Wednesday, March 23, 2005

A Success Story by Andrew Mullek, Peace Corps

For all of the problems in the schools, we all do have our favorite success story.
This is mine…

I have been working with a book club in one of my schools for the past eight months or so. My purpose in establishing this club was to engage children who had potential and motivation, and to help them develop their literacy skills, which were being wholly neglected. Another purpose was to show the teachers what the children were capable of. Luckily, one of the first real successes came when a teacher joined hands with me on this project and we persevered to establish this club despite obstacles that had been placed there by other teachers and by the school administration.
My story is about a trip I organized with the two teachers who had taken ownership of the club and were working with me in leading the group. I had wanted to take the children to the library in Tzaneen – the local town. Already, as a club, we had broken mindsets by giving and demanding homework, engaging the learners in reading comprehension, allowing free expression in speaking, using positive motivation, and by having high expectations. That these things are nonexistent in the classroom points to the most severe problem in rural education – the learners are simply not engaged…creativity and thinking is stifled.
The trip was a chance for us to encourage and motivate the thirty-five children who had continued to come to our weekly meetings, while exposing them to new things. Again, there were obstacles and opposition, but we were finally able to receive permission from the administration after a number of needless procedures were met. I was just slightly upset that thousands of rands are wasted on “athletics competitions” and we were given nothing, nor were we supported. That this was a great learning opportunity had little to do with getting approval...that we got to go is almost a success in itself.
I had organized to take the learners to visit the library, the government offices, and the local museum, and to the city park for lunch. I had wanted to break several mindsets in organizing this. 1) I had wanted all of the children who were a part of the book club to get to go. School trips only include 5 – 10 % of the children because none of them can afford to go. We were able to accomplish this by raising money and making our own food to the extent that the kids only paid R 10 to go, and we allowed poor learners to go free, which was entirely revolutionary. 2) The trip was to be a positive reinforcement for our learners. Only book club learners could go. 3) The trip was about the kids. Teachers were excluded except those who worked directly with the club. (Incidentally, on a normal school trip, all of the teachers go, and manage to make the trip about them). 4) The trip was to the show the school the amazing things that can be found close by, and that a lot of value can be found in going a short way.

Out of this trip came some amazing stories, and this is where I really begin.

The highlight might just have been lunch at the park. Our children had never really had access to a park before, and they truly enjoyed the time spent there. Seeing the kids play as they did – with such freedom – was a first for me in all of my time here. At the part was a white boy who was about 12 years old – the same age as my other learners. I watched intently as he approached some other children at play on a wheel structure that required more then one child to play on. He was absorbed immediately into the group and had no reservations about being the only white child in the group. What a sign of hope and encouragement for the future. By the end of their time in the park, he and another boy had become best friends. At one point, Matome (one of my grade 6 learners) approached me with his arms around the shoulders of the white boy and introduced him to me as his new best friend. The heart of the children was lost neither on myself nor on the teachers.
After the park we went to the museum, and the children were told some of the traditional Tsonga stories that the museum is trying to salvage before they die out completely. When we did finish the day, the two teachers with me were awed. We had only traveled 10 miles to the local town, but the teachers had never known about some of the places we went. One even told me, “Andrew I have lived here, my entire life and I have never even heard of some of the places you have taken us. I cannot believe it. You have done a good thing.”
A second and rival highlight came two weeks later when we had to collect the library books from the children. I had wanted each child to have a chance to check out a book and take it back to the village. The school has a library with tons of donated books, but will not give out books to the children, which was part of the reason we arranged to visit the public library. The school also refused to help pay for a school library card, for which we also had to raise money. All of the thirty-five children did returned their books, disproving the schools belief that the children could not be trusted. One morning, one child came to me with his very thick book. The others had all given their books to their teacher. I was unfamiliar with the child and that meant he was in the slow group. I asked him if he enjoyed his book, and he said, “Yes.” Unwilling to let him off with just a “yes” answer, I asked him if he could tell me about his story, and his eyes lit up, and he asked me in return, “About the gingerbread man?” I had seen that his was book of fairy tales, and I quickly said, “Yes.” The boy went into an amazing narrative about the gingerbread man. He must have read it several times for he highlighted all of the details. His voice was enthusiastic and his retelling was not only comprehensive, but joyful – he wanted me to learn about the gingerbread man. I kept my mouth shut and allowed him to express himself – something that never happens in the classroom. My smile got bigger and bigger while I listened and witnessed the four teachers in the staff room all leave their chairs and creep up behind the boy to hear his story. They were in total shock at what came out when free expression was encouraged and expectations were placed with confidence. The teachers could not believe their eyes or ears. Hardly, do they ever go beyond a “yes/no” question. I, myself, was surprised with the boy’s intelligence and eagerness, but I had created a venue for it and some of the teachers got to see what the learners were truly capable of…when given a chance.

Friday, March 18, 2005

More info about Iraq

From a gentleman who went to an AUSA dinner last night at the Ft. Hood Officers' Club to hear a speech by MG Pete Chiarelli, CG of the 1st Cav Div: He and most of the Div. have just returned from Iraq. Very informative and, surprise, the Mainstream Media (MSM) isn't telling the story. I was not there as a reporter, didn't take notes but I'll make some the points I remember that were interesting, suprising or generally stuff I had not heard before. It was not a speech per se. He just walked and talked, showed some slides and answered questions. Very impressive guy.
1. While units of the Cav served all over Iraq, he spoke mostly of Baghdad and more specifically Sadr City, the big slum on the eastern side of theTigeris River. He pointed out that Baghdad is, in geography, is about the size of Austin. Austin has 600,000 to 700,000 people. Baghdad has 6 to7 million people.
2. The Cav lost 28 main battle tanks. He said one of the big lessons learned is that, contrary to docterine going in, M1-A2s and Bradleys are needed, preferred and devastating in urban combat and he is going to make that point to the JCS next week while they are considering downsizing armor.
3. He showed a graph of attacks in Sadr City by month. Last Aug-Sep they were getting up to 160 attacks per week. During the last three months, the graph had flatlined at below 5 to zero per week.
4. His big point was not that they were "winning battles" to do this but that cleaning the place up, electricity, sewage, water were the key factors. He said yes they fought but after they started delivering services that the Iraqis in Sadr City had never had, the terrorist recruiting of 15 and 16 year olds came up empty.
5. The electrical "grid" is a bad, deadly joke. Said that driving down the street in a Hummv with an antenna would short out a whole block of apt. buildings. People do their own wiring and it was not uncommon for early morning patrols would find one or two people lying dead in the street, having been electrocuted trying to re-wire their own homes.
6. Said that not tending to a dead body in the Muslum culture never happens. On election day, after suicide bombers blew themselves up trying to take out polling places, voters would step up to the body lying there, spit on it, and move up in the line to vote.
7. Pointed out that we all heard from the media about the 100 Iraqis killed as they were lined up to enlist in the police and security service. What the media didn't point out was that the next day there 300 lined up in the same place.
8. Said bin Laden and Zarqawi made a HUGE mistake when bin laden went public with naming Zarqawi the "prince" of al Quaeda in Iraq. Said that what the Iraqis saw and heard was a Saudi telling a Jordainan that his job was to kill Iraqis. HUGE mistake. It was one of the biggest factors in > getting Iraqis who were on the "fence" to jump off on the side of the coalition and the new gov't.
9. Said the MSM was making a big, and wrong, deal out of the religious sects. Said Iraqis are incredibly nationalistic. They are Iraqis first and then say they are Muslum but the Shi'a - Sunni thing is just not that big a deal to them.
10. After the election the Mayor of Baghdad told him that the people of the region (Middle East) are joyous and the governments are nervous.
11. Said that he did not lose a single tanker truck carrying oil and gas > over the roads of Iraq. Think about that. All the attacks we saw on TV with > IEDs hitting trucks but he didn't lose one. Why? Army Aviation. Praised > his air units and said they made the decision early on that every convoy would have helicopter air cover. Said aviators in that unit were hitting the 1,000 hour mark (sound familiar?). Said a covoy was supposed to head out but stopped at the gates of a compound on the command of an E6. He asked the SSG what the hold up was. E6 said, "Air , sir." He wondered what was wrong with the air, not realizing what the kid was talking about. Then the AH-64s showed up and the E6 said, "That air sir." And then moved out.
12. Said one of the biggest problems was money and regs. There was a $77 million gap between the supplemental budget and what he needed in cash on the ground to get projects started. Said he spent most of his time trying to get money. Said he didn't do much as a "combat commander" because the the war he was fighting was a war at the squad and platoon level. Said that his NCOs were winning the war and it was a sight to behold.
13. Said that of all the money appropriated for Iraq, not a cent was earmarked for agriculture. Said that Iraq could feed itself completely and still have food for export but no one thought about it. Said the Cav started working with Texas A&M on ag projects and had special hybrid seeds sent to them through Jordan. TAM analyzed soil samples and worked out how and what to plant. Said he had an E7 from Belton, TX (just down the road from Ft. Hood) who was almost single-handedly rebuilding the ag industry in the Baghdad area.
14. Said he could hire hundreds of Iraqis daily for $7 to $10 a day to work on sewer, electric, water projects, etc. but that the contracting rules from CONUS applied so he had to have $500,000 insurance policies in place in case the workers got hurt. Not kidding. The CONUS peacetime regs slowed everything down, even if they could eventually get waivers for the regs. There was more, lots more, but the idea is that you haven't heard any of this from anyone, at least I hadn't and I pay more attention than most. Great stuff. We should be proud. Said the Cav troops said it was ALL worth it on Jan. 30 when they saw how the Iraqis handled election day. Made them very proud of their service and what they had accomplished. Classification: UNCLASSIFIED

News from Iraq

I can understand the frustration the troops often feel when confronting Iraqis. They have worn out their patience; and often they had little patience to begin with. Still many do not understand the threat the local population can be under and that they feel helpless to protect themselves. One of my teams was ambushed coming into Baghdad one day while part of a convoy of three SUVs. Their vehicle was an armored SUV and they were protected from the small arms fire until they lost a tire. While attempting to maintain control they lost another tire and the car flipped. The three guys inside were all severly injured but were foot mobile. They exited the vehicle and shot their way free of the kill zone, crossed the highway and ran into a housing area. When they entered the housing area a woman came out and urged them into her house. Once inside the women dressed the wounds and hid the men. They sent the oldest son out to keep watch.When the Iraqi police and US military arrived on the scene they informed my guys who linked up with the friendly forces and were evacuated to a hospital. Later we wanted to go and tell the family thank you and see if there was anything we could do for them, but we did no because our presence would draw attention to the home and make them into targets. I had one interpreter that shot a would be assasin in a short range gun fight. The attacker was a childhood friend and if we had not trained the interpreter well he would have been the one shot. One employee reported his brother had to quit university because he was a christian and related to a man that worked with Americans; we sent two employees to school in Jordan for two months after they and their family were threatened, and I relocated another employee to work in Jordan full time due to credible death threats he received that included him and his father. He will not be able to go home for an indetermined time. Individuals have no one to protect them or their families from the organized killers. Often they distrust the local police due to past experience. They feel helpless and these feelings merely reflect the realities of the situation. We do not have to like the situation but it does not hurt to be aware of the purgatory so many Iraqi citizens live in. many would be more helpful but fear can make them stay silent. There was a book written about Vietnam titled, "Silence Was a Weapon". The premise of that book has held true in conflict after conflict and is true in Iraq today.