Friday, April 4, 2008

Forced to Take Action

Passion begins with a burden
and a split second moment
when you understand
something like never before.

That burden is on those who know.
Those who don't know are at peace.

Those of us who do know get disturbed
and are forced to take action.

These moving words were spoken by Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Her claim to fame? Inspiring others to plant 40 million trees across Africa--with little money or official backing. In this case, she felt compelled to take action because of her deep seated belief that protection of the environment promotes democracy. These are strong words for a Kenyan woman who lives in lands that tout democracy, only to fall to dictators in a cycle that's been repeated over and over again.

Another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jimmy Carter, has a similar mission as a visionary forced to take action. Through the Carter Center Peace Program, the gap between the rhetoric of human rights and democratic values and the reality is bridged through "election observation, consensus-building for international standards of democratic elections and democracy-strengthening activities in emerging democracies and regional organizations." The Center has an impressive record and is a beacon for those countries wanting to make the trek to democracy with the aid of a non-governmental organization led by a compassionate former United States President.

Equally as important to the spreading of democracy was Jimmy Carter's story about eradication of the guinea worm that is endemic in Sub-Saharan Africa and India. One day as he toured for the Carter Center, he noted an African woman writhing in pain, clutching her massively, swollen breast. None of the women who sat beside her paid any attention to her suffering. Upon inquiring, the former President uncovered that the woman suffered from Guinea Worm Disease, an endemic water-borne disease, contracted when infested water was consumed.

Inside the body, the guinea worm larvae go to work as hungry parasites in the intestine. Over a year's time, they grow into torturous 2 to 3 foot long adult worms that eventually and painfully tunnel their way out of the body, only to emerge from an open sore on the skin. The treatment? Winding the lengthy guinea worms on a stick while slowly and again quite painfully pulling the parasite out over the course of several months. That's a gruesome picture that only the devil would find delightful. As a matter of fact, the official name is
dracunculiasis--the serpent disease.

When viewing the devastation from a population perspective, the picture was even more grim. The ubiquitous disease debilitated whole communities so that scores of sickened multi-generational families could not care for themselves. Children could not attend school. Farmers could not plant. Villages survived on international aid not because they wanted to, but because they were forced to. It goes without saying that nations founder without healthy productive, educated citizens, and evolution is slowed to a crawl. Development is stopped in its tracks.

It was during the painful, pre-emergence stage of Guinea Worm Disease that the former President had seen the beleaguered woman surrounded by the others. No one did anything because they couldn't do more until the nasty beast came through the skin. Time was the only cure known to these people.

Jimmy Carter then had what I would call a Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace Prize moment: he knew something like never before, got deeply disturbed by the knowledge and was thus forced to take action.

That's when the Carter Center got involved and decided with its partners that eradication was the primary solution. This was revolutionary, really, to consider eradication of an endemic disease that had plagued the Sub-Saharan since time immemorial. But the center found the simple answer in a water filter. Yes, a simple water filter.

So without further adieu, these inexpensive devices were purchased and distributed to communities. And the Guinea Worm larvae which used to bring such misery was on it's way to total eradication thanks to the Carter Center and its partners. Good riddance.

All it took was a decision that Africans were worth the effort, determination that an answer was possible and money, of course, to carry out the plan. For the first time, whole communities were set free of this monstrous disease and found a "new normal" in productive living. The picture was now brighter in these Guinea Worm Disease eradicated areas. Farmers returned to the fields and children trekked to now full schools. Mothers did not have to sit by as health aids pulled merciless worms from the bodies of their crying children.

But there is more to do before the pall of ill-health is raised from the African continent. Besides Guinea Worms, the Carter Center also goes after other African scourges that have long kept the continent down. River Blindness, Trachoma, Malaria, Lymphatic Filariasis, and Schistosomiasis also have the center's attention for eradication. More about the work of this farsighted and compassionate organization can be found at

But, I must warn you. Be prepared to be moved. And then watch your wallet. These programs may scream out for you to take action, particularly if you have a Wangari Maathai moment yourself.

Of Note: By now, you know that the talented photographer of many of these pictures is my sister, Marie. This picture was chosen because of the inherent beauty crystallized in plants and as a tribute to the courageous Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai.

Today's Weather Report: Boy, yesterday it got up to 51 degrees, surpassing the uppers 40's I originally reported. The snow is just flying away now. Off in the distance, the steps up to the path into the woods are just peaking through. Alleluhiah, I think we made it unscathed through another Wisconsin winter!

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