Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Scratch Project
Play "Walking in the Desert"

See more student projects like this

"Hello world!" as any beginning programmer knows, is the first computer program you ever write. It announces to the world that "you're in," you know how to sink your hands into the guts of the computer and get it to do what you want. You can now use the computer as a tool to communicate, to calculate, or to do whatever your imagination can come up with.

The program you see above is a sort of "Hello World!" program written by Queso (Jose, on the left) in the computer class I'm teaching in La Carpio. I'm IMMENSELY excited about all the cool stuff they've been doing. This is far easier to show than to explain, so if you're reading this on facebook or e-mail, make sure you read the original post on my blog by clicking here. That way you can see the videos and play the games. In fact, go ahead and skim through the article for the project links first, and then read it later if you get time.

In case you're just reading this, however, I'll try to explain a little bit about what's been cooking in the La Carpio Computer Lab. Settle in, it's a long story.

For the past four months, I've increased significantly the type and amount of involvement in La Carpio. Starting in May, in addition to the weekly after-school kids activities on Thursday, I would go down on Tuesday as well to help repair computers in a computer lab they have, supervise their "game playing," and teach them a few basic computing concepts. For the past few months, I've poured considerable time into their little computer lab, resulting in 10 smoothly-running, virus-free, internally-networked computers. If this sounds like a small accomplishment, let me augment it slightly by mentioning that the first time I used my flash drive in those computers, my personal computer caught 408 viruses (3 strains) and took over an hour to clean. This trend continued weekly until I had disinfected every computer and put updated virus scanners on each one.

Squeaky-clean machines meant their games would run better - but it also meant I could start loading up some educational games for them to start using - creating their own worlds and thinking in different ways - logically, structurally, narratively, and artistically by painting their own pictures, creating their own levels for games, cutting together videos, and even writing their own programs. When art, creation, story-telling, and self-expression started happening, they got excited. And I got excited. Some of their creations are linked from this blog entry.

I can't tell you the measure of joy it gives me to see these kids using the computer to create their own levels, to draw things, to create stories and program actors to live out their stories, to use graphics from their lives - from camp, from their neighborhood, of themselves, and genuinely own their creations in the sense that they more closely touch their reality. The programs are in Spanish, so they understand the instructions they are writing. The photos, for example, are either taken by me of their neighborhood, or taken by them of activities such as camp retreat when I trained a few of them to take photos using my camera. Their programs and videos are beginning to take on a form of "digital storytelling" that captures their interest in a way that familiarizes them with the computer as a tool. It's helping them become computer literate. It's helping them use it to create.

One of the main programs we've been using is called "Scratch," a simple program designed by MIT to help kids ages 8 and up develop the skills necessary for computer engineering in the 21st century. It's very simple and extremely fun to use - scenarios and "programs" are written by dragging instructions from a toolbox to your workspace. These "instructions," color-coded and shaped like puzzle pieces that snap together, create a set of commands that manipulate the objects on your screen. I could go into deeper jargon on the programming skills and logical thinking concepts Scratch helps develop, but that's been done in great detail on MIT's Scratch website. To put it simply, it's like building a program out of legos, where each lego block represents instructions for the computer to follow.

Oh, the flexibility of the Scratch program is incredible - you can upload projects to the web to share with others, and download theirs. Once you've written a program, with a simple click you can translate all the instructions into 50 different languages, including Spanish, Creole, and Arabic. I mention Creole and Arabic because whenever I see a program that can translate into Creole, I know it's designed to go the extra mile in reaching isolated areas. And whenever a program can translate into Arabic or Thai or Russian, I know the programmers went the extra mile in dealing with right-to-left text compatibility and complex character sets.

Once the computers were clean of viruses and being used for collaborative projects, I set up a small network between them, just 10 computers connected through a 16-port router. That way the kids can share resources amongst all the computers and play games "interactively" with each other instead of in isolation. This is sure to result in a few fights, but competition teaches a lot too, so we'll see how that goes.

And networked computers lead to the final phase in this project - connectivity and business. There is no internet connection in La Carpio. Every project I mentioned above required several weeks' planning and numerous hour-long bus rides to and from my house to download resources to get the computers running. If I forgot one thing or brought the wrong file, it meant waiting a week for the next trip down here. Aside from inconvenience, the fact that La Carpio has no internet access (that I've come across yet, anyway) is probably a strategic move, as is the relocation and isolation of the poor and immigrants to this area, as is the positioning of a garbage dump that receives 700 tons of trash per day at the other end of their community, as is the thin, one-km road that limits all entry points by vehicle in and out of the area to one. Read more about La Carpio in one of my previous blog posts. All that to say, getting internet in La Carpio would bring opportunities to the community to stay in contact with family in other countries, to learn and read and find solutions to issues that affect them, to train themselves in some skill, and to research, print, and facilitate any legal documentation (residency or work visas) they may need to do.

Connecting the La Carpio community to the internet and using the computer lab part-time as an internet café to offer services locally is a future goal, one fraught with obstacles and unknowns. But strategically it will likely be an awesome resource for the community.

All these technological advances mean nothing if there isn't some sense of purpose and intentionality behind them. I work a lot with computers, but technology for technology's sake never really sat well with me. A fellow language student, after months of leading a step-by-step discipleship class with some of the kids in La Carpio, and after diligently walking them through the steps of salvation and foundational biblical concepts, told me he'd been praying specifically for a way for the kids to make money. At first, I didn't understand why his ardent passion for evangelism translated into a prayer for employment opportunities.

But it makes sense. Most of the young kids I'm teaching in that class will graduate from 6th grade pretty soon, the highest level of education offered inside La Carpio. The chances of going on to high school afterward are slim. During that time they're at a pretty high risk for roaming the streets and getting involved in gang activities. This is another reason why the soccer and youth activities Lalo (the missionary there) does are great in giving the kids something to do with their spare time that they LOVE.

All that to say, computer literacy and ability to speak English are 2 skills that will give you a fighting chance at securing any type of employment, and considerably reputable employment at that (I know you won't read it but a study by some branch of the World Bank released a report in 2006 analyzing the impact of Intel's relocation to Costa Rica). Keep the La Carpio computer lab in your prayers. Please pray that in some way the problem-solving skills and computer literacy these kids get in that small, hot classroom will help keep them of the streets and in good employment or in further education.

The second philosophy behind the work put into this has to do with fighting marginalization and neutralizing structural violence. Fancy words to say - God doesn't see a distinction between immigrants and the poor in La Carpio and the rich diplomats living across the valley, flying over their heads in tourist jets and sending all the trash to the landfill behind their houses. Both should be given opportunities to work, and make a safe, legally protected home. The people of La Carpio face a particular set of challenges in reaching those goals, which opportunities for education and employment within their community will help neutralize. Please keep the community and kids of La Carpio in your prayers as well.

And so, this project doesn't just get me all excited and keep me busy doing tech stuff that interests me. It is a strategic move consistent with MAF's vision of reaching people in isolation, with direly needed resources - in this case, people isolated culturally, economically, and geographically will receive employment opportunities, training, and connectivity using the computer as a tool to help deliver those desperately needed resources. And "resources" refers partly to the physical equipment, but moreso to the process of personal formation and competency in an empowering way that makes them less dependent on the outside world for "stuff," and more self-reliant on themselves for solving their own problems. This is the strategic "theory" behind the joy of the work, that when coupled together, I believe glorifies God and gives him room to work, taking control of the "project" from our hands and putting it in his. Which, for all the hard work and good theory I can put into it, will amount to nothing if prayer and God's guidance were not spurring it on from the beginning.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

In Which Family Comes to Visit

Over the summer my family came to visit - the parents and Jason for 2 weeks, and Camden for about 2 months.

Camden spent his first week here up at the QERC biological research center. I'm quite jealous he got to do that, actually. I only got to visit him on the weekends in between work. The first weekend Nikki (friend from NNU) came up with us. The second weekend we went on a hike with David and he identified over 20 bird species. We went on a frog-hunt at night, and saw a female quetzal and several toucanettes the next morning.

Shortly after that, the rest of the fam arrived (minus nate and jill and alexyss). Over the next two weeks my family got to see pieces of my life here (language school, the office, La Carpio), and we visited different parts of Costa Rica on the weekends. My mom thought it was great fun to just do "normal things" and see my real day-to-day life rather than go gallavanting around the country all week. But on the weekends we visited a volcano, ancient Huatare city ruins in Guayabo (this was really cool, I'd wanted to visit this but hadn't yet had a chance), saw monkeys and slots at Manuel Antonio, and went to museums downtown.

So that was fun to have them around for 2 weeks, and they enjoyed seeing a slice of my life here. We talked a lot about how Costa Rica compares to Haiti. We talked a lot about you, probably, if you're reading this you get news about me and my mom talked me through every person she'd seen and how they were doing.

Camden stayed afterward to finish some language classes and explore more of the country. I didn't get a single second to do "touristy" stuff with him, unfortunately. But on the other hand, he got to do things a tourist wouldn't get to, like pour a cement floor in a church in San Carlos, visit a local dance exhibition, and go to one of the awesomest Christian Camps in Central America along with the La Carpio kids. I think that stuff's way cooler than white-water rafting and surfing. But I'm kind of weird. He just left a few days ago.

Anyway, that's what the fam did when they came to visit! Enjoy the photos!

P.S. - If you're reading this as an e-mail, you won't see all the photos! To see the post on the original site and get the full effect, make sure to click the title of the post, and then you'll see the slideshows.

Translation Trip

One of the more difficult language classes we had was one where Graziella came into our class with fake bruises on her face, wrapped in a shawl and pretending to be a single mom who was being physically abused and threatened by the father of her child. She was there to seek counseling from us. We had to offer suggestions and try to alleviate her situation (using mainly the second rule of subjunctive tense, "verbos de influencia" in case you're curious).

Each person took a turn, but I quickly realized that each person slipped into a role during that class. The pastors said pastorly things, trying to connect her with the church and trying to straighten out her view of God's love and her identity in Christ. The more evangelistic types tried to explain to her how to have a relationship with Jesus and what that meant. The social workers/health providers asked what type of public or private options she could hook up with, what social services were available through the church or state, and if the law could do anything. And what did I say? I think my response in a real situation would have been anthropological - I would ask more questions, trying to penetrate to the social and cultural injustices that create such situations, and I'd try to understand from her point of view what a desirable outcome would be. Which probably reveals a bit about why I'm the type of missionary I am, instead of a "minister" or a "preacher," which is why I'll never deliver a silver bullet counseling solution, but hope to possibly foster a learning environments where solutions are discovered internally in ways that could simply never come from an outsider like me. But what I actually said touched on all the areas I just mentioned, because the point of the exercise was to give suggestions, not ask questions.

Interesting note here, that we never covered specifically how to ask questions. Most of what we learn is how to make statements. How to give answers. We are asked the questions and taught to answer, we don't learn to use the language to ask others questions. Shame.

All that to say... tough lesson. And left me depressed for most of the day, questioning whether any of this schoolwork would get me to a point where I could field situations like that, confidently.

And no. It didn't. I joined a group of doctors and teenagers (about 15 docs and 25 high-schoolers) from Hinsdale Hospital in Chicago. I found myself seated between a well-trained doctor and counselor, and a thin young man about my age who'd limped in using an umbrella for a cane, holding a diagnosis from a local hospital of schizophernia and suicidal tendencies. In fact, he'd just come straight from the hospital. His eyes were watery and his hand trembled involuntarily. As he put it... "they couldn't do anything for me. So I might as well try here."

The following counseling session was extremely difficult to translate. The doctor gave him her full attention and as I translated I realized she'd done this before and was going methodically through a process - but it was hard to tell, she was doing it well and with genuine concern. I translated back and forth between them. Not just the situation was difficult. The grammar was hard. The ideas on both end were extremely hard to translate. They were talking in different directions, he about utter hopelessness, only able to focus on the bad. She about God's love and hope, which was meaningless to him. Since I was having difficulty translating ideas, I started translating literally, which suddenly became very depressing because the gap in ideology became evident real fast. At one point we found a photo of his wife who'd left him, which he dismissed with a wave of his hand as totally irrelevant, and kept talking about his leg which had suddenly become lame. "The only thing I like about that picture is that I'm standing in it," he fixated on. I immediately began to think about some of the characters in Dostoyevsky's books who exhibit severe physical disabilities that result from emotional trauma they're experiencing. There are connections within ourselves we often can't even understand. I began to think the problem wasn't his leg. And that's when I didn't know what to do and started translating literally. And like I mentioned before, a million questions came to mind as I talked with him. He showed us his most recent employment ID from Walmart (or its local equivalant) which I think was covering his health care costs. And I began asking myself questions about what type of societal pressures cause situations like this in Quepos, the more commercialized town we were in that supports the hugely popular tourist destination of Manuel Antonio. Fortunately the doctor was guiding the conversation and not my curiosity.

I met a friend named Steve on that trip. He was here helping with Conexiones, the group hosting the team of doctors. Steve had just come down from Washington and had been using his Spanish for 2 weeks and he had just had to translate for a pregnant woman, explaining to her that while she still had a baby in her, she was no longer technically pregnant because the baby had died and was stuck in her fallopian tube. She was hospitalized immediately. Stephen had me write this in his journal for him so he wouldn't forget. He also had me write that he had received a shot to allieve his tenanitis, a shot given to him for free by one of the doctors here that he couldn't afford to get before he left the U.S. His hand was still strengthening up after getting the shot, that's why I was writing things down for him to remember.

I loved meeting the people on this team. Our group was a hodgepodge of different ministries (christians, non-christians, catholics, evangelicals, nazarenes, seventh-day adventists), and for that reason I learned a LOT from them. When they found out I was from Haiti, several were familiar with Paul Farmer's work there. I translated for the infectologist, the pediatrician, the lung doc guy (can't remember what that's called, numologist or something), and general family practice. As it turns out, I worked hard with them all week, traveling to 4 different parts of Costa Rica to provide free medical attention and kids activities for the locals, and then had to leave for the fun part when they went to the beach, white-water rafting, hiking, and nice hotels. And for some reason this time I actually wanted to do those things. Probably just to spend more time with them.

I'm happy to be resourceful for visiting teams like these. I'm immensely excited to see ministries working together, and to get to be a part of that. It brings me great joy and I think God gets a kick out of it as well. It happens a lot at language school, before everyone gets pidgeon-holed into whatever specific denomination they're working with. Everyone unites around a common purpose - learning Spanish, medical work, rebuilding a house. MAF by its very design can't work except by partnering with other groups like these, that are open to working together with others. I'm realizing how crucial it is to work together like this as time goes on - and how rarely it happens. That's one thing I came out of language school firmly convinced of. I'll partner with anyone as often as I can.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

In whom do I put my trust?

I wrote this in my journal several months ago during our weeklong Easter trip through Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. I wasn't immediately able to post it but I still want to share some of the things God taught me while we were on that trip.

I can't think back on our trip without confessing two things that left a lasting impression on me - two things that left me realizing God still has a lot to work on in me.

We began and ended our trip with a prayer in the hotel room in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Although it was Holy Week, a week when I'm used to celebrating very religiously, especially attempting to focus on the joy of Christ's resurrection, for the most part our activities did not follow the church calendar too closely. Part of this, I learned later, is just a cultural difference. During Holy Week, most Catholics participate in the processions remembering Christ's death. Most evangelical Christians and the non-religious head out to the beaches or the mountains - the beaches are CRAMMED during Holy Week. In Costa Rica a 2-hour car ride to the beach ended up taking more than 6 hours! Evangelicals don't usually do a sunrise service (at least not in Central America), they certainly don't paint easter eggs or eat chocolate bunnies, and few even address the resurrection at all during the Sunday service. We talked about these differences in our language class and our teacher was fascinated at how different our traditions were. San José, I understand, as like a ghost town that week. Everyone was at the beach. Except the ones doing the processions. The Catholics.

All that being said, I didn't know all that on the outset so I felt guilt pangs often during the trip, realizing I was celebrating in a way rather far removed from the shared Christian calendar celebration of Christ's death and resurrection. Stemming from that guilt came two thoughts which stuck with me during the trip.

First, when preparing to travel, in what do we put our trust? Upon what do we meditate? While packing my belongings and dressing myself every morning of our journey, I was reminded of what I placed my trust in and looked to for protection and safety. It's what I "girded my loins with", in this case :). Held closely and protected more securely than anything else was my money belt, containing my passport, my debit card, and my memory chip of photos I'd taken on the trip. That way, if I ever got robbed or in a jam, I always had my money to solve my problems or my citizenship to fall back on. I've realized of late how incredibly fortunate, and, quite frankly, how unjustly fortunate one is to carry a U.S. passport. I can hopscotch through several countries, never worrying about visas, interviews, immigration... at the very least I'm granted practically hassle-free movement across borders. Beyond that, I understand 90-day tourist visa overstays are often overlooked, even though I've been careful to renew mine 3 times since arriving in Costa Rica by exiting the country for 72 hours and returning (a "taco bell run," my boss calls it).

The flexibility my passport gives me is backed by the dollars represented by my debit card. If everything falls to pieces, if only I have enough $$ I can probably get out of any difficult situation, I mentally remind myself. This is reinforced by the panicky helplessness I felt several times in Belize, because ATMs were so few and far between. Where would I sleep? How would I buy food? What came to my rescue? The greatest combination of the two things I carried to get me out of a jam - U.S. American dollars. Tied to every country's local currency, those bills were usable pretty much anywhere we went.

Oh, and my memory card with photos. No mystery there. I didn't want to loose the images of our adventures in Tikal and all the places we'd been up to that point. On one hand, I'm really proud of the fact that my memories and photos were so important to me. At first that seems like a much "nobler" thing to prioritize. Maybe so, but it also revealed my pride. I am proud of all the places we visited and things we got to see. I kept telling myself how unique this was and how no one had ever or could ever do it as well as we had. I even told myself God was directing our steps and guiding every even that happened. On one hand, that may be true, and I still believe it was, but to think somehow we merited that good fortune, that protection and that supernatural feeling of things clicking together in a fate/destiny-driven way? Sounds less like a spirit of God-honoring gratitude and more like a spirit of pride and entitlement. Perhaps these two are so closely related its hard to separate them. I turn the question to my passport country. When some claim that we are "blessed by God," what exactly are we saying? Or, in what situations do we proclaim that? A person who is truly blessed by God does not feel pride or entitlement, but rather humility and a magnetized pull toward God - what I'd call "love." There isn't a sense of "I deserve this," but "who am I to be so blessed?"

Consequently, perhaps the litmus test for whether are "blessed" or "entitled" comes when things fall apart. Then... do we shake our fists at the man because we aren't getting what we deserved, what was promised us, our "birthright?" Or do we place what we've lost before God, and as we had always done before, thank Him for the time we enjoyed his favor, confess his control over our situation, and continue to draw nearer to Him in faith and trust.

My citizenship, the $$ behind my debit card, my memories, and my availability to travel are a blessing and a source of joy in my life. But not for a second do I want to fall into the trap of somehow believing I am entitled to those things. If I am truly moved by the sense of injustice I feel when I realize I have enough money to get out of any jam while others are starving for lack of food, if I am truly humbled by the fact that I was arbitrarily born into a country and family that gives me the ability to cross three borders in one day without a hitch, I think I must be willing to sacrifice these blessings so that others might enjoy a more complete justice, a better sense of security, and the same open borders I enjoy. I must thank God for these blessings but put them back in his hands, and truly say, without reserve or holding back... "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Friday, August 07, 2009

A Wheely Good Lesson - What goes around comes around

After moving out of the Rueda's house I wasn't able to keep in touch with them very well. The parents were gone in Perú and the kids were busy with schoolwork. I went over once to fix their computer so they could talk on Skype to their parents while they were apart.

Upon returning from Perú, though, they invited myself and my family who was here visiting over for lunch. It had been a while since I'd had some good Peruvian cooking sprinkled with un poquito de amor (a little bit of love, as Irma says), and I wanted my family-family to meet my host family I'd lived with for 8 months, so we gladly accepted. We also took with us a little welcome-home gift that my parents had carried down from Idaho. One of my good friends and supporters, Ted Wheeler (who incidentally also taught me much of what I know about fixing computers in the NNU computer support center), had sent a brand new (to them) computer down here for their family to use, courtesy of my alma mater NNU, which has it's own shiny brand new ones :)

This is a HUGE blessing for them for a number of reasons. First, it was a totally unexpected and exciting "welcome back" gift. Secondly, the unexpected expense of a trip to Perú took a hit on their finances. I really don't know how they pay all their living expenses plus keep 2 kids in college and where the money comes from for them to do that. In any case, I know that any large purchases around the house have been "gifts from God" given to them by others. This is something they'd needed for a long time, but weren't in any position to buy themselves at this time (or in any near future). Thirdly, most of the work Carlos does is from home, at his computer. Having attended seminary and learned Greek, and then pastored for several years, he teaches several classes and uses the computer a LOT to make powerpoint slides and other teaching aids. While living in their house I worked on their old computer dozens of times, often late into the night because it inched along SO slowly. The rest of the family uses it a lots as well - for schoolwork, research, papers, and to chat with friends and family. Anyway, now thanks to Ted they're up and running again with a nice new computer, equipped with a DVD burner and everything!

Their visas are back in process, their eldest son just visited from El Salvador this week, and I just moved back in with them a few days ago. Oh, and in case you didn't catch the connection in the names here - Carlos "Rueda" translates as Carlos "Wheel," or "Wheeler" if you stretch it a little. And Ted "Wheeler" fixed him up with a brand new computer. What goes around comes around, eh?

And thus...things were put back together again. I figured you should get to hear the rest of the story! THANKS so much for your prayers!