Thursday, March 30, 2017

Water, Water

Flying into cooler Nairobi from Mumbai is such a relief, even for a few days. The best part of Nairobi, I think, is the weather, because let me tell you, traffic frustrations will take my life, in one form or another, should I choose to stick around for any length of time. I thought it was Mumbai that has the worst traffic gridlock in the world. Nah. Nairobi it is. Going to and from the airport is nerve wrecking, especially the fear of missing a flight. The traffic police make us wait almost an hour to clear a single interchange, and I can do nothing but seethe and sweat in silence.

I am in Nairobi to render Beta Charitable Trust / Comfort Aid International donor aid to the starving masses through CHEPs, the local Kenya NGO we partner our relief efforts via. I want to go to Wajir, near the Somali border, where the want is desperate, but last minute security constraints make this not feasible. Joining me in this endeavor is CAI Africa representative, Murtaza Bhimani and our mutual friend, Mushtaq Fazal from Dar es Salaam. The musaafer khaana at the beautiful Jeffery Center is where we head to the first night. These are basic digs, and a little worn out, with raggedy and wobbly furniture making basic tasks a bit perilous.

The next morning, for fajr salaat, there are no more than five people present, and us three visitors. It’s a pretty and well-maintained center, with beautiful Iranian Qur’anic calligraphy adorning a vast expanse of one wall. Hard I try, but cannot read what the ayaat says, so hell-bent is the artist in conveying Allah’s beauty rather than His message. Batty, no, how we ape others blindly? Nevertheless, it is nice to worship in a serene and pretty environment. We take to the excellent Jaffery Sports Club next door afterward, walking/jogging. Set up to resemble an English county backdrop, the struggling green of the cricket field immediately puts me in a nostalgic mood. I used to open bowling for Popatlal Secondary School on similar turf. Ahhhh, where did the years fly?

The flight to Malindi in the south later that day in an ancient refurbished Jambo Jet is uneventful, if steamy; the contrast in temperatures is startling. The tourism industry in Kenya is in the doldrums, so I have been able to secure accommodation at the Africa House Resort, a picturesque boutique hotel with no more than seven distinct rooms for a steal; we relax for our feeding program tomorrow.

Malindi is in the midst of a downpour the next morning, a blessing and a curse. The water is needed desperately by the starving farmers, but our task of distribution may prove to be dicey. We are picked up by the CHEPs team and head out to the rescue; a government borrowed 20-ton truck full of food grains and high-protein, high-calorie biscuits trailing us.

The going is initially fine; the brown vegetation already has shades of green. But this is short-lived, and the terrain turns brown and barren soon enough. Raggedy children, noses running with frenzied flies making merry on the snot, line the roadway puddles left by the rains, scooping muddy water into battered buckets to carry home. We offer cheap lollipops to them; they approach us warily, the conflict between fear and want clear on their faces. The desire for sweet sugar wins and they grab the treat and scamper. The experience is heart-wrenching, to me. The land is barren, there is very little or no water anywhere and herds of thin cattle and goats scatter and rob away the remaining nutrients from the swirling topsoil. 

The four-wheeler I am crammed in is constrained, seating seven, and mighty uncomfortable, my running leg injury resurfaces with painful cramps. I curse the hurt and shut up; the people I am here to feed are much worse off, either walking or squatting, waiting for relief from hunger and thirst. We stop by a tiny frazzled duka, selling stuff I used to, as a teenage dukawallah in Tanga. It has Coca-Cola in bottles, Murtaza Bhimani’s dream drink. It also has roasted karanga. Coka in a bottle and roasted karanga. Ah, a deadly but potent and intoxicating cocktail. He orders some. Me too. Mushtaq too. The coke is lukewarm, at best, and the karangas are mostly rotten and taste awful. Bummer.

The actual distribution to the starving remote villages is both taxing and heartbreaking. It is the children that affect me the most. Thin and scruffy, their faces etched in lines of hunger and despair, they sit under a scrubby struggling thorn tree and wait for the handouts we distribute to their parents. The fiery sun above is furiously relentless, evaporating any trace of moisture; even the inside of my nose feels singed. Unlike the rice and beans we distribute, the ready-to-eat sweet biscuits will provide instant nutrients and vitamins for these kids; this gives me some solace. At least the mothers will not have to source for water and fuel to cook the other stuff.

We offer zohr / asr salaat at an unfinished mosque where the village chief profoundly thanks us, pleading for aid in completing the place of worship. He laments that times are hard, alhamd’Allah, water is scarce, alhamd’Allah, food is insufficient, alhamd’Allah, our cattle are dying, alhamd’Allah, our children are withering away, alhamd’Allah, please help us complete the mosque…

At the next village, the chief has lunch ready for us; goat meat stew and rice. It’s basic but yummy, since we are hungry. His lament is a repeat from the last one. He asks for toilets and water wells. We continue the food distribution after lunch but the bigger problem here is crowd control more than anything else. A sandstorm kicks up, almost blinding my eyes with the fine sand it swirls around. It’s not easy handing out twenty tons of food in one day and we are still left with plenty to give away, so we head towards the third village; daylight fading fast. Here, we pile the food in rows while women line up. We gather four village elders and inform all the people that the food will be distributed by their leaders amongst all equally. We retreat to village number two just in time for magreeb.

The return home is torture. Exhausted, both mentally and emotionally, I drift between slumber and wakefulness, the road and leg injury making any ease impossible. It has rained closer to Malindi, making the vehicle slip and slide in the muck. Seventeen hours after we departed the hotel, we return depleted and are asleep after a quick shower to rid the sweat and grime collected during the day. We are to repeat this process the next day in another part of the drought affected areas of Tana Region but logistical challenges delay the start until 11 AM; I make a snap decision to let CHEPs staff handle the rest of the distribution. A further delay or mishap today will jeopardize the rest of our plans. All three of us head to Mombasa instead, further south, some three hours by car. I haven’t paid respects at my father’s grave for quite some time.

Although I did not witness the dramatic starvation and deaths so prominent in the press and social media, there is no doubt the drought situation is grave and help is needed. Continued food distribution, however, is not sustainable, in my opinion, unless undertaken at a macro level and a massive scale. Comfort Aid International has initiated construction of two public toilets in one village, and to dig five water wells in areas where sweet drinking water is available at deep levels.

We did our part; acceptable to Allah, insha’Allah.

View photos of our trip here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Happy Birthday / Nepal Calling

Happy Birthday

Clearing immigration at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is now a piece of cake, since I have done it so many times, and I am at the Leela less than ten minutes later. My mind reeling with jetlag after almost twenty-four hours of flying, I am dead to the world the moment my head hits the fluffy hotel pillow, only to wake up sharp and alert less than four hours later; jetlag has commenced.

But it is not fatigue that bothers me the next day. No. Being a frequent guest at the Leela, my birthday has been broadcast to every employee in the hotel. From the perky gym assistant to the Manager, I am felicitated for my sixtieth (in wisdom only, mind you) birthday with generous handshakes and strenuous head wags. Happy returns of the day, Sir, is the catchphrase I get all day long, until I begin to dread being stopped for another handclasp and lengthy chitchats. I must give it to the Leela, however, for they have class. I return to my room late that day to find an adorned table with a slab of calorie busting chocolate cake and a bouquet of flowers. All this attention is not free, of course, but lovely nevertheless, and embarrassing, as a group of cute girls from reception gather around to clap and sing happy birthday to me.

Nepal Calling

Jet Airways is tardy for the flight to Kathmandu due to the incompetence of its ground staff. What makes this fact significant is that the pilot admits the fault and apologizes once we take off. Profoundly. Now that takes guts. And integrity. So, my hats off to Jet Airways; I’ll certainly fly you guys again.

I’m back in Kathmandu to help with CAI’s education support for the families of fourteen Afghan refugees trapped in the country.  You can read about their plight from my earlier Blog by clicking here.

Unlike September 2016, when I was here last, the arrival hall is packed with tourists, all clamoring to process visa-on-arrival applications from the only three out of six working terminals. I join this mob and manage to clear immigration and customs ninety minutes later in one piece. Phew.

Kathmandu was and is built haphazardly, with very little or no regards to the safety of her inhabitants. It is a dirty, dusty and polluted city, ready to poison my lungs with every breath of toxic smog; I can taste the pollution in my mouth five minutes into the taxi drive to my hotel about five miles away that takes forty-five minutes due to snarled traffic. Every harassed traffic cop dons a mask, so do thousands of motorbike riders braving the assault on the clogged roads.

Joining me on this trip is Mujahid Sharif of Orison UK, the charitable NGO that will help the Afghan families with rent and living expenses. Joining Mujahid is Ashiqali Kareem from London and Syed Ziaya Hassan from Brampton, Canada, both as helpers and observers. Ziaya has lived and worked in Katmandu for about twenty years before migrating to Canada. I meet this trio at the hotel, and we head out for our mission after zohr.

The clouds suddenly thicken, thunder rumbles and the skies open up with ferocious rain. The rain helps with clearing some of the smog, the already battered, torn roads take additional beatings, and the cold air gets even chillier. Bundled up in a tiny car borrowed from Ziaya’s friend, we visit seven families that day, assess their plight and Mujahid distributes aid to the miserable and hapless families. The look of relief on the faces of the recipients is palpable.

Nepal is a very beautiful country, of course, but only after you get away from Kathmandu and into the mountain ranges, for a challenging trek, perhaps. Some of the benefits of visiting Kathmandu (there aren’t very many) are the abundant, inexpensive body massages available all over the city. The challenge is to find masseurs, since most of the spas have very pretty, almond-eyed masseuses, unsuitable for sharee conscience individuals; I am lucky to strike gold very close to our hotel. The receptionist offers me a short, hefty and mean-looking masseuse and eyes me oddly when I insist I want a masseur only, but shrugs her shoulders dismissively when I stare her down. I get a rejuvenating therapeutic Ayurvedic workover treat for an hour for about US$20.  I can honestly state that a painful and nagging runners lower back nerve inflammation that has bothered me for over three months feels a lot better afterwards.

We offer to feed the protein-deprived Afghan community, especially the children, with dinner the next day. Funds from CAI donors to support about twenty-five poor children with basic education fees for the entire year are disbursed to the beneficiaries. Since the Afghan community, refugees but not recognized by Nepal cannot work, indulge in business activities or have other means of self-support, this education support is vital. Their legal status is left to the snail-paced UN and or bureaucracies to act on.

With the community taken care with the basics of life for 2017 between the joint efforts of Orison and CAI, we have a free Sunday to explore the city. Ziaya takes Kareem and me to see some museums and temple relics in the grimy city, but I am not impressed, and we return to the hotel shortly.

While the city revels and celebrates the colorful festival of Holi by plastering every unwary person with a deluge of dirty colored water, we remain safely within the confines of our rooms, and I observe the mindless (to me) hurling of the multicolored bags of dye from rooftops to people walking below. The impact can be painful, I imagine, but the (mostly) western tourists take the pain (not that they have a choice, or it couldn’t hurt or matter if you are oozing alcohol) in stride and join in with the fiesta.

I indulge in another round of not-as-good-as-yesterday’s massage session from an anemic masseur (perhaps he was still recovering from the effects of Holi induced blotto?). Later in the day, we trio have a vegetarian (again) dinner at the hotel before retiring to bed. These trivial challenges, and that of not finding readily available palatable halal food notwithstanding, the trip to help these trapped fourteen Afghan families is rewarding. Alhamd’Allah. We depart for our respective destination the next day.

I am headed to the severely drought affected areas of East Africa to render aid of grains and high calorie, protein biscuits to the starving masses there. You may want to see this video and this photo to get an insight of the severity of the catastrophe overwhelming these hapless people; CAI will do its small part, obviously. I will keep you updated in two weeks insha’Allah.

Please click here to see photos of our Nepal trip.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

God is Watching - Sameer Haiderali Ladha Dinani

On the first leg of our flight to Haiti, a woman announced to me that she was returning home after eight years, overjoyed yet simultaneously somehow dazed.  In the same breath, however, as she rattled off all the places she was going to visit (in a sputtering frenzy of spit projectiles landing somewhere between my left cheek and my lower eyelid, taking my mind back to the childhood mantra “say it, don’t spray it!”), her eyes cast down and her tempo slowed as she uttered the words, “…but my country has been devastated far too many times.  There is a God, and I know God is watching.  Better times are coming our way.  Or at least we pray.”  While there was hope in that voice, it seemed buried under a reservoir of deep, seemingly insurmountable, despair.  But God was there, watching, and taking stock. 

As I stood gazing at the people waiting for our connecting flight in Miami, that sense of anticipating seemed ever-present. Everyone there looked exhausted and resigned, either beaten up by the brutality of the early flights, or by challenges that appeared to be met by further challenges. The poorest country in both the northern and western hemispheres, it seems Haiti has been waiting far too long.  Too long for a moment of serenity, a moment to catch its breath.  But God, of course, is watching.    

And then Yusufali showed up; I had never met him before.  As he approached the gate in shorts, t-shirt and backpack, there was a certain energy he seemed to carry about him – a purposeful urgency in his step, like much had to be done and invariably there was just not enough time to do it all. On the first impression, Yusufali looked decidedly much younger, more health-conscious than I imagined, without pretenses or airs.  His wit was sharp, and he was hilarious.  This was going to be an interesting trip, to say the least.

As we began our descent into the local airport, the opulence of Miami transformed into the tin shacks and shanty towns that dotted the naturally breathtaking and jagged landscape of Cap Haitien.  Flanked by mountains and the Atlantic, geographically, Cap Haitien is arguably unrivaled in beauty.  However, approaching terra firma, something tips in the balance – the beauty from above, from a distance, becomes illusory to the realities on the ground as we fly just above before a smooth landing onto the runway.  Disembarking the flight, I feel I have landed somewhere in Africa, perhaps Zanzibar or Songea.

Outside, I was immediately struck by the sights and sounds of this vibrant city.  As we dodged motorbikes, stalled buses, oncoming traffic, students, pushcarts, a variety of vendors, and unavoidable potholes, it was clear that this city miraculously worked. “Patience” and “Virtue” were plastered on the sides of buildings; customized pickup trucks boldly emblazoned in vibrant colors with the words “GOD,” “Jesus” and artistic images of the Virgin Mary served as a testament to something greater.  God was clearly engrained in the national consciousness, because He made it all work.    

Ebrahim, our local guide and Yusufali’s contact in Haiti, was accompanying us from the airport to our hotel.  I overheard him telling Yusufali that his expecting wife had lost her baby. As I got to know Ebrahim over the next few days, his sincerity shone through, as did the fact that he wore his heart on his sleeve.  I was struck, however, by the void of sentiment or emotion in Ebrahim’s voice when he spoke about losing a child.  I found this strange, but perhaps it is indicative of the immunity that lies in the face of constant devastation.  This time it was the shattered hopes of a child, another time it may have been the devastation wreaked on by poverty, ill-health, or natural disaster.  Ebrahim was, as all of us are, seeking to etch out the best version of himself, but the deck of cards seemed disproportionately stacked against him. What separated me from Ebrahim?  Mostly circumstance.  I had the good fortune of being born in a place and time, which Ebrahim did not.  We were no different, neither more deserving than the other.  The disparity seemed unfair, unreasonable.

The streets of Cap Haitien were chaotic.  People zigzagged in front of cars, and we clearly stuck out as foreigners.  People stared at us and held that stare.  As we weaved in and out of traffic, trash lay strewn on both sides of the street, almost ushering us into the city.  Plastic bottles, containers, caps – a biodegradable nightmare.  Driving at the water’s edge, we could see each wave pull back some of the trash from the shores. I think it was Sohail who mentioned at a later point that he hoped the fish we had been enjoying for dinner came from waters that were much further out.

After a hefty climb, on foot, we reached our hotel, perched upon one of the hills surrounding Cap Haitien.  The view of the bay and the city below was breathtaking.  Our room, however, was not; one room with a large bed and a makeshift bunk bed – for the four of us.  The one disconcerting fact was that the bathroom had no door and this was problematic with four adult males sharing a room.  Sohail and I appeared to be most concerned about this issue, but we figured out a clever way of ensuring the room was vacated by the others before either of us needed to use the bathroom.  First world problems, clearly.  And something I felt ashamed about, having just seen the deep poverty that lay at the foot of our hotel.

Turned out, it was February 14.  Yes, Valentine’s Day.  And instead of being with wives, or intended Valentines’, the four of us found ourselves sharing a room without a bathroom door in Haiti.  Kinda like a honeymoon suite without the honeymoon.  And without anyone I’d want to go on a honeymoon with.  Life has a way of unfolding in the most unexpected ways.  After freshening up, we met Ebrahim and a friend of his, Rizwan.  Before venturing out for dinner, the six of us sat to discuss the plan for the next day.  Yusufali highlighted that Comfort Aid’s central purpose was upliftment through education.  Haiti needed upliftment.  And in tandem, it certainly needed education. 

Dinner was uneventful, except for the slightly awkward glances our table of six received from passersby with Valentine dates in tow.  A brisk walk after dinner, dodging the open sewers amidst a slight hue of light illuminating part of our route, and a trek back up the hill to the hotel served as a good workout before turning in for the night.  Looking up, the stars shone brighter here than back home.  The air was cleaner.  The sky clearer.  The city glittered below to the beat of drums and music.

I woke up the next morning, jumped in the shower and headed downstairs for breakfast.  We had a big day ahead of us.  I thought I was early, but as I entered the courtyard, I saw a sweat-drenched Yusufali completing the final set of 2000+ jump rope skips.  He had been up for at least a couple of hours, not going back to sleep after fajr.  Note to self, be more active, I thought.  Talk about having the wind knocked out of your sails.

We prayed the afternoon prayer at Ebrahim’s house and then headed out to meet with the community members he had gathered together.  The overwhelming response from the community members was gratitude – to us for visiting them, for taking their concerns to heart, and their situation so seriously.  They were mostly in their 20’s, maybe 30’s.  Yusufali explained CAI’s focus on education and then fielded any questions.  Each of the guys shared deeply personal stories; this was not an arms-length discussion, everyone was all in, and already emotionally invested.  They were reaching out for a metaphorical lifeline, and that too, with all their heart.  Yusufali, seasoned at this kind of work, assured them that he was there to help them advance theirs and their children’s well-being and prosperity, that he would walk with them so long as they were willing to bear their share of the burden.  They assured him that they were.  He pointed out that the “ball was in their court” and they first needed to get organized as a legal entity.  If they took the first step to show their commitment, CAI would remain unfaltering in its very own.  Some had tears in their eyes; others were quietly listening, all were overcome by CAI’s generosity.  Ebrahim was beaming with pride.  And a delicious lunch of perfectly seasoned and crispy goat with rice and beans and plantains, although much later than expected, was served – family style, in a large thaali, for all to dig in with their bare hands.  The community members once again expressed gratitude to CAI for sponsoring the lunch.  

Our final morning began with Ebrahim showing up just after fajr.  We were to depart for the airport around 11 am, a good five hours still to go, and so we decided to embark on a hike.  Going up the mountain, we were greeted by children going to school, vendors selling breakfast items.  And garbage, of course.  A lot of garbage piled up on the side of the narrow passage, across the beach, in between the crags that our feet got stuck in as we ascended the hike.  Everything glistened in the early morning light.  The earth, the water, the tin roofs, the sky.  All that glitters is gold, I thought.  Everything for a few moments seemed perfectly in tandem, in total harmony.  We reached a clearing, the mountain plateaued, and the entrance of a fortress emerged.  As we approached, Ebrahim asked that we do so with respect as we were entering hallowed ground – the home of 21 spirits.  Gingerly walking through the entryway, I noticed what appeared to be incense burning and a small fire of burning paper.  An ode to the spirits perhaps.  As Ebrahim entered, his commanding voice called out “Assalam-u-Alaikum,” the customary Muslim greeting, one which he used to greet the spirits.  It echoed, reverberating across the open space and what seemed like between time as well, bouncing off the walls, in deep respect and deference to the spirits that resided there.  He continued to speak to the spirits, in a tone of great reverence.  Awe, respect, fear, pleading, conviction, resignation, and hope converged in the singularity of Ebrahim’s booming voice.  It was hope that stood out most boldly in my mind. 

A few hours later, we bid Ebrahim farewell at the airport. In those couple of days, I learned a tremendous amount from him.  Through the rough and tumble of his experiences, Ebrahim still maintained a refreshing innocence and sincerity, which pervaded everything he did.  And perhaps that is why he believed, with all his being, that repeatedly reaching out to an institution many miles away could change the situation for him, his family, his community, and perhaps even his country. 

That institution was CAI, and through Ebrahim’s persistence, and CAI’s dedication to aiding those most vulnerable, he and Yusufali did meet on the shores of Haiti.  And at that moment, everything that glittered was indeed gold.  And the hope that lay in the reverential pleadings with the 21 spirits perhaps coalescing into meaningful fruition.  Because, it is hope that embodies the heart of Haiti – through faith in the unknown, in something greater, and for the sake of ourselves and perhaps our sanity.  Because there is a God, and I know God is watching.

Please click here to see photos of our Haiti trip and here and here for short videos.