It’s never really just black or white

Hamburger Hill. Image from 'Slaughter of the innocents: The Vietnamese war as never seen before.'

Hamburger Hill. Image from ‘Slaughter of the innocents: The Vietnamese war as never seen before.’

Nothing in life is ever set in stone. Or illuminated in black and white. Nothing. Nada. Which means you should never say never. Statements like there is no reason for homes to have a PC, or what would you want a mobile phone for, or there will always be cars or trains to take commuters to work should never be believed in.

Then there are opinions held by folk that advise us that the Russians will always be our enemies (harhar) or that Communism is evil. Perhaps you would believe that North Korea will always hate South Korea? Is that possible?

Before you say yes, best have a look at this statement. The USA will always hate Vietnam and North Vietnam will always hate the USA. Mmmh. No. But it certainly felt like it during the Vietnam/USA war didn’t it. And it’s this black and white fact that has now disappeared that I want to mention.

Commemorating the 50 year anniversary of the start of the conflict a book of photographs by press photographers is being published. Slaughter of the innocents: The Vietnamese war as never seen before. It is considered to be the last newspaper war. That is one where  journalists were the bringers of actual news. What the press photographers shot was what people saw.

What made me take note was one image that showed a US paratrooper wounded in battle at Hamburger Hill in central Vietnam. You see I actually drove past Hamburger Hill in a bus with staff from Hope Center on a work outing. They pointed it out to us. We were past the little bump (hardly a hill really) within seconds, hardly seeing the gun that commemorated the spot.

Yet that insignificant spot was a nasty battleground with many dead soldiers from both sides. And what were they fighting for, both sides? Besides the hill? During those years perhaps the issue was black and white. Communist against Capitalist. Or whatever. But it wasn’t really. It was a bunch of determined locals prepared to die to keep their country safe from a foreign invasion.

And now nobody could be bothered to even remember the hill. Except perhaps the relatives of the hundreds of dead soldiers. What happened to that black and white principle that had to be fought for with guns and human sacrifice?

So before you get stuck on defending a principle you think is cast in stone think really hard. Is it still going to be this black and white in a few year’s time? Think of gay marriages, or women priests in the Anglican church, or women car drivers in Saudi Arabia or time travel or never aging. What of that list is impossible? Thought so.

World Down Syndrome Day on March 21

Down Syndrome girl at Hold the Future, Hanoi

Wednesday March 21 2012 marks World Down Syndrome Day. And it made me remember my year in Hanoi, Vietnam working at Hold the Future as a VSO volunteer. We had many Down Syndrome young people living and working at the Center. They were the most loving and wonderful people and provided me with many fond memories.

Hold the Future offers vocational training and handicraft production work. Most of the time there are between 30 to 50 young people working there. It’s not great pay because the products are sold quite cheaply to remain competitive with other handicraft producers.

But the Center provides accommodation, all meals and a chance for young people to work for their own livelihood. The young people often work right through the week, including week-ends. There is the odd public holiday and two weeks off over the oriental New Year. But on the whole they work long hours.

The training is also over a long period. At least 6 months of repetitive learning processes might stop most people from enjoying this kind of work. For the young people at Hold the Future it’s something they love doing. Being able to support themselves is a dream come true.

In particular the rolled paper decorated greeting cards and rolled paper small jewellery containers were the favourite products to make. Of course rolling paper very tightly into small balls isn’t everybody’s idea of great fun. But for the Down Syndrome members at the Center they loved it. They were good at it and enjoyed their work.

And friendly and smiling faces most of the time. Of course they weren’t immune to unhappiness. But the Down Syndrome people were much readier to let go and smile again than most people I’ve come across. I loved visiting with them and sitting next to them at meal time or chatting to them via an interpreter. Never did get my head around Vietnamese. Fond memories indeed.

Thinking of many lovely Down Syndrome people today on their special celebratory day.

Blog Action Day 2011

I missed this one last year. But this time I’ve had a few invitations one of which came from VSO. So I had to remember this time around. The theme for this year is food and Vietnam, where VSO sent me as a volunteer, has still a fair amount of food shortage.

That’s actually not accurate. There is no actual food shortage as the country is one of the top rice exporters. There is definitely no access to food though for a fair number of people. In fact outside of the cities the poverty levels can easily reach 17%. And poverty brings with it a lack of food because there is not enough money in the household. Even child malnutrition is still high and the VN government looks to nursery schools to fill those little tummies.

But one would expect there to be these sorts of stats in a developing country such as Vietnam. It’s not so great to see people not getting enough food in countries such as the USA which one considers to be a developed world power. Surely the USA can make sure its citizens get sufficient food?

But it doesn’t seem to be the case. More Americans are unable to feed themselves than one can imagine. In 2010 48.8 million Americans lived in food insecure households of which 16.2 million were children. (Stats: Feeding America).

That’s a frightening statistic. This is the country whose budget for the Department of Defense was $680 billion for the 2010 fiscal year.

Even just a small portion of this budget moved towards feeding the starving people of the USA could make a difference.

There is an unwillingness world wide by governments to look after their people. Which is truly bizarre considering that that is exactly what they are voted in for by the very same people. Elected governments are supposed to look after their citizens. That is the only reason why they are in government. Yet they don’t. Not even close. In fact they almost seem to do the opposite. Cameron for instance, the Brit Prime Minister seems to be actively working against his folk.

Or you have Obama bailing out the banks and insurance companies, the motor industry and anybody else with their hand out while ignoring 48.8 million people who do not have enough food.

At the end of the day the world makes enough food to feed its people. It’s just that food gets priced so high that more and more people cannot afford to pay for it. Money making schemes for a few wealthy farmers and GM seed makers. Water that gets diverted to serve greedy industrial cities, land that gets taken away for big factories so that small holding farmers are left with nothing to farm. And the list goes on. The little guys, the Davids of this world, are constantly squashed by Goliath. And nobody is protecting them. Least of all their governments.

So the call for food, the fight to ensure every person has enough to eat, those kind of boil down to governments that do not govern for their people. That govern to help a handful of wealthy folk become even wealthier.

Have you noticed the number of non-governmental organisations that have mushroomed in the past years? NGOs only have a function, a task to fulfill, because our governments are letting us down, us the people. Why should there be a Feeding America NGO? Why is the government not feeding its own people. Surely that is what government is all about.

That’s the bottom line isn’t it.

Problem solving becomes more important than knowledge

There are some writers who are incredibly prolific in sharing their thoughts and great ideas. Seth Godin is one of those. Although his focus is on marketing his thoughts often deal with issues that can be applied across the entire spectrum of society.

One such snippet of writing deals with the concept of naive versus professional. And his words of wisdom rang true for me working in the development field right now.

What he says is that when people work according to their traditions i.e. how their forefathers did things they are naive. For him the concept of naive is opposite to the concept of professional.

If you want to work successfully in development you need to pull the people out of the naive into the professional way of thinking. It doesn’t matter how they do things. It’s the overall thinking and approach that is critical.

As an example, if your organisation is used to treating customers rudely because this is how it always happened in their society it’s not enough to teach the organisation how to be polite. This lesson will not really be taken on board.

What needs to happen is that the entire organisation moves from looking backwards in its approach, to looking forward. How can we improve rather than how have we always done it. Proactive rather than reactive.

This is particularly so in Vietnam. An event is cancelled but you are not told about it. Nobody thinks about the people that might be affected by the cancellation. It’s just cancelled. Oh everybody is frightfully sorry when visitors arrive for the event that is not happening. But nobody had planned in advance to consider all the ramification of that event’s cancellation.

Another example is the traffic. Vietnamese think that by driving in front of another vehicle or road user they are safe. This rule is applied regardless of the traffic situation. It probably worked well in the olden days when there was one road. It’s total chaos in modern day traffic.

Following this archaic traffic rule leads to many accidents as the driver who is being cut off often cannot avoid the actions of the oncoming driver. Head-on collisions are particularly lethal and happen often.

This adherence to old style rules is taken through into the office. Staff will follow orders but will not initiate any activity of their own. Staff do not take responsibility they just follow. They are unable to react to new situations and respond accordingly. Of course there are organisations that work proactively and not all of Vietnam is looking backwards. The country wouldn’t be developing at such a quick rate if it wasn’t easing itself into the professional mindset.

However, within the organisations that I have worked with and the ones where I have had contact and seen their operation there is certainly an overall resistance to being professional. Yet there is a yearning to improve and training is always the number one request by staff.

Perhaps the training needs to focus less on knowledge and more on lifeskills. It’s not enough to teach courses on marketing for instance. Sure that’s important too. But what is really required is a change in attitude. That marketing course will have no impact at all if the students are not taught how to use that knowledge effectively. What you do with that knowledge is what’s important.

At a time when all knowledge is available at your fingertips or a click of a mouse button what needs to be taught is how to use the knowledge in a proactive way.

The question of orphanages and their purpose

Little guy at catholic orphanage in Hue

This is such an interesting question. A great article talks about this in detail. In fact this question arose in my mind when the drama with Madonna and the kids she tried to adopt in Malawi made the headlines in the tabloids.

What interested me at the time was the sudden appearance of a father. For me an orphan meant a child who has absolutely no family to live with and be cared for. That is the general meaning of the term. Or so I thought.

In the meantime I have read sufficient articles and reports to understand that in fact orphans are more often than not kids who have been dumped in orphanages because parents or family can’t or won’t look after them. In fact it even seems that having an orphanage is a money making proposition and orphanage owners go out soliciting for kids promising parents all sorts of things.

Having lived in South Africa nearly all my life and until about six years ago, the term orphan was also a big thing. Aids Orphans is the big buzz word in South Africa. And if you believe the headlines, there are millions of them in South Africa.

This seems to me to be a really weird state of affairs. The South African population, especially the black folk, lives in a society of the extended family. Everybody has umpteen uncles and aunts and there is no lack of support if one needs it.

It is bizarre to think that this otherwise wealthy country would not have enough people available to look after children whose parents or at least one parent has died of HIVf/AIDS. Besides this medication is now free and there should be no more reason for these deaths. Grants for children are paid by the government. It’s almost worthwhile to have many kids now.

So why the plea for funding for orphanages? One of the big changes in the world has been the plethora of non profit organisation. In fact in countries such as South Africa there are almost more NGOs around than businesses. It’s a really nice job to have. You can do what you like with your time. You are not accountable to shareholders and your money supply is endless. That is if you play your cards right.

That might all sound a little simplistic. But there is a fair amount of truth in the story. I’ve seen too many of those play out in South Africa. Just check out Oprah’s school in South Africa for a good view of the strange things that go on.

Of course there are instances where in the case of horrific disasters whole families can get wiped out leaving perhaps one child totally abandoned. But to have thousands of supposed orphans pleading for help seems to be a fairytale. A sob story to get funding. Poverty porn. Those huge eyes looking at you out of a picture. Hungry eyes, aren’t they? Have to give money.

There is a story about the little guy in an orphanage in Hue as shown in the picture in this post. He was born disabled, brain damaged. His mother took one look at him at birth and abandoned him in hospital. The hospital handed him over to the orphanage after two weeks. He has parents. They just don’t want the perceived burden of a disabled child.

A home for children with disabilities

Catholic Church blessed Shelter for orphans and disabled people.

Most people who know me will know that I am not that partial to religious institutions that determine what people should believe in. Five years of protestant hell and damnation from the pulpit every Sunday while attending a church sponsored boarding school was enough for me for the rest of my life.

But here in Vietnam I have come across the other side, the good side, of religious fervour. Several institutions or Centers sponsored by the Catholic Church have really impressed me with the good work they do.

Cute little guy trying on big people shoes!

Hope Center visited a dual purpose centre in Hue that looks after disabled people, mostly younger ones, as well as offers a home to orphans. And as a further service they take care of pregnant single girls who have their babies and are able to leave them behind in the knowledge they will be looked after and a possible home sought for them.

We also looked at a range of handicraft products their hearing impaired members make and there was some lovely embroidery work. It’s not modern enough for the tourist market but certainly the skill is there and possibly with some design guidance these young people could product some lovely work.

Embroidery work by hearing impaired artisans.

Let’s see what our product design team can come up with to help these young people earn a living.

I left the Center behind thinking how wonderful human beings can be. In the media we are exposed to all the bad stuff. We see politicians with their pants down – literally, big business cheating smaller business, misbehaving celebrities, murderers and rapists and other awful behaviour that humans inflict on other humans and the rest of the living beings.

Pity the media doesn’t spend more time talking about the wonderful people and the Catholic Church in this instance. But then good news doesn’t sell or so we are told.

It’s always about attitude

Phin receiving her bike from Finnish volunteer Minna

If you have ever been a teacher, or are still one of course, you will understand this little story about a student and her attitude. At Hope Center for disabled and disadvantaged people we have a fair number of volunteers who do all sorts of things for us. One of these is to teach English.

It’s not a structured lesson type of English tuition. And it’s given by a string of non English as home language volunteers who are only at the Center for a few months. That doesn’t make the lessons any more important and appreciated. But it does make them a lot more informal and haphazard.

This particular volunteer from Finland, Kirsie, took a class of beginners. These are our artisans and sewing workers. The classes are not as important to the Center as the classes are for the admin staff. The admin staff need to deal with customers and tourists. Their lessons are critical to the Center. The workers have lessons to make them feel part of the learning experience and so as not to feel left out. And they love it.

Out of this particular group one little student made a special effort. Ho Thi Phin tried the hardest. She was the most friendly and cheerful and she out of all of the students loved her classes the most. The teacher felt this during every lesson.

Phin got a reward for her effort and attitude. Kirsie arranged for her Finnish friend Minna Pirinen to donate her bicycle to Phin as the Finnish girls have completed their practical time in Hue and are leaving in the next day or so.

Check the photo of an absolutely thrilled Phin. New bicycles are in the region of $80 or so and totally beyond the budget of most of the workers at Hope Center. Put that good attitude out there and the rewards will come in!

If you would like to help Hope Center and its wonderful disabled and disadvantaged people please consider a small donation to the new shop fund raising campaign. Your small gift will be immensely appreciated. And while there do download the free eBook with 54 gorgeous images of Vietnam. A great gift back for the one you give.

Always good to give away something for free

Yeah Can\’s free image. Black & White of Hanoi at night.

Here’s something for free. Brilliant black and white image of Hanoi and its traffic at night. For those who have visited this amazing country and has experienced the mad motor bike traffic will certainly get a flash back of fond memories.

If you haven’t visited then consider it. It’s really cheap especially if you do as the locals do and have your food on the pavement perched on tiny plastic stools. It has amazing people and beautiful landscapes. And it’s culture is a mix of traditional (loads of Chinese and French elements), modern, communist ideology (loads of red signs telling citizens what they need to do to be good citizens), Buddhism and just plain Vietnamese.

Imagine if you were disabled

Anh has a smile for everybody. She is cared for by Hope Center.


Truly imagine this for one moment. Can’t hear or maybe lost a leg as a war veteran. Born with a disability. Have to use a wheelchair or crutches. Need assistive technology to use a computer or any technology. Just think yourself in this way for just a moment.

How does it feel not to be able to move around freely or understand people easily? How about learning at school or University. Wouldn’t that be more difficult? Finding a job. It’s not easy at the moment in any case. But with a disability, what are the chances?

There are places in this world where people just like this, with disabilities, can find a home, friendships and work opportunities.

Hope Center is one of these. If you can imagine what it must be like to have a disability you can also imagine what a small donation can do to help somebody who is disabled and who needs your help to fulfill their potential in life.

Please help the Hope Center. Hope Center’s disabled people will thank you for every Dollar they receive.

Can I give you a rush of love and happiness?

Hope Center\’s fund raising campaign for their Shop.

Why do we like to help people? Why do we give to Haiti victims or the Tsunami affected? Because we get a rush of happiness when we do. We feel good. Human beings are community beings and for that moment when we give we feel part of a global community.

We feel part of the world, of life and of being alive. And we get a great warm fuzzy feeling at the same time. And it’s because we have identified with the world and have acknowledged our togetherness.

But above all else we give because we get a rush of happiness when we give something to somebody who really needs it.

Hope Center\’s disabled and disadvantaged people ask for your help.

So in the spirit of giving for happiness I want to ask you to participate in a giving happy moment. I’m hoping you will join us in creating a ray of sunshine in the lives of people who really really could do with some help.

We have a group of happy, fun loving people who happen to be disabled and disadvantaged. And they are working so hard to make a living for themselves and not be a burden on society.

Please help them get a leg up in life. Just a little shove. They will send back their love and happiness to you. That is guaranteed. And you in turn will receive a dollop of happiness and joy.

Go on. Try it out. You won’t be disappointed. Click here! Or visit the Hope Center’s website to find out more about these wonderful people and the work they do. Thank you!