Friday, March 13, 2015

Christopher Peter Aluah: A Tribute

Yesterday, I received word that a friend of mine, Chris Aluah, has passed away this week. Chris had been fighting an illness for a while now, and sadly his condition deteriorated quickly and he passed away. I had not spoken to him very much for the last few years, but I had hoped to be able to visit him when we returned to the States. I'm very grateful I exchanged emails with him just a few weeks ago to send him some moral support.

I want to pay tribute to this man.

Chris was from Ghana (he can be seen in the picture below demonstrating a traditional Ghanaian dance at a meeting of the International Students Association back in 2010). He has been studying for several years at the University of South Carolina, which is where I met him while I was serving as an International Student Advisor. Chris earned dual masters degrees in Social Work and Public Health and most recently was working toward his PhD in Public Health. (Here's a Student Spotlight about Chris from a few years ago.)

Chris sacrificed a lot to be here. As many foreign students do, he left behind a family to come and earn his degrees. He has a wife and three kids back in Ghana; for various reasons, he couldn’t bring them over to join him in the States. To be so far away from family and so far away from home is a difficult thing, but Chris committed himself to his education to provide a better life not only for his family but also for those around him. He studied Social Work and Public Health; clearly this was a man who wanted to make a better world.

Chris was a fixture of my time at USC, but I am most indebted to him for his assistance in getting a simple idea off the ground, an idea that has grown into one of the most vibrant student organization on campus. Back in 2009, there was a clear need for supporting African students studying at USC. I had an idea to start an African student organization on campus; ideally, it would be a group where students from across the African continent could meet, socialize, and support one another. However, I wanted an authentic African voice to bring this organization to life, the voice of someone who would be speaking not just to African students, but as an African student; I immediately thought of Chris. We shared a Social Work background, and he had already demonstrated a commitment to working to improve circumstances for other African students through various avenues on campus.

I outlined my idea for an organization to Chris and explained that I could logistically pull it together, but I felt the call to create a Pan-African student group really needed to come from an African student. I asked if he would be willing to be the voice of the invitation, and he readily agreed. We decided that he would draft up a letter of invitation to invite any African students to join us for a meeting to hammer out the details and formally draft a constitution for this new group. He would write this letter, and I would send it to all the African students on campus through the channels at my disposal as a International Student Advisor.

Within mere hours, Chris had emailed me a draft of his letter of invitation, and let me tell you, it was beautiful. I wish I had a copy of the eloquent text to share with you here, but I’m afraid it’s lost to time. But it was heartfelt, engaging, and a beautiful call for unity and cooperation. It was the spirit of Africa at its finest. The core idea may have been mine, but the soul of the group, that came from Chris.

A small group of dedicated students from across Africa responded and subsequently gathered for several nights of back-and-forth discussions, brainstorming, and debates. In the end, the group hashed out a constitution, I was selected as the organization’s Advisor, and Chris was elected the group’s first President. The Pan-African Student Association (PANASA) was born.

The founding members of the Pan-African Student Association.
Chris is standing in the center wearing his ubiquitous Ghana shirt.

PANASA is now in its 6th year and is going strong, a vibrant and active campus organization helping to support students from Africa and spread the word with the larger USC community about the beauty and talent that Africa has to offer. In the end, this group rallied to help fund raise and garner support to help cover Chris’s medical expenses; the group Chris helped found in order to support African students ended up supporting him in his time of need. There’s a tragic beauty to that.

With the news of Chris’s death, it’s easy to shake my head and think “What a waste. All that hard-work, all that time and effort, for nothing.” He never finished the PhD and was never able to go back home to Ghana to use his education to better his beloved Ghana. But his death is NOT a waste; it’s a loss. The world is a poorer place without him. Chris was a role model to many and a friend to everyone. And his influence stretched far and wide, directly and indirectly: For every African student that felt they had a home away from home in PANASA, Chris has touched their life. Every student that learned a little more about Africa by attending one of PANASA’s Africa Nights, they ultimately have Chris to thank for that. And for all of us that knew the man, who laughed with him, who learned from him, we are all better people because of what Chris Aluah brought into our lives.

His untimely death is a damn shame, but his life was certainly a life well-lived.

Monday, February 09, 2015

One Safari, Two Idiots, and a Lot of Baboons

The Setting: The Karatu Gate into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

The Players:

L-R: An Idiot, Another Idiot

So this January, one of my oldest, dearest friends, Jeremy Mucha’ (AKA Cap’n Hardqore, AKA Homeskillet) came to visit Katie and I in Mwanza. As per usual, taking a safari through several of Tanzania’s national parks was on the agenda. So Jeremy and I scheduled a 4-day safari through the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara National Park.

Day One was great but uneventful (except for the lion thing and that hyena encounter, but that's a story for another day).

On the afternoon of the second day, as we are heading back from Lake Manyara, we stopped at the entrance gate into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Each vehicle and all passengers must register at the gate, so our driver, Mashaka, was to handle the registration. As we pulled up, we saw several other tourists standing in a crowd taking photos. As we park, we see a large crowd of baboons lounging at the edge of the parking lot, just about 15-20 feet from where we have now parked.

Mashaka sighs and says, “Those things are a pain, and they will grab anything they can get their hands on. So if you get out of the vehicle, make sure you roll up the windows and shut the doors.”

Now, I’ve lived in Tanzania for three years now, and baboons’ propensity for climbing onto and into cars looking for food is notorious. So I said, “Oh, yeah, no problem. Absolutely.” And nonchalantly start to checking my email on my phone.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Kids Draw the Darndest Things, Part II: Sister Genie's Birthday Edition

Welcome to the second installment of Kids Draw the Darndest Things, wherein I post a lot of earnest, genuine artwork created by children and then make fun of it.

This edition is dedicated to my friend Sr. Genie Natividad. This is Genie:

Sr. Genie is a Maryknoll Sister who lives here in Mwanza. Today, February 8th, is her birthday. Yesterday, we had a gathering of our Chanua children's group, with whom both Genie and I work. In honor of her birthday, I asked the kids to draw pictures of Sr. Genie.

I would be lying if I didn't admit to thinking "Oh, these will be HILARIOUS."

At first, I thought I was gonna be a little disappointed. Because the first few I saw were actually pretty straight-forward, pretty good drawings, lacking the wild, wonky quality of kid's artwork that I love so much.

But these kids...they did NOT disappoint.

Now, I should say once again before we commence that I LOVE these drawings. I love the way kids draw. I love everything about these drawings and I am super proud of them. I make sure to tell every kid what a good job they did with the drawing.

But I'm still gonna make fun of them. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you:
Happy Birthday, Sr. Genie: A Rogue's Gallery

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Seven Years

So, today is the seven year anniversary of my father's death from cancer. That's really hard to wrap my head around; sometimes it seems that it was just the blink of an eye, but today it's the opposite. I can't believe it's ONLY been seven years. I've done a lot of livin' in these last few years, and that time- the stress, the sadness, the laughter, and tears- it just seems like a lifetime ago.

For several days now, I've been mulling over what I was going to write on this anniversary. This is THE day. It's a day to remember a life-changing event in the life of the Reid family. I tried to think of something profound to say.

But I got nuthin.' No profound wisdom to impart or wise words to share. But you know what I DO have?

A ton of dirty dishes to wash.

Mundane? Yep. Boring? Yes, indeed. Necessary? Sadly, yes. I must do the dishes. Life goes on. As it should. As it must.

Sometimes life is amazing, like when I visited with Watatulu people up in the rock hills around Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. Sometime life is miserable, like when I struggled with anger and depression last year. It's fun when I watch Guardians of the Galaxy with friends. And it's plain old boring when I have to do the dishes.

I miss my dad. I would love to talk to him about all of the above (though maybe not the dishes). I think of him every single day. And I hope I always will. I wish he were here with us, yet he is not; but his example still lives on with me, guiding me.

Life goes on, and I think he'd be very happy to hear it.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Small Talk, Tanzania Style

So I have written in the past about language issues here in Tanzania. Indeed, the struggle to communicate is one of the most salient issue here for an ex-pat. Deeper issues of cultural understanding manifest themselves in conversations, but you can’t even approach that level of communication if you’re standing there looking like an idiot trying to remember the word for “pineapple.” Katie can actually have conversations in Swahili. I can sound like a relatively functional 4-year-old.

Beyond simply learning, remembering, and using new vocabulary and then understanding the nuance that may be underneath the words themselves, you also must deal with the fact that people talk differently, and I don't mean accents or simple grammar. I mean the way they think and form sentences is different. In your own culture, you have a basic assumption of how people will speak to you. But here, someone may say something to you that makes sense to them and everyone around you but makes no sense at all to you. What I mean is, beyond idioms, beyond new words, the things that people choose to say and choose NOT to say are often just as baffling, if not moreso.

Let’s take simple small talk, for example.

Small talk here often makes no sense to an American ear. It’s confusing. Even after almost 3 years here, its confusing. But maybe "confusing" isn't the right word...maybe "pointless" is better. It circles around and around and makes no sense. Now, I know there’s very little depth to “Hot today, huh?” or “How ‘bout them Mets?” but you at least know you’re talking about the weather of a football team. (Ha HA just kidding, people).

Small talk here- at least small talk with a Westerner- tends to consist of just stating some random comment about something remotely related to you, but with the crucial point of not clearly stating what that thing may be. Here’s a typical example. Keep in mind that this is often in a mix of English and Swahili.

Me: Habari za leo? (How are you?)

Them: Nzuri. Habari za kwako? (How’s your home?)

Me: Good.


Me: …What?

Them: How is it?

Me: How is what? America?

Them: YES...UGALI. (a local food staple)

Me: …What?

Them: UGALI. Have you tried it?

Me: …Yes. Why?

Them: Sema? (Verb for “say”)

Me: Say what?

Them: MABATINI. (Our neighborhood)

Me:…What about Mabatini?

Them: How is it?

Me: Mabatini? It’s good.


This can pretty much go on ad infinitum until I just smile and walk away (or look very confused and walk away). There will often be thumbs up, high fives, and laughter on their part.

So there’s no real moral to this story. It’s just fascinating (and honestly, often annoying) to see this happen. I feel that a certain amount of their local interaction is on this surface level with minimal information. But I also think this is particular relevant to when locals interact with Westerners. I know that most people here know a little bit of English- often just a few random words they’ve picked up- but in the same way that I felt good when I had my first simple exchanges in Swahili, they are likely proud of themselves for engaging the mzungu in English. Even if it made no sense to the English-speaker. And I can’t really judge them on that, because I see that same confused look staring at me when I open my mouth and use Swahili.


Monday, August 18, 2014

Am I Missing Something?...

 ...or is the massage therapist missing something in this picture?

Recently, several of us here were going through books to donate, and I flipped open a book on massage and found the following pictures.


There were many more like these two.

Look, I've had some really strange massages before, but only ONE of us stripped down for the session.