Thursday, December 6, 2012

How Toastmasters Can Make You Happy

    Do you know people in life who never have a down day? Do you hate them? Do you envy them? Or are you one of those lucky people? There is no secret trick to happiness. Rather, happiness is achieved by a series of actions we take every day. One action I encourage everyone to take is to join Toastmasters. Come again? Did you hear me right? Yes, a local Toastmasters can improve your happiness quotient in several ways.

    If you want lasting happiness, invest in relationships. Toastmasters in my hometown provides a great team of people to invest in. We have Sheila, our fearless president who knows the pressure we face as a team, representing such a small population. She has shown us that we can unite in the fact that we are the underdogs of our district. We have Jamey, our education officer, who constantly has to keep up with the Toastmasters schedule and make sure we have a space for our meetings. Lorraine, our stickler for grammar, does a better job than I think I ever could at meticulously hanging on to our every word. We have Amy and David. We are so glad to have David now. Amy has been a great person to emulate and look up to through her gift of speaking. I am so grateful we have a group of people to build relationships and to mentor each other.

    Speaking of being grateful, that’s another way to become a happier person – to sit down and think of all the things you’re grateful for. Although this is not easy to do, at times, Toastmasters can make this easier to do. First of all, I am grateful that I am able to stand up and speak my mind. In many places in the world, I would not be able to do that. I am grateful that I can read and write because – how else would I have written and organized this speech today? I am also very grateful to know that there are other people in Hardee County who value leadership and communication abilities. These are gifts that can be developed – just like the gift of happiness – they can be cultured and grown so that we each reach our full potential.

    One thing I mentioned before is that we mentor each other. We are all looking for a sense of purpose. I highly recommend Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. This man survived a concentration camp, so he knows that happiness is elusive but he also knows that it has to do with an attitude of giving back. One of my favorite quotes from the book is: “Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” When we are given a purpose – be it mentoring a person or delivering a moving speech, we are transformed. The tasking chores of day to day life – gotta do the laundry, gotta cook dinner, clean the house, work, repeat – fade for just a moment. When we volunteer our time to mentor at Toastmasters, we reap immediate rewards. I have gotten great constructive criticism in the brief amount of time I’ve been at Toastmasters. I hope that everyone who has mentored me along this journey feels good knowing that you are helping me reach my goal of self-improvement.

    Another great way to improve your happiness quotient is to live in the moment. Many times, we are encouraged in Toastmasters to live in the moment. When I sit down to write a speech, I often see it as a daunting task. However, once I get in front of an audience, I realize that nothing on this paper matters. All the worry and stress I put into this speech doesn’t matter. What matters is how well I deal with being present. This is part of the reason I would like to encourage you to remain in or join Toastmasters. Toastmasters helps us deal with living in the present, makes us more resilient, and teaches us to wing it. After all, there is no dress rehearsal in life. Why else wouldn’t we want to learn to tackle an assignment with gusto?

    Happiness is an attitude. If you’re someone who is seeking your full potential, Toastmasters is the place to be. To sum it up, Thomas Jefferson once said, “Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.” The mere fact that we attend Toastmasters to improve our lives through leadership proves that we are on the path to happiness. The more we grow in the freedom of the “just pursuits” while attending Toastmasters, the better our lives and the lives of others will be.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Can Education Prevent Starvation?

Robin Crews,
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

There is a Hausa proverb: “ Rishin illimi ya hi dare duhu”. That means, “Lack of education is darker than night”. To tell someone he or she “had illimi” was the highest compliment. Not only did it mean you were bright, you were educated. While serving for two years in Peace Corps in rural West Africa, I learned that education is invaluable.

Everyone in my village was starving to death. This may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you it is not. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. There is barely enough rain to do subsistence farming. They are in a perpetual famine.
When I arrived, I was in complete shock at how the Hausa lived. It was horrifying to see extreme poverty at your doorstep every day. I’m in hell, I would scribble in my journal. Flies and excrement of all kinds surrounded me. The village children thought I was there for their entertainment. As the children clustered around me, touching my skin to see if I were really that white, laughing at my broken Hausa, I scribbled even more furiously, I hate these people.

Then, a little boy with eyes as big as saucers asked me to write his name. Ibrahim, I wrote. He was amazed that it took me a blink of an eye to write his name. It was so monumental to write the one thing he possessed in the village, his own name, so flippantly. I was immediately humbled. That was the crucial moment for me. I knew immediately that my villagers valued education.

After a year of wrestling with the Hausa language, I decided it was time to host a Hausa literacy program. Several villagers had asked me to teach them to read and write. It was important they learn how because the previous volunteer had established a Grain Bank Cooperative in the village. The bank stored grain and sold it for a profit during planting season, when grains are not widely available for consumption. We were granted 10 tons of grain the year I started the literacy program. The villagers rejoiced.

However, along with the ten tons came just as heavy a burden – the burden of keeping records for the government on the grain bank sales. If the records are not recorded correctly, the bank will fold. One problem – my villagers were pre-literate. The literacy program was more than a calling. It was my duty to teach.

Fifteen people were chosen to learn to read and write. I had previous experience teaching literacy, but it was fruitless. I tried to teach Haitian immigrants to read and write in English. This was difficult for two reasons: Most of them could not read and write in Kreyol, their native language, and though I spoke some French, I had a hard time getting past the Kreyol barrier. Ultimately, it seems nearly impossible to learn to read and write in another language before learning to read and write in your own.

As a result of this experience, I was nervous about a new venture.  However, when I received free literacy books from Dutch missionaries, I decided it was time. Though I didn’t know how to pronounce Hausa vowels at first, I was lucky enough to have two former Koranic students in the class who could help me sound them out. It also helped that the book had Hausa fables. The Hausas have a long oral history, so the students found it easier to learn considering it was from stories they already knew. The class was a success for two reasons: I spoke Hausa, a language of mutual understanding, and the material was in Hausa, the language of my students.

 Three months after starting the class, the students began writing me notes about how thankful they were to have the gift of literacy. Five years later, I still have those notes. They are among my most prized possessions.

After the literacy program, my villagers and I went to several business meetings on the grain bank. These meetings were not conducted in swivel chairs but on plastic mats. Impressively, these educated men saved the village from going hungry.

            I had a real “Peace Corps moment” after I ended the literacy program. Some of the students were sitting under a neem tree, reading the books I gave them, sounding out the words with their little brothers and sisters. These would be the future record keepers of the Grain Bank Cooperative, I hoped. This gave me chills, and it still makes me proud to this day to know that I was a part of this marvelous experience. Education can save the world from starvation, poverty, and darkness. Education is our ticket to a better life.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Did I Mention I'm Totally Addicted To Prezi Now?

Check Out My Prezi On My Vision Of Becoming A Foreign Service Officer!

One day, I am going to work for the Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. I have always dreamed of seeing the world, even as a kid.

So…at the age of 24, I joined Peace Corps…
…and was swept away to The Land of No Toilet Paper in Niger, West Africa. To live in a mud hut, no electricity, no running water. Talk about dropping your tools.

But this was not the hardest part. The most challenging part was living with the Hausa people. They told me, “Rabi, if you go out in the sun long enough, you’ll turn black.” They also told me, “Don’t stay out in the sun too long because it will give you malaria.” Yeah. But these opportunities to see life differently are some of my fondest memories.

Coming back to America, I experienced reverse culture shock. Supermarkets were fascinating. My mother took me to the store to buy bread. I couldn’t even pick out a loaf because there were so many choices. While I was about to have a brain aneurysm, Mom grabbed a loaf of bread and gave me a weird look, “Well, I like this one.”

This loaf of bread is a symbol of the tools I had before Peace Corps. After two years without these tools, I was lost. I looked at everything in a whole new light. I noticed the cost, the varieties, that <gasp>, everything is written in English.

Now that I’m back in America, it takes me 5 seconds to grab the loaf I want, and I’m out. I miss dropping my tools, and I want to get that novel feeling back.

This brings me back to: What else am I going to do to become a Foreign Service Officer? It’s important for me to get my MBA because it will set me apart from those who may not have a Master’s. Another reason I’m in this program is to learn about leadership. At the very least, I need to learn to lead myself in order to achieve my vision.

I would like to leave you now with a beautiful quote by Marcel Proust reads: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Two Men Who Dropped Their Tools: Steve Jobs and Walt Disney

Drop Your Tools by Karl Weick shows us that the best leaders are the ones who drop the complicated tools in favor of easier ones that will get them down the same road even more efficiently than previously imagined.

The article reminded me of Walt Disney – a man full of, to quote the article, “intuition, stories, and imagination”. He proved that you didn’t have to be a traditional businessman to be a great leader. One of his quotes was, “Man needs a new set of problems to pull his mind away from old ones.” What he meant was, “Drop Your Tools”. Disney was not the best animator. Instead of using his old tools, he offered to send his employees to art school. Those who took advantage of this opportunity learned new and better ways to animate. The remarkable part was that Disney relinquished some creative control while he started developing new tools in others. This pushed Disney to have an uncompromising value for his employees and a determination to be one step ahead at all times.

Speaking of being one step ahead at all times, another person this article made me think of was Steve Jobs. Like Disney, he was an ideas machine. Jobs refused to give his customers what they wanted. He gave them what they would want in the future. This may seem irrational, but dropping your tools is about having wisdom and foresight. Jobs also insisted on simplicity. He demanded that the iPod have less than three clicks to get songs. He knew that a quality product would sell if most of the complications were removed.

Both Jobs and Disney were branding giants in large part because they would not settle for less than a superior product. We have much to learn from these two men who seemed to be able to tell the future on pure intuition.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why Coins Make Me Cry

As this is both my first entry, and we are celebrating the Peace Corps this week, I want to share an unforgettable experience that changed who I am; one that guides me, centers me and has become fundamental to my perspective on the world.

After two years, my time in Niger was coming to a close.  While I knew that Niger had forever changed me, the experience had yet to sink-in.

I was looking forward to coming home, seeing my family and enjoying some of the luxuries that we take for granted in America. (Double Whopper, here I come!)  I was a bit jaded at the end of my service and was ready to go home.  But Niger had one last surprise left for me. A “Peace Corps Moment” was imminent, and if you don’t know what a “Peace Corps Moment” is, I’m about to show you.

A Biki is a ceremony – a celebration that the Hausa of my village would stage for important events.  The women of my village had decided to send me away with a Biki.

While I was moving on, they knew that I was leaving their lives …likely forever.   They were happy that I would see my friends and family, because for them, friends and family meant everything. Their world was so small. They wanted for me to be happy and they knew that my home was far away … that my journey would be long.

The Biki began when the women of the village sat me on a woven mat on the ground.  Then, they crowded around me and began to yell the Guda, shouting and wailing about my leaving while they stuck coins to my forehead.  These women, whose babies barely had enough to eat, these women with no formal education who couldn’t even read or write their own names were giving me coins. Some told me, “This is money for water on the road.” “This is money for a bush taxi.” They were wishing me well, making sure that their little pet American got home safe. They were happy for me. They knew I missed my family, but they were also sad for me to leave.

This moment was both beautifully ironic and shockingly moving. They were throwing me a Biki, which was usually only reserved for births or weddings. My leaving felt more like a funeral. My villagers knew we lived worlds apart and that there would be no way they could reach me, except for by plane, which they called “sky engine”. Most of them were afraid of planes and couldn’t even afford a bag of airplane peanuts, much less a plane ticket.

They were giving me coins. This is no big deal to those of us who have, but these women were the extreme case of the have-nots. On average, most of them had 8 children. The women had to work all day in the field in a perpetual drought to harvest a paltry amount of millet to keep themselves alive. In truth, the Hausa in this region merely existed, but these women were giving me all the coins they had. I felt humbled and shamed. Who am I to accept these coins from starving people in Africa? Isn’t this against everything my parents taught me? But I looked into their sun-weathered faces, and started feeling the lump in my throat. I looked down at their rough farming hands, with tears blinding my eyes. I saw their smiles, the tears they struggled to hold back in their eyes. I saw how they delighted in giving me a good sendoff. I ended the Biki with tear-stained cheeks.

It was the most humbling experience in my life, and this post is not doing it justice. I only hope that each of us can experience a great “Peace Corps Moment” just like this someday. Inshallah.