A girl’s period should not be an obstacle to education

During my time consulting for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP), I had the privilege of working with Neema Namadamu, the founder of Maman Shujaa, an organization that uses digital media to broadcast the voices of women peacemakers from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Ms. Namadamu is involved in other endeavors as well, including piloting the Girl Ambassadors for Peace (GA4P) program in DRC with GNWP. She is a tireless advocate for women’s rights, the rights of the disabled, for her community and for the environment. She advocates for people’s rights around the world and often speaks on panels at the United Nations in New York and at conferences globally.

Recently, while promoting a new film that she appears in, Merci Congo, by Paul Freedman, she provided updates on programs at Maman Shujaa in Bukavu, South Kivu (DRC), including the GA4P program.

GNWP’s Girl Ambassadors are educated young women who undergo training on how to conduct literacy education, as well as learning about leadership, and the principles of UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1325 and 1820.While the GA4P program has a core curriculum it also allows for additional activities to be adapted for each country or regionally inside of a country in order to focus on the most relevant issues to the community. For example, the activities of the Girl Ambassadors in one community might focus on public events for World Literacy Day and World Day of Peace, while another would focus on involvement in radio broadcasts and PSAs to promote women’s empowerment and peacebuilding.

One of the main objectives of the GA4P program is to raise literacy rates of girls and young women in rural communities where girls are often marginalized and receive little to no education. After the program had been implemented, Ms. Namadamu identified another often-overlooked obstacle to girl’s education that in most developed countries would not prohibit girls from attending school — menstruation.

Because of cultural traditions, rural women in DRC often have a difficult time discussing menstruation with their daughters, creating a lack of awareness about the importance of hygiene and health care. Most girls do not understand the how’s and why’s of hygiene products. Moreover, women and girls in some developing countries do not have access to basic feminine hygiene products such as sanitary napkins and tampons, or reusable sanitary pads. If they do have access, the store might be too far to travel to regularly or the products are too expensive to purchase; relegating girls to use fabric from old clothing in poor condition, or cornhusks, newspaper, mattress stuffing and leaves. When girls start their periods at school, there isn’t a nurse or anyone to explain what is happening to them. In many cases at home they are told that they are now a woman and ready for marriage, which signals an end to their education.  If the girl returns to school, she is often teased by the boys causing feelings of self-consciousness and low self-esteem.  In DRC, a girl’s period often disrupts daily activities with some girls missing four to five days of school per month.

In response, Ms. Namadamu started the Keep Congolese Girls in School program in Itombwe, Eastern DRC, and held fundraisers in Europe and the United States to send three of the Girl Ambassadors to a four-week training in Kampala, Uganda at Days for Girls Uganda. The young women learned how to construct and sew “The Days for Girls Menstrual Hygiene kit (DfG kit),” and also how to make soap in order to clean the reusable sanitary napkins. The washable kit includes two shields, eight reusable liners, a cloth bag to carry the kit, and costs approximately $5.00 to produce one kit.

The Girl Ambassadors initially made 300 kits and conducted training in Itombwe on how to make and use the kits, along with the importance of hygiene. The young women made a second run of 750 kits, as well as collecting 600 bras for distribution.

Menstruating is a normal function of womanhood and in most Western countries, it is not an obstacle to girls attending school. This is a preventable issue that should not continue to be an obstacle to girl’s education. Programs such as Keep Congolese Girls in School fills a gap that has been overlooked for some time and provides an inexpensive solution that focuses on knowledge sharing, training and use of accessible materials. The project has also created employment for young women in the region.

Programs such as Keep Congolese Girls in School would be an excellent component of the GA4P program in South Sudan and other countries where girls struggle to attend and remain in school. Hopefully GNWP will be able to pursue this project with the GA4P in South Sudan, where menstruation is also an obstacle to a girl’s education.

For more about Neema Namadamu and the Keep Congolese Girls in School program click on the link to watch this interview with Neema by Catherine Gray of 360 Karma for the You Go Girl series.

Donations for the Keep Congolese Girls in School program or other Maman Shujaa programs can be made at: https://herowomenrising.networkforgood.com/.

 

New York Artcation

This month during a little down time, a few museum excursions in New York took place.

First up, the Met. I finally made it to a few exhibits that I had wanted to see before they closed, plus a few permanent favorite collections.

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The Design for Eternity exhibit displayed intricate architectural models from the first millennium B.C. until the 16th century, created from ceramic, wood, stone, and metal. This was probably my favorite exhibit of the day.

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Divine Pleasures: paintings from India’s Rajput Courts are vibrantly colored mythological scenes. It was a small showcase but worth viewing.

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Call me weird but I could look at antique furniture and glass lamps, vases, bowls, etc., all day long, and the Furniture of the Gilded Age display definitely drew me in.

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I also wandered around the general furniture collection that includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Comfort Tiffany, and items from the Vanderbilt collection among others.

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Cornelia Parker’s rooftop PsychoBarn is my favorite rooftop display so far and looks like something I’d live in. If only it was a real house.

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The Astor Chinese Garden Court is a wonderful space in the middle of the museum. It always makes me feel calm and it’s a nice place for a quiet break from the throngs of people.

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The newly opened Met Breuer, which previously held Whitney exhibits, is a petite vertical space, with short-term rotating exhibits spread among five floors. The Estela Breuer café was scheduled to open this summer but has been delayed. It is now set to launch next month.

I recently viewed two completely different and equally fantastic exhibits. Unfortunately no pictures were allowed at either exhibit.

The Diane Arbus “in the beginning” exhibit is a broad representation of her early work. It includes never-before-seen pictures from 1923–71, plus a few society shots of women that I had seen previously. There is a fantastic mad men-esk shot of a secretary in New York City, plus pictures of strippers, female impersonators, circus performers, little people and children.

Paul Klee’s Exhibit was also intriguing. His work, which I had never seen before, is more along the lines of Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Some of his pieces definitely have a Pablo Picasso sensibility. His sense of humor is one of the elements of his paintings that I enjoyed the most.

 

 

Finding food, nature, and art in Chicago

A recent weekend getaway to Chicago, was full of relaxation, exploration and visiting with relatives who I rarely have the opportunity to spend time with.

Most of my time in Chicago was spent in the downtown Loop area. While walking through Millennium Park, I heard a live band playing Frank Sinatra and big band staples, a favorite genre of mine. So, I wandered over to the bandshell and found a party for seniors going on – apparently my age group now…it was a fun time.

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I continued wandering around Lurie Garden, took the BP Pedestrian Bridge to Maggie Daley Park (rock climbing and tennis), walked to Grant Park (Buckingham Fountain), and then walked the Lakefront trail.

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After sitting and watching the sailboats, I walked to Native Foods Café in the Loop for lunch. Whew, that was a bit of a trek.

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Next up: Navy Pier for a relaxing afternoon including a boat tour of the shoreline, taking in the sights from the pier and a short break at Harry Caray’s Tavern to enjoy a beer on the patio and a little reading.

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My niece showed me around her neighborhood, and we spent time chatting and people watching at Chicago Riverwalk.

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We also ventured out to some great cafes and restaurants. My top picks for coffee/tea spots in the Loop are the Goddess and the Baker and Peach and Green, which both also have good food options. As for food, Silver Spoon Thai is a new favorite, along with low key and affordable Flaco’s Tacos, and Naf Naf Grill.

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One afternoon, we went to the wondrous Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. His work depicts everyday scenes from a barber shop, a bedroom, to housing projects in Chicago’s South Side, where he where he has lived and worked since the late 1980s. As we moved through the exhibit the diverse themes were clear. His work is poignant, full of symbology and images that add another layer of meaning to each painting. This is the most excited I’ve been about a living painter in a long, long time. Marshall’s work travels to New York next, the Met Breuer. I’ll be going again.

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My final day was spent with family catching up. Over the past few years I have become more interested in genealogy. This trip was also an opportunity to learn more about my family history, specifically those who came from Eastern Europe, and when they arrived in the USA. Hopefully, I didn’t make my relatives too crazy with all of my questions.

Toronto Food Extravaganza

As luck would have it, a vegan food festival was set to take place during our visit to Toronto, Canada. Officially called Toronto food and drink festival, the producers of the festival also have an annual festival in Chicago (USA), the fest is held at Fort York, downtown Toronto near the waterfront.

Because it was extremely hot during our visit, combined with the reviews from 2015 festival that indicated food was running low by late afternoon, we decided to go early in the day. It was steamy by the time we arrived in the late morning, but it still ended up being a good decision.

The fest was set up like a traditional festival with food, drinks, textiles, and make up for sale with bands playing and a DJ. They also had a something I haven’t seen before, but very necessary…that all festivals should have — hand washing stations near the porta potties.

We started making our way around the perimeter to take it all in, and then decided what we wanted to try.

We started with Two Bears cold brew bottled coffee. Normally, I’m not a huge fan of flavored coffee but we were there to try new things. Their maple pecan cold brew was a winner, and decently priced. I hope they find their way into some NYC shops soon. We also tried Well Juicery, cold press juices – they are very tasty and were a Pocky favorite. Another drink favorite of mine — Tonica Kombucha. They were out of my go to — green tea, so we tried mango and peach flavors. It’s my new favorite Kombucha.

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After hitting a few stands the rains came which started cooling down the temperature a bit but also made it hard to eat as the only tents were over the vendors. So we just waited out the rains in between munching on snacks.

Next we tried Bunners bake shop. They make sweets and savory items. We tried the pizza bun. It’s a funky little snack. It had the consistency of a cinnamon bun with pizza flavor. Tasted great but if you have food texture issues it might take a minute to reconcile the texture and flavor sensation.

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Vegan Nom is a vegan taco truck from Austin (Texas) that was on my list to try. They had long lines and a wait time of 30 minutes after the order was placed. We tried the mock-fish tacos. It’s a breaded protein in a corn tortilla, which worked for me but Pocky wasn’t bowled over by the dish – probably because he still eats fish.

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We also stopped by the other Austin (Texas) vegan favorite, Arlo’s, equally as long of a wait. This was Pocky’s favorite stop. He had the cheeseburger, which he said was fantastic. Unfortunately for me, it had mushrooms (allergic) in it, so I had to pass. Next time I’m in Austin stopping at their curbside kitchen (food truck) is a must.

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For me, Doug Mcnish was a standout and I wanted one of everything but decided on just the buffalo wings. He has a popular restaurant in Toronto and I was a little sad we weren’t going to make it there, until I realized he was cooking at the festival. The wings were fantastic! He was also selling swag and cookbooks. We picked up his first book. For those looking for inventive, well-executed vegan food, try his place The Public Kitchen in Toronto.

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As I made my way to Thiru’s Gourmet, the next downpour of rain started. I grabbed a box with three different curried veg and tofu dishes but the rain was coming down so hard we couldn’t eat. Instead, we made our way over to Sweets from the Earth to pick up desserts to go. (We ended up eating them later in the evening. Their lavender cupcakes are heavenly and the whoopie pie reminded me of being a kid. Amazing flavors.)

The plan was to make a run for it to the parking garage but halfway there our box of food was collapsing from the rain so we stood under an over pass and and quickly shoveled it in…It was really good and really entertaining for those watching.

 

 

Vegan comfort food in Toronto, Canada

This post is overdue…but sometimes it is more important to be in the moment and enjoy life.

Toronto is one of my favorite spots to visit because it can go from busy and adventurous to relaxing in the span of about 10 minutes. There is a little something for everyone.

From restaurants to resorts, Ontario Canada offers options for people with a range of dietary needs. Honestly, it is far easier for me to find better quality food options outside of cosmopolitan areas in Canada than in the USA. But in once instance during this vacation, we planned ahead just in case.

A few years ago I visited Toronto and most of my restaurant hopping happened in the popular King Street and Kensington Market areas, but as with any bustling city restaurants come and go. Unfortunately a few favorites have gone, but during this visit, trying new things mostly led to positive results and exploration of a new charming neighborhood — Bloorcourt.

Let’s start with the food fail. We chose Sabai Sabai Thai on Church Street for its vegan menu. It’s a very popular place and we waited in line quite a while. Once seated, we ordered dishes and I requested that they take the mushrooms off a dish, because I am allergic. The server came back and explained that mushroom powder was in their spice mix for every dish. As an aside — it was super hot outside and we had been walking around for hours…(insert sigh and an eye roll). We got up and walked out, me with a pouty expression that quickly turned to laughter about the vegan who can’t eat a thing on the vegan menu…

So, we ended up at Golden Thai, also on Church Street, and they were able to make us lovely Thai food without any issues.

The next day we roamed around the once derelict Victorian industrial complex, now known as the Distillery, and we stopped in to shop at Soma chocolatemaker, Bergo Designs, Fluevog shoes and more. We took a chance and tried Mill St Brewery for lunch, as one can imagine pub food not always a good bet for vegans. However this place has a little something for everyone, including beer. Mmmn tater tots, pretzels with spicy mustard, Moroccan Falafel Salad, and a Southwest Veggie Burger. No, not all for me! They offer a wide variety of beer’s – Altbier and 100th Meridian, yes, please.

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Next we walked to St. Lawrence Market. Originally a wooden structure, this market dates to the early 1800s. A fire took out the original structure and the market was rebuilt using brick. This place is foodie heaven. For those who enjoy fish, meat, cheese etc. this is a great place to purchase food and there are a few super popular restaurant stalls as well. There are also venders selling bread, nut butters, oils, bulk foods, coffee, pastries, and fruits and veg. We decided to plan ahead for our trip to Niagara Falls, in case there weren’t vegan food options, and picked up fruit, olives and other fresh items that would survive a night in our hotel room and a trip to the falls. They actually do have food choices along the falls but I was happy to have a fresh snack on the drive back to Toronto.

One morning we stopped by Karine’s vegan breakfast. It’s a cool local spot in a food court. It’s a hidden gem (literally). If you aren’t a local it takes a minute to figure out where it is located. We chose amazing waffles and pancakes, with fruit and coffee. The food was dessert like and way too much for me to eat all of it, but I sure did try. Karine seemed to be feeding a morning rush of construction workers when we arrived. She is very sweet and the food was fantastic.

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On another night we stuffed ourselves at the: Hogtown Vegan on Bloor Street West. They are the kings of vegan comfort food in Toronto. We shared several large dishes —

mac n’ cheese, buffalo wings and chili cheese fries. I could eat that mac n’ cheese every day, but that wouldn’t be very figure friendly. Just because it’s vegan, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have calories…

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The final stand out was Bloomers, a vegan café on the same street at Hogtown. They serve breakfast and lunch – but they are known for their donuts, and this girl won’t miss the chance to nom nom an amazing vegan donut. We stopped on our way to the airport, basically as soon as they opened. The thing to know about Bloomers is that once you arrive you can relax with coffee or tea but you will need to wait about a half hour for the donuts to be ready. For the full brunch menu, you’ll wait an hour. The anticipation was palpable and watching them cool on the counter was torture. We chose strawberry and cinnamon options. Amazing – and on par with the Holy donut in Maine, USA. I wanted to take one or two for the road, but that just would have been gluttonous…

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Canada’s wondrous views

Toronto is one of my favorite cities and it’s a quick flight from New York. There is so much to do in Toronto, from outdoor adventures, sports, festivals, Evergreen Brick Works, and High Park, to a thriving arts and culture scene. The city has numerous breweries and is a foodie paradise with something for everyone. The city is broken up into districts with two Chinatowns, Koreatown, Little Italy, Cabbagetown, etc. Also, funky areas chock-full of food and shopping, such as King and Queen streets, Kensington Market, the Distillery, Yonge & Bloor, and West Bloor – a popular vegan culinary hub.

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The CN Tower is 1,815 feet high, has a glass floor, look out level, skypod, restaurants, and shopping. The views from the look out level are fantastic, but the skypod level is even better, and is the best spot for photos.

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Looking down through the glass floor is amazing but those with a fear of heights will have a hard time looking down or standing on the glass. I enjoy heights but even I naturally gravitated to the steel crosses in between the glass and had to remind myself that it was okay to stand on the glass.

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I wanted to do the edge walk, where an individual is attached to a harness and walks around the tower on a ledge 116 stories in the sky, but we were on a schedule… maybe next time.

 

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We decided to drive to Niagara Falls instead of purchasing a package tour and taking a bus or train. The drive between Toronto and the falls takes about an hour and a half and parking is only a short walk from the falls. Driving also allows for picking and choosing other activities along the border, such as visiting the gardens or a tower similar to the CN in Toronto. However, for those wanting to partake in the wine tours, either have a designated driver or opt for the package tour. There is a strip with casinos, an arcade, miniature golf, and typical fast food joints – it’s a smaller version of Las Vegas.

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Though we didn’t see as much as planned, our experience was fantastic. The main obstacle was that we were in Canada during a heat wave and after three days in the hot hot heat, another full day was too much for me. We walked around and took in the falls and then did the boat tour, which is absolutely worth the money. Wear something comfortable and have a change of clothing, if possible. We were drenched even with the plastic ponchos but considering how hot it was, the cold water was a relief.

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The view from the Canadian side of the falls is spectacular and worth the drive across the boarder.
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Even though boat tours are available from the American side of the falls, the view from Canada of the top of the falls on the American side shouldn’t be missed.

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Next we hopped into a pod (air conditioned) on the skywheel, which provided another gorgeous view of the American side of Niagara Falls and a much needed respite from the blazing heat before making the drive to Toronto.

No food, no friendship

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While in Nairobi, a friend and I visited the Giraffe Centre. The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (Kenya) breeds giraffes at the center and reintroduces them on the protected wild areas of land surrounding the center — 140 acres of indigenous forest. Their main focus is to provide conservation education to youth while providing a safe haven for the giraffes.

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The center offers several areas, including elevated platforms where visitors are able to feed food pellets to giraffes and watch warthogs scramble around near their feet. There is a snack bar, gift shop and outdoor area where large pieces of art are available for purchase. They also have a hotel, where the giraffes wander the property and occasionally poke their heads through windows looking for snacks.

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Though I love being able to see animals up close and interact with them when possible, I am very conscious of our responsibility as humans to act appropriately and not do anything to interfere with or disrupt their habitat.

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While at the center, I had the opportunity to feed several of the giraffes and it was fantastic; they are full of personality. However, there were a few cringe worthy moments. One tourist attempted to put his arm around the neck of a giraffe to take a photo and received a headbutt in response, as one of the trainers politely remarked – “No food, no friendship.” A woman also tried to feed a pellet to a giraffe from her mouth. I kept my inside thought about what I hoped would happen to her to myself. How to feed the giraffes is clearly spelled out to people before they receive the food, but does it really need to be? Does an adult really need to be told that they could spread germs to the giraffe and that it is potentially dangerous to feed an unsupervised wild animal from their mouth…why can’t adults just follow the rules? The magnitude of people lacking common sense never ceases to amaze me.

Aside from people behaving badly, the experience at the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (Kenya) is fantastic and worth the visit.


Our final excursion was to Kazuri beads in Nairobi. Kazuri is the Swahili word for “small and beautiful.” In many countries around the globe, including Kenya, it is often quite difficult for women, especially single or widowed mothers to find decent paying jobs. Kazuri, founded by Lady Susan Wood, provides training and skills for a permanent career for women. Kazuri currently employs 350 women and their crafts are sold around the world.

We visited on a Sunday and were unable to watch the women make the beads but they did have guides on hand to provide a tour of the compound and show what happens in each building, from shaping, polishing, firing to painting the beads and ceramics. The tour ends in the gift shop. The jewelry is exquisite and the pottery is gorgeous, needless to say, a little shopping took place.

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