Monday, June 28, 2010

Random Kindness

The other night, I was walking home and waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk. A young couple came out of the corner store and unwrapped Ferrero Rochers as they waited with me. I thought to myself that there were three chocolates, and three of us, and how awesome it would be if they gave me the third golden-wrapped ball. Of course they had no reason to - I didn't know them - it was just a fleeting thought.

The light was still red when the young woman spoke. "Excuse me," she said, "this is for you." In her palm was the third Ferrero.

"Thank you," I responded, only slightly startled. "That's very kind of you."

The light changed as I plucked the chocolate from her hand, and we walked across amicably. The three of us continued along the sidewalk for a time, not quite together, but not quite apart.

This was quite unexpected in Sydney, where I've found I'm more likely to be ignored than greeted in the street. It reminded me of church youth group in Ontario, where we would occasionally perform a RASK (Random Act of Senseless Kindness) for the evening's meeting - hanging candy canes from every available public space, for instance. Some days I feel quite isolated, even living in a big city, and I've finally come to terms with the fact that I'm unlikely to bump into someone I know - which used to be nearly impossible to avoid in my hometown.

Lately I've been wondering what random kindness I could perform to make someone's day a little less empty. What could you do? Not everyone would give up their last Ferrero (and not everyone would accept it either) but surely, we could smile more. We could hold the elevator for our neighbour down the hall. We could let someone who is rushing go ahead of us in the coffee lineup.

Has someone been kind to you lately? Pass it on.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

HEAL Africa : Worth Supporting

It's a Saturday afternoon in autumn, and I'm sitting in a coffeeshop, notebook open, with a latte for company. The rain has held off, and the sun is peeping through the cloudy sky, refracting off the high-rise windows and bouncing onto the asphalt. I can see the Sydney Harbour Bridge just ahead of me, stretching out behind buildings in the distance. I've been out for breakfast with ladies from church, then meandered through the shopping district and bought a pair of lacy tights. I walked for another hour, and found myself here, with a place and time to write.

But I am finding it difficult to escape into the world of a princess. Breakfast this morning included a speaker, the current CEO of CNEC Partners International. Until the breakfast fellowship was announced, I'd never heard of it. Kim Vanden Hagel spoke about what the CNEC (Christian Nationals’ Evangelism Council) and its initiative, HEAL Africa (Health, Education, Community Action and Leadership), are doing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help women and girls whose lives have been destroyed by the recent conflicts in Africa.

Kim spoke about the devastating effects of war on the female population. One of the realities of war is violence, and in DR Congo, I'm told, women and girls are subjected to brutal rapes and beatings. It is hard to swallow, hard to imagine, hard to equate my world of coffee and a peaceful day to day existence with a world where gang rape is prevalent. Not only does it happen, but the victims are cast out at a time when they should be embraced. Those who are strong enough - or lucky enough to be found by local missionaries and aid workers -come to HEAL Africa for the help they desperately need. Many come for healing from physical harm, including surgery and pregnancy complications, such as fistulae.

HEAL Africa also believe that the devastating effects of gender based violence (GBV) can only be reversed when the culture of silence is broken. The culture of silence extends to all forms of GBV. It is not right, in our Western way of thinking, but the culture of silence is one reason the women choose not to seek treatment at the hospital. It would mean admitting to the rape, and essentially placing the blame on themselves and causing their own banishment from their homes and villages. Instead they suffer in silence, assuming they recover well enough on their own.

I have been holding back this post because I feel there is more to add, more to research, before I publish it... but I think I could go on and on and still not touch on everything. And so I will continue with my thoughts from the afternoon following Kim Vanden Hagel's talk, and place notes for further reading at the end of this post...

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HEAL Africa's Fistula Repair Program seeks to care for women who have been left in a painful and emotionally traumatised state. But they recognise that treating the fistula is not enough. The culture that allows these rapes to occur and reoccur without acknowledging that the women have been wronged, must be changed. The stigma of being a victim of rape must be cleared; it is not enough to heal the wounds and send a woman on her way. Those who are pregnant need care and a means to support themselves in the future. Those who are incontinent from fistulae (which is nearly all) require care, particularly if they are the unlucky ones who cannot be healed, even following multiple surgeries; some are consigned to hospital wards indefinitely. Those who receive training are encouraged to return to community life. Some are able to earn money while they pass the time in hospital by making handicrafts.

The women who can be healed are equipped with skills that they can take back to their villages, enabling them to live as a valued member of the community. Their return is seen as a powerful gesture, rather than a shameful one. But that doesn't mean it's easy. It is not only women who are recovering from GBV that receive training through CNEC - the education is available to any woman, which helps to blur the lines and remove the stigma that might otherwise come from accepting training from the organisation.

Along with the support of CNEC and its partners, HEAL Africa is dedicated to enabling locals, rather than sending expatriates to help. By donating your time or money, more girls can be reached, and more women can know that they are worth saving.

I've mentioned the possibility of another charity blogging event, but I've been waiting for something to come along and hold onto my heart. These girls need our help. If you would like to contribute, either by donation directly to HEAL Africa and CNEC or by participating in the blogoff, let me know in the comments or via email. This is a cause worth supporting.

Further Reading

To read more about GBV and the culture of silence surrounding sexuality and abuse, I recommend this newsletter. One statement that caught my eye reads, "GBV occurs everywhere, be it in the home, school, workplace or wider society. The major reason for its widespread nature is embedded in certain patriarchal values that regard women as mere sex objects to be conquered and satisfy the desire of men. Certain myths also see women as accomplices in the rape cases and men as having animalist desires which cannot be controlled. In the absence of limited institutional mechanisms to address GBV and a deliberate culture of silence around issues of sexuality and abuse, GBV will continue to thrive." (Exchange, Summer 2006)

The Real Sydney : A war where the weapon of choice is rape

To read the story of one woman who was helped by HEAL Africa, read the news story titled "International Women's Day - Not Joyful for Some" from 11/03/2010 on CNEC's News Page.

NGO News Africa - Rwanda : Gender Equality, Ending Widespread Violence Against Women

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Chicken Pot Pie & Cheddar Biscuits

Really, the chicken pot pie is just a vehicle for biscuits.

I've been wanting to make biscuits or dumplings for DAYS. A week or so ago Jody made slow-cooked corned beef, and although I've never been a fan of corned beef I assured him I would try it. The pink colour put me off a bit, but it tasted all right - the trouble was, it tasted like meat that ought to be in a stew. We wanted to make stew with the leftovers but our week was far too busy and it didn't happen.

So tonight I was looking for something to make with the organic chicken thighs I'd picked up, and trolled around Everybody Likes Sandwiches, and ELS lured me with talk of a chicken pot pie topped with cheddar-infused biscuits.

How thrilling to find a casserole dish that combined chicken with biscuits! How serendipitous! I have never attempted anything like it before, but isn't it reassuring to know that, if you follow the directions of someone who's done this before, it will (more or less) turn out? That's something I love about being in the kitchen - there's always a certain amount of risk, but more often than not, the reward is great.

In this case, the reward was biscuits and a healthy-tasting melange of vegetables and chicken. ELS's recipe has you use leftover chicken, and I agree that this would be ideal - as it added a lot of time onto my kitchen bumblings to cook the chicken. I let it cool while other things were cooking, and although it worked, this recipe is more suited to using up leftovers.

I often try to reword when I lift directions from someone else's blog, but in this case there wasn't much to change, so I hope I'm forgiven. ELS is run by a Vancouverite known as Kickpleat who is part cook, part graphic designer. Go on over to her site and poke around if you haven't already. There's a vegetarian rice bowl over there that's always welcome on my table.

Chicken Pot Pie with Cheddar Biscuits

Everybody Likes Sandwiches
Serves 2-4

1 small rutabaga, peeled & diced
2 T olive oil
1 onion, diced
1/4 t red chili flakes
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 t dried thyme
1/2 t dried oregano
2 c mushrooms, halved or quartered
3 T flour
1 c mushroom broth
1 c frozen corn
2 c leftover chicken, chopped
salt & pepper

for biscuit topping:
2 c flour, plus more for work surface
2 1/4 t baking powder
3/4 t baking soda
salt & pepper
6 T cold butter, cut into small chunks
1/2 c yogurt
1/4 c milk
3/4 c shredded old cheddar cheese

1. In a medium sized saucepan, boil rutabaga until tender. Drain and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, add oil to heavy cast iron pot and saute onion, garlic and chili over medium heat until shiny. Add celery, thyme, oregano and mushrooms and saute until soft. Sprinkle vegetables with flour and stir until flour cooks, about 2 minutes. Stir in broth, add corn, rutabaga and chicken and simmer until broth thickens, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper, if necessary.

3. Preheat oven to 450°. Make topping by whisking together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pepper. Cut in butter with a pastry knife until mixture resembles coarse crumbs with some pea-sized lumps. Add yogurt, milk and cheese and stir until just combined. With floured hands, knead dough against the side of the bowl until the mixture holds together. If it’s sticky, knead in up to 1/4 cup more flour.

4. Drop small mounds of topping over chicken mixture and bake until brown, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Julia's Notes:

As usual, I improvised. I forgot to pick up plain yogurt at the store but I have this awesome-tasting plain one swirled through with passionfruit - so I tried to avoid the fruity goodness when I scooped out a few tablespoons, telling myself that passionfruit and chicken was not a bad combination if my scooping wasn't precise. This is so unlike the old me, who would have fussed about not having the right ingredients.

Jody and I ate half of the dish, so my best guess is that this would serve 2-4 people, but it's the kind of dish you can stretch depending on how many veggies & the amount of chicken you use. Just be sure to keep the amount of liquid in mind. Speaking of liquid, I used chicken stock instead of mushroom, because it's what I had.

I had carrots so I boiled them with the same water once the rutabaga was done. (Here in Australia, it's called a swede!) I had mixed frozen peas & corn. And because I was starting from fresh, boneless-skinless thighs, I cooked them in the frypan first, then used the pan again - without washing all the goodness out of it - to saute the onions, garlic paste and red chilli flakes. I am so much less afraid of chilli flakes now! So, all in all, I used one pot to boil veggies, one large saucepan, one bowl to stir the biscuits, and a pyrex to hold the cooked chicken and, later, house the whole meal while it was in the oven. Not too many dishes, really. Though it does make me want to get one of those casserole dishes with a lid that can go from stovetop to oven.

Whew! It's been a bit of a rough start this week, and playing about in the kitchen - with biscuits to show for it - has done wonders for my mood. Also, I served tonight's meal with a New Zealand 2008 Sauvignon Blanc from Te Henga. Fruity, but a nice match for the lightly spiced chicken pot pie.

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