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Guest blog by Kate Wrangham-Briggs – founder of the Kasiisi Porridge Project

Kasiisi Primary school, Uganda 2005

The Headmistress, Lydia Kasenene, commented that it was lunch time.

“Fine.  Where do they have lunch?  I’ll join them there” 

 “I said lunch TIME,” laughed Lydia. “They don’t HAVE lunch!”

Did you celebrate World Porridge Day on 10th October? For 1,250 primary school children in rural Western Uganda a cup of porridge can mean the difference between getting an education and a life of poverty without basic schooling.  Here’s what some of them wrote to the Kasiisi Porridge Project to thank them for setting up a feeding programme in two schools:

  • You save us from our enemy, hunger.
  • We now no longer have pains in our stomachs.
  • Because you wanted us to do well, you gave us porridge.
  • I was too small because of going hungry. Now I am putting on weight because of taking porridge. At home we don’t have enough to eat.
  • These days we are learning properly because there is no more hunger at our school

But there will be hunger if we don’t continue with the project, and there is hunger at three other local schools, desperate to join it. In this area stunted growth and malnutrition are common, affecting more than 40% of local children.

The schools all lie on the edge of Kibale National Forest, home to a few hundred endangered chimpanzees, a huge variety of monkeys, birds, trees and insects, and the hub of some of the most important scientific research in the world.

A good education in a school near the forest means learning the importance of conservation too.  The local people are well aware of the forest and who lives in it – some families even time their getting up in the morning by the motorcycle-like calls of the black and white colobus monkeys at dawn. But an understanding of the potential benefits to the local economy of wildlife conservation is another matter.

Where better to start learning these lessons than at primary school?

Children who eat can learn.  Children who eat want to stay at school.  Children who eat will stay for their exams and go to secondary school.  From there, a job or further education become real possibilities.

Hungry children often drop out of school.  They then have limited chances for decent employment or training.  Girls often marry early, or go into domestic service where they risk every kind of exploitation, not least, sexual.

The Kasiisi Porridge Project started with a life-changing trip in 1996 by myself, my husband and our 13-year-old twins  to visit my brother, Harvard professor Richard Wrangham.  He was studying wild chimpanzees, and was accompanied by his wife, Dr Elizabeth Ross and their three young sons. One day, for interest, as a change from forest life, Elizabeth and I visited the weathered primary school nearby.

Our lives would never be the same again.

The visit had a dramatic impact on us, revealing that children at the school were studying in overcrowded, underequipped classrooms dangerous enough to need evacuation in high winds. Teacher training and teacher pay were inadequate, morale was low and malnutrition stalked the majority.  A year later, the school would be further overwhelmed with hundreds of new pupils when free, compulsory primary education was introduced in Uganda.

An immediate consequence of the visit was the establishment by Dr Ross of the USA-based Kasiisi Project.  Since the nineties, this project has rebuilt several schools, adding dormitories, libraries, staff rooms and, recently, power.  Things moved quickly, and today it also offers secondary-school scholarships, teacher training, pre-school education and computers, health, and conservation education.

But it was another visit to Kasiisi in 2005 that provided the impetus for the founding of the Kasiisi Porridge Project – now run in partnership with the Kasiisi Project.  While visiting Kasiisi Primary School once more, I asked to assist in one of the classrooms, late one morning. The Headmistress, Lydia Kasenene, commented that it was lunch time.

“Fine.  Where do they have lunch?  I’ll join them there” 

 “I said lunch TIME,” laughed Lydia. “They don’t HAVE lunch!”

Since that exchange, one thing has led to another.  With the £100,000 raised in its brief five years, the Kasiisi Porridge Project has now built latrines and water tanks, created two school kitchens, hired cooks, and provided porridge to two schools near Kibale National Park. Has any of this made any difference?

It has.

Studies show that the feeding programme has led to higher energy levels in children, especially among girl orphans, lower absenteeism and a reduced dropout rate – all necessary ingredients for a secure future.

Amazing what can flow from a daily mug of porridge.

For some, World Porridge Day needs to be every day.

For more information or to donate to the Kasiisi Porridge Project, go to www.kasiisiporridge.org. Or to donate direct from this site please go to the top of this blog and click the “donate” button on the right.

How green is my Kindle?

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I visited the beautiful town of Ludlow in Shropshire to take part in their annual food fair. We sampled the delights of the local ales, sausages, cheeses and something resembling squashed road kill that was actually really tasty. Delightful as all this was, this isn’t what I want to talk about today.

We were staying a few miles from Ludlow in the shadow of the Long Mynd hill at Church Stretton. We stayed at our all time favourite B&B which is comfortable, welcoming and ever so friendly. We shared a dining table with our four fellow guests at breakfast when (without any prompting from me) the conversation turned to eBooks. One lady said that she wanted to buy a Kindle as her husband had just bought himself an iPod. He dismissed this ridiculous notion. What was the point of a Kindle? You can only read books on it. And anyway, he preferred the feel and smell of a “real” book.

Well, at this point she could have come back with all manner of retorts: you can carry hundreds of books in something smaller than a paperback; you can adjust the font size; if you run out of things to read, you can be browsing and reading again in no time; the price of eBooks is lower than the paper ones…

But the reply she came back with was the green one: you don’t destroy rain forests with eBooks. This was dismissed with: “we won’t have to worry about that, we can leave it to our children to deal with”.

The table was stunned into silence and my wife and I who both work for a conservation charity were biting our tongues. Why, this gentleman has just set back our conservation work by 40 years!


But later on I started thinking. How “green” is the Kindle?

The thinking goes that when everyone has Kindles (or other eReaders), the paper book will disappear, demand for paper will drop and rain forests will be saved. But just as electric cars produce zero greenhouse gas emissions while transferring these to the generating plant sites, the Kindle is not a 100% green alternative. Consider the following:

  • The manufacture of millions of Kindles requires plastics (oil) and precious metals while energy is consumed in the production and distribution of the finished goods
  • The internet is not powered for free; all those fibre optic transmission systems, copper based transmission and satellite communication systems are very power hungry
  • The Kindle is a low power device but consider the power required to recharge millions of these devices

The case against paper books:

  • Uses vast forests of trees
  • Requires energy to convert wood pulp to paper
  • Distribution costs are high (both in $$ and environmentally)
  • Physical storage – if I had fewer books, I could live in a smaller house
  • You need to visit a book store (or browse an on-line store and wait to receive your book)
  • Font size is fixed
  • No handy dictionary feature

OK so I’m straying off the environmental point a little here and in doing so revealing my prejudices – I happen to think that eBooks are the future.

But the environmental point is a valid one and I’m afraid I don’t have the answers. It might make an interesting PhD thesis for someone though. If such a study has been done, I’d be very interested in hearing the results.

Are eReaders going to save our planet? Maybe not. But till the studies have been presented, I like to think that the electronic book is the green alternative.

The Hermione factor

Like many people, I have read all the Harry Potter books. I remember very well reading the first one beside a swimming pool on the Greek Island of Samos and being unwilling to put it down for trivial matters such as eating, going to the loo and playing with the kids in the pool. As long as the drinks kept coming, I kept reading. Was it great literature? Well, probably not. But I’m not going to debate that here because actually it’s not that relevant. For whatever reason, the Harry Potter phenomenon has been a gargantuan success.

I had been sceptical in the extreme about even starting to read “Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone”. I was already late getting to it. It was first released in the UK in June 1997 and I was reading it in July 2000. The hype was building and I just had to see what it was all about. Of course, I had to keep it hidden behind a towel – after all it was a kid’s book!

But I was hooked and read it in two days. What was it about the book that made it so un-putdown-able? Well, apart from anything else, it was incredibly easy to read: The eyes scanned, the brain interpreted and the cinema in your mind played back the images with very little effort on the readers’ part.

Except for one thing…

Hermione

How the hell did you pronounce her name?

Now you may be nodding in agreement. Or you could be saying “how could he be so thick”. But unfortunately I had never met anyone called Hermione. So every time I got to her name – and it’s written, I guess, several hundred times – I stumbled. My synapses were sparking aimlessly; the film reel spun from its spool and the cinema lights came on.

Hermy-oh-knee?

Hermy-wun?

And it wasn’t till some weeks later while discussing Harry Potter with friends at the pub (as you do), that one of them said “Hermione” the way it was supposed to be pronounced. And I didn’t know who she was talking about having finally settled for Hermy-oh-knee.

Of course, thanks to the movies, we all know how it should be pronounced. And you probably knew too didn’t you. Well, I bet you didn’t…

So now, when I’m editing books ready for publication, of course I’m looking for the spelling and grammatical mistakes; the bits where the spell-checker guesses the wrong word; the formatting. But most of all, I’m looking for the “Hermione Factor”. Descriptions, events, dialogue that don’t quite work; turn the cinema lights on and block the direct line from printed word to visual image. We want our readers to be engrossed without coming up for air; to enjoy the experience; to tell us they liked our books and come back for more.

I have just finished editing a novel by Peter Carroll entitled “In Many Ways”. It begins:

The white transit van pulled up outside the warehouse – a high pitched squeal indicative of dirty brakes. A fine mist of rain hung like grey net curtains, and the clouds obscured any hope of celestial illumination. The headlights split the dark dampness, moisture swirling, glinting and twisting in the beams as if held inside two recently shaken, elongated snow globes. This brightening was brief, and the removal of the ignition key soon restored the murk.

No Hermione moments there. And it’s a great description of dark happenings on a rainy night in Glasgow. It was great working with Peter as he was open minded when I outlined the (few) Hermione moments. One fine example was that much of the dialogue was in Glasgow-phonetic text: Instantly understandable by your average Glaswegian. But it’s a big world book market out there and to my (English) mind this style interrupted the flow too much. So Peter has toned it down. Enough to give the reader the Scottish flavour but still rendering it eminently readable.

“In Many Ways” is now published on Amazon Kindle” (See link on the right). We think we’ve done a good job. We’d love to hear what you think.

Dave Lyons