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Malaria in the Bay Area – Secret Strategy Document

Indian Business woman with finger on lips. Ple...
.                          from Crestock Stock Photos

The following message is a highly-confidential, eyes-only communique from our secret plans to do good.

Some of you know that I am a Faiths Act Fellow with the Interfaith Youth Core and Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The Fellowship is 30 religiously-diverse young people, based in cities across the US, UK, and Canada, who are building multifaith hubs of action towards the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and malaria eradication. My site-partner Hafsa Arain and I are placed in the Bay Area.

For starters, the phrase “Bay area” is really a catch-all for anything within 50 miles of the San Francisco Bay. From our home office in San Jose, at the south end, we regularly trek all the way up the Peninsula for meetings in San Francisco, or shoot up the East Bay to discuss upcoming events with partners in Berkeley and Moraga. It’s not that the South Bay doesn’t have everything that we need – we’ve simply decided to cast the net wide, as it were. :)

Here’s the basic idea: “To create a sustainable intercollegiate network of interfaith councils in the Bay Area that can share information, events, and resources to collaborate on UN Millennium Development Goals/malaria work in order to establish or expand each individual campus’s interfaith work.”

Right now, we’re two and a half months in and we meet regularly with Stanford University, Saint Mary’s College of California, University of California – Berkeley, and Santa Clara University. All the schools are at various stages of organization regarding student-led interfaith initiatives, but wherever we are with them, they are wonderful people.

For the spring, we’ve got some outrageous events coming up: A Bloodsuckers Ball (featuring vampires and mosquitoes), a leadership retreat for our student partners, a few service events around the Bay, and many more. Plus, we’re working with the Interfaith Millennium Development Goals Coalition – Point 7 Now (http://www.imdgc.org) to organize the youth side of the “One Voice of Faith” conference. And of course there’s World Malaria Day on the 25th of April. As we ramp up our work in 2010, we’ll eventually begin large-scale outreach to loads of different faith communities to help spread the message of malaria eradication.Questions? Comments?

Why faith? Part 2

Service provider for soul and body

Service provider for soul and body

A previous post addressed the religious imperative against malaria from the standpoint of those of us in the US, UK, and Canada. So why is the Faiths Act campaign so explicit about the work of churches and mosques on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa? As it turns out, religious communities in the developing world are in a unique position to affect change, especially on the issue of malaria.

Health systems in sub-Saharan Africa are, to sound like a generalizing imperialist, stressed. Doctor shortages, drug shortages, political graft, distribution issues in remote areas (geography + the previous problems), and other bits, combined with the overwhelming numbers of people who need help, have stretched some systems to the breaking point.

Whereas health systems simply can’t be everywhere, religious communities are almost ubiquitous. Even very small villages will have a church or mosque. Imagine faith communities as an extension, not a parallel, of the health infrastructure in a given country. Consider this example of the role of religious groups in a village in Zambia:

…”[the village] may have no permanent structures but it does have a functioning Christian congregation and a traditional healer. Christian relief organizations are providing food, and a Muslim organization has dug the first well for the community. This is not unique…various church health associations in Africa are outstanding examples of community-level, or intermediary, organizations; they have some degree of central structure and organization so that they can pool disparate resources and provide some administrative and logistical support to programs on the ground; they have member congregations in most communities, both urban and rural. They are large enough to secure funding from large relief organizations, but decentralized so that such resources can flow to far-flung locations. They share common goals, but do not require uniformity in regard to doctrine or practice.” [emphasis mine]

The United Nations Program on AIDS (UNAIDS) is also no stranger to the intersection of aid and religion. UNAIDS “prioritizes work at the global level with large networks of FBOs [faith-based organizations], religious leaders, and networks of religious leaders living with HIV.” They partner with Caritas Internationalis, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, Islamic Relief, and the Sangha Metta Project, to name only a few. We should all recognize the great place of faith as a driver for international development work.

What remains to be done is to connect faith communities in the “West” or, for the purposes of my work with the Faiths Act Fellowship, the US, UK, and Canada, to their co-religionists in sub-Saharan Africa. Religious communities “over there” can bridge the health services gap while religious communities “over here” bridge the resource and advocacy gap.

Key to this work, and to the mission of the Faiths Act campaign, is that we do so from an explicitly interfaith standpoint, e.g. churches, mosques, synagogues, temples working together. Management consultants used to call it synergy. We call it common sense. Mosquitoes don’t care who you pray to.

October Newsletter from Interfaith Youth Core

This post appeared in the “Movement in Action” section of the Interfaith Youth Core’s October email newsletter:

For most ordinary jobs, training or orientation usually denotes a few hours, perhaps a day or two, devoted to learning the ins and outs of one’s new organization. The Faiths Act Fellows trained for six weeks on three continents. This is not an ordinary job.

The Faiths Act Fellows were assembled like some sort of top-secret strike force, recruited from universities and community organizations across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. Each one of us brings a wealth of experience. Many have excelled at interfaith peace building. More than a few speak multiple languages. Some of us have even spent time in the developing world working to increase the fortunes of its peoples.

During our London training, we learned what it meant to be ambassadors for the Millennium Development Goals. We spent long hours on the theories behind coalition-building and malaria advocacy work and formed mutually-inspiring friendships across faith lines. In between visits to various houses of worship, we snuck in strategic planning sessions.

From there we split into three teams and traveled to Mali, Malawi, and Tanzania to see malaria’s effects and to meet the people for whom the disease is a constant worry. Some teams practically lived in hospitals or research facilities. Others spent their days meeting with local interfaith groups doing malaria eradication work on a micro scale.

The Fellows then returned to Chicago to share what we learned and to figure out how to tell the world about malaria. Eboo Patel told us that we were the vanguard of a new global movement. We met with Tony Blair, who told us very seriously that he was inspired and amazed by the work that we already have done and are going to do.

We are social entrepreneurs: We have seen need in our communities and beyond and we are working to end that need. Up until now we have been single actors, connected only by a loose sense of mission. But now, tied together not just by a mission but by the common values of our various religious traditions, thirty young leaders are constructing “hubs” of multifaith understanding, cooperation, and action. In cities stretching from San Jose, California to London, United Kingdom, we are laying the groundwork for an international coalition that is moving, quickly, to eradicate malaria deaths.

The Faiths Act Fellows have trained on many levels. We have come to know our enemy malaria very well, but we have come to know our friends even better. These friends are scientists, rabbis, activists, priests, imams, teachers, community organizers, and of course each other. But our best friends, I think, are the people who we met on our travels. Malaria is a real danger for them. Now it’s personal.

I once referred to the Fellowship in a unitary sense as “a 60-armed, 30-mouthed intercontinental juggernaut with a bone to pick with malaria”. On October 1, we began our work across the world.

Settling into San Jose

The Russian River in California

The Russian River in California

Hafsa and I have been settling into our office within the offices of the Islamic Networks Group for a few days. The Faiths Act Fellowship officially launched last Thursday, the first day of work for the Fellows. It’s an odd feeling to know that Hafsa and I aren’t only working by ourselves; in cities across the US, UK, and Canada the Fellows are collaborating and building the next step in our work to eradicate malaria deaths. It’s a strange feeling knowing that we are an independent-but-connected portion of the Fellowship; reassuring in that we have a large network to collaborate with, but also sad in that we are thousands of miles away from our dear friends.

I returned from Tanzania only a month ago. In those three weeks, I lived and breathed and laughed and cried with eight other Fellows. In the weeks before heading to East Africa, we had spent two weeks with the whole Fellowship, learning our stories and sharing our experiences. And only two weeks ago the entire Fellowship was living in Chicago and figuring out how to execute our mission.

It was sad leaving the other Fellows at the end of our six weeks of training. These are strong, smart, and dedicated individuals that I have come to trust and love. But I suppose it is helpful to imagine that we have gone from a tightly-concentrated group of social entrepreneurs to a very wide [mosquito?] net that can now do better things on a much larger scale.

We’re all self-directed social entrepreneurs with a mission. We may be scattered around the world, but we know what we have to do. And even though we are separated by many miles and time zones, we are now starting our work. Together.

Why faith? Part 1

Church and mosque next to each other

Church and mosque next to each other in Zanzibar

Today I leave Chicago along with twenty-eight of the other Faiths Act Fellows (my site-partner Hafsa lives in the city). I’m not flying home since home for me is only 100-odd miles west of Chicago. Tonight I’ll meet up with some of my old professors, mentors, and friends from Aurora University to play catch-up on the last nine months of our lives. Later tonight, I’ll make the hour drive out to my family’s farm in the countryside. Then I will sleep the sleep that only comes after seven rigorous weeks of training on three continents.

On July 30th, I walked into a room on the campus of University College London and met the people that I’ll be sharing the next eight months (and beyond) of my life with; learning, collaborating, commiserating if necessary, and striving towards a goal that at first glance appears incalculable even to a western audience. The Faiths Act Fellows are going to lay the groundwork for an international coalition of people of faith focused on promoting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); specifically MDG 6, which concerns the eradication of malaria deaths.

In such work, there are many stakeholders: policymakers see the MDGs as promoting political stability; international development professionals aim to raise the standard of life for billions; business people see investment and growth opportunities in fresh markets. Each group has an equally-valid impetus (yes, even the capitalists) for their work. What, then, is the “hook” for religious people? Why are the Fellows tasked with building ties between and among faith communities in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada?

For people of faith, there is a moral-universal imperative to advocate for the downtrodden, to shelter those without homes, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to do everything within one’s power to make this planet a more just place. These are the people that we need on board with our work; faith communities inspire hope and carry the vision of a better tomorrow.

The Faiths Act Fellows all come from very different religious traditions and different backgrounds, but we all have one goal: foster a new international coalition of churches, mosques, temples, governments, and NGOs to make the scourge of malaria a thing of the past.

An evening with Tony Blair

Faiths Act FellowshipLast night the Faiths Act Fellows attended a small reception with the Board of Directors and the staff of the Interfaith Youth Core here in Chicago. It was a nice opportunity for the board to meet with the staff who run their programs and the Fellows who will be out for the next eight months doing the on-the-ground work.

A few Fellows were chosen to share reflections about our time in various Africa countries. During these presentations, we were joined by the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and founder of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the Right Honorable Tony Blair. The presentations continued. In time, we broke the day’s fast with dates and the reciting of the adhan by Karem Issa, a Faiths Act Fellow.

After a few more Fellow reflections and a word by Eboo Patel, the Executive Director, we invited Mr. Blair to address us. He did this most eloquently. It was a good feeling to be “hanging out” with the guy who’s responsible for my current occupation. The Fellowship is a partnership between his foundation and the Interfaith Youth Core, and as the Fellows head out to promote interfaith cooperation to end malaria deaths, we know that Tony will be watching.

His speech meant a lot to us, not simply because he praised our dedication and passion, but because he expressed his humility towards the Fellows. For me especially, having such an important public figure tell me that he’s humbled and inspired by the work that I’ve already done and the work that I will do over the coming months is a very special feeling. I was humbled by his admission of humility.

The Fellows had a number of opportunities to talk with Mr. Blair over the evening – he was FULL of questions about us, about the program, and about our thoughts for the future. We posed for a group photo with him and after a few more photo opps, he was gone. We were told a number of months ago that we would eventually meet Mr. Blair, and we’ve already been on a conference call with him, but having the face-to-face meeting with the whole staff and Board was a real treat.

The Fellowship exists because of Tony Blair’s vision and the Interfaith Youth Core’s expertise in mobilizing and empowering youth. We are embarking on a big journey, the thirty of us, and as we’re building hubs of interfaith cooperation in cities across the US, UK, and Canada, we’re going to have to keep that vision in mind.

The last leg of the triangle

Sears Willis TowerI’m back in Chicago after a nearly 6-month absence. Not only am I back in Chicago, I am staying for two weeks. This is both unheard of and very welcome. I like the Windy City.

After two weeks in London and three weeks in Tanzania, coming “home” means a lot to me. Familiar streets, smells, and faces. In a week, I’ll join my family out on the farm west of the city and the suburbs after meeting some former professors (my mentors) for dinner. The countryside will of course evoke a whole new set of emotions and memories. But before I head out of the city, I have to complete the third leg of our “training triangle”; that is, I have to connect London to Tanzania to Chicago.

The Faiths Act Fellowship training in London consisted of situating our work within the larger Millennium Development Goals, developing religious literacy, and learning how to identify key stakeholders. The Fellows then split into three teams – Mali, Malawi, and Tanzania – to get on the ground and learn from communities affected by malaria. In Tanzania, my team received certificates in “Primary Health Care” from the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health in Ifakara. We visited hospitals and clinics and spoke directly to Tanzanians who live each day under the shadow of malaria. We saw vaccine trials and investigated the case of Zanzibar, which has brought its infection/positivity rate down to less than 1%. All three teams gathered stories from doctors, community figures, and faith leaders.

Now here in Chicago we will take these elements and combine them under the watchful eye of the Interfaith Youth Core’s trainers and staff. Now we build action plans and strategies to engage faith communities, schools, and other organizations to mobilize on behalf of the Millennium Development Goals and malaria. Now we figure out how we will work in pairs to build regional “hubs” of interfaith cooperation that will outlive us. Now we learn how to catalyze and scale-up our work for the next eight months and beyond.

We don’t have much time together so we’re working around the clock to equip ourselves for the task ahead. For me, the strangest thing is knowing that what we are doing will only be the beginning. We are the vanguard of an international, interfaith coalition to eradicate malaria deaths. It’s great to be home, but for now I have to concentrate. My work in San Jose will outlast me; I have to ensure that this is the case.

On the Kilombero River

On the Kilombero RiverAfter a quick breakfast, our team headed out this morning to the Kilombero River, the body of water that separates Kilombero District from its neighbor. One of our friends from the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health came along to find some river guides; we made a deal and climbed into two massive dugout canoes. They were ships, really – probably 20 feet long and more than 2 feet deep. Our whole team plus the four river guides fit quite comfortably. We set off on a slow cruise upstream.

I got to chatting with a man named Hatari, asking him lots of questions about the river and the Kiswahili words for things that I saw around the boat. I pointed to a small white bird called “nyange-nyange” and Hatari explained its place in local mythology. If I understood him correctly, the nyange-nyange is considered off-limits for eating. The practical reason is that the bird removes and eats ticks and other parasites from the area livestock. But the other, and probably much older reason, is that it is believed that the nyange-nyange provides the impetus for the growth of human fingernails – these fingernails in turn provide the bird with its brilliant white feathers.

Hatari, one of our river expertsIn time, Hatari came to ask me questions about what I was doing in Tanzania. I explained our work with the Interfaith Youth Core and Tony Blair Faith Foundation and how we were there to learn and observe. I asked him (in Kiswahili, which I am very proud of) if he thought that malaria would always exist. He paused and laughed, saying, “Malaria is…like a runny nose. It is very not rare!” He went on to explain that there are types of malaria that can linger in the body for decades, making it very hard to completely eradicate.

Hatari was adamant that real reductions in malaria deaths were only capable through increased education. I stressed that our team saw the importance of religious communities in dispensing this education along with bednets and medicines. I pointed out that the eight Fellows with me would be joined by twenty-one others who would scatter themselves across the US, UK, and Canada in order to promote interfaith cooperation on malaria. Hatari ended up asking me far more questions about the Fellowship than I asked him about Kiswahili vocabulary. I was quite happy with this turnaround; it meant that he found our work interesting and useful. And when I explained our push for interfaith cooperation on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa, I could tell that he saw the very practical nature of the program.

Still, his answer to my question about eradicating malaria was unexpected to say the least. I had anticipated such an answer to be an adamant YES, but Hatari was saying that malaria was a fact of human existence and would likely never disappear. It reminded me of a maxim that we heard often during our training in London: “Dying of malaria is like dying of a broken arm. There’s no reason why it should happen.” The real struggle for the Faiths Act Together campaign will be combating the perceived banality of a disease that affects millions.

Welcome to Tanzania!

Tanzania Road

After a very long day of travel we touched down in Dar es Salaam and made our way to a guest house for the night. The accomodations were comfortable – always a good thing to have as you adjust to a new place. In the morning we took off for Ifakara in the south central part of the country.

It took us around seven hours to make the trip. The last ninety minutes or so was a long slog down bumpy, dusty roads. Luckily, our Rovers had good suspension systems. We rolled into the Tanzanian Training Centre for International Health (TTCIH) right as dusk was falling, which was surprisingly early. I think we had gotten used to the day stretching past 9 pm when we were in London. We unpacked the trucks and met Joyce, the administrative specialist, and Dr. Pemba, the Director of the Centre.

After a wonderful dinner to welcome us, we retreated to our bungalows to rest. Sleep was welcomed.

Charitable activities

During yesterday’s visit to London’s Central Synagogue, we had a meeting with Rabbi Marcus to discuss a few of the things that our team saw during the Shabbat service. One of the Faiths Act Fellows asked the rabbi what manner of charitable activities the synagogue engaged in. Rabbi Marcus paused and inhaled with great gravitas before saying, “Any religious community that did not engage in charitable work would find it very hard to justify its existence.”

He went on to describe the activities that the synagogue was involved in, including helping poor communities in Belarus and sponsoring medical supplies at a hospital in South Africa. In reflecting on what the rabbi said, I found a very strong justification for the work of the Faiths Act Fellowship.

If we look at the Abrahamic traditions’ founding “stories” or at least eras, we see that social justice and charity were pretty huge components. Moses led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt and brought them to a place of safety. Jesus and the Apostles went around healing the sick and feeding the hungry. Muhammad and his followers basically built a giant social welfare system in Medina and then Mecca. For all three traditions, helping those in need was a sine qua non of their existence. Remove the charity, and what is left? It brings to mind a (I think) poignant quote from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.   And tho’ I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”

I know what you’re thinking – you’ve heard that at weddings and it’s “love” not “charity”. You’re wrong – the Latin is “caritas”. You do the rest.

That’s the shared value of service and charity present in all religions. That’s what the Faiths Act Fellowship is about.