Saturday, July 22, 2017

Why do I still go to the Book Fair?

Like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with the Book Fair.  Put it another way, I like some part of it - but do not like some other part of it.  

There are just too many people, making it difficult to get around and to see things at my leisure.  But that is being selfish - other people have as much right to go there as I do - so I should not complain too much.  There are also many books that I am not interested in, and many that are not even books.  But then other people have their own interests.  So there it goes again.  

The Book Fair does give me an opportunity to browse the scholarly publications of the university presses in one place. 

I ended up buying one from CityU Press and another from ChineseU Press.  

There are opportunities to see publications related to the current political scene.  One does not have to agree with anyone of them.  But it is still interesting and educational to see who is saying what, and how quickly.  

There is also, of course, opportunities to buy some good books, at a discount.  I found 3 books that I like.  So I did benefit from it.  

And even some things that I wasn’t expecting.  Such as calligraphy.  

I say the Book Fair still gives everyone an opportunity to get a little bit what they want.    I only wished that I had more time to spent there.  So it should continue.   I hope it gives me more of what I want, but it may be asking too much.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

What can we learn from Liu Xiao Bo (劉曉波)?

A hero is down.  But he is going to live long in our hearts.  His fame and influence after his death may yet exceed that which he enjoyed while he was alive.  Whether he does or not is up to us - those who are yet living.  

His death brought me back to 2009, when he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.  I remember those posters on campus protesting his sentence, and the vigils outside the Legislative Council.  At the time, I did not expect him to die in prison, and in such a sudden manner.  

What can we learn from him then?  Certainly it is not just that the struggle for freedom and justice is arduous and hazardous; that one may have to pay for it with one’s life; that the road to freedom is long - very very long.  

We learn that one man may lose his life, yet be able to unite many in the fight against evil.   Liu Xiao Bo has made friends of a very large number of very different people, with very different views.   We are impressed by his decades-long fight for a more open and democratic China, by his demanding that the communist regime comply with Article 35 of the Chinese constitution, which says citizens should enjoy “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration”; by his reasonableness; by his returning from the USA to support the students in the June 4 Movement; by his insistence on using peaceful means to fight for freedom; by boldly promoting Charter 08; by insisting that he has no enemies; by renouncing hatred because hatred can rot away a person’s intelligence and conscience; by showing us how one man can fight against a repressive regime.  

Liu Xiao Bo, we salute you.   We shall remember you and the lessons you have taught us.  To honour you, we shall never give up.  

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Magnus 7 Cambodia

Last Saturday I was asked to speak at the signing ceremony of the Magnus 7 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  This is an alliance of 7 major public universities in Cambodia on Social Responsibility.  

I was apparently the only foreigner in attendance, in an audience of many rectors and senior managers of universities.  I was asked to talk about why the universities in Hong Kong, specifically Hong Kong Polytechnic University, take social responsibility so seriously, and what we have actually done.  I, naturally, focus on service-learning and what we have done in Cambodia.  I stressed that a university educates students to become citizens, responsible citizens, and service-learning is one of the best methods to achieve that.  It is a matter of concern for all students, and all disciplines should be able to contribute.  Hence we require all our students to take service-learning, and all departments are encouraged to offer service-learning.  It seems well-received.  Or perhaps they are just being polite.  ButI the fact that I am the only foreigner invited here means something, I hope.  

We are been working with some of the staff and students from Royal University of Phnom Penh for 2 years now and the experience has been encouraging.  There is a group, perhaps small, of academic staff who are very keen on reforming the education programs, and some seem to have bought into the vision of service-learning. The students are smart and enthusiastic.  So there is certainly hope.  After the signing ceremony, we went to a cafe run by the students for lunch.  It was built out of two used cargo containers.  The same type that we have been turning into community learning centres in the past 3 years.  So we are curious and excited.  It also testifies to the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the students.  

Education in Cambodia face tremendous challenges.  They are severely underfunded at all levels, from primary to secondary to tertiary.  I heard even the “public” universities receive only a fraction of their funds from the government.  Hence they have to offer numerous self-financed programs to bring in more income in order to operate.  Professors are paid very little, hence they have to teach additional courses to make a decent living.  Over the years we have worked with many primary schools and NGO that work with children.  Primary education is officially free.  But schools are so underfunded and teachers re so underpaid that many additional fees are charged. Many kids, such as this little street vendor, do not attend school.  

My friends in education in Cambodia are facing very big challenges.  Yet they are persevering.  We are very glad to be able to work with them, and playing a small role in something much bigger than ourselves.  My good friend L said to me: “we have seen many foreigners come to Cambodia professing to care about Cambodia; yet they come and go without leaving a trace.  Some of you stay and we can tell which are those who really care.”  We are honoured to be counted as true friends


Sunday, July 09, 2017

Foods of Cambodia

I find many kinds of food in Cambodia that I do not often see in Hong Kong.  Some I have actually not seen anywhere else.  There is a kind of sun-dried mango paste that seems to be ubiquitous in the villages of Cambodia, which I have not yet seen outside.  

There are banana flower buds, which can be made into decent salads.  Bananas are also very common in Rwanda, but as far as I know, Rwandans do not eat them.  I wonder why.  

In Rwanda, I have seen people feeding the hearts of the banana tree (plant?) to cows, who seem to relish them.  In Cambodia, hearts of the banana plant are sold in the wet market, presumably as food for humans. 

Roasted, peeled bananas seem to be a popular snack.  Although I'd rather not eat them off the street. 

Crickets, as well as many other kinds of insects, are commonly eaten. 

As are worms, larvas. 

Or you can fight the bees for honey and their combs. 

There are many kinds of palm fruits, other than the coconut.  

Some are delicate, gelatinous, juicy and mildly sweet. I like that a lot. 

Others are fluffy, slightly sweet but rather dry.  Not my favourite. 

The soursop somewhat resembles sugar apple (sweetsop), but is actually rather sour and not as good.  I don't quite like it.  

The lotus shoot, if not eaten, will bear the lotus flower, and eventually the receptacle containing the lotus seeds.  It is commonly used in stir-fry in Cambodia.  

There is a kind of lime, with a named loaded with bias (kaffir, which - I was told - means non-believer in Arabic, a slur against black people).  So some people call them makrut. 

Cambodian food is very interesting, if not always pure, innocent fun.  

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Reconciliation in Rwanda

How can you forgive someone who murdered your loved one?  In 1994, 800,000 people died in 100 days in the Genocide in Rwanda.  What the country has been doing to recover from the trauma is nothing short of miraculous.   On the one hand, they vow to remember.  Sites of the Genocide such as the church at Nyamata were preserved.  Murderers were judged in courts and sent to prison.  Those 100 days were remembered every year.  On the other hand, the government, the churches and many organisations work together to reconcile the antagonists.  I asked Pastor Albert, the AEE staff in charge of their effort in reconciliation, to speak with our students about it.  

AEE itself experienced terrible personal trauma in the Genocide.  Their leader then was a Hutu but spoke against the persecution of the Tutsi.  As a result, he was killed at the beginning of the Genocide in 1994.  The current team leader has 2 children of his own, but over the years has raised 20+ children of relatives, left uncared for after the Genocide.  One staff who drove us to Gicaca last week was from Nyamata, with his wife and 2 children murdered in the very church that we visited.  Pastor Albert had to flee the country for education and for his own safety.  His father was told not to return to his job on day in 1973 because he was a Tutsi.  A senior staff was shot protecting others who were about to be murdered; fortunately he survived and recovered.  

Pastor Albert himself hated all Hutus until he was transformed by faith in Christ.  Faith is also the basis of AEE’s work in reconciliation.  He now believes that there are good Hutus and bad Hutus, just like there are good Tutsis and bad Tutsis, there are good people in Hong Kong and bad people in Hong Kong.  Many Christians were implicated in the Genocide, when the population was nominally 90+ % Christian.  Why is Christianity so popular in Rwanda today, many of whom are of the Evangelical denominations?  Why don’t people feel that God has abandoned them? - one of our students asked.   Pastor Albert said it is perhaps because many people have been transformed by God’s love.  The love of Jesus Christ is so powerful that it enables us to forgive.

Evidently, many of our students are touched by his testimony and sharing.  I encouraged our students to keep Rwanda in their hearts.  

Friday, June 30, 2017

Learning in Rwanda

Rwanda offers our students an extremely rich and diversified learning experience.  None have been in Africa before, let alone Rwanda.  They learn that these Rwandans who look so different, whose language, Kinywanda, is so different from Chinese, who eat a lot of beans, bananas, maize, cassava, and sorghum, are no different from themselves as human beings.  

They learn about Belgian colonialism, one consequence of which is the older generation speak French, while the younger are learning English to connect better with the world.  They learn, of course, about the Genocide and Reconciliation.  They learn how 800,000 people can be killed in the frenzy of 100 days, at the rate of 8,000 a day.  They also learn that it is possible to recover and rebuild from the ruins of such devastation and deep animosity.  

They learn why Rwanda is so clean.  Rwanda is extremely clean physically in the sense of the absence of garbage anywhere, in the city as well as the villages in the mountain.  The Rwanda government is also well known to be clean in the sense of being very low in corruption. 

They learn about extreme poverty, when people live in mud houses in the 21th century, without electricity nor running water.  They learning about extreme isolation, where people cannot afford to travel to the city, where there are no newspapers and no television, where most people do not even own a radio.  They work inside someone’s house for 2 hours at a time, going through all the rooms, and interview the owners.  They get to know intimately what the household owners eat and do for a living, where and how do they sleep, how they dress, who is going to school, who is sick, and what their aspirations are.  

They work along side students from University of Rwanda and youth volunteers from the village for 2 weeks. They learn a little of the language Kinyawanda and their music.   Some learn a bit about Christianity because many of the youths are fervent believers.  They get to know about the job prospects of university graduates as well as the young people from the villages.  

They learn about working together with fellow students from Hong Kong and Rwanda to install electrical wiring.  They learn how to organise themselves to install 24 kilogram solar panels on 15 feet high roofs.  They learn how to arrange to have 2 people on the ground pass the solar panels to the 2 people on the ladders, who, in turn, pass the solar panels to the 2 on the roof.  They learn how electricity works.  They learn how to use hand and power tools.  They learn about the digital gap and appropriate technology.  

They learn to step up and take responsibility.  They learn to be honest about the mistakes they make, and to correct their own mistakes.  They learn to lead by example, by having the courage to take up challenges, by serving others.  They learn the joy of working hard to achieve something meaningful for other people.  They learn the joy of being part of something bigger than themselves.  They learn about themselves.  

People often ask why we bring our students to Rwanda.  These are the reasons.  

Madame M of Gicaca

Each of the 100+ households where we installed wiring for electricity has a story to tell.  For example, there was this one headed by a couple with 5 children.    They were one of the poorest people in the country, with few belongings.  They used to have goats, a radio, and a battery-powered flash light. 

Then the mother got sick.  She didn’t mentioned the cost for the treatment at the hospital. I heard that for the poorest, government insurance cover the medical expenses.   But she emphasised that the hospital was far away.  Transport by motorbike to the hospital costed 3,000 Rwandan franc (rwf), which is equivalent to about 3.5 US dollars; and another 3,000 rwf coming back.  Because of her illness they had to sell the goats and the radio.  Now they use candles when they can afford them.  They eat their dinner at 7 PM and go to bed at 8 PM.  There is just not much that you can do in the dark.  

We realised last year that radios were in demand.  Hence we bought a bunch of small inexpensive radios from China to give one household each.  With the radio, they can listen to news, job advertisements and more. While our team interviewed the mother, her daughter was hovering nearby listening to Christian music non-stop on the new radio. They must have been starved of entertainment since the old radio was sold.  

The mother is now more hopeful.  She it taking medicine for her illness.  With the car battery-powered LED lights, they can have friends to visit at night, and stay up until 9 PM.  Life is slightly easier and more tolerable.  

The material costs for the battery, wiring, LED lights, radio, phone chargers, etc., come up to around 50 USD.  Even when we add in the cost of the solar panels, amortised over the 20+ households that each charging station serves, the cost per household is approximately only 60 USD.  But what a difference it makes for the lady’s household!

Both of my students who interviewed her were Christians. They prayed for her at the end of the interview.  Their problems are not all over.  But they are more hopeful.  When we left, she was smiling broadly.  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Teaching fishing in Rwanda

In 2016, our team set up 4 nano solar-electrical power charging stations, and wired up ~60 houses for electricity.  This year we plan to set up another 4 charging stations, and wire up ~100 houses.  Yet there are still another 100 households in the same village that we cannot help.  Some have asked why they are not chosen.  We feel bad but there is just so much we can do.  And this is just one village in the Gicaca cell in Gikomero sector in Gasabo district in the city of Kigali.  There are millions of people living in Rwanda in similar situations without electricity.  How many can we help?  It is frustrating.   

A student suggested that we train some of the Rwandan students to do it, and help them set up social enterprises, so that they can help themselves, and create jobs at the same time.  That is an excellent idea.  In fact, it is something that we have been trying to do.  This year, we have 7 students from University of Rwanda and another 7 young people from Gicaca associated with AEE working with the Solar power team.  

We train them to do soldering, install the wiring in the houses, setup the solar panels on the roof of the charging stations, and install the more complex circuits to charge 5 batteries at the same time.  

Last year, after we left, the local youths managed to wire up 40 houses under the guidance of AEE.  One lady managed to move the complete wiring system from the house we installed it in to a new house that she bought.  So we know that we can teach these skills.  That is also why we brought in the students from University of Rwanda this year.  We are hoping that, with a higher level of education and better English in general, they may be able to make even better use of the skills we teach them.  Both the Gicaca youths and the U Rwanda students are learning fast, and in many situations, are performing even better than my own students.  So we are hopeful that we are making some progress in transferring the skills to make it a truly local enterprise.  

However, there are still many challenges that have to be overcome, before this can come a local enterprise.  

Firstly there is the cost of the solar panels and the controllers.  The solar panels are relatively inexpensive in Hong Kong and China, where they are manufactured.   It probably costs USD 300 to buy them in Hong Kong., to set up one charging station.  But they are much more expensive here in Rwanda, probably because of the transportation costs and the profits of the middlemen.  

Then there is the more intangible skills of setting up and managing a business.  The local young people generally have a secondary school level of education, and do not have the business skills required.  The University of Rwanda students are better educated but they live in the city.  It is not easy for them to travel to mountainous areas such as Gicaca.  

AEE has experience in helping people to start small businesses, but generally related to farming, not in technical fields.  And they are stretched very thin in supporting the thousands of self-help groups, education, reconciliation, and other missions.  

Then there is the matter of finance.  The local youths, the University of Rwanda students, and even AEE are all struggling under severe financial pressure.  Where is the finance coming from for the start up of these small business?  

We have not lost hope despite the frustration and challenges.  Far from it.  Some students commented that we should focus on the ones that we can help, and not to agonise over those we cannot yet help.  That is certainly wise.  We cannot solve the complete problem in one go.   But if we are determined and keep working on it, we will be making bigger and bigger impact.  I am glad to have these young people as my students.