Thursday, December 22, 2011

Déjà vu!

Déjà vu! Yes, i have experienced it a dozen times over. Eerie. And its happening...AGAIN!
Around this time last year, i was glued to the news, following by the minute, developments in Cote d'Ivoire as they unfolded. Some might remember the post titled 'The country with two presidents'.
This time, its happening even closer home.Africa's second largest country has had elections.Election 'observers' have described the process as fraught with flaws.The Supreme Court, ratified the results announced by the electoral commission, declaring the incumbent, Joseph Desire Kabila, as president-elect. The man has since taken the oath of office, while the country has witnessed heavy security deployments comprising boots and machines. (Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe was the only foreign head of state who attended the ceremony.)
A campaign poster bearing Mr.Kabila's photo

Just like last year, the 'opposition man' Etienne Tshisekedi, has declared himself winner, and is organizing his swearing-in ceremony slated for tomorrow (Friday 23rd December), at Kinshasa's martyrs square. There is potential of many more 'martyrs' being created. We will effectively end up in a similar situation like Cote d'Ivoire's, a year ago. Déjà vu? I wish it were. Only this has happened before.
It is said (and don't ask me by who) that in Africa, incumbents never lose elections. I am happy that Zambia disproved this saying, where Michael Sata is now president and busy implementing his own brand of economics, dubbed 'Satanomics'. But i digress.

Mr. Tshisekedi who has declared himself president and 'issued an arrest warrant' for Mr.Kabila

Why am i so interested in the DRC situation? And why does it seem to me like there is little or no interest at all from 'the international community' (whoever they are!)?
I can only answer the first question. This Christmas, many kids across the world will receive playstations, laptops or iphones from 'Santa' (whoever he/she is). These electronic devices contain capacitors manufactured from tantalum, which is extracted from the mineral coltan. You may or may not remember that statement from this other post: 'Is there blood on your mobile phone?'
The DRC contains some of the world's largest coltan reserves, among a host of other mineral resources. However, the wars in the Congo have seen millions of people die and some of the most horrific and widespread cases of sexual violence against women. Remember the 'rape capital of the world' statement?
While kids in other parts of the world enjoy their 'gifts from Santa', their Congolese counterparts will be enduring the uncertainty that continues to engulf their land-especially when their country ends up with two presidents. And that's what worries and gets me really concerned.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

East Africa in 2050

Recently i read a report about the integration process of the East African Community (EAC) that includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. According to the report, the EAC may have a single currency as early as 2015! Never mind that the Euro zone is deep in crisis raising questions about the viability of monetary unions.
So what will East Africa look like in 2050? Here are several scenarios that i stumbled upon a short while ago in 'The East African'. Makes for interesting reading!

SCENARIO 1: THE WATER POWERS
The first force driving border changes could be water and fuel. Virtually all the countries in the region, except Tanzania, face serious water stress in the next few years. Kenya is the most stressed: each Kenyan only has 636 cubic metres of water a year, compared with 1,270 cubic metres in Uganda and 2,035 in Tanzania. As a rule of thumb, hydrologists consider 2,000 cubic metres per person per year as the point when a country is considered “water-stressed”, and 1,000 cubic metres as when the situation is critical, and a country is “water-scarce”. So Kenya is “finished”. Water scarcity is likely to hit Uganda by 2035, and water stress will hit the country even earlier, by the year 2020.  At the present rate of deforestation, it is predicted that Uganda is likely to be importing fuel wood by 2020. Nairobi water demand stands at 750,000 cubic metres a day against a supply capacity of 530,000 cubic metres. It is projected that the daily demand in 2020 will stand at 1.6 million cubic metres and climb to 2.2 million cubic metres by 2030. So Nairobi City could collapse. In this scenario, the most successful countries will be the water-rich ones or those that have been smart at environmental management: In this scenario, Rwanda and a resurgent DR Congo could eat up Uganda; and Tanzania will become the regional superpower, swallowing most of Kenya. South Sudan will take a chunk of Kenyan and Ethiopian territory.
SCENARIO 2: THE DEMOCRACY POWERS
The future of most East African nations is uncertain, because the political elite have not arrived at a long-term deal on power sharing and enshrined it in a constitution. As a result, the regimes in Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, South Sudan and Ethiopia all today still need to call out the army or special forces to beat back the opposition. The only country, paradoxically, that has solved this problem is Kenya. It is the only nation in the sub region where, in the past two years, the power class has worked itself into a position where it can hold power through trickery, patronage, and sweet-talking without bringing out the army.
In July this year, Kenya’s government became the first in Africa — and one of the first in the world — to be completely data open. It has a level of openness on government data that is higher than the US’s. If it can leverage all these into political dividends and the other nations don’t sort themselves out quickly, it is easy to see Kenya becoming a Democracy Top Dog and swallowing half of South Sudan, most of Uganda, and a chunk of Tanzania to become a mind-bogglingly expanded nation.
SCENARIO 3: THE RESOURCE POWERS (ENERGY & MINERALS)
When it comes to resources, Kenya does badly, as do Rwanda and Burundi, and Somalia. Rwanda’s main resource is natural gas, with 56 billion cubic metres of natural gas reserves. The resource king in the region is DRC. According to a recent report by Africa Business, the country has $24 trillion worth of untapped mineral deposits, which is equivalent to the GDP of Europe and the United States combined. The DRC has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s diamonds, gold and copper. This makes the DRC potentially the richest country in the world. Then there is Tanzania. It has gold reserves of 45 million ounces, and is currently the third-largest gold producer in Africa. A recent geological survey revealed 209 million tonnes of nickel reserves, 50.9 million carats of diamond, and 103 million tonnes of iron ore, as well as 6.5 billion cubic metres of natural gas. Uganda is oil rich, with 1.5 billion barrels of oil reserves. South Sudan too has 3.5 billion - 5 billion barrels of oil reserves.
In this scenario, Tanzania will ingest Burundi, Uganda and DRC would eat Rwanda for lunch, and Kenya would all but disappear, being carved up between Uganda, Tanzania, and South Sudan. Ethiopia would, largely, remain intact.
SCENARIO 4: THE TECHNOLOGY POWERS
Despite lack of natural resources, a country can rise to power through innovation and becoming a leader in science and industry (as Japan teaches us). In East Africa today, the two nations investing heavily in technology innovation are Kenya and Rwanda. Kenya is now dubbed “the Silicon Savannah”.
Rwanda is also investing in IT education, and public health care like no other East African nation. Kenya’s private sector medical industry is years ahead of its peers. Kenya’s innovative capacity is ranked an impressive 52nd globally [third in Africa after Tunisia at 49th and South Africa at 51st], with high company spending on R&D and good scientific research institutions that collaborate well with the business sector in research activities (Global Competitiveness Report 2011/12, Word Economic Forum). The Global Competitiveness Report also showed Kenya with the second highest number of utility patents (i.e. patents for innovation) granted in sub-Saharan Africa, and fifth in Africa if you include Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria, at 0.02 patents per million of the population, which translates into 800,000 patents.
Kenyan operator Safaricom became the first-ever telecom company to create a mass mobile-banking service, setting industry standards now being copied from California to Kabul. By May of this year, Ushahidi, a crowd-sourcing platform developed in Nairobi in early 2008, which is free to download, had been used 14,000 times in 128 countries to map everything from last year’s earthquake in Haiti to this year’s Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring.
If technology, innovation and the development of the health industry are the future, then Kenya and Rwanda will chew up Uganda, and Rwanda will gobble up Burundi and a large swathe of eastern DRC. A large part of Tanzania, and South Sudan would become Kenya territory. Interestingly, this is probably the only scenario where Somalia survives. It’s a fairly innovative country in communications, so it will survive. It will be reunited with Somaliland and Puntland, and take in the Somali/Ogaden of Ethiopia.
SCENARIO 5: THE ENERGY-AND-FOOD-HUNGRY MILITARY POWERS
The next group of winners could be countries that reasonably stabilise their internal politics, grow their economies and build strong militaries, but have no food and energy to run on. These countries will take account of the rich ones that have resources, but are disorganised, have weak militaries, and chaotic politics.
In this scenario, Rwanda will thrive. Uganda might just get by, but not enough to grow out much. Burundi might survive. Kenya, whose real military strength, it emerges, has been grossly underestimated from what we are learning from its Somalia campaign and with an interesting new political order, will thrive as well as Rwanda. Ethiopia too will do quite well. There are questions about Tanzania in this picture, as there are about South Sudan, and Somalia is a write off. So, Rwanda will expand and absorb DR Congo and its resources. Burundi too will expand considerably into the DR Congo and parts of Tanzania. There will be a small portion of DRC left that Uganda will pick up. Uganda will also pick up a little of South Sudan, but most of it will go Ethiopia and Kenya. Kenya and Ethiopia will divvy up Somalia. Kenya might get a little bite of Tanzania. Whatever the case, Tanzania will shrink.
Source:  http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/-/2558/1291160/-/ngqlltz/-/index.html

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

To Wrocław and Mollina

Today marks the last full working day of my 7 month internship with the Torun Ecological Association "Tilia".However, the next few days before my flight back to Nairobi will still be quite busy!
I will take the train tomorrow to Wroclaw, and on Friday i will participate in the 19th Annual Plenary Session & Conference of European Environment and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils network. The meeting has actually already started with internal meetings of the EEAC network, which is an independent body that advises the European governments on matters of environment and sustainability, as the title suggests. The conference is also serving as a preparatory forum for the next Earth Summit in Brazil in 2012, popularly known as Rio+20.I am really looking forward to learning a great deal and possibly making some important contacts for the future.
Later on Saturday morning, September 17th, i will take the train to Warsaw where i will stay overnight, before flying to Malaga, Spain on Sunday morning.
Every year, the North-South Centre of the Council of Europe in collaboration with other partners, organizes the University on Youth and Development (UYD).It serves as a forum where young people meet to train and be trained, to share and discuss, and to come up with plans of action, on important development issues of the day.



This year's theme focusses on the role of youth volunteering for global development.Started in the year 2000, the UYD is hosted at the Centre for European and Latin American Youth (CEULAJ) located in the village of Mollina, 50 kilometres from Malaga.
It seems to me that the common thread running through all these meetings, is a fundamental human desire to make the world a better place to live in. I definitely want in on any initiative that seeks to do that, and hope that i can learn skills, gain knowledge and build friendships, that i can then pass on to other people wherever next i find myself in.Lastly, i found this video and thought it fits in today's blog post.



Maybe you too are already involved or would like to get involved in making the world more just? Perhaps you have ideas or experiences to share? If so, please feel free to get in touch.I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, September 12, 2011

September 12th...

First came the prediction and warning: June 22nd 2008



Then came the tragedy:



...And a shocking display of ignorance from some 'politicians':



...and it all makes me extremely ANGRY!!

Kenyans, Freebies and Impunity

Its a sad day for East Africa.Even before the news of a ferry tragedy in Zanzibar, that killed hundreds of people, over one hundred more lives have been lost in a fire tragedy in Nairobi.Deep condolences go out to all affected, and wishes for a quick recovery to all those hospitalized.
Rescue efforts were particularly challenging in both cases. Both tragedies could have been averted.
In February of 2009, John Ngirachu, a journalist at the Nation newspaper in Nairobi, and a former university colleague, wrote about a looming fire disaster in the Mukuru Sinai slums. He and a fellow journalist reported how residents had resisted attempts to move them from the oil pipeline area in which they were living.




They quoted a local pastor as saying “The Bible says that God is fire,” the 45-year-old pastor says. “Well, my church is right on top of the pipeline, and I am always aware of the possibility of a fire outbreak.”
It is now September 2011, and a fierce fire did break out...adding to a long list of tragedies that could have been averted. It is a culture of impunity. A culture that has fatal results.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Another day...and a week coming up!

My office-issued laptop no longer detects the wireless network available in the building that has been my home for the past close-to-seven-months now. Wi-fi doesn't seem to be available anyway, because even my phone no longer picks up the signals.
It is Saturday evening, which means i cannot access the internet from the office, which is closed (it was open  since my colleagues and i worked today too).The implication is that i have to sit at the reception, where a computer connected to the internet is available. Again, being a Saturday, like many other Saturdays, also means that a wedding party is going on. In fact, when i got started on this post, the newly wedded couple made its grand entrance into the building, which has an excellent conference hall, for their wedding party, and were greeted with rousing applause by family and friends.I no longer own a camera, so no photos to share....sorry!
My room is a few meters from the conference hall. Therefore, when the music starts playing, i will be unable to do much else...other than try to watch a movie...or spend sometime online.But again, the latter activity is only possible at the reception and i am not sure that i want to be here longer.We'll see. Its not the first time anyway!One thing is sure though. I will be waking up really late tomorrow.I am not complaining here;just telling my story!
Tomorrow also marks the start of another week. I sense already that it will be a week full of emotions, ideas and opportunities.On Tuesday evening, my colleagues will say 'goodbye' officially at some ceremony. It (the ceremony) should be simple, i hope, but i know saying goodbye will not. These are men and women that i have shared an office with every single working day, for the past 7 months!We have shared joys, challenges, hopes...and lots of coffee, tea and cake too. It is not easy to say 'kwaheri' to people like these.
Thursday morning will see me catch a train to Wroclaw. I have heard a lot about this city, but was never able to go there. Next week, the European Environmental Advisory Council (EEAC) will host its 19th annual conference at the Wroclaw University of Technology. The Polish minister of Environment will be one of the key note speakers. It will really be an honour for me to be present at the conference. It will be a whole day conference, Friday, and there won't be time left for anything else after. Maybe i'll try to explore Wroclaw by night.
Early Saturday, and i'll be on another train-this time to Warsaw, so i can catch a flight to Malaga, Spain, early Sunday morning.I'll be attending the University on Youth and Development (UYD), in the Spanish town of Mollina, close to Malaga.That will be another week altogether!
For now, its probably time to log-off and retire to my room...a few meters from the conference hall...where a wedding party is in progress...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Surprising Europe?!

With less than three weeks left before i board a flight back to Nairobi, marking the end of my 7-month long experience in Poland, many of my friends have been asking me how the time here has been for me.It is impossible to capture in words, the very rich and diverse moments and relationships that have characterized my stay here.But the conclusion always is'yes, i definitely want to come back...for an even longer period!'
But life has its low moments too, no matter which part of the world you live in.Mine was no exception. And while reviewing and reflecting on the past weeks and months, i stumbled upon a documentary series called 'Surprising Europe'.
The series is running on the Al Jazeera network, and documents the lives of African immigrants in Europe-a window into the experiences that they live with all its joys and pains.It makes for interesting viewing, and i think everyone, immigrant or not, should watch it. Below is a trailer for the series and you can read comments on the series on the 'Surprising Europe' website.



The only thing i am really surpsised about is how fast my time here has gone!!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Modern day Tabu Ley?

If you were born in Kenya before 1990 like me, then you know how life was growing up listening to the one and only Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC ) radio. Broadcasts would begin at 6am in the morning with the national anthem and end at midnight, on a similar note.
The selection of music would of course depend on the 'mtangazaji' of the day. These were the pre-mobile phone days, and call-in shows to request for 'tracks' were unheard of. Nevertheless, a daily dose of Congolese music was guaranteed. The likes Franco, Mbilia Bel and Tabu Ley Rochereau were household names.
Tabu Ley was responsible for the formation of the Orchestre Africa International, churning out popular hits in the 70's 80's and 90's.
Tabu Ley Rochereau
This evening i was pleasantly surprised to discover that his son Youssoupha, is into music as well, although of a completely different genre, that would definitely appeal to the post 1990 generation-at least those who appreciate the French language.

And unlike the time in which i grew up, they can listen to Youssoupha's music from anywhere in the world-thanks to the world wide web, just like i did watching 'L'effet Papillon' or 'the butterfly effect'.
History continues!

Friday, July 15, 2011

I'm mad as hell! Then what?

Time flies! After a one month hiatus, it feels like a lot has happened. And indeed a lot has happened. The most dramatic being the birth of the world's newest country; the Republic of South Sudan. Speaking of time, the media has been awash with stories of drought and hunger in the 'Horn of Africa', which has been described as the worst in 60 years. That means you'd have to go back to 1951 to find evidence of similar situation.

Estimated food security conditions, 2nd Quarter 2011 (April-June 2011): Food insecurity for the poor and very poor households in northern and eastern pastoral areas is likely to deteriorate to Crisis and Emergency levels (IPC Phases 3 and 4) in July unless urgent interventions are instituted. Though rains in Turkana district were better than in other pastoral areas, food insecurity is similarly deteriorating and is likely to fall to Crisis levels in August. (Fews.net)

However, the fact that the frequency and intensity of droughts has been increasing in East Africa in the past 20 years, has not been lost on many observers.The security situation in Somalia, one of the most severely hit country by the current drought, has made it virtually impossible for relief supplies to reach the population. The result has been a massive inflow of refugees into the Dadaab refugee camp in North Eastern Kenya, which has been under pressure of overcrowding, way before the surrent crisis hit hard. Government officials in Nairobi have been grappling with pressure from civil society groups to do something about sky-rocketing inflation.Members of Parliament are finding themselves in an awkward position, with the new requirement that they pay taxes on theri entire perks. Analysts, think-tanks and busy bodies are engaged in offering 'expert opinion' about 'what went wrong', like they always do, rushing from one seminar to the next.Meanwhile, people are suffering.

Of course a long term solution is necessary. Perhaps it is justified to be angry and mad at the failure to implement policies that could have averted or mitigated the effects of the drought. However, in the interim, people need help. Concrete help! And i want to be part of the solution, which i will tell you about...later.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dlaczego nie Polska?


I was sitting in the office drawing up some proposals on networking for my host organization, the Torun Ecological Association ‘Tilia’, where I am an intern for close to 15 weeks now. Suddenly the Prezes (President) of the Association and the Dyrektor (Director) of the Szkola Lesna na Barbarce (Forest School in Barbarka), appeared. One of my colleagues was getting ready to go out on an ornithological field study with a group of about 25, fifteen year old lads and lasses.
In the spur of the moment the Dyrektor suggested I join my colleague and teach something about Kenya’s environment when a theory class on Natura 2000, a European wide environmental protection program, got underway later on, which I gladly did to a seemingly interested audience. At the end of the presentation, one teacher accompanying the kids walked up to my colleague and I as we disconnected the laptop and other electronic equipment from the power plugs. After an exchange of pleasantries she sought to find out what my mission in Poland was, at the end of which, with a perplexed look on her face, she asked, “…but why Poland?!”
I have lost count of the number of times this question has been addressed to me. All in different contexts. 
Presentation at a school in Ciechocinek, where the question 'Why Poland?' popped up.
From school children, teachers, colleagues, friends of colleagues…even complete strangers! Once I was relaxing on the grounds of the Szkola Lesna which extends out into the greater Barbarka forest, and therefore serves as a recreation area for the residents of the city of Torun and tourists alike. A group on a family outing sat close by and after about ten minutes or so, one of them said hello and started making conversation…albeit in Polish. I understood enough of what he was saying, and again the question “Dlaczego Polska?” was asked. My attempts at explaining how beautiful the Polish countryside and nature is and therefore attractive especially for a young Environmental Planning and Management professional, seemed unconvincing and probably even confusing. Actually the more I continued to wax lyrical about how warm, friendly and kind Polish people are, the more his face twisted into little shapes that spelt one word in capital letters…UNBELIEVABLE!! He protested in Polish, “…but you’ve got elephants, and lions and mountains in your country!!” I couldn’t find a response to that…even in English.
I suppose the reason I get surprised every time this question is asked, is because I see many positive things about this country. When complaints abound about ‘roads’ and ‘trains’ I remark that some countries like the one I am from, has fewer kilometers of tarmacked roads, let alone ‘bad roads’ and close to non-existent railway network in comparison to what is available here. Besides, it doesn’t seem to me that people in Kenya get so surprised as to ask foreigners “why Kenya?”.
I really have no problem with the fact that the question is posed to me here. In fact, in a way, I enjoy it and have learnt to anticipate the question. Its just that in my mind, I keep thinking, ‘why not Poland?’.
Perhaps next time someone asks the question, I will fire back (friendly fire) and ask, “Dlaczego nie Polska?!”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Looking for the lost apostrophe

Barack Obama will be visiting Poland this Friday, at the tail-end of a whistle-stop tour that also takes him to Ireland, Britain and France.Just this past weekend, i was in the capital Warsaw, but it was impossible to detect or sense anything that felt like the imminent visit of the President of the United States.
Why that probably struck me as odd, is that one month before VP Joe Biden visited Nairobi in 2010, security agencies and city authorities were already turning the city inside-out.
Something else that struck me today was an article about the village of Moneygall in Ireland, where Obama's great-great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was a shoemaker. In a speech, Obama told the crowds that he had come to find the apostrophe that he lost somewhere along the way.'O'bama' tshirts and other merchandise have been selling like hot cake in Ireland.Kenyans from Western Kenya might want to create  controversy out of that, since 'Obama' and other names that begin with the letter 'O' usually have their origin in that part of the country.The attempt at 'Irishizing' Obama to 'O'bama' to fit the pattern of other Irish names like O'Toole, O'Reilly and O'Kelly would not go down well with the village elders in K'Ogelo village, where Obama Snr. was born. During his inauguration ceremony, an invitation was sent out from Washington to the Kenyan Boys choir, to provide entertainment.In the following clip, you will see just how at home they were performing a song in Luhya language, (one of the tribes in Western Kenya),praising Obama.

You see, my surname is 'Ottaro', so like Obama i also might want to find the 'lost apostrophe' and rediscover my Irish roots in some village that has two pubs but no bank, no ATM and no petrol station.And wear an O'ttaro tshirt while irrigating my throat with a pint of Guiness.Like O'bama says, it 'tastes better in Ireland!'

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hakuna Matata na Fairtrade!

On my previous visits to Europe, in 2006, 2007 and more recently 2010, i started and ended my trips in Frankfurt am Main. The endings, usually 2 to 3 days before my return flights to Nairobi, were at the house of a friend, Stefan, who runs a Fairtrade shop on Bergerstrasse in the Bornheim region of Frankfurt city.So naturally i found myself spending an hour or so at the shop on each occassion, and was quite delighted to discover soap stone carvings from Tabaka, near Kisii town in Western Kenya. I had been on a field study class project on environmental management plans for the soap stone mining region before, and knew exactly what it took to get the final product ready.

Ursula and Stefan infront of the Fairtrade shop in Bornheim
Well, this year i found myself making a presentation on Fairtrade, at the parking lot of the Forest School Barbarka where i live and work, on World Fairtrade Day, celebrated across the world every 14th of May. This year's theme was 'Trade for all-Fairtrade your world'.I prepared a basic presentation in English; basic means i put in more pictures than words and avoided creating an 'academic sounding presentation' in favour of a more general, easy flowing and colourful presentation.

Winding up the presentation
For the simple reason that i am still learning to communicate in Polish, and was relying on a translator to explain things.I have learnt that this modus operandi takes twice as much time, than if i were to do the presentation in one language.
The weather was abit 'iffy' with clouds hovering over the skies for most of the afternoon, and that probably put a dent in the attendance.The concept of Fairtrade in Poland is also not as strong as in other countries such as Germany, for example, and you will be lucky to find a Fairtrade shop or products in most cities.Nevertheless, we got quorum a little after 15.15hrs and i went through the slides, explaining what Fairtrade is and its contribution, socially, economically and environmentally to producers and their communities, as well as showcasing products from Kenya, from vegetables to flowers to soap stone to tea.The translation bit was a welcome relief as it allowed me to catch my breath and reorganize my thoughts.My colleague, Michał has proven himself, time and again since my very first day here, to be an excellent translator.More helpfully, he had the sense to come to my room and for a brief discussion over a cup of Tanzanian Fairtrade coffee, on the content of the presentation before we started.

The Fairtrade coffee and tea table

Now a few days earlier, the Director of the Forest School, Monika, had suggested that i cook something Kenyan for the audience to sample as part of the day's event. Those of you who have known me longer, can attest to the fact that calling me a lousy cook would be an  insult to members of the 'lousy cooking fraternity'.It was no mean feat trying to wriggle myself out of the idea. Eventually i succeeded in convincing (perhaps even confusing!) all concerned that the real typical Kenyan dish was ugali, and getting the ingredients for that would mean flying me to Nairobi and back.And of course being an ecological organization, we are mindful of our carbon foot print and the idea was eventually tossed out the window. However, the director is a shrewd operator. If i couldn't cook, then i had to sing. Fair enough, i thought to myself. But the offer became more tantalizing, when on Friday morning, Lukasz, a colleague who works on the line park or 'parki linowy' as we say in Polish, very calmly broke the news that he plays African drums, and has singers who sing African music.
Lukasz, (in the long-sleeved 'African' shirt) and his team

He offered to back me up with the drums and the background singers. It was an offer i couldn't refuse!
After the presentation, Lukasz and his team performed two songs from Mali and Senegal. Soon it was time to sing 'Hakuna matata', a song in Kiswahili which means 'No problem'.
On stage with Lukasz's team
The backup was simply superb and the result was evident from the thunderous applause of those in attendance.And in the spirit of East African-Polish co-operation, there was free Fairtrade Tanzanian coffee for all.Hakuna matata na Fairtrade!!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bardzo piękna pogoda!

I was done with posting for today, but for some reason decided to return.With a seemingly strange title, that translates into English as 'very beautiful weather'. My uneducated guess reliably informs me that you had already figured that out the moment you saw it-thanks to the wonders of Google translator. Even more beautiful is that i wrote it without external support or reference; fruit of days and weeks of painstakingly trying to learn the Polish language. Now that's a story for another day.
From the corner of the world that i come from (to use an expression Charles Onyango-Obbo created recently), it is either raining or it isn't. End of story. Well, if you live at the coast or in North Horr, you are already used to 30+C temperatures.If you are in Nairobi, Central and Rift Valley highlands, then you know it will be cold around June and July.Cold means between 13 and 18C. No one really bothers to check anyway. You just know its cold, and do the next sensible thing which is to grab a warm coat and drown in an endless supply of hot chai.
So folks on the side of the globe that i was born would sometimes find it perplexing that their colleagues living in regions that experience 'seasons' in the name of winter, spring, summer and autumn, seem to be pre-occupied with weather-based discussions. Indeed, 'prognoza pogody', or 'weather forecast' in the Polish language, forms a very important part of every news segment and commands great attention.
So what's the fuss all about? You see, after a dozen weeks in Poland, and having lived through the transition from winter to spring, i don't have to have a reason to talk about the weather. Its second nature.During the winter i had to learn and get accustomed to a ritual that involved putting on several layers of clothing,including gloves, before stepping out the front door.
then...
The idea is to cover every part of skin that can be covered, as thickly as possible. Once inside another building, the ritual would also involve removing some layers of clothing, since buildings are fitted with heating systems. Day in day out.Days that end at 5pm when it gets dark.That is how to cope with sub-zero temperatures.I am glad i was triumphant...or rather survived.
...and now
Fast-forward to April and the story gets more interesting.Temperatures are more on the +ve side, at least in day time-and it seems that the general mood of people follows suit. Soon, the trees have leaves and there is more colour, a transformation from the winter grey.
...the colours

By May, it feels even better than Nairobi, and the mode of dressing changed long time ago. No more rituals, and the kilos of clothing are tremendously cut down.The days are longer too and it is still bright at 20.00hrs.There is a real transformation. Why would anyone not want to sing, leave alone talk about that?!
I leave you with a song from one of my favourite flamenco singer, Aurora Vargas, entitled, 'La Primavera' or wiosne...spring!



Wherever in the world you are reading this from...including my best friend Emmanuel Ndayisaba in Adelaide...i wish you piękna pogoda!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Help Save Mount Kenya With a Web Link

Recently a colleague at work asked me whether i had climbed Mount Kenya. It was rather embarrasing to listen to myself explaining that i hadn't. Now that's a terrible indictment for an Environmental Planning and Management expert that i claim to be.
The second highest peak in Africa at 5199 metres, Mt.Kenya is also a UNESCO World Heritage site,playing host to a variation of flora and fauna with altitude change.According to information on the UNESCO website, Mt.Kenya's vegetation varies with altitude and rainfall, with a rich alpine and subalpine flora.The evolution and ecology of its afro-alpine flora also provide an outstanding example of ecological processes.



Due to global warming and climate change,12 remnant glaciers and four secondary peaks that sit at the head of the U-shaped glacial valleys, are all receding rapidly.
Several initiatives are however underway to counter deforestation which has disastrous consequences on Mt.Kenya's delicate ecosystem.One such initiative is called 'Tupande Pamoja',a Swahili phrase that means "Let's plant together".The initiative brings 'pamoja' the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the East Africa Wildlife Society, Kenya Forests Working Group, Nature Kenya & Kenya Forest Service (KFS). Africa Point, an online travel agency has pledged to donate one seedling for every 'Tweet' or Facebook 'Like' to be planted on the Mt.Kenya water tower.You can also be a partner by displaying the badge below:

save mt. Kenya campaign
In partnership with africapoint.com

Better still, you can come to Kenya and plan a mountain climbing activity or a visit to Mt.Kenya National park, just like i have resolved to do!!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Non abbiate paura...

May 1st 2011...The Beatification of Pope John Paul II. How wonderful it felt today, to be on the homeland of a Saint!And only months after having been abundantly blessed to visit the places of his birth, life and vocation.


Blessed John Paul II
Pope John Paul II was an excellent communicator.He spoke to the world.To a broken world.I never had an opportunity to see him. But he spoke to me.Many times."Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ."

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Salute to my Country Men and Women

One of the best and most memorable experience for any Kenyan living abroad, i imagine, is to hear their national anthem being played (even out of tune) and see their national flag (which all Kenyans think is the best looking in the world) being hoisted on foreign soil.
For years, Kenyan athletes, men and women, kings and queens of the world's track and field have consistently dominated international races-breaking records, setting new ones and breaking them again when no one else could; effectively guaranteeing and providing those special 'Kenyan-anthem-and-flag-moments' abroad.
In fact, Kenyans have been so successful that my favourite columnist, Charles Onyango-Obbo, writing in the East African, once proposed that they should now allow Ugandans to win- 'in the spirit of East African cooperation'.
Meanwhile, Utrecht Marathon organizers were busy plotting how to lock out Kenyans from their event this year. A point-blank ban would be illegal and was not an option. So they decided they would instead 'offer' 100euro prize money to any non-Dutch passport holder (code name for Kenyan) who won the race, and 10000euros for a Dutch citizen achieving the same feat. Being the clever fellows they think they are, they explained away the whole scenario as a way of 'encouraging' Dutch citizens to 'do well'. What a lame, short-sighted strategy. And an even lamer and blind excuse.
As if to prove just how banal the Utrecht strategy is, Geoffrey Mutai went on to not only win the 115th edition of the Boston marathon, but set a new record, running the fastest marathon ever!
Geoffrey Mutai, world's fastest marathon runner
Caroline Kilel did the honours in the women's race. A week earlier, Kenya had swept the podium at the London marathon.The Paris marathon before that.The World Cross Country Championships in Palmeria, Spain....you get the drift by now.
Another Kenyan, Caroline Kilel, won the women's race
So the IAAF built a high altitude international training camp in Kenya.Foreign athletes flocked to 'acclimatize' and learn the 'Kenyan secret to success'. Years later, they are still learning.Going by recent and not too recent results, it seems to me that they are either learning the wrong stuff....or...Kenyans were 'built' for this business and are in a class of their won. I am more inclined to the latter possibility.

Rudisha: Its a world record!
Last year, a 21 year-old by the name David Rudisha, showed up on the world stage to set a new 800-meter world record...and proceeded to break it after one week. IAAF had no option other than to name him the male athlete of the year 2010. In Nairobi, we joked how Rudisha was 'rudisha-ing' medals back home.Rudisha is also a Kiswahili word that means 'return'.

I can only salute these outstanding men and women, who never disappoint and forever make me proud to be Kenyan!!

Ciechocinek

You are living abroad and get invited to give a 30-minute presentation about your country to a high school class. Whatever you think is most important. What would you say? Perhaps some history? Geography? Culture? Economics? How much detail is necessary? Statistics or analysis or opinions?

In a world where information is now readily available on the internet, whether you are talking about Kathmandu or Pago Pago or Kamchatka, what new perspectives would you give, that technology would be deficient of?
I have decided that i have done enough consultations and held numerous committee meetings in my head about these concerns and more, and now its time to simply relax and look forward to interacting with the students of a 'Gimnazjum' in the town of Ciechocinek the location of what will for them be lessons in 'Kenyalogy'-which i hope will be interesting.The results will be here, regardless of the outcome.

A spa park in Ciechocinek
Meanwhile, i have decided to use technology and see what i can find about Ciechocinek on the internet.The town has a website in several languages: Polish, English, German, French and Czech. Fascinating! Most of what i have heard so far is about the town's saline springs that go back as far as the 13th Century. The town is described as an important hub for natural curative resources and 'one of the most popular health resort towns in Poland'.For the citizens of East Africa, i can assure you that it is not another Loliondo, just incase you were wondering!
To read more about 'The Pearl of Polish Health Resorts' check out: www.ciechocinek.pl. Hopefully i will find time to see the town and bring you my first hand experiences of it.
Do następnego razu!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Foreign Exchange

Its one of those days when i woke up wondering why there are never enough days in the weekend. Especially as i had been planning and looking forward to that weekend-as eagerly as Kenyan farmers wait for the rainy season in March.So it was all in the past now, huh?! And i'm all high and dry now.
Its the kind of day you want to forget quickly. Consolation is that when the week starts on Tuesday, the period between Monday and Friday is considerably reduced. Before you know it, its mid-week. Thursday drags itself.But then again Friday shows up.
To ease myself through this post-holiday-end-of-the-first-day-back-to-work, i decide to sign into my blog.Like a well laid out conspiracy, i can't find or get the control panel to display in English-it all comes up in Polish-needless to say that my vocabulary hasn't expanded enough to decipher what the Polish words mean.I have to guess. Guess work can be tiring. Then i find my way through.
Seemingly, only a good dose of neo soul ('neo soul?!what's neo soul?') can get me unnerved and relaxed and chilled out.'Blog-surfing' for good neo soul music yields interesting results.
The Foreign Exchange.Its that kind of day.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

Poland Remembers...

One would be forgiven for believing that the month of April is jinxed.17 years ago on April 6th, the genocide in Rwanda started.One year ago tomorrow, Poland marks the 1st anniversary of the tragic plane crash that killed all 96 passengers aboard the aircraft, including President Lech Kaczyński, his wife and many high ranking officials of the Polish government and society.They were on their way to Katyn, to observe the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviet secret police, between April and May, 1940.

A memorial commemorating the victims of the Smolensk plane crash, at the military cemetery in Warsaw. Photograph: Grzegorz Jakubowski/EPA (Source:http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/08/poland-smolensk-air-crash-conspiracy)


The events that sparked the genocide involved the shooting down of the plane that was carrying then Presidents Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi. What followed would stun the world forever.Over 1 million people massacred in 100 days.
So what is it with April? Hard to tell.This year i have had the pleasure of experiencing winter and now spring for the first time ever, in Poland. I was struck by how gradually everything seemingly 'springs back to life'. Everyone is in better mood, it is much warmer, but not as hot as the summer months.It is hard to miss the transformation. Still, there are the occassional grey and rainy days, and this time, strong winds.The best days of spring are still ahead.
That for me, best explains the resilience of the Rwandan and Polish spirit.The ability to remain strong and to look forward to better days ahead.

For now, Poland remembers...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

In Memoriam...

Wherever in the world you are, please light a candle and spare a thought/prayer for all who died in the genocide in Rwanda...and the many people-children, women and men-who lost their lives in conflicts all across Africa...more recently in Cote d'Ivoire, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan.



     'If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other' -- Mother Teresa

Monday, April 4, 2011

17 years later....

I have been obsessed with the Ivorian situation right from the time elections were held until now. The United Nations 'managed' (or were supposed to oversee) the elections. Their verdict-Alassane Ouattara won the elections. The incumbent Laurent Gbagbo cried foul and alleged massive rigging by his political rival.Several weeks and months later, characterised by all manner of African Union sponsored delegations, Heads of State, threats from Presidents Sarkozy, Obama, sanctions from the European Union; we find ourselves staring at a massacre with conflicting reports that over 1000 people have been killed in the Western town of Duekoue. Shocking!

Residents of Abidjan are living in panic and terror

The body count in Abidjan could be even higher, now that both sides are at this time assembling their ammo and troops, in what the international press has billed 'the final push'.It is a deadly warzone. Besides the fact that my friends Watson and Harris are living in Abidjan, my intense interest in the unfolding events in what was once nick-named the 'Paris of Africa', is spurred by what i think is a damning verdict on African and global leadership thus far.The African Union had the opportunity to arrest the situation at its early stages.It didn't.Instead, African leaders fiddled around and played poker, allowing the stalemate to drag on, until some other crises in the world-the Japanese tsunami-cum-nuclear disaster, the 'Arab Revolt' and the 'Operation Odyssey' unfolded and overshadowed everything else.Effectively making sure that the international community conveniently 'forgot' that Cote d'Ivoire was on fire. Now its too late.


Côte d'Ivoire: Les massacres de Ouattara à Duekoue przez Nzwamba

Exactly 17 years ago this week, August 6th 1994, the genocide in Rwanda broke out. Over 800,000 lives were lost in a space of one month. The world had its hands in its pockets and watched, only to lament later and vow, "never again!" Never again, indeed!My best friend, Emmanuel is now starting his third month and new life in Australia along with his parents and siblings, after enduring several years as a refugee in Tanzania and Kenya, having fled Rwanda. Lives have been changed.
In Kenya, 6 Kenyans-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, two Members of Parliament and former cabinet ministers, the head of the Civil Service, the Post-Master General and former Police Commissioner and the head of a local radio station- are getting ready to board their Amsterdam bound flights. The 6 have been named by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) based at the Hague, Mr. Louis Moreno-Ocampo, as bearing greatest criminal responsibility for the post-election violence that engulfed Kenya, after presidential elections in December of 2007. Over 1350 people lost their lives.Many more lost their homes.Peace was shattered.
The 6 Kenyans headed to the ICC at the Hague

Whether or not the judges of the pre-trial chamber at the ICC eventually confirms the charges against some or all 6 persons, Kenya's political landscape is set to change. My hope is that, that change will be for the better.
However, my pre-occupation with the events witnessed in Ivory Coast, and those about to take place at the Hague and in Kigali, will certainly persist this week.
What are the lessons for Africa? Have we learnt anything? Will the younger generation change Africa's course?These and many more questions will resonate over and over again.Only time will tell what the answers will be.17 years later...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

From January 1st 2030...

Charles Onyango-Obbo is my most favourite columnist. But occassionally a few other columnists come up with stuff that, as my EIA lecturer used to say, 'gets me excited like an atom'.
Kenya has this very ambitious plan to become a 'middle income economy' by the year 2030. Economists and 'policy makers' like my good friend Ken Lagat love to call it 'Vision 2030'. It comes complete with a booklet and tshirts (you've got to have tshirts to popularize anything in Kenya), the former being regarded and treated with lots of respect by people like Ken. Then of course nothing is complete in Kenya, unless you have a government ministry tasked with managing whatever is being 'envisioned'.

I wonder what your vision of 2030 is. Linus Gitahi, CEO of the Nation Media Group, thinks it is quite difficult to predict the events of next week, leave alone next year. However he still was able to "imagine a future future that, based on our current economies and the state of our societies, most think is impossible."
It is this 'future' that i would like to share with you today, and hopefully with some bit of luck, hear what your version of 2030 is. Time to 'visualize'!! I find numbers 1, 10 and 22  interesting. No, wait...that didn't come out right.It is ALL very interesting!!

Here we go. We are now in January 2030, what is the world (and East Africa) looking like? (By Linus Gitahi)
1.  East Africa is one country. The President is a young fellow from western Kenya. (He has just been celebrated as a good performer in the just released secondary schools exams results.)
2.  There is a high-speed train that connects Mombasa to Kinshasa. You can easily travel by road onwards to Nigeria.
3.  The economies of East Africa are growing fast on the back of food exports. Food has become like ‘oil’ as demand far outstrips supply.
4.  America is no longer the world’s leading super power. The most powerful nation is China, followed by the US and United States of Europe (USE). Brazil is a key ally of China against the US.
5.  Middle East countries all are democratic with regular elections held every 4-5 years.
7.  Somalia is a stable, oil-producing nation.
8.  A few port cities have partially been submerged in water (because of rising oceans) and have had to move a little inland at great expense.
9.  Africa is the most important trading partner with Asian countries led by China.
10. Isiolo is the second largest city in Kenya, and has some of the best resort facilities in Africa
11. Nearly 30% of schooling in Kenya is via E-learning at home.
12. Islam is the world's biggest religion.
13. Wind is the biggest source of power in Kenya followed by thermal; hydro is third.
14. Tanzania and Rwanda supply the East Africa (Community) Nation with all gas requirements, and Uganda supplies all the oil. Kenya is the ICT hub for the region.
15. Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language, having overtaken English.
16. Current (2011) pay TV offerings are free to all households. Money is exclusively made through advertising.
17. Calling anywhere in the world is free. People have long forgotten that they used to “look for credit” to call.
18. Per capita income of Britain (which will still be out of the USE) is half what it is today (2011) and they are desperate to join USE.
19. A single handheld device will offer TV, radio and online news - free. It is linked to a satellite and so will not be relying on government frequencies to operate.
20. The ratio of men to women in East Africa is 45:55
21. Today’s media organisations are no longer independent entities, but divisions of telecom companies.
22. Reverse migration is beginning to happen. There are long queues in East African embassies in Europe and America of people wanting to come to East Africa. Many live here illegally.
23. East Africa has won the last World Cup. The next World Cup final slated for East Africa, with Bujumbura, Kigali, Kampala, Isiolo, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam all hosting games.
24. Herbal remedies are the biggest pharma category, and East Africa is a key player in this market globally.
25. Old peoples homes are a fast growing business in East Africa.
*The author is Chief Executive Officer of Nation Media Group.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

And about an old article!

This morning, Audrey Yu, a friend of mine from Malaysia, drew my attention to an article i put together close to 5 years ago. It was 2005, and the world had just witnessed an extraordinary outpouring of grief at the passing away of Pope John Paul II, as well as a conclave that produced Pope Benedict XVI.
While these events were unfolding, i was tucked away in my in my little home town of Njoro, in the Rift Valley, preparing myself and a few of my mates for what would be our first ever trip to Europe for the World Youth Days in Cologne, Germany. These were the perfect ingredients for the production of the article, that Audrey reminded me about this morning.
In the backdrop of the news that Servant of God JP II will be beatified in May this year, and considering that i compiled the article way before i discovered blogging, i now share the article here. Thank you Audrey for bringing the article back to life!


POPE JOHN PAUL II-A FRIEND OF THE YOUTH
“When you meet young people, you become young yourself. So today you are meeting a young Pope.” And the young people applauded; to words you would rarely hear from an 80-year-old. Yet these were the words of Pope John Paul II when he hosted more than 2 million youth in the sweltering summer heat of Rome, in the Holy Year 2000.

From Brazil to Benin, Australia to America, John Paul II left an overwhelming impression on the young people of the world. Indeed, very early in his pontificate, John Paul II already had an agenda for the young people. In his premier encyclical, ‘Redemptor hominis’ (March 4,1979), he buoyed the youth to shoulder their responsibility in the Church and in society. Yet his contacts with the youth and the concern he had for them in his heart did not begin when he was elected Pope. It started long before he assumed the Petrine office; as a priest, bishop and cardinal.

You have probably already read numerous biographies on John Paul II that were carried in the media during the events surrounding his death. And i wish to refrain from turning this piece into one more memoir. But it would be insularity to delve into the relations between John Paul II and the youth, without retracing the life of this noble man in his youth.

The young Karol Wojtyla was affectionately nicknamed ‘Lolek’ by his family. Six year old Lolek joined elementary school in the autumn of 1926 and admitted to middle school, Marcin Wadowita, in 1930. Having already lost his mother, Emilia Kaczorowska, in 1929, and his elder brother Edmund in 1932, Lolek remained alone with his father and naturally grew very close. Old neighbours would later muse over the Wojtylas, father and son walking hand in hand to the restaurant near their home for a meal, or for a stroll.

Lolek became especially interested in literature and in the Polish language as well as in Greek and Latin classics and modern philosophical works, which he studied under the meticulous guidance of his father. Swimming, skiing, soccer and hockey were Lolek’s favourite sports, and like any other student, he enjoyed his holidays!

A dedicated Mass server, Lolek assisted his pastor, Fr. Edward Zacher, each morning before he started his school day. Two weeks to his eighteenth birthday, Lolek graduated from High School with excellent grades in conduct, religion, Latin, Greek, German, Math, Philosophy, Physical Education, the Polish language and literature. He received the sacrament of confirmation during the same month.

The theatre had a great influence on Lolek’s persona. A multitalented actor, Lolek once had to take on two roles in the same comedy when a colleague failed to show up; and he played them both quite effortlessly- he had the entire script on his fingertips-from first page to last. He was completely riveted by a passion for literature, especially dramatic literature, and for the theatre.

In the summer of the same year Lolek and his father moved from Wadowice to Krakow where they lived with his mother’s relatives. Then he began his studies in the Faculty of Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University, taking courses in Polish language and letters-courses that prepared him for an encounter with Philosophy and theology. On November 6th 1939, German authorities rounded up all the teachers in a meeting, which culminated in their deportation to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp-bringing to an end Lolek’s Polish language studies. The German occupation had commenced.

Lolek became a labourer in a stone quarry attached to the Solvay chemical plant, in the autumn of 1940 in order to avoid deportation. On one occasion Lolek witnessed the death of a worker who was struck by rocks during the detonation of a dynamite charge. An experience that left an overpowering effect on him. The first seeds of his priestly vocation were also sowed during his tenure at the quarry. Franciszek Labuc, a rock-blaster to whom Lolek was an assistant, occasionally said things like “ Karol, you should be a priest. You have a good voice and will sing well; then you’ll be all set…” Words that stuck in Lolek’s memory.

Lolek lost his father in 1941, an event which brought a great sense of solitude to Lolek’s life-and he began to think seriously about how to give meaning to this solitude. For the whole of that year Lolek continued to work in the quarry, while participating in an underground theatre group known as ‘Theatre of the Living Word’, under the tutelage of Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk, a professor of Polish literature-who was also Lolek’s host, friend and teacher. It was not until the autumn of 1942 that Lolek made his final decision to enter the Krakow seminary, having been accepted by the Rector, Father Jan Piwowarczyk.

November 1st 1946, and Karol Wojtyla is ordained priest. Fast forward to 1949 and Father Karol is at Saint Florian parish in Krakow, where he is entrusted with teaching catechism to the senior classes of the secondary school and providing pastoral care to university students. Here, Father Karol gave talks to young people every Thursday about fundamental problems on the question of the existence of God- an extremely important issue viewed against the backdrop of militant atheism being promoted by the communist regime at the time. A foundation for his relationship with the youth was being set.

Father Karol spent his vacations with young people in the mountains or in semi-clandestine summer schools, which were outlawed by the communist establishment. He substituted the cassock for civilian clothes so as not to arouse suspicion and photographs show him seated on the grass hanging out with young people or playing with the children of married couples. When Pope Pius XII named the 38-year-old Father Karol auxiliary bishop of Krakow, he was out camping with a group of young people. He hurried back to town, accepted the appointment immediately and asked permission to return to his group! Clearly he was among friends.

“We love you Pope Lolek!”

“Lolek is a name for a baby, but I am an old man…”

“No! No!”
“…But John Paul is too serious. Call me Karol.”

The above exchange took place between John Paul II and young people in Manila, on January 14th 1995. They began chanting: ”John Paul II! We kiss you!” And he replied: “And I kiss you too, all of you! No jealousy!”

Why did young people fall in love with Pope John Paul II? What is it that they saw in him? Was it something he offered? Perhaps something they could not resist…so that they kept coming back? Responding to his invitations in droves?

John Paul II was quite spontaneous with the young people. This spontaneity was epitomized in the World Youth Days, an event he initiated in 1984, when he invited youth from all over the world to Rome, for an International Jubilee of Youth on Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s square. Three hundred thousand responded. In the coliseum young people completed the Stations of the Cross, while in St. Peter’s Cathedral the Eucharist was celebrated. On the evening before Palm Sunday, the Pope exclaimed out to the young people: “What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today! Who claimed that today’s youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?” And John Paul II entrusted to the world’s youth a symbol: a colossal wooden crucifix, later to be known as the World Youth Day Cross.

Questioning the contention that young people can no longer be counted on, the Pope now personally decided to make this meeting more than just a one-off occasion. In his Easter message, ‘Urbi et Orbi’ on 7th April 1985, he said: “Last Sunday I met hundreds of thousands of young people; the festive sight of their enthusiasm made a deep impression in my soul. Wishing that this wonderful experience be repeated in the coming years and that an International Palm Sunday meeting of youth therefore be initiated, I reaffirm my conviction…” On December 20th, he told the College of Cardinals: “The Lord has given his special blessings to this gathering (on Palm Sunday), so in the coming years, a celebration of the World Day of Youth shall be held on Palm Sundays in collaboration with the Council for the Laity.” And the World Youth Days were established. John Paul II was later to say, “ No one invented the World Youth Days. It was the young people themselves who created them. Those days, those encounters, then became something desired by young people throughout the world. Most of the time, these days were something of a surprise for priests, and even bishops, in that they surpassed all their expectations.”

When plans for the first World Youth Day were announced, cynics envisaged that perchance twenty young people would be willing to profess their faith in public by attending. The bewilderment exploded to colossal magnitudes as over one million youth came out to greet the Holy Father. The city was Buenos Aires-1987-the first actual World Youth Day.

Of all the attempts to explain this phenomenon, perhaps among the best would be that of Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian academic in France: “For a long time, no one spoke anymore of God or of love. Everyone thought that it would make people laugh in derision. But now the crowds have come to listen and they do not laugh.” Giuseppe Prezzioni acquiesces with Eugene’s observation: “The reason is that they hear in his words something that transcends everything else.

Among many other reasons that endeared John Paul II to the young, his guilelessness and authenticity indubitably stand out. He never watered down the message of Christ so it would be more alluring; more palatable-rather he spoke out the truth plainly and candidly-no fancy wrapping-whether it was about abortion, premarital sex amongst a myriad of other contemporary problems; and the youth seemed to like that. The pope himself stated it in this way: “The one being sought out is Christ, who knows that which is in every man (cf. Jn 2:25)…and who can give true answers to his questions! And even if they are demanding answers, the young are not afraid of them; more to the point, they even await them.”

In this statement it is unproblematic to discern the belief, the confidence that John Paul II had in the youth. He delighted in their company and willingly listened to what they had to say. The youth recognized this; they knew John Paul II was not exaggerating when he told them that he always learnt something from them.

Consequently, when Andre Frossard told him in Paris: “Your Holiness, I think you could lead the young people wherever you want”, the Pope countered,” On the contrary; it is they who lead me!”
In his book, ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’, John Paul says, ”New generations clearly seem to be accepting with enthusiasm what their elders seem to have rejected. What does this mean? It means that Christ is forever young.”

“We need the enthusiasm of the young. We need their joie de vivre. In it is reflected something of the original joy that God had in creating man.” In those words he illustrated and put prominence on the proper role the youth have top play in the Church. The Pope devoted a chapter in his apostolic letter on the laity ‘Christifideles Laici (30 December 1988); “The Church has so much to talk about with youth, and youth have so much to share with the Church.” This was perhaps the most graphic proclamation defining the place of young people in a Post Vatican Council two eon. An affiliation that is clearly mutual and embracing dialogue-not the Church becoming an authority that jostles down the throats of the youth the message of Christ; rather a caring guardian that tells the truth in its entirety. And as if to hush the skeptics further, he repeated these sentiments on a visit to St. Louis, USA in 1999,”Remember: Christ is calling you; the Church needs you; the Pope believes in you and he expects great things of you!”

John Paul’s approbation for the joie de vivre of the young seemed to redouble with his advancing years. He confessed at Catania, Sicily, in 1994,”Young people always rejuvenate me”, and the following day at Siracusa, Sicily, he said; “I am always happy to meet with young people; I don’t know why but I am!” He did not let his age cut back on his encounters with youth. In 1996, at one of the parishes in Rome he said, “With all the years that I am carrying, I feel young!”
At another Roman parish in 1997-“Do you have money in your pockets to return home? I am also among those who would like to return- to my youth!”

Pope John Paul also believed that beneath the youths’ apparent indifference there is within every one of them a fierce religious yearning, and young people best exemplify this; a conviction he articulated in Denver, USA in 1993 when he said, “ Do not stifle your conscience. The conscience is our real heart and shrine, where we are alone with God…Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places…This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel…Do not be afraid to break out of the comfortable and routine modes of living and to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis’”.

Now then, in all of the 104 trips John Paul II made throughout the world, he always asked to meet with young people. But it was the World Youth Days that would without a doubt become the success story; a story that would enthrall the world as it surged forward so gloriously.

And the young people turned out massively to pay their last respects at his demise. It is estimated that more than half of the gargantuan crowds that crammed Rome was composed of young people. The 20th World Youth Day flag scheduled to be held in Cologne could be seen soaring high in the multitudes. A sincere and fervent homage to a man they had come to be fond of.

Future World Youth Days will honor the Pope. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI in his first homily in the Sistine Chapel a day after his election, said he will be ‘greatly honored’ to preside at the 20th World Youth Day in Cologne in August, “for the youth were close to John Paul’s heart”.
Fascinatingly, one of the first assignments that Pope Benedict XVI will take on outside the Vatican, will be the 20th World Youth Day-in his own native country-Germany.

I asked a buddy in Malaysia what the reaction to the election of Pope Benedict XVI was. “The young people are celebrating, and the old people keep asking why the Pope is so old!”
They better be wary! Because Pope Benedict XVI will become young this summer-since as John Paul II said, “When you meet young people, you become young yourself.” He was 80 years old then. Benedict XVI is just 78!

By Allen Ottaro.

X        A. Frossard. “Be Not Afraid (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984).
X        E. Cavaterra. Il Papa dell’uomo nuovo. (Rome: Dino Editori, 1981).
X        John Paul II with Vittorio Messori. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).
X        Luigi Accattoli (Translated by Jordan Aumann, OP). Man of the Millenium (Boston: Daughter’s of St. Paul, 2000).

Monday, February 14, 2011

Of coincidence and more!

I have always enjoyed reading pieces especially on contemporary issues and other concerns of our times. That could be part of what triggered my interest in blogging. Towards the end of last year, i received an invitation from Ms.Uta Sievers, the communications officer at the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in Rome, to contribute an article for the Secretariat's quarterly journal, 'Promotio Iustitiae'.
The article titled 'Degradation of the earth and the poor:the facts', is my first ever article to be published in a journal,let alone one of international repute and stature as Promotio Iustitiae. Naturally i am very excited, knowing that quite a few people that i will most likely never meet in person, are interacting with me through the article. (Link to the article:http://sjweb.info/sjs/pjnew/PJShow.cfm?pubTextID=9983

It was quite interesting to read the editorial. It turns out that this was the last issue(30th, while it also turns out that this is my 30th blogpost!!) to be edited by Fernando Franco, who has been at the helm as editor for seven and a half years. No mean feat! Now Fernando had taken over from Michael Czerny, who had been appointed director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) based in Nairobi, Kenya, and where i have been working for the past year and a half. At the time of my writing the article, Michael had moved back to Rome in a different role as personal assistant to Cardinal Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
A year and half ago, friends of mine from Poland 'baptised' me 'Kazimierz' the name of a famous Polish King. I quickly adopted the name on my facebook profile, and it also turned up on the article!
Coincidence or just life playing itself out?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tahrir? Who would have thought!!

Its only the 13th day of February, 2011. But with the events that have characterized the year so far, especially in the Maghreb, it feels like we have lived through a longer period of the year.
I found two things that in my own estimation aptly express what has and is still happening in Egypt and Tunisia thus far. The first, a youtube video with images from Tahrir square and the second a poem by Stephen Partington, and i share these with you:



Just because the Pharaohs forced
Their slaves to build the pyramids,
It doesn’t mean that presidents
May tyrannise a populace!
A brave man sets himself on fire
And soon the whole Maghreb’s alight,
And aged rulers hide themselves
Or flee their states in gutless flight.
Ben Ali of Tunisia
Absconded to Arabia
When countless of his countrymen
Objected to his mania.
Now thousands of Egyptians have
Protested down the Cairo streets
With placards, courage, hope and might,
Insisting that Mubarak leaves.
It’s clear that guns and riot shields
Soon melt before a peaceful crowd;
What’s happened in North Africa
Should make the wider continent proud.
Who knows if these fresh Winds of Change
Will blow east, to Arabia,
Or if this Nile of Promise will
Flow southwards, up to Africa?

A wonderful  Sunday to you all!