Monday, February 26, 2007


- The workshop with the dental staff was not my most stellar performance. It is much harder to deliver a meaningful workshop when the participants would rather be in the bar drinking. For the first half of the session, they just sat there staring at me like I had some nerve wasting their time that way. It's pretty hard to feed off of group energy when there is none. It wasn't a total flop, though. They warmed up to it and the group exercise I planned for the second half actually went over quite well.

- Nikki's Fair Trade birthday party didn't quite go according to plan. Some of the girls had a ringette game, so only one of them could make it to the party early enough to get to Ten Thousand Villages with us before they closed. But the other girls all bought their presents there ahead of time, and the store gave us a bunch of fair trade snacks (chocolate, dried fruit, hot chocolate), so it wasn't a total dud. Nikki now has a collection of funky global jewellery that rivals mine - the girl's got great taste!

- The rest of the party was at a hotel. I spent the night trying to sleep, while four giddy girls spent most of the night giggling. Though sleep would have been nice, I quite enjoyed the giggling. There is something very life-affirming about the joy of preteen girls. By two-thirty, though, I let them know that even though I was fairly tolerant, the rest of the hotel guests might not be, so they'd better keep it down. Soon afterwards, they were all sound asleep - all 4 of them in a King-sized bed. I wish my camera batteries hadn't died.

- We had a family get-together at our house for Nikki's birthday yesterday. Between the parties and the workshop on Friday night, I'm wiped.

- We made lasagna for the family party. Since I've given up meat for lent, I made a vegetarian lasagna which turned out better than any meat lasagna I've had in a long time. Mmmm... tasty! Leftovers for lunch today. Yum, yum.

- Dennis Quaid is shooting a movie in the old church next to my office. I haven't spotted him yet, but then again, I haven't really been looking. Mostly, I've just seen a bunch of big trucks blocking the street and parking lot.

- Speaking of celebrities, doesn't Britney Spears just look like a scared, vulnerable little girl under all that craziness? I wonder if anyone is loving her through this? I hope so.

- My next business trip is to Regina. After Africa, you can't get much more anti-climactic than Regina. Fortunately, it's only for one night.

- Maddie has asked me to pick her up more in the last month than she did in the 4 years of her life before that. My highly independent, non-cuddly girl has become cuddly lately, and I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.

- Nikki has a new pen-pal - Vicki's daughter. In this age of electronics, it's fun to see a girl get excited about what's coming in the mail. I may have to help Julie find a pen-pal too. Anyone have a nine (almost ten)-year-old daugher they'd like to line up for a pen-pal?

Friday, February 23, 2007

The flip side

Lest you all think I'm just strutting around bragging and calling myself phenomenal (no that's NOT what I was suggesting we should do in the last post), I want to offer what I think is the other side of the coin. Yes, I think that we should embrace our giftedness and believe that we were created with potential and beauty, BUT...

I think there's another side too. We may be phenomenal, but we are also phenomenally flawed. And what I learned recently is that we have to embrace both sides of the coin. Let me tell you about a personal journey I went on in the last few years...

One day (I was going to say it was during my "40 days 'til 40" contemplation phase, but it might have been longer ago than that), I stumbled upon a book called "The Gift of Being Yourself - The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery" by David G. Benner. At first, I just thought it was another "believe in yourself and recognize your gifts, blah, blah, blah" kind of book and I really wasn't expecting much from it. But what I read when I first browsed through it intrigued me so I stuck with it.

Near the beginning of the book, Benner quotes John Calvin as saying "There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God." Hmmm. Interesting. So there's spiritual value in the navel gazing I'd taken up when 40 started knocking on my door. Benner also says "Being most deeply your unique self is something that God desires, because your true self is grounded in Christ. God created you in uniqueness and seeks to restore you to that uniqueness in Christ. Finding and living out your true self is fulfilling your destiny." Okay, this seemed worth considering, so I read on.

The first part was interesting, and I found myself nodding my head now and then, but it wasn't until I reached chapter 4 that I felt like there was something in this book that I needed to spend time learning. That's where Benner throws the hard-ball. "Knowing ourselves as we really are inevitably brings us up against what the Bible calls sin." Okay, this was getting a little tougher. So this wasn't just going to be a "touchy-feeling pat yourself on the back for how great you are" kind of journey. From there, the book goes into how we should contemplate, pray about, and try to analyze our "core sin tendencies" - those flaws that lie deep down at the root of who we are.

Core sin tendencies? This was a new concept for me. I'd heard about sin all my life, but I'd never really considered that I might have a propensity for certain sins over others. Over the years, I'd spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out my giftedness, my personality, my leadership styles, and all those other feel-good kind of self-discovery things that are part of almost every staff retreat or leadership workshop anywhere, but I hadn't really flipped my heart over and looked at the dark side. Maybe that was the fatal flaw in my navel-gazing phase.

"Genuinely knowing yourself as you are known by God can be quite frightening," says Benner. Yup, that's right, I was getting a little afraid of looking around those dark corners. Who knows what was going to pop up? "But if God knows you and still loves you deeply, there is hope that you can do the same."

When I closed the book, I knew it was time to take another step in my journey. Gulp. But I don't wanna know my flaws! C'mon God - can't we just stay out here in the light? Hmmm... God whispered "Nope. Trust me. This is gonna hurt for awhile, but it will be worth it."

So I started thinking, praying, reading my Bible, and searching for those pesky skeletons that had become firmly entrenched in the closets of my soul. It wasn't pleasant, but I did it. I even attended a twelve-step program for awhile, trying to figure out what things I had to overcome and what I had to admit to myself to get there.

And what did I find out? Well, at the time, it became clear to me that there were 2 things that I needed to work on - gluttony and slothfulness. The more I thought of it, the more I realized I had let many things in my life suffer because of these two things. My relationships were harmed, my potential was stifled, my body wasn't well cared for, my house looked like a constant warzone, and I was busy ignoring the fact that there was any problem.

I spent a fair bit of time addressing those things - I cleaned out my closets literally and figuratively. If you go back into my blog archives, you'll find lots of posts about the messes that I tackled. Back then, you probably didn't know why there was such urgency to clean up a whole lot of mess in my house and let go of some of the possessions I'd let into my life because of pure greed, but it all had something to do with this journey.

One day, when I looked around and realized the skeletons had shrunk and my home was looking liveable again, I felt this incredible feeling of peace come over me. Trust me, I was still a LONG way from fully addressing my sin tendencies, but at least I was no longer afraid to stare them in the face and challenge them to "get thee behind me."

I'm still learning this stuff, and on almost a daily basis, I slip back into old tendencies, but the journey has definitely been worth it. So when I say that I am going to believe that I am phenomenal, it is only because I also recognize that I am flawed and my only hope of being phenomenal is if I am humble and put my trust in the creator who knows what I'm capable of.

And now, it's time to pack my bags and head to Gimli where I'm teaching a bunch of dentists and dental staff about how they can use the "Six Thinking Hats" to make decisions and work more effectively. Here's hoping I don't screw up.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


A few nights ago, I went to a Ruthie Foster concert, and since then the song “Phenomenal Woman” has been going through my mind. It’s based on a Maya Angelou poem. You can hear it here (click on “Phenomenal Woman” on the right) and you can read the poem here. To me, Ruthie Foster is the epitome of a phenomenal woman – beautiful, sexy, glowing, confident, funny, and with a rich voice that soars through the rafters.

I like it. I like thinking of ourselves as phenomenal. I think too many of us have been raised to believe that we shouldn’t “toot our own horns” or “strut our stuff”. Was it just me, or did you grow up thinking that it was sinful to believe in yourself or be too confident? After all, if we believed in ourselves, then we wouldn’t rely on God enough, right?

Instead, we’ve learned patterns of self-deprecation and low self-esteem. “Oh, I’m not good enough” or “I really don’t have any talents worth sharing” seem to be common phrases on the lips of too many people. (Perhaps it’s especially true for Christians?) I think that’s the OPPOSITE of what God wants to hear from us, because he/she can’t work through us if we doubt our own abilities. Confidence is not sinfulness, it’s trusting that our creator knew what he/she was doing when we were made.

Like Ruthie Foster, I think it’s time to embrace our “phenomenalness”. Oh, I’m not saying we should all start bragging about ourselves, or taking on overly-inflated opinions of ourselves, but what’s wrong with believing that God made us beautiful and talented and phenomenal? Sure we’re all flawed – that’s a given – but we all have within us the seeds of great potential. Believing otherwise is doubting God’s design and ability to work through us.

So today, I am going to believe that I am PHENOMENAL! Truth is, this month it’s not hard to believe. I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been more open to new possibilities, or if my two weeks in Ethiopia inspired me, but all kinds of opportunities and inspired ideas seem to be “dropping in my lap”. (Or perhaps jumping out of a plane last fall did something to unleash the inner boldness in me.)

Usually February gives way to the doldrums, but this past month, I’ve had lots of chances to use the gifts that I most love to use. I’ve been hired for 2 freelance jobs, both of which entail facilitating workshops on things I love to talk about – like leadership and creative thinking. I also facilitated an all day staff retreat (not my own staff), and got my first chance to fly by the seat of my pants and prove that I could do it (I saw the agenda 15 minutes before launching into the day’s discussion). I had a chance to speak in church a few weeks ago – another thing I quite enjoy. I’ve also had a few writing opportunities, and will see some of it appear in print soon.

And then this week, I stumbled onto one of the most inspired ideas I’ve had in a long time. Part of my day-job involves leading the fundraising team. I don’t have much of a fundraising brain, so it’s good that my staff do most of that kind of work. But I’ve just managed to come up with a new campaign that might revolutionize the way we raise money PLUS it involves encouraging people to do more (lifestyle changes, etc.) than just give money. (I can’t tell you too much about it because it’s still in the seedling phase.)

There must be something in the air, because I feel PHENOMENAL! (Sorry – am I bragging too much? I haven’t entirely let go of the idea that it’s NOT okay to talk about myself like this. In fact, I almost deleted this post.)

This is all really exciting stuff for me, because in a few years, I hope to leave a “nine-to-fiver” job behind and do freelance consulting, facilitation, and writing – just the kind of stuff I’ve gotten to do in the last month. Woohoo!

How about you? What makes you feel phenomenal?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Happy Birthday, Nikki!

(Yes, it's birthday week around here!)

It fills my heart with wonder how quickly you have grown
from this...

to this...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Happy birthday Marcel!

42 years! You've come a long way baby!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Remembering Dad on his birthday

Click to play.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Eureka! I think I've got it!

Further to my earlier post about birthday parties and the resulting truckload of stuff that takes over my home, I've been wrestling what to do with Nikki's party next week. As some of you have mentioned, we don't plan large parties, so it's not like I have twenty kids giving her gifts. But even four gifts, when you add it to everything she gets from her aunties and uncles and grandparents, ends up being a lot. I also don't give away traditional goodie bags. Instead, I've done things like take a picture of the party gang, print it on photo paper and put it in a funky (and cheap) frame for them to take home. I've also printed the picture on iron-on paper and then ironed it onto pillow cases. I'd rather give them a meaningful momento of the party than a bunch of crap that will end up in the landfill site.

But, despite these attempts to keep our parties within reason, I keep wrestling with the thought that there is still too much excess, and most of the gifts bought are probably made by some impoverished peasant working in a sweatshop and living on less than a dollar a day. I've tried to convince the girls that they should consider asking their friends to donate to a worthy cause instead of buying presents, but so far, they haven't been willing to make the sacrifice entirely. (Julie has given some of her birthday money away to the foster child sponsored by the children's community at church, but she didn't entirely forego gifts.)

This year, I've stumbled onto an idea that I think might be a hit. We live really close to Ten Thousand Villages, our favourite fair trade store. The girls and I love visiting this store and we often buy the gifts they bring to their friends' parties from there. They have interesting things from all over the world, and Nikki goes gaga over their funky jewellery.

So I'm going to suggest that instead of bringing gifts, her friends bring her a small amount of money and together we'll all go shopping for a few gifts for her from Ten Thousand Villages. It's a win-win situation. She'll still get gifts, but at least there will be some small amount of justice in the purchases made. I've contacted the store to see if they can help me make it even more meaningful and fun for the girls. Perhaps we'll include some storytelling about the things that they're buying and the places they come from, or some kind of scavenger hunt in the store.

Maybe, just maybe, a few ten and eleven-year-old girls will be inspired to put a little thought into what they purchase and why. If nothing else, I won't feel as overwhelmed by the clutter that another birthday party brings to my house.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I blame it on birthday parties

Over the weekend, I spent several hours cleaning the family room and Maddie's bedroom, sorting through toys and getting rid of a bunch of things nobody plays with around here anymore. Since Maddie's the youngest, I can get rid of her castoffs without having to save them for the next up-and-comer. Yay! Less clutter! But also since she's the youngest, she has inherited A LOT of stuff. It was becoming difficult to navigate both rooms because of the amount of toys scattered around. I'd almost forgotten there was carpet under all that stuff. Can we say "bomb site"? Oh yeah, that bad.

Once again, I found myself asking "Why oh WHY have we allowed so much STUFF to enter our house?" She has WAY more toys than she could ever play with. She doesn't even appreciate most of the stuff she has because there's just way too much of it.

I blame it on birthday parties. I know *I* didn't give her (or her sisters) all that stuff - it must have come from SOMEWHERE! It's all those birthday parties, that's what it is. Every year, with three kids in the house, there are three new truckloads of cheap plastic crap that enters my house and commandeers every available space. And nowadays, it's not just their OWN birthday gifts that enter our home - it's all the extra tiny little pieces of dollar-store evil that they bring home in goodie bags from other parties. (Why do we call them "goodie" bags when they are pure EVIL?) I swear, when all that stuff crosses the threshold into my home, it does a little happy dance and then begins to procreate and produce even MORE stuff until I am completely overwhelmed and feel like throwing a match on it all and walking away.

I want to boycott birthday parties. Or at least birthday PRESENTS. Seriously, parents, why do we do this to each other? Why do we continue to subject each other to truckloads of crap that ends up taking over our homes? Why don't we band together and say "enough"? Why do we cave to the pressure of whiny kids who just HAVE to buy their friends yet another tamigotchi or barbie doll or whatchamacallit? Surely if we get together on this, we can create a force that would be greater than all the whines of our children, no?

Yet, as I say this, I have already made plans for Nikki's birthday party next week, and no, I haven't managed to convince her to tell her friends NOT to bring presents, even though I've TRIED. Sigh. Oh, I'm a pushover just like everyone else, I'll admit it.

Seriously, though, it's not just the clutter I'm concerned about. (Yeah, this is your warning - Heather's getting on her favourite soapbox again.) It's just so completely out of whack how much we own and how privileged our children are. I just wish it were easier to find some balance, but sometimes it feels like the only way that would be possible would be to pull our kids out of society all together. At this point, I'm not really willing to do that. Any other suggestions?

Here are some sobering statistics to chew on...
- North Americans spend $18 billion a year on make up.
- It would take $12 billion to provide health care for all mothers and their children.

- North Americans spend $18 billion a year on pet food.
- It would take about the same amount to eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

- North Americans spend $16 billion on perfume
- It would take $5 billion to provide universal literacy to every person on the planet

- North Americans spend $15 billion on ocean cruises
- It would take $10 billion to provide clean drinking water for all

- North American spend $6 billion on ice cream
- It would take $2 billion to immunize every child on the planet

I don't buy make up, perfume, or pet food, nor do I go on ocean cruises, but that doesn't mean I don't have lots of other vices and luxury items. I'm thinking maybe I should develop a "justice fund", and then every time I decide to spend money on a luxury item (at least those items I can't buy fair trade), I place the equivalent amount in the jar to donate to a worthy cause.

Of course, that doesn't solve my birthday party dilemna.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Just a little more about Ethiopia...

Click to view...

Monday, February 12, 2007

Despite the current deep-freeze, I still love it

Considering the weather around here has been hovering between -23 and -45 for the last three weeks (that's Celsius - translated it means @#$#@!! cold!), Marnie's suggestion for Fun Monday feels like a bit of a stretch right now. "Tell me why you love where you live." Hmmm... you MIGHT have asked me that on a day when I actually felt some affection for this "freeze that ridiculous grin off your face" place, Marnie! Sigh.

But, even on a day when the best I can do is sit in front of my big picture window and dream about the day when I actually feel like venturing outside again, I can still find reasons to love this place.

And the number one reason? Seasons. I realize that some of you are feeling mighty glad right now that you don't have seasons that are quite as DISTINCT as ours are, but without winter, I can't imagine enjoying spring as much as I do. Each season brings new surprises, a whole new wardrobe, and something interesting to bring delight to my imagination.

To show you a little of the variation, all of the following pictures were taken in front of my house. This is what I have to look forward to in the next twelve months.




And just in case you want to know more about where I live, here's a little something I dug out of the ol' Fumbling archives...

I live…in a simple bungalow with an attached garage full of bicycles and a red car in the driveway.
I live…with my husband and three daughters.
I live…just a block from the mighty Red River.
I live…within easy walking distance of a grocery store, a drugstore, a dollar store, a bank, two gas stations with convenience stores, a GREAT wine store, Licks ice cream, a poster store, and a few other stores I’ve never been in yet.
I live…in the shade of a giant maple tree.
I live…within easy biking distance of St. Vital Park.
I live…in a house with ugly multi-colour carpeting in the basement, and a kitchen that’s too small for a family of five.
I live…next door to a bunch of university football players who are polite and friendly and don’t party too much.
I live…within easy biking distance of Ten Thousand Villages, the best store on earth.
I live…across the street from a housing co-op and the daycare centre my kids don’t have to go to anymore.
I live…just a 5 minute drive from the edge of the city and open sky and prairie fields.
I live…in the province where I was born.
I live…in a country that is known for its politeness, its cold north, its peacekeeping, and its multiculturalism.
I live…about 10 blocks (which is much too close) away from a shopping mall.
I live…in a house with a rotting deck and a play structure that’s almost too small for my children.
I live…within biking distance of my church.
I live…in the house with the wooden deck chairs in the front yard instead of on our deck, because we like to sit and watch the world go by.
I live…close enough to my sister and brother-in-law and little niece that we get to see them every week.
I live…further away from my brothers and their families than I’d like.
I live…closer to my mom than I used to, but further than I’d like.
I live…far from where my mother is right now.
I live…close enough to Marcel’s family that we can see them nearly every week.
I live…in a bedroom that has one dark burgundy wall, and three white walls that I wish I’d painted burgundy too.
I live…just far enough from my office that I get a good workout biking there.
I live…across the river from the University I attended nearly twenty years ago.
I live…with contentment and enough of almost everything.
I live…in a country where my children can grow up without fear or discrimination or poverty.
I live…in a world that’s getting smaller, but that’s big enough to offer me lots of places and opportunities to explore.
I live…in a house that’s never quite as clean as I’d like it to be, but clean enough to be comfortable.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Okay, so I'm no Julia Childs

When I ran frantically into the kitchen screaming "oh NO! I burnt the nachos!" Maddie marched into the living room, planted her hands firmly on her hips, and pronounced "Dad! Didn't you know you shouldn't let Mom cook that?"

Oh yeah, you can imagine how much he's loving THAT. I suspect I'll hear that phrase repeated over and over again every time I screw up in the kitchen from now to eternity.

Sigh. I concede the kitchen throne to my husband. It is rightfully his anyway. I'll try not to care that my kids trust his cooking more than mine.

Come to think of it, I think I'll use it to my advantage the next time he tries to convince me it's my turn to cook.

Where is she NOW?

This morning, in an email to my sister, I wrote the following sentence: "I haven't talked to mom all week, so for all I know they've left the country again."

Her response: "Yup, they've left the country again. Good guess."

There is just something very weird about writing a sentence like that, primarily in jest, and finding out it's true. And what's even more weird is realizing that the response no longer surprises you.

To put it into context - for the first 37 years of my life, I KNEW where to find my mom. Her life was lived within a fairly predictable and dependable space. She was at home, on the farm. If she wasn't there, then she could be found at the store she worked at for many years. If all else fails - check the neighbour's house. Or the church. Once in awhile, she'd venture to the city, but then she was visiting either myself or my sister, so we knew where to find her. About once a year, she'd fly out to visit my brother, or spend a few days at my other brother's house. That was about it. Not particularly exciting, but always dependable.

Then, for the next two and a half years, after dad died, she lived in the city, and though the walls of her life were a little less confined, she NEVER left town without telling me.

Now, suddenly, her life has been transformed and I no longer know where to find her. She's home less than she's away. She's been married less than two years, and in that time, they've spent two months in Holland, travelled to Alberta more times than I can count, and hopped across the border into the U.S. probably more times than she's done in her whole life before this.

Don't get me wrong - I'm happy for her. She loves to travel and didn't get nearly enough of it in her life before this. She's got a new lease on life, and I certainly don't begrudge her that. She has spent so many years being "dependable", she has earned the right to be "footloose and fancy free."

But - it can feel a little disconcerting to never know for sure where your mom is and when you can reach her. Moms are meant to be dependable. Reliable. Unchanging. Somehow, in a way I can hardly explain, it makes the roots of my tree feel a little shaky.

Besides that... does she have to make up for ALL that lost time in just a couple of YEARS? Sheesh.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Wordless Wednesday

hawk in flight

hawk taking flight

(Well, almost wordless. I can't resist SOME explanation)

In one of those golden moments in Ethiopia
I sat on the steps of the staff housing
at the base camp in Arb Gebya
watching Hawk in flight.
He'd smelled the remains of the goat
they'd slaughtered for our supper
and he hoped for a morsel.
Soundlessly, he landed
on a fence not far from me.
As I fixed my camera on him
he spread his mighty wings
and took flight.
Glorious Hawk,
I thank you
for the brief and beautiful visit.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Monday, February 05, 2007

Fun Monday

At first, when Swampwitch announced the theme for this Fun Monday, I just couldn't decide what to highlight as the most memorable posts I'd either read or written. So I took my time thinking about it and didn't end up signing up. Today, I'm at home with a sick child, and after too many hours of being awake during the night, holding her hair away from her face while she vomitted into the toilet, I just can't focus on all the things I SHOULD be doing. Instead of cleaning the house or doing laundry or writing those articles that I need to write for work, I spent a little time surfing and reliving blog memories. Now I'm ready to partake of all the fun.

There have been lots of memorable posts that have provided wonderful insight into the lives of my many new blog friends, but this time around, I decided to keep it in the family. Today's theme - the beauty of being "Aunty". The following posts are about some of the wonderful people who have entered my life as nieces and nephews, and the equally incredible people who are their Mommies.

My sister ccap has been blogging about as long as I have. At first, we didn't tell each other we were doing it, but it didn't take long for the secret to get out. Her memorable post is called "Grace" and it's about the long journey from being "favoured Aunt" to "the one and only Mommy who soothes my tears and fears". Ccap has been an incredible Aunty to my daughters, and in fact they often think of her as their "second mom". But as every Mommy knows, the leap from Aunty to Mommy, especially if it is long in coming, is still a huge and significant one.

My sister-in-law, Accidental Poet, has also been blogging nearly as long as I have. One day she sent me an email that said "I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours." And thus we stepped into each other's blog worlds. Her memorable post is actually a series of posts that have the theme of "Seven Years Ago". The seven years ago that she was referring to was the incredible event of adopting a very special little boy named B. The first of the series is here, and it's actually about the death of her father which preceded the entry of B into their lives. Of the series, my personal favourite is the one in which I met little B - a very unexpected and delightful event that will forever rank among the favourite moments of my life.

The two little people at the centre of these posts are just two of the seven little people who call me Aunty. Each one of them is special and unique, and if any of the other parents blogged, I'd probably link to them too. There is something incredibly delightful about watching these little people come into the world and grow into the people they were meant to be.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

One of my heroes


"Women can't think." That's what Elizabeth Milton was told the first time she visited the Afar Region. She'd been recently hired by Support for Sustainable Development, a non-profit organization with a mission to help the Afar people build more sustainable livelihoods in the drought-prone Afar region of Ethiopia by building water diversion projects to irrigate newly developed farmland. The Afar people are traditionally nomadic people who follow their livestock from one grazing area to the next. With drought occurring increasingly more frequently, however, and more and more people and livestock competing for the same forage space, their livelihoods are becoming less viable every year.

The men of the local village had gathered to meet with Elizabeth to discuss the development of canals and irrigation systems. She asked to hear from the women, but was told in no uncertain terms that here in the Afar, women could not be trusted to have opinions or thoughts on important issues such as water resources. They could be relied on to do much of the manual labour, like hauling water, building houses, herding livestock, and providing food for their families, but they could not think. Men did the thinking for them.

"That's why I decided to stay," Elizabeth told me when I asked her what had motivated her to spend the last three years in a remote camp, far from her family and friends, in harsh desert conditions. "I had to prove to them that women really can think." There was a twinkle in her eye when she said it.

At the base camp in the Afar region, Elizabeth leads a staff that varies from 50 to 80 people, depending on the stage of the project they're working on. In addition to the paid staff, who fill roles such as agronomists, engineers, and construction site supervisors, there are hundreds of local labourers who dig ditches and build dams in exchange for food to feed their families. The project is impressive in its scale and it's difficult to imagine what it would take to lead such an operation.

Elizabeth and staff

Elizabeth is not what you'd expect when you think of a bold female leader out to change the world. She's petite and shy, with an easy smile on her attractive face. When we visited her and her team, at first glance she could easily have been mistaken for one of the kitchen staff. Demanding no special attention or honour as "the boss", she quietly went about ensuring that we had cold beverages to refresh us after our journey, and could later be found grinding coffee and washing our dishes.

She's only twenty-four years old, but already she's done more to change the world than many people do in a lifetime. "I love my country," she told me, when I asked why she'd pursued a career in development. "I know we are capable of great things. But we must first ensure that our people have enough to eat. If Ethiopia has any hope for the future, it has to be in its own people."

Though she's clearly passionate about her work, Elizabeth's three years in the Afar have been fraught with challenges. There were multiple counts against her, in those early days. Not only was she a woman, she was young and seemingly inexperienced. In addition, she's a Christian in a predominately Muslim region. Building trust among the locals took a considerable amount of energy and commitment. "It was very hard at the beginning," she said. "Nobody really believed I could do it. I often felt like I was in over my head, and I was lonely. And I didn't always believe it would work." Plus, coming from another region of Ethiopia, she didn't know the local language. In order to work with the Afar people, she had to first learn their language.

Despite the challenges, the marks of success of Elizabeth's three years of leadership are not hard to find. First of all, there are the obvious signs, like an impressive water diversion system which consists of a well engineered water weir that redirects the water from the river, as well as miles and miles of irrigation ditches. All of this has been dug by manual labour. Where the water has been diverted and the crops have been planted, there are lush gardens that would be the envy of any gardener. While we were there, they'd just harvested some of the biggest red onions I've ever seen. There were also juicy tomatoes, spicy red peppers, and acres and acres of maize and grain.


The real success, however, goes much deeper than the harvest from the fertile, freshly watered soil. While we toured the gardens, we were introduced to two women who are members of the local water-users committee, which is now one of the most important governing bodies in the region. To understand how remarkable it is to have women playing these roles, you have to realize that before Elizabeth's arrival, no woman had ever served in a leadership role in this region before.

Women in water users committee

"I like to think I influenced the people here," says Elizabeth, who's almost too modest to admit she's changing the world. "They now believe that women can think. Before I came, they didn't trust their women. But now that they see their bountiful crops, and they realize that this is partly because a woman lead them in this endeavour, they have begun to trust their wives and sisters to serve in leadership roles."

Another sign of succes is the new village that's recently sprung up around the SSD base camp. It's a sign of trust and acceptance that the Afar people choose to be near the staff who brought change to their region. Often wary of Christians, particularly those who come from other regions of the country, these people have made a leap of faith moving in next door. New business has already begun to emerge as well. In a tiny shop in front of a woman's home, you can now by fabric, candles, and various other household items. Another important sign of positive change is the increased enrolment in school. When SSD first began working in the region, only one child attended the local school. Now there are nearly fifty.

In the evening, after we'd visited the canals and field that had all been developed under Elizabeth's leadership, we were invited to the village school where a group of young women and men gathered to perform their local dance. While we watched, several young school children clustered around Elizabeth. Affectionately, she put her arms around one of the young girls. It was a simple gesture, but to me it was the picture of hope.

In many ways that they don't understand yet, the future looks much brighter for these young girls than it did before Elizabeth Milton arrived in their village. Some day, Elizabeth will be only a distant memory, but when they have opportunities to take on more and more leadership roles, they will have her to thank.

Elizabeth 2

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Scattered thoughts

Scattered thought #1 - Nikki has been begging us for a two-piece bathing suit. After a party (involving a hot-tub) with her girlfriends a few weeks ago, she has repeatedly told us that "EVERYONE has one" (which, translated could very well mean one or two of them do). She used to have one - a nice modest suit - before she lost half of it. Last weekend, we got the bi-annual garbag bags full of hand-me-down clothes from my generous friend Suzanne, and wouldn't you know it - there's a two-piece bathing suit in her size. EXCEPT - this wasn't the nice modest suit she'd had in the past. The bottom was fine, but the top - well, can we say "string bikini"? When she walked out of the bedroom, her daddy took one look at her and his jaw dropped in horror. Though she's only ten, she has already developed curves, and our sweet little girl looked dangerously "hot" in this little number. Of course, the first thing out of her daddy's mouth was "you will NEVER wear that in public!" To which he was met with a barrage of retorts. "BUT - it's JUST a bathing suit. What's the big deal?"

Well, what IS the big deal? I'd really like to know, from those of you who have raised pre-teen and teen girls, what your reactions would be. I don't want to be an uptight mom with a long list of "thou shalt nots", but I also don't want my ten-year-old daughter being gawked at by hormonal teenage boys or dirty old men with nasty thoughts on their minds. But - how do you explain this to her in a way that she'll understand but not get totally freaked out and self-conscious about the way boys look at her?

Scattered thought #2 - Somewhat related to the above scattered thought, yesterday, while the girls and I were splashing around at the Pan Am Pool with some friends (Nikki was in her MODEST bathing suit), there were also a group of young teenagers playing a game with a beach ball. One of the girls jumped on one of the boys and held him down. He said "what are you doing?" Her response was "I'm raping you." Huh?? When did RAPE become funny?

Scattered thought #3 - Just like they say at the Oscars - "It's just an honour to be nominated." Along with a number of my excellent blogging friends, I have been nominated for "best writing" over at the Share the Love Blog Awards. Gee thanks! I'm tickled! If you feel so inclined, you can vote for me here. And give a nod to some of our other friends while you're there.

Scattered thought #4 - My lovely sister and her equally lovely husband are taking the girls for a sleepover tonight. Of course the girls are thrilled, but ya wanna know the best part? We get to have DATE NIGHT! Yay! A night alone with my beloved - you can't go wrong with THAT!

Scattered thought #5 - Hmmmm... I wonder if Scattered thought #1 or 2 will bring some undesirable google searches my way? If you've come here by googling nasty words - GO AWAY! You're not welcome here and you WON'T find any pictures of prepubescent girls in bathing suits.

Scattered thought #6 - The girls and I just went shopping for hockey sticks this afternoon. This winter, they've suddenly become quite passionate about skating and are all rather interested in playing some fun scrimmage games of hockey the next time we hit the ice. And after my night of hockey with the "W.I.L.D. Women", I'm looking forward to the next time, now that I have my own stick!

Scattered thought #7 - The other day, out of the blue, Maddie said "Mom, life is like a bowl full of spaghetti." She didn't have an explanation, but it left me wondering what deep meaning might lurk behind her random thought. Perhaps we're all just a bunch of noodles covered in sauce? Perhaps we've got nothing but squashed tomatoes to look forward to in our future? Perhaps we stick together and get all clumpy if overcooked? Hmmm...