Passion Points: Giving Back
Just Back From... Mukul
On the last morning of a sun and sand-filled family vacation at Carlos Pellas’ exquisite new resort, Mukul, I found myself seated with about ten other wide-eyed guests in a sunlit barnyard, hemmed by golden plantain fields and guardian foothills. As hulking oxen, scruffy horses and a neighbor’s curious children looked on, our radiant hostess, a tiny but sturdy woman of irrepressible vitality, served us tortillas with cuajada (homemade farmer’s cheese) and pinolillo, an ancient beverage made from blended grains and spices – in this case toasted corn kernels, wheat, oatmeal, cinnamon and cacao.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) was well under way in the Nicaraguan countryside, and our group had gathered at Doña Lupe’s home to prepare traditional rosquillas – simple bite-sized, donut-shaped crackers that are baked by the hundred in the days leading up to Easter. While Doña Lupe kneaded the dough with all the force of her wiry frame and reviewed its ingredients – milled masa, cheese, butter and milk that her cow had supplied earlier that morning, Mukul’s Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility, Jon Thompson, served as translator for our group.
So many far-flung luxury hotels take great pains to obscure the hardscrabble world just beyond their walls, but in the case of Mukul’s founding family, it was a concern for this world – and a desire to invest in its fragile future – that has anchored their vision and informed every phase of its execution. Now their guests are invited to acquaint themselves with and even participate in the realities of life in rural Nicaragua. Prior to our rosquilla-making lesson, we had visited the nearby community of Las Pilas and its storied mill, which has been run by different generations of the same family for decades. This was where the masa for our rosquillas had been ground. Afterward we had stopped in the town of El Coyol to see its elementary school, where Jon and his team are using community theater to foster discussion on environmental conservation and sustainable farming practices. Next on Jon’s ever-lengthening agenda: bolstering the area’s personnel-strapped baseball and soccer leagues. “I have many areas of non-expertise,” he laughed modestly. In his spare time, Jon runs a Fair Trade coffee cooperative in the country’s northeastern jungle. Mukul’s guests have him to thank for the outstanding coffee that arrives on their terraces each morning just after sunrise.
One of Mukul’s most successful – and most inspiring – initiatives provides local families with access to safe drinking water by arming them with highly effective, low-cost ceramic filters designed at MIT. In a region where many live on less than $1 per day, a $25 water filter is a costly luxury and an expense that the recipient households could not have absorbed on their own. Though Jon and his colleagues might have simply distributed the filters, they knew that ultimately a hand-off wouldn’t make the lasting impact for which they were hoping. Instead, community leaders met to determine each village’s most pressing needs, and in exchange for a filter, participating families committed to sixteen hours of community service in support of the projects they, themselves, had proposed. The residents of El Tambo, for instance, where Doña Lupe lives, collaborated to dig a well for the local school. Since the water filters were introduced, reported cases of diarrhea, parasites and other infections have dropped significantly, and the once beleaguered doctors at the community health clinic can allocate their energy and resources to issues that would previously have fallen between the cracks. The clinic, by the way, has received a number of upgrades courtesy of Mukul, including a two-bed recovery room, two new bathrooms, a storage room, a septic system and a handicapped-accessible entrance ramp.
That evening, a heaping plate of fresh, crisp rosquillas, delivered directly from Doña Lupe’s kitchen, appeared with our coffee at the end of dinner. Collectively, and with varying degrees of precision, we had molded well over a thousand prospective rosquillas, and she had spent the whole of the afternoon rotating trays in and out of her rustic wood-burning oven. Over the course of my week in Nicaragua, I had woken up each morning to life-affirming views of the glistening Pacific, witnessed a troop of boisterous primates escort my elated little brother from hole to gorgeous hole on Mukul’s golf course, and even peered into the smoldering crater of an active volcano, but I knew it would be a long time before I forgot the rough-hewn beauty of Doña Lupe’s farmstead, humble yet idyllic, or her wonderful generosity of spirit.
It struck me that what had most impressed me during my stay at Mukul were the guilelessness and warmth of the people, from the waiter who proudly doubled as Pellas family historian, contextualizing each of the ancestral heirlooms and photographs on display in the resort’s dining room, to my transfer driver from Managua, who, after politely fielding two hours’ worth of questions about the country’s flavors and seasons, pulled over to a favorite roadside produce stand and began assembling a bag with all manner of flamboyant tropical fruits, repeating their names slowly to help me remember them: zapote, jocote, níspero. At the end of my week at Mukul (an ancient Mayan word meaning “secret”), I was quite persuaded that the “secret” of the place lay somewhere near the intersection of luxury and authenticity – splendor and substance. I left Nicaragua wistfully but profoundly refreshed, and grateful that we had been able to give something back to a place that had given so much to us.
Giving Back: Akanksha
To the thousands of kids growing up in India’s slums, Akanksha–whose logo is appropriately that of a rising sun–is the brightest hope in their lives. Started twenty years ago by an eighteen-year-old college student, the program consisting of schools and extracurricular activities provide a reprieve from the kids’ daily hardships. It all began in a donated Mumbai church basement, with volunteers teaching art, English, values and self-esteem to young children who came in from the city’s slums. As the Akanksha children got older, the organization flourished and staff could start to help the kids with schoolwork, passing standardized tests, applying for scholarships and honing their marketable skills for the professional workplace.
To date, Akanksha has educated over 6,000 in 40 extracurricular centers and thirteen schools. Today the organization teaches over 4,000 enrolled children who boast and extraordinary 95 percent completion rate of secondary school. Akanksha kids have gone to to university and to become professionals and leaders. One of the many touching signs of the programs’ importance and success is the number of volunteers who are themselves Aknksha alumns–currently there are 32 alumni working with the organization.
For most of India’s slum children, the Akanksha program is the surest path towards a real future and breaking the cycle of poverty. Through providing one-on-one attention and love, the organization manages to affect change for thousands of kids. Everyone involved in the organization–from the volunteers and teachers to the students and alumni–live and work by Ghandi’s famous saying: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Seeing the World: 100 Cameras
Travel photography poses an inherent dilemma: by smiling for a stranger with a camera, subjects are posing, and therefore not going about their daily life. The photographer’s presence affects the moment being captured. Four years ago, a group of well-traveled New York women had an idea to remove the hurdle of placing a foreigner into a community. They decided to give cameras directly to some children in a few regions (Cuba, New York and Sudan to start) with the hope that they would “come back with a window into their own little world.” This spark launched 100cameras, a non-profit organization that shows children the power of photography, and meanwhile raises funds to support sustainable growth in their communities. Indagare’s Brooke Pearson interviewed 100camera’s co-founder and current communications director, Angela Francine Bullock, to find out about this fascinating initiative.
Tell us about how the project started.
We started with an orphanage in Sudan that was founded after the Second Civil War (1983-2005) by a group of widows who started taking kids in. Having been born into war, these children had never touched any kind of advanced technology. For them, just holding the camera was empowering. Once they understood that the world was going to see their photos, and that the world cared to see what their daily lives were like, they were so excited. Their stories were powerful. Since then our projects have snowballed and far exceeded all our expectations.
Do you find yourself drawing conclusions that comment on cultural differences apparent in the photographs from around the world? For example it seems the Sudanese kids tended to focus on people, while the Cuban kids focused on architecture.
Each country’s project had different themes that started to emerge: In Sudan, the kids were fascinated with the camera. In New York City, they were excited to have such a voice. In Cuba, the children found it amazing to consider that their images were being sent to the outside world.
Each project has had unique challenges, because poverty in New York is very different from poverty in Sudan. The New York kids are surrounded by great wealth and great success, and they feel like they don’t have a voice. Cuba was a whole different ball game. We didn’t know at first if the kids would even feel confident enough to participate in this project, considering that contact with the outside world is quite limited and not exactly encouraged.
Some of the photographs are playful and full of joy. Others are quite striking and powerful. How have people responded?
We exhibited the Cuba project in a Miami gallery, and there were several photos the kids had taken of other kids playing baseball. Baseball is such a strong part of the Cuban culture, and has always served as a point of pride and distraction. It was amazing to see the reactions of guests at the opening. Grown men were stopped in their tracks by these baseball images. These photographs are not the typical charity images. These are kids who are full of joy despite their circumstances. Their world is all they’ve ever known, so their perspective isn’t of wanting more. Just like anyone, their prerogative is in finding the joy throughout every day.
How are earnings from the photographs recycled into support for these communities?
From the aid perspective based on my own experiences, I have lived in countries around the world and learned first hand that western aid, as greatly intended as it is, can sometimes limit the opportunity for positive long-term change. Meaning, that without asking the locals who know the rooted issues within the community about the ways that funding would strengthen their existing efforts, it can sometimes serve as a band-aid and not a solution. Particularly, our model focuses on empowering the children with ownership of the project—it’s their work and their product that is earning money for their communities. For every project, we partner with a local organization on the ground and ask them what they need to further their sustainable programs and long-term goals. For example, our funding in Cuba is providing medical supplies and support, lifelines supplies such as food, and funding education and resources for small business startups. Our vision has always been to have those conversations and invest the energy in connecting on a local level while giving the future generation the opportunity to share the story from an untainted and raw perspective. This holds us accountable to not make our own opinions the priority and to listen to their knowledge of how aid can best serve the people.
Your organization seems to be gaining momentum—where do you see the direction of 100cameras?
We currently dedicate one gallery exhibit per project. Our goal is to have a network of 100camera volunteers around the world that host smaller shows, which would enable the work to touch so many more people. We’re working on an “exhibit kit” that will provide community volunteers with the tools they need to host their own event.
How can the Indagare community support 100cameras?
Buy a photograph, spread the word, and sign up to volunteer. We’re always looking for help in our New York office from graphic designers, accountants, legal counsel, marketing, event planners and development.
To purchase a photograph, visit www.100cameras.org. Images can be printed on photographic paper or canvas with prices starting from $25. Sizes range from 5×7 inches to 20×30 inches.
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