Saturday, January 30, 2010

Week 8: War Resisters International Conference

These last 10 days have been too eventful to easily describe. After returning to Pala (Kerala) from Trivananpuram, we had just enough time to hand wash our clothes, repack, and set up to the War Resisters Internernational (WRI) Conference in Ahmadabad. This gathering occurs every 3-4 years at different locations throughout the world, this time drawing over 250 nonviolent activists from over 30 countries.

By far the most important person we shared with was our Indian sister, Dina Patel. In the featured photograph above, you see her and I meeting for the first time in 38 years. As a young man of 21, I had traveled India for six months (sponsored by the Gandhi Peace Foundation to interview those who had known Gandhi who were still living in 1971-72). During that period I spent two weeks in Ahmadabad at Sabarmati Ashram, where Gandhi had lived during 1915-1931 (and from which he had launched his famous Salt March that eventually would become the greatest civil disobedience campaign in the history of the world -- with over 150,000 people going to jail in one year). Among those I interviewed in 1972 at Sabarmati was C.N. Patel, Chief Editor of Navajivan Publishing House (the main publisher, even today, of books and literature regarding Gandhi).

During our many conversations together, C.N. Patel took a fondness to me and observed how he would have liked to have had a son like me. So it is that he became my Indian father -- and his only daughter, Nina, became my Indian sister. She and I kept corresponding for over ten years after that first sharing time in 1972. She would send me the Rakhi, a bracelet made of string that a sister traditionally gives to her brother, and I would use the postal service to keep her informed about my life as it evolved through graduate school and into marriage. Addresses then changed chaos entered my life as I entered a period of unemployment, and we lost touch with one another.

Fast forward to three weeks ago when, knowing I would soon be in Ahmadabad for the WRI Conference, I began using the internet to see if I could find Dina Patel. I was pleased to find she was not only alive but employed at Sabarmati Ashram as well as at Gujarat Vidyapith (the site for the WRI Conference)! Our email correspondence prior to our going to Ahmadabad clearly indicated the Cosmic nature of our relationship: Her father, C.N. Patel had died after a length illness on January 30, 2004. So it was that my Indian father had left this life -- on the same day as the death of my biological father: January 30, 2004 (booth on the anniversary of the death of Gandhi in 1948). When Dina and I finally reunited last Thursday, it truly was a spiritual moment.

In addition to spending as much time together with Dina, Kris, Shaman, and I also had a very fully experience provided by the WRI Conference. Hearing Arundati Roy (author of the God of Small Things) was certainly a highlight. Her analysis of how Globalization and an associated industrial development emphasizing production for export has impacted India was both eloquent and piercing. Mentioning the building of dams, for example (to produce electricity and supposedly improved irrigation), Arundati described how at least 33 million Indians (equal to the entire population of California or our state of Kerala) have been displaced and made homeless without anything close to adequate compensation. Over 60% of these represent the poorest sectors of the Indian population (Dalits = Untouchables, and Adivasis = Tribal people). So it is that the rich have often benefitted, while the poor have paid the price.

Of the 19 workshops conducted over three days, five related explicitly to India while the others focused upon general skills building or geographical areas ranging from Latin America and Africa, to Europe and elsewhere in Asia. At least half directly or indirectly involved globalization, as in the impact of multinational corporations in Paraguay and the state of Orissa in India, to the repression of indigenous peoples who resist these forces in places like Equador and the Indian state of Chattisgarh. Workshops concentrated upon militarism ranged from discussions involving counter-recruitment in Europe and elsewhere to the impact of small arms sales and land mines in places like Thailand and Eritrea.

My workshop on Gandhian Guidelines for Action was attended by About 20 people, mostly Indians, including Narayan Desai (son to Gandhis personal secretary Mahadev Desai). Narayan added much to the information shared in the workshop, as he (now age 85) had lived and worked with Gandhi throughout his youth to age 24 (when Gandhi was assassinated). It was an honor to have him in attendance.

Mealtimes supplemented the workshops as we were able to get to know personally activists who are engaged in struggles on the ground. There was Rosa from West Papua (New Guinea) whose territory is being exploited by U.S. based mining operations enforced by Indonesian military and paramilitary groups that are equipped and supported by U.S. military aid. Even the Red Cross has been denied access to areas in West Papua so as to more effectively repress dissent and prevent press coverage of atrocities. Another meal was spent hearing the story of Ahraham from Eritrea who, at age 12, lost his right arm as well as much of his eyesight to a land mine long dormant following the civil was in Ethiopia in the 1960s and 70s. Bill from UK informed us of how people as young as 15 are recruited into the British Army, though recent bad publicity now prevents them from being sent into combat until their 18th birthday. Patrick from the U.S. reminded us that the U.S. and its NATO allies now maintain a global network of over 1,000 military bases to protect economic interests against all those deemed a threat to them.

While the inherent seriousness of what was shared risked becoming overwhelming, the frequent good humor and optimistic attitudes of the Conference participants often showed through. Evenings could include outings to local establishments (like the Chocolate Place) or events (as when the three of us joined Dina Patel and two of her friends to see a Hindi film: The 3 Idiots). Two visits to the historic Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati provided a calming effect – with his prayer ground being a most peaceful place for me. Imagine a forty by forty foot space covered in sand, shaded by a very large tree, with the Sabarmati River in full view, and a beautiful sky overhead. Gandhi was once asked why he did not build a temple of worship on this spot: His response was that nature is his temple. This simplicity inspires others to live extraordinary lives, as indicated by our tour of the Gandhian community at Gram Seva Kendra, near Dethli Village, about 30 miles from Ahmadabad. Here several hundred school children and faculty live and work together in an ecological manner, growing what they eat (organically) and learning together.

A last highlight of the WRI Conference was the final talk provided by Narayan Desai, followed by Gujarati dancers moving to the lyrics of songs composed by Narayan. Dozens of conference participants soon joined in the dance, circulating about the auditorium in a kind of organic tribute to the common humanity that was clearly visible. Below is the translation of the first dance song:

With the sweat of my brow, I eat my daily bread,
The bread of dignity and honour.
I am the daughter of mother earth
Unpolluted by chemicals and pesticides.
Unperturbed am I by difficulties.
Those proud owners of the chemical factories,
Growing fat, feeding on dollars.
Unconcerned whether we live or die.

Raising their brows they threaten.
Piling mountains of armaments large.
Uninterrupted they play the war-bands of destruction.
Please tell me, brother.
How can I forget the debt?
That I owe to one who gave me a thousand
Seeds when I sowed only one?

With strength in my arms
And courage in my heart
Why do I need to possess
When I live a satisfied life?
I know no fear nor greed.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Week 7: Travel & Talks

This weekly entry is being posted a few days late. My Fulbright responsibilties have kept me -- crazy busy. Mostly I have been occupied preparing for five fairly major events at which I was asked to speak for an hour or more... Two of these required traveling to Tranuvanamparam over 100 miles away. Kris and Shaman came along for this trip, which included playing one day as tourists visiting Kanniyakamari which is the southernmost tip of India.

Imagine being on the from the top of a five story hotel, looking east to see the Bay of Bengal, south to the expanse of the Indian Ocean, and west to view the Arabian Sea. Here is where all three bodies of water converge! People from all over India come to see the spectacle of both sunrise and sunset over saltwater to the east and west. A massive 133 foot statue of the famous tamil saint/poet Thiruvalluvar stands on a rock island nearby, along with a shrine to Vivekananda which commemorates this swami who was the only Hindu to attend the World Religious Conference in Chicago in 1893. The photograph here shows the view of these two monuments as seen from the balcony of our hotel room.

Amazing, yes? Very few westerners come to Kanniyakamari as it has no air connections and (as we found out) train and bus transportation can be quite a challenge.....

Memorable (to say the least) was our having to wait over 3 hours to get onto a bus from Kanniyakamari to Tranuvananapuram (a bus which was supposed to leave every hour) and the over 3 hours on the bus we did board, which had so many in it that not one additional person could possible squeeze on (sitting or standing). In fact, the wait was complicated as six buses arrived within a hour of each other -- with the impatient crowd literally storming them one by one, occasionally scrambling in through open windows to secure a seat! It was only after the crowd became smaller (at the sixth bus) that we were able to get on (with gratitude) and secure three seats. So we learned that one way for a family to grow more closely together is to sit packed so closely that our butts seemed to sweat together! Kris, Shaman, and I definately will remember that ride!

For the few of you who may be interested in what I was asked to speak upon, here is a listing of the events from this last week: 1) on Tuesday, 1/12, to an audience of 175 future high school teachers at the St. Thomas College of Teacher Education: U.S. EDUCATION & GANDHI; 2) on Wednesday, 1/13, as the final keynote conference speaker to an audience of about 100 at St. Alphonsa College: RECENT TRENDS IN TERRORISM: A GANDHIAN PERSPECTIVE; 3) on Thursday, 1/14. for nearly three hours of sharing with a graduate school classroom full of journalism students at the School of Communications in Kottayam: GANDHI: A WESTERN PERPECTIVE; 4) on Monday, 1/88, to an audience of 60 at the University of Kerala: THE GREEN MOVEMENT: GLOBALLY & IN THE U.S.; and 5) also on Monday the 18th (the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in the U.S.), for 20 former Indian civil servants, military officers, and retired diplomats at Kerala International downtown in Tranuvananpuram: GANDHI & MARTIN LUTHER KING JR..

Today, I am told to expect coverage regarding the GREEN MOVEMENT talk of yesterday -- including an article in the english language newspaper (THE HINDU, with national circulation). Hopefully I will not be too seriously misquoted! In any case, we all look forward to catching the train north to our small town of Pala. It will be good to have two nights rest in our own beds before flying off to the War Resisters International Conference in Ahmadabad on Thursday. Drawing an attendance of nonviolent activists from all over the world, the WRI Conference should be a major highlight of our time abroad. Major keynote speakers include Arundato Roy (auther of award-winning novel, THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS). So: stay tuned for our blog entry next week!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Week 6: Reflections

Here is a very large bug, of undetermined species, found dead on Shamans window sill at our home. Good picture Shaman! This creature, and others, have encouraged us to invest in mosquito nets and other protective measures!

This past week has been in which three days of bus strikes resulted in all classes being canceled and more time for me to spend preparing for three major presentations next week and two the following week. We did a little more just than watch bugs die, however: with our going as a family to see the movie AVATAR, attending the wedding of a son of a teaching colleague here, and our being invited as honored guests to a meeting of the Ys Mens Club (affiliated with the YMCA). A five minute talk at an event on Community Policing and Terrorism landed me yet another picture in the local newspaper.... Now for a change of pace! Below is a entry composed by my wife, Kristine. Enjoy! -- Michael

Reflections from Kristine Sonnleitner:

As promised, I am writing a January letter about the holiday season in India. Despite the title, Christmas in Kerala, we actually ended spending Christmas in Chennai, Tamil Nadu on the other side of the country. We took an overnight train ride to Chennai which we (My daughter Sonrisa and I) dubbed the Super Fast Cockroach Express. It took 14 hours. However, the cockroaches were super fast.

We had a great time in Chennai, visiting places where St Thomas the Apostle hid for four years, the hill on which he was killed while at prayer, and the his tomb at the Santhom Basilica. We actually went for midnight mass on Christmas there, which was held in English (first time since being in India) outdoors in the main plaza. On Christmas Day I had noticed that one of the four star hotels was advertising turkey dinner. Although it was not the typical US fare, it was quite extensive (amazing desserts!) and cost about $10. per person. We ate well! And we did not have to clean up.

When we returned to Pala, we found out that there was an autorickshaw strike the day Sonrisa was scheduled to leave. Since they block the roads, we had to get up at 5am and stick around the airport until late afternoon when the blockade ended. Also, this week, there was a bus stike for three days. When this happens, St Thomas College closes down and Mike has a free day. Not the most efficient way to receive an education. Pala is rather primitive in some ways. Like you never know if there will be butter/ eggs or whatever in the store (yesterday I made a cake with no frosting since butter has not been around for a couple of weeks). Kerala (the name means land of coconuts) is the coconut capital of the world and yet no shredded or flaked coconut in the stores. Coconut milk, oil, powder, but no regular coconut. Food is cheap here, however, and fruit is good and plentiful. Here is something you will not hear in the US: Please honey, stop at the market and pick me up a ( 4oz) bag of milk! The real fun starts when you open the bag.

As some of you know, our son Shaman elected to stay with us until the end of May. He is sitting in on some classes and is teaching himself (via a computer program given to him by one of Mike s former students) how to build, repair and program computer systems. After he completes this course, he will be able to take a test for certification. What is most encouraging about all this is how excited Shaman is about learning, and how his whole attitude on life has improved.

People keep asking me when I am going to wear a sari. Actually,I am not the sari type- I did finally buy some pajama pants to go with the long tunic top that Sonrisa left. But saris have tons of material to step on and my feet are clumsy enough. Shanty (Stany s wife) did dress Sonrisa in a sari.(I think there are some pictures on the blog).They are incredibly beautiful. Before we leave maybe I will get decked out in one, if only for a photo op.

Around the 16th we take off for Cape Comorin, at the tip of India, where three oceans converge and you can see the sun both rise and set over the water ( I plan on sticking my toe in the three oceans.) Then off to Thiruvananthapuram (do not ask me to say it) where Mike will be giving a talk at a university there. Back to Pala for a few days and then to the War Resisters Conference in Ahmadabad. Mike contacted the Gandhi Peace Foundation about staying at its ashram there and found a woman he knew from when he had first visited India forty years ago!

Coming home on the train from Chennai, we knew we were in Kerala when we saw stars. For the Christmas holidays the Keralans hang large, illuminated paper stars of various colors and styles (5, 6, 8, 10,and 12 point stars) outside their homes.It is a festive reminder of the star the wisemen from the East followed and the Infant King that inspired their journey. Blessings and may your way be so guided in 2010!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Week 5: Education in India

Shown in the picture above are students at a Political Science Department party, who later provided us with a heartwarming New Years gift, a beautiful card with roses. With our daughter Sonrisa having returned to the U.S. this week, three of us were left to enjoy New Years Eve together, enduring a night of load fireworks and cat fights (yes, felines fight for territory here also)! Classes were held both New Years Eve and Day, though attendance was down on New Years Day – and classes were canceled for Saturday January 2nd. Today is January 2nd (though it is January 1st in Oregon due to the 12.5 hour time difference). For the record: yes we followed the Rose Bowl game in real time, but without visuals as our internet connection was too weak to allow for a video stream….. In any case, life goes on!

This week saw two courses (called papers) begin for me (Gandhian Thought and U.S. Government), with the continuation of a third (International Issues): all at St. Thomas College in Palai, Kerala. As this is the primary reason why the Fulbright Lecture Grant was awarded, it would seem timely for some comments to be made regarding my impressions of post secondary education having now completed one full month in India.

Some facts relating to Education at St. Thomas College may both be of interest and set a context for some of my observations discussed thereafter:

St. Thomas College (STC): approx. 1,800 students, over 600 of who are female post graduate (PG) students working towards Master Degrees. Founded in 1950, STC is one of a great many religious and non-religious institutions affiliated with Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU) which is located 10 miles away in Kottayam. Every course at STC has its required content/topics required in a syllabus set by MGU, complete with reading lists that are rarely updated. Each course is supposed to meet for a total of 90 classroom hours – but really manages only 40-45 hours due to holidays, strikes, and various political protests. Full-time students enroll in 5 courses per semester, each (ideally) meeting 1 hour a day for 6 days per week. On average, however, the reality is that the mandated 30 hours in class become about 16 (similar to a full-time schedule at my home institution in the U.S.: Portland Community College).

Religious educational institutions (like St. Thomas College: supported by Syrian Christians associated with the Catholic Church), have their Presidents (called Principals) appointed by their religious sponsors and all decisions (including what, if any films may be shown on campus) are decided by these people. Kerala state funding covers the costs of most all staff (except for an occasional self-supporting program) but not the buildings or maintenance (which are funded through a combination of resources provided by the sponsor, other donors, and crops that are harvested for sale on properties owned by the educational institution). As a condition for receiving state funding, any school with a religious affiliation must be open to students of any faith and cannot require religious coursework or attendance at any religious function. Such courses and functions do, however, exist as options carried out by faculty and staff paid with public money. In other words, here there is no Wall of Separation between Church and State, but rather a secular Government Accomodation to extreme religious diversity. How much neutrality may exist in that accommodation is largely left to the discretion of the individual educational institutions.

While blatant discrimination based upon ethnicity, culture, caste, religion, and gender is unlawful, equality of treatment cannot be assured. Affirmative action is very much in evidence throughout all institutions of higher education, with Reserved Seats set aside for approximately 20% of those admitted. This very controversial practice has recently been reaffirmed by the India Supreme Court and is now legally extended to socially disadvantaged groups including Adivasis, Dalits and Scheduled Classes (tribal peoples and those formerly known as untouchables), as well as to physically handicapped persons and other minorities (with minority status being determined on a state-by-state basis in India). Preferences given to admission, however, does not always translate to improved social mobility for the disadvantaged – as resources are generally scarce to help them improve their skills and complete their studies.

In the classroom, most students would seem very respectful of authority, quite friendly and eager to learn, even as they are significantly handicapped by structural realities. Conditioned by a society geared to status hierarchy and a British-legacy that emphasizes control and lecture-centered instruction, most students make no comments and ask no questions even when greatly encouraged to do so. They all stand when the instructor enters the room, sit when told to do so, and generally refuse to leave the room (even when dismissed) until the instructor departs. Notepads are filled with whatever information is provided and the accuracy of that information is never openly questioned. Put simply, this is an extremely passive learning environment.

Most faculty here almost exclusively lecture, making little use of any visuals (including the blackboards or whiteboards that are available), and encouraging few student questions. For most courses, textbooks are not required for purchase or to be otherwise read in the Library. Most students are too poor to buy books and too busy either with family or employment responsibilities to have time for library work. So it is that the norm of passive learning is reinforced by a reality that depends heavily upon instructor content competence and lecture skills. As is true in any educational institution (in India, the U.S., or elsewhere), competence and skills vary widely.

My very organized lectures are appreciated, while my distinguishing of opinion from fact is met with some confusion -- and my more dramatic and self-deprecating style produces a few smiles (as is my desire). While I have managed to create a fairly relaxed learning atmosphere and can now be well understood by most of my students (speaking more slowly and making each word distinct, while making maximum use of a whiteboard for which I have purchased my own marking pens), thus far very little verbal interaction has been provoked and busy hands taking notes on the gospel of Michael is the rule. Of course this reflects big problems on multiple levels: a) occasionally my information may be in correct, b) often my opinions are very unusual and clearly debatable, and c) there is no guarantee that the accurate information provided and the critical analysis I encourage will be in any way rewarded on the Final (called External) Exams which account for 75% of the performance evaluation for each student.

The structural reality is that every instructor is expected to cover a course syllabus set in stone by a higher authority, the Final Exam for which is neither created by nor evaluated by the instructor. The attempt is to effectively teach to an exam (allowing each student to benefit with marks as high as their efforts earn) -- without knowing in advance what questions will be on the exam, having only previous exams to indicate patterns of questions that may be included. This structural reality tends to reward memorization of facts by students (facts that may include commonly held opinions by those creating and evaluating the exams) -- rather than encourage creative analyses, critical thinking, or the forming of independent judgment. Since course syllabi are not frequently updated, this reality can translate to having students learn information and perspectives commonly accepted 20-40 years ago (when those evaluating the exams were students) -- information and perspectives then renewed as gospel. So it is that opinions, as well as the information base for those opinions, are extremely slow to change.

Recognizing that my teaching in this context could be a liability to student performance scores, I have chosen to team teach each of my three courses with instructors familiar with the system who can better prepare each student for their Final Exam. My contributions to the classroom include a) helping to update my colleague information base so as to contribute to both their knowledge and to their possible input into future syllabi change, and b) encourage the students to form their own opinions and develop critical thinking skills even though the system is not designed to reward such outcomes. In other words, I am acting on the faith that time will vindicate my efforts to promote active learning within a very traditionally passive and conservative (in the sense of slow to change) learning environment.

I do my best to avoid offending people in this process by both making fun of myself and knowing that most people expect the outsider to be odd. In fact, trying to be insiders here is hardly practical since, among other things, my wife and I (now joined for the next five months by my son Shaman) do not speak the local language (Malayalam) and have yet to encounter another non-Indian (white or otherwise) in this relatively rural area. We are looked upon with curiosity by many, glared at by some, and have been treated in a very friendly manner by most. A few close relationships are developing which help to sustain us and already can be seen as likely to become lifelong treasures.

Perhaps this weeks focus on education has been a little boring to those of you less interested in this topic. Next week my entry will be more varied, providing more information about our daily life routines where we live. While what is shared here may, in any given week, not feed your interest – I hope that, over time, insights of importance to you may find their way into words here.

May the New Year provide you and your loved ones with greater joy for life, an improved thirst for enlightenment, and such personal empowerment as may come from enhanced knowledge and skills as well as from your own internal exploration for Truth.