Category Archives: A bunch of stuff that happened

Things that happened along the way.

Vaccination in the Village

The current fuss about vaccinations reminds me of my Peace Corps experience.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa, from 1985 to 1987. I was assigned to a “rural development” project and my particular task was communicating useful messages to people in villages around the regional capital of Zwedru.

The traditional power structure of West African people relied on a system of town, clan, and paramount chiefs – old men with dignity and stature. They settled disputes that arose between villagers, such as  when one man’s cow trampled another man’s rice field. But the chiefs had no capacity to do anything new – no talent for marshaling resources or for cooperating with the outside world. Those villages didn’t have much occasion to interact with the world.  They were isolated by dense rain forests and roads that were impassible for much of the year. They didn’t have electricity, either, though most had at least one battery-operated radio tuned to the Voice of America or BBC World Service.

In the 1980s, the Liberian Rural Communication Network was created to improve conditions in the countryside. The US government built radio stations in regional capitals like Zwedru, with transmitters strong enough to reach nearby villages. I worked alongside six Liberian men – two from each of three tribes that lived in the region.  They were a good bunch of guys: young and ambitious. They all identified with a combination of western names (signaling they were educated) and traditional names (signaling that they were still “of the people.” My task was to help my colleagues with the technical side of radio production , and to join them on village visits where we encouraged the people to take actions that would improve their health and economy. (I spoke Liberian English pretty well, but I never learned any of the tonal West African languages well enough to communicate with village women.)

I ask a little boy named Boukou about his life.
I ask a little boy named Boukou about his life.


One of our biggest projects was support for a World Health Organization vaccination campaign. Every few years WHO came around to each village with a  dry-ice chest full of vaccines. But often when the doctors arrived at the remote villages, few children were there to receive the vaccination. Some of the missing children were working at scattered rice fields weeding and driving away birds. But many more of them were being hidden by their mothers.

The WHO vaccination campaigns had been around for several years by the time I got there, and many of the villagers had experienced them. And they had observed that children would often get sick soon after taking the injection. Mostly the villagers were eager to take advantage of kwi medicine. But in the case of vaccination many of them used their better judgment and declined. (Kwi is the term for ideas and technologies coming from outside the familiar, indigenous tradition.)

So the task of my colleagues and me was to visit those villages a week or so ahead of the doctors, meet with the gathered people, explain why the vaccinations were a good thing, and persuade the mothers to cooperate. We did it with a combination of community-building celebration and serious discussion.


Chris Nyenape speaks to a child about vaccination


It wasn’t too hard to accomplish that. The villagers understood cause and effect. They also understood that some people knew more about health than they did. They were reasonable people. So we began by assuring them that their observation was correct. Children did get sick after taking the vaccine. (We didn’t know this at the time, but the formal theory of argument called Rogerian Argument recommends exactly what we did.)

We then explained why this was a good thing.

The villagers understood the idea of setting a controlled backfire in order to contain a larger brushfire. We used that image to explain that a small bout of illness induced by the vaccine could prevent more serious illness from the full-blown disease. They knew that cutting the heart from the palm tree meant it would grow no further, and we used that image to explain how the vaccine took the heart out of the sickness.

Our efforts were pretty effective. Through the combination of persuasion and community spirit, the mothers accepted the message we brought. They brought their kids to the doctors on the assigned days, and allowed them to get the shot. In fact, I remember there was some disappointment because the doctors ran out of vaccine before all the kids could get it. But all in all, the WHO campaign that year was a success and our small part in it was a positive. The net result was healthier kids.

Three Liberian village boys


I am struck by the contrast between then and now. What worked well 30 years ago in West Africa isn’t working in 2015 in the USA. Maybe it just isn’t being tried. Maybe it isn’t possible.

I remember thinking at the time that these village dwellers couldn’t be blamed for their ignorance. They just hadn’t had the opportunities to know as much about health and science as Americans. But here we are in American, 30 years later, with a worse and more insoluble conflict over a scientific question.

Consider the latest:  Canadian mother Jennifer Hibben-White, who is breaking the internet with her emotional rant against anti-vaxxers. You can see her stuff here and here and here and here.

I think Ms. Hibben-White is right that people should have their children vaccinated. I think she’s right that all the reasons given for not vaccinating are junk science or worse. I think she’s right that people have an obligation to do the right thing for the good of the community. I think, “It’s my choice!,” while true, is never a justification for not doing the right thing.

But I think it is sad that her appeal only stirs outrage and scrutiny. She’ll get a million page views, but she’ll probably not persuade anyone. Part of this is her fault. She doesn’t respect the people she’s talking to. She resorts to name-calling and outrage.  This doesn’t work. You can only bully people when you have power over them — something no one on the internet has over anyone else on the internet. You can only persuade people when they like you — which isn’t likely when you sling insults at them.

But the bigger problem behind the anti-vax controversy and other social issues is lack of community. The Liberian villagers were happy and eager to obey instructions, because by doing that they affirmed their place in the community.  Many Americans today are conditioned to resist social suasion. So we get anger and stupidity, and, occasionally, the sickness and death of a child who might have lived.

I’m not suggesting America should be more like a West African village. A couple of years after my wife and I finished Peace Corps and left, Liberia erupted in a horrific civil war based on tribal tension and opposition to the corrupt government. Tens of thousands died, including at least one of my radio friends. Hundreds of thousands were dislocated. The children pictured above were certainly affected by that war. Our vaccination couldn’t protect them from every kind of harm.

What I am saying is that here in 2015, I still don’t think mankind has figured out how to live well.







Good Will & Sheep’s Guts

Christmas has come and gone, and another year’s War on Christmas is coming to a close.

  • Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze, carried numerous stories about diverse skirmishes in the War on Christmas.
  • The Huffington Post kept a running tally of Fox News stories about the silliness on the Right.
  • Where other traditionalist sources viewed the War on Christmas hanging in the balance, Western Journalism reported that the traditions were winning the 2014 campaign. Bill O’Reilly pick up on this, too.
  • And The Daily Beast, a pretty good right-of-center news source, declared that the War on Christmas is somehow a good thing.
  • On the left side of the political spectrum, athiest Gabriel Arana offered up an essay in Salon about his struggle to “overcome” the holiday.


My personal experience was altogether positive. I had great times with my family, and, like Scrooge’s nephew: “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good; and I say, God bless it!”

For sure I didn’t have any offended feelings because of the way someone greeted me. I didn’t feel at any time that anyone was imposing their values on me, nor that anyone was denying me the free exercise of my own treasured values. Most people wished me a “Merry Christmas.” Those who said “Happy Holidays” seemed to be just as sincere and cheerful despite their different choice of words.

I understand that the purported War on Christmas is part of a wider dispute about political correctness in a multicultural world. How to be respectful and courteous to others is a question that needs to be thought on. But it is not just a matter of America’s population becoming less White and less Christian in the 21st Century. How to be respectful and courteous is a question that needs to be thought on at all times and places.

I can share some insights on respect and courtesy gained from my travels around the world. I lived seven years in the mountainous hinterlands of the former-Soviet Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan.

While I and my family were there, the Soviet influence was weakening and muslim influences were growing in the Kyrgyz mind. But there was a great deal of diversity even in that small and remote country, and nobody felt inhibited in their own observations or expressions.

Kyrgyz people would nearly all encourage us and other foreigners to take part in their celebrations. They weren’t exclusive about it, and they certainly weren’t timid. They enjoyed their celebrations and customs, and they were proud and generous-minded about them. The notion that we might be offended by their invitation to join in never entered their minds.

Soviet-style New Years Day.

The city of Naryn where we lived has close to 40,000 Kyrgyz, a few thousand Kazak, Uzbek and Dungan residents, and perhaps 30 European and American guest workers. We were far more the minority there than non-Christians are in the US. But we didn’t feel threatened or put out, because the people were so cheerful and happy about their special occasions.

The major holidays in Kyrgyzstan and throughout Central Asia are Nooruz – the Persian (and more generally muslim) new year – and the actual new year’s day on January first. This later holiday is a combination of our Christmas, Halloween and New Years Day.

In addition to these major holidays, Kyrgyz culture is manifest in besh barmak. Besh barmak is not a holiday but a ceremonial way of eating. It is obligatory for weddings and funerals, and optional for holidays and to make visitors especially welcome.

Besh barmak begins when the guest arrives. Nothing is done ahead of time because the guest needs to see the work being done especially for their benefit. Cushions that might have been laid down ahead of time are instead left in storage until the guest arrives so a deliberate show can be made about fetching them for the guest. The eldest guest is positioned opposite the door – ostensibly the most desirable spot because it is the warmest. Then everyone shares a cup or three of tea. Directly after, one of the young men of the family excuses himself and goes out to select a sheep to slaughter. At certain times of the year, the flock will be very near and he’ll return in a few minutes. At other times of the year, the flock can be miles away and he may be gone for hours. But the hallmark of hospitality is doing things in the guests’ sight, so everything has to wait.

Eventually the young man returns with the sheep. Everyone is called outside to attend a prayer while the sheep is ceremoniously killed. Guests and hosts then return inside (into the house or the yurt) to converse and wait while the carcass is cut into pieces and boiled. Then comes a long, slow, leisurely process of eating the sheep bit by bit. It is not for the faint of heart.

In my experience of doing besh barmak 20 times or more, each household sets great store in doing things the proper “Kyrgyz way.” But they do things very differently. One critical element of the besh barmak ceremony is honoring one particular guest by bestowing the most desirable morsels on them. The host might give an eyeball of the sheep to that guest and wish them something fortuitous. Or they might give the guest the fat from the sheep’s tail. Or they may give the guest the tender meat from the sheep’s palate. Each of these things happened to me or my wife. (Tail fat is repulsive but goes down if you swallow it quickly. The eyeball is rubbery. The palate meat is pretty ordinary.) It never occurred to us to refuse what we were offered. What mattered most was that our hosts were giving us their best. Often they would make a sausage of the small intestine, which sounds filthy. But we sat and talked while they rinsed and rinsed the intestines until water poured in one end came out clean at the other. Our hosts were as aware as we were of what intestines are, and they didn’t want to eat anything unwholesome.

Kyrgyz friend and my daughter Jenny rinsing meat.

In every case, the host explained that they were doing besh barmak the “Kyrgyz Way.” Oddly, though, they seldom did it the same way as others. Most people followed their own clan custom or village custom or even the custom of their particular family. Even in a very cohesive culture like the Kyrgyz, there is no single prevalent national custom. But each Kyrgyz household presents it the way they know it. And they do it with the best of good cheer and with utmost confidence that the guest will enjoy it.

Me, my Kyrgyz host and his daughter, my daughter, all gathered around the dastarkan.


It would be good if more Americans were like the Kyrgyz. If everybody approached Christmas with the good will and magnanimity that ought to be natural; if everybody saw this and every other holiday, in fact this and every other day of the year, with a more generous attitude, I think we’d get along better.

Sam’s Chocolate

Sam Cooper showed up right about sundown. And that’s a good thing, because Sam Cooper was one of the sweetest people who ever lived. This was back in the ‘80s when my wife and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in Liberia, West Africa.

Zwedru, the city we lived in, had 20-thousand, and occasional electric service, and four high schools. Students from smaller villages round about came to Zwedru to study. Many of them had a hard time of it. Sent to the city with just enough money to pay tuition and buy the mandatory uniform, these students hoped to find some relative who would take them in and allow them a daily bowl of rice and a bed on the floor. But even those who wangled bed and board struggled to pay the not-infrequent surprise fees their teachers and principals demanded. Public servants typically didn’t get paid very often or very much by the corrupt government. Their way of making ends meet was demanding students pay a fee to sit for a required exam.

It is no surprise that students wore a trail to our door. They seldom needed much, and they truly did need help. And we had it to give. There were just a couple of hitches. First, there were too many students; we couldn’t possible help them all. And second, those students had relatives who were obligated to help them. If we were too generous too often, we’d be disrupting their culture. We got lots, LOTS, or requests for money. The worst cases were students who told us about their goal of finding a patron and sponsor who would satisfy all their needs and wishes, hinting that we might, just possibly, be that sponsor if we worked at it. Sometimes it was easy to say “No.”

Sam Cooper wasn’t like that. He was as needy as any of his schoolmates. The relatives he stayed with were common folk in a backwater town of a cash-poor country. But with Sam, enough was as good as a feast. We helped him some, but the basis of our relationship was friendship. I was always glad to see him.

Sam Cooper and me.

So when Sam showed up right about sundown and Damaris and I were making hot chocolate, we invited him in and offered him some. He’d never had hot chocolate but he know about M&Ms. Some months earlier I’d given Sam a one-pound bag of M&Ms that came in the mail. A day or two later when I asked if he liked them. He giggled and said, “Oh, Zehner! Those things were calling to me all night long. They said, ‘Sam! Wake up! Come and eat us!’” Which was his way of explaining that he’d finished the whole bag before morning.

But on this occasion we were drinking powdered hot chocolate. I pulled a third mug down from the rat and snake proof cupboard and poured hot water into each, added chocolate powder to my mug and went outside to watch the sunset. (Thrills were cheap in those days.) Sam followed me a moment later, and Damaris shortly after that. We sat and talked about what had happened that day, stirring and sipping our chocolate. Sam stirred his mug persistently, long after it was well mixed and cool enough to drink. When I asked if he liked it, Sam said, “It’s really hot water.” A while later, when I was about finished with mine and Sam was still stirring I asked again if he liked his chocolate and he said, “It’s just hot water.” Liberians sometime use “just” as an intensifier meaning “very” so I took it to mean the drink was still hotter than he liked. But then I asked a third time and Sam blurted out, “Zehner, there’s nothing here but hot water!”

Damaris and I looked at each other and asked, “Didn’t you put chocolate in Sam’s mug?” Neither of us had. Sam had sat there all the while stirring the water and patiently waiting to see if it would turn dark and chocolate-y. The sun had set during our conversation, and by this time he couldn’t see what was in the mug anyway. But he did know what plain hot water tastes like, and this was it. Damaris and I both apologized and leaped up to correct our oversight. We heated the water again, and made sure he had a proper mug.

When he finally got a proper taste, Sam pronounced hot chocolate delicious.