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Favorite Friends I’ve Never Met

Several of my friends and even my family think social networking is a waste of time.  They won’t Facebook, Twitter or read blogs and can’t really understand what I get from it.  I’ve found the most vehement opposition from my tango dancing mother and my friends who are cyclists.  These are not ladies who exercise casually, but rather women who compete on the dance floor, do 100 mile bike rides in the Rockies and think it’s fun to race up Mt. Diablo in Northern California.  Their buff bodies speak to their passion.  My flying fingers speak to mine.  They are my bricks and mortar relationships.  But because of social networking I have a new circle of virtual friends who I enjoy and respect, even though we have never met or for that matter, may never meet. 

First there is Susan MacCaulay.  She is a Canadian living in Dubai.  I stumbled across her website Amazing Women Rock ( when it was quite new.  What seems to have started out as a place to go for moderate Muslim women has morphed into something much larger and universal.  She is a champion of women around the world and has a large following now.  The first thing you notice about her is her passion for pink, her platinum blonde hair and her trendy get ups.  On one occasion she turned the camera on herself in a Riyadh hotel room and talked about how strange it was being a woman on a road trip to Saudi Arabia.  Then she posted it on YouTube and endured the threats from those who felt they were disrespected.  She has an elderly and opinionated mother who she adores somewhere back in Canada who reminds me of David Lettermen’s mom.  I am such a fan of hers I even contemplated a trip to Africa through Dubai just so I could meet her.  She hollers about injustice towards women and celebrates their achievements.  Susan rocks! 

Second is Dr. Qanta Ahmed.  She is a striking British national whose family came from Pakistan.  What’s interesting about virtual friendships is you often forget what brought you into someone’s universe.  I think I crossed her path doing research on a story for HDNet’s World Report but I’m not sure.  She had written an article about her transformative relationship with a rabbi who made her fall in love with Judaism while she lived in Charleston, South Carolina.  The irony came at the end when you found out she was a Muslim.  She is one of the most articulate voices for connection between people of all faiths.  She told me about her book “In The Land of Invisible Women.”  I ran out to buy it.  She wrote about the time when she couldn’t renew her visa in the United States and had to leave the country even though she was a doctor practicing medicine.  She moved for two years to Saudi Arabia and tells the story of the culture shock for a professional woman under the kingdom’s repressive laws.  Even so, she had a remarkable journey, had great stories about Riyadh and the Hajj, and got in touch with her Muslim faith.  I was stunned by her writing ability.  She has an amazing eye for detail and there was an extraordinary richness in her voice.  I still don’t know how she finds time to practice medicine with so much social networking.       

Third is my filmmaking friend, Zippy (is that the greatest name or what?) Nyaruri.  I met her via email when I needed a fixer for a story on the monetization of food aid in Kenya.  A fixer is a producer on the ground in a foreign country who helps set up a story and takes care of arrangements.  Without a fixer it is next to impossible to handle all the logistics and relationships.  Our story fell through but we have kept in touch through Facebook.  Through Zippy I see Africa.  When I first was introduced to her she was bouncing back and forth between Kampala and Nairobi.  Now she lives in Capetown, South Africa and recently she posted pictures of herself in Namibia.  She is developing a documentary about one of the few women truck drivers in Africa.  She introduced us to a fellow filmmaker named Godwin Opuly who runs sound and second camera for us when we are doing video production for BeadforLife (  Even though I have never met Zippy, when I considered visiting Capetown for the FIFA World Cup, she invited me to stay in her home.

Fourth is Caroline Jones.  She actually found me when she saw a story I produced about an acid attack victim called Juliette.  She was so moved she asked if she could use a photograph of her as the foundation for a painting.  Caroline’s ambition is to help others through art.  Her inspirations are women facing obstacles and the book “Half the Sky” by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn.  Caroline has created a body of work she calls Nguvu  Nguvu means strength in Swahili and her exhibit is this August in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  She will donate 50% of the sale from each work to the organization selected by the photographer.  She also builds boats, has a daughter and is a vegan who blogs about tasty recipes for other vegans.  That’s all I know about her.

Finally there is Karen Daniel.  She is a freelance television producer just like me who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.  She’s loves NASCAR and drives a truck.  She idolizes Dolly Parton and Linda Ellerbee.  She is the kind of person that you recommend even if you don’t know them because you know she gets it.  She’s been described as fearless and like me she wished she moved to New York City right out of college.  She has grey hair and the last time we chatted I told her that models dye their hair grey now.  It’s the new hip thing.  We also have a mutual acquaintance.  I met Ashton Ramsey trying to book Neil Wanless for the Today Show.  He’s the impoverished young cowboy who won a 200+ million dollar lottery in Winner, South Dakota.  Talk about a small world.  Both Ashton and I know Karen Daniel.  Once again, I can’t recall how it came up but imagine my surprise when I’m sitting in a small town bar and we both know my virtual friend.

Of course my virtual friendships aren’t anything like the ones I have with those who I grew up with, break bread with, go to book club with, and take Sunday walks with.  Those are the lasting friendships of my life.  But my virtual friendships are enriching my life and broadening my circle and I’m learning and pondering things that I never would have considered if I weren’t running across these amazing women around the world.  My college friend, Margaret Hoeveler’s mother, Griff, used to say at the end of the day you can count your true friends on one hand.  I think that’s wise but I also have a circle of special social networking friends I can count on one hand and they assure me the energy I spend doing this is not a waste of time.

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30 Minute Seder

I love Passover.  The Jewish holiday is meaningful, joyous and delicious.  I look forward all year long to the celebration around the table with friends and family.  What’s not to love about a dinner that lasts all evening and ends with the poignant words “next year in Jerusalem.”  It is always a memorable night.  So imagine my surprise when I saw the advertisement in the New York Times Magazine for “Passover redefined… for today’s Jewish Family!  For $5.95 you can purchase the 30 minute seder, a Haggadah that blends brevity with tradition.  “You Saved Our Seder!” shouts Beth C. of NYC.   A little frog on the ad says it’s all about “making Passover fun” and best of all, it’s rabbinically approved.  Perfect for the family on the go!! 

Have we become so busy that we can no longer spend a few hours at a special meal?  Are we so consumed with our Blackberry’s, IPhones and multitasking that we can’t sit still and enjoy our friends, families and faith?  The ad says it keeps the high points intact, but what about the nuance.  Shouldn’t there also be time for reflection on relieving suffering and working against injustice and leaving a trail of goodness in the world?  Shouldn’t we contemplate the bitterness of oppression that the Jews experienced and that still lingers in the world today?  Is there even time to welcome Elijah and find the afikomen?  My late Nana would say “oy vey.”

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Passover in Kampala

“Next year in Jerusalem.” The words at the end of the Passover seder always give me chills. How many Jews over how many generations have longed to celebrate in the Holy Land. This past year, though, I was faced with a dilemma. I wouldn’t be celebrating Passover in Jerusalem or even, as usual, at the festive table of Nancy and Charlie Behrend in suburban Denver. I would be adrift, working half a world away in Kampala, Uganda. The possibility of Passover without family, friends and a seder loomed large.

Three colleagues and I were heading to Kampala to work on a series of videos about a Boulder, Colorado based non-government organization called BeadforLife that is making a big difference in the lives of Ugandans suffering from poverty so extreme that it kills. It is a collaboration of cultures and compassion. Women in Uganda, whose lives have been crushed by the modern day plagues of civil war, HIV/AIDS, hunger and homelessness, make colorful bead jewelry out of recycled magazine pages. Women in North America sell them and the money goes back to Uganda for education, health care and housing. Until two years ago, the only way these women and their families survived was by working in a rock quarry, crushing stones for $1 a day. Each day was spent in the never-ending pursuit of just enough to get families to the next day. Babies were lost to disease or sometimes tossed out, children went to sleep hungry, parents succumbed to AIDS and left children orphaned and alone. Like the night of Passover in biblical times, death was at everyone’s doorstep.

Women working in rock quarry of Acholi quarter of Kampala, Uganda

We spent the trip in the slums of Kampala. Witnessing the way more than half of the world lives was life altering. Thousands crowd into the Acholi Quarter which is teeming with refugees from a senseless and brutal 19 year civil war up north. People live in a red dirt world without electricity, running water, sewage systems and in many cases, hope. Children have distended bellies and tattered clothes. Homes are made of sticks and mud that fall apart in the rain. Yet over the course of our stay we witnessed an incredible welling of spirit and generosity. What little there was, was shared. Smiles were warm and abundant. Everyone had light in their eyes. They sang and danced through their suffering. Women like Naiga Mary, Rose Namukasa, Achan Grace, Millie Grace and Jajja Josephine, who refused to be defeated by their poverty, were earning income by making beads and their hard work was blessing entire families and communities.

Children in the Acholi Quarter of Kampala, Uganda


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