Sunday, July 1, 2007

It Rains... and then it pours

Yes! I'm back.. Had been on a break of sorts from blogging and most of the other online activities that I'd been so engrossed with during the fellowship, but I'm most certainly back.

What's with the subject of the blog, you ask? Well, in case you've missed out on my photographs and the videos that I've been uploading, it's been raining in Karachi. And not just rain. LOTs of rain.

I've often wondered who is responsible (or as is the trend now, be held 'accountable') for the mess that the financial capital of Pakistan gets into, once a few drops of rain hit the roads. Don't get me wrong - I am actually quite a big fan of the City Nazim (Mayor) Mustafa Kamal, and I am personally thrilled each time I drive down an underpass or see how quickly an overhead bridge is coming up - but come on... in the absence of diversions and detours, is there someone responsible for my rundown car, or the fact that I couldn't get online or make calls from my cellphone, missing an important editorial deadline because the electricity failed and cell reception was HORRIBLE.

It's the same story pretty much everytime. Each time it drizzles, Karachi comes to a sad standstill because authorities (and whoever they might be) claim that they weren't prepared for the situation. Ummm.. We've been having monsoon rains this time of the year, for decades! This year, the excuses for not being able to manage the traffic or not being ready for the severe downpour, just sound lame.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Nobody Said It Was Easy: Started as Fellows, Left as Friends

And so the 2 months have come to a close. 8 weeks. 60 days. 1440 hours and many minutes of meeting people, representing our opinions, thoughts, beliefs, institutions, policies, strategies, ideas and the rest of what we carry in our bags. Nobody said it would be easy, however nobody said exactly how difficult it would be either. In a sense, no matter what anyone would have said to describe the Fellowship experience, could not have even begun to do justice to what the 24 of us have gone through.

Is it beneficial? Yes! Was it helpful to our careers? Yes! Was it something that helped us to learn and something that each of us can hope to implement in our own lives and organizations? Yes! Gunvor Kronman has called a board meeting in her company at 9am Monday morning. I have called a staff meeting at 9am on Friday morning (3 hours after I land back home!) I'm sure many others have done similar execution amongst their own groups. So yes - this group of 24 fellows has not only learned, but is exploding to implement. I mean - you really needed to be there in the room when all of us came together - obviously everyone was bursting with ideas, but then we were all speaking the same language - the language of progress and advancement; the language of change and unity. I guess all of us feel the celebration of sharing ideas comparable to a soda bottle that pops open after you shake it. Pop. It's out there. Yes. The fellows have arrived back into the world as we know it, armed with ideas, a solid network and the courage to change the world as we know it.

Whether it is Koby in Israel or Fatin in Saudi Arabia; Kai in China or Yoichi in Japan; Farith in Malaysia or Christian in Romania - Supinya in Thailand or Gregory back in Russia, they will make sure that there are changes. Marcelo will continue to make waves in the Popularisation of Science and Technology in Brazil and David will continue to lead us towards the reunion in Kenya (hopefully he will still be willing to drive us around..)

Olga in the Czech Republic is perhaps the greatest tribute that visually describes the character of this group - we're strong and we are focused. You can talk about whatever you want, Olga will only talk to you about the Czech and the Prague and her dream of building Central Europe's first Entrepreneurship University, and we will only talk to you about fresh ideas that bring people together. Shirlene has certainly already helped to paint all of us with a magical airbrush that brings us to agree that Entrepreneurship IS tough and that we're ALL creative to some extent and will continue to do so all the way from Singapore.

Rafael is another wonderful description of this group - When we saw how versatile and multi-talented Dr Bundoc was after watching him make paperclips disappear before our very eyes, I realized how appropriate Rafael's talent was - we are all magicians in addition to the roles we play by day. Kash can make you laugh at jokes lacking a punchline; Roberto can bring down the house with the infamous Bomba song; Bulent can give you the inside scoop on Hollywood actresses plastiqueness and other sizzling gossip that only doctors in his profession have access to (and of course, lead the Macerena like nobody else); Wafa can sing a song and make you cry (only because it is sad!); Emine can pull people off the sidelines and make them dance. Rizwana can out talk pretty much everyone else who tries to tell her their opinion and then make them believe it was their idea to begin with!

Susie can light up the room with her smile (and I only think that is humanly possible not only because she is such a beautiful person, but also because she is really really really tall!); Ratish can pull the group together and pull a vote out of a bag quicker than anyone else I have seen; and Caroline Casey can organize a party that makes financial and emotional sense to everyone in less than 2 minutes and then make sure each and everyone is a part of the effort (and then push people on the ice and stand back and coax them back up; and then order coffee mochiatolattecaramalatte only because there is no way I can pronounce that!)

And then there's me. I get to watch and learn from all of my friends. I have the almost-impossible role of documenting each memory that is created and make sure we don't forget how far we have come. Of course, nobody said it was easy. There was obviously no way they could have known what the amazingly fluid and potent chemistry of this group was. They call it the Eisenhower Fellowship, but being part of this specific group was a privilege. We met back in May as Fellows. We left each other early this morning as Friends.

More later. What?! There's MORE?! Of course there is. Definitely. The 2-month program has ended, but the real challenges of the Fellowship have just begun and I will continue to write about what all of us continue to strive to achieve.

Nobody said it was easy.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Opinions of Media in the US: Weapons of Mass Distraction

There. I said it. That’s what I think the media is pretty much all about. I am surprised, along with so many people, at this simple, very obvious fact – the media is more of a distraction than a way to communicate with people.

Rightly expressed by my co-fellow, Wafa (Palestine), “When the tragedy at Virginia tech took place, there was still more news about Anna Nicole Smith’s baby and controversies being covered more than tragedy itself. And of course, why isn’t anyone really addressing the question as to why guns are being allowed on campus, or why it is so easy to buy guns. While it might be an issue that one political party or the other may wish to hold national debates on, if the media would just inform the public on the issues involved from both sides, that might just be one less issue that the candidates will be debating on.

Presently if you ask the average joe on the road as to why guns haven’t been banned, he will give you one of two replies: either that he doesn’t know or the casual response that every citizen has the right to protect himself. Beyond that, nothing.

Believe it or not, America is engaged in war. Not in its own land but it definitely has a large number of American soldiers on its behalf. How much of the news actually covers the war? Except for the casual news update, do viewers in the US really even know what is going on there? Wafa was absolutely right in pointing out very early on that though the US is in the middle of such a huge war, you don’t get the same feeling through the news and media.

While I write this down, my mailbox is flooded with news reports and people writing to me about the violence happening in Pakistan. Though most of the unbelievable acts are happening in Islamabad, hundreds of miles away from my home in Karachi, I find the front page of the BBC and CNN international, along with countless other news sources, having the worst bits highlighted. Yes. I fear the security of my home and my family and it is ironic that the same media sources don’t spend as much time to push the raging battles in Iraq on the same front pages.

I read the news reports about Pakistan and I want to run back home and be with my family. Do the newsrooms really care to emit such panic amongst the people of the US by regularly reporting about the war in Iraq?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Boston Globe: reporting the circle of life in the US

So this morning when we were told that we’d be going to the Boston Globe and then interacting with a group of Ethnic Media, the group of a few of the fellows had a list of tough questions to ask. And if anyone thought that we’d just sit and listen into what the groups had to say, they were obviously going to encounter a different group.

Over the course of the fellowship, the change in so many of us has been visible. Whereas the first week of the fellowship was meant to be a lot more of “watch and learn” by the time we reached the half way point of the program we had shed our shells, and grown up – We wanted to learn, be challenged and also to raise challenges and impress our experiences and observations with our meetings.

The Boston Globe meeting, I would have to say, was interesting at best. You have to understand that the fellowship brings together people from foreign countries with diverse backgrounds and that gives us the opportunity to engage in dialogue to find out how we can bring greater benefit to our people who are in the US and those that are back home. And that always gives cause to the discussion of diversity to take center stage.

While the fact that the Boston Globe, like so many other newspapers, had decreased its circulation because of the competition that the internet was giving to them, I was shocked to know that over time, they had closed down their offices in foreign countries. What?! No foreign correspondence!? So where do they get their news and how diverse can a daily be that wishes to play its role as the responsible news delivery mechanism for its readers, wishing to provide both sides of a story?

While the Editor of the Boston Globe, Martin Baron, mentioned the phrase, “we are a diverse community in this country and in this State”, I have to question how that diversity is represented and ultimately, expressed through the paper. I questioned. I wasn’t convinced.

Except for the news items that are being picked up from let’s say Reuters, there doesn’t seem to be too much else going on. In fact, the copy of the Globe that Mandira ran to pick up, had one page dedicated to World News, of which 20% of the space would have been taken up by ads. I just found that sad.

I look at the amount of reporting that the US corporate media groups do on the world, and then am just not surprised that the average American is so shocked when he comes across one of us “diverse people”. I’m not saying that you should give up publishing content about America – of course not. But there are other ethnic groups out there. They are part of the American society that many of these publications report about, yet, they are not included as part of their stories.

Regardless, I’d like to thank Martin Baron, Editor of the Boston Globe for his time in arranging to meet with the Eisenhower Fellows.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Morning in Peoria

It’s 728am and I couldn’t resist not sitting and writing outside on the wooden porch. There is no amount of imagery that Hollywood could produce that would allow you to experience the serene calm tranquility that surrounds the home. We are surrounded by farmland on all four sides. The front of the home overlooks the cornfield that the family will plants during the last two weeks of April and continues on into the first 2 weeks of May.

The wind blows so strongly it shakes the house and you can hear it creak with the pressure that is exerted on its foundations. The skies above me are hazy and it looks like there is going to be rain at some point, but the clouds are just not heavy enough at the moment.

I can hear life all around me. Birds, the occasional barking of a dog and the rustling of the trees. I take out my MP3 recorder, plug in some headphones and make my way down the trodden path that leas to the home. I love the strong impact that the breaking of twigs and crunching of gravel makes beneath my feet as I walk, and I record these sounds. I walk around to one of the bushes to the left side of the home and see the various flowers that are coming up and focus on the bleeding heart. What an absolutely glorious flower. I see the embers of the bonfire we had the night before along with the sticks we used to barbeque our food and the marshmallows.

There are young trees that the family has been planting but it will take a few months or even years before they are old enough to stand up strong.

My 24 hours at the farm seem to have stood up to the test of the short days that we all experience. I didn’t need a wristwatch to tell me what the time was or how many minutes had passed by.

We are so stuck in the routines of our fast lives and busy contributing and being philanthropists for the material things, we tend to forget how wonderful and giving Mother Nature is. You come this close to her and you realize how little we do to take care of her.

The Ginger-Evans Farm in Peoria: Landing as guests, leaving as family

When I first heard that I would be spending two days at a farm about 4 hours outside of Chicago, I have to admit, I was confused. Coming to the US on an Eisenhower Fellowship means that you have to leave your work schedule to do fun stuff? Could this be possible? But I did have a hunch that being on a farm would mean being cut off from the world, spending time learning about people who may or may not be able to make any impact on my life of thinking.

Boy was I wrong.

Supinya and Saroth (Thailand) and I arrived in Peoria after a surprisingly quick 40-minute flight. Suzanne Ginger came running our way to greet us, we managed to crack a few jokes and within the first minute, I knew I was really going to get along with her. Isn’t that strange?

So after loading the Thai Fellows’ bags into the great big truck that they had brought along (I chose to travel with just a knapsack because I was going fly back to Chicago where the rest of my luggage was still sitting unlike these guys, who were flying on to Boston), Michael, Suzanne and the three of us took off towards their farm.

Though all the discussions we had were memorable, one discussion stands out I my mind. Suzanne and I were talking about schools and the role they played in the lives of children. We both agreed on the need for a formal learning process and also the fact that parents had increased their dependency on schools to take care of children whilst decreasing their role in the lives of children. Here’s something interesting that Suzanne said – “most children are not given any responsibilities for contributing towards the family or the community, therefore their appreciation of the same doesn’t grow over a long period of time. Its like they grown in isolation from the community that most are expected to come back to. And then we’re surprised that the children feel that they cannot ‘fit in’.”

I completely agree. As with all other things, responsibilities need to be nurtured over a long period of time. How can you expect a school to mould the character of your child, and only begin to really get to know him when he graduates from being a child into an adult? And how can you expect children to have a relationship with their land if they don’t grow up with a strong link to it? I keep thinking of a simple point like this, and the massive brain drain that Pakistan experienced, suddenly makes sense.

I need to point out here that I am a product of the school system in Pakistan, and have been in one institution or the other pretty much all my life. Suzanne and Mike made the conscious decision to homeschool their two children. And it didn’t take me long to be convinced that Xavier (14) and Quinn (11) would turn out to be strong, confident and better young men than most of the products of today’s educational system. Driven, confident, courteous and most important, well behaved and have tremendous experiences to draw from.

The family leads a simple life, much to the kind I am accustomed to. There is no certainly no glamour in living out in the middle of nowhere, but it does give you a chance to listen into your surroundings and give you the peace and quiet to figure out what is most important in life. The fast life of the urban city tends to blur our opinions and beliefs.

Yes, the home still hauls water from the town to run in their home; and true that there can be an inconsistent flow of electricity; there aren’t any bright lights or fast cars zooming by and unless they get out into the city, the only people they will probably interact with will be either their own family or neighbors who are at a distance. But the serenity does allow you to think and get perspective, something that can’t always be done at the speed of light.

2 days on the farm, and I feel sincerely revitalized. According to Suzanne, we were guests as we entered her home through the front door, and soon became part of the friend&family group to sit in the kitchen and graduate through to the backdoor. I have to say I was amazed at how quickly and smoothly the transition took place.

I wish the family the very best and hope that I will be able to meet with them again.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Pigeon that Crossed the Road

If you were to ask me what I loved most about the environment around me here in the United States of America, you are bound to hear a rather odd comment back from me. I have spent the past few weeks of my fellowship here in the various states, walking around. I think that is the best way to learn the most about the environment around you and I’m really glad I did that. And here’s the weird bit I learned:

Pigeons and birds are so comfortable walking around people.

I am one of those people who will be happy to take a detour if I see a small animal infront of me who I think might be frightened of me, so these birds really intrigue me. They fly down to the ground and just stay here. In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen birds walk around as much as I have seen them walking here in the past few weeks. I found it particularly funny when a pigeon was trying to cross the road at the same time I did.

You have to understand that the only memory I have of pigeons is in London, where I was trying to get the pigeon to eat out of the palm of my hand, quite unsuccessfully because irritating small boys and girls were running around in aimless circles scaring them birds off. Even at that time, I remember thinking now why the heck they would want to do that!

Pigeons and birds, by nature, are very sensitive creatures and the fact that they are learning to cope with boisterous human behavior is indeed a fascinating marvel of nature.

As Mary Poppins would say, “Feed the birds!” We certainly benefit in having more birds on the ground waking around us than up in the air dropping in on us unannounced!