Category Archives: faiths act

Faiths Act Fellowship draws to a close

I spent the last week of May in Chicago with the Faiths Act Fellows. For many, it was the first sight of each other since we parted ways back in September. Unfortunately, only 29 of the 30 Fellows were able to attend. Bilal Hassam, who was based in Leicester, UK, was detained in Montreal on his way into the US, a casualty of America’s homeland security theatre. Luckily, we were able to Skype him in for a few of our sessions!

We spent three jam-packed days at the offices of the Interfaith Youth Core, talking over the last eight months. Each pair of Fellows gave a short presentation – basically a highlight reel – of their work, and we talked very candidly about successes and failures. As a whole, the Fellowship raised around USD $140,000, which former Prime Minister Tony Blair will personally match. The money is going to Project Muso, Spread the Net, and Malaria No More US and UK. We had around 10,000 people come to our events and reached out to around 40,000 in total. We had 350 media pieces and trained dozens of new interfaith leaders.

Tony Blair himself interrupted a series of toasts we were giving each other to say how proud and excited he felt about us. We are his Fellows, really, and he’s always very eager to talk us up. He told us that what we did was new and trend-setting and most of all important.

It was a bittersweet three days in Chicago, though. The US Fellows are spread all over this huge country of ours, to say nothing of the distance to the UK. The Canadians are also widely dispersed.  I might not see some of these people for a very long time, or ever again.

One of the unexpected byproducts of the last ten months of training and action has been the “gelling” of the Fellowship into more than a group of people brought together for a common purpose. We’ve shared trials, tribulations, and laughter, collaborated on national and international initiatives, and changed the map of interfaith work in just a few short months. These activists are my dear friends and allies.

Someday years from now, I will be asked to assemble a Dream Team of world-savers. The alumni of the Faiths Act Fellowship will be first on my phone tree. Thank you all for everything.

Malaria in the Bay Area – Secret Strategy Document

The following message is a highly-confidential, eyes-only communique from our secret plans to do good.

Some of you know that I am a Faiths Act Fellow with the Interfaith Youth Core and Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The Fellowship is 30 religiously-diverse young people, based in cities across the US, UK, and Canada, who are building multifaith hubs of action towards the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and malaria eradication. My site-partner Hafsa Arain and I are placed in the Bay Area.

For starters, the phrase “Bay area” is really a catch-all for anything within 50 miles of the San Francisco Bay. From our home office in San Jose, at the south end, we regularly trek all the way up the Peninsula for meetings in San Francisco, or shoot up the East Bay to discuss upcoming events with partners in Berkeley and Moraga. It’s not that the South Bay doesn’t have everything that we need – we’ve simply decided to cast the net wide, as it were. :)

Here’s the basic idea: “To create a sustainable intercollegiate network of interfaith councils in the Bay Area that can share information, events, and resources to collaborate on UN Millennium Development Goals/malaria work in order to establish or expand each individual campus’s interfaith work.”

Right now, we’re two and a half months in and we meet regularly with Stanford University, Saint Mary’s College of California, University of California – Berkeley, and Santa Clara University. All the schools are at various stages of organization regarding student-led interfaith initiatives, but wherever we are with them, they are wonderful people.

For the spring, we’ve got some outrageous events coming up: A Bloodsuckers Ball (featuring vampires and mosquitoes), a leadership retreat for our student partners, a few service events around the Bay, and many more. Plus, we’re working with the Interfaith Millennium Development Goals Coalition – Point 7 Now (http://www.imdgc.org) to organize the youth side of the “One Voice of Faith” conference. And of course there’s World Malaria Day on the 25th of April. As we ramp up our work in 2010, we’ll eventually begin large-scale outreach to loads of different faith communities to help spread the message of malaria eradication.Questions? Comments?

Bed net + mosquito = malaria?

Asma is sitting in front of me on a hospital bed holding her son Abdalla’s hand. He’s lying down, semi-conscious, with a chloroquine drip in his arm. She’s wearing a black abaya with gold feather trim at the sleeves.

Abdalla was sick – vomiting and in pain – so she took him to the doctor. He’s two years and three months old; children with malaria don’t tend to have very high fevers, so any illness has the potential to be malaria in disguise.

The medical officer I was with asked some questions of his own and informed me that she didn’t understand where malaria comes from. Or rather, she did, but could not connect the vector (mosquito) with the disease. She and Abdalla sleep underneath a bed net every night, yet he still has malaria.

“How is this possible?” she asks. This is a story that I’ve heard before. People are told that bed nets will protect them from malaria, but unless you are completely vigilant about when you travel and how you conduct yourself in the evening hours, mosquitoes can find you. It’s a contradiction that causes people here great confusion. Health education, in Asma’s case provided through her local mosque, could explain that contradiction and help people like her learn proper prevention methods.

I asked what made her happy, or what she looked forward to. She is still mourning the death of her husband this past April, but she is excited for the future. He left her with ownership of a small plot of land. It stands empty now, and she plans to save money until she can build a home there for her and her son. She says she knows that in that home, she will be very happy.

Mosquito Poop

I am looking at a small village. It’s about 70 feet on a side, complete with a variety of mud and brick homes, trees, grasses, and dozens of mosquitoes. And a technician with a slew of interesting gadgets.

Oh, and no people.

This “village” is actually a mock-up; a to-scale version inside a greenhouse (itself a massive 700 square meters) on the grounds of the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health (TTCIH) in Ifakara, Tanzania. Folks, this place is an international nexus for malaria research. Not only do they know almost everything there is to know about Plasmodium falciparum, the scientists here have nearly three decades of longitudinal (and latitudinal?) data about mosquitoes. They know when they feed, how, what direction they face, and which condiments they employ when taking a blood meal. I visited a room where technicians were breeding mosquitoes by the thousands.

They study things here that I would have never thought of. In the greenhouse, I watched two technicians pouring water from one little vial into another, placing it in a machine, and recording a number. I asked “Unefanya nini? (What are you doing?)” and they responded, “Measuring the feces.” I didn’t immediately connect the word “feces” with excrement – I assumed that it was a Kiswahili word that I had misheard. I asked for clarification.

The technicians capture mosquitoes from the mock village or other testing areas and segregate them. They then allow them to digest their meals and excrete. After applying a solution of lithium carbonate, which effectively stains the feces brown, the technicians measure them. The weight of the feces determines what kind of blood meal (human or animal) the mosquito has taken.

Mosquito poop aside, TTCIH is making, and has made, some serious strides in the fight against malaria. My team is considerably lucky to be learning alongside the scientists and researchers here in Ifakara.

Interfaith Livin’

I was called upon by our team boss to lead the group during today’s “early morning interfaith spiritual reflection”. Since we’re all young people of faith, I suppose it’s only natural that we learn a bit from each other by sharing something from our own tradition. To be honest, it took a lot of thought to figure out which direction to go with this assignment, but I eventually settled on the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
 
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

So I recited this piece and then weighed in. To me, this prayer has two main themes. The first is service to others. It’s about being active in trying to help people. Bringing sadness to joy and darkness to light are not things that one can accomplish passively. The prayer implores god to make him or her an instrument of peace.

But the second theme, and basically the second half of the Prayer of St. Francis, begs to be sufficient in one’s selflessness. I take this to mean that even if I possess super-powers for helping people, it’s better that I do so from the shadows. I’m active, but I’m not concerned with my own station in life. It’s akin to refusing to eat until everyone else has been served.  I put these thoughts out there and let the group silently reflect for a few minutes.

The first comment came from Pritpal. She had led our reflection yesterday morning (the difference between spiritual and material wealth), and informed us that she had almost selected the Prayer of St. Francis for her session. While visiting Assisi in Italy some years ago, Pritpal came upon the prayer and felt a strong connection to it. She mentioned that the especially important part for her was, “For it is in giving that we receive,” and that these words were also very important for the work that we are undertaking as Faiths Act Fellows. But her admonition was curious – Pritpal is not Catholic. She’s not even Christian.

My friend Pritpal is a Sikh, and she has made reflection upon the Prayer of St. Francis is part of her daily prayer cycle. I think this is inspiring. She felt that the message of selflessness resonated with the Sikh tradition, and she draws important lessons from its words, as I do. Although we have very different faith histories and even slightly different interpretations of the prayer itself, we see eye-to-eye on its call to action and selfless service.

Later on, we were invited to dine with the parish priest. The local Catholic church is St. Francis – coincidence? As we sat down to eat, the priest invited Pritpal to say a pre-meal prayer. She recited it its original “Gurbani” form, and the priest thanked her. The prayer called upon us to praise one God, the Giver, whose “bounty is never exhausted”. She and I later discussed with him how our morning reflection session had unfolded and how St. Francis had inspired us both. He was quite happy, and told us that all religions were indeed welcome in the house of St. Francis. During our chat, I couldn’t help but hear the azaan from the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer.

Why do people do interfaith? There are many reasons. For me, it’s the endlessly enriching spiritual conversations that I have with both my co-religionists and those from far-away faiths. I draw strength from the passion and commitment of people driven to do good works because of their religious beliefs. It was most likely the poet Rumi who was asked to describe the different religions of this earth. His reply, “The lamps may be different, but the light is the same.”

Ours is a brand new game

Meeting with the village elder

Our team rolled out of Ifakara town this afternoon heading…some direction – I’m not sure where – and drove more than a few kilometers out. We headed down another very bumpy road to a small village hidden in something approximating a small forest. The homes were very scattered, and almost all were underneath very tall trees. It reminded me a bit of being in the state park back home where my Dad works.

We met with the village elder, a fellow who I would estimate to be around 45 years old. Apparently this is a recent development. Village “elders” are often younger than they would have been a generation ago. They are voted into office by the residents, in this case something like 300 people. Until I find out the actual name of the place, I will refer to it as Ginger Village, since we were greeted by a woman who had just returned from her plot with a handful of crops: fresh ginger root.

We had come to Ginger Village to ask its residents how they were affected by malaria. We are trying to collect stories of malaria and faith communities here in Tanzania, so speaking to a wide variety of people is important; earlier in the day we had visited with a great many secondary school students, for instance. Meeting with the elder was important – we had to seek his permission to interview the residents of his place. He was very gracious and happy to have us. He answered many of our questions and then led us on to visit other families.

And so it went. We stopped in, exchanged pleasantries, chit-chatted a bit about malaria, and moved on. The stories were eerily similar. Government voucher programs, some funded by western aid organizations, provide free bed nets to pregnant women and children 5 years and younger. Anybody else is, for lack of a better word, screwed. No freebies for them. A proper net with permethrin will cost around 5000 Tanzanian shillings (a little less than $4). Needless to say, families like these don’t exactly have such disposable income. Many of them had bed nets, but not enough to cover the whole family. Some weren’t treated, and others were very old.

Aside from the stories of bed net woe, which we expected in one form or another, we also made sure to inquire about the role that religious communities might play in helping educate the faithful and distribute nets and medicine. No one that we spoke with seemed to think this could happen. Ginger Village seemed to be more or less Roman Catholic, but they could have been any religion, really.

In explaining our work with the Faiths Act Together campaign and the work of the Faiths Act Fellows in Africa, we pointed out that we want to inspire and connect faith communities to each other and to their constituents in the context of friendship and cooperation to eradicate malaria deaths. This idea, when translated into Kiswahili, is generally well-received, but only insofar as it seems to be a practical solution to a severe problem. Churches and mosques and temples working on malaria, let alone across faiths, is a foreign idea. The hopes and plans that we bring are brand new. And while we don’t expect to fully flesh out an interfaith collaboration scheme in the nine months that we’ll be working as Fellows, we certainly expect to build the framework.

The fact that this endeavor is brand new actually might work for us. We’re not going to have to fight an uphill battle against entrenched, inimical views that will turn local populaces against us. We’re not airlifting a tractor to a remote village and showing people how to use it. We are trying to develop existing community-based assets that will be fully owned by Africans. And in starting from Square Zero, we can define the parameters of our work and truly involve the people for whom malaria is a constant threat.

On the Kilombero River

After a quick breakfast, our team headed out this morning to the Kilombero River, the body of water that separates Kilombero District from its neighbor. One of our friends from the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health came along to find some river guides; we made a deal and climbed into two massive dugout canoes. They were ships, really – probably 20 feet long and more than 2 feet deep. Our whole team plus the four river guides fit quite comfortably. We set off on a slow cruise upstream.

I got to chatting with a man named Hatari, asking him lots of questions about the river and the Kiswahili words for things that I saw around the boat. I pointed to a small white bird called “nyange-nyange” and Hatari explained its place in local mythology. If I understood him correctly, the nyange-nyange is considered off-limits for eating. The practical reason is that the bird removes and eats ticks and other parasites from the area livestock. But the other, and probably much older reason, is that it is believed that the nyange-nyange provides the impetus for the growth of human fingernails – these fingernails in turn provide the bird with its brilliant white feathers.

Hatari, one of our river expertsIn time, Hatari came to ask me questions about what I was doing in Tanzania. I explained our work with the Interfaith Youth Core and Tony Blair Faith Foundation and how we were there to learn and observe. I asked him (in Kiswahili, which I am very proud of) if he thought that malaria would always exist. He paused and laughed, saying, “Malaria is…like a runny nose. It is very not rare!” He went on to explain that there are types of malaria that can linger in the body for decades, making it very hard to completely eradicate.

Hatari was adamant that real reductions in malaria deaths were only capable through increased education. I stressed that our team saw the importance of religious communities in dispensing this education along with bednets and medicines. I pointed out that the eight Fellows with me would be joined by twenty-one others who would scatter themselves across the US, UK, and Canada in order to promote interfaith cooperation on malaria. Hatari ended up asking me far more questions about the Fellowship than I asked him about Kiswahili vocabulary. I was quite happy with this turnaround; it meant that he found our work interesting and useful. And when I explained our push for interfaith cooperation on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa, I could tell that he saw the very practical nature of the program.

Still, his answer to my question about eradicating malaria was unexpected to say the least. I had anticipated such an answer to be an adamant YES, but Hatari was saying that malaria was a fact of human existence and would likely never disappear. It reminded me of a maxim that we heard often during our training in London: “Dying of malaria is like dying of a broken arm. There’s no reason why it should happen.” The real struggle for the Faiths Act Together campaign will be combating the perceived banality of a disease that affects millions.

Welcome to Tanzania!

After a very long day of travel we touched down in Dar es Salaam and made our way to a guest house for the night. The accomodations were comfortable – always a good thing to have as you adjust to a new place. In the morning we took off for Ifakara in the south central part of the country.

It took us around seven hours to make the trip. The last ninety minutes or so was a long slog down bumpy, dusty roads. Luckily, our Rovers had good suspension systems. We rolled into the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health (TTCIH) right as dusk was falling, which was surprisingly early. I think we had gotten used to the day stretching past 9 pm when we were in London. We unpacked the trucks and met Joyce, the administrative specialist, and Dr. Pemba, the Director of the Centre.

After a wonderful dinner to welcome us, we retreated to our bungalows to rest. Sleep was welcomed.

I don’t mean to brag…Part Deux

The other day, I wrote about how strange it is that charity workers must be exceptionally vocal about their good works in order to affect policy and, more importantly, fundraise. I sensed an inherent contradiction between selfless service and active self-promotion.  The post attracted a number of opinions, and I engaged in a few protracted conversations about the relationship between one’s faith-drive to do charity work and religiously-prescribed humility.

The theme of these conversations seemed to match up with one of the reasons that the Faiths Act Fellowship is so important: the world doesn’t believe we exist. Here’s where it gets interesting…

There are plenty of organizations that toot their own horns – we know this because we see/hear it happening all the time. A few hours ago I was at a small reception at Westminster Abbey (guests of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, of course) listening to one of the church’s officials describe the social justice work that the Abbey is involved in. The question regarding the other post about how loud to be in charity work was brought full circle when the official described the “behind the scenes work” that goes on, especially in regards to asylum-seekers. It was like a bolt from the blue.

Some of the best faith-based or faith-motivated charities maintain a very low profile. We don’t hear a lot about them because their work is behind the scenes, and their donors don’t need flashy postcards or constant email contact to stay loyal – they donate because it is right and good for them to do so. There have been multiple occasions where I’ve stumbled upon the websites or work of such organizations having never heard of them before.

This realization matches up with the work that the Faiths Act Fellowship is engaging in because even though I’m sure that most of us would rather work behind the scenes, we must be in the public eye to advocate for malaria eradication. Furthermore, we hope that our work will stand as an example of the good things that religion can help to achieve, not just on an interfaith basis, but on a faith basis in general.

Perhaps one of the reasons that people have negative views of religious people is because the bulk of the really active ones, those who are sacrificing lives of comfort for the life of service, are content to stay in the shadows and work. It’s not that religious people aren’t out there changing the world for the better, they simply aren’t bragging about it. I find this to be a reassuring thought.

Finding a purpose

There comes a time in the life of a person where they decide that their existence is intimately bound up with all the other people and things on this planet. This is the time when a person becomes more self-aware; it’s the point where people decide that they cannot simply walk through the world without doing whatever good they can.

I have no idea when I reached that point.

The fact that I can’t remember troubles me; it leads me to believe that there was never a crystal-clear, life-altering moment that changed my thought – no Bodhi-tree explosions of nirvana – and led me down my current path. Then again, maybe for some, this point comes in fits and starts without a central event. Upon reflection I find that my attitude of responsibility towards the world developed over a period of a few years in college. I’ll give the pre-university “old me” some credit: he certainly cared about humanity’s continued, equitable existence but didn’t understand that regular people could make real change.

It’s been a long time since I walked onto the campus of Aurora University thinking that my ACT score and book collection made me something special. In the intervening years, I’ve found myself tied into two seemingly separate fields: international development and interfaith cooperation.

I saw a world riven by sectarian conflict. A place where religions are denigrated by the learned as out-of-date remnants of a past phase of human growth. A planet where holy books (or rather, holy men) command the faithful to kill in the name of. I decided that such things cannot be allowed to stand. As a person of faith myself, I know the great drive to do good that can come from one’s religious tradition. I promote interfaith dialogue and cooperation because I know that humans won’t ever stop being religious, and we’d sure as hell better get used to talking and working with each other soon.

I also saw a world where the rich (I’m one of them by dint of living in the United States) and the poor are separated not simply by an affluence gap, but by gaps of food, sanitation, education, and most importantly, hope. Every day, thousands of people die from the simplest diseases, and hundreds of millions struggle to survive by whatever means possible. Each year, Europe spends enough on ice cream to provide basic sanitation for every person on the earth. I decided that I could not live as I have lived while half of the world prayed in anguish. I work to balance the disparities in our world as best I can, and I hope that one day I will be referred to as a humanitarian by my peers.

The best thing about my “moment” of understanding my place in the world is that it’s an ongoing experiment. It’s not like I finished my undergraduate work and knew exactly what I had to do and how to do it – that has taken time and study (and lots and lots of student loans). My point is that like our planet and the people on it, my call to help people is continuously evolving and moving towards…something.

I’m undertaking my work with the Faiths Act Fellowship for three reasons:

1. It provides me a space in which to build bonds of multifaith understanding and action.
2. Eradicating malaria deaths is a hugely important issue in human rights and human development.
3. It is, simply, what I must do.

I make no apologies for veiled references to destiny and personal mission, but we know the feeling we get when what we are doing is all at once emotionally, spiritually, and on all other planes, just right.