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The Day of our Birth and why it Matters: Reflections from Ghana

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Before we left we were instructed to look up the day of the week on which we were born. Our host explained that in Ghana babies are given many names that together represent their unique place in the world. The day of birth is the first name to be given, with others to follow once the baby survives to the eighth day, including, at a minimum, the name of a family member or ancestor to be emulated, a religiously affiliated name and a surname that is usually associated with the father. Listening to a Ghanaian share their full name is like listening to the beginning of a story, my favorite kind of story. A story about people, places and history all woven together into a rich and textured tapestry. A story without a true beginning and one that you hope will never end.

This impression of rich connectedness is what continues to linger with me as I sit and reflect upon my trip. In Ghana, details of birth, life and death matter. People and places matter and serve to elevate the expectations that surround individuals and their future legacies. This is why marriage is taken so seriously, with families investigating the character of potential mates and their respective lineage. With so much at stake, a union must be acceptable and worthy of one’s inherent promise.

And then the slave castle, the final destination of our trip. To bring people who mattered so much- men, women and children; chiefs and honored wives; mothers, daughters, aunties and uncles, each with important legacies and expectations surrounding their lives. And then to strip it all away. To defile, shackle and humiliate. To squeeze them through the place of no return.

People do matter. But their connectedness matters even more. People are part of families and communities. They are from specific places. They are part of stories and legacies that weave together in complex patterns over time. When we elevate people and their stories, we give them honor, we adopt a long-term vision, we think beyond ourselves. But when we break the connectedness and devalue people, the implications reverberate further than we can know.

Even before I left Ghana, I found myself trying to explain the lessons of the castle. Through texts and pictures I told my children that I had stood in the dungeon, that I had looked through the bars and touched the walls of the point of no return. I tried to convey the power of these experiences when juxtaposed against the nobility of lives and stories.

When I think of sending UB students to Ghana, I hope they will experience the extremes in this order, first beholding the elevation of humanity before confronting its annihilation. Somehow the sequence seems important. As my dear and wise friend Oluwafemi once explained, in order to achieve our potential we must continually dip ourselves in gold. This is the gift that Ghana has given me, one that I hope to continue to share.

Giving Thanks (on Thanksgiving) for Fellow Dreamers

I have a fairly expansive belief policy. My kids will tell you that I believe in anything that is good. Santa Claus and Guardian Angels, yes…. evil monsters and zombies, definitely no. This may seem like a joke, but I assure you that my policy is well thought out and quite sound. It draws on the principles of infinite diversity and the knowledge that virtually anything is possible when we work toward the greater good.

From an implementation standpoint, my policy is highly robust and transferable within most contexts and settings. It allows me to scan for the positive, picking and choosing perspectives and insights, remaining open and determined to find something of value. From an impact standpoint, it serves many functions. By espousing such a policy, people always know where I stand, especially my children who I am most interested in influencing. My policy also affords a certain protective functionality- preventing me from getting bogged down in the endless negativity and defeatism that threaten us at every turn.

To be clear, I want to be known as a dreamer, an optimist, someone who believes in infinite possibilities and potential. And so, I let my curiosity and openness guide me, feeling my way forward toward new adventures, relationships, and the magic they afford. In some respects, my policy has high discriminative validity. If it resonates strongly with the policies of others, I can usually tell right away. There is a certain synergy that ignites, catalyzing collaboration, innovation, and excitement that is too apparent to be ignored. But interestingly, it does not have the opposite repelling effect on those with more cynical tendencies. Although I have been known to madden my staunchest and most empirically-minded colleagues with my openness to the worlds of the unknown, they seem- at the same time- to be drawn to my sense of wonderment, even if they are loathe to admit it.

Let’s face it, the opposite of openness is not very inviting, even for those who are trapped within. The Land of the Cynics, Skeptics, and even Realists can feel dark, desolate, and shrouded in fear. And clearly, it’s growing more crowded by the minute. Conversely, the Land of the Dreamers is infinitely inclusive and open with endless room to stretch and explore the landscapes that continually change and re-imagine themselves.

I concede that my approach- and associated policy- may seem unconventional, but since first writing this post (in September, 2014) I have connected with a growing number of Dreamers who share my faith in the promise of possibility. I have met them in rural Tanzania, working to empower women and communities through agriculture, community development and education, and recently on the Mona Campus of Jamaica, striving to strengthen their capacity for research and public health, investing in the promise of collaboration and engagement. And when I travel to Ghana this January, I have a feeling I will meet many more, for suddenly, Dreamers seem to be everywhere I am going. For this, I am truly grateful- and terribly excited.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

(Adapted from original post, September, 2014)

An Unexpected Treat in Tanzania

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Visiting Sister Janepha at her farm in Baraki is always a treat. Since first meeting Jan in 2007 when she was studying at D’Youville College in my hometown of Buffalo, NY, she has become a dear friend. And seeing her in her element- running a fabulous agriculture project, overseeing development to support a dairy farm, rice cultivation, clinic, school and related community development initiatives, is a joy to behold. But somehow in my general state of bliss, I was completely unprepared for my surprise visit with Christina and her siblings.

We had been introduced to Christina during our last visit in January, 2016. It was the first day of classes at Baraki, and the beautiful young children were enjoying interacting with our UB students- blowing bubbles, playing ball, and exchanging hugs and smiles (see January post for pics and story https://marabhuber.com/2016/01/23/more-gifts-from-tanzania-2/) Sister Janepha had first pointed out Christina- a sullen looking child, wearing only a uniform sweater paired with a native skirt and flip-flops. We learned that Christina and her siblings had been orphaned just a few days before. And although the Sisters planned to enroll Christina in school, they would need to raise funds with the hope of bringing her younger siblings sometime in the future. But upon hearing the story, our two UB students- Amanda and Julia- committed to sponsoring Christina’s schooling for the year. I was so proud and grateful that we were able to help. And upon returning to Buffalo, we decided to allocate additional fundraising resources to support Christina’s siblings, Stella and Jackson. Together, we were able to cover the cost of a year’s schooling and fees for all three children.

The decision to sponsor the siblings had been a joyous one, but for some reason, I didn’t expect to see them during my recent trip to Baraki. The children were shy but they looked happy and healthy. And the hug that Christina gave me was so warm and strong that it nearly took my breath away. Perhaps this is what continues to draw me back to Tanzania- the closeness, the intimacy of connection, the ability to make a difference that you can feel, touch, and know in your heart.

Often, here in my own world, things can feel so impersonal, artificial and sterile. Even when we support charities or good causes, there’s so much distance, so many layers of process and structure. It’s often difficult to feel our impact, our shared sense of humanity. But in Baraki, on a beautiful sunny July afternoon, I got to hug a beautiful child named Christina. And I got to know that at least for now, she and her siblings are safe and loved by the Sisters. I truly am blessed.

 

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Kitenga Update- Truly Remarkable

Although I have returned to Kitenga many times since my original trip in 2009, my visit this past week (July 2016) felt qualitatively different. Even as the various buildings have taken shape over the years, the idea of a comprehensive and vibrant campus for girls has felt largely conceptual and entirely aspirational. Perhaps it was the expansiveness of the vista, the absence of children’s voices, or the lack of infrastructure or tarmac roads. Perhaps the Sisters’ vision was simply too bold or audacious for my mind’s eye to fully construct or comprehend.

And yet, there it was in undeniable form. As I stood with my UB colleagues, beholding the remarkable progress since my last visit, I was filled with a sense of awe and gratitude. Not only were the buildings real and tangible, but they were aesthetically beautiful and sound. As I walked through the courtyard of the dormitory, I could feel the presence of the girls and young women to come. And reflected in the gleaming windows of the new science building, was the promise of innovation and achievement, empowerment and hope.

The transformation was truly remarkable and I am humbled by the power of your generosity. With the collective support of the GEC community, the Kitenga campus is poised for success and impact. The school will become a model for the promise of education and all that is possible when we invest in girls, their families, and communities.

Congratulations GEC- truly remarkable!

-Mara

Taken from the GEC website  http://www.girlsedcollaborative.org/kitenga-update-truly-remarkable/

 

 

 

Getting Close in Tanzania — 60 Days of Impact — Medium

1540424_200345643496128_1510253199_oMara Huber, Ph.D., Associate Dean, Undergraduate Research and Experiential Learning, University at Buffalo

Source: Getting Close in Tanzania — 60 Days of Impact — Medium

UB 2016 Tanzania Study Abroad Trip

This wonderful video of our January study abroad trip was produced by Yasin Perez, a freshman Aerospace Engineering student, and member of the UB Academies.

Delving into Dissonance

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Dissonance is like the Holy Grail of learning. It is the place where we hit a conceptual wall, where our core assumptions about people, life, knowledge, and ourselves are rocked to the very foundation, forcing us to do something drastic- to alter our ways of understanding and interacting with the world.

To say that dissonance is uncomfortable would be a gross understatement. As humans, we go to great intellectual and emotional lengths to remain “ok” with ourselves and our views of the world. We surround ourselves with people who confirm our viewpoints and spend endless hours explaining away any thing or person who might disagree. For these reasons, we avoid dissonance like the plague, continuing – whenever possible- to believe that everything makes sense and that we essentially have it right. It is only when we find ourselves in places and situations that are so unexpected and surprising that dissonance has a chance to take root. But even then, if given the option, we will find an escape hatch- retreating to a place of comfort, reframing what we have experienced, and preserving our core frameworks and beliefs.

Clearly, we are tenacious with our assumptions. That is why our study abroad trip to the Mara Region of Tanzania is so powerful and exciting. Not only do we take students into a sorely underestimated part of the world, but we expose them to countless examples of people and projects that challenge their core assumptions and beliefs. We visit schools and clinics, agricultural projects, and community development colleges, and see the amazing work being led by Tanzanians, within their own communities, regions, and neighborhoods.

And with these experiences, through the process of guided critical reflection, cracks in our core understandings begin to emerge. If Tanzania is so underdeveloped, then why are the people so happy and industrious? If they are so primitive with regard to infrastructure and innovation, why does everyone have cell phones and access to the internet? And if they are so vulnerable and in need of external support, why are they so committed to education and to strengthening their own workforce through training and professional development?

Eventually, when the differences between the realities of what we are experiencing and our initial understandings become too great to sustain themselves, something powerful and life-changing begins to happen. We admit that we were wrong. Not just a little wrong- but stupidly wrong. And if we were wrong about Tanzania, about Africa, about communities and people around the world and in our own backyards, then we are undoubtedly wrong about so many other important things.

And this, my friends, is when life finally gets interesting. Yes, dissonance is a powerful pedagogical tool. But it is not for the faint of heart. It is strictly reserved for those who are open to a life-changing adventure, to seeing the world and themselves in fundamentally different ways. And to coming back changed.

For me, this is the promise of experiential learning, and the new frontier that lies ahead.