Sunday, June 26, 2016

Hong Kong from the Air

Airplanes land in Hong Kong either from the West or from the East.  The plane flies over open water when it lands from the West, and there is not too much to see.  But when the plane lands from the East and the sky is clear, it is a real treat.  Yesterday, when I was flying back from Taipei in the late afternoon, the sky was clear, the sun was low and the ride was smooth.  Everyone was cooperative - and the views were stunning.  When the plane flew up from the south past SaiKung, the houses of Marina Cove stood  out in the sun, and the hundreds of boats dotted the water.  

When it flew past Shatin, I could make up the apartment block where I used to live, and the paths where I used to ride bicycles and run with my daughters.  

Over the hills of East Kowloon, there was the Eastern half of Victoria Harbour, East Kowloon and East Hong Kong Island - and the old runway of Kai Tak Airport.

Then it was the Western half of the Victoria Harbour.  

The two needle-like towers symbolically guarding the passage through the harbour.  The Stonecutter Island Bridge stretching across the huge container port.   

Multiple bridges now link Kowloon to Tsing Yi Island, which was isolated and almost uninhabited only a few decades ago.  

The Tsing Ma Bridge remains as beautiful as ever - and vulnerable to mighty storms as well as the mundane traffic accidents.  What will happen if someone attacks it deliberately?

The Hong Kong - Zhuhai - Macau Bridge is taking shape.  It is a huge construction.  It is also logistically and politically complicated.  

What will it turn out to be like?

Friday, June 24, 2016

Foreign AID or International Service-Learning?

There are millions and millions of people, in developing countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Rwanda, …, who are off the electrical power grid.  They cook and eat in darkness when the sun goes down, and then go to bed.  Some manage to buy candles, small electrical torches powered by expensive batteries or kerosene-fired lamps in order to cook and eat, study, and function in a minimal and difficult manner.  

One solution is to buy grandiosely-named “solar power generators” to give them.  A typical US$70 system buys you a <5 -="" a="" ampere-hour="" an="" and="" battery="" be="" charger.="" china="" containing="" estimated="" in="" lamp="" led="" manufactured="" many="" mobile="" nbsp="" package="" panel="" phone="" radio="" seem="" small="" solar="" span="" such="" systems="" to="" unsurprisingly.="" watt="">

An alternative, which we have adopted, is to use a similar amount of money to buy 40 watt solar panels, a 26 ampere-hour battery, a whole bunch of LED lights, and a phone charger.  We then teach our students to assemble the solar panels, assemble the LED lights into multiple LED lighting fixtures, wire up the houses, and teach local youths to do the same and to maintain the systems.  

The first is a case of foreign aid which enriches the manufacturer of the expensive “solar power generators”.   There is little service or learning in that process alone.  

In the second case, the villagers gain a system 4 times as powerful, for the same cost to us.  Our students and the local youths learn valuable lessons through real service.  However, it takes much more effort to organise and execute.  Perhaps that is why it is done much less often.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Lighting for dinner

We were wiring up the last house on Friday, the last day of our service project.  When the sun was going down, the lady of the house was beginning to prepare for dinner, while her daughter watched the fire in the stove.  

Soon the whole island was plunged into darkness.  Our students hurried to finish the wiring under the feeble lights from the smartphones.  We knew the lights would not last long. 

I went to the kitchen area and found the amazing scene of the lady cleaning several small fish, under the even more feeble light from a headlamp powered by AA batteries.  Her husband caught the fish from the river behind the house.  She picked some wild mushrooms and vegetables from the thicket around the house.  The 3 AA batteries cost about half a US dollar, and would last 4 days on average.  That is quite a bit of money considering a primary school teacher makes roughly 100 US dollars a month.  On days when there were no fish, and no wild mushrooms, they might spend a dollar and a half on food for dinner. 

When the students finished the wiring, the LED lights that they installed did not turn on even when we connect the circuit to the car battery that we provided to the family.  When we checked the wirings, they did not look right.   We decided to stop because it was already dark, and it would be much too dangerous to cross the Mekong River in the dark.  The family was, of course, disappointed.  But we promised to come back in the morning. 

On the following day, the students had a day off.  Three of the staff came back to the island to fix the problem.  We discovered that there were multiple glaring mistakes in the wiring, and decided to completely redo the wiring.  It took us 2 hours but we did fix the wiring.  The family was very happy to see the LED lights turned on, shining much brighter and covering a much wider area than her headlamp.  We gave up our day off but their smiles were well worth it.  

The family can now take their battery to the charing station nearby to charge it, and then bring it home to plug into the lighting system.  

The lady will not have to wear her headlamp in order to cook anymore. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Cambodian living

Our work here this year focuses on Silk Island, where many people make their living weaving silk.  

Since 2010, when I came to Cambodia for the first time, changes have been rapid.  There are many more vehicles on the street, causing huge traffic jams in the morning and evening rush hours.  And much better cars too. 

Products in supermarkets are marked in US dollars, and the prices are comparable to those in Hong Kong and the USA.  Imported salmon seem even more expensive than those in Hong Kong.  

Yet the salaries are roughly an order of magnitude lower.  A school teacher makes 100 to 300 US dollars per month.  A tenant in the slum in Stung Meancheay proudly told me he makes 300 dollars a month working in a casino, more than most secondary school teachers.  

Yet a carton of milk can cost him a full day’s salary.  

On the other hand, an expatriate teaching English as a second language can expect to make more than US $1,000 per month.  

Obviously the clients of these supermarkets are not the local teachers.  And equally obviously, there is no lack of clients who can afford these products.  My students wonder who these clients are and how they make their money.  

Consider on the other hand the lives of people on the Silk Island.  

A hand-weaved scarf takes many hours of work.  Yet it fetches only US2 on the Island, just enough to buy a dozen eggs but not enough for a carton of milk.   

Many of the households on Silk Island do not have electricity or running water. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Cambodia Service-Learning - version 7

On June 5 I returned to Hong Kong from Rwanda.  One June 6 I landed in Cambodia for another Service-Learning project.  

We have been taking students here since 2010, so this is the 7th year and our contingent is the largest yet.  We have students from our university - Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HK), Washington University at St Louis  and Brown University (USA), Haifa University (Israel), Sichuan University (China), Royal University of Phnom Penh and Human Resource Development Institute (Cambodia) - a total of 70 students from 7 schools in 5 countries/regions.  

We are inspecting the solar electrical charging stations that we installed last year on Silk Island, fixing some of the problems, and re-wiring the charging station for better efficiency. 

We are buying 2 used cargo containers to use as a community learning center.  We will be installing solar panels for electrical power, installing computers and e-resources for learning, and training local teachers to use the learning centre. 

We are interviewing some of the villagers to assess the community needs and impact of the systems that we installed. 

We are designing and installing lighting fixtures by embedding LED lights in dead palm branches and coconut shells - promoting sustainable development in the process.  

We are training many local students in the assembly and installation of solar electrical systems, LED lighting fixtures, and the computer systems in the learning centres.  On the one hand, they can help us maintain the systems after we are gone.  On the other hand, we are helping them to acquire useful skills for further development.  

We will be writing up the stories of village life, the projects that we carry out, more stories about our students as well as the local students and the impact of the installations on the community - using communication to promote development.  

All of these are just some of the projects that our university is carrying out in Cambodia this summer.  Another team is teaching English at a primary school next to the Stung Meancheay garbage dump.  A team is helping with some construction work as poverty relief in a village south of Phnom Penh.  A team is helping with the diet of families living in a slum in San Sok village.  A team of staff is also here …  All together there are more than 150 staff and students coming to Cambodia for service-learning projects. 

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Self-help Farm in Kigali

One of our favourite self-help groups runs a farm in a valley near the centre of Kigali.  

It grows vegetables and mushrooms.  

It also raises goats, chicken, turkeys, and rabbits.   

When we came to Rwanda for the first time in 2013, we visited many such self-help groups.  

We documented their work, designed pamphlets and web pages to help AEE publicise their work.  

That started our very fruitful collaboration with AEE, which is still growing every year. 

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Women of the Self-help Groups of Rwanda

We visited some of the self-help groups organised by AEE Rwanda.  This one, typical of the other 3,000 that AEE supports (and the other 6,000 that have graduated) consists of 20 people - all of them women.  Today they meet on a grassy field outside the cell office.  

It is both ironic and symptomatic that the women sit to discuss business while the men play soccer in the background.  Many men are unemployed in Rwanda because jobs are difficult to find.  The women, on the other hand, gather to teach each other how to tackle problems.  They pool together what little savings they can make, sometimes 100-200 Rwandan francs a week per person.  In a year, this group has managed to save 200,000 rwf.  Members then take out loans from the pool when it is needed, e.g., to buy stocks for a small business, or to pay the school fees for a child. 

AEE self-help groups focus on women for a variety of reasons.  Part of which is that women are in the best position to take care of the children, a key objective of AEE.  Many women had no means to making any income.  They might wish to start a small business but did not know how.  The self-help groups, supported by AEE, taught them how to do accounting, and to manage small businesses, such as buying beans produced by their neighbours and then selling the beans in bulk further on.  

These women, armed with the means to make an income, gain tremendous confidence, respect and status in front of their husbands and among the community.  


I met Singayimbaga at a secondary school at Gicaca.  He is in secondary 3 and speaks English very well.  Much better than many of the students in Hong Kong.  

He studies English, Kinyarwanda, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, History, and - a bit unusually - Enterprise.  That might be an indication of Rwanda’s efforts to industrialize. The lessons are conducted in English, except for Kinyarwanda, of course.  

His notes are neat and tidy, much better than many of the students in Hong Kong. 

His history lessons covers the political history of Europe, …, but also the rise of modern Japan before the First World War.  

He reads the Bible to young children at church - stories such as the parting of the Red Sea, David and Goliath, …

He turned out to be one of the 7 children of the household which has been chosen to be the charging station in Zone D in Gicaca.  He is very happy to be able to study under LED lights now.  Previously he has to study using small electric torches, batteries for which are expensive. 

He is obviously a diligent student and will go far.