There is this thing called quantum entanglement. Scientists have proposed it as a theory to explain observed phenomena and as one of the physical laws of the universe.
Quantum entanglement posits that two entities can become connected in such a way that to know something about one entity instantaneously reveals something about the other. The connection remains true even if the two objects are separated by a great distance. It is a property that is hard-wired and strong enough to allow for the communication to occur faster than the speed of light—which is not supposed to be possible.
The idea arose out of thought experiments devised by scientists almost a hundred years ago, and even Albert Einstein didn’t buy it at first. He said it couldn’t happen. His theories were based on the fact that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and he didn’t believe in what he called “spooky action at a distance.” As it turns out, he was wrong.
Entanglement actually happens. Experiments on subatomic particles were devised, and they all proved it to be verifiably real. If that’s true, then what about something larger than atoms—like humans. Can we become entangled with each other?
Earnest Hemingway was a close friend of the actor Gregory Peck, and he once said that “We see each other seldom but our bond is strong.” I understand how that works.
Friendship is a curious thing. We can spend a lot of time with some people but still not connect on any meaningful level. With others, while our time together is fleeting, the bond becomes timeless. I have had both of those kinds of friends.
Joe Templeton was something in between those two possibilities. In Africa we forged a transitory but fervent friendship, then went our separate ways. We didn’t stay in touch, but he left an indelible mark.
Every person we meet knows something we don’t, and everyone in our life is a teacher so sometimes it’s best to just be quiet and listen. Joe was that way for me, I learned stuff by just being around him. He taught me that attention is our most valuable commodity and we should be deliberate in how we spend it. He had an “Occam’s Razor” approach to problem solving and to life in general. He didn’t overthink everything, and one of his rules for living was to ask himself, “What’s important now?” I think it’s a good rule even though I’m not very good at following it.
As for the rest of my friends in Africa; Louis stepped on a land mine in Goma, lost his legs, and died from complications. Time and separation have left the threads that once bound me to the others frayed to nothing.
All except Thomas.
It is hard to put into worlds what it was like to be with Thomas again after so long apart.
What was twenty-six years seemed like one hour, as if we picked up on a conversation that had just left off. He filled in some gaps in the narrative for me, as I did for him, but his memory of the times before matched closely with my own. That was not a given; two people often perceive and remember events differently. We remembered them the same. I guess we became entangled.
It’s not like we haven’t changed—we have. Thomas noticed my hair (its absence) and I noticed his eyesight is failing from diabetic retinopathy. While we might not look exactly the same, he is the same on the inside. I always enjoyed just talking to him, always knowledgeable and interested in what is going on in the world. He has his opinions, but holds them lightly. Like Joe Templeton, he gives his attention to what he thinks is important. Thomas said, “Jeff, we do not care very much about politics. We care about what will give us food.” He still smiles a lot, and he makes me feel like smiling, too.
Since Goma imploded and his family fled across the border with Uganda to seek asylum, Thomas has found temporary employment with NGOs, airlines, and news organizations including BBC, CNN and NBC. Those jobs never last more than a few months, but other people besides me have learned how valuable Thomas can be and they seek him out when there is a position available. Thomas told me, “I live by my relationships. This is how I have managed to take care of my family and send my children to school.”
Thomas occasionally returns to Goma if his job calls for it, and it becomes an opportunity to check on the house he still owns there. He said the house got “cracked” in the last volcanic eruption and the earthquake that followed. He told me that Goma has gotten worse, if that’s even possible. You can fly there and be relatively safe in town, but nobody leaves the city limits for fear of marauding militia in the countryside. (On an earlier trip we were able to drive into the bush and visit gorillas—we couldn’t do that now.) Thomas told me that the church construction was completed after I left, roof and all. I was a little surprised, and very gratified to learn that. He is happy to have his family out of there, but it was hard for them to pack up and walk away. Roland, the oldest child with us that day (he is the baby that Thomas is holding in the family photo in the last blog post), was seventeen years old at the time, and he told me that “It is hard to leave your home country, but if you have to in order to be safe, then you just make the best of it.”
Thomas has eleven children, all with his wife, Angeline. Carol sent a Nepali scarf to give to Angeline and she immediately wrapped it around her head in the traditional fashion. The kids all speak fluent English and the older ones have cell phones (some things are the same wherever you go). They knew when they should not be on them and politely listened to the conversation, although they must have been bored watching their father and me reminisce. I know they had heard about me and must have been a little curious. At first they were very quiet and respectful, but it was easy to draw them out in conversation. What opened them up was watching Thomas and me telling stories, laughing, and teasing each other. By the time it was over they were using my phone (mine, I am guessing, because they had no way of charging theirs) to take pictures. With all the photo ops, it was like they were on the red carpet.
Seven of the kids and one grandchild came with Thomas, and I talked individually with each of them. They are all either in school or have completed higher education. Roland has a master’s degree. That’s pretty amazing for a refugee family. Thomas has a very precarious income stream, yet the education of his children has always been a top priority.
There were six girls with us that day, and each one was either in school or seeking employment in their chosen field. They all had life ambitions, and none of those included getting married at an early age.
For lunch we sat together at a long table on the porch of my guest house. We were a large group, and it took a while for everyone’s food to arrive. Not a fork was raised by those who were served first until everyone had their food; they all waited patiently. Before eating, the girls very quietly bowed their heads and said grace silently to themselves.
A text from Thomas:
“We all loved the physical meeting with you at the round table of Papyrus Guest House with all our beloved children who were so excited to see u for the first time.”
A later text, verbatim:
“Hope you wreached home safely.
The dreams will happen one day. The Lord is our shepherd! Thanks again for your love and support for us. We remain thankful and grateful.”
At Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
What called me back to Africa was learning that my sister had helped obtain a grant to work with the Ugandan NGO “Conservation Through Public Health” (CTPH). The grant is from the National Geographic Society. The project is one that she has planned and tried to implement for years. The process is education and advocacy. The objective is to create and train “Bwindi Youth Guardians.” What the Guardians will guard is the rain forest ecosystem; the culture, health, and welfare of the surrounding villages; the population of indigenous people (Batwa); and the plants and animals of rain forest, especially the gorillas.
Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and her husband Lawrence Zikusoka live in Buhoma, Uganda, on the edge of a forest that is as dark and dense as anything out of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Gladys is a veterinarian, trained in Uganda, London, and North Carolina, who became Uganda’s first wildlife vet and a world authority on primates and zoonotic diseases. From humble beginnings, CTPH has grown into a vital and effective organization that employs a unique approach to protect the mountain gorillas and their habitat, the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world. Gladys argues that nothing exists in isolation, especially not endangered species, so if we want to help the gorillas, we need to improve the well-being of the whole community. As remote as the forest is, the gorillas still reside in someone’s backyard, namely the impoverished families who live around the protected areas. Coexistence has become difficult due to competition for food and real estate, resulting in human encroachment into the protected areas, poaching, and the spread of disease. It has been difficult to reconcile the different interests, but Gladys (and Laura) say that common sense solutions exist.
The poaching problem, for example. Gladys explained that there are many reformed poachers in Bwindi and even a Reformed Poacher Association. But if the poachers give up poaching, they still have to eat. They need to be given alternatives so they won’t backslide. Helping the former poachers protects the gorillas.
CTPH acknowledges the interdependence of things and believes the solution is to improve the health of the animals and people together. Gladys says, “When you protect the gorillas, you protect the whole forest.”
The projects that Laura’s Bwindi Youth Guardians will plan and execute have similar holistic approaches to the problem so she and CTPH seem like a good match. She and Gladys found each other six years ago and Laura has been planning and preparing this project ever since. Laura believes that knowledge is power, so when the local people, especially the youth of Bwindi, are taught about their natural environment they will come to care more deeply about it. When they understand the ways that humans interact with the wild places they will want to promote a healthy and sustainable coexistence. The most powerful forces in the world are invisible, like wind or electricity. Or love. Laura wants the forest to be loved.
Laura led four days of workshops teaching these concepts and practices to large groups of young people and community leaders in two district parishes, one of which was a bumpy, dusty, hour-long drive from Buhoma. She had a strong team of Ugandans from CTPH helping her and spent several days before I arrived teaching them how to, in turn, teach the people who came to the workshops. The long term success of the program is in their hands since Laura won’t always be there.
Some of the Bwindi Youth Guardian projects include ways to:
Improve hygiene and sanitation. Reduce conflict and disease transmission between gorillas and livestock who wander into the park.
Reduce the need for people to go into the park by creating new ways to earn income and another reliable source of protein in their diet.
Reduce the need to cut trees by introducing other heat sources for cooking.
Protect and sustainably use medicinal plants that grow in the park.
Reduce rubbish in and around the park.
Reduce the use and introduce ways to repurpose plastic bags and water bottles.
Improve overall community awareness of why people benefit when the forest is healthy and when the gorillas and other wildlife are protected.
When Laura asked me if I would like to go to Africa with her at first I said no; I couldn’t just drop everything and go to Africa.
That was fine until we talked some more and what I heard from her was not just a question of whether I wanted to go, but that she needed me to go. That was different. When your little sister says she needs you, you’re supposed to show up.
My only purpose in being there was to help Laura, so I spent the week watching her and doing whatever she needed to be done at the time. I was her Sherpa on this operation. There were mountains of materials and supplies to be loaded, unloaded, sorted and distributed; errands to run; photographs to take so that the whole thing would be documented. I spent an hour tying strings into knots for a group-building activity. Sometimes I would follow Roger’s lead. He understood what was happening better than I did and is one of those essential but quiet heroes who work behind the scenes to make things go smoothly.
About my Sister
Many of the great wisdom traditions teach that true wisdom begins and rests with knowing oneself. If we work at it, we can achieve a measure of self knowledge and come to realize our humanity in the course of a lifetime. To me, Laura exemplifies someone who knows herself. She has learned her true talents and gifts, knows where her inspiration and joy comes from, and what, to her, gives life meaning.
It can take a long time to find yourself. Nobody can do it for you and you have to go through some stuff. Laura is more fully herself now than in 1991. That is when she first went to Rwanda and her story with the gorillas began. A lot has happened since then. She has done the work, inside and out, and this is where her journey of self discovery has led.
At some point in our lives—usually when we are young—we have a dream. We might create an image in our mind of a dream house, career, or relationship—something like that—and for some of us, our dream comes true. For others, if it doesn’t happen right away, the dream begins to fade, and we allow our pure or useful enthusiasms to dim. Laura’s dream didn’t happen right away, but it never dimmed. Her dream was to teach African children to love and protect their home. Only with persistence, persuasion, and a lot of perseverance did it finally become real. I loved watching her pour everything she had into that noble purpose. If only the rest of us could redirect our dream away from ourselves and towards something as worthy.
Laura is perfectly equipped for this kind of work. In Africa (like everywhere, really) things never go as planned, so Laura’s remarkable capacity for flexibility and seemingly limitless reserves of resourcefulness were always in play. She never stopped moving. I think I have a lot of energy, but she wore me out. She also draws on some mysterious wellspring of optimism that I wish we could bottle and pass around. Laura could find the sunny side of a shadow.
I have known these things about Laura for a long time, but to see her in action was something wonderful. My sister is awesome. She is an African rock star. From now on, whatever else I accomplish in life, I want to be known as Laura Sanders Arndt’s brother.
A few of the team from CTPH:
Kanie Kaniwabo Elizabeth