Big Cats Bring Computer Education to Rural Tanzania

By: Nabila Khouri

Published on National Geographic Online

 At the Noloholo Environmental Center on the Maasai Steppe in Tanzania, the environmental education staff of the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW) are creating a curriculum to teach the children of nearby Loibor Siret Primary School how to use a computer.

In April of this year, a laptop computer, printer and solar panel were donated to the school by the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative sister school, Hill Freedman World Academy. It is the first computer at a government school in the area, and to many teachers and most students, the first computer they have ever seen.

Although human and big cat conflict remains a prominent issue in this part of the Steppe, with environmental education the next generation will come to understand the cost of losing the big cats in the area. Only recently, a poisoning of a pride of lions occurred in the Steppe. Although the perpetrator was arrested and charged with the crime, this does not bring back the lives lost. Six lions were killed, as well as a hyena when a farmer retaliated after lions killed several of his cows. Sadly, if one of our unique predator-proof bomas – Living Walls – had been in place, the tragedy could have been avoided. Our big cat conflict officers have installed 228 Living Walls in six villages all over the Steppe. These living walls have helped to protect more than 50,000 head of livestock on a nightly basis, keeping many people and big cats safe. But, we obviously still need more.

At APW, we have always been motivated by environmental education, and its potential to help emphasize the importance of big cats in the ecosystem. Therefore, we hope that the use of the donated computer can help the children to discover and learn more about the incredible wildlife in their own backyards. Once the teachers at Loibor Siret Primary School have learned how to use the computer, they will then teach the students; a privilege that many children in the area won’t have unless they go to a private secondary school. In the future, the children will be able to research big cats online with the help of APW’s environmental education officers and Noloholo Environmental Scholars. And, they’ll come to understand just how sad the loss of those six lions is.

Talia Calnek-Sugin, an intern at the African People and Wildlife Fund, gives a basic computer lessons to the teachers at Loibor Siret Primary School in rural Tanzania.

Talia Calnek-Sugin, an intern at the African People and Wildlife Fund, gives a basic computer lessons to the teachers at Loibor Siret Primary School in rural Tanzania.

With the support of the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative and other partners and individuals, the African People and Wildlife Fund currently sponsors 16 students – Noloholo Scholars – so they can attend a private secondary school in Monduli, Tanzania. The students are from several villages and communities, on the Steppe, including Loibor Siret.

Husain Maricha has been a scholar for one year and is already thinking about becoming a wildlife biologist.

“After visiting Tarangire National Park last year I saw many animals and thought about how wonderful it would be to study them,” he said.

Although Husain still has time to decide what animal he would like to study, he already has one in mind.

“I love lions and I think it would be good to study them. They are very beautiful and proud, and I like that about them,” Husain said.

Husain isn’t the only scholar with big dreams after graduating from the Moringe Secondary School. Many of the scholars would like to attend university and are confident in their abilities to become future engineers, doctors and biologists. As we expand the reach of the Maasai Steppe Big Cats Conservation Initiative, we know our work will continue to inspire and motivate many more children and communities on the Steppe to protect the big cats, one individual, one community at a time.

I Came a Stranger and Left a Maasai

July 2013
Feature/Travel Story

Writing and Photography by: Nabila Khouri

The sun hangs heavy through the bare trees surrounding the village. There are sounds of chanting, dancing, beating and feet pounding the earth. The ground is dusty and smells of dried cow dung; it is a scent that I have gotten used to, living in the bush. It lingers in the air as goats and children play around the village, kicking up the dust as they run around. As we walk through the gates of thorny branches, we are greeted by men who have had too much honey beer. They shake our hands and approach us kindly, rambling in Swahili as though we’d understand them, even if they weren’t drunk.

It is a Saturday afternoon and we are guests of honor at the most sacred ceremony and celebration for all Maasai people. We have come to celebrate the circumcision of six boys in the sub-village of Endebezi, in Loibor Siret, Tanzania. The houses of the children who are being circumcised are painted beautifully in white paint. It is a bold contrast against the deep red color of the clay and thatched roof huts. There are words of celebration, love, joy and welcome written in the paint. Scenes of sunrises and children playing in the cattle corals, more commonly known as bomas also decorate the red walls.


We are greeted inside the village by our friend Kurusha. He is a night watchman at Noloholo, our camp on the Maasai Steppe, and is the one who invited us to the celebration. As we look around the village, every man, woman and child is dressed in the traditional red and blue kangas. They are brightly colored as if they were new. Kurusha’s beautiful dark skin, reveals his gleaming eyes and teeth as he sees us come through the thorny gates into the village. He hugs us all. A thin woman, even darker in complexion, approaches us draped in a beautiful red-orange, zigzag patterned shawl. The intricate green beaded earrings she is wearing glimmer in the sunshine. She introduces herself as Kurusha’s mother and gently places her hand behind our heads and pulls us to her chest. It is a gesture of love and welcome. She recognizes us as her family and gives each of us a small token of her love. She removes the earrings she has on and takes off the ones I have on, replacing them with hers. The graciousness and generosity of these people will always amaze me. This woman has given me a pair of earrings that she could have sold in a market to some oblivious tourist for $10 American dollars. That money could have fed her for a week. She gives the other interns I work with a gift of about the same value.


We have accumulated a small entourage. Children and adults stop what they are doing to look up at the mzungu (white people) who have come to visit their village on this very important day. They see that we know residents of the village, that we are accompanied by workers from the African People and Wildlife Fund and they soon lose interest. Almost everyone in the village of Loibor Siret knows about the African People and Wildlife Fund (APW), because the organization works directly with the village, helping to monitor and reduce human and wildlife conflict.

We are led over to a group of warriors who have gathered in a circle to dance. The chanting is mesmerizing and I gape with camera in hand, at how their feet seem to rise so effortlessly from the ground. It is a sight that one only ever sees in issues of National Geographic or programs on the Travel Channel. The shades of blue and red jump from one side of the circle to the other. Groups of boys rush into the circle holding hands and smiling widely. We are, by far, the most out of place items in the village, but no one is paying attention. They are focused on the celebrations, the honey beer and dancing.

Kurusha ushers us away from the crowd of dancers a few minutes later, inviting us to eat the meat of the cow they ritually slaughtered that morning. The air just outside the gates of the village is thick with the smell of burning wood and blood. Thirteen heads of cattle were slaughtered for the two-day ceremony. Behind some brush and thicket we see one of the cows laid out on a bed of banana leaves. Its throat is slit, but the majority of the blood has already been collected for the warriors to drink later on in the evening. There is a slit from the breast to the flank of the animal but all the innards are still neatly tucked inside. A few fresh chunks of meat are roasting on wooden stakes only a few feet away. The air is now dense with the smell of roasting meat and dripping fat. It drips from the meat and splashes onto the charcoals below, igniting a small flame for a few seconds. Through the thicket there lays another cow. One of the warriors is gathered around it having his fill of honey beer. He greets us and motions us to take pictures of him with the dead cow.

We sit on a few logs right around the slaughtered creature. It has suffered the same fate as the one before. I wonder if I can stomach eating meat from the animal slaughtered in front of me. I am overcome with guilt, not for the cow but for how stupid it would seem to these people if I were to refuse meat because I couldn’t bear the sight of what I was eating. It’s ironic, we can be content with it on the dinner plate but never think twice about how it got there.

Kurusha brings the best cut of meat that has been cooking for some time. He kneels and begins to cut small chunks off of the meat and hands each of us a piece.


On the last piece I can fit in my bursting stomach, I get a whiff of the fresh blood spilt in random patches around the area, and I almost lose it. I manage to swallow the last piece and quickly get up, gesturing to my camera saying that I want to take pictures.

As I point my camera down at the man beside the cow he opens the flap of hairy skin that covers the innards. He gently places his hands on the parts of the animal that most Westerners wouldn’t find in the display racks at their supermarkets. With reverence he shows me each organ. Gently picking up one, to make space to show me the other. It is as though he is showing me his place of worship. In that moment I realize how important these animals are to the Maasai. They represent everything to them. More than currency, they represent worth of people, offerings and sacrifice, livelihoods and family.

I wonder from group to group, finally coming to the women who are dancing and chanting. They jump almost as high as the men and their jewelry flies through the air as they move. I am watching all this unfold like one of the many flies surrounding the village, completely unnoticed. I spot Kurusha’s mother on the other side of the circle and she motions me over to her. Her beautiful skin wrinkles with a wide smile and before I can even realize what is happening she pushes me into the circle of the women who are jumping and dancing. Some of the women chant words I can’t understand at the top of their lungs, others hold my hands and we jump together.

This ceremony and celebration is as important to the Maasai people, as a wedding would be to people in my own village. Yet, I find myself thinking that under normal circumstances I wouldn’t invite strangers to my wedding, allow them to eat my food and take pictures of me or gawk in amazement at my fancy attire.


The group soon disperses moving the dancing to the entrance of the village. They are preparing for the grand entrance of the elders and warriors. I watch from the sidelines while children grab my hands. The sun has started to set and the lighting is refracted through the dust that is being kicked up as the procession begins. The men are chanting loudly with more spirit than a group of rowdy football fans. Some carry branches of the sacred tree that represents the ceremony, while others carry their spears. In the back of the crowd comes a thin strip of flesh from one of the cows slaughtered earlier that day. They proceed into the boma and into the hut where the circumcision will take place.

Some of the men are now far too drunk to even stand, much less dance. They move oblivious to the people around them. A few sit down outside one of the houses to catch their breaths and settle their stomachs. Women and men come together for the first time in the ceremony, gyrating like maracas and shaking like pods in a windstorm. This dance involves no jumping, but rather shaking of the shoulders in a motion that I will never master. I am pulled in to dance, once more surrounded by all the people that have welcomed me into this community so openly and graciously.


The sun is setting and we have to return to camp before nightfall. We don’t stay for the circumcision; it is off limits to anyone who does not live in the village. My questions about the sacred ritual are answered later by my co-workers who are familiar with the custom and what it means to the Maasai. The ceremony only happens every seven to ten years and it represents the first step in the stage of a boy becoming a man.

I think about all the children I encountered on my journey and how desperately they all wanted to grow up, much like western children. They want to dance and chant like the men they admire in the village. They want to herd and care for their own cattle and slay the fearsome lion that might attack the bomas at night. I think about children in my village; the only things they will slay are the monsters in their dreams.

Sustainable Peace

Published as a blog post for Search For Common Ground. The original post can be accessed here.

Food, water, shelter, clothing. Every human being of the 7 billion that live on Earth today must satisfy basic needs to survive.  In grade school, we learn that we all depend on limited natural resources.  In the lush Great Lakes region of Africa and the dry landscapes of the Middle East, scarcity of natural resources is both directly and indirectly a major cause of violent conflict. 

According to the Global Policy Forum, 40 percent of all intrastate conflicts in the last sixty years have some connection to natural resources. And in a recent address UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said:

Since 1990, at least 18 violent conflicts have been fuelled by the exploitation of natural resources such as timber, minerals, oil and gas.

The landscape of the Great Lakes region and that of the Middle East could not be starker in contrast. The rich highland soil and substantial rainfall across Rwanda and Burundi create the perfect environment for growing crops for food and materials needed to build shelter. The demand for the most important resource in this area, land, grows as rapidly as the population and the number of refugees returning home.

Under the shadow of the Virunga Mountains in Rwanda, sits Donat Singirankabb’s small plot of farmland. Donat’s hands are wrinkled and cracked from the hard labor of more than 50 years of cultivating. The hair on his chin is speckled with gray and the creases around his eyes get deeper every year, but he continues to tend to his crops, even at 61 years old. IMG_1703

Rwanda and Burundi are both slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, with 12 million and 10 million inhabitants, respectively. The two nations are the most densely populated countries in Africa, with 90 percent of inhabitants completely dependent on subsistence agriculture for survival. 

“Land is everything,” Rebecca Besant, our Regional Director for East Africa said,  “and its importance becomes even more evident when inheritance comes into play.” In Rwanda, the fight for land and land rights is the main driver of violent conflict, with few policies and authorities able to monitor fair distribution.

To avoid conflict within his own family, Donat divided his land equally amongst his children, keeping a small portion for himself. “After I pass away, they will also inherit the small plot where I grow my own food,” he said. 

The majority of violent conflict surrounding land in this region occurs between family members and neighbors. Though equal distribution may seem like the obvious solution, the lines of inheritance become blurred when polygamy and having children out of wedlock are common practices. The generational practice of passing down land also means that every generation has less and less than the one before. 

Seraphine Uzamushaka is the mother of three children in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. When her husband married other women, he forbid her and their children from harvesting the crops. “He’d beat and chase me away when I’d come to harvest,” she said. “Local authorities wouldn’t help because they are all friends with my husband.” As a result, Seraphine’s eldest son left school to help the family make a living.

A recent article published on our blog states that over the last ten years, more than 500,000 ethnic-Hutu refugees came back to their homes in southern Burundi, from neighboring Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Conflicts between residents and returnees who are claiming their land back after a decade-long absence are becoming more commonplace. 

Rwanda is making notable steps to move towards a positive future. The Rwanda National Resource Authority recently implemented land mapping and registration to reduce the number of disputes around certainty of ownership. In an effort to quell the tensions and provide land and resources to returning refugees, Rwanda reduced the size of one of its biggest national parks to accommodate the added influx of people re-entering the country. Akagera National Park is now a third of the size it once was in the mid-90s. “Reducing the size of a nationally protected park might seem like replacing the land scarcity issue with a conservation issue, but it’s a hard line to draw when people have nowhere else to go,” Besant said.


The connection farmers have to land means they are often the first to notice major changes in climate patterns, based on how it affects their crops. Both local and international communities have noticed how climate change is affecting these two countries. “Rainy seasons have changed in length and time of the year and it’s much harder for people to predict the weather patterns that follow crop growth efficiency,” Besant said.

In a recent discussion held at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Mike Jobbins, our Senior Program Manager for Africa said, “Climate change is going to have a startling effect on Burundi. Between the 3% per year population growth and soil degradation, there is a problem in terms of how people can feed their families, and how they can live.”

In an effort to reduce the amount of land being needed for farming, we are leading educational projects to foster the entrepreneurial skills of young Rwandans and Burundians, so that they can choose from a wider range of career paths to support themselves and their families.

“Search produces weekly radio programs and television shows that inform citizens on everything from registering a business, to providing knowledge about the options outside of agriculture,” Anaïs Caput, our program officer for East and Southern Africa said.

As refugees from Rwanda and Burundi begin to assimilate to the place that was once home, the same cannot be said for Syrian refugees taking shelter in neighboring countries across the Middle East. In Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, the lack of resources, funding and even space, is causing tensions between host communities and refugees. 

This week, the United Nations asked Western countries to open their bordersto the thousands that still continue to leave Syria every month. In the four years since the beginning of the revolution, roughly half of Syria’s 22 million people have either fled the country or been forcibly displaced from their homes. 

Lebanon is a third of the size of the state of Maryland and currently home to just over 4 million people. 1.2 million of them, roughly 25 percent of the total, are Syrian refugees. This dramatic, sudden increase in population has brought about significant disruptions to the Lebanese economy, infrastructure, demographics, and society. In addition, refugees are often concentrated in already economically underdeveloped regions of Lebanon. As a result, Lebanese youth in these areas suffer from high levels of unemployment and feel marginalized in their own country. Marginalization on both sides leads to a vicious cycle of more resentment and pre-conceived stereotypes being perpetuated; all the while, the strain on natural resources is exacerbating tensions to a tipping point.

“The Lebanese initially welcomed the refugees with generosity, but the sheer number is now threatening to tear a fragile social fabric in some already deprived communities,” Emily Jacquard, our Country Director for Lebanon, said. Our offices in Lebanon are working in eleven local communities in collaboration with two regional partners to strengthen inter-group relations between Syrian refugees and the Lebanese host communities. Through roundtable discussions with attendees from both sides, sporting events, summer camps and youth targeted activities, the areas that we work in have seen positive changes in the attitudes towards hosts and guests.

Training sessions to strengthen existing local capacities for conflict resolution are empowering communities to take initiative in the peace process. More than 200 Lebanese and Syrian community leaders will attend trainings focused on community mediation and rumor management. Eventually, these leaders will establish local mechanisms for resolving ongoing neighborhood conflicts, such as the ones involving access to water, shelter and food. 

“In the 1970s we too sought refuge in other countries during our own war,” Khalil Harfouch, the mayor of the Lebanese town of Jezzine, said. “I am a firm believer that dialogue is the way to solve conflict, especially in our case, where displaced people are hosted by local communities,” he said. 

The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks Report states that interstate conflict is most pressing and devastating issue we are facing today. Despite its precedence over the water crisis, weapons of mass destruction and spread of infectious diseases, like Ebola, there is an obvious piece of the puzzle we are not connecting. Violent conflict is not separate from these issues, but deeply connected to all of them. In order to eliminate violence, we must look at the stressors that contribute to its inception. 

Environmental devastation and resource scarcity are among the most damaging of these stressors. Our projects on land conflict mediation, and our trainings to offer sustainable livelihoods to people who don’t have access to resources, are tackling a part of the problem. The solution, though, needs a concerted effort from governments, international organizations, civil society groups, and citizens alike, to find constructive solutions to resource management, pollution control, and conservation that include the voices and meet the needs of all parties. Respecting the environment doesn’t just mean living on a cleaner planet, but also helping sustain peace and coexistence, all across the world.

Faith, Tolerance, Peace: Muslim Students Become Filmmakers

Published as a blog post for Search For Common Ground. The original post can be accessed here.

Youth are one of the most influential leaders in conflict mitigation. Not just for the distant future, but for today. Our team in Indonesia figured out how to tap into the creative genius of young generations by equipping them with a powerful device—a camera. With a camera in tow, a young school girl named Cahyati learned to see others through a new lens, becoming an advocate for tolerance in the process.

Like other areas of the world, Indonesia has been exposed to the detrimental consequences of violent extremism. We started working in Indonesia in 2002; since then, and as of June 2013, approximately 500 young people have been involved in acts of terrorism.

In September 2011 our Indonesia office started a project in partnership with The Wahid Institute and Perhimpunan Pengembangan Pesantren dan Masyarakat (P3M). Pesantren schools are the oldest basis of Islamic education in Indonesia and like other secondary education institutions in the country, can often reinforce religious differences rather than unity. We recognized the potential in collaborating with pesantren schools to reach a wide and prominent audience of students and teachers, involving them in establishing a more tolerant and peaceful environment in their communities.

Armed with video cameras and microphones, students from ten pesantrens around the country participated in our multimedia training program. They produced radio shows, short films and documentaries celebrating diversity, acceptance and their faith.

Cahyati thought it was important to address some of the misconceptions behind Islam.
“I thought that we should explain Islam first. Pesantrens can show that Islam is peaceful and non-discriminative,” she said. “We have to help others in times of need, even if they are not Muslim. We have to be friendly to everyone. That is the true spirit of Islam.”

Students like Cahyati and her filming partner Nining incorporated these principles into their films. Instead of avoiding the natural conflicts that occur within pesantrens, they chose to expose them.
“Conflicts happen between junior and senior students, between board and members. They are petty things, but I believe conflict enables us to be more mature, as it challenges our patience.”

Ashfia, a student from a different pesantren, ventured into a Christian church to ask permission to film a scene. She was greeted by a priest who offered her support with the project. “We would like to help with the filming process and we also have people interested in making movies. We can help with another camera,” the priest said, to her amazement. Past conflicts between Christians and Muslims often create a fictitious curtain of tension in many areas of the country. The support Ashfia received from a Christian helped relieve her worries as being seen as an outsider within the community.

Oxy, Ashfia’s filming partner, also had a unique experience while filming their project. It was her first time entering a church when she started filming. After a few minutes, she noticed someone brought her a chair to sit on and when she offered to put it away they told her it was no problem, that she could leave it there. She previously thought that Christians were intolerant and would not socialize with people of other religions but her encounter with a Christian congregation showed her their kindness and friendliness.
“If it had not been for filming, I would have never entered a church. I am thankful for the new experience,” Oxy said.

Faiz Tamamy grew up in Bekasi, West Java, but has spent three years in a pesantren away from his hometown. “Bekasi is home to Islam fanatics, where people of other religions find it difficult to build their place of worship. Many choose to have their church in shophouses to avoid fanatics coming to destroy it,” Faiz said.

His time at the pesantren has made Faiz more aware of the diversity that exists even within Islam. After participating in our program Faiz was also forced to venture outside of his comfort zone and slowly saw his perceptions of religious conflict adapt.
“I have totally changed my point of view after going to school at the pesantren. When I was home I believed that Islam and Christianity were totally different and unrelated. I first learnt tolerance among friends and then among different cultures. Now that we are introduced to Search for Common Ground my level of understanding of different religions has improved.”

Our commitment to interfaith cooperation in Indonesia continues. In early 2014 we initiated a project among young leaders in 14 schools and 17 universities in nine cities vulnerable to youth recruitment into violent extremism groups. Participants developed ongoing projects to support religious tolerance and coexistence. Our five-day workshops raised students’ awareness of the danger of violent extremism and developed their leadership capacity to prepare them as peace leaders in their respective areas.

We recently held the first multimedia production training for high school & university students, where they learned about blog writing & design, visual design and documentary film. Following the training, held from January to March, we hope to organize a media for peace festival later this year displaying these young people’s creative works.

Interfaith cooperation seems like an impossible goal—an impracticable solution—especially when years of tension and mistrust blanket a society. Our courageous, young filmmakers demonstrate that it’s not just possible, but that the desire to learn and coexist are present throughout Indonesia.

The Happiest Guy On Campus

Robert Ferguson waddles through the aisles of Martin’s supermarket with intention and a smile. His green employee polo shirt is a blur as he walks briskly fixing the aisles and helping shoppers with their bags. If the doors at Martin’s weren’t automatic, he’d probably be holding them open for customers too. You may not recognize his name, you may not even know who he is but if you’ve been to Martin’s after 6pm, attended sporting events on campus or been to the campus post office, you probably know Robert as that stranger who always says hello, with a grin from ear to ear.

His warm and welcoming personality has earned him the title, “the happiest man on campus.” But Robert no longer works on campus. A few weeks ago, Robert was let go from his job at the campus post office, after 36 years of work at the university.

The news of his release shocked him more than anything else.

“My first reaction was just total shock,” he said. “After 36 years of work you’re bound to make mistakes.”

The mistake Robert made was accidentally locking the keys of the mail van in the car while it was still running. The car was parked and nobody was hurt or injured. Upon realizing his mistake, Robert called his supervisor to unlock the van. The problem was cleared up within a few minutes.

Robert was hesitant to talk about why he was let go. It took about an hour of casual conversation to get him to even mention his work at the post office. He was adamant about being as respectful as possible to his previous employers and his former co-workers.

“I don’t want to bash anyone or cause trouble, but what they did just ain’t right,” he said.

Robert’s supervisor, Jodi Will, was contacted but never responded to requests for a comment on what happened.

Robert is still employed by the university as a parking assistant for sporting events and games, but is no longer a post office worker. Seven years ago the post office was outsourced to multinational imaging and electronics company, Ricoh Company LTD. The technology, printing and office equipment provider, not only handles campus mail, but also supplies and fixes any office equipment on campus.

“To say that Robert misses his job is an understatement,” Marylou Ferguson said. Robert had already been at the post office for 8 years when he met his wife, Marylou. The pair have been married for 28 years and she was in dismay upon hearing Robert was let go.

“It’s just very sad that after 36 years of faithful and dedicated service that Robert be let go for something so petty,” she said.

“He won’t say a bad thing about anybody, even if they hurt him,” she said. “The truth is Robert hasn’t been respected while under his supervisor.”

When asked to elaborate, both Robert and his wife refused to say anything negative about Ms. Will. Robert simply said he felt hurt and disappointed.

Within weeks of hearing about his departure, Robert said he received a number of calls and messages from people he knew at the university, saying how sorry he was to have left. When contacted, people had nothing but positive things to say about Robert.

“Robert is such a great guy,” Jeanne Hollister, the administrative coordinator at the Speech Center, said.

Behind the deep-set creases surrounding Robert’s blue eyes, there is nothing but light when talking about his time at the university. Robert grew up in the Richmond area, and the University of Richmond has always been a part of his life. He grew up watching the Spiders play his favorite sports and continues that tradition with his own daughter today.

Although he didn’t attend university, after all his work at UR Robert sees it as his alma mater. Marylou graduated from the university in 1990 and the entire family loves watching the home football and basketball games that take place every year.

Sports and family make Robert happy, but even more so, his faith.

When asked what his secret was to his seemingly everlasting happiness, Robert said God and his wife.

Robert is a devout Baptist. He has always viewed his faith as the source of his positivity and his family as the source of love and inspiration.

“Whatever challenge you face or whatever trouble you’re in, if you turn to God he’ll help you find your way,” he said. “Even though He’s shut a door, I know God is going to open a window.”

The financial worry from losing his job, is effecting Robert and his family. Though Robert has other jobs and Marylou is also employed, their biggest concern is their daughter Erica, who is a fulltime student at Roanoke College.

“The loss of his job is of course effecting us financially but it’s also hard seeing Robert lose something he really cared about,” Marylou said.

Robert has interviewed at several places, hoping another employment opportunity will arise. In the meantime he hopes another position at UR will open up soon.

“The university is a part of me, it’s a part of my family,” he said. “I was sure it would the last place I’d work.”


Precious Cargo: Human Trafficking in Richmond, VA

The heater in the police car is set at 75 degrees, but outside the temperature has dropped to 22 degrees. Officer Mitch of the Richmond Police Department drives up and down Chamberlayne Avenue around the East End and through the projects of Richmond, Va. He is on the regular route for his 10-hour night shift.

As he passes his base, the Fourth Precinct, he points out the windows at the many cheap motels that line Chamberlayne Avenue. In four blocks there are seven.

“They like to hang around here,” he said, slowing down to give me a better look.

The Richmond Motel has a big sign that flashes “Vacancy” in red lights. There are four or five cars parked in the parking lot but no one is outside. The yellow stained curtains of the rooms, are closed tight and the lights above the hallways flicker. The same scene is quite similar for all the others.

Although there is no one around, Officer Mitch assures me that this is where people come to look for prostitutes.

“Sometimes in the summertime they’ll be 50 or 60 people out on the street, all on one block,” he said, “but black people hate the cold so it looks empty tonight, but they’ll be around.”

Officer Mitch is a tall African-American man with a shaved head and thick muscles hidden beneath his dark blue uniform. His combat boots are some of the largest shoes I’ve ever seen but he is friendly and talkative as he shows me around the Projects of the city.

In the three years that I have lived in Richmond, not once have I ventured past the point where North Belvidere Street merges to become Chamberlayne Avenue. The streetlights seem to appear less often, the traffic is sparse and the pedestrians are too. I arranged this ride-along to get more information on human trafficking in the city of Richmond. As the lines of sex trafficking and prostitution become blurred so does the city’s ability to combat the problem through law enforcement.

When I walked into the roll-call room of the Fourth Precinct of the Richmond Police Department, 14 men and two women turned to look at me. Half of the men were in their mid-twenties or thirties, fit and shaved bald. The other half had bellies that protruded almost as much as their hairlines receded. They were the next set of officers prepping to take their 10p.m. shift. After introducing myself I told them why I was there.

“I’m reporting and researching for an article about human and sex trafficking in Richmond,” I said. Their heads flew backwards in laughter.

“You won’t find any of that around here,” one of the officers said.

But just four months before, I had spoken to an intern at the Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI), a non-profit faith based organization trying to put an end to human trafficking in the city.

“There is a lot of sex trafficking and for the most part we know it’s happening on the Southside of the city,” Addie Rauschert said.

Rauschert started volunteering with the organization two years ago and is now an intern at the office in Richmond.

“They’ve been arrests on Broad Street, the Midlothian Turnpike, Jefferson Davis highway the West End and in the East End around areas like Church Hill,” she said. During our hour-long interview Rauschert checked her phone 30 times. She got continuous updates from her boss and the founder of RJI, Sarah Pomeroy. “We also know that wherever there is prostitution going on, there is bound to be sex trafficking.”

Until two years ago, Virginia fell behind on changing its laws and legislation with regards to prostitution and trafficking. While other states began to implement harsher policies to prevent and deal with the problem, Virginia did not.

“Virginia was terrible in terms of laws. All the states surrounding us were changing their laws which pushed traffickers into the state and the city,” Rauschert said.

In 2010 Virginia was known as one of the “Dirty Dozen” states because of the state’s lack of legislation surrounding the issue of sex trafficking.

“The entire Virginia coalition including RJI, the Polaris Project, the Gray Haven Project and others are pushing for this legislation to continue changing, and only now have we begun to see results.”

Only two months before my interview with Rauschert, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Neil H. MacBride, said in an article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, that he planned to make prosecuting sex trafficking and related crimes a major initiative.

“We have a zero-tolerance, one-strike policy toward juvenile sex trafficking in this district,” MacBride said. “Anyone we find who aids, entices or forces a young girl into the vile world of prostitution will pay a very heavy price for his or her actions,” he stated in the article.

But as those at the frontlines push for new legislation the people who will implement the laws into their work, such as police officers and other law enforcement, face a difficult challenge—finding the traffickers. I chose to ride-along with an officer from the Fourth Precinct because the routes toured by the officers on that side of the city correlated to the locations Rauschert had mentioned in our interview just four months before. As the ride-along pressed on into the early hours of the morning Officer Mitch could tell who was “looking for a John.”

“A ‘John’ is the guy looking for sex,” he said.

Five hours into the ride-along there had been a few traffic violations. Tickets were given, even some licenses were suspended but nothing else happened. At three o’clock in the morning, driving down a small road that ran four blocks east of Chamberlayne Avenue, Officer Mitch saw something. As he slowly went around the block, a woman appeared out of the fog walking with her hands deep in the pockets of her thick leather jacket. He passed her in the car as she walked the opposite way, he slowed the car and watched her fade in the side view mirror. I turned to look back at her and she continued on her way. Fifteen minutes later, he circled the car back around, but this time starting further down the block. We stayed on the straight road but he would look for her down every road that met with the one we were travelling on.

Then again, out of the fog she appeared.

“No woman wonders around these parts at three o’clock in the morning unless they looking for work,” he said, “she’s looking.”

The woman drew no attention to herself. She was fully clothed in jeans, flat boots and her leather jacket, with her curly hair slicked back in a ponytail. She was about 5 feet and 8 inches tall and probably weighed 170 or 180 pounds.

“I know she’s a prostitute,” Officer Mitch said, but “I can’t do anything about it.”

He informed me that officers can only make arrests if they catch the person in the act, or in the process of committing another crime.

“And even if I did see her do something suspicious and question her, I wouldn’t be able to search her, only female officers can search females,” he said.

As he continues down the block only five minutes later he spots another woman, but unlike the other one she is much younger. When he turns down another road to loop back around to get a better look, she is gone.

“It’s harder to tell in the winter time because they cover themselves up, but you can always tell if a woman is carrying lots of condoms and a toothbrush.”

In a café in downtown Richmond, Joshua Bailey agreed to meet with me to discuss his initiative, the Gray Haven Project. Although I asked to meet at the organization’s headquarters the location is totally confidential except to him, his wife and the three volunteers who work there.

“The privacy and safety of the survivors is our number one priority,” he said when I asked, “We want them to feel they have a safe haven.”

In the summer of 2010, he and his wife Andrea began the planning and preparation to form an organization that would help the survivors of human trafficking in the city of Richmond. After two years of planning, they started providing services in February of this year and since then have assisted 12 survivors.

“We wanted to have an approach that was well thought out and developed as best as we could,” he said.

Gray Haven, as he refers to it, provides survivors with whatever they may need to take the next step in their lives. Joshua and Andrea go farther than education and advocacy, to working with the survivors directly, personally providing counselling, medical attention, basic resources and even immigration help with internationals.

“I don’t necessarily think that Richmond has more of a trafficking issue than any other city in the U.S., but people just don’t know it’s happening,” Joshua said.

Until four months ago I had no idea that a five-minute car ride separated one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in the city from the neighbourhood that Officer Mitch showed me around the night of my ride-along.

Monument Avenue is lined with beautiful brick houses that sit on cobble stone streets and lawns that seem to stay permanently green. At five o’clock in the evening, runners can be seen jogging up and down the road, iPods in tow. Well-dressed elderly women walk their toy poodles and terriers on rhinestone pink leashes. This is the image that many people have when they think about a southern capital city, but this struggle to abolish slavery seems to be an image that the city cannot shake.

About 150 years ago Richmond was known as the biggest African slave-trading city in the Western hemisphere. In 2007 the city erected the Slavery Reconciliation Statue, only a 10-minute drive from Chamberlayne Avenue. According to the Virginia tourism website, the 15-foot, half-ton statue was created as an initiative to raise awareness and increase informational accuracy about Richmond’s historical role in the slave trade. But ironically, the problem resurfaces as organizations like Gray Haven begin to spread their awareness of the present troubles the city is having with combating modern slavery.

Only days before meeting with me, Joshua had gone to Boston to give a speech and talk to a group of students about his initiative in Richmond and many others like it all over the U.S. According to a statistic on the Richmond Justice Initiative website, there are more slaves today, than there have ever been. Last year the sex slave industry profited more than $32 billion. After the illegal drug trade, human trafficking is the largest criminal industry.

“The more we get the word out is the better chance we have at abolishing modern slavery,” Joshua said.

Just a year after Gray Haven was founded Virginia governor, Bob McDonnell signed three pieces of legislation to prevent trafficking and provide assistance. In the 2012 general assembly session all three bills were passed. In September of this year, President Obama gave a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting. The President spoke of the many countries that are taking the stand—that the U.S. has done and will continue to do—to pass legislations to abolish human trafficking.

In 2012 and every year to follow, the Annual Trafficking Report collected by the Secretary of State from other countries, will now include the United States. Along with other legislations, the Obama administration will begin to work more closely with the FBI directly in response to this issue.

In Richmond, the FBI has already proven to be one of the most effective task forces in finding traffickers and their slaves. On July 3, of this year, Korey Jermaine Reynolds from Charlotte, N.C. pled guilty to transporting a 13 yr-old girl for sex trafficking in Richmond. The FBI found an Internet post from the girl that Reynolds had been trafficking on a website called Backpage—a website commonly used to find escort services because it’s easy accessibility and requires no age of consent. They responded to the post by way of an undercover officer, posing to be someone interested in meeting with the girl in the photo, whom the FBI suspected was underage.

After setting up a sting operation the FBI were able to arrest Reynolds and he was later charged with transporting a minor across state lines for purposes of prostitution. The Richmond Justice Initiative became aware of the story and found out that the 13 yr-old, girl had only been in Richmond for three days when Reynolds was arrested. In the course of those three day, she had been forced to perform sexual acts with 16 different men.

According to a statistic by the FBI, the average age that a girl enters prostitution is between 11 and 14 years old. In the cases that have been presented to the Gray Haven Project, Joshua and Andrea have encountered a wide range of age in the 11 women and the one man that they have attended to.

“The women we have seen have ranged from 13 to 42,” Joshua said.

Although the exact number is uncertain, it is estimated that 70 percent of the people trafficked for sex in the U.S. are citizens, and the majority that are internationals are from Latin America.

“We think that a lot of the trafficking takes place in lower-income, Hispanic communities in the city,” Rauschert said. “Although the majority of people think this is solely in women there are a significant number of males who are affected.”

On my police ride-along with Officer Mitch he mentioned how common it is to see transgender male prostitutes, almost as much as women.

“It’s harder to tell with women, but once there’s a man dressed like a woman in the Projects, you know they’re up to no good,” he said. No matter what any officer suspects, unless someone is caught in the act there is nothing, not even the FBI, can do.

“What will happen a lot of the time is we stop people for minor crimes like traffic violations and when we check their records, sometimes a warrant for an arrest or previous major crimes will allow us to be more thorough,” Officer Mitch said.

Although statistics indicate the number of men being trafficked globally is only 20 percent—the rest being women and children—the RJI believes many of them are passing through the foster care system and about 80 to 90 percent come from a history of sexual abuse. The children that enter the sex trafficking ring remain under the control of their traffickers or pimps, with the majority of women or girls starting before the age of 18.

In Virginia, if a person under 18 is caught selling sex to another and they are being trafficked in the process the case would be tried as a child trafficking case. This would hold the victim or survivor unaccountable for any of the crimes or things he or she may have been forced to do. However, even if that person is still under the control of another, but is 18 or older, the case is viewed as a prostitution case and the person will be held responsible for the crime.

“This is something we desperately want to change,” Rauschert said. “So many of these victims have no choice but to stay with their pimps and traffickers and if they are prosecuted as prostitutes, that will forever be a part of who they are.”

The RJI and other coalitions in the sate are trying to change the way the word “prostitute” is even used.

“We want the term child prostitute to instead be CSEC or child sexually exploited victim,” she said.

Joshua also agrees that by changing the name from having a negative connotation will allow victims to move on with their lives.

“It won’t change what happened, but without that label on a record it will help them find jobs and be more accepted into society that only has one view of the word prostitute,” Joshua said.

It is four’ o clock in the morning and Officer Mitch is on his way back to the Fourth Precinct to drop me back to my car. He has four hours left until the end of his 10-hour shift.

He advises that I take Monument Avenue back home at this hour of the night. It takes me 5 minutes with five red lights to get from the top of Chamberlayne Avenue to Monument Avenue. The juxtaposition between the two settings is a drastic reminder of how close human trafficking is to the fresh cut lawns of the suburban brick houses.

SIDS facing major economic and environmental setbacks without green reformation

Published as a news update for the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) .

“The renewable transition for all islands is really an opportunity for the islands to define and realize their own potential for a green economy, because without sustainable energy being a part of that they will become the canaries in the coal mine,” Justin Locke said.

Locke was part of a panel of esteemed representatives working in sustainable economic development in Small Island Developing States or SIDS. Master’s candidates from The John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Energy, Resources, and Environment Program, presented a year of research to the panel.

The students were part of a practicum course that allowed them to consult for a client organization aimed at addressing international environmental and energy policy issues. The client, SIDS DOCK, is an initiative among 31 member countries of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to provide mechanisms to assist in transforming national energy sectors and help generate financial resources to adapt to climate change.

“Islands are really at the forefront of climate change,” Celeste Connors, Associate Practitioner in Residence at SAIS, said. “They are particularly vulnerable to climate related issues including seal level rise, biodiversity loss, limited resources and catastrophic natural disasters, but at the same time, are laboratories for solutions.”

Students, Taylor Crompton, Madeleine Holland, David Pedigo and Erica Shifflett highlighted their policy recommendations to mobilize sustainable development investments in Small Island Developing States. These islands differ greatly in location, cultural diversity, history and governance. Creating a plan that fits all is very challenging, but the research presented took these disparities into account.

The main point the students wanted the audience to leave with were: an understanding that SIDS are well-positioned to turn their challenges into opportunities; long term vision for projects that generate electricity and programs that generate sustainable development are essential in a successful future; regional cooperation can scale up efforts to enable leaders and empower latecomers; and most importantly, that political will is necessary in achieving any goals.

One of the most startling components of their research was the illustration of the high dependency on fuel imports for electricity in most of these island states. In a comparison of 16 SIDS, the importation of fuel alone accounted for between 20 percent and 180 percent of total exports.

“This pattern makes profit from trade almost impossible when other imports such as food and manufactured goods are considered,” Pedigo said.

Energy sector reform, innovative financing mechanisms and long term resilience planning were the three solutions offered to combat the cycle of high electricity prices, high public debt and vulnerability to climate change.

“The challenges SIDS face are significant, but they are also very interrelated; they feed into one another to collectively impede economic development,” Holland said. “The solutions to these challenges require holistic and innovative action.”

The Seychelles is engaged in a Debt-for-Nature Swap, a financial transaction in which a portion of a developing nation’s debt is forgiven in exchange for local investments in environmental conservation measures. This debt swap will result in increased marine protected areas in the country to 30 percent. By protecting the marine habitats such as coral reefs, the island nation is better protected against powerful storms and swells.

After the presentation, each panelist provided a brief response, expressing their gratitude and admiration of the work and research. The first panelist to speak was Ambassador Ronny Jumeau of the Seychelles. As the Ambassador for Climate Change and Small Island Developing State Issues, he argued that the problems such as high electricity prices, high public debt and vulnerability to climate change, were all development issues.

“The solution to all these problems are providing opportunities and challenges for us to solve development issues. We are too small, with the little resources we have, to be dividing these issues into separate empires,” he said.

Ambassador Jumeau urged people to “wake up and smell the coffee,” as many island states are already being left behind in developing the resilience to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.

“How can we buy time and make it easier for our populations and our communities, our people to adapt to the transitions that are headed our way whether we like it or not?” he said.

He, along with other panelists, stressed the need for further collaboration amongst the SIDS in sharing information, data and solutions.

Panelist Jennifer DeCesaro, the Director of Technology–to-Market Program at the US Department of Energy spoke about her agency’s contribution to small island energy transitions. The work being done resulted in the publication of a new playbook with case studies, research and observations from studies done in Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands and other island states such as New Zealand and Iceland.

“The playbook has phases one through six to help islands on their energy transition,” DeCesaro said. “The first step is committing to transition, then setting the vision, assessing the opportunities, doing project preparation and execution, operation and then finally, looking at improving processes.”

Addressing several detailed components to the issue of development was panelist, Justin Locke. Locke is the Director of Islands at the Carbon War Room and expressed that regulatory and policy framework were still not mature enough to take on full-scale projects.

“Land is something we must consider in our development plans,” he said. “Renewable energy becomes very much a part of the natural landscape just like the resorts and hotels that have become a part of the landscape.”

He also made note of the project development costs and the often tedious and drawn out process that makes investors hesitant to commit. There are often multiple stakeholders involved, from the politicians to the investors. Lack of communication and access make projects complex and drawn-out, leading to cuts in funding or stunting of production.

Jan Hartke, the panelist from the Clinton Climate Initiative spoke significantly of the importance of building partnerships with international communities, NGOs and other islands. He thanked the students that presented for their efforts to highlight problems that he hoped to make clear in his work as the Global Director of Clean Energy.

In his response, he compared the effects of climate change and natural disaster on islands and the United States, focusing on the difficulties to recuperate and rebuild after major hurricanes and storms.

“When we think about what Katrina did to one city, imagine what happens when an entire country’s GDP is wiped out for an entire year, maybe even two,” he said.