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After reading about my trips and excursions throughout Egypt and across the Middle East, perhaps some of you are wondering if I actually have to do anything here, or if I have just been given a license to freely wonder around the Middle East for a year. So I thought that it was about time to let you know that there actually is a purpose to my extended presence in Egypt—being a Fulbright grantee is not completely just fun and games, there is a little work involved. :)

Fulbright has been around for quite sometime now. In fact, it was established in the mid-1940s by J. William Fulbright to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” Over the years it has developed into a massive program that sends US citizens all over the world and then invites a greater number of our foreign counterparts to come to the US, usually as part of a college or graduate education.

Although there are different types of Fulbrighters (for doctoral research, teaching English, etc) I am here as a Fulbright student and spend the year first studying Arabic and then implementing a nine-month individual research project.

The Arabic portion of my grant was intense, with classes 4-5 hours a day, five days a week but the reward was well worth it. Studying in Egypt gave me my first significant chance to learn a local Arabic dialect. It was a liberating experience after having spent years in the shackles of the complex grammar and precise voweling of standard Arabic (for a better perspective on this, ready Caity’s blog post here). Now I can actually speak with people on the street, in shops and in taxis, hearing their thoughts about politics, religion and their families.

After three months, I finished my Arabic studies (for the time being anyway, Arabic is a language you study forever…) and started work on my project. After months of brainstorming and discussion the previous year, I had decided to focus on the publications of al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world and perhaps the most respected voice on Islamic learning in the Sunni world. However, as Islam has no central religious hierarchy (no Pope equivalent), when Muslims are looking for religious guidance they have many learned sheikhs at many different institutions to choose from—with even greater variety now due to increased internet access growing popularity of Islamic televangelists. I was interested to research what role al-Azhar played in the lives of Egyptians in Cairo, given the rise of these other actors and the institution’s close and at times controversial relationship with the state.

I spent the first month doing background research, reading the history of the institution and looking into a number of issues that have a strong resonance in Egyptian’s religious lives so that I could speak with them about topics that were important to them, and not just to me. I had just scheduled my first interview when the revolution began and I remember getting a phone call from Maha after the police had disappeared throughout Egypt saying that it might be a good idea to postpone the interview for the time being. She was right and I was evacuated four days later.

While in Nairobi (our chosen evacuation point), I found out that I was admitted into an MA program in Teaching Social Studies in Secondary School, starting in the fall. With a clear idea of my future plans and greatly influenced by an incredible education program I visited in Uganda, I came back to Egypt two months later with a new project idea in mind. Fulbright, perhaps realizing that the Revolution and our two months off had most of us returning with a new direction, accepted my proposed change.

Not a student...

More in-line with my future plans, I am now studying Islamic Education in Egypt, specifically looking at moral education. I was inspired by the incredible way that the PSA program in Uganda approached the education of our whole being, not just providing the participants with information to be digested and regurgitated on a test. The program seamlessly wove in questions and discussion about human nature, prejudice and self-reflection into lessons on math, science, agriculture and history.  This is in contrast to my experience in the US education system, which, with few exceptions, has a fragmented approach to education where none of the subjects relate to each other and students are seen as empty vessels to be filled up with information that often does not relate to their lives, aspirations or the world around them.

The belief in the US that state and religion should be kept separate has also led to the removal of any classes relating to morals/ethics/values, at times replacing them instead with civics, which is more interested in teaching the functions of the government and our place in the system than developing our ability to understand how our actions, beliefs and decisions can positively or negatively affect our lives and our communities.

With these ideas in mind I chose to study Islamic education, which in theory, has a more developed sense of educating the entire person, helping them to develop character as well as knowledge, even with specific words in Arabic for each type of teaching. But as everything sounds good in theory, I want to see whether or not these ideas are being implemented in Egyptian schools today and I will spend the next few months reading text books and talking with students and teachers to find out. In the end, I hope to learn something that I can bring back to the States, something that will inform my future study and teaching so that I can help my students develop as people and not just good date-memorizers and test-takers.

And that is ultimately the purpose of Fulbright, the cultural exchange.  If I had any doubts of its importance, Mahmoud cleared them up. He is the son of a very sweet plumber I met a few months ago and I have since been adopted into his family. As Mahmoud is currently unemployed (like an unfortunately large portion of Egyptian youth) he asked me if I could teach him English to help him get a good job here. During one of our classes, we were talking about differences between Egypt and the US and he said to me, “I think that it is very good that people from America come here and Egyptians go there, we learn a lot from each other.”

Thank you Mahmoud, Mr. Fulbright would be proud. :)

Actually, I am a bit embarrassed to tell this story. It has, however, been at the center of my life for the past few weeks (and in fact prevented me from doing other interesting things I might have written about instead), so I thought that I would share the somewhat unfortunate, but hopefully entertaining, saga of my wounded foot.

It started shortly after we returned from Kenya. I quickly rejoined the capoeira group I so abruptly left two months previously and although seriously out of shape, I was excited to return to the kicks, spins and cartwheels that make capoeira such an incredible martial art. In the end, it was the cartwheels that did me in.

I had just returned from my second session and I was excited to show Caity some of the different moves that we were doing in class. After demonstrating different kicks and dodges, I got to the last move, a type of cartwheel (called an “Aú”) where you pause halfway up in a handstand before finishing. It looks pretty cool if you do it right. Unfortunately, I did not do it right.

After pausing in a wobbly handstand, I started to come down, but instead of gracefully bringing my feet to the floor, they crashed into the dresser, landing me hard on my butt. Caity rushed over and made sure I didn’t try to get up, examining the scrape on my left shin and what looked to be a nasty cut on my toe. I would like to say that I was not just showing off, but if that was the case, I certainly received what my dad calls “insta-karma”. :P

What it should have looked like...

It was about 11:30 pm and we were hesitant to go to the hospital (never having been before in Egypt and unsure of the care I would receive) and so we did what any prudent person would do in this situation: we called Mom. Luckily, in addition to being calm and compassionate, she is also a nurse. We described the situation and she told us to clean up the wound and then check it again in the morning.

When we woke up, it looked better, but still not very good. In consultation with my mom, we decided to try and take care of it ourselves. My mom became our on call nurse, who we provided with frequent updates (to the point where we started signing emails “Bolton Nursing Station: Cairo”) and Caity was my wonderful in-home nurse, a role she was unfortunately quite used to after my bout with Lyme disease two summers ago.

I quickly realized that having an injured foot significantly changes your daily activities, cutting everything out of your schedule that requires walking more than fifty feet. My day centered on the bed, where I slept, ate and exercised. My expeditions out to help Caity consisted of hobbling to the kitchen and awkwardly propping my foot up on a chair to do dishes or cut veggies, while she selflessly handled everything else. There are many reasons that I am happy to be married, but having a sweet, helpful (not to mention cute <3) nurse on hand 24 hours a day has definitely been added to the list.

After a week I started feeling better and after two weeks I was walking without pain. With my improved state, we made the (in hindsight) unfortunate choice to take a three-day trip out to the Western Desert. I kept my foot covered in a sock and shoe to prevent it from getting dirty, but it started hurting again after a day or two. I did the “manly” (i.e. stupid) thing of trying to shrug off the pain, not mentioning it to Caity until our last day out. When we returned from the desert, it turned out that the pain I had felt was my wound getting infected. In consultation with our Colorado colleague, we decided this was out of our hands not and finally went to the doctor.

Don't forget the socks...

After waiting a few minutes, we were shown in to his office where he had me take off my sock. He looked at my foot for no more than two seconds, asking if I had any allergies (I said no) and then prescribed antibiotics and a foot powder, insisting that I also wear white cotton socks. Being used to doctors in the States who sit down, ask you a series of questions and then fully explain the affliction, I found his style very brusque, especially since he didn’t even tell me the problem until I asked when leaving his office at the end of the visit!

I took my prescription to the pharmacy downstairs, where they gave me everything for (in comparison to the US) absurdly low prices. Pharmacies here provide just about any drug you want over the counter and I got the feeling that my prescription sheet was more of a list to them than an authorization from a medical professional. To top it off, they even deliver.

I followed the doctor’s orders, taking the pills and liberally applying the powder to my foot. Unfortunately, after a few days we found out that I am actually allergic to something—the powder that we have been dousing my foot with! My next visit to the doctor found my foot looking worse than before (meriting a ten second evaluation this time) before I was sent home again with a saline wash.

Luckily, it seems that this saga is only a trilogy and my foot is finally healing. I am ready to walk around outside, do exercise somewhere other than the bed and maybe even start going to capoeira again. I have thankfully kept my toe and certainly learned my lesson. I will be much more careful when practicing at home and that is the last time I pick a fight with a dresser!

A Trip to the Moon

The "traditional" desert from my time in Morocco

Before I studied abroad in the Middle East, I could only picture one type of desert – an endless sea of dunes extending out into the horizon. Traveling around the region however, it became clear that this is only one of the many types of deserts, some of which even have specific names in Arabic. Our most recent expedition to Egypt’s famed Western Desert has shown me yet another beautiful variation of this arid landscape.

After a four-hour trip from Cairo, we met our guide, Wagdy, with his 4×4 in Bahariya, the main town in the area (in fact the only town in the area), and after a quick lunch, we set out for the desert.

After a short while, Wagdy engaged the four-wheel drive, pulled off the road and quickly had us bouncing up and down in our seats as we raced across the alternating patches of rock and sand. We first passed through what is known as the Black Desert, which is blanketed with small black rocks and whose flatness stretches out in all directions, with only a few hills to break up the monotony.

When we crossed over into the white desert however, things started to become more interesting. Soon the landscape was broken up by hills and small rock formations rising up out of the sand. These quickly turned into cliffs made from an incredibly white almost chalk-like stone. Wagdy said that we were making our way toward the ‘Agabat or miracle mountains. Not quite sure what we were looking for, our question was answered when we crested a dune and saw a field of huge stone mountains, all seemingly growing up individually out of the sand. I cannot imagine how these were formed but it certainly took an incredibly long time.

As if these were not scenic enough, Wagdy drove us out to the “New White Desert” (labeled such because it only really became accessible with the introduction of the 4×4). In a few short minutes, we went from Egypt to the moon. We were driving through a forest of oddly shaped rock pillars shooting up out of the ground. Some had large bulbous tops balancing on thin bases, which our guide referred to as mushrooms, and there was even one that looked like a chicken! We set up our first camp amongst the incredible formations and the twilight gave the landscape a pronounced otherworldly feel.

The morning found us romping across the dunes of the Western Desert, Wagdy’s favorite location, and we could see why. The Western Desert seems to be the brilliant combination of all the places we passed through before, with rock-strewn ground giving way to large dunes that butted up against beautiful cliffs studded with veins of quartz. We even found some small shells and other fossils, prompting you to think about the crazy notion that this place, currently so lacking in moisture, was once the sandy floor of a vast sea.

Although it seems that it would be easy to get lost in the vast expanse, our guide confidently told us that he could wander out in the desert for days without a map or GPS. And he has apparently done so; often walking at the head of multiday camel trips out into the desert. If you have ever ridden a camel for more than an hour however, you will know why we chose the decidedly comfier 4×4!

We emerged from the Western Desert in the early afternoon and made our way back to Bahariya for lunch. Spending the last 24 hours in a desert gives you a tiny taste of what many ancient travelers must have felt when they caught sight of the seemingly miraculous oasis after spending days, if not weeks, crossing a very hostile landscape. We passed fields of date palms, pomegranate trees, watermelons and olive trees, all watered by a number of natural springs in the area and in great contrast to the rocky hills just a few miles away.

Leaving Bahariya once more, we made our way out to a series of dunes on the outskirts of the city. Sitting in our camp under the fast-appearing stars, we were struck by the tranquility of our current surroundings in comparison to our lives in Cairo. Silence had replaced the ever-present motorized cacophony outside our apartment window, the air smelled refreshingly clean and the clear nigh sky was a wonderful replacement for the pollution of the city. Coming from a Cairo, where everything is constantly in motion, driving toward some unknown future, it was comforting to stare at the cliffs and dunes, which possessed a clear sense of timelessness and permanence.

The view from our camp...not bad eh?

That deep calm is a feeling you don’t realize you miss until you experience it again and it certainly made it harder to come back to Cairo the next day. We made it back with our pockets and pant legs full of sand, tired but satisfied. We then took advantage of the one thing our beautiful desert excursion did not provide: a nice warm shower.

We had a great trip planned. We would take an overnight train down to Aswan in Southern Egypt, spend a day touring the sites before getting on a cruise down the Nile and lazing about in the sun for a few days until we reached Luxor, where we would explore the ancient Egyptian ruins before heading back by train. We had even partially paid in advance.

There was only one problem. We were set to leave on February 10th. Instead of taking a train down to explore the ruins, the protests put us on a plane out of the country on February 3rd, bound for Kenya and unsure when we would return. The mummies would have to wait.

When we finally received the green light to come back to Egypt, it was the end of March. Knowing that Southern Egypt gets brutally hot in the summer (ranging between 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 130!), we decided to dust off our February travel plans and head down to Aswan before the heat made the trip much more uncomfortable.

Although we had lost half of our initial payment, we were still able to use the same itinerary and just two days after returning to Cairo, we were rattling south in an overnight train. Our guide met us at the station and took us to our hotel and then out to lunch before we set out to tour the area.

It was at the restaurant that we realized that something was certainly not right. This was Egypt’s high tourist season and yet we were the only people sitting in a silent restaurant that should have been bustling with hundreds of tourists. Sadly, this was the unfortunate trend wherever we went over the next five days. Spots that should have been crawling with hundreds, if not thousands, of camera-weilding, sunscreen-covered tourists, were occupied by a tenth that number of visitors. At some spots, we practically had the place to ourselves!

As our guide explained, although the revolution led to positive political changes, its economic consequences were being sorely felt by the tourist industry. Of the over 500 cruise ships that should have been chugging up and down the Nile at this time, only about fifteen were currently active. The rest were parked on the shore in stacks six deep and running for blocks.

Although it was hard to see the tourist economy in this state, the lack of people certainly did not diminish the beauty or impressive nature of the sites we visited.

Looking out over Lake Nasser

The first destination was the Aswan High Dam. Completed in 1970 under Nasser, the High Damn was a monumental project that used eighteen times the amount of material of the great pyramid of Giza and created the world’s largest artificial lake, which runs all the way back to Sudan! The damn finally regulated the Nile flooding and significantly increased the available agricultural land as well as providing an incredible amount of hydropower.

Not all its effects were positive however. The creation of lake Nasser forced over 120,000 Nubians to resettle from their traditional land and also stopped the Nile’s annual process of renewal, when floods deposited silt on the riverbanks, readying the ground for next year’s planting (increasing the need for chemical fertilizers). The creation of Lake Nasser also endangered a number of archeological sites, some of which had to be moved to higher ground stone by stone by UNESCO in what must have been an incredibly painstaking project. We visited two of those spots, the Philae Temple and Abu Simbel, and I almost could not believe that the entirety of both of the sites had previously been located someplace else!

The rest of the trip took us through some of the most incredible temples and monuments that ancient Egypt has to offer. Even though I had grown out of the Egyptology phase that many children seem to go through, I was blown away by the size of the statues and columns, the beauty and complexity of the art and the symbolism that seemed to permeate every site we visited.

Some of the highlights:

-The massive statues of Ramses II (who not only built an incredible amount but claimed things built by others so you see his name everywhere!) in Abu Simbel, which tower sixty feet above you and are carved with great detail.

-The amazing color inscriptions in the Valley of the Kings, which provide fanciful imaginings of the Pharaoh’s daily activities in the afterlife and are still beautifully colored, 4000 years after their construction!

-The epic stories that come with the monuments, such as the life of Queen Hatshepsut (our guide said to remember her name by saying “hot chicken soup”) who ruled as Queen for twenty-two years in an era dominated by men. Based on the massive amount of temples and monuments she was able to finance, she did quite well too! She also had a Romeo-style lover, so enamored with her that he built an entire temple in her honor, and a son so jealous of her power that he demolished or defaced significant portions of what she left behind. Her life was a drama worthy of Shakespeare!

-A relaxing cruise down the Nile on a boat filled with old German tourists. Since most Egyptian’s first guess is that I am German anyway, we fit right into the group (not counting the forty-year age difference!). The trip down the Nile is incredibly scenic, with farms and ruins all along the way and it certainly didn’t hurt that there was an incredible buffet for every meal.

-Learning more about ancient Egyptian religious beliefs. Although much of what we associate with the religion is the famous mummification process, through which the ruler was prepared for life in the next world, the fundamental beliefs are quite similar to many world religions today. Ancient Egyptians placed significant emphasis on the afterlife, especially in relation to how one’s actions in this world were weighed in the hereafter, determining the soul’s final destination. If one’s heart was heavy with bad deeds that it weighed more than a feather, you should not be expecting royal treatment! Anticipating the advent of monotheism, Egyptians also tended to raise one god above the others, often giving that place to Ra, who was associated with the sun. Even the imagery of Isis and her suckling son Horus, two of the most preeminent gods, is very reminiscent of Mary and Jesus. Certainly the religion’s longevity and great influence on Egyptian culture, as well as on the surrounding peoples, point to its divine origin.

With a history longer than most countries, Egypt has seen many civilizations and rulers rise and fall. Much has changed since the time of Queen Hatshepsut, with more change on the horizon. Back in Cairo, Mubarak, who many are calling Egypt’s modern pharaoh as his thirty-year reign lasted longer than many of his ancient predecessors, is being called to trial. 

A week after we returned from our sojourn to Uganda, I received an email from the Director of the Egyptian Fulbright Office saying that he was “delighted to welcome us ‘home’”.  It appeared that our time in East Africa had finally come to an end.

The wonderful children of our gracious hosts

While we were looking forward to returning to Cairo, it was not easy to leave our new friends in Nairobi. The local Baha’i community welcomed us so warmly, especially the Soltani family, who we had met shortly after arriving, and who graciously hosted us for almost a month and a half, despite our having no idea exactly how long we would be staying with them. In fact, with all the invitations to return, it seems that next time we are evacuated to Kenya, will have no problem finding a place to stay!

I certainly miss the ever-present greenery that definitely did not greet me when I stepped off the plane in Cairo. And we also miss some of the freedoms we enjoyed in Kenya. It was hard to pack up our shorts and tank tops, knowing that we would not be wearing them outside again until we returned the States, no matter how hot the Egyptian summer turns out to be.

The one thing I will not miss however, is being called “mzungu” almost everywhere I went in Kenya. Although the word technically means “someone who moves around” in Swahili, it seems to have become synonymous with “white person” and is used liberally by everyone from hawkers on the street to small children playing in alleys. Coming from the US, where race, and especially the names one group gives to another, is a bit more charged and tense, it was hard to get used to. In an effort to communicate my frustration, I once responded to a man by saying “mwafrika, sasa?” which is the linguistic opposite of “mzungu” and means roughly “African, what’s up?” He didn’t quite know how to take that :)

All things considered, I think that we will be coming back to Kenya. Next time however, it hopefully won’t be amidst a revolution.

***

Being evacuated from a country makes returning a somewhat odd experience. Some of the first things you notice such as, “there are no longer tanks in the streets” or “the burn marks on the side of police station are gone” and “you can find bread and milk in the supermarket” tell you a lot about the state of the country when you left.

Other signs of the recent unrest still remain however. The graffiti that sprang up during the revolution calling for Mubarak’s removal can still be seen on many walls throughout the city and almost every subway car has the “Mubarak” stop on the map scratched or blacked out, often replaced with “martyrs” scrawled in thick black permanent marker.

There are even some small pockets of protesters in the streets. Around a hundred or so people continue to protest in Tahrir square daily, (with an even larger protest this past Friday) calling for the worst offenders of the previous regime to be brought to justice. The success of the revolution seems to also have emboldened those with long-held and unexpressed grievances to take to the streets and demand change. I recently passed a mass of chanting people blocking a main road with signs and when I looked up expecting to see that they were in front of a police office or the Ministry of the Interior, I instead found that them protesting in front of the Egyptian Academy for Science and Research. It seems that they have had enough of the long years of study that result in a job with a meager salary.

There are even those who have seen the vastly popular protests as a great business opportunity. Tahrir square is now covered with men and women selling a variety of red, white and black hats and pins or shirts with “I <3 Egypt” printed proudly on the front. Even the American University of Cairo Press recently came out with a “Tahrir!” calendar you can purchase and hang on your post-revolution wall. Although some of these items may have existed before, there is certainly an enlivened sense of national pride that has made them vastly more popular.

Not everyone is profiting from the revolution however, and among those hardest struck is the tourist industry. We experienced this personally by being forced to cancel a trip to Upper Egypt because of our evacuation, but we were certainly not the only tourists affected.

Lots of boats, no passengers...

When we returned to our travel agent, whose office is on Tahrir Square (a great spot for business until two months ago), he told us that he was closed for a full month. Once we finally made it up to Aswan and Luxor, we were struck by how few foreigners we saw, especially since this is supposed to by Egypt’s high season. One of our guides told us that of the 500+ boats that normally cruise the Nile packed with tourists, only fifteen are currently operating, a statistic we could easily believe as we were almost always the only customers in every restaurant we visited.

Despite the heavy blow to Egypt’s economy, people seem to be happier. The shouted greeting of “welcome to Egypt!” that we commonly hear walking down the street seems warmer, as if people are telling us “welcome back, we missed you”. There is also a new sense of vitality here, of greater productivity. I have seen areas that had not changed for months now suddenly have shops under construction, repaired sidewalks or new carts dotting the road.

Everyone is also constantly reassuring us that it is ok to be back in Egypt, that things are back to normal. One example that comes particularly to mind is of the woman who owns a vegetable stand near our apartment. After seeing me for the first time in two months, she happily welcomed me back saying, “Egypt is good now, in fact, it’s better.”

“You have been a student for many years. You have read hundreds of pages and have spent hours carrying out exercises of various kinds. It would be good at this point to reflect on the significance of your education. What purpose does it serve? To what extent should it prepare you to promote the sound progress of your community? How much should it contribute to your growth as an individual? Can one aim be met without the other?”

I came across the this passage reading through the course materials of the “Preparation for Social Action” (PSA) program and it struck a cord in me. How is it that I have gone through twelve years of public school and four years of college and never been asked these questions? We spend so much time and money worrying about standardizing test scores, decreasing class size and bringing technology into the classroom but we rarely hear any discussion about the purpose of our education system. As someone aspiring to be a teacher, this is a particularly important question.

Caity and I had come to Jinja, Uganda for a week to visit a friend doing a year of service and study a new model of education being used by the organization she works with. The PSA program is the fruit of over three decades of work by a Baha’i inspired organization in Colombia called FUNDEAC (Foundation for the Application and Teaching of Sciences) and is now being piloted and further developed in a few other countries, including Uganda. The purpose of the program is to make it possible for any individual – youth or adult – even in the most rural areas, to have access to a high quality secondary education that gives them the knowledge, skills and inspiration to contribute to their communities.

The program consists of three units that cover topics such as math, science, history, agriculture, health and language, but it is not the information in the courses that is unique; it is the way in which the knowledge is presented and applied. In very simple but brilliant ways, the PSA program solves many of the fundamental problems that plague our education system. This is perhaps a more appropriate topic for a dissertation, but maybe I can give you a glimpse of some of the aspects that amazed me.

Math is one of the subjects that is often a great source of frustration to students, many of whom ask at one point or another, “when am I ever going to use this?” I am sure this question rarely arises in PSA groups. First of all, all of the problems and examples are derived from real knowledge and situations relevant to the students’ lives. Whereas I spent years working with only numbers and the occasional word problem (which often had no significance to my life or no relation to reality at all), students who study addition and subtraction are quickly asked to calculate the growth of domestic animals, increases of farm production and costs for building materials, as well as learning basic accounting skills, all of which are directly applicable to their everyday lives. At higher levels, students in the fractions and percents course find themselves discussing infant mortality rates in their villages, vaccination percentages and the problem of species extinction, all topics that provide great material to practice their new skills but also lead to interesting and challenging discussions that relate to pressing issues going on around them.

The PSA program also engages students to use their practical skills outside the classroom and to the benefit of their community. After their first few courses, students study a book focused on “nurturing young minds” and are asked to start a children’s class in their neighborhood, teaching virtues as well as some of the basic concepts they learned in their previous courses. These classes are a wonderful way to contribute to the community and they also allow the students to beneficially apply their knowledge through service even before they have finished the program! This is certainly in clear contrast to most standard education systems where we study for years and years and only afterword are we able to engage in the world, and even then, very rarely in our own communities.

The PSA program also boldly introduces discussion on complex and deep-seated social problems, asking students to apply the knowledge and perspective they have just studied. For example, after learning about classification, dividing things into sets based on their characteristics, students are asked to turn their attention to the “subsets” of the human race. When speaking about men and women, students chose words from a list which “describe relations between the two sexes when they live according to the principle of equality, and…when this principle is disregarded.” The exercise ends by asking, “In a society governed by the principle of equality of the sexes, would women ever be treated as sex objects?”

Another example along the same lines is found in the book discussing the dawn of civilization and the beginning of agriculture. Students first learn that within early hunter-gather societies, 75% of the food was obtained from gathering, most of which was done by women. Women therefore had incredible knowledge, which they passed on to their children, giving them a great importance in those early societies. Then students are asked, “So then what has happened that led to the decrease in the status of women?” These are deep questions that cultivate critical thought and lead to personal development and reflection. After all, why not use our education as a forum for discussing issues of great societal importance?

In the end, knowledge about the equality of men and women, the harmony of science and religion and the irrationality of prejudice is also knowledge, equal to and if not of greater import than the factual knowledge many schools focus on today. After all, many of the world’s problems are not caused by the lack of factual knowledge but the absence of trust, justice and equality in so many of the systems and relationships that make up our society, at the global level as well as in the smallest villages.

This is perhaps the greatest strength of the PSA program. It does away with the false dichotomy of science vs. spirituality and blends the presentation of information and skills with discussion about the spiritual nature of human beings. One of the earliest courses provides a great example. The course deals with “properties” and begins by helping students to describe simple concepts such as shape, size and position, then moving onto different states of matter and the physical properties of cells but ultimately coming to a discussion on the “properties” of human beings. This is where it gets interesting. The section asks the students to identify the “true” qualities of human beings: honesty or dishonesty, truthfulness or deceit, coming to the conclusion that human beings have lower and higher natures. The students then end the section by discussing the quote, “we have been created noble, why abase ourselves?” This is certainly not a question I encountered in high school.

This brings us back to the beginning. So what is the purpose of education? Perhaps it is to help us develop our latent talents and capacities and positively contribute to the betterment of our communities – to be both inwardly and outwardly focused. It should give us the skills, perspective, experience and the inspiration to build a better world. If that is the case, then while the PSA program is still a work in progress, it is one hopeful step in the right direction.

Rafting the Nile

We had just pushed off the bank in our sixteen-foot paddle boat and our guide, Lee, was giving us a safety talk. “Always keep one hand on the T grip of the paddle. Otherwise it is going to knock someone’s teeth out. It has happened before and it will happen again. This is not Disneyland.”

We had arrived in Jinja, Uganda the previous day after a twelve-hour bus ride from Nairobi. Jinja is the source of the White Nile, which joins with the Blue Nile in Khartoum to create the massive river that we can see off the deck of our Cairo apartment. It is also the starting point for some serious whitewater rafting.

The company we chose, Adrift (not exactly a name that inspires confidence or stability), picked us up in the morning and took us to their office where we paid and signed the usual form stating it’s not their fault should we meet an untimely end during our Nile adventure. Then we loaded up into a van with our fellow rafters for the hour ride to the launch site.

After collecting our life-jackets, paddles and helmets, we made our way barefoot down the steep path taking us to the our boats waiting peacefully on the bank. Lee asked for two strong men to get into the front and two Danish men volunteered, awkwardly making their way to the front of the boat as we piled in after them.

Once we pushed off, Lee started to explain the basics as many in our group had never rafted before. After detailing a number of ways that members of our group could get black eyes or teeth knocked out, he set us to work practicing paddling as a group, with everyone working on the long deep strokes that would propel us across the flat sections and hopefully get us through the all upcoming rapids in one piece.

When he was satisfied with our paddling, he had us practice flipping and then reflipping the boat, an experience we would probably have again in the coming hours. The flipping part is the easy, but those who failed to hang on to the side ropes ringing our boat quickly found themselves surfacing inside the overturned raft instead of beside it. They looked a little shaken when they swam out but it was clear that Lee was not a sympathetic teacher, telling one women who let go of her paddle to go back under the raft and find it!

We made it back onto the raft and paddled up to the start of our first rapid. I had read online that the trip started with a few Class 1 or 2 rapids to get us warmed up and ready for the larger whitewater later on. Unfortunately it seems that a new dam has changed the launch point, because as we neared the suspiciously loud rapid Lee announced that this was “Overtime” and it was a Class 5.

Most rivers classify the difficulty of their rapids using a 1-5 rating. A one is small ripples, two gets bigger with some obstacles, three is more complex and requires significant maneuvering to come out alright, four is huge but predictable and fives are described by the American Whitewater Association as “long, difficult, violent rapids. Unavoidable waves and obstructions. Steep holes and/or drops. Demanding maneuvers that come quickly before difficult passageways. Risks are high for injury and even death.

I was probably the only person on the boat who knew what Class 5 actually meant and Lee didn’t bother to explain it, instead just telling us that we would paddle hard then get down and hold on. We swung around the first rock at the top of the rapid, paddling furiously to keep in the clear channel and cut to the right across the rapid, avoiding the massive rocks just off to our left. Our boat then wheeled around and started in the other direction, coming to rest up against a large rock dead in the center of the river. Lee shouted to get down and look outward (not toward the person in front) and then pushed off the rock so we were heading downriver backward. Looking off to the side, I felt the boat start to tip and then we plunged off a ten-foot waterfall! When we hit the bottom, the boat partially folded in on itself and then shot back into shape, launching half of us, myself included, into the water. Luckily it seems that each rapid ends in a calm section, giving us time to climb back onto the boat and and calm our racing hearts.

The next rapid saw the other half of our group sent flying into the water as we hit a huge wave sideways, turning our boat vertical before flopping it back down again. We had to portage around the first part of the third rapid, a Class 6. Walking around it, we could see why it was classed as “unrunable”. There were two ten-foot waterfalls right after one another leading into a massive hole known as “The Bad Place”, named after one of the adventurous kayakers who first braved the rapid. When asked how it was, he replied, clearly shaken, “that is a bad place!”

After one more massive set of waves, known as Vengeance, we stopped for lunch and lost three members of our group, who left after a half day, needing to get back to Kampala early. Although losing three people cut our group down to five, we were not hugely inconvenienced as they were not operating at 100% to begin with. It seems that they were still drunk from the night before and the pitiful swimming and weak paddling of one prompted our guide to ask, “you knew that you signed up to go whitewater rafting right?” He had started in the front of the boat and ended his trip in the back.

There was a long flat section after lunch which gave us a chance to float a bit in the warm Nile waters and chat with Lee. He seems to be living the ideal life of a rafting guide, going from one country to the next staying for a year or two and then heading on. His favorite river was the Kickin’ Horse in British Columbia, which, he told us smiling. is known for being the cause of death for at least one person a year. Clearly he was not a mellow-waters kinda guy.

He also made no real effort to learn our names, calling all the men “bro” and the women “princess”, trying the name out until he found a good person to match it. He told us the the Turks were the worst paddlers in the world and that an entire side of Turkish paddlers was only equal to the short Korean girl whose weak paddling earned her the title of princess for our group. Although his humor and social skills were questionable, we certainly trusted him with our lives, which was good because we had four huge rapids to go until we reached the end of our trip. Luckily, we made it through all of them without any major problems, making our only flip of the trip the one we caused ourselves in the beginning.

By the time that we paddled in to the take out, our arms were incredibly soar and our other muscles cramped, but we had survived and it was totally worth it. Even more gratifying was the knowledge that we did it all while fasting. It is the middle of the Baha’i fasting month, where Baha’is all over the world do not eat or drink between sunup and sundown for nineteen days. Although our we were a little worried about not having the energy to paddle for 4-5 hours, our hardy breakfast kept us going without a problem. As for thirst, Overdrive, Vengeance and Nile Special made sure we had plenty to drink. :)