Articles by Kendall Hunter Journalist

Afghan Crops Make Perfect Scents

1-A9R38FCTonic 2011-02-25 10:02:00

Every spritz of The 7 Virtues-brand perfume wafts economic development into the lives of people a world away. The brand’s mission is to “harness women’s buying power to make change for our neighbors in nations experiencing war or strife” by sourcing materials from countries in need.

Poppies grown in Afghanistan account for 90 percent of the world’s heroin drug
trade. Canadian author and entrepreneur Barb Stegemann had the guts, or perhaps
more appropriately the wonder, to ask what would happen if poppy farmers were
paid a competitive price to grow something else, something that we in the west
would pay top dollar for — the oils needed to make perfume.

“When you start developing — like a muscle — that state of wonder, which is where
all philosophy begins, you say, ‘I wonder what would happen if I called Abdullah. I
wonder what would happen if I reached out to him’,” Stegemann has said
about getting in touch with Abdullah Arsala, the owner of a company called Gulestan
that grows the orange blossom in groves near the city of Jalalabad. He employs
over 2,500 farmers, including 35 women. 2-A9R38F9Stegemann says, “Abdullah Arsala is an incredible human being. We started buying
what he had and are now doing well enough to increase the purchase to $50,000
worth of oils, which will significantly empower farmers in the region.” Her offer is
competitive with what farmers could make growing crops for opium production.
Her company, The 7 Virtues, has so far developed two fragrances, Afghanistan
Orange Blossom Eau de Parfum and Noble Rose of Afghanistan, both made from
legal crops in Afghanistan.

Her passion, inspired by a friend who was injured in Afghanistan, had more than one
panelist on The Dragon’s Den (Canada’s equivalent to the venture capital
show Shark Tank) not only won over but brought to tears.
While dreams are often gallantly carried into the den only to be devoured whole,
Barb emerged not only with her vision intact but with $75,000 in funding
from Canadian entrepreneur and philanthropist W. Brett Wilson. The investment is
enabling a national rollout for The 7 Virtues in Canada’s largest department store,
The Bay, and preparations for distribution into the US market.
Says Wilson, “You just can’t help but fall in love with the concept of doing trade with
war-torn nations to lift others out of poverty and strife. I had to jump on board this
woman’s vision.”

The 7 Virtues is also developing its next perfume, made from vetiver oil from Haiti.
Stegemann explains that it was sourced through the Peace Dividend Trust, a
matchmaking company that helps North American businesses source products that
will help rebuild Haiti. “I am a big believer in economic development and
empowerment. Our perfumer in Toronto has tested the vetiver and it is truly the best
vetiver in the world. This excites me to shine light on what is good in these

Words borrowed from poets and philosophers decorate the packages of the
perfumes. This is an extension of Stegemann’s former gig as the author of the
Canadian bestseller, The 7 Virtues of the Philosopher Queen, which can be
purchased over the same counters as the fragrances. Pick up a package and read
the thoughts of the poet Rumi: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.”

There are meetings taking place right now in fragrant fields of war-torn and ravaged
countries. And there is an open invitation from The 7 Virtues to others, both people
and businesses alike, to take a step forward with them, in peace.
To purchase a fragrance, click here.
Watch Barb Stegemann on The Dragon’s Den:

Friends and Admirers of Injured Combat Photographer Rally Support

A9R3936Tonic 2010-11-30 12:11:00

From the day João’s Silva stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan, social media has kept friends and admirers informed about his progress. Coverage has been spotty, but posts from friend and Pulitzer-prize winning photojournalist, Greg Marinovich were reassuring even though the scope of Silva’s injuries was extensive.

Despite immediate help from medics, he lost both legs below the knee and suffered internal injuries. An initial post on Marinovich’s Facebook page on Oct. 23 was simple, but it was all those who knew and cared about Silva needed to hear. From a Reuters photographer: “Any news on Joao please Greg?” “It looks OK Yanni,” Marinovich replies. “Cheers man,” posts his colleague.

Why Marinovich’s words are reassuring is because he too has been there. Silva himself photographed two of Marinovich’s near-fatal shootings. Both photographers were part of what became known in South Africa as The Bang Bang Club — a group of four driven to share with the world images of the violence in South African townships in the early 90s as the country lurched toward democracy. It’s the subject of Marinovich and Silva’s book The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War (recently made into a movie of the same name). Kevin Carter a Pulitzer prize winning photographer who committed suicide in 1993 was also part of the so called club. Silva was photographing Ken Oosterbrook, yes the fourth in the club, when he was fatally shot in a township weeks before the first democratic elections in South Africa.

Marinovich wrote on his blog that Silva “has a penchant for danger and risk, but is never reckless, especially not in the many war zones he covers.” He also noted, “Silva is the most talented and courageous contemporary conflict photographer. Bar none.” The Portuguese-born Silva, 44, has been based in Johannesburg throughout his career. He has covered conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, Iraq and elsewhere. Silva’s won awards from World Press Photo, Pictures of the Year International and other honors. He is a husband to Viv and father to two young children, Isabel and Gabriel.

It’s been a month of constant posts and letters of support for Silva. There was great news on Wednesday when Marinovich reported that Silva, after a series of surgeries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, has been released from ICU. Marinovich himself, has created a gallery of prints for sale on his PhotoShelter site to help support his friend. While The New York Times is helping to cover medical expenses, Greg is gathering funds from the community to support his long term needs. This past weekend an auction was held in Johannesburg that raised R220,000 ($30,000 USD).

My last email from Marinovich reads, “…reckon at least 6 months in Walter Reed if not more.” As Silva recovers, we have the opportunity to acknowledge those like him who risk their lives to bring to the attention of the world issues that may otherwise go unnoticed. The faces, the hope, fears, the waste of human life that they care so much about. Let’s bring these photos forward now. Let them stand out among the rest — now. Visit his site, share his story with friends, purchase his images in support of his recovery. You’ll find powerful recent work by Silva from Lebanon, Iraq, and Malawi in addition to Silva’s vintage images from South Africa in the 1990′s.

As this story was about to be published, another reassuring sign, Joao himself reaches out to those following him on Facebook: Greetings. Just a short thank you note to everyone for all your well wishes and messages of hope and support over this period. I am now out of ICU, and hopefully no more surgery, but the road to recovery is a long one and it will be several months before I am home with my family. Again, thank you for your messages of support and concern.

In a memo to The New York Times staff, executive editor Bill Keller wrote, “Those of you who know João will not be surprised to learn that throughout this ordeal he continued to shoot pictures.”

And with that, you too now know Joao Silva.

Photos courtesy Jerome Delay AP and Greg Marinovich

George Clooney Thinks “Your Voice Can Stop a War”

Tonic 2010-10-13 16:10:00

Listen up! George Clooney and author/activist John Prendergast of the Enough Project are talking to you.

Yesterday, the two wrote and sent a mass email to friends of the organization,
alerting us to what they believe is a “brief window of opportunity to do something that
has rarely been done: stop a war before it starts.”

To avoid massive bloodshed in Southern Sudan, they are summoning us to write
both President Barack Obama and the country’s president (and indicted war
criminal) Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Reminding supporters of the conflicts in Darfur,Congo, Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina, they offer up a chance to champion
“robust diplomacy” as individuals.

“If we get involved now, we have a shot,” Clooney said Tuesday on the Today Show.
He stressed that international pressure, the likes of what he is asking for now,
worked in Darfur in 2005 but not before 2.5 million men, women and children lost
their lives. “Tell our president that the people of Southern Sudan can’t afford for us to
be late again,” he warned. Time, however, is running out.

On Jan. 9, Southern Sudan will vote for independence. Both the northern and
southern regions are now preparing for war, leaving civilians at grave risk of major
human rights violations. The Enough Project letter came on the heels of reports
early this week by military officials of a massive military buildup in Northern Sudan.
Clooney explains, “If we think that somehow, if we don‘t get involved and lay off —
that somehow, when there‘s more at stake, there‘s oil at stake, that people aren’t
going to be killed — and we‘re going to have to trust this same group of people, then
it‘s a very naive choice.

According to the Enough Project statement, Obama has said, “The stakes are
enormous,” and the CIA warns that “mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur
in Southern Sudan.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called it a “ticking time
bomb.” Having recently returned from the Sudan themselves, Clooney and
Prendergast are now stepping up to convey the sense of urgency they witnessed
first hand. This leaves just 90 days to gather the momentum of the international
community behind the rights and freedom of the people of Southern Sudan.
You paying attention yet?

Our president has the power to gather the political will to stop a genocide before it
starts, and we must demand that he do so. The international community has 90
days to potentially save millions of lives. Can you find a moment to write a few
words in support of diplomatic efforts in Sudan?

Make that 89 days …

Write to President Obama on George Clooney’s Sudan Action Now site.

Photo by the United States Government via Flickr Here

Afghan Women’s Writing Project Loosens the Gag

2010-09-21 05:09:00

In the United States, most women are free to write just about whatever we want. In fact, we’re constantly telling our stories, be it a 350-page tell-all memoir or a status update detailing some quotidian task in 140 characters or less. But in other parts of the world, simply accessing a computer is unthinkable. If Masha Hamilton has anything to say about it, that’s going to change.

On a Kabul football field marked with white chalk as though ready for sport, a woman in a burqa kneels, her shadow yawning long before her. A man approaches almost casually, his Kalashnikov pointed skyward. She half-turns toward him, her left arm raised slightly, then seems to glimpse the weapon out of her peripheral vision and turns away. He lowers the muzzle to her head. The rifle kicks as he fires once, then twice more. She surrenders to the ground, a discarded blue handkerchief.

Journalist and author Masha Hamilton wrote this narrative describing a smuggled video she watched on the Internet in 1999. The shocking spectacle drew her in to the country that is Afghanistan, eventually leading her, a decade later, to create the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP), a portal in cyberspace allowing for the stifled voices of Afghan women to be heard. “We believe the right to tell one’s story aloud is a human right,” reads the website.

“I knew far too little about this woman to be party to such a stark and intimate moment. Zarmeena: her name. Seven: the number of children she had. And her alleged crime: beating her husband to death with a hammer as he slept. It all amounted to a scattered detail or two, not a life story. This absence of narrative, in fact, was true for virtually all women in Taliban-held Afghanistan. They were gagged as well as hidden, I understood then,” says Hamilton. The AWWP is her way of loosening that gag.


A Place to Tell Her Story

On one side of the AWWP program there are dozens of American authors, journalists, poets, essayists and screenwriters who volunteer their time to mentor Afghan women. Mentors give the women writing assignments in secure online classes, writing on themes central to their lives. Their work is then posted for us to read on the organization’s website. Author, Stacey Parker explains the experience of working with these women, “Magical. How else to describe sitting at my computer in Harlem, USA, and connecting with young women in Afghanistan, women who want to better themselves as communicators so that they can be heard at home and all over the world? I cannot thank Masha Hamilton and her partners enough for creating this cyberspace classroom. At times, it feels like we’re meeting in our dreams.”

Thousands of miles away, the other side of the program is composed of Afghan women — those educated enough to be able to write, and courageous enough to tell their stories despite a deteriorating security situation in their country. The 60 participating women from Kabul and the surrounding areas range in age from 16 to 50 years. The number of participants continues to expand, mostly through word of mouth.

The AWWP platform provides a rare glimpse into the reality Afghan women face every day, a view not seen in mainstream media. While the country’s laws (post- Taliban rule), in theory support the right of Afghan women to receive an education, many Afghan men still do not. Through poetry, short stories and essays, these women express lives lived under extreme oppression, where they fight for the future of their children while their own dreams have been cut off at the knees.

Reading their words, it becomes apparent that the program itself empowers these women to write what they previously would have been too afraid to. Additionally, the knowledge that their stories are read by others is a crucial aspect, and comments left by readers are particularly encouraged. For security reasons however, all writers use only their first names and on occasion a story will be published anonymously.

In a Media Global report, former AWWP Director Christina Asquith explains the protective measures the program takes, “We never share the real names of the women in the program because we are always incredibly concerned for their safety. Many of these women have male relatives who don’t know they even take part, so we are always going through and editing pieces, taking out specific details or descriptions that may expose them.”

The dangers associated with women’s education also make access to computers that much harder for the participants who often take great risk getting to a computer in order to submit their writings. To complicate matters, they must be accompanied by a man to internet cafes, some even travelling for hours to get there.

Hoping Someone Will Listen

One of the Afghan women writes about a story her mother conveyed to her, ending with these words: “I salute such a patient and strong mother. With this story, I realized that life shouts its lessons for us to learn. Where is the fairness? Who will listen and act with justice? The story that my mother told me awakened me to some sad realities of how many Afghan women have spent their lives in the kind of suffering that would make them wish to die.”

A9R394AWe’ve all seen the images, not only of Shareena’s execution but others, like the Sudanese child, meters from a feeding center, too weak to stand — a vulture, as if in wait, positioned behind her. A newspaper or the internet offers up intimate moments belonging to strangers far away and we’re given permission to spy. Until we seek to delve more deeply, as Masha Hamilton did, beyond one shocking and horribly vulnerable moment, we will continue to squirm, as we should. Yet with the AWWP we are provided a platform that nurtures, from a distance, a certain intimacy, one that is just. With hearts and minds, the women of Afghanistan speak and it’s our duty to pay attention.

“These are women have lived through unspeakable trauma yet they — in ways great and small, in moments hidden and revealed—insist on soaring. Read their words and you will spy, as I do, a beautiful thing: ascension amid the rubble.” — AWWP mentor, Connie May Fowler

AWWP is currently seeking funding that would allow the organization to keep the voices of Afghan women alive as the situation in the country becomes increasingly insecure. Their next goal is to establish office space in Afghanistan. Internet access in the country costs $300 a month. That’s more than it will cost them to rent an office in Kabul— an office that not only gives them valuable administration space, but also provides an environment for writers to work in safety and security. You can donate here. If you read their stories, please don’t forget to post a comment to let them know their words are getting out.

Photo 1 courtesy of RAWA; Photo 2 by Kathleen Rafiq; Photo 3 by Seeta.
. Here

Nice Guys Finish First in GQ Contest

2010-09-09 18:09:00

This summer, GQ called for nominations for its Better Men, Better World search. The criteria was based on people who strive daily for the betterment of society through charitable work, volunteerism and community involvement. More than 100 men rose to the top, but they’ve been whittled down to five finalists. From now until Sept. 30, you can vote for your favorite. The winner will be announced at GQ’s Gentlemen’s Ball in New York City on Oct. 27, 2010. He’ll receive a GQ advertisement, a $2,000 cash prize, a Movado watch and $10,000 donated by Movado to the accredited charity of his choice.

Tad Skylar Agoglia, founder and CEO, The First Response Team of America: “I recognized a crisis of need in this country and I couldn’t ignore
it,” Tad Skylar Agoglia said. His nonprofit consists of a nomadic crew of workers, who are well equipped with tools, supplies and emergency vehicles for disaster relief. Since 2007, they have helped tens of thousands of victims at 30 disaster sites across the US and Haiti. Agoglia feels that Americans have abundant resources and know-how, so why not reach out to neighbors in their greatest hour of need? Even now, he’s driving to Cape Cod in response to Hurricane Earl.


Jimmie Briggs, co-founder and executive director, Man Up Campaign: After leaving a successful career in journalism where he witnessed
atrocities perpetrated against women in war-ravaged countries, Jimmie Briggs decided to launch this initiative to end violence against women and girls. “Most men don’t rape women, they don’t hurt women or even use misogynistic language, but they do stand by,” he said. “They don’t see this issue as their issue. They see it as a women’s issue, but it is all of our issue.” His vision is to gather young people from 25 countries to begin a youth-led global movement against violence against women and girls with the aim of changing the mindsets of young people. “Our call to action challenges each of us to ‘man up’ and declare that violence against women and girls must end,” Briggs said.

A9R3952Ken Frantz, founder/volunteer, Bridges to Prosperity: A National Geographic photo of people risking their lives to cross a broken bridge on
the Nile River in Ethiopia changed Ken Frantz’s life. Frantz, along with Rotary Foundation of Rotary International, started a charity building bridges and teaching locals how to build their own. About 500 million people in the world lack access to schools, clinics, jobs and markets because they lack a simple bridge. Thousands die (mostly children), every year trying to cross dangerous rivers. Frantz’s organization is a world leader in solving this tragic problem. To date, Bridges to Prosperity has constructed more than 60 bridges in the poorest countries in Africa, Asia and South America.

A9R3955When Barack Obama campaigned for president, Kiff Gallagher served as an adviser for national arts policy. After Obama was elected, Gallagher successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a “musician and artists corps” in the recently passed Kennedy Serve America Act. Part of MNS, Musician Corps (MC) trains musicians to serve full time in schools, youth centers, hospitals and other high-need community settings. Fellows have empowered more than 3,200 under-served youth in New Orleans, Seattle, Chicago, Oakland and San Francisco with music education, leadership and innovation skills. Musician Corps has also reached more than 7,000 community members through youth performances, outreach events and the creation of recording projects, bands and ensembles.

A9R3957John Prendergast, co-founder, Enough Project and former director of African affairs, National Security Council (NSCA): Prendergast, the author of eight books (most recently, The Enough Moment with Don Cheadle), has been a tireless human rights activist for more than 25 years. He’s worked to bring an end to genocide and crimes against humanity, not only in Africa, but throughout the world. He also helped create the Raise Hope for Congo campaign, highlighting the issue of conflict minerals that fuel the war in Congo.
Photo 1 by The First Response Team, photo 2 by herwick via Flickr, photo 3
by Milosz Reterski, photo 4 by Center for American Progress, photo 5 by Ralph Alswang. Here

One Cent Per Life: Pushing the Tech Industry to Go ‘Conflict-Free’

One Cent Per Life: Pushing the Tech Industry to Go ‘Conflict-Free’
2010-05-30 09:05:00


Unassuming techies who logged onto the Intel Facebook page last week weren’t impressed. Foreign profile pictures with images of war-affected Congolese began to smatter the face of Intel. Thumbnail posters of red — like blood spots — began contaminating their page with the words, “We’ll pay the extra 1 cent. Her Life is Worth It.” Spurred by the recent activities of author/activist Lisa Shannon, supporters of The Conflict Minerals Trade Act were throwing their weight behind the bill by confronting Intel by way of a virtual sit-in.

Earlier this month, on the heals of her book tour for A Thousand Sisters: My Journey Into The Worst Place on Earth to be A Woman, Shannon attended a senate briefing in Washington, D.C., along with Enough co-founder John Prendergast. They were both there to speak about conflict minerals (the three T’s: tantalum, tungsten and tin as well as gold) and the ongoing war in Congo; and to urge officials to co-sponsor Conflict Minerals Legislation.

While in D.C., Lisa was leaked a document showing leaders in the tech industry — yes, Intel included — who were lobbying to get the bill watered down. According to the document, Intel along with others, crossed out language in the bill that would hold industry accountable for fraud and gross negligence. At the same time another tidbit of information came toward Shannon, who has met scores of survivors of rape, child soldiers and seen the brutal effects of 15 years of near-constant war. She learned that experts had estimated that passage and implementation of the bill would cost industry producers less than one cent per product. Hence, the one cent campaign spreading on Facebook and the hatching of a plan to confront industry leaders face to face. Shannon reported to Tonic: “We are pushing now for all tech companies to guarantee they are going conflict free and sign a bold statement in support for the bill”.

First proposed by Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) in 2009, a version of The Conflict Minerals Trade Act was passed in the senate on May 21 of this year. It now moves to the house where, for the next two months, it will be worked on to match the stronger Senate version. Recognizing this as a critical moment when the bill could either be strengthened (by ensuring more supply-chain accountability) or weakend (if certain industry leaders don’t come to bat for the Congolese), Shannon wants to talk the tech industry off the proverbial fence.

Congressman McDermott explained to Tonic in an email, “Any legislation designed to decrease the use of conflict minerals must have an iron-clad requirement for transparency so that consumers know if a company is using conflict minerals in their products. If companies are honest and transparent, the public and NGOs will help keep them accountable and the use of conflict minerals will decrease.”

A9R3960Armed with 45,000 pennies — a penny for each life lost monthly due to the conflict minerals trade, and the one
penny per product the Conflict Minerals Trade Act would cost tech companies — Shannon is actively showing up on the doorstep of big business. Her first stop last week was Intel Corp in her home-state of Oregon. She acknowledges the company has been a frontrunner in the willingness to address the issue of conflict minerals, but judging by the leaked document in D.C., they don’t appear to be committed to full accountability. Camped out with a handful of supporters, including her mother, she arrived with a letter urging Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini to be the first to commit to a strengthened version of the bill. They were met by two security guards delivering a message — that the Portland branch doesn’t have a Corporate Social Responsibility division. That office is located on Intel’s Santa Clara campus.

By the time the sun rose over Beaverton the next day, the Facebook campaign had begun. Regular Intel posts were fighting for space amidst requests by activists: “Add me to the list of people who are carefully watching Intel’s response to Intel, make us proud by actively supporting the Conflict Minerals Trade Act. You are an industry leader, and an example in many ways. We will continue to support your good work if you do the right thing.”

It wasn’t long before Intel, obviously unprepared for this new wave of social media combat, reacted first by deleting posts then disabling new comments. Eventually they re-posted a few, then succumbed to creating a new link specific to the cause. This is the way it is when we try to erase stains, especially those of blood: The more you rub, the more they spread.

Supported by Enough’s Change the Equation for the Congo campaign, advocates for stronger legislation staged virtual marches all this past week on the Facebook pages of HP, Apple and Nintendo Wii. And in step, so too, was Lisa Shannon showing up, this time on their Silicon Valley doorsteps with pen and paper in hand — looking for a CEO who would commit to a strengthened bill. She was even offering to let them keep the pennies since none of the multi-billion-dollar firms seemed to be able to afford the sacrifice of a cent.
Congressman McDermott adds, “This conflict has been largely fueled by companies who — knowingly or not — use minerals from the DRC that are funding war. While companies like Intel and HP have taken some first steps on their own, I hope they will help strengthen the bill rather than water it down to make compliance voluntary since we know purely voluntary schemes never work. With about 1,000 being killed in the conflict every day, we need the strongest legislation possible.”

A9R3963By Thursday not one company had agreed to a public meeting with Shannon, and no one had signed the letter. Apple’s PR staff flatly
claimed on camera that Apple is conflict free. On her facebook site Shannon states, “It would make them the ONLY TECH CO IN THE WORLD to be so. Funny, because no credible certification system yet exists.” Her response, “Take a bundle of pennies to your local Apple store, with a note to Steve Jobs asking Apple to become the industry leader in compassion, not just sales. Guarantee Conflict Free.”

“On a personal level,“ Shannon admits, “this is not my standard MO. But one Congolese woman has been on my mind. She told the story of her gang rape in a documentary film, then again to the Congolese government in Kinshasa. When she got home, they broke into her house and gang raped her again. I keep thinking of her, and how much courage it takes for Congolese women to tell the truth to end the
violence there. Big corporations are intimidating. I’m way out of my comfort zone. I abhor confrontation. But I owe it to all the women in Congo who have told me their stories. This feels like the least I can do. Just show up and tell the truth. I plan to keep doing so.”

Tonic readers: Want to help Lisa Shannon in her quest? Take the conflict minerals pledge.
Read about the book, A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth To Be a Woman on Tonic.
Watch the video below, in which Enough’s John Prendergast explains how armed groups in Congo benefit from the purchases we make here at home:
Photos courtesy Sherry Harbert Here

Haitian Group GHESKIO Wins $1-million Gates Award for Global Health

Tonic 2010-05-17 13:05:00


Many organizations have stepped up in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake. But one group, which has been stepping up for the health of Haitians and others around the world for nearly 30 years, went above and beyond to help Haiti’s people in their greatest time of need.

GHESKIO, a French acronym for “Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections,” was honored with the prestigious Gates Award for Global Health at the Global Health Council symposium in Geneva today. The $1- million prize is not only to recognize the institution’s ground-breaking medical work — work that rivals that of the world’s wealthiest nations — but also the major role the group played in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake.

Led by Dr. Jean William (Bill) Pape, this consortium of Haitian health professionals was the first in the world to dedicate their efforts to the fight against HIV/AIDS, which at the time (1982) was a disease that had not yet been identified. These physicians, all with different specialties, began observing a rise in mortality rates from previously treatable diseases such as diarrhea and Kaposi’s sarcoma. In 1983, GHESKIO published the first description of HIV/AIDS in the developing world in The New England Journal of Medicine. Today, the group is dedicated to the treatment of HIV/AIDS through prevention and clinical care as well as through research and training. Their work, based on solid evidence and years of practical experience, has provided an important model to other groups in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean struggling with similar health care challenges.

A9R396AGlobal Health Council President and CEO Jeffrey L. Sturchio said in an email to Tonic: “The jury couldn’t
imagine a more worthy recipient of the 2010 Gates Award for Global Health – especially in this year, when Haiti depended on GHESKIO so much.” In the council’s press release, Sturchio further contextualized their accomplishments stating: “They have built GHESKIO into a rare institution – one based in a developing country that has become a leader in the global research community.”

GHESKIO has thrived over the years despite political turmoil and a deteriorating economy in Haiti. Pape told Tonic that their resiliency is due to the fact that “obstacles met on the way have helped strengthen there determination to get the work done. It builds character and helps create role models for the next generation.” Their work has literally saved tens of thousands of lives and that was before the disaster struck this January.

At no time was the group’s focus and strength better illustrated that in the aftermath of the earthquake when some 7,000 traumatized Haitians who had lost their homes were taken in by their Port-au-Prince staff. GHESKIO itself took a major hit during the quake losing several staff members as well as their own headquarters; reportedly suffering more than $10 million in damages to buildings and equipment. They had to construct a completely new site for those seeking shelter, providing irrigation, latrines, clean water, lighting and security as well as a school and a primary care medical clinic Their first-response trauma center helped care for the injured and was able to provide life-saving medication. Amazingly, care was resumed to most HIV and tuberculosis patients within a week of the quake. Prior to the quake, GHESKIO was providing free care to over 500,000 patients annually with HIV infection, sexually transmitted infections and tuberculosis.

A9R396FIn reference to the massive monetary prize his organization was granted today Pape explains: “We need to
make sure that every dollar counts, we are a very poor country.” Being chosen for the Gates Award however is very meaningful to the group, “we are very much honored to have been selected. It is like a Life Achievement Award that came after almost three decades of hard work under very difficult conditions. This award is important to boost the morale of our dedicated staff. They have all worked continuously before and especially after the earthquake to meet numerous new challenges.” Pape is grateful to the partnerships that have strengthened the group over the years, citing “collaborations with local and international institutions (the Ministry of Health, the Haitian Medical Association and other NGOs involved in the same fight against infectious diseases) as part of the reason they’ve been able to thrive under such difficult conditions. Since its inception, GHESKIO has also worked closely with New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College.

“We have all always agreed that no matter what, Haiti must come first”
The award, Pape says, “is also particularly great for my country. As you well know only bad things are usually reported out of Haiti. We know that our country is great and that our people are capable of doing what may appear impossible. The earthquake has revealed their resilience and their good nature. Our greatest strength is the wisdom, resiliency and artistic talent of our people.”
The prestigious Gates Award for Global Health was established in 2000 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to recognize organizations that have made outstanding contributions to improving health, especially in resource-poor settings. The winner this year was chosen by a jury of international health leaders from 179 nominations received from around the world. Last year’s award went to The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Photos courtesy of Loren Rogers and Joshua Lee Kelsey via Flickr. Here

One Woman, ‘A Thousand Sisters’

Tonic 2010-04-05 05:04:00

Lisa Shannon now has a business card with a title:
“W riter/Activist.” With her new book out this week, A Thousand Sisters: My Journey Into The Worst Place On Earth To Be A Woman, and her Run For Congo Women becoming a movement, life is evolving for this 34-year-old Oregon native, and she tells Tonic it’s time to slap a label on it — if she must.

Five years ago, while lying on her sofa with the flu watching Oprah, Shannon learned about the women of the Congo. A report by Lisa Ling revealed women who have been gang raped; witnessed the murder of entire families; suffered mutilations and been subjected to sexual slavery. Watching in disbelief, Shannon learned that over four million people have died and hardly anyone in the international community was talking about it. Oprah Winfrey wrapped up the twenty minute segment: “They are hoping somebody in the world will hear their screams for help.”

From her secure life where she ran a successful stock agency company with her fiancé, where she believed she pretty much “had it all figured out,” she found herself asking “Could I be one of those people?”
On her Run For Congo Women website, Shannon explains how she remained haunted by the horror, which continues to be met with stunning silence by the world: “What would I have done“, she asks herself, “if I lived in 1939 Germany, or if I had been aware of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda?”

On her 30th birthday she put out feelers to friends to see if they would help her organize a run to raise
money. Trouble was, she was the only one with enough energy and gumption to sweat it out. A casual
runner, Shannon nevertheless pushed herself out of her own comfort zone.

A9R3972In A Thousand Sisters she writes: “Because everyone and their cousin’s boyfriend do 5Ks and marathons to raise funds for every cause imaginable, I need to take it a step further… I realize I need an effort that can’t be faked: something extreme. Something that gets my friends and family to see how seriously, how personally, I take the situation in the Congo.“

She decided to run 30.16 miles (the entire length of the Wildwood Trail near her Portland home) with the goal of raising 31 sponsorships for Congolese women through Women for Women International — one sponsorship for every mile she ran.
Shannon admits in an interview with Tonic that she has a tendency to be rather “grandiose” with her plans. “But we have a movement now!” she says.

She first aimed to raise a million dollars, a figure she is still eyeballing as they now sit at just over the half-million mark. Shannon feels anyone can do what she has done. She believes that “People don’t believe they can make a difference and are afraid of doing it wrong … if you step out and do it wrong in public it potentially becomes embarrassing, right?”

In an excerpt from A Thousand Sisters, Shannon recalls her first organized run in NYC where she waited in the pouring rain for the other runners. Eventually only one person showed up. She’d had emails from people who had registered asking if the run was on. Her reply: “Yes we’re still on. When it rains in Congo, women still hide in the bushes from the militia. They sleep in the rain. Kids get sick and die. We’re running today. No excuses, no deterrents.”

In 2007, Shannon traveled to the Congo for five weeks to meet the women who were being helped by her efforts. She cautions that we don’t all have to travel across the world, interviewing victims of war to make a difference. But her prescription for change works for her and potentially for anyone else on the planet. “It’s about showing up and trusting. Even if it’s just you showing up. If you focus on what you have control over, it will matter. Just show up and trust.”

Her favorite model for change is a group of 10 or 15 people getting together, deciding they’re going to do a run and doing it three weeks later. She had a group of moms last year who got thirty women together and each put in $30. They walked a mile together and raised enough for three sponsorships. “It’s fun and a great way to bond friends — spending time together in a really meaningful way,” she says.

A9R3976Shannon is also affiliated with Enough: the project to end genocide and crimes against humanity. People can easily help make a difference by taking the Conflict Minerals Pledge to commit to purchase conflict-free cell phones, laptops and other electronics. Or co-sponsor the Congo conflict Minerals Trade Act of 2009.

At first, Shannon tells me, her intention was to organize her runs, get the movement going and then return to her life. But that life wasn’t exactly sitting around waiting for her return. As it turns out, Shannon ended up being quite okay with that. The breakdown of her relationship and subsequent business partnership was painful, but as one life faded, another life of incredible connections began to grow. She began to realize around this time, “I’m a human being, not a lifestyle.”

A9R3978Her book opens with words by artist Edvard Munch that speak of the invisible threads that connect people. Talking to Lisa Shannon, this sense of connectedness is at the core of her person — this author/activist — and it’s at the core of A Thousand Sisters. The way she composed letters in her head,to her future Congolese sisters, while running to keep her going through the blisters, the chafing and loss of toenails. The description of Congolese grandmothers who have lost everything yet, wounded and in pain, they unhesitatingly take in orphans. The women now running all over the globe for Run For Congo Women (upward of 4,100 participants) letting women of the Congo know they are bearing witness. And those (perhaps you) who with a click of their mouse make a commitment to choose a cell phone that doesn’t contain one “conflict mineral” the militias and armies are fighting over in the Congo.

Poignantly, the threads mend in all directions. When Shannon met a room full of fifty women in the Congo — all of whom had been raped — they told her of the choice they make every day: to watch their children starve, or to take the long walk to farm their fields and risk being raped along the way. One woman raised her hand and asked if women are raped in America. Shannon explained that women who have been raped in America have run to raise their sponsorships. One woman raised her hand and asked, “What can we do to manage and improve so we can support other women?”

Fast forward a few years to 2010: The women have their answer. Shannon organized a run by women of the Congo in the Congo.

A9R397BGenerose, one of the sponsored sisters, shows up, hobbling forth on crutches. After the Interahamwe (A Rwandan Hutu Militia) killed her husband, Generose’s leg was cut off, cooked and fed to her six children. The son that refused to eat his mother was shot in front of her. Today, on this muddy day in February, Generose dons a red suit and pink pearls (right). She’s had her hair relaxed and her eyebrows done for the occasion. Shannon stops midstream considering these women, most of whom have never gone for a run in their life: “Forget carbo-loading, I’m going to have my eyebrows done!” she laughs. “It was a perfect up yours to the militia.”
Around 50 women ran along with international aid workers in Bukavu. Around the world others joined in solidarity runs and events in places like Canada, Mexico, Uganda, Denmark and Scotland as well as the US. In Chicago, they chose to run in the middle of the night, running shoes softly imprinting the snow at the exact same time as sandals and bare feet pounded the ground in the Congo. “It was cool to watch them become leaders.” Shannon exudes. Some of them had never run in their life yet they were clocking 8:45-minute miles at the front of the pack. “It spoke to the places in all of us that can’t be touched and the idea that a militia can come and

take away everything, their whole family … even their leg, but they can’t stop the Congolese women from giving back, and they can’t steal compassion. I just saw that so clearly that day,” Shannon says. “I really think it was the best day of my life.”
Click here to purchase a copy of A Thousand Sisters: My Journey Into The Worst Place On Earth To Be A Woman, or to find out about upcoming book events with Lisa Shannon.
Click here to get info on starting a Run For Congo in your area.
Photos courtesy of Eric Ronzio, Lisa Shannon and Michelle Hamilton. Here

Kennedy Honored as Champion for Refugees

2009-10-28 11:10:00

A9R399BThe Nansen Refugee Medal is being awarded to the late Senator Edward Kennedy in Washington DC today.

The UNHCR reports on its Web site that it was grateful to have informed Kennedy of the award before his passing in August. The honor, which consists of a medal and a $100,000 US prize is given annually to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It’s funded by both Norway and Switzerland and recipients can donate to a cause of his or her choice. It was created in 1954 in honor of 1922 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Fridtjof Nansen, the legendary Norwegian polar explorer and scientist, and the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Senator Kennedy championed millions of refugees not only by raising awareness of the challenges they face but also because he was instrumental in sponsoring more than 70 supportive measures and codifying international refugee obligations into US law.
UN high commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said on the UN Web site, “Senator Kennedy stood out as a forceful advocate for those who suddenly found themselves with no voice and no rights. Year after year, conflict after conflict, he put the plight of refugees on the agenda to drive through policies that saved and shaped countless lives.”

Another massive part of a great legacy. If it inspires even a fraction of the service he gave to the world, we’re movin’ in the right direction.
Photo courtesy Muffet via Flickr. Here

Local Contact with Children of War

Tonic 2009-10-26 17:10:00

For American soldiers in Iraq, there was a time when contact with the local children was a boost to morale. Often an exchange of languages, a photo opportunity, even a chance to buy a kid an ice cream in an attempt to introduce normalcy to both their days. There was also a time, and it happened almost overnight, when this all changed.

The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) reports that as violence increased, kids were often coerced and even threatened into joining insurgent groups and used them against American soldiers. Consequently all contact with children was ordered to stop.
This is when American soldier, Gunnar Swanson found himself staring down his M- 16 rifle at a young boy ordering him to stop. “Pointing a gun at a child, threatening to shoot him,” Swanson explains to the CSM. “I was 25 years old at the time and it has weighed pretty heavy on me since then.” This was six years ago.

Fortunatley Swanson has found a constructive way to deal with his memories. After returning home and spending a short time as a dolphin trainer, he was still preoccupied with thoughts of the children in Iraq. A search led him to War Kids Relief, and in no time he was working for the non-profit that works with kids in Iraq and Afghanistan traumatically affected by war.
Much of his work has been talking to school children and often the first topic of conversation is his first name. He tells them his first name has nothing to do with being in the military: He was named for his great-grandfather. (Gunnar is a Scandinavian name that means “brave soldier.”)

Swanson has the students write letters to their peers in both countries. In all 27,000 have been collected and will be distributed next year. “A kid over in Iraq or Afghanistan who has received a letter from a kid in the United States will probably hold onto that letter for the rest of his life,” Swanson tells the CSM.

Another project of Swansons was to hold a 1000 mile, ”Soldiers March For Peace” that started in Dallas on July 4 and ended in Northfield Minn. (where WKR is headquartered) to raise money for vocational centres in Mosul, Iraq and Khost Afganistan.
There’s little doubt he had some time to buy a few kids an ice cream along the way. Photo courtesy soldiersmediacenter via Flickr Here

Rock Stars and Generals Against Gitmo

2009-10-22 19:10:00

Rock Bands and retired generals are joining forces to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison in support of President Barack
Obama’s pledge to close it by January.

The BBC reports that musicians such as REM and Pearl Jam, signed on to the national campaign last week, spearheaded by Rep. Tom Andrews from Maine as a protest because their music was used for interrogation purposes at the prison.

A report by the Senate Armed Services Committee last year made several references to music being used to “stress” prisoners. A statement by REM reported by the BBC says: “We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice. To now learn that some of our friends’ music may have been used as part of the torture tactics without their consent or knowledge, is horrific. It’s anti-American, period.”

Other artists to sign on to the campaign include Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Roseanne Cash, Billy Bragg, Bonnie Raitt and Rage Against The Machine.

The spokeswoman for the Joint Task Force says loud music hasn’t been used with detainees since 2003 and the CIA defended itself to the BBC saying loud music or white noise was needed for security rather than “punitive” purposes.

No matter what it was used for, the playlist at Gitmo still seems rather suspect. According the the National Security Archive, tracks by ACDC, Britney Spears, the BeeGees and Marilyn Manson were used as well as the Meow Mix cat food jingle (“Meow, Meow, Meow, Meow … ), the Barney theme song and Sesame Street Tunes.

Anyone out there have all of that on their iPod?
Photo courtesy of takomabibelot via Flickr. Here

What’s in a Gnome?

Tonic 2009-10-21 15:10:00

Like some bizarre nightmare, a thousand little black gnomes confront you with faces turned in the air. They’re identical except for
one, a golden one that’s embedded in the crowd. And as nightmares often do, it gets even weirder. All the surreal little gnomes have their arms extended in a Hitler salute.

The scene is actually an art installation by Ottmar Hoerl called “The Poison Gnome” in a German town called Straubing, close to Munich. According to the Guardian newspaper, it originated as a single, golden, saluting gnome but officials tried to remove the figure because Nazi symbols are illegal in Germany. The case was dropped when it was recognized that the piece was satirical.
It was then that the evolution of the project truly became art itself. From one, it grew to many — 1,500 gnomes inhabiting a square to remind us, says Hoerl on his Web site “that people can coalesce into large and dangerous groups if rituals and gestures are used that under certain conditions are more signs of contempt rather than being socially beneficial.”

Why Gnomes? Apparently they have quite a tradition in Germany and are a real part of German culture. I guess depicting the “master race” as ubiquitous little garden decorations does make one pause over an Oktoberfest beer — at least long enough to question exactly what the heck you’re looking at. That alone can’t be bad.
Photo courtesy of artmakesmesmile via Flickr. Here

Tuning in to a Better Life

2009-10-19 11:10:00

At the time musician and social innovator Juan Guillermo Ocampo started the Amadeus Foundation in Medellin Columbia, the city
was considered one of the most violent in the world. Children from an early age were faced with joining drug trafficking gangs, becoming thieves, or hiring themselves out as killers to the drug mafias.

After visiting the tombs of Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, Germany, Ocampo was inspired to help teach the kids of Medellin to use music as a defense against the forces of crime. In 1996, he began a network of music schools in the depressed barrios of the city. The resulting Amadeus Foundation is a social initiative where children are encouraged to sing and play instruments and generally appreciate classical music. The effect it’s had on the lives of the children has been profound.

John Fredy Norena who is also one of the founders of the Amadeus foundation, told the Guardian Weekly, “Kids in local gangs leave our kids alone. Amadeus students have gained themselves a certain kudos and respect. They don’t pose a threat to any of the gangs, and they’re not in competition with them, so they’re left alone. Some of them are even allowed to cross over gang territory lines.”

The foundation helps 4,000 children from the ages of five to 23 and 1,400 of them have been selected for two orchestras and a choir. It’s supported by the local mayor as well as private donors and businesses. They work in 27 marginalized neighborhoods across Medellin offering high-quality music education run by dedicated teachers who are often picked from top conservatories.
Says Norena, “Our aim is our slogan: Making people better human beings.

One alumnus, Ewiter Agudelo admitted to IPS, “If the schools hadn’t been there, I’d be in jail for robbery, murder or drug trafficking. I come from a very poor background, we were hungry, we had no opportunities. I was the oldest of three brothers and my father had abandoned us. Thanks to them, I was able to survive, learn music and support my family.”

Members of the network have performed for dignitaries around the world, in Mexico City, New York and Washington as well as a concert for the late Pope John Paul ll in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.

Now that’s a gang we wouldn’t mind hanging with.
Photo Courtesy Ricardo Gonzalez E. Here

Climate and Family Planning in Ethiopia

2009-10-16 15:10:00 A9R39C3

The prognosis for Africa is startling. Even though Africans have contributed the least to climate change caused by humans,
there are widespread fears that the continent will be the hardest hit.

The people are extremely vulnerable and will have the hardest time adapting to the effects of climate change due to extreme poverty and lack of resources. It’s natural to focus on humanitarian aid, dwindling water supplies and unreliable farming seasons while considering the massive population whose needs won’t be met. But could there be a better way to address the needs of this broad continent?

International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) reports that the Consortium for Integration of Population, Health and Environment (CIPHE) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia instead has a scheme that aims to balance population with available resources.
Since its launch in 2005, some 14,000 inhabitants of Wichi wetlands in Ethiopia have re-nourished soil with animal compost and planted vetiver grasses, which trap moisture. OK, nothing too novel there. However these families, who are being educated in environmental concerns, are at the same time being given access to contraceptives and family planning advice. The idea is that enabling communities to choose their family size to match their resources is as important as practicing sustainable farming.

To IPPF, Negash Teklu of CIPHE explains that “local people have grasped the impact of rapid population growth and become cooperative to actions that harmonize the situation.”

In a report for the Optimum Population Trust, Thomas Wire of the London School of Economics calculates that each $7 spent on family planning worldwide would can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 1 ton between 2010 and 2050. These reductions would come mainly from the US, followed by China, Russia and India.
Photo courtesy carrieteicher via Flickr. Here

Pressing Memories Of War

2009-10-16 15:10:00

Scissors slice through an Iraqi war veteran’s sweat-stained uniform. They’re shaping a second incarnation for the clothing. The fabric, will be shredded and mulched along with the miniscule grains of sand from the Gulf that still cling to the fibers. It will then be transformed into something completely and utterly contrary to its previous identity – paper for creative expression.

Drew Cameron, a vet with one heck of a poetic streak came up with the idea. He’s converted old uniforms for dozens of war vets from conflict areas around the world, touching regular people like us with this utterly unique transformational experience called the Combat Paper Project.

The Iowa native tells the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) that he initially had a friend take photos of him cutting his own uniform – images he would show to people as he traveled, along with the paper he made from his fatigues. (He learned the paper-making at a worshop in Burlington while serving in the National Guard in Vermont.)Eventually, he attracted the interest of other vets and started doing workshops with them. The vets write poetry or imprint the paper they make with self- portraits.

A9R39D1“When someone decides to take that act – to take their uniform and deconstruct it and turn it into paper – they’re there and ready to share, so it becomes this phenomenally honest space,” Cameron says.

One fellow war vet, Jennifer Pacanowski attended Cameron’s workshop during a gathering of war veteran writers in Massachusetts. Not completely taken by the idea at first, the therapeutic nature of the process eventually drew her in.

“I just started cutting my uniform up, and before I knew it, I was sweating and my hand was bleeding,” she says in a phone interview with the CSM. “It was so satisfying, I can’t even describe it… It’s so freeing, like just destroying a really bad memory.”

On the original paper, made from Cameron’s own uniform – the one that precipitated this extraordinary project – he applied the photos documenting his own uniform’s destruction. To these he’s added a poem that is a sort of letter to the Iraqi people. He’s given it the title, “You are Not My Enemy.”
Photos courtesy the Combat Paper Project Here

Teen Teacher Changes Lives

2009-10-13 13:10:00

Baber Ali is a 16-year-old boy. He’s one of the lucky ones in his village in West Bengal because he can afford the uniform, books
and rickshaw ride he needs to go to school. He’s a model student and takes careful notes.

But Ali’s commitment extends beyond a simple desire to learn. For seven years, he’s come home to his village every day after school to pass on his daily lessons to those less fortunate — those who can’t attend classes themselves because they have to work to help support their families, either as domestic servants or working in the fields.

As told to the BBC, it began as a sort of game: the children were hungry for an education and young Ali enjoyed “playing” teacher. He would take them to the yard of his own home and out in the open air, he would begin “teaching” his classes. His informal school now has 800 students supported by ten teachers all of whom are either at school or college and volunteer their time just like Ali. All books and materials are provided through donations.

“In the beginning I was just play-acting, teaching my friends,” Ali tells the BBC. “But then I realized these children will never learn to read and write if they don’t have proper lessons. It’s my duty to educate them, to help our country build a better future.”

The monsoon rains are all that stand in his way. Some days, school is cancelled because of heavy rains and the lack of shelter. But on dry days, the children arrive as Ali’s regular school day comes to an end. Together, they study into the evening.
Thanks to Ali, the students now have a fighting chance for a better future.

Photo courtesy Prathan Books via Flickr. Here

Our World. Your Move.

Tonic 2009-10-12 13:10:00

The ICRC and Red Crescent movement are using the works of top photojournalists from the New York-based VII Agency as a
component of their Our World. Your Move. campaign.

According to the ICRC the campaign is aimed at highlighting today’s most pressing humanitarian challenges and the power of individuals to make a difference.

“The photographs offer a unique and first-hand look at what war and other armed violence do to people’s lives. They also highlight the solidarity of ordinary men and women helping those who are suffering to maintain their dignity and hope.”

The photos are now part of an exhibit entitled Our World – At War. For the show, world-renowned photojournalist James Nachtwey travelled with the ICRC in Afghanistan and in Central Mindanao, a conflict-ravaged area of the Philippines. Ron Haviv covered the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti while Chris Morris documented Liberia. Franco Pagetti was in Columbia and Antonin Kratochvil worked Georgia.

The year 2009 has great significance for the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement as it marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino and the 60th anniversary of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. The founder of the ICRC, Jean-Henri Dunant, having witnessed the battle of Solferino first-hand in 1859 was so affected that he was inspired to establish the ICRC in 1863. He also led a campaign that resulted in the establishment of the first Geneva convention. In observance of these anniversaries, the movement has launched Our World. Your Move, they say, to remind everyone of his or her individual responsibility to lessen human suffering.
The photo exhibit runs from October 9 to 26 at the Musee D’Art Haitien in Port-au- Prince, Haiti.
Photo courtesy of IFRC via Flickr. Here

RAW Courage Award Goes To Iranian Women

2009-10-09 15:10:00

Reach All Women (RAW) in War has awarded its annual Anna Politkovskaya award for courage to The One Million Signature
Campaign that petitions the Iranian parliament asking for the revision and reform of current laws that discriminate against women.
The campaign was launched in 2006 and although members have campaigned peacefully and legally, they are often subject to arbitrary arrests and imprisonment.

“We gave them the award because they are an extremely brave and courageous group of women and they are really changing the society in Iran, which is extremely difficult,” RAW in War founder Mariana Katzarova told Reuters.

RAW in War is a human rights group that aims to end violence against women in conflict situations. The award is offered in memory of the Russian journalist murdered three years ago in Moscow. It was presented in London on Tuesday by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mairead Maguire and was accepted by Leila Alikarami, a lawyer and human rights activist who has defended many of the women members of the campaign including Aliyeh Eghdam Doust who was the first women’s rights activist in Iran to be imprisoned for the full term of her three-year sentence.

Activists say women in Iran, while able to vote, drive cars and hold most jobs, are subject to discrimination that makes them second-class citizens in divorce, inheritance, child custody, legal matters and other areas of life.

Iranian women have been demanding equality for more than 100 years.
Photo courtesy Mazdak via Flickr. Here

Mandela for Another Generation

Tonic 2009-10-08 10:10:00 A9R39E9

Fifteen years after the publication of the autobiography Nelson Mandela began to secretly pen while in prison, the abridged
children’s version of his life story is now available globally.

For the generation born after his “long walk to freedom,” a picture book depicting Mandela’s childhood, the fight against apartheid, his 27 years in prison, and road to the presidency can now be read in all of 13 languages.

The children’s book, originally written by Respected South African author and poet Chris van Wyk, is also available in all native South African languages as well as English and Portuguese. Another South African, Paddy Bouma provided the illustrations. The original autobiography that sold nearly six million copies was a whopping 656 pages, but the illustrated children’s version is a mere 64 and is aimed at readers age 6-10 years-old.

At the launch of the abridged version of “Long Walk To Freedom” eight year-old Ziyanda Manaway, the great-grandson of Nelson Mandela read a message from his great-grandfather: “The system of apartheid robbed many children of their right to a decent education and of the joy of reading. This joy is one that I have treasured all my life, and it is one I wish for all South Africans.”

His message continued, “The children of South Africa need to know this history,everyone should try to read for at least an hour every day. Parents can read to their children if the children cannot read for themselves.”

Not a bad combo – boosting reading skills while learning about one of the most significant lives in history. Could make for some more great minds — not to mention, great readers.
Photo courtesy BookphotoSA via Flickr. Here

Honoring a Great Saint

Tonic 2009-10-06 10:10:00

As the first snows accumulate on Switzerland’s Great St. Bernard Pass, the iconic dogs of the region make their way down the valley from a 2,500-meter high hospice to their winter home in Martigny.

Under the impeccable care of the Barry Foundation, the tradition of the Great St. Bernard lives on despite the tools of modern day that have rendered the breeds rescue skills obsolete. The foundation’s task is to keep the tradition of breeding extremely healthy dogs in the spirit of the original breed that has saved the lives of travellers since the 17th century. Only dogs bred on the pass, or in their winter homes, are classified as coming from the Great St. Bernard.

The dogs have been one of two types of caretakers there . For 970 years, Augustine Monks at the hospice have dispensed spiritual guidance to pilgrims walking the route from Canterbury, England to Rome or Jurusalem. For 300 years, the monks used the dogs to help travelers lost in the snow or dark. With the introduction of snowmobiles and technological advances in communication, the dogs place on the Swiss cultural landscape came under question. For years, they were neither bred, nor trained to be rescue dogs, and finally in 2004, the monks announced they would be selling the dogs, deciding their resources were better spent on travelers still making through
Within a year, the Barry Foundation stepped in to preserve the glory days of the St. Bernard. They now maintain their summer home, providing a team of keepers as well as a vet and breed specialist while continuing care during the winter months in Martigny. The foundation has also opened a St. Bernard museum dedicated to the dogs in the small French-speaking town that can be visited year-round. Tourists can take organized hikes with them and visit the kennels where the dogs love to be petted. To uphold tradition one St. Bernard, Justin, is being trained as an avalanche dog. Another, Salsa, is their first trained therapy dog and visits a retirement home regularly.

A9R39FEThe Barry foundation is named after the greatest St. Bernard rescue dog of all time that was alleged to have saved the lives of 41 people. To this day, there is always a dog named Barry on the watch. He and others preserve this Swiss symbol of friendship and devotion that has become popular the world over.

Photos courtesy of Fondation Barry. Here

War Child Wins BeMOBO

Tonic 2009-10-02 18:10:00

The single “I Got Soul” recorded by War Child’s “Young Soul Rebels” nabbed the BeMOBO award at the British MOBO (Music of black origin) awards in Glasgow, Scotland Wednesday night.

Of the charity, awards show organizers said “War Child is a unique child protection charity, who mirroring MOBO’s own ethos uses the power of music as a positive force to break down barriers and make positive changes in the world.”

This latest venture of War Child took shape after the Brit Awards in London last February. At a star-studded after party hosted by War Child, the bands Coldplay, U2 and Take That joined The Killers onstage for an impromptu chorus of their song ”All These Things That I’ve Done.” Together they chanted the refrain “I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier” to an audience of just 2,000.

The next day, on British radio, Bono said of the lyrics, “they have a whole new meaning when there is a War Child banner behind your head…” A new tag line had been born for the charity and along with it, the idea for this latest project.
The single, “I Got Soul” is a version of the original “Killers” song performed by some of the UK’s hottest urban music acts including N-Dubz, Tinchy Stryder, Pixie Lott, VV Brown, Ironik, Bashy, McLean, Egypt and the London Community Gospel Choir

The video of “I Got Soul” was released on Sept 7 exclusive to the War Child YouTube channel but the live televised performance Wednesday night was the first time “Young Soul Rebels” performed the song together. The single itself will be released on Oct 19th.
The BeMOBO award was created by MOBO organizers four years ago to acknowledge organizations or individuals that have gone beyond the call of duty, shown outstanding courage, and made a major difference. War Child was recognized by MOBO as the only child protection agency to have been successful in separating children from adults in Afghanistan prisons; and is the only international organization working with ex-child soldiers in the Northern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Awards organizers said, “If the ‘Young Soul Rebels’ single encourages just a handful of teenagers in the UK to think about the struggle their peers face across the world, it will be worth it.”

All proceeds from the single to directly to the charity. To watch the video and purchase the song click here.
Photo courtesy of hdptcar via Flickr. Here

Cheryl Saban: This One’s for the Ladies

Tonic 2009-08-04 09:08:00

Cheryl Saban’s life at the moment is a performance of empowering, often charitable, initiatives. She’s already
building a movement around helping women discover their best selves. Her mission?

“… To make a difference in women’s lives. To inspire women to understand, grasp, actualize, and vocalize their worth; negotiate a better deal for themselves; take more responsibility for themselves; and to spread this message to our youth.”

Now, if you buy her most recent book, What is Your Self Worth? A Woman’s Guide to Validation, not only will your psyche get a lift, but you’ll be helping other women rise out of impoverished situations. All proceeds of Saban’s book will go toward projects aimed at empowering women economically and educationally. To up the ante, she’s personally tossing in $10 million. That’s right: 10 million.
The first million grant from her newly formed “Self Worth Foundation” has already been awarded to ACCION, a member of the Women’s Funding Network in microfinance. About this direction Saban said, “Raising women out of poverty and enabling them to take the next step in their lives is one of my goals.”

Saban’s efficacy comes not only from having very deep pockets but also a well of personal experience and understanding. The distinguished woman on the book jacket has had her share of obstacles along her path. She empathizes with those who have suffered violence as she was raped at the age of 18. She knows what it’s like to be single mom, living paycheck to paycheck and not being able to afford health care for her two children or herself.

This is the part of the story of Cheryl Saban that needs to be heard. It’s the part of her life story that resounds through the pages of What is Your Self Worth epitomizing the very strength she aims to uncover in those who read her words.

A9R3A0EAt one point in her life, when her health had become compromised, Saban visited an L.A. free clinic. “That was probably one of my lowest moments. But I think of that now as the catalyst I needed to catapult me out of that worthless feeling.” The kindness shown to her by the attending physicians gave her a reprieve of sorts from the story of her life.

“I began to realize that I was more than my financial problems, more than what the outside world reflected back
to me and much more than I gave myself credit for. But it also became crystal clear that in order for me to project my authentic and totally worthy self, I had to take more responsibility for it.”

Saban doesn’t underestimate the importance of the act of kindness shown to her that enabled her to take stock of her life. “I walked through the clinic’s door with zero self-worth, but the attending physicians never saw me as worthless. Basically, they threw me a lifeline — and luckily, I had the presence of mind to grab it.”

This is probably why she is so good at what she does — being an inspiration to women through her writing but also being familiar with the two-way street the privileged and disadvantaged walk on every day. Through her charitable work, she has found a way to return the gesture of kindness once shown to her to assist those committed to changing their lives.

Saban has since became somewhat of an authority on building a life for herself. She’s written six other books and earned a Ph.D. in psychology. Now married to media baron Haim Saban, she is the mother of four and grandmother of four.

Most of Saban’s charitable work is performed through the Saban Family Foundation as well as the Self Worth Foundation. She’s also set up a portal called 50 Ways to Save Our Children, which guides would be philanthropists toward causes and organizations that help children around the world. Saban has also had a long- standing partnership with Plan USA,where she’s currently helping to renovate the Homa Bay District Hospital in Kenya.

As Saban’s North American book tour subsides, she’s taking some of her own advice and has embarked on a new adventure by learning something new; she’s taking glass-blowing classes. ”For me, this is exhilarating, and a bit scary — so much to learn. It’s hot, VERY hot, and difficult, but the end result is amazing.”

Saban will be gearing up for an exciting European launch of What Is Your Self Worth in 2010. She can also be read regularly on her blog for Here

Rocking the Warlords

Tonic 2009-07-08 09:07:00
If I mention the name Arthur Kent, the journalist who vaulted into the spotlight during the Persian Gulf War in 1991; who authored a book Risk & Redemption: Surviving the Network News Wars and has been reporting on Afghanistan since the early days of the Soviet occupation, I don’t think the term “songwriter” would spring to mind.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better authority on Afghanistan than Kent. Ask him a question — there are no quick answers. Try to distill his message for Tonic and I’m faced with a rather large challenge. The issues are at risk of being sidelined again. And so we navigate — the way passionate people do who give a damn. We find a way, perhaps this time with a song.


In 2007, Kent’s reporting on Afghanistan had been of a relatively optimistic tone. By Sept. 2008, however, the situation on the ground for the Afghan people had become too “precarious” for him to remain silent. After mentioning his concerns to a friend one day, events took a creative turn.

The friend was Canadian session musician Kit Johnson. Suggesting that song lyrics could possibly say it better, Johnson encouraged Kent to apply his journalistic pen to an appeal for the Afghan people through the writing of a song. Johnson would then carry it another step forward by wrapping it in the gift of his own music. The basic rock track they laid down in Calgary last September became the first track of a song that was about to take on a very rich international texture.

In November, while Kent was in Kabul, another friend who operates Afghan’s leading FM radio station brought more musicians together to lay down a second track with instruments that would speak for the Afghan culture. This stage of the process was not easy and the whole point of writing a song to empower the people was driven home while the musicians recorded.

“A wave of kidnappings had made the security situation in Kabul very tense, so we had to complete the recordings in one day.” Kent explained.

On his way home from Kabul, a stopover in London had Kent hunting for the third,more romantic layer to the music.

“An hour search of Britain’s sessions players turned up Vijay Vajtap. I contacted him by phone and he was instantly interested in what we were trying to do,” said Kent. “As we did with the Afghan musicians, Vijay slipped on a set of headphones and played along to our original master track, the rock guitars and drums recorded in Calgary. In just a few takes, Vijay laid down the sitar bed and riffs that we were after.”

A9R3A1BAll they needed now was for someone to sing the lyrics that had precipitated it all. Canada’s top male session singer, Neil Donell, stepped up to deliver the message.

The result is “Countryman (Freedom From War),” a song for Afghanistan by the newly named Electric Caravan (see the music video below). It’s a truly collaborative effort — a hitching up of voices and instruments from across the world that came together in an appeal for the people of Afghanistan — people who, Kent feels, should be taking most of the credit for his words. On the site, he writes, “The laws of international copyright compel us to state a named author, but I’m not kidding myself. All I’ve done is witness, listen and tell the story.”

Of the Afghan people, he says they are extraordinarily motivated and determined to rebuild their country, by hand if necessary. But they’ve been badly betrayed by international “friends” who talk the talk of achieving stability and reconstruction, but walk the walk of self-interest. He added, “It’s estimated that as little as 20 cents of every foreign aid dollar actually reaches the Afghan people.”

The website also reads: “Maybe it’s crazy to think we can end this conflict with a song. But not as crazy as going on with the ways of war.”

How to Help

To counter “the ways of war,” “Countryman” can be downloaded from many sources — donations made directly alter people’s lives for the better. You can also donate via PayPal directly through the Countryman site, with funds going to an organization Kent has long been impressed with — Canadian Women for Women Afghanistan. The group focuses on the educational advancement of Afghan women and families by helping to build community schools, libraries and orphanages. It also provide teacher training as well as literacy, English and computer classes.

Kent’s journalistic pen turned to song extracted the chorus:
Countryman, I hear your cry your children live and die under the gun.
The peace that we all seek denied by those who speak a foreign tongue.
Rock the Warlords! Here

Just F**k It

Tonic 2009-06-24 04:06:00

I’ve lived in Switzerland as a “Hausfrau” for the last 10 years — somewhat stuck in a role by a culture where women don’t feel the need to apologize for being a “stay-at- home-mom;” where hot lunches are made every day and kids are home each and every Wednesday afternoon, off from school. With no family around to help – yes, I’ve been stuck and my husband has just left me.

A9R3A1FNo wonder the book “F**k It: The Ultimate Spiritual Way” jumped out at me at the bookstore. I inhaled it one afternoon and upon turning to the final page came across a competition to “Write in 50 words or less why I deserve a “f**k it” week.” So, with a little brilliance and a dollop of self pity, I realized I could be headed to a complimentary holistic retreat in the beautiful Marche countryside in Italy.
Pulling out the stops I vented shamelessly onto the pages of my notebook. I then distilled my tirade into 50 beggarly yet scintillating words and emailed them off. I waited for about a week before saying, “f**k it, I’m going anyway, contest or no contest!”
For someone who felt like she’d been holding her breath for the last 10 years, The Hill That Breathes beckoned. I’d held my breath through childbirth, business dinners and exhausting days. I’d held my breath through my husband’s confession, his moving out and meetings with lawyers. I want to breathe – I want to breathe deeply.

So, I contacted John C. Parkin, the author of “f**k it” and co-owner of “the hill” with his wife Gaia Pollini. The workshop on offer was “The Enlightened bitch/bastard week” The promotional blurb said, “So when you go home, feeling free to be yourself, to do and say what you want, you may well be seen occasionally as a bit of a bitch but at least you’ll know you are an enlightened one.“
Sign me up!

This place is not for the spiritually correct. No positive affirmations will be repeated until any semblance of critical thinking is pounded out of my head. Critical thinking, I gathered from the title of the workshop, is encouraged. Whatever pops into my head or flows forth from my lips is just fine because it came out of bright, beautiful me. Just what a recently separated woman needs.

I’m soon lying in a teepee receiving a Reiki treatment while the energies course through my body; mine, the Reiki practitioner’s and that of a 900 year old tree. I’d spent over an hour in meditation that morning, followed by a fabulous vegetarian meal which led to a tea ceremony. The oolong tea was grown on a tree that has been living a very oolong time in China and was apparently imparting its wisdom of the ages to my recently coffee deprived brain. I was promised transformation – this was a damn good start.

John and Gaia both worked as creatives for an advertising firm in London. They shared a fascination for “therapeutic or alternative stuff” and eventually decided to move to Italy where Gaia is originally from to set up a centre “of some sort.” With a feng shui book as their guide, they searched for the following: lots of woods; mainly pines (for the chi); to be on a hill — not too high (bad chi); to be surrounded by water on three sides and to find land that is a horseshoe shape. For less than the price of their one bedroom apartment in England this is exactly what they found — 100 beautiful pine-coated acres where they now run “f**k it” weeks as well as yoga and Tai Chi workshops.

Sessions run twice a day in a geodesic dome (shipped from Oregon). In between you can book yourself into a tepee or cabin in the woods for a Reiki, Shiatsu or Ayurvedic massage or swim in the panoramic saltwater pool. Depending on the weather you can either cosy up to a fire or hang in one of the ubiquitous hammocks dotting the property, with a good read. Gaia will sometimes invite you to a tea ceremony or you can take a cooking lesson with Giusy the vegetarian chef. Accommodation is simple and comfortable. It’s an eco-friendly, (“We take our heat from the sun and water from the hill”), honey stone Italian farmhouse and is utterly charming.
As the week came to a close, while hugging John and Gaia good-bye, I confessed: “I hope the changes last.”
“They will,” says Gaia. “We make sure they do.”

It’s hard to put my finger on what went on at the hill. There was no prescribed agenda; no hand-outs. Yet there was a certain accessibility to their spirituality. Meditation, dancing; dancing, meditation… were interchangeable in the realm of the enlightened bitch/bastard, because it was about doing what felt natural. Music was a complimentary element and a passion of John’s. I’d been cajoled by The Killers, softened by Mozart and mystified by Gorillaz, among others, in a single afternoon.

As we moved our hands slowly in front of our faces then out to the side, we were informed that what we were doing was actually Qigong – we were taught a handful of moves and told by John, “That’s my Chinese take-away” (Brit talk for take-out). Thrown into the bag of the enlightened bitch/bastard are strength exercises that teach the importance of timing and being prepared; lessons in using intention rather than force in our lives; losing judgement and clear communication to achieve desires. It wasn’t an overload of information – and in fact was plain and purely simple.

They cater to those who’ve been working too hard; caring too much and are in search of something that is simply going to improve the quality of their lives. Participants were a sampling of corporate culture, mostly seeking to improve their own effectiveness or just give themselves a good break. For the purist it may seem too quick and easy – but we weren’t being tuned to become masters of anything but self-acceptance.

If you find yourself atop the hill that breathes, have John autograph his book for you. He’ll send you scurrying away for a second while he randomly opens the book to a page – the one the universe has intended just for you.

“I turned randomly to page 82 – it could be for you, enjoy, John,” was inscribed in my copy.

I savour it, especially on the days when I’m, hmm, caring about something just a bit too much. Turning to the designated page, I read the title:

“Say f**k it to being a peaceful person.”

Instantly, I let go; I’m back at “The Hill”, and I’m back to me.

Little Woman, Big Heart

Tonic 2009-06-14 22:06:00

Jamie Podmorow had a pretty wonderful idea. She decided to take her daughter to a lecture about Afghanistan by Canadian journalist and human rights activist Sally Armstrong. Podmorow also had a plan B for the night, to leave if the material got way too heavy. Her daughter, Alaina, was all of 9 years old.

The first sign that all was OK was when little Alaina put up her hand and asked Armstrong if there was “any peace in Afghanistan?”
By the end of the lecture, Alaina had taken much of Armstrong’s words to heart especially when she said, “The worst thing we can do is nothing.” Alaina left the auditorium prepared to do something.

“I was really moved by Sally’s speech.” Alaina (now 12) explains. Sally told stories of the terrible human rights violations that little girls like me were faced with everyday and I just couldn’t believe it! Girls just like me were being treated so unfairly. I knew I had to do something, and even if it was small it would still make a difference.”

Alaina organized a potluck dinner and auction in her hometown of Winfield, British Columbia, that raised enough money to pay the salaries of four teachers. Since then, she hasn’t looked back.

The result is Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan (LW4LW). She started her first chapter in the spring of 2007 with 18 of her friends. To date there are 10 chapters across Canada — some have as few as one person, some are big chapters with 30 or more girls. They are extremely proud to say they’ve raised over (CAN) $100,000 — a figure you can double as any funds raised by the Little Women will be matched by the Canadian government. The grand total is helping over 260 teachers to educate little girls in the war-torn country.

“Pretty good huh?” said Podmorow, adding that the various chapters have loads of ideas to raise more money.

She continued, “We have bottle drives, gumball guesses, bakes sales, car washes, breaking cakes, which is when we choose not to receive presents at out birthday but rather take donations. We even had a group of (synchronized) swimmers in Ottawa hold a swim-a-thon and they raised $1000.00!”

Asked about her concern for people living so far away when most kids her age are grabbing the remote as soon as the news comes on, she acknowledged, “I know it sounds weird but I watch the news every day. Before I started LW4LW I didn’t even know anything about Afghanistan except there was war there. I think it’s important as kids to listen to what is going on in the world and then make change. We are the generation of doers and it is our job to make a difference.”

Jamie Podmorow added that it’s not enough to simply watch the news but to ask your child how they feel about what they saw or heard.
“I am extremely happy when my kids answer the “how do you feel about that?” question with feelings of profound sadness or infuriation,” she said. “That tells us they got it. The final and most important part of nurturing social activism she feels is to then “give them permission to make change. That means when they say, “I want to make a difference” It is our job as parents to say, ‘Excellent! What would you like to do? I absolutely know you can do this and I will help you where you need it.’”

Alaina is always alert to ideas that she can apply to her interest in helping young girls in Afghanistan. In September of last year, she was inspired by a poetry class she took with her mother.

“We took a class that taught us about how poetry can tell the story of art. By the end of the class I knew art and poetry could tell a story about the connection I felt with the Afghan girls,” said Alaina.

Before long she’d pulled together the idea to collect photographs of the girls she was helping in Afghanistan; combine them with photos of other Little Women in Canada and accompany them with poetry written by Little Women. Currently, there are three exhibits traveling Canada.

Alaina said, “I have always felt that the girls in Afghanistan are the same as us here in Canada. We share the same hopes and dreams and they absolutely need the chance to reach those hopes and dreams.”

Alaina would one day love to visit the girls she is helping and to see the projects and progress they’ve made.

“Sadly,” she said, “it is too dangerous for me to go right now. Not only would I be in danger but also the girls we have been trying to help would also be at risk.”

Jamie says she can’t take credit for Alaina’s motivation in her work with LW4LW. “That was definitely the work of Sally Armstrong who can paint a picture in your mind’s eye that is not easily erased. She made Alaina believe that she could make change. We, as her parents gave her permission to make change. She did.” Here

The Power of Song

Tonic 2009-01-13 18:01:00

A documentary about the Afghan version of “American Idol” has been named as the UK’s submission for next year’s foreign
language film for the Oscars.

The documentary, “Afghan Star,” explores the power of pop culture to change a country — particularly poignant considering it’s only been eight years since public singing has even been legal in Afghanistan.

There’s already a lot of buzz around the film. It was a double-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning the World Cinema audience award for a documentary film as well as the World Cinema directing award for a documentary film.

London-based Director Havana Marking had been judged by some colleagues for her decision to make a film about “a trashy TV show.” In an interview on the Sundance Film Festival site, she challenges the critics, “They told me that pop shows are rubbish, but shows like this are one of the fastest ways to reach people. What it’s achieving in terms of change is more than any NGO could do in a year.”

This change however hasn’t come without drama — serious life-threatening drama. One sequence in the documentary follows Setara, a female contestant (one of 2000 who auditioned for the show, only three of which were women) who starts a controversy after letting her headscarf slip while dancing on stage. She’s forced to go into hiding after she and the series producers’ lives are threatened following the incident. Talk about much ado over a wardrobe malfunction.

Yet week after week what viewers are seeing are representatives from different ethnic groups sharing the stage peacefully, something that would have been unthinkable less than 10 years ago.

Marking sums it up: “Compared to the depressing news coming out of the country, we thought that this was a powerful story with hope.”
I guess one country’s trash can be another’s glimmer of hope – or in the very least a diversion from the fatigue of a grinding 30 year-war.

Watch the trailer below:
Photo courtesy of Roastbeef TV. Here

A Woman Has Got Her Eye On You

Tonic 2008-06-30 22:06:00

For the French photographer known only as JR, all the world’s an art gallery. He hangs his photos outdoors (and often illegally) in
cities and conflict-ridden areas around the world.

For his Face2Face project, JR posted huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face-to-face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities, on both sides of the security fence. It was the biggest illegal photo exhibit ever.

His latest however, is legit and one he’s brought back to grace the shores of the Seine in his native Paris.

“Women Are Heroes” is a collection of the eyes of women JR has met in some of the most troubled spots on the globe: Kenya, India and Brazil. He believes the images put a spotlight on the dignity of women whom he feels are often the targets of conflict. The artist has aimed his camera at these women and posted the larger- than-life images where they can tstare back at society.

As visitors approach the Ile Saint-Louis they’re observed by giant eyes JR says are “powerful because the women are powerful, you can see the energy and the strength in those eyes.”

A9R3A51One pair of eyes belong to a woman in her 40s from a shanty town in Rio. Her name is Rosiete. JR told the BBC: “Right in front of her door you have kids with big weapons waiting and selling drugs all day and she is there cooking.”

He adds that when he mounted his photos in Brazil last year the drug dealers lay down their weapons for the day.

“You can’t say that art has changed the lives of that community or their people forever, but it did change something in their hearts.”
Even with no admission charge to JR’s open-air museum he has met almost all of the exhibit costs himself and also opened a cultural centre in Brazil. Barring vandalism or inclement weather the images of these heroic women will continue to cast their gaze from October 3 to November 2.
Photos courtesy of Elyotone via Flickr. Here

The Woman Behind the Alex Fund. (Psst...It's Ethan Hawke's Mom)

Tonic 2008-06-30 22:06:00

When A Lie Of The Mind is performed next month at The New Group in New York City, proceeds from the show will benefit an
organization called The Alex Fund, which is dedicated to helping children and their mothers in Romania.

It’s the first time the play has been revived in Manhattan since the original production, directed by Sam Shepard in 1985 — when it won the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and New York Drama Critic’s Circle awards for Best New Play. This time around it’s being directed by Actor Ethan Hawke.

So, what’s the connection between the play and The Alex Fund, you ask?

The actor-director’s mother, Leslie Hawke, is Fund’s founder.

When I interviewed Leslie Hawke, she was the second woman I’d spoken to in two weeks who had altered her life in a single moment. The decision of both women was spontaneous, for the most part, yet not without intellect. Nor, of course, without the wisdom of a life lived (so far).

Both were, at the time, at about mid life. And both, when posed a question, gave answers that changed the direction of their lives. One was asked to teach English to a Tibetan in India (see Finding The Rhythm Of Family); the other, who was staying in Romania, was asked what was going to happen to her development programs when she left?

Hawke’s answer to that question took her by surprise: “I’m not leaving.”

At the age of 48, Leslie Hawke left her career behind, joined the Peace Corp, and was sent to Romania. During her stint with the corp, she was pitching a proposal to a USAID official — a program to make it possible for children to spend their days in school instead of on the street begging. “She thought my plan was impractical and naïve and she made a remark that rankled me,” Hawke says, recalling the official’s words. “‘Un-huh,’ she said, ‘and then what happens to the program when you leave?’”

It was December 2000 and Hawke had been in Romania for 11 months. “My response, partly involuntary and partly contrarian, was ‘I’m not going to leave,’” Hawke recalls. “I remember being surprised at my own audacity. It wasn’t something I had given much thought until she challenged me, but it was the only answer that made any sense”.

‘If you died tomorrow…’

For years Hawke had worked as an executive for an Internet start-up company in New York City. During the height of the IT craze it sold to a publishing conglomerate and her interest began to fizzle. It wasn’t until 1999 however, with news of the death of JFK Jr., that she seriously began to question the direction her life was taking. (That and a going-nowhere relationship). On her foundation’s website she explains, “I said to myself, ‘If you died tomorrow, wouldn’t you be embarrassed that this is what you were doing with your life?’ JFK Jr.’s death made me think of JFK — and the Peace Corps. So when I got to work that morning, I actually contacted the Peace

With her son’s encouragement, she was soon on her way to volunteer in Bacau, Romania.

The program Hawke pitched to the USAID official was inspired by one boy whom she had  come across early on in her volunteer service. “It all started with Alex. In the first weeks I was at my Peace Corps assignment I had a lot of time on my hands to look around at the workings of a society that was different from mine, but not that different. It was obviously a broken and largely dysfunctional society – but it was not a third world country. Except for this one thing: there were lots of small children sitting alone or in pairs on the sidewalk, begging to the passers-by in front of modern banks and beautiful churches.”

Alexandru was a young boy Hawke rescued from the streets soon after starting work in Romania. There is a law that if children don’t go to school for two years, they become ineligible to attend school at all; most kids she saw begging on the street, including Alex, were not allowed in school. However, it’s a complicated situation, and Hawke came to realize the importance of helping the mothers of these children too, if they were to have any chance at all for a better life.

And so, The Alex Fund was born. It’s primary beneficiary is the Fiecare Copil in Scoala or “Every Child in School Program.” It’s managed by an umbrella organization called Ovidiu Rom Asociatia created by both Hawke and a teacher by the name of Maria Gheorghiu, and is based on the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing and Able program in New York City. Its mission is to promote self-sufficiency among marginalized people through education, job training and community development. To date, the organization has directly reached over 5,000 disadvantaged children with its services.

A Mother by Example

“Somebody once told me my resume looked like a Jackson Pollack painting,” Hawke tells Tonic. “My application to the Peace Corps was the first time it all made sense! And indeed it all has served me well: the years in sales, the years spent in Editorial Acquisitions, the one year I was a 6th grade teacher in Trenton, the church youth group I led, the 3 years in non-profit development — everything was useful in starting up an NGO in Eastern European.”

Naturally, her famous son has also benefited from his mother’s capricious choices in life, and he speaks admirably of her. “One way to raise your children is to try to do things by the book, something my mother never seemed too concerned about,” he tells Tonic. “Another way is to lead by example. My mother is a terrific example for my kids, especially my daughters, by being utterly independent and working very hard for something she deeply cares about.”

“It makes me feel good to help people,” his mother says. “For many years I worked in business because it afforded me a nice lifestyle and allowed me to send my son to good schools, but I always felt ambivalent about spending my life that way. Lucky for me, Ethan became self-sufficient at a relatively early age (18) and that gave me the financial freedom to consider doing something different with my life. I am very fortunate to have found work that makes me feel useful and productive.”

Ethan supports his mother by being on the board of her foundation. A Lie Of The Mind should help bring attention to the cause in a big way.

You can help the children of Romania by coming out for the event on February 19th. The performance is at 8pm, followed by a reception at the theater with the actors and director.
Tickets are $150.00. For reservations contact Wendy Kahn at or 212.865.7611. Tickets can also be purchased on the website at
Photos courtesy Shea Roggio Here

Meet The King of Tibet

Tonic 2008-06-30 22:06:00

The same night His Holiness the Dalai Lama arrived at Radio City Music Hall last month, another Tibetan of extraordinary lineage —17-year-old Namgyal Wangchuck (or Trichen) was being introduced to an audience of only a few. They were gathered for the world premiere of his film, My Country is Tibet, and to meet in person the refugee with royal blood.

The event, held at a private home in Manhattan, was coordinated by Holly Carter (bottom right), the film’s producer and the founder of BYkids, an organization that uses the voices of youth to bring attention to global issues through documentary filmmaking. In partnership with UNICEF, and in collaboration with some of the world’s best filmmakers, journalists and diplomats, BYkids shines the light on otherwise unassuming characters around the world. Carter, who is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist, said in an email: “Because his story is so little known even to Tibetans, it is a treat to share it with the world.”

Guest-hosted by ABC news anchor Dan Harris, the intimate affair was also a benefit screening for BYkids with a live auction. “This film does what so much great journalism does: it takes you somewhere and teaches you something,” Harris commented. He continued:
“It would have been easy, given the seriousness of his situation, for Trichen to make an overly-dramatic film. Instead he and his mentor use humor and basic humanity to bring you into the life of a teenager who happens to be a king. And in the process, they shed much-needed light on an oft-forgotten geopolitical issue.”

Under the mentorship of filmmaker Dirk Simon, Trichen introduces viewers of My Country Is Tibet to his life in exile. We watch his family and friends and listen to his narrative — one of an ambiguous existence where he is determined to one day perform the duties of king yet prepares with neither the authority nor lavish lifestyle known to royalty.

A9R3A46Trichen has never set foot in his homeland of Tibet. His forefathers, the three great Dharma Kings, formed the Tibetan nation, its language and one of the most popular religions of modern times, Tibetan Buddhism. This was centuries before Tibetans had found their first Dalai Lama.

His father was incarcerated by the Chinese authorities for 20 years after they invaded Tibet and destroyed their residence, the Lhagyari Palace. After his release, Trichen’s father fled to India under the suggestion of the Dalai Lama, where he was chosen as a member of parliament for three consecutive years.

A year after his father’s death, Trichen was coronated by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He was all of 12 years of age. His childhood effectively ended as he felt the responsibility to protect the history and culture of his people that had only been conveyed to him in books and through his family. “After I got this name [of a great Tibetan king] I realized myself that I’ve got to do better, even though we are in exile, even though we are refugees and all. I’ve still got the name and the name is still big, even though I don’t have anything to show.”

Trichen explains to Tonic: “My father’s life serves as a guide for me to follow — his attitude and will to survive, his exuberance, his loyalty towards H.H. the Dalai Lama and his country, his determination to protect his people, follow truth and to be a good person. His life teaches me never give up and follow my dreams even if somebody tries to shatter it.”

In the film, we witness the discipline and surprising modesty of the young king. He awakens early each morning for a run and to say his prayers but still makes time to relax with a movie or a game of Wii in the afternoon. He scrubs his own clothes and sweeps the floor of his family home. A student committed to his studies, Trichen focuses on his upcoming exams yet underlying it all, he is preparing for something far greater. After graduation, he will discuss with His Holiness his next step. Well aware of the changing role of the monarchy, he informs Tonic: “It is my responsibility to serve my fellow Tibetans and the world at large. I dream of serving my people any way I can, whether I get more than just the title of King in this new Democracy [in the government in exile] or whether I can return.”

A9R3A49Dirk Simon (at right) first met Trichen at the time of his coronation. The filmmaker had been looking for a Tibetan story since graduating from the Academy where he studied in East Germany. A few years before, he had proposed the idea of doing a film about the unbroken lineage of the Great Religious Kings of Tibet until Trichen’s father. Simon explains to Tonic, “I presented him with a concept that used his biography as a metaphor of the fate of Tibet and its people. He really liked it.” Unfortunately he passed before they had the opportunity to work on the film. Carter and Simon then joined forces and it was time for the next generation to tell their story.

On the BYkids website, Simon describes the young king as “carrying the vision of two worlds: the one-thousand-year-old heritage of Tibet’s Dharma Kings and the current struggle of a people striving to survive under repression, abuse and ethnic genocide. With his devotion to the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, his kindness and modesty, he touches the heart of everyone who meets him.
Trichen explains to Tonic: “In exile, I live a very simple life like other Tibetan refugees. I felt very lucky and surprised to get this wonderful opportunity to film my life.” Of Simon he says: “He is a wonderful person and very good filmmaker. We both consider each other as brothers. And I learned so many things from him, especially how to make a film. He is the one who guided me from every side to make this film.”

Simon is also the director of When The Dragon Swallowed The Sun. The documentary, which took seven years to make, was released in February of this year. It explores the current social, political and spiritual situation in Tibet and also features Trichen and his story.

There will be further screenings of My Country Is Tibet at the UN Association (June 7) and The Core Club (June 9) in New York as well as at schools in the city. It will then be represented at the AFl/SilverDocs Film Festival in Washington D.C. starting June 21.

Anticipating the screenings at American schools, I asked Trichen what he would most want North American teens his age to learn from a 17-year-old boy who happens also to be a king and he replied, “Please consider yourself lucky to have all the facilities and freedom in your country. Remember to use these for the best of your ability to help others as much as you can. Learn to love who loves you and forgive those who harm you.”

It was this rather larger than life character disguised as a boy who managed to completely entrance an audience of a few in Manhattan.
Photos courtesy of Dirk Simon and Patrick McMullan. Here

Marathons, Triathlons and Whatever It Takes To Help the Congo

A9R3A3AStatus: “Four marathons down and I’ve lost another toenail. I’ve already lost this one once (actually 6 in total). Oh well, Edinburgh Marathon in just under 2 weeks.” Accompanying these rather disturbing words on Chris Jackson’s Facebook page following the London marathon is a photo of the aforementioned deformity next to another toenail seemingly destined for an equally distressing fate.

Things haven’t let up for Chris Jackson on his quest to run 12 marathons in 12 months. His motivation behind the 12X12 Challenge is to raise money for Amnesty International and specifically to raise awareness of the ongoing atrocities in the Congo. His energy is mind-boggling and still, every time I check in with him, he’s added more to his agenda — it stretches far beyond a few measly marathons. “Basically, people say ‘Chris, do you fancy doing this?’ And I say, ‘yes’!”

Apart from the twelve scheduled marathons, he’s throwing in triathlons, ultra- marathons, adventure runs, a run spanning the distance of Hadrian’s wall in 24 hours (the Roman fortification that stretches across 73.5 miles in Northern England), cycling the battlefields of WWI and the pièce de résistance: one marathon will be run through the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most dangerous places in the world.

He ran the Edinburgh marathon on May 23, a week after placing 11th out of 1000 in an extreme off-trail adventure run, and days after the passing of his grandfather. “Going into the race I had barely slept or eaten but I was determined to make him proud.” The day he died, Jackson asked his grandfather how quickly he wanted him to run and he told him under 3 hours 23 minutes. He must have been trying to keep the pressure off his grandson who’s been running under two hour marathons for months now; getting faster with each race. “I didn’t care as long as I beat that time for him. As hard as it was, I didn’t want to stop or slow down.” Chris revealed that he rehearsed his grandfather’s eulogy as he ran and came in at 2 hours 56 minutes. Not a personal best but considering what he’s packed into the last few months, it’s quite remarkable.

A9R3A40Jackson’s extensive plans stem from his belief that “people are always raising money for charity and to make this different, I had to do something that would make people take note of the crisis in the DRC.” After he entered the London marathon, he thought “this isn’t tough enough, I need to do more.” So he decided to do a marathon a month — at least.

This just in. Chris has entered a competition to win a spot in the Eurostar Tri-City-Athlon. The first ever triathlon event
across three cities in one day. It begins with a swim in Paris, bike in Brussels and run in London. Merely entering however doesn’t secure a spot in the race — he’s going to need your help. Chris has posted his entry on the website stating why he “deserves” to participate and now it’s up to you, the general public to vote for him (before June 9) and subsequently make a vote for the people of the Congo. The 50 most popular entries will go to round two where judges will then pick the final 20 winners on June 23. The race itself takes place September 14, 2010 (a month after his jogging tour of the Congo).Chris has made a point of always setting a challenge for himself every year so that he can look back and feel like he’s really achieved something. “I think there is a danger of letting the years role by without anything to show for it,” he says. “I intend to build on it year after year.”

A lobbyist in London, with Cicero Consulting, Chris spent his formative years studying and working in Africa. His interest in the DRC stems from his academic studies where he spent time researching the impact of sexual violence on development. “The research I conducted for this paper brought to light the day to day horrors that men, women and children faced in that region,” he tells Tonic. “I wanted to be able to see for myself what it was like over there. I was tired of reading second-hand accounts, I think part of me didn’t actually believe such a place could exist — it needed to be seen to be believed for me.” “The way I see it, is if people can live through the crisis in the DRC then why can’t I run 26.2 miles every month? I’m not going to give up, I can’t give up,” he says.

A9R3A3EChris had previously worked in Uganda, organizing development programs, and Peru, where he thought he had
seen the extremes of poverty. But nothing could prepare him for what he saw in the DRC. Poignantly, he recalls the street signs unique to the DRC yet ubiquitous in the country. “I’m used to signs saying ‘old people crossing the road,’” he says, “not ‘rape is bad and should not be condoned.’”

In terms of promoting his fundraising efforts, Chris is using social media, word of mouth and basically telling as many people as possible about what he’s doing. He sends an email round after every race to say thanks for people’s support and informs them about how he did and what’s in store next.

Before the London marathon, Chris had invited supporters to join him post-race at a London pub to celebrate, announcing that his credit card would be “behind the bar.” “As much as I tried to buy drinks for everyone, no one would let me!” he says with a laugh. “I was supported the whole way around by the people of London and that was a great feeling.”
Chris just happened to post a personal best in London.

He’s also been speaking with Women for Women International and Congo Now to find ways to support their efforts to inform the government in the UK about what they should do in the DRC. He will be supporting the first UK Run for Congo Women race on the July 3.
Chris’s plans include making a short documentary about his run in the Congo, visiting projects and
speaking to people so that when he gets back to the UK he can create a small series of YouTube videos he hopes will clearly explain to people his devotion to the Congo cause.

Chris admits he was never “the fittest person” when he was younger. “Over time, I’ve found running to be a great release and it’s given me the chance to think about problems that I’m faced with,” he says. “Some of my best ideas come when I’m running, so I suppose it is important that I keep it up.”

So far the ideas have been pretty astounding. Who knows what he’ll come up with after another few hundred miles?
This weekend, Chris will be squeezing in another triathlon (in Blenheim, England) a week before his sixth marathon in South Downs, England.

In a blog Chris writes, “From my darkest moments in DRC to my decision to run 12 marathons in 12 months, something has snapped in me which now fuels my energy and sense of adventure. It is as if a mental block has been removed; nothing is too far, too hard or even impossible. That is my cocky side coming through again but I feel invincible and free. When you can feel your body screaming at you to stop running, see blood oozing through your trainers and you can ignore that and carry on running, then you can draw on untold reserves of strength and confidence. When you feel that anything is achievable then you are no longer shackled by the constraints of day to day life.”

For the unstoppable Chris Jackson, it truly seems there is no finish line.

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