Sunday, May 4, 2014


After I visited the Vatican, I was exhausted and decided to take the train back to the hotel. I got on a train and then they announced that it wasn't moving from the station so everyone headed for the bus. I saw an African man and asked him if he knew which bus went to the station. He said he was also headed that way and would show me. He told me his name was Abdoulaye from the Gambia. 

We waited for the bus with an enormous crowd. I wanted to cram into one of the next three buses that came but Abdoulaye said we should wait for an empty one. He warned me to watch out because there were many thieves. Finally a bus came and we pushed our way to the front of the line and got seats. A German (?) family came and sat in the two seats across from us. The father struggled to fit both of his sons in the chair with him. Abdoulaye offered to let the boy sit in his lap so there was a little blond six-year-old balancing on his knee. 

During the rest of the way to the station, Abdoulaye told me of his journey from the Gambia, to Senegal, Mali, Algeria, Morocco, and then finally Canary Islands (Spain), and one year in Barcelona. For the past eight years he has sold handbags on the side of the road in Italy with many of his compatriots. He explained to me the three types of police, only one of which is feared by the vendors. When we arrived at the station the family was exceedingly appreciative to Abdoulaye and asked if they could take a picture of him with their son. I offered to take a picture of the entire family with Abdoulaye. I wish I had a copy of it. The family was so touched by a simple act of kindness, the likes of which are repeated many times a day in the Gambia. 

Abdoulaye is a hero; he sacrifices everything for his family and suffers in order to send money back home every month. He traveled a perilous journey they many people don't survive. He runs from police and hides yet never stops helping others and working to make everyone around him more comfortable. The world needs more people like Abdoulaye and people like him need to be more appreciated and rewarded in this harsh world.

The next day when I was leaving the hotel an American couple returned from the station and had just been robbed moments before on the train. Someone stole the man's wallet from his pocket. I offered to let them use my phone (I have a free U.S. phone number through Skype) and I thought of Abdoulaye, who had warned me against cramming into a bus. Abdoulaye's generosity and thoughtfulness was a gift in many ways. 

Shiro: The food of the people

Every night in Rome I ate shiro, gomen, awaze and injera for dinner at "Asmara" restaurant down the street from my hotel. On my last night, I walked back to the station with an Eritrean named Ali who invited me for "chai" on the way. We went to a bar that was filled with Eritreans. I drank chai while Ali had a couple of beers. We listened to Tigrigna music and I met many new friends. Many of the guys in the bar are living in a refugee camp in Rome run by the UNHCR. 

Most of them spent some time in Shimelba, the refugee camp where I worked for a short time in 2009. Ali told me me he's been unemployed for the past two months, even though he has lived in Italy for the the past nine years, spent 12 years in Saudi Arabia, visited Dakar and too many other cities to list. He is fluent in Arabic, Tigrigna, Italian, and English. I paid for his beers but couldn't do much else for him. 

The next day I saw Ali again, and a few minutes later found an Ethiopian supermarket. The other tourists I met told me it was strange that I came to Rome to eat shiro every night but to me it's the most logical thing in the world. I would eat shiro every night if I could. Hanging out with a bunch of Eritreans is a great opportunity for me. The da-dun-da-dun rhythm of their music is in sync with my heartbeat. 

Even though most of the people I met in Shimelba came to the U.S. and are living happier moments in their lives, I can't forget their pain and the unfair treatment they received in this life. No one chooses where to be born. I could be Eritrean, living on the margins, hiding from police, & struggling for work. Yet here I am, with my golden passport, traveling wherever I choose, a perpetual tourist. I will never be able to change the root of oppression or relieve the immense suffering of the people I meet. No amount of shiro can change this fact.


I went to Rome, Italy for four days. It was just enough time to feel ready to leave by the end of the trip. Of course I wish I would have had time to visit other cities. 

As soon as I arrived in the airport I took a train to the central "Termini" station, where my hotel was located. I found the hotel, dropped my bag off, grabbed a city map and headed out to see the city. As soon as I left the hotel I heard someone say, "Hi," and then "wallahi," which is an Arabic expression common in Senegal & Mauritania. I turned around and said, "nanga def" and two young men replied, "man-gi fi rek," the response in Wolof. Then I asked if they spoke Pulaar and they said yes. So we chatted for a while about life in Italy for "immigres" (immigrants) and they invited me for coffee. I politely declined, anxious to explore the city. Meeting new friends upon arrival was the best welcome to a new city I could ever ask for. 

My strategy the first day was to walk as much as possible without stopping. The entire city is a museum with ruins, historic buildings, and beauty at every corner. Rome is spectacular. On my second day, I went to the colosseum, pantheon, and explored until I literally couldn't take another step. I also got a haircut and pedicure and had a productive and fun day. 

During my third day, everything was closed because it was May 1st, the international day for workers. I needed a new strategy because I felt like I had seen a lot the previous day. So I decided that I would visit churches or anywhere that tourists visited. The art in every church is stunning so I was never disappointed when I opened the door. The paintings, sculptures and architecture was incredible. 

At the end of each day I talked to the people at the hotel about what they saw and did. They explained the places they went and I was happy that I also visited the same places, even if I didn't know why I was seeing them. By following tourists wherever they went, I managed to see everything without any of the planning or research. I also had an element of surprise- I didn't know why I was climbing the stairs or waiting in line but I knew that there was something special on the other side. 

Near the end of my third day I met many Senegalese people selling bags and I was happy to discover that one of them was from the same village as my friends (Bouki Jawe) so we had people in common and it made Rome feel like an extension of my travels in West Africa. 

I thought I was going to a place where I knew no one and had no friends but from the moment I arrived, I found many friends and "family" members. It really is a small world! 

Arrivederci, Rome! It was a truly marvelous visit....


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Illustrating Idioms

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is unleashing my students' hidden talents. The teachers I train are amazing artists - check out a recent activity we did to illustrate idioms: 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Kif Kif

I really like phrases with double sounds. Here are some of my favorites:

Kif kif (same same - Arabic)
Shweya shweya (small small - Arabic)
Seda Seda (small small - Pulaar)
Joni Joni (soon soon - Pulaar)
Tuti tuti (small small - Wolof)
Sawa sawa (ok ok - Swahili)
Ndanka ndanka (slowly slowly - Wolof)
Waw waw (yes yes - Wolof)
Cheb Cheb (cheap cheap - Mauritania) This phrase generally means that it was pieced together. So if you are doing many jobs, you can say your work is "cheb cheb" or if you buy something 2nd hand or slightly damaged you can say it's "cheb cheb." It can also be used to mean something of substandard quality. A cheap, knock-off phone, is often called "cheb cheb."

I guess in English we have "bye bye"!!!

Can you think of any more?

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Global Ambassadors

"In humility, I realized I am a child of all nations, of all ages, past and present. 
Place and time of birth, parents, all are coincidence: such things are not sacred."
- Pramoedya Ananta Toer

We become global ambassadors for the countries where we live. I have lived in Kenya, Benin, Ethiopia, Mauritania, and now Algeria. I still follow the news and current events there. I don't write my friends as often as I would like to do but I think of them every day. These countries are a part of me. I think about the similarities and differences between each country and my experiences in each place has helped me to understand the world around me. 

Often people ask me about my favorite country. I always explain that I don't have a favorite - no country is better than any other. All countries have amazing people and fascinating cultural traditions. I try to represent the positive qualities of each country because I saw immense beauty in each place, separate and unique. It doesn't mean I can't talk about the negative issues because of course there are many challenges to overcome in every country, and the United States is no exception. I want to share my love for the people and places in every country where I have had the privilege to live because I genuinely loved every day I was there. I am a better person than I would be if I had never lived in so many countries. It is a gift. 

Youth Center Superstars

This week I was invited to visit the youth center where four of the teachers in my program are working. The youth center is a large complex and has over 1,000 visitors per month. The Ministry of Youth and Sports named it the best youth center in the country. After spending the day there, I can see why.

My students came to pick me up in the morning at seven am and they dropped me off at nine pm. They showered me with gifts and treated me like a princess. It was a truly spectacular day. The highlight was to meet their wonderful students and see these brilliant teachers in action. It was a day I will never forget! 


I love organizing Jeopardy games as part of a celebration of hard work. This time my students wrote the questions and I brought tons of candy to help make a festive atmosphere. It was a very fun class.... 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Surprise in the Mail

Today I opened my mail box and had three slips for packages from the post office. I practically ran there to collect them. What a great day! There was no line and the staff were friendly and helpful. I am so excited to open these all of these gems! I love my family (and the Algerian postal system)!!!!

Friday, January 24, 2014

Stroke Survivors Club

My father had a stroke in 2012. He survived but the trauma has taken away almost everything he loved. 

Two years later and my father is still really weak; He can barely speak or move. He can't eat or drink, play guitar or harmonica. His friends come over every weekend and play for him, he smiles and taps the banjo. He is still 100% present. He understands everything and he is always listening. He is stronger than he looks and more resilient than anyone ever imagined. He is fighting to survive and he's beating all the odds. The doctors told my mom not to call 911 the next time he gets pneumonia. My mom keeps calling because my dad will decide when he's too tired to keep going. It isn't his time yet. 

After spending five weeks in the intensive care unit with my dad and family, I had to return to Nouakchott to finish the school year. I asked my dad for permission before I left, he squeezed my hand and told me he would never want me to give up my life for him. I know my dad well enough to know that he wants me to follow my dreams. 

In Nouakchott I learned that one of my close friends had a stroke. I went to visit him and was happy to see that he getting stronger everyday and had nearly recovered all movement. He resumed teaching a few months later. Last year one the father of one of my best friends had a stroke. I didn't get to visit him but I still keep him in my thoughts. He is recovering well and has nearly gained back what he lost. The last time i was in Kaolack I visited a friend of a friend in the hospital. She was only 32 years old and it was her second stroke. She was laying on the bed and her eyes betrayed no spark of personality. It looked like she was in a coma. I spoke to her and although she couldn't respond I knew she heard me because I asked her to squeeze my hand if she understood. Her grip was strong. Tears streamed down my cheeks because I knew she was there. I could only imagine how scared I would be to be in her place. The sour smell of the room, shared with five other women. Imprisoned in a body. I spoke to her for a while and asked her to please keep hope alive. I assured her that her children were taken care of. She passed away the following day. 

It has been a terrible experience to watch my father suffer through brain damage and persevere through a broken health care system. It has been incredibly painful to see my mom maintain her dignity despite the heart-break of losing so much. Yet we are all still here, as survivors of this disaster. Whenever I hear of someone who suffered through a stroke, brain damage, or illness I feel a strong connection to them. Many people I haven't spoken to in years reached out to me to share their stories of becoming care takers for their children, parents, husbands, wives, friends. We share a bond that no one wishes to share. We became experts of subjects we never wanted to study. We are all part of a club we never wanted to join. 

My father's immense network of fans and friends have rallied around him. He had no idea how loved he was. I believe this has been the source of his strength - the number of people cheering for him and the depth of the love around him everyday. He wants to recover for them. My father is selfless, even in his most weakest position, when he can barely speak. I will listen hard to his quiet, childlike words, and he will be saying, "do you have a ride home?" He is worried about others, while he is filled with tubes and connected to a vast network of machines. Yet through it all- we have become stronger versions of ourselves. We get back up and we keep going. Every breath my father breathes is an act of rebellion against the odds. We will not surrender. 

Solidarity is strength. Thank you to everyone who has helped me get through this. I hope that one day I can help others as much as they have helped me. 

Bread: The Greatest Gift

Last week I came back from Morocco to find that my water pump broke. It always seems like something breaks whenever I travel. I waited a few hours with high hopes it would fix itself. At 7 pm I realized that I needed help. I called my landlord who told me that the plumber would come in two days. The last time he said he would be here I waited two more weeks. I went downstairs to see if my neighbor could help. She is really kind and her son always offers to carry my heavy boxes, etc upstairs for me. 

When I knocked on their door they welcomed me in and gave me freshly baked bread and salad. We talked about my trip and I heard all the updates on the family. They are everything I could ever ask for neighbors to be. The wonderful son called his friend, a plumber, and they came over the next morning to fix my water pump. It's so important to have generous neighbors. I am so fortunate. 

Yesterday I saw the son in the hallway. He asked me to wait a second and then he came out with a warm loaf of bread. I love them.

Dar Chebab

Today I learned a new word in Arabic - Dar Chebab means youth center. This week I visited one of my students at the youth center where she teaches. 

The complex consisted of seven classrooms with basic materials- chalkboards, ping pong table, desks & chairs, a few old computers and a definite absence of books. Greatest resource available is the team of motivated teachers and administration. The children come to classes every day after school because they want to be there. I attended two of my students' classes and met all of her colleagues. The children sang and laughed and loved every minute of it. 

Afterwards, my student invited me meet her family and they showed me incredible generosity. Her little brother kept bringing me candy and sweets. Her mom showed me how to make bread. They drove me home at 10:00 pm after. It was probably the best day I have had since I arrived in Algeria. It is too bad this family lives so far away because I would love to visit them every week. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Multiple Intelligences

Right now I am teaching about Multiple Intelligences. I think it makes a great framework to help teachers understand how to diversify their teaching techniques. Today we made "MI maps" in which the teachers represented the events that happened in their lives to help them develop one intelligence. I loved the various ways that the teachers made their maps, some linear, others represented as flowers, etc. I was interested to see that the teachers chose to represent mathematical, spatial, linguistic, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences. These teachers are have so many talents. This was definitely a FUN day in class and I learned a lot more about this impressive group.  

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Courage to Cry

Last week I attended a conference for English teachers in Morocco. It was a magnificent event organized by the incredibly committed and hard working Moroccan Association for Teachers of English (MATE). One of the highlights was the opportunity to attend the workshops of my colleagues (the English Language Fellow program teachers in Bahrain & Morocco also attended the conference). I learned a lot from them and it was also really wonderful to see their smiling faces during my workshop.

One of my colleagues, Julie, led a fascinating workshop about literature circles. During the session we read a short story by Sandra Cisneros and then we participated in a simulation activity so that we could learn how to implement a literature circle in our classrooms. One of our tasks was to think of connections to the story. Many teachers shared their connections to books and short stories they had read as well as their personal experiences. One of the teachers made a connection to Dolly Parton's "Coat of Many Colors." Julie, our amazing facilitator, had never heard this song (or maybe she was just pretending) so of course we all had to sing it for her.

A teacher sitting next to me told a story about a student who came to class with a baseball cap. He asked him to remove it and when the student refused, the teacher ordered him out of class. The student later informed the teacher that he had an injury on the side of his head and didn't want the other students to laugh at him. The teacher apologized and let the student wear his hat in class until his wound healed. After telling this story, another teacher began to tell a similar story about a student she taught who wouldn't take off his hat. I could see from across the room that she was starting to get emotional as she told the story. I got out of my chair to be close to her but it was too late to reach her before the tears started to stream down her cheeks.

Her student had died a few hours after her class while he was taking a math exam. She never had the chance to apologize to him and she felt responsible for his death. Everyone in the room froze. Reassuring words could be heard from every corner of the room, "It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault." She had never told anyone about the incident and I don't think before that moment she had realized how much it still affected her. As I wrapped my arms around her, tears began to stream down my cheeks as well. 

I asked her for the name of the boy so that I could keep him in my heart but she said that she didn't want to repeat his name because she has been trying to forget it for two years. All teachers have stories of children we feel that we disappointed or didn't work hard enough to help. I have so many, Juma, Daniel, Bobby... I could keep reciting their names but I will never be able to bring them back or fix their broken lives. 

The workshop continued while I sat next to this brave woman. She was embarrassed for her uncontrollable emotions. I was proud of her for sharing the story that produced them. As teachers we are so isolated in our classrooms, alone with our students as the only witnesses of our joys, failures, frustrations, or successes. Yet we all need the opportunity to share our experiences and reflect on our practices in order to grow professionally.

During the conclusion of her presentation, Julie explained that literature circles can build a sense of community in the classroom by establishing trust. Her workshop perfectly modeled these principles; she provided a space for all of us to share our true selves. Afterwards I felt as though I had become close friends to everyone in a room that was previously filled with strangers. I wish that every teacher could have been there to experience such a powerful demonstration of solidarity and support. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Teaching the Art of Collage

I made a collage of my students' collages!

To Be A Teacher

I am so happy in the classroom. Seeing my students working, discussing, debating, and laughing brings me immense joy. I just love teaching! The teachers I work with travel from throughout the Algiers region to attend my trainings. Some of them travel up to four hours per day in each direction. They are so committed to the program and attendance is almost at nearly 95%. 

I had a two week vacation while I was in Morocco for a conference. I sent emails to the teachers to remind them but most bounced back. I came to class early to prepare for the day and found only two teachers there. The coordinator from the Ministry was there and he said that we will wait in the lobby for the rest of the teachers. After thirty minutes, the time for the session to begin, I told him that I will just hold a class with the two who came and hope the rest come soon. 

We walked across the compound to the conference room and I saw all of the teachers waiting for me. It was like a surprise party! I was so delighted to see them and I wanted to run and give everyone a big hug. There had been some confusion- someone at the conference center showed them to the room without passing by the lobby. 

During class we had a "gallery walk" of the collages we made before the break. It was so funny to see the staff from the conference center standing in the back to admire the collages, like a real gallery. They created true works of art! 

I am so fortunate to have an an incredible group of teachers this year. Seeing them is the highlight of my week. Today two students gave me gifts for the new year. Even though they said they had intended to give me the gifts before the break, it was fitting because today is the New Year in the Islamic calendar. One student gave me a beautiful pair of red rose earrings. I am already wearing them. Another student gave me a small book about the holy Qu'ran, as a way of sharing health and blessings for the new year. She wrote me a letter and explained that she thought it might be interesting for me to read about how to perform ablutions and other aspects of Islam. I was very touched by her thoughtful gift and very heart-felt words. 

Friendship is universal, sharing and exchanging ideas is an essential part of cross-cultural friendships. I am so grateful to have met such wonderful teachers during my time in Algeria. Although I wish I was teaching every day, I cherish every minute I have with this magnificent bunch. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Long at last

I was invited to present a workshop in Cairo in 2010.... that did NOT happen. 
I was invited to present again in 2011. That also did not happen. 
I was invited to present in Burkina Faso in 2011- that did not happen either. 
I was invited to present in Togo in 2012- that did not happen, although for once not because of political unrest but due to a family emergency.
I was invited to present at the Morocco teacher association conference in January 1-4, 2014. I was nervous the conference would be cancelled. I heard someone mention that there were floods in Tangiers and figured that the fates were against me. Miraculously, the conference was NOT cancelled and I was able to present my workshop. It took over four years to have the chance to present it, but it was worth the wait.