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The Pine Ride Indian Reservation in South Dakota is home of the Lakota Sioux and has been called “ground zero” for Native American Issues.

The grim statistics on reservations like Pine Ridge today are the equivalent to that of a 3rd world country, revealing the legacy of colonization and treaty violations. Unemployment on the Reservation fluctuates between 80-90%. Many are homeless, and those with homes are packed into rotting buildings with up to 5 families. More than 90% of the population lives below the federal poverty line. The life expectancy for men is 47 years old — roughly the same as Afghanistan and Somalia.

Photojournalist Aaron Huey has spent the last six years uncovering the story of this relatively undocumented social injustice. We’re honored to have Huey attend this year’s festival as a special guest.

Read the rest of this entry »

Thanks for reading our blog series. To read from the beginning, go here. We want to express our sincere gratitude and appreciation to everyone who has supported us, most notably our families, our friends in Telluride, and the folks at Mountainfilm who provided the inspiration to undertake our journey and a forum to share our experience.

We really appreciate you reading our blog posts these past months. Some were long, some were short, some were pretty good, and some were probably a little less interesting than you might have hoped. We conveyed our experience here in Ghana as best we knew how, but sometimes, words just don’t suffice. So for this week’s blog post, please enjoy a selection of photos from our trip. No reading involved!

The Denver Art Museum is hosting Streets of Afghanistan this Thursday, April 28, in an effort to connect communities and cultures in a country that has endured nearly four decades of conflict. The exhibit is a life-size exhibition that recreates the streets of Kabul and the rural roads of Afghanistan, including stunning portraits of the people who live there.

Proceeds from the exhibition, created by Mountain2Mountain (M2M), a Colorado-based nonprofit, will support programs including girls’ education, efforts to help imprisoned women and children and support for the Afghan youth movement. We are honored to welcome Shannon Galpin, the founder of M2M, as a special guest to the Mountainfilm Festival this year.

When: April 28, 2011

Where: Denver Art Museum — 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

Thanks for reading our blog. To read from the beginning, go here. We want to express our sincere gratitude and appreciation to everyone who has supported us, most notably our families, our friends in Telluride, and the folks at Mountainfilm who provided the inspiration to undertake our journey and a forum to share our experience.

As you may have noticed, Jenny and I have been radio silent for the past few weeks. This silence is due to our repatriation (and the extended celebration of such). Having finally settled back into something resembling a routine, we now have the time and necessary distance to look back on our experience in Ghana.

Giving yourself over completely to a mission – in our case, the opportunity to volunteer overseas – forces you to face some tough questions once the mission is completed, the foremost being: did I make a difference?

Answering this question is difficult, as aid work can be slippery at best and counterproductive at worst. I would be preaching to the choir if I told our readers that simply throwing money around is ineffective and often serves to exacerbate a problem. Recall the parable of the hospital being built and supplied by a foreign beneficiary, only to be dismantled and sold piecemeal by corrupt officials as soon as oversight ceased.

A more successful approach has been to create circumstances where people are empowered to help themselves. (The old give-a-man-a-fish vs. teach-a-man-to-fish argument.) As pithily as I have stated it, this is, of course, an incredibly challenging task . Changing behaviors is difficult, particularly when faced with the easier, and instantly gratifying alternative of giving/accepting a handout. Adhering to this philosophy, changing behaviors and helping people help themselves is what the Social Support Foundation works toward, and it’s what we attempted to help the organization accomplish in our time there.

So, back to the difficult question: did we make a difference? The best answer we can come up with is: hopefully. As always with aid work, results can be hard to quantify. Smaller questions are more insightful. Is the organization we volunteered with better off, having had our help? Undoubtedly. Will the organization be better equipped to advance its cause well into the future? Definitely. Are there people on the ground whose lives will be improved through our involvement? Damn. There’d better be.

Our time in Ghana supplied us with new friends, incredible experiences, and an altered perspective. Recollected from within the Telluride snowglobe, Ghana still feels like it did six months ago: distant, exotic, and somewhat imaginary. Our time there was so utterly different from any reality here that, back in our familiar haunts, it seems surreal. Would we do it again? Yes. Would we go back tomorrow? No.

At the end, we are satisfied with our time there, and look to the next adventure (though we would do a few things differently). For now, we’re happy recharging our batteries and gearing up for Mountainfilm!

– David and Jenny

This series of posts documents two ordinary folks attempting to get out there and do good. Over the next few months, we’ll follow them through the setbacks and triumphs of their endeavor to take the inspiration of Mountainfilm and turn it into something tangible. (To catch up. start here.)

Harking back to one of our first posts, you’ll remember that Jenny and I had a hard time finding a volunteer opportunity that fit our time frame, budget, and other requirements. Lucky for you, we’re here to lend some guidance so you’re not quite as in-the-dark as we were when we started. Whether you want to dedicate your entire being to a cause, work a few hours a day for a few weeks or months, or help a bit here and there where you can, we have a suggestion for you. We’ve listed resources where you can find opportunities that don’t require a placement fee, as we’re assuming that, like Jenny and me, you’re on a budget.

Couchsurfing.org: Throw a dartboard at a map and find a couch! Couchsurfing.org isn’t just for walkabouts; in connecting you with people worldwide, the website can help you find opportunities to volunteer your time while staying for free.

Idealist.org: A giant database with job listings, internships, and volunteer opportunities worldwide. Choose your destination and find a way to help! (Tends to be geared toward long-term volunteers.)

WWOOF.org: (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) Green thumbs your thing? Go work on an organic farm. Guaranteed to have you smelling like poo in no time.

Workaway.info: Workaway’s philosophy is “A few hours honest work per day in exchange for food and accommodation with friendly hosts in varying situations and surroundings.” It’s a great option for those of us on a budget who can’t afford lengthy accommodation expenses.

If you’re not able to volunteer, but still want to contribute to a cause, Kiva is a great way to get involved without a substantial commitment of time or money. Kiva is a microfinance organization through which you invest in entrepreneurs worldwide by partially funding projects that interest you and/or tug at your heartstrings. The entrepreneurs repay your investment over time, but you can opt to re-loan your funds over and over again. Jenny made a $25 contribution last year and has already invested the repaid funds into several other projects. (Kiva also has a rad fellowship program, which would be an amazing way to travel and volunteer, but you have to be selected for it, and we hear competition is fierce.)

So there you are. If you want to get involved, you have no excuse not to. We can’t wait to hear all of your stories as well. We’ll see you next week with a gallery of our adventure in Africa.

This series of posts documents two ordinary folks attempting to get out there and do good. Over the next few months, we’ll follow them through the setbacks and triumphs of their endeavor to take the inspiration of Mountainfilm and turn it into something tangible. (To catch up. start here.)

Having navigated our way through another ex-pat experience, we thought we’d share our pearls of wisdom we know our readers are eager to hear. Spending time overseas can be an enjoyable and meaningful experience, but it takes a little finesse. A lot of things will be fun and different right off the bat, but others will be extremely difficult and require some adaptation. Here are a few tips to enjoy your time abroad.

Weekends: One of the sweetest side benefits of volunteering in a foreign and exotic place is getting to explore said foreign and exotic place. As with any job, your weekends are your time to unwind. Typically, traveling in the countries you would volunteer in will be less expensive than traveling in the US. Jenny and I have enjoyed several great weekend getaways with all the bells and whistles at about a fifth of the cost a similar vacation in the States.

Transportation: You can be as obruni as you want and take private transportation, but you’re going to pay for it. Learning to use the local mode of transport will save you lots of cash and will leave you with a disproportionate sense of accomplishment for mastering what every child in the country can do before they turn five. Sure, you’ll be accosted by the occasional drunk guy, but you’ll also get to interact with locals.

Food: Don’t be a McDonald’s hopper. Eat the food. If you’re craving more familiar fare, every now and then you will undoubtedly stumble across a place that will serve you a burger. Plus, many cultural exchanges take place around the dinner table, and gastronomically speaking, there are few better ways to experience a culture. If you insist on being picky, consider looking into domestic volunteer opportunities.

Local custom: Keep your head on a swivel. Don’t wear tiny clothes if people aren’t wearing tiny clothes. Pay attention to whether or not people are eating with their left hand (AHEM Jenny…). Don’t pick up any bad habits (e.g. littering), but don’t be a jerk about it either.

Language: No one expects you to speak like a native, but, at the very least, learning a few words in the local language shows respect towards your host country, and people will take note and treat you accordingly.

Diarrhea: You’re going to get diarrhea. Stop smirking – you’re going to get diarrhea. Pack Ciproflaxin for traveler’s diarrhea and Imodium for your run-of-the-mill diarrhea. After all that, you’ll probably be constipated.

Health (other than diarrhea): Advil for aches and pains, Tylenol for fever, maybe a Z-Pack for anything more serious. Oh, and if you’ll be in a part of the world where malaria is a problem, take your anti-malarials. You WILL get bitten by mosquitoes no matter how careful you are, and malaria can stick with you for the rest of your life.

This series of posts documents two ordinary folks attempting to get out there and do good. Over the next few months, we’ll follow them through the setbacks and triumphs of their endeavor to take the inspiration of Mountainfilm and turn it into something tangible. (To catch up. start here.)

Traveling is great. And what’s the best part of traveling: experiencing new cultures? making new friends? learning more about our wonderful planet?

Nah. The best part of traveling is the gear.

We’re being silly, but honestly, there’s little more satisfying than purchasing something that ends up really working for you. Below is a list of some things we found particularly useful in Ghana.

Amazon Kindle: An eBook reader is a must, particularly if you’re spending an extended period of time in a place where reading isn’t all the rage. In terms of functionality, Kindle may be an apt name, as you might be tempted to light it on fire if it stops working. But for the sanity- and relationship-preserving convenience of having unlimited books at your fingertips, the Kindle is a P-P-P-POWERMOOOOOVE!

ChicoBag: This little bag has been incredibly handy. It’s made of 99% recycled content, packs down small, and has a carabiner so you can snap it wherever you please. As Jenny’s pack mule, I’ve come to realize the value of having an extra-portable, yet spacious, saddlebag when she decides she wants to buy her weight in African cloth.

First Ascent BC-200 Jacket (pictured): Ghana’s dry season isn’t, in fact, dry. It’s simply drier than the rainy season, which is why Jenny’s First Ascent waterproof shell has been critical. It offers fail-proof protection against the not-so-infrequent deluge, but is breathable in the oppressive Ghanaian heat. It’s also super lightweight and tear-resistant (no ripping holes in this jacket when climbing into a ramshackle tro-tro), and most importantly, it looks damn good on my gal.

iPhone: An unlocked iPhone will work on many international networks, and if you’re traveling without a computer, it’s a perfect way to access the internet. Ghana may not have universal access to potable water, but you can download Britney on 3G. Bonus: You can use the Skype App anywhere there is Wi-Fi to phone home for cheap.

Mosquito Net: It’s hard to review an item when its intended purpose is to prevent something. (If nothing happens, it works.) But hats off to our mosquito net: despite our buggy environs, we didn’t get malaria. Huzzah.

MSR PackTowl: When you think “camp towel,” you probably think “puny scrap of cloth with the absorbent capacity of a thimble.” Not so with the MSR Packtowel Personal. It gets you totally dry, packs down small, and dries quickly, all of which keeps you from skipping a shower and suffering that “oh my god, that smell is ME” moment.

Osprey Talon 22 Backpack: On tro-tros, you’re frequently stacked arse-to-elbows with your fellow travelers. Having a compact yet capacious pack is essential, and the Osprey Talon 22 is all this and more. You can cram tons of stuff into it, the multi-adjust shoulder straps and burly waist straps help you save on your chiropractor bill, and the airscape back valiantly fights otherwise inevitable backsweat.

Vibram Five Fingers Bikilas: Being the only obrunis in town, Jenny and I are constantly the center of attention. As this level of celebrity was insufficient, we decided to wear attention-grabbing shoes to step it up a notch. Enter Vibram Five Fingers. Strapping on a pair of Bikilas is like turning into a ninja. You become extremely nimble and bound along your run with fiendish glee. The only downside is that you have to temper your enthusiasm and break in those underused foot muscles slowly. More info on barefoot running phenomenon.

There you have it. Now let us know some of your travel staples that make things easier, serve crucial functions, or help you cling to your sanity a bit!

This series of posts documents two ordinary folks attempting to get out there and do good. Over the next few months, we’ll follow them through the setbacks and triumphs of their endeavor to take the inspiration of Mountainfilm and turn it into something tangible. (To catch up. start here.)

As an individual, looking at problems on a macro scale can be daunting and more than a little discouraging. How does one person even begin to make a dent in monster problems like AIDS or poverty? The trick seems to be to compartmentalize and tackle facets of these large problems, with heavy emphasis given to sustaining positive changes. Distributing condoms in a country wracked by AIDS is a noble effort, but will it make a difference if no one uses them after you’re gone? The task you’re left with, then, is to influence people’s behavior, beyond simply providing them with the means to improve their situation.

An interesting theory on creating sustainable change is called the broken window theory. It was originally introduced in 1982 in an Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling and was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s pop-science bestseller The Tipping Point. The theory posits that a society that maintains the appearance of lawlessness will further breed lawlessness or harmful behavior. The eponymous case in point suggests that a broken window that remains unrepaired will encourage vandals to break more windows. In the continued absence of repair, the vandals may then proceed to break into the building and vandalize surrounding buildings. Eventually, the district itself becomes a lawless zone. Thus, speedy remedy of lawlessness indicators (broken windows, graffiti, abandoned cars, dilapidated buildings, etc.) will deter petty crime and, by extension, will prevent major crime. Programs on this theory have been effective in several metropolitan areas, from New York City to locations in the Netherlands.

Now, Jenny and I aren’t trying to reduce crime in Ghana, but we think the theory has some relevant applications to work that can be done here. There are myriad problems here, but let’s tackle one: litter.

Sadly, littering is the norm here. Unlike western nations, there is no stigma associated with throwing your trash out the window. Every street, backyard, and alley is littered with thousands of pieces of plastic debris. Special teams have to be sent periodically to clear rivers of accumulated plastic bottles and satchets to prevent disruption of the watershed and flooding.

So, how to change this behavior? At first blush, a media campaign discouraging littering might seem just the ticket. In fact, this has been attempted, and the sole legacy of the project is a scattering of rusty signs in population centers. What if we apply the broken window theory and create an environment in which people didn’t feel that it’s acceptable to drop trash on the ground? Would I feel less inclined to throw trash on the ground if I were on a spotless street? Of course I would. It’s a matter of social norms: as humans, we constantly monitor our surroundings to determine the appropriate behavior. If I were in a nation of people that spurned clothes, I would happily strut around nude. However, if I were not, I might hesitate to inflict my unmentionables upon the general populace.

Now, to create an environment that discourages littering. First, people need to get out there and get elbows deep in some trash. Clean the streets EVERY DAY and build big honking trash cans on every corner. Will this work better than a nationwide media blitz? We think so, and it’s probably cheaper. It’s also a self-sustaining effort. No littering = clean streets = no littering. That’s math.

We’re not so naïve as to think that eliminating litter will solve all of Ghana’s problems. But we do think that cleaning up the country could have expansive implications on all sorts of issues Ghana faces. Civil engagement is the greater goal that fixing this broken window aims for. It’s clear the government has been only marginally effective at addressing Ghana’s problems, and that real change will occur on a grassroots level. If people begin by taking pride in keeping their surroundings clean, perhaps they will take pride in reducing corruption in the government and in law enforcement, cleaning up the environment, reducing activities that lead to HIV / AIDS, increasing the rate and quality of education, etc.

Hey, looks like we saved the world, after all.

This was a heavy topic. For a little lighter fare, read next week’s post on everyone’s favorite thing: gear!

This series of posts documents two ordinary folks attempting to get out there and do good. Over the next few months, we’ll follow them through the setbacks and triumphs of their endeavor to take the inspiration of Mountainfilm and turn it into something tangible. (To catch up. start here.)

Ghana is a wonderful country. Its primitive forests preserve the mystery of the Dark Continent, the beaches remain undeveloped and uncrowded, and its people have the joie de vivre for which Africa is well known. Given all that, there are idiosyncrasies that expose themselves only after a few months of observation. Without further ado, I give you, “Poetic Grumblings of a Short-term Ex-Pat.”

Language

Go on GhanaWeb.com. Go on, do it. There, they will tell you that the official language of the country is English. To euphemize, this is somewhat misleading. While most people in the larger cities do speak English, the vast majority of people in Ghana speak Twi or other tribal dialects. Given that languages are dying worldwide at a horrific rate, it’s wonderful to hear people speaking the language of their ancestors. But unless you plan to spend all of your time at the Holiday Inn, expect to hear Twi spoken in normal conversation.

Food

The food in Ghana is pretty tasty. A typical Ghanaian meal will consist of fufu (cassava pounded into a doughy paste) served with spicy soup and goat, chicken, or fish. However, you will be hard pressed to find a meal served with fresh vegetables. Ghanaian food will make your guts stick together. You may find yourself gnawing on a piece of cardboard in a desperate quest for roughage. Bring fiber.

Arguing

If football (soccer) is Ghana’s favorite sport, then arguing is Ghana’s favorite pastime. Ghanaians have strong opinions, and a vigorous culture of voicing those opinions. Your longer bus rides will crescendo in and out of several heavy debates over the course of a few hours. I’ve never seen a hand raised in anger here, but Jenny’s second-hand anxiety is at a permanently elevated level.

Superstition

Despite the efforts of generations of missionaries, Ghanaians have managed to sustain many elements of their tribal cultures (though Christianity is an integral part of many Ghanaians’ lives). Along with some of these cultures come certain superstitions. This dichotomy manifests itself in really fun ways (movies, popular TV shows, radio broadcasts, etc.), and also really tragic ways (women being accused of witchcraft and banished from society). An illuminating anecdote: A guy was imprisoned for embezzling money. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict the man, but the prosecutor argued that the man should still be in prison, citing the belief that the man was a witch. The defense, in all earnestness, replied that that was ludicrous: if his client was a witch, he would have turned into a bird and flown away. The prosecutor rebutted this defense by saying that he couldn’t turn into a bird, as the necessary herbs to perform such a transformation were not available in prison. Bullet proof.

Heat

It is motherf#!&ig HOT here.

These are the grumblings that come from a very sheltered, short-term ex-pat experience. In fact, the length of time we’re spending here may not qualify us for the moniker. I would like to qualify the above by very specifically pointing out that I am not judging, I am merely observing. None of these observations are a large complaint; in fact, some of the above cultural characteristics are what make our experience here great. Learning and experiencing new cultures is a fun and exciting experience, but those who do so in longer stints must be forgiven for a bit of whinging.

Next week, we stop our whinging and talk about a potential approach to solving some of Ghana’s problems.

This series of posts documents two ordinary folks attempting to get out there and do good. Over the next few months, we’ll follow them through the setbacks and triumphs of their endeavor to take the inspiration of Mountainfilm and turn it into something tangible. (To catch up. start here.)

One of our goals for our time in Ghana is to travel around the country and witness efforts to combat labor abuses. To that end, Jenny and I attended a meeting of the Ghana Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Protection Coalition. Members (including the Social Support Foundation) are regional NGO’s that deal with labor issues all across Ghana, from children being forced into dangerous fishing jobs on Lake Volta, to children being forced to carry heavy loads to the market in Accra. One such organization with which we interacted deals with labor issues on cocoa farms.

Cocoa farming employs a substantial number of people in Ghana’s Western and Central regions. As with many of Africa’s industries, it is rife with labor issues. Historically, children on these farms had no access to education and were put to work as soon as they were old enough to help. Simply put, there was not another option. Their labor was valuable to the survival of the family and there was no education available in any case.

Given the inherently rural nature of cocoa farming, many of these problems have gone unaddressed until recently. The NGO’s currently assisting these communities work to ensure that children on the cocoa farms have access to education and time to pursue it. To this end, NGO’s have worked with farming consultants to teach the cocoa farmers best practices and to increase efficiency on the farms, resulting in higher yields with less labor. The NGO’s have also worked to build schools in these rural areas so the children don’t have to travel hours each day to school. In the more remote areas, children have been given bikes to commute to and from the closest school.

Jenny and I contacted one of the Coalition’s partners in order to visit some of these cocoa farms and see the work being done firsthand. Once everything was in order, we hopped a tro-tro to Wasa Akropong, an agrarian community about two hours outside of Obuasi, and checked into the only hotel in town (which, to our utter amazement and joy, had air-conditioning). The next morning, we met our contact, Aikins, and our hired car. Given that we would be trundling over muddy back roads all day, we found it quite ironic that our hired car was spotless and that our driver was perhaps the most fastidious taxi driver in all of Ghana. The driver’s vexation increased exponentially as we alternately submarined through knee-high mud puddles and caromed through massive dust clouds. At each village we stopped at he resignedly engaged in the Sisyphean task of rubbing down the car and re-cleaning the mats.

At each stop, Aikins met with the village elders to discuss their needs, from new concrete for the school buildings to a blight that was affecting the trees. We spent a good part of the day interacting with folks on the farms, trouncing through the groves of cocoa trees and observing the cocoa harvest in process. As it was a weekend, the children were not in school. With the additional schools and the new cocoa farming techniques, all of the children had access to education and attendance was up significantly. We finished the day with a delicious meal of plantains, yams, and peanut soup with chicken that a lady in the last village prepared for our party.

It was wonderful seeing an organization making sustainable headway on a problem their sights were set on. It was not only heartening that children were given access to schools, but incredibly gratifying to witness how attitudes were changing. In one generation, some of these villages went from having virtually no children in school, to having universal attendance, and the degree to which the villagers appreciated the value of education was very apparent.

You can see more pictures of our adventure here.

Next week, we’ll tell you a bit about what it’s like living in Ghana.

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