electronic cigarettes offer a huge benefit. People who use them are not smoking actual cigarettes, which we know are deadly. We shouldn’t discourage this life-saving, cost-saving transition from tobacco cigarettes to electronic ones. We should be patting them on the back for kicking tobacco.

Plus, it’s just mean to treat people this way–relegating them down a notch on the social order and making them go outside in sub-zero weather.

Sorry, Miss. It's illegal to do that in here.

Sorry, Miss. It’s illegal to do that in here.

I don’t write this to change BSU or Hennepin county policy. Undoing policy is legendarily difficult. I write this to those county commissioners, city council members, and college boards in other regions. You are undoubtedly being pressured and tempted to take a similar stand against all things that even resemble smoking.

I ask you to please not be unreasonable. Please don’t be bullies.

My China Book Revised, Re-released…and free this Sunday

About a year ago, I finished a book about my travels and insights while living in China in 2010-2011.

Book Cover Business Card

I held two book release events in Bemidji and Minneapolis. (I almost had to cancel the Minneapolis one, because as you recall, last winter was brutal.) But people came out on this below-zero January afternoon, and we had a wonderful time as I introduced the book.

Book release party

It was crucial that I got my book released by January, because a couple of weeks later I left for Africa.

While there, I read my book in the quiet, off-the-grid village that I called home for eight months. Doing so, I realized some ways I wanted to improve the book. So throughout the year, I tinkered and fiddled and improved.

Today, I announce the revised edition of Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China.

It’s tighter, sharper, and just a more fun and interesting 400 pages of pictures and stories about a life in China…

-about my experiences in and around the country: visiting a factory, emceeing a Chinese New Year celebration, practicing martial arts in a mountaintop temple, and more…

-about the topics addressed along the way: charity, education, economic development, law enforcement, romance, and others…

It is available on Amazon.

There’s also the e-version. And this comes with three cool features: color photos–if reading it on a color screen, links to supplemental videos helping the contextual material come to life, and opportunities for discussion by way of links taking you to forums. You can see it hereThe eBook is free when purchasing the hard copy. It’s also free if you’re a member of Amazon Prime.

Finally, this Sunday, March 1, I’m offering a promotion: for 24 hours, the eBook will be FREE for anyone to download. Simple go to Amazon, download the file, and enjoy.

I hope all of you with a Kindle or the Kindle App on your computer, tablet, or smartphone will take advantage of the promotion. I hope those of you interested in stories and lessons about China, travel, and life will take look at this work. I enjoy being able to share my stories with you here on this blog each week. It’d be an honor to have you enjoy my book inspired by these articles.

And if you have questions about the book, how to buy/read the eBook, or anything else, email me at brandon@theperiphery.com or comment below.

The African Slum School

Imagery of a primary school includes playfulness, nurturing, and the planting of seeds of education and a bright future.

Imagery of a slum is one of struggle, suffering, and the seeds to a short, hard life.

Today we put these two together.

***

After we had toured the Bwaise slum and visited the residence of a mother of three (all four HIV positive), Salim and Seru-Nassar, operators of Volunteers of Sustainable Development (VFSD) and guides for this Slum Tour, took me to see the Bwaise school.

Walking out of the cramped, dirt pathways lined with corrugated metal shacks, we popped out to a broader street. On the way, we walked by the local Kindergarten:

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Stores out front; school within

Then we approached Bwaise primary school.

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First thing I did was recall a visit to a school in Cambodia:

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Four years earlier, I came upon this UN-funded school outside Battambang.

Inspired by that improv visit, the second thing I did was walk into a classroom of this school in Kampala:

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But I was soon taken back out to meet with the headmaster, a bright-eyed gentleman frequently gracing his company with a genuine smile:

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I found out that this was a private school for students about ages 6-12.

Curious about the idea of a private school in the slum, the headmaster told me that here in Bwaise, the government schools are inadequate.

“Teachers don’t teach. Some don’t show up,” he said. And partial credit for this is because “pay is not regular in government school.”

So they started their own “third world private school,” he said, to cater to the Bwaise children, including some orphans that VFSD works with.

We walked back outside for the tour.

Just outside his office, staff worked on lessons:

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Then he took me from class to class:

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We then saw the kitchen:

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And then the bathrooms:

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School outhouse and this water tank were donated.

Finally, the school handyman was off to the side of the front school yard making desks:

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Enjoy this footage from the school tour and a few words from the headmaster:

 

The sun was setting. It was time for our school visit, and the Bwaise Slum Tour, to come to a close.

But though the tour was finished, my interaction with VFSD had only begun. I decided to connect the dots–the “dots” being Salim and my very first contact in Kampala, my host Nathy.

I had met Nathy online via the web community Couchsurfing.org. Soon after arriving, she shared about her job working for an organization that consults area nonprofits to help them better operate and serve their purpose.

I told Nathy about VFSD. Two days later, we arrived to meet with Salim.

***

I arrived early, and Salim showed me more of Bwaise, the other side of its main street:

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On this side was the slum aqueduct:

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We walked along it.

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The new development in the background clashed with the dilapidated structures currently standing.

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As usual, kids came running over to me:

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Salim said it was because of my camera.

Residents here collected their garbage in an open lot:

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They also recycled.

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This guy ran a noisy grinding machine inside that chewed up the discarded plastic in the bags out front.

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We continued:

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Finally, we reached the end of the aqueduct and the end of road for Bwaise. Beyond here was a freeway, manicured lawns, and the border of a new neighborhood.

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Soon after getting back to the Bwaise main street, Nathy arrived. She and Salim then met in the VFSD office:

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Area children clung around Nathy, this perfect stranger. Something to be said about the slum: people are close.

Nathy then paged through the folder of the children profiled as those from families most in need.

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She asked about VFSD’s funding, operational expenses, and goals. This was in September. To this day, these two 20-somethings remain in touch to tackle one of Kampala’s biggest concerns. As far as I know, VFSD is the only on-the-ground organization working to improve the conditions of the slum.

If you wish to help, please contact Salim at volunteers.vfsd@gmail.com or via their Facebook page.

***

Looking back on my experiences as shown these last two weeks, I realized that we imagine a slum by the overarching aspects that strike us: the dilapidation, the unclothed children, the unsanitary conditions–all true, but not the whole picture.

There are smiles. There is contentment. There is day-to-day living just as you or I enjoy ours.

For a well-rounded understanding of the situation, it’s best to remember all of these aspects–not just because they are accurate and true, and not to take away from Bwaise’s need for help, but to reveal a lesson about the human spirit and its ability to find joy in even tough circumstances; and then to laud those who endure the challenge by putting themselves into these situations to help–not begrudgingly but with a smile on their face.

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Visit to an African Slum

An African slum.

What comes to mind?

I was given the chance to visit one of these extreme environments. And for the next two weeks I’ll show you photos and video of the conditions, the lives, and the institutions of a slum in Kampala, Uganda.

***

Earlier this day, my guide at the Gaddhafi Mosque had arranged this improvised  slum visit. We had been concluding our tour from the top of the mosque tower when he mentioned the slum down below. That was all the opening I needed for inquiry, and he happened to know a man who could fulfill my interest in seeing what a Ugandan slum, and the peoples’ lives within, are like.

By the time we descended the steps of the tower, a motorcycle was waiting for me at the mosque complex entrance.

The man drove me out of the city center–from the administrative buildings and spacious layout, to a gradual shrinking and cramping of buildings and growing amounts of people.

Along the way, I wondered what I was getting myself into.

Off of a busy two lane street, we hung a right into an environment whose standards took a sudden drop.

We were in Bwaise.

In what felt like off-roading–except we were in the middle of city–the bike bumped and see-sawed along the hard dirt roads and paths. We stopped at an opening where the dirt roads came together to make a large square. On the side nearest to us was the one-room office of Volunteers for Sustainable Development (VFSD).

But before I could enter, children came up to me as soon as I dismounted the bike. They did so with the excitement of American children toward the ice cream man, only with the intimacy as if I were an uncle.

Our arrival:

The Nonprofit

I entered the small, though solid and clean office with red carpet, two large wooden desks, guest chairs, and bright posters on the yellow-painted walls promoting Uganda tourism.

I spoke with Salim, dressed in slacks and fitted black t-shirt, and Seru-Nassar in slacks and a blue button up. These two young men had started and operate VFSD as an agency to improve the lives of the people in Bwaise. Themselves from the slums, they said they understood the challenges of keeping kids in school, keeping teenage girls away from prostitution, telling boys it’s not cool to walk away from a pregnant girlfriend, and then helping resultant single mothers make ends meet.

They said the conditions here were “appalling” and that slums grew because more people move into the city and Bwaise is cheap.

The organization is just these two guys, but with some outside help they’ve been able to conduct events (neighborhood gatherings) and initiatives (safe sex programs). One organizational project had been to survey families in the slum to document the status and progress of those most in need.

I arranged a picture collage atop a desk from a few dozen of the affected children from these families.

Another initiative was fund-raising by way of conducting slum tours.

Salim with slum tour brochure

Bwaise is a world of people earning less than $50 a month.

Salim and Seru-Nassar started to show it to me.

We walked back outside to the immediate reception of more children.

“Mzungu!,” the little boys and girls yelled. This is one of the few words that are the same in Swahili, the language of Tanzania, as it is in Luganda, the language of Uganda. It’s a term for white people.

I don’t know why children came up to me, exactly. Salim would say that they liked my camera, but I also think it’s in their minds that people that look like me are wealthy and helpful.

We wander about Bwaise:

We happen upon children, a man ironing clothes for a living, and then more children out by themselves.

Here it is captured on video:

The Home Stop

Salim and Seru-Nassar then led me to a home of a Bwaise resident. We entered the shoddy brickwork building through a small, creaky wooden front door and into a small bedroom-sized dwelling. A pink/peach fabric hung to separate the bedroom side from the living room side. Once the door closed, inside was dim and cluttered. There were two easy chairs with torn arm rests and an uneven couch with white sheet atop. A few cobwebs in the corner strung across old newspapers as wallpaper.

Margaret, 30, is the woman of the house. She’s a single mother making money by washing people’s clothes.

She has three children:

All four of them are HIV positive.

I was surprised, as they all appeared healthy. International organizations help with medications.

Margaret’s husband infected her after contracted HIV from another of his wives. He’s been dead for seven years. Margaret ekes by with a 13,7, and 6 – year old children. They pirate electricity from nearby power lines.

I suddenly notice a man who had been in the corner no more than six feet from me the whole time we had been talking. Curled up in an easy chair, the sickly-looking man decided to pick himself up and slouch over to the couch.

I stood on the chair he had been on for a picture of the place.

Living room to the left; bedroom to the right

We didn’t stay too long. Salim wanted to show me the rest of the stops.

We got back outside under the bright sun. Children find me and take my hand.

We continue on through the slum.

Not all the children looked as healthy and happy as the girls in the pictures with me.

I hoped she’d get healthy, clothed, and when older, make it to our next destination: the Bwaise primary school.

But getting all these children to school is difficult. There are many orphans. And many are sick. Salim became energized with frustration when back in the office telling me, “Parents give children 100 shillings to buy something from shop, and when child returns, parents are gone.”

There’s a perpetual and growing cycle of difficulty under their noses that Salim and Seru-Nassar are not able to repair by themselves.

***

Next week I’ll show you pictures and footage of the school, the slum aqueduct, and a special chance meeting of Nathy, my host in Kampala, and Salim–a hopeful collaboration for a better future in Bwaise.

Until then, check out, “like,” and feel free to reach out to Salim via VFSD’s Facebook page.

 

 

Fifty Shades of Adult Content at Your Local Target

You won’t find adult magazines or X-rated films at Target, but you will find that which is comparable. According to Webster’s, pornography simply is: “the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement.”

For some reason(s), we’ve generally labeled and judged as “adult” or “mature content” only that which men tend to consume. Thus, such material is decried and kept far away from everyday life–like, say, trips to Target.

But then I go to Target and I see this:

 

See, that which we call “pornography” is actually only one side of the coin. And because we neglect to consider books like “Fifty Shades of Grey”as pornography, despite it just as appropriately meeting the definition of the word, content like it shows up as casually (not to mention promoted heavily) as if it were a Disney movie.

I don’t point this out to judge books like this (not do I care that Target sells it.)

I do so to point out the absurd inconsistency of it all.

If Target sold Playboy, it might make the news. But books that describe acts and anatomy in ways more graphic and egregious than most pornographic films are somehow able to float by as something other than pornography.

This is subject of my editorial that was published in today’s Star Tribune.

 

Religion in Uganda: I Visit a Temple and a Mosque

What religion are people in East Africa?

Christian? Muslim? Tribal mythologies? Witchcraft? How about dread-locked Rastafari?

Yes.

Contrasting people of Europe or China, those in Africa are especially open to religion. This openness combined with the influence of outsiders over recent centuries, means a lot of different faiths have taken hold. In June, I was able to explore traditional spirituality of natural remedies and spells by visiting a medicine man. A month earlier, I documented an animated worship service of Tanzania’s–and the region’s–dominant religion: Christianity.

(Christianity is doing so well in Africa, in fact, that my brother once told me that his pastor had joked about how mission workers from Africa need to come spread the Word to Americans.)

However, this region of the world also butts up against the Islam-dominated countries of North Africa and the Middle East. There is a strong minority of Muslims in East Africa. In Kampala, Uganda, I was finally able to explore this faith by way of visiting probably the most glamorous Muslim house of worship in all of East Africa.

Earlier this same morning, I was also able to visit a gorgeous temple for a smaller, more modern, and intriguing up and coming religion: Bahá’í.

***

I awoke on my small mattress on the floor at Nathy’s home. Once again on this trek, I was hosted by a member of the Web travel community, Couchsurfers. Also once again, I was privileged not just with a place to stay while visiting but was introduced to opportunities I would ordinarily have missed–such as my first destination this morning.

I rose in this small room, threw on some clothes out of my suitcase laying on the hard carpet floor, and then exited the room to the cozy unit; the kitchen, bathroom, Nathy’s room, and living room were all just a few feet away. This was nice digs with a green front yard and a heavy, black gate leading out to the neighborhood.

Having already left for work–an organization that offers managing/funding assistance to area non-profits–I recalled Nathy telling me the night before about a beautiful, new temple within walking distance. The morning of September 23, I exited the house, rolled open the heavy gate with the slow weight of an old lady spinning the Price is Right wheel, and greeted the neighborhood on my way to the temple.

Making a large “L” as instructed by Nathy, I saw the dome of the temple in the distance after hanging a right.

Past the regular commotion seen along the way, things were open, quiet, and clean as I approached the driveway running up a hill. Nearing the top, I entered the grounds of the Bahá’í temple property. First thing I noticed was the cemetery:

Limbo is an afterlife belief associated with the Catholic faith. But this wasn’t a Catholic church.

This is what makes Bahá’í unique.

This faith was founded by a Persian named Bahá’u’lláh:

Pictures of the the man at different stages of life taken at the library I visited later on.

Bahá’u’lláh, a Persian, lived in the 1800s, and his philosophy leveraged the advantage of hindsight and contemporary thinking. The Bahá’í believe in the legitimacy of all the major religions, the divinity of their respective prophets, and the sacredness of their respective holy books. I had all sorts of questions for the nice young woman from Kenya, the volunteer guide who approached visitors.

Mainly, I wanted to know how this faith bridges the gaps. Which religious holidays do they observe? All of them? That’s a lot of days off work.

What about creation stories, ceremonies, and beliefs such as the afterlife?

“Our spirit will be with God,” she said to me.

“In heaven,” I concluded aloud.

“With God,” she softly retorted.

Indeed, along with their openness to other belief systems, this faith does have its own holy days, texts, and tenets. (You can read more about Bahá’í here.)

After we spoke, she showed me the temple:

Visitors can enter but aren’t allowed to photograph.

Inside, the temple was as pristine, modern, and centering as you’d expect from views of the outside. Rows of hardwood pews faced an ornate alter and beautiful artwork hung on the interior octagonal walls. The whole space was lightly and brightly colored and emanated a calm universal in all houses of worship.

***

After the Bahá’í temple, I hopped on a motorbike taxi to see Kampala’s famous house of worship standing in the center of the city.

One the way, more of the city:

After several minutes, we were getting close.

Mosque in the background

We rolled up to the open gate before this grand structure. I hopped off the bike and sauntered into this front yard of smooth stonework.

Before approaching the building, I walked along a series of vendors to the right selling Muslim gear and literature.

Then my guide approached, a smaller-statured Ugandan named Ashiraf.

“It’s an Egyptian name,” he’d tell me.

We approached the entrance.

Up the steps, we were now on the level of the mosque.

Tall tower. I wonder if I could climb up inside…

I also wondered whether I’d be allowed inside the mosque–I’m not Muslim. And if so, would there some special pre-entrance procedure to undertake? I was comically naive.

Later, a German woman would need to wear a head scarf, but for men, all Ashiraf said to me was, “Take off your shoes.”

So I did. And in we went.

For the first time in my life, I visited a mosque. As you can see, his wasn’t your everyday, ho-hum Islam house of worship, either. This was the grand, Gaddafi Mosque.

“Gaddafi?” I thought to myself upon hearing its name. “They don’t mean…?”

Yes, they do.

Muammar Gaddafi, the recently-assassinated dictator of Libya, funded this structure completed in 2006. My guide said people here were very sad to hear about his death in 2011. I’m not sure why there was a strong relationship between the tyrant and Uganda.

“He was down to Earth,” said my guide. He would visit Kampala and go out and interact with the people.

Regardless of its origins, I was impressed by the place. This large hall used only for weekly service and special occasions was constructed with powerful acoustics. Stand in the center underneath the dome, and you’ll think you’re speaking directly into your ear.

Other aspects of the hall stood out as well.

Ashiraf lifted the cover, and I was able to “leaf” through these blankets of paper.

Ashiraf read the translation. But you don’t speak the Koran, you sing it.

Check out the acoustics, this man’s lovely singing, and a gain a feel for this worship in this footage from the tour:

Through the imagery, the song, and the message Ashiraf recited, I understood for the first time the draw to the Islam faith. I know in today’s context, there are many negative feelings toward it, but stripped down to its fundamentals, Islam a powerfully meditative, humbling, and grounding practice–and I deciphered all this just from the light exposure I had this day.

After wandering this room, my guide took me back outside.

My tower wish was granted.

Life is a journey you take one step at a time. So it is up these creepy stairs at the Gaddafi Mosque.

One step at a time x 300 = awesome view:

We were the hub of the wheel of Kampala, the main streets “spoking” out to edges of town.

Despite Muslims being less than a quarter of the population of Kampala and Uganda as a whole, this mosque has the enviable real estate formerly home to British-built government buildings.

I zoomed in on some youngsters below:

Then I scaled back for a panorama shot:

From somewhere down in the crevices of Kampala, Ashiraf pointed and said,  “That’s the largest slum in Kampala.”

“Really? Where?” I asked. “I want to visit it.”

I looked out there, seeing what I thought might be the slum. But it wasn’t the bird’s eye view that I desired; I wanted the human’s view walking within. What was a slum in East Africa like? Was it as rundown as my stereotype? Was it dangerous? Overall, I wanted to see the people, their day to day conditions, their lives, their existence and deportment in such an environment.

Ashiraf interrupted my thought, saying while standing behind me, “I know a man who gives tours of the slum.”

I turned, but though it seemed an incredible coincidence and opportunity, I actually wasn’t shocked. “Of course you do,” was more resembling of my thinking.

Adventure travel, opening yourself up to what comes next, to what Life has in store; the clockwork of this free existence had chimed the wonderful and wondrous melodies from this man in the mosque. Now the rhythms of life strummed along to provide a slum tour this afternoon. Life is reliably amazing.

And this afternoon, I’d take that tour and see conditions you’d probably suspect–yet make no less an impact when seeing them with your own eyes…

Labor Unions: Effective. Political. Necessary?

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I work for a school. Last week there was a board meeting, and as communication coordinator I was there to stay current on new business.

Unbeknownst to me, the teachers had decided to attend as well. They came in large numbers filling the library and all wearing blue T-shirts with yellow lettering reading, “Because our WORKING environment is the school’s LEARNING environment.”

My school is a great school, but there has been some friction between the teachers and the administration. I don’t write to disclose any particulars of the situation. Safe to say that the teachers like working there, too. That’s why they care about this justifiable concern.

An a non-union employee, I was simply struck by the draw and the mentality of those who participate in unions. At one point, a union rep–the stereotypical older gentleman in blue collar stylings of blue jeans, black sweatshirt, and a thick, grey mustache–spoke to the board about the value of work and the importance of solidarity and family.

“Sure, we have our quibbles, but we stick together,” he said.

He finished to the applause of the teachers who, too, feel strength in numbers, in unity, in wearing the same shirt.

I’m not one to want to put on the same shirt as everyone else, but I understand it. These teachers represented something bigger than their group of 25. They represented that life-outlook of seeing their best chance in life when this kind of arranged unity makes their actions impactful and needs heard. And in many cases throughout history, they’ve been right–that unless they unify, career laborers, educators, and other employees may very well be exploited by those without that need to unify (and without the empathy for those who do), and so independently accumulate and leverage their power.

Unfortunately there’s more than a streak of politics that gets brought into the fold, causing impassioned pro/anti-union stances. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a union, with this strategy of solidarity to accomplish goals. The problem is when one side or the other is forced on the unwilling.

The most extreme, of course, happened in China, the Soviet Union, and even hanging on in a few countries today, where perceived threats of the runaway capitalists made it illegal for their kind to operate. These countries would move ahead with this supposed enlightened unity philosophy not just at the forefront, but as the only life-outlook allowed to employ. The attempt to normalize this mindset and effort–to the tune of preventing emigration, executing the rich, and controlling the economy–led to catastrophe and suffering unable to comprehend and measure.

Today in the U.S., a much lighter politicization of labor vs. capitalist is in play. But it’s still there, because (perhaps by necessity) there’s an element of force still in play. My brother the school teacher has no choice but to pay union dues. That’s messed up, he says. And he’s right. The argument is that if he’s going to get the benefits of union negotiations, then he also has to pay. But this all or nothing approach, though cleaner, cuts moral corners to justify forced payment.

I’d like to see the day where people who want to be in unions, can freely. And those who don’t, won’t have to. Because as long as force is in play, then we have this unnecessary clash between philosophical factions who may otherwise view each other as people who have different tastes in music, fashion, or some other benign distinction. Force is the only reason we have pro/anti-union sides, pro/anti-union politicians, bumper stickers, lawn signs, and related political opinion pieces. One could imagine a new set of resentments against people who simply liked different music than you if there was a vote for whose music was going to be legal.

I don’t know all the ins and outs. Maybe by some set of circumstances, unions have to force membership on all if a majority of employees vote for it. If that’s the case, then I hope to see the day when those circumstances end and people can be free to choose.

I’m optimistic. I think union numbers have gone down in general, because employers are better at providing fair and contenting compensation and conditions without the need for workers to team up to fight for more. And that’s because today there are ways other than unions for workers to get their fair share. Businesses are as concerned about petitions, customer boycotts, and a negative story going viral as they are their employees unionizing. The result of technology, connectedness, a wealthier society than yesteryear means the floor for compensation and conditions has never been so high.

Isn’t this what we all want: a world where unions aren’t disallowed, but unnecessary?

New Country, New Trek: Into Uganda

At night I lay sick in my saggy bed in my dingy motel in Bukoba, wishing that buses could leave later in the morning. I wanted to sleep in the next morning, but dawn-departure trips seemed the norm.

Surprisingly, I awoke feeling okay. In fact, I was eager to leave this city on the west coast of Lake Victoria. Today, I’d rattle along to the north coast. What’s more, I’d be leaving Tanzania for the first time since my arrival eight months earlier.

Where was I headed?

Uganda.

Uganda isn’t a super-famous country. It was once called the Pearl of Africa by Winston Churchill for its charming landscapes and people. Ugandans have held onto that slogan by former colonial overseers.

Otherwise, Uganda might be best known for their eccentric leader from the 70’s, a portly tyrant named Idi Amin whose policies and directives decimated the economy, confiscated Asian-owned property and business, warred with Tanzania, executed enemies, and overall were indicative of what power-hungry leaders do. His legend goes so far as to include cannibalism. Regardless of that claim, which he smilingly denied to reporters while on exile in Saudi Arabia, a lot of people suffered and died under his control.

Since then, Uganda’s been much more peaceful and this pearl has been able to shine.

I was shining a bit more as well, feeling better crossing the border and entering this new country refreshed with a new vibe, new currency, and a higher fluency of English, the language of medium for schools here.

***

Unlike my two previous rides out of Arusha and Mwanza, our bus in the still-dark parking lot of the Bukoba bus station left on time. Thank God. Bukoba hadn’t been so good to me. We were well on our way before the sun rose.

And before long, we reached the Ugandan border.

Border town

Doing so, we all had to exit and first enter a trailer where Tanzanian customs authorized our departure.

Leaving’s easy, though I was a hair concerned, because Tanzania has a funny travel visa that’s good for 90 days, but valid for a year. Huh? Well, I leaned on the year thing, and it worked out fine. The man looked at my passport, back up at me, me to him with an innocent smile, and him back down to the passport to offer a stamp atop it. “Ka-chunk!”

Then we bus riders all paraded into a more official-looking building, where Ugandan men in uniforms behind glass waited our arrivals. I was the only non-East African. For these folks, border crossing is a cinch via their intergovernmental agreement. For me, it was a different story.

I approached and handed my passport to the medium-built, medium-aged mustached guy in blue and white uniform. He looked at my passport, looked back up at me, then I to him with a break of  a smile, and he to me with the same.

“You must be rich,” he said.

“No, actually I’m broke.”

Ignoring me, he continued, “Because right now you’re going to give me fifty dollars.”

I had anticipated this expense and had the bill, but tried to talk him down due to my brief stay.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re here for just an hour,” said the other customs guy behind the glass and clinching the matter.

I gave them one of my two fifty dollar bills. I would need the other for Kenya.

The bright side was that the Tanzania visa costs $100–though other Western and Eastern tourists would get theirs for $50. (All of these exchanges are done in US dollars.) I remember minutes into my arrival in Tanzania–even before leaving the airport–I had a minor protestation when I heard the large man in military uniform taking visitors’ passports say “$50″ to one foreigner and then turning to me, looking at my passport, and saying, “$100.”

“What? You just said $50 to them,” I said.

“$100,” he said back sternly.

Alrighty then.

I’d find out that Americans are simply charged more and the theory floated around was that that was because of fees America charges visitors to the U.S. This is another article altogether: the plight of a Tanzanian (or someone from any dozens of poorer nations) trying to visit the U.S. My Coloradan friend in Tanzania, Kathy, was married to a Tanzanian man. Some months earlier, they had taken the necessary trip all the way to the capital, Dar es Salaam, paid the not negligible fee just to apply, and then swiftly received a rejection for his ability to join his wife when she went back to Colorado later that year. Details and reasoning aside, the lesson for us today is: be grateful you have that U.S. passport. Countless millions of people all over the planet wished they had that little blue booklet. And more than be grateful, use the darn thing.

Money changers had met us getting off the bus on the Tanzanian side. These men in casual, if not raggedly street clothes, whipped out all the colorful currencies in hand. Then they saw my color and came over. If you want to feel like a celebrity getting attention, take public transportation across East African borders.

One escorted me the whole way–from Tanzanian trailer, across the 30 yard stretch of no-man’s-land between the two countries, into the Ugandan customs office, and then back to the bus. There, I said goodbye to these:

Though I kept a couple of small TZ notes for souvenirs.

…and hello to these:

Ugandan currency is considerably weaker than Tanzanians. TZ shillings are about 1600:1 US dollar. UG shillings are 2600:1

After getting a small bite to eat (chapati: the thick flour tortilla-like food just like they make it in Tanzania), we hopped aboard on the Ugandan side and rode to Kampala. Maybe it was all in my head, but things felt different. I guess it was just cool to say, “I’m in Uganda” as the novelty of saying “I’m in Tanzania” had worn off by now.

Not long into this stretch of ride, we crossed the equator, which I thought was kinda nifty. Then not long after it, signs of Uganda’s capital began to be seen out my window.

Kampala is the city of Uganda. 1.2 million people along with outskirts that stretch for miles and miles. Indeed, we’d see signs of urbanization a good forty-five minutes before actually entering the city proper. Here’s some video of that approach:

Before I knew it, the bus stopped at a nondescript location in the city–a convenience store next to a busy street. Things here resembled the cities I had just been in, except for the prices all seeming high with the lower-valued Ugandan currency. A Snickers was 2500USH.

Minutes earlier, while busing through the outskirts, I had borrowed a woman’s phone (mine no longer worked here in Uganda) to call my host in Kampala. I had a tough time hearing my host, so gave it back to the woman, who was able to give her (my host) directions to where we’d be dropped off.

I waited at that convenience store.

I saw this advertisement:

Fifteen minutes later, I saw a young Ugandan woman hop off a motorbike taxi and approach in such a way as to have me suspect she was my host. With a purple hint in her shoulder-length hair, the petite woman in black business-casual outfit walked up to me in confidence and style.

She went by the name Nathy on Couchsurfing–the reliably-helpful web community of travelers/hosts that had found me lodgings in Arusha and Mwanza as well. With all my luggage, we needed two bikes, so she hopped on one to lead the way, and my guy followed. The motorbike wasn’t just the best way to get around the sometimes-congested streets of Kampala; it was also the best way to see the city.

It was the perfect introduction:

Nathy lived a good 20 minutes away. She shared a gated property off of an outskirt road lined with food markets, small service businesses such as shoe repair and furniture-making, and then a small, modern hotel across the street. The whole neighborhood offered a dusty, poorer feel than what you’d expect in the U.S.

Behind the thick, creaky gate, Nathy walked me into the house’s front yard, where a young boy and girl played. Their mother sat outside folding laundry. Nathy said hello, the kids and mom waved back. The mom smiled at me, and the kids followed Nathy and I into her side of the duplex. The family was evidently used to seeing foreign men come and go, as Nathy was an avid couchsurfer. And the kids, a cute 2-3 year old little girl in a white summer dress and a 4-5 year old boy bare-bottomed in nothing but a t-shirt, entered the home with us. They had another reason to come in. Nathy had snacks.

Nathy showed me my room, a small space with nothing but a single mattress on the floor. Worked for me. I’d sleep here the next four nights.

The next four days included explorations into the heart of Kampala’s markets, slums, and even a bit of nightlife. The following day, I’d tour a grand Bahá’í temple and palatial Muslim mosque. The exposure to, and education of, these religions in Uganda will be the focus next week.

The Difficulty of School Behavioral Policy, of Policy in General

law-with-feather-quill-283x300

This week at my job at a Twin Cities charter school, I was asked to review their new discipline policy. In accordance with the state of Minnesota, and also the school’s own standards, the document stretched 17 pages addressing everything from what constitutes (and how to respond to) food fights, firearms, bullying, sexual harassment, improper dress, etc.

It’s good to cover your bases. But I also saw the difficulty of making statewide educational policy when schools from neighborhood to neighborhood are so different–not to mention schools from city to small town. While we all want safe and effective schools, it occurred to me that the nature of student body behavior determines a large part of how to respond to instances of misbehavior. The rigidity of broad policy, however, disallows such flexibility. This is the inherent catch-22 of law.

According to state policy, students who are disruptive in class ought to be punished according to the severity of the disruption. But in schools at which I’ve taught in north Minneapolis, what is classified as disruption might include 3/4 of the class. So what do teachers in these schools do? They adjust and react according to the circumstances. They let some things slide that in my current school would get students a stern talking-to.

Likewise, state policy dictates repercussions if students bring a knife to school dependent on the length of the blade (over/under 2.5 inches). But a knife means something completely different to a boy in north Minneapolis compared to a boy in my small hometown in northern Minnesota.

I think that most school leaders do take into account these contextual factors, but then what place does policy have when the bar set by the standards can be bent and selectively enforced? And when not flexible, it’s not unheard of for a student in one part of a state getting punished harshly because of policy change as a result of troubles in another part. For instance, a Boy Scout may get suspended for carrying his pocketknife. Meanwhile, kids in the inner city have been suspended for making a pointer finger gun, largely because of heightened concerns from firearm tragedies out in suburbia.

There is a clear benefit to acting as one unit, such as a state. Members of a team look out for one another, and policymakers are tasked to have every school and student within their jurisdiction succeed. This overarching policy frames a statewide academic and conduct standard to be implemented at all schools. But unity is tricky with diversity. Minnesota isn’t unlike any other state in the America. Contrasting with other places I’ve lived (China, Tanzania), we are a diverse state with diverse needs and conditions. This makes policy difficult. While no one argues that a fight breaking out in the hallway is acceptable, there is substantial variation for how to punish students who cuss or throw a paper airplane across the room.

Seeing the shortcomings of a straight-line policy across the waves that is the variety within a state, the answer, I think, is to perfect that dance, the give-n-take, of overarching vs. localized by requiring certain, fundamental guidelines for school conduct, but then also allowing the flexibility regarding lighter offenses and punishment.

Another point that crossed my mind was the act of creating policy in general.

***

When conducting a psychological experiment measuring someone’s gratitude or attractiveness or greed or sympathy, there is no definitive scale. Thus, researchers quantify such traits the best they can with a scale that they or other researchers have created. Critics point out the downsides of trying to quantify that which isn’t measurable. How can you measure sympathy?

We do the same thing with policy.

What is bullying?

The state breaks it down the best as it can but still uses immeasurable terms like name-calling. What constitutes name-calling?

Behavioral policy also has the ongoing potential to usurp that which might be a much better strategy for dealing with a problem: a leader’s personal judgment. A teacher probably doesn’t need to look up what bullying is. When they see it; they know it. They don’t need to refer to a behavior policy manual to know how to handle a student they’ve gotten to know all year. The teacher will know better than a policymaker how to respond and help her student move forward.

At the same time, this attempt to quantify allows for a consistent and understood standard as a means of helping an authority know what to look for, an overarching standard under which no school is allowed to drop, and most important, an objective standard to reduce the potential harm when favoritism or not wanting to be inconvenienced or any other shortcoming infects a leader’s ability to do what it right.

There’s an element of stylistic preference. My hometown small town school didn’t have an extensive bullying policy (they may not have had such a policy at all.) The village school I worked at in Tanzania didn’t have any policy to speak of, yet things ran smoothly under the guidance of a good headmaster. It makes one wonder whether policy, this awkward quantification, is necessarily an improvement or simply an alternative way of doing things whose benefit is dependent on the circumstances.

Yet it seems as entities grow–companies, schools–law and policy do become natural outcrops for the continuing development of the institution. The rush to create policy in the U.S. after a new public outrage may seem as much an appeasement–as well as an over-reliance on words on a piece of paper to solve a problem. But policy does stand as a third party, a non-human guideline that helps steer us in the right direction. It is a whole other way to address an issue as a leader.

Going “by the books” or “going with your gut.” Perhaps herein lies another dance or give-n-take between the two that we need to perfect.

***

If I had to summarize, I’d say the word of the day is “flexibility.”

Give room to the smaller units to function with respect their unique circumstances within the larger framework. And leverage and respect each method of operation: the objective standards of policy as well as the involved thinking and consideration of a leader’s assessment.

Ferry Ride to Bukoba, My Low Point on this Trek

I told myself when I left Arusha that this trek around Lake Victoria wasn’t going to be a vacation.

It was an adventure.

I’d be okay with delays and discomforts; they were all just part of the experience. The upshot: this mindset allowed me to also be open to any opportunity that came along. And as if the universe listened to my decision, I was presented with the opportunity to float across Lake Victoria.

My man Daniel, the thin, young fella who had showed me around Mwanza, had an in with a cargo ship captain. The captain would be waiting for me in Bukoba the next day to take me to Kampala, Uganda.

***

Another early bus departure; another hours-long delay. The first was was at the Arusha bus station; this time it was along a city street in Mwanza. The Arusha delay was legal–the bus pulled over for speeding. This morning was mechanical–an engine belt, I discovered. I didn’t know which delay was more ominous. But hey, adventure travel, right?

At word of the delay, all of us passengers disembarked the bus that was squeezed into a small parking lot just off the street. As we all sat or stood on the sidewalk, enterprising street salesfolks came by to sell tea, bread, and store-bought cookies.

After a good ninety minutes, the bus engine started, the driver revved her up, black smoke farted out the tailpipe, and we were one our way.

Here was our route:

The highlight of the trip actually happened right away and served as a sample of what my upcoming boat ride might be like. Rather than go around a long, narrow bay, the route ferried over it–buses and all.

At the ferry port, rider exited while busses lined up to board the ferry.

Then we made our way in our own long line to the passenger waiting area.

Several nuns on this route. One nice Tanzanian nun sat next to me for the first chunk of this bus ride.

They served food in the waiting area as well.

I abstained.

Soon the ferry came and we watched people and cars disembark.

Then it was time for us to load up.

Off we went, floating to the other side.

Looking back

It was enjoying jaunt across the bay. I looked forward to the extended version from Bukoba to Kampala.

After maybe thirty minutes, we reached other side and then hopped back onto the bus and back on the road.

Hugging the fertile, rocky coast the whole way, and breezing through what could have been some interesting, old colonial mining towns, I had to choose whether to miss a good part of the action outside the window, or see it but then pay a physical toll. The busses here seemed to be engineered for children. The windows were interrupted with a broad crosspiece right at face height. To see out the windows, then, I had to hunch way over into awful posture that began to ache after several miles.

I got into a window tiff with the woman in front of me. She preferred it open. I would slide it shut to get the wind blast out of my face and body. Being absurdly low, I could almost lean right out of the window like the driver of a UPS truck.

Tight seats, bumpy roads, having to hunch over: riding these busses were literally a pain in the neck. But the views were nice.

The day before, I had told Daniel to tell the captain I’d meet him in Bukoba in the early afternoon. But what I was told would be a 7-hour trip, and an arrival by 1:00pm, ended up being an 11-hour ride arriving in the late afternoon.

As we made our way, I tried to call the captain. He didn’t answer. As we pulled into the Bukoba bus station, I tried calling the captain again. No answer.

Off the bus and with all my luggage, I wobbled over the lot of the bus stand into one of the bus ticket offices lining the lot. I enter the white tiled floor, livingroom-sized space of the bus company I had just used. I asked the two young men in street clothes standing behind the glass if they would offer me a refund for the tardy service. No luck. Then losing track of my adventure travel mantra, and getting tired of the lousy service in Tanzania, I said to them through the glass, “This is not how you treat customers.” But evidently, it was. No other passengers from the bus came in here to complain about a four-hour delay.

Thinking my phone was the problem, I asked these guys if they could  call the captain. But they couldn’t get through, either. Looking back, the whole thing had seemed sketchy, but this was just part of the experience I thought. Getting on the cargo ship was illegal, but Daniel said a lot of people do it. “There’ll be other Europeans on the boat with you,” he had said, adding that we’d play pool and have a great time.

I  mostly wanted to experience being on a big cargo freighter, see what this lake-shipping culture was all about, and then observe how the logistics and trade operations were performed between neighboring countries in East Africa. But it would all be just a fantasy unless I could get a hold of this captain, who had told Daniel that we’d be leaving early the next morning. I thought I might even be sleeping on the ship this night, but having not contacted the captain, and wanting a place to rest, I referred to my travel guide for a few hotels in town. Then I walked back out to the bus stand lot, hopped on a motorcycle taxi, and looked for a room.

The driver took me to a section of hotels along the lake edge, where at this part of Lake Victoria, the coast was a fine-looking beach of yellow sand and distant green shores across the bay. I went to a place recommended by my guidebook. This particular, five room tiny hotel could have been a quaint place on an idyllic beachfront if not for the drab conditions inside.

The worker, a tall, 35-year-old lady in a cobalt blue skirt, walked me a handful of paces away from her small desk to reveal a room with plain, large bed and plain bathroom. (An in-unit bathroom, which is a selling point.) It also had electricity. This is all I really cared about. But I did take notice of the conditions.

Electronic heater warms the shower water as is comes out. That is, if the wires aren’t disconnected.

The toilet seat was disconnected.

Then, unfolding the top blanket on the bed, I took note of the unwelcome life under the covers.

Ants

I walked out of the room and asked to see another. I knew this would be alright. I’m pretty sure I was their only guest. The tall lady in the cobalt blue skirt showed me another room with a bed that didn’t look as comfortable. But it was bug-free, so I said okay. There were other hotels in town. I could’ve spent a little more for them. But I didn’t want to. Nor did I really care. The cramped bus ride, the tardy arrival, me not meeting the captain. I was short-fused and downtrodden.

I lost track of my adventure pledge. Actually, I just didn’t care. Screw this adventure. I wanted to go home.

The next morning, I’d gain insight into why I was being so negative.

***

I awoke with a pounding head, stuffy nose, and chills.

An onset of illness had influenced my emotions. There was actually some relief in having something to which I could peg this negativity. But I also knew the emotions weren’t invalidated by the illness. Lonely and bleak. I felt stranded in this room in this ratty motel in this nondescript Tanzanian city. I had no energy to do the things I would ordinarily do to overcome the fact that I’m often alone in these types of situations.

No exploring; no interacting; not even in a hostel with other foreign travelers.

Emotionally and physically, all I wanted to do was be alone and rest–and get better so I could get on that ship. I called Daniel. He answered and said he would contact the captain. In my dark room on a saggy bed, I watched a movie on my computer. I actually published a blog, as it happened to be a Sunday. Bukoba was big enough to have half-decent internet.

While online, I was prompted to check out the website of a fellow writer. I saw the man as a peer in the pursuit of telling people’s stories. And his success is incredible–admittedly making me jealous at times. I hadn’t seen his work in awhile, and when I visited his page, I was shocked to see that he had become bigger than ever. His fans were in the millions. He had the backing of prominent, global organizations.

Meanwhile, here I was in the condition that I was–a condition made evermore stark when contrasting it with the success of this guy. It was a punch to the gut. But the punch was also backdoor inspiration. That’s what success looks like, Brandon. Reach for it. Get out of this room.

Having been holding out hope that I might still get on the ship the next day, I decided to let go of my expectations of Daniel getting back to me. It had been a couple of hours, and dropping that rock felt good. Daniel wouldn’t call me back anyway. I’d never hear from him, nor find out what happened to the captain. I didn’t have the satisfaction of even a whimper of a resolution. I got nothing. But the relief of looking ahead outweighed the frustration of lost opportunity.

I decided to get a ticket out of town the next day. I was sick, but this wasn’t a great place to be so, and I trusted that my health would start improving tomorrow. I left the hotel for the bus station offices. It was a good two miles away, and I had many motorcycle taxis stop to offer me a lift. But I declined, choosing to see the city on foot.

Bukoba is actually a lovely place. Out the back door of the hotel, the Lake Victoria beach is soft sand. Behind the beach and the coastal road sit lush green hills that stretch toward the city, making for a picturesque, geologic, naturally-refreshing charm. This city, like others in this country, are hideaways, a bittersweet product of Tanzania’s undeveloped travel infrastructure. Tourism has downsides, but more people should enjoy this place. And it would be nice to see the rooms of the hotel being used–after they are exterminated, that is. (Or maybe even after they bulldozed the building and started over.)

I walked past the beaches and hills and got into the city featuring blocks of one-story retailers and service businesses, many of them closed on this Sunday. I made by way to the bus stand, bought my ticket for the next morning, found a grocer on the way back to my room, and rested until leaving the next morning.

It was a rough 24 hours. I hoped things would start looking up the next day.

My hopes would be fulfilled when I entered Uganda…