Nature & Nurture

The midmorning sun beats down on the García sisters as they smile and pose next to a colorfully painted sign that says Hogar de Mariposas: Home of the Butterflies. Karen McDaniels, a visitor from the United States, snaps their photo. “We’ll use these in your brochure, OK?” she says, before climbing a flight of earthen steps and walking a muddy path to see the butterfly sanctuary.

A member of the Rotary Club of Denton, Texas, McDaniels has come to Mollejones to inspect firsthand the impact of a Rotary Foundation global grant championed by her club in partnership with the Rotary Club of Cartago, Costa Rica. The grant has three components that address business training, aquaponics, and an eco-hotel. Among other things, the grant provides support for the García sisters and other local women who recently launched a tourism cooperative to attract visitors to experience the area’s rainforests, waterfalls, butterflies, and birds, as well as its traditional way of life. Rotarians partnered with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center; based in Turrialba, the organization, known as CATIE (pronounced “KAH-tee-ay”), has been working with the women for years.

At the sanctuary, hundreds of butterflies flutter about. Like a suitor trying too hard, they’re almost aggressively friendly, landing on visitors’ shoulders, hands, and bags. A gaudy orange and black butterfly even latches on to the lips of Eliécer Vargas, a professor of sustainable tourism at CATIE. “She fell in love with me!” he jokes as the butterfly gives him a kiss.

According to town leaders, until the late 20th century, Mollejones was a coffee and sugarcane town. But when commodity prices began to plummet two decades ago, half of its population left to find new ways to make a living. That’s when the idea for community-based tourism took root. The village lies near the Río Pacuare, where you will find some of the planet’s most celebrated whitewater rapids. In 2011, Mollejones hosted the World Rafting Championships, and the following year, a few of the residents went to CATIE for help strengthening their tourism industry. Soon after, Vargas and his students became involved.

Full of ideas, energy, and one-liners, Vargas is the primary conduit between the Rotarians and the women. He’s the perfect complement to the more reserved and no-nonsense McDaniels. Born in Saudi Arabia, McDaniels was educated in Switzerland and the United States. She spent most of her career working around the world for 3M; after retirement, she founded two nonprofits — one in Cambodia and another in Indonesia — to help the people she had met while living in those countries. When the children of the waste pickers she was working with in Indonesia grew sick from drinking tainted water, she struggled to find assistance for them. Someone suggested she contact a Rotary club there. The Rotary Club of Jakarta Cilandak stepped in, and McDaniels was hooked. 

In 2017, McDaniels joined the Rotary Club of Denton, where she spearheaded the ecotourism global grant. Vargas, who had never worked with Rotary before, wasn’t sure what to expect. He didn’t even know if the Rotarians would follow through on their promises. “Then I met Karen,” he says. “She demands, and she delivers. She walks the talk. And after meeting the Rotary team, I realized that she pulls in people who want to make a difference.”

The Rotary Foundation global grant has three components that address business training, aquaponics, and an eco-hotel.

Angie Montoya Fernández’s father had been a coffee picker, but that’s a seasonal job. He didn’t want to travel  to work in the capital city of San José, a couple of hours away, because he wanted to remain with his family. Instead, he and his wife learned English and became tour guides. “When I grew up, I wanted to be a tour guide too,” Montoya says.

As she talks, Montoya stands at the entryway to Guayabo National Monument, Costa Rica’s largest pre-Columbian archaeological site. A map of the landmark stands behind her, and to her side, the path to the ruins runs through a rainforest filled with ferns, vines, and epiphytes.

About 20,000 people visit the monument annually, and Montoya and her family are some of the freelance guides who show them around. To support other small, local entrepreneurs, Montoya’s mother, Rosa Fernández, had the idea to offer those visitors things to do while they’re in the area. Now, when people call to arrange a Guayabo tour, they also have an opportunity to book other options, such as a farm tour, lodging, or a cooking class. “I love the pre-Columbian history, but we need to move people to other places, too,” Montoya says.

That’s where the women’s tourism cooperative, called RETUS — Red de Emprendedoras del Turismo Sostenible de Turrialba, or Network of Women Entre-preneurs of Sustainable Tourism in Turrialba — comes into play. “The challenge for big tour operators is to trust a small tour operator or small provider,” Vargas says. “With RETUS, we hope this will give the local women a chance.”

The tourism cooperative got its start as an outreach project with Vargas’ graduate students at CATIE. “I wanted my students not just to read about sustainable tourism, but to do it,” Vargas says. He didn’t have money in his budget for outreach, but he could muster up some for research. So his students, who are studying at the center through a joint master’s program with the University of North Texas in Denton, began working with people who lived in the surrounding towns and villages. In Mollejones, for example, they held workshops where residents talked about what is unique about their community. The students transformed those conversations into experiential tour ideas that showcase the community’s heritage.

Vargas identified six women who were already working in tourism. “I call them the madrinas,” he says — the godmothers. These were women who may have been single mothers, or who raised a group of kids, or who learned English even though they had no education. Like Rosa Fernández (one of the madrinas), they went on to greater achievements and served as examples of what other women could accomplish.

Vargas told the madrinas that he wanted to help them form a tourism network, but it was up to them to choose the women who would be part of it. He told them to think of themselves as businesswomen and to envision what they wanted to happen in their communities and how they could help make that dream a reality. “I told them bring the women, but don’t tell them this is a project,” Vargas says. “Tell them this is a movement: ‘Don’t be a part of RETUS because you want to help yourself. Be a part of RETUS because you want to help women just like you.’” Three of the original madrinas decided they wanted to be involved, and they ended up with 18 women participating in some of the early phases of the tourism cooperative.

What those women were most eager to learn were business skills, things like administration, accounting, and marketing. Exactly the kinds of things Rotarians are experts in.

Club banner exchanges showcase local flair, global friendship

One of Rotary’s most colorful traditions is members’ exchanging club banners. Clubs display their own decorative banners at meetings and district events, and Rotarians who travel to other countries often take these banners to exchange with the clubs they visit. 

The banners often include symbols or images of a club’s town, region, or country. Some represent local cultural traditions or artistry by featuring leatherwork, weaving, embroidery, or hand-painted designs. Many of the banners are works of art in themselves.

Exchanging banners became so popular that the Rotary International Board of Directors was concerned that the practice would place a financial burden on clubs. In 1959, it urged members to “exercise discretion, moderation, and measured judgment in making provision for such exchanges.”

Today, the tradition continues as a way for clubs to express their friendship.

The approximately 20,000 banners in Rotary’s archives reflect clubs’ hometown pride and their connection to Rotary International.

Hacking a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic

Rotarians in Lithuania and the United States promote the use of bubble helmets to help patients avoid mechanical ventilators

by Arnold R. Grahl

Rotarians in Lithuania and Chicago, Illinois, USA, are using their influence to promote the use of “bubble helmets” and potentially lessen the need for mechanical ventilators for COVID-19 patients who struggle to breathe on their own.

The Rotary Club of Vilnius Lituanica International, Lithuania, participated in Hack the Crisis, an online event in March that brought together innovators in science and technology to “hack,” or develop solutions to, issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Members of the Lithuanian club, along with members of the Rotary Clubs of Chicago and Chicagoland Lithuanians (Westmont), joined a team to brainstorm ways to help COVID-19 patients breathe without using mechanical ventilators.

Bubble helmets come in various designs and are noninvasive, supplying oxygen without the need for intubation.

“Traditional ventilators used with intubation are a painful intervention into the body and require trained medical staff,” says Viktorija Trimbel, a member of the Vilnius Lituanica club, who was a mentor during Hack the Crisis. “There’s also a shortage of the drugs used for sedation. But you don’t have to be sedated with helmets.”

Bubble helmets are noninvasive and supply oxygen without the need for intubation, a procedure where a tube is inserted down a patient’s throat. A helmet fits over a patient’s head with a rubber collar that can be adjusted around the neck. The collar has ports that can deliver oxygen and air.

Before the pandemic, doctors typically used noninvasive devices to help patients breathe if their oxygen levels dropped below a certain level. If the noninvasive devices don’t boost those levels enough, mechanical ventilators are used to push oxygen into the lungs through the tube at a preset rate and force.

But some critical care physicians are becoming concerned that intubation and mechanical ventilators are being used unnecessarily on COVID-19 patients and suggest that more patients could benefit by remaining longer on simpler, noninvasive respiratory support. connects researchers, manufacturers, medical professionals, and funding sources to increase the supply of bubble helmets.

“Being a Rotarian, I have in my network people from all over the world,” adds Trimbel, governor-elect of the district that covers Lithuania. “This pandemic has moved like a wave, first in Asia, then Europe, and then the United States. Yet countries like Mexico, Brazil, and India aren’t yet as impacted. We’re trying to get word out in time for the information to help.”

Beginnings of an idea

The idea to promote helmets actually began around a kitchen table in Chicago three days before the hackathon when Aurika Savickaite, a registered nurse and member of the Chicagoland Lithuanians (Westmont) club, discussed the crisis with her husband, David Lukauskas, who is Trimbel’s brother. Savickaite recalled a clinical trial she participated in that involved the helmets a few years earlier.

The three-year study found that using these kinds of helmets helped more patients with respiratory distress avoid intubation than masks, another noninvasive method. The patients’ overall outcomes were also much improved. The helmets can be used in any room equipped with a wall oxygen supply, not just an intensive care unit.

“You want to avoid intubation for as long as you can, because generally the mortality rate on intubation is fairly high,” said Savickaite.

“Through Rotary, we’re able to connect so many people around the world. It’s a great way to collaborate in this battle.”

Lukauskas was surprised that more people weren’t talking about helmets and called Trimbel, who had already signed up as a mentor for Hack the Crisis. Together they enlisted more than a dozen Rotary members from their clubs to explore noninvasive ventilation options and how to expand the use of helmets.

The group worked with intensive care unit clinicians, healthcare leaders, helmet manufacturers, technology professionals, and marketing managers. They developed a short questionnaire for clinicians and hospital leaders worldwide, gathered practice-based knowledge on noninvasive ventilation for COVID-19 patients, devised an online platform to connect suppliers with demand, and pursued funding to finance the production of more helmets.

Spreading the word

Trimbel, her brother, and Savickaite launched their website to encourage collaboration and link manufacturers, clinicians, and funding sources. Trimbel says they’ve also spoken with media outlets in the United States.

The website posts news such as the mid-April announcement by Virgin Galactic that it was teaming up with the U.S. space agency NASA and a U.S. hospital to develop their own version of bubble helmets to supplement scarce supplies of ventilators in hospitals in southern California and beyond.

“Because of trade restrictions and borders being closed, most countries are on their own,” says Trimbel. “There’s a Facebook group where people are designing their own helmets using balloons and plastics. Some may think it’s funny, but it’s also inspiring. The helmet part is not rocket science, as long as it works with the connectors. We believe this has very big potential.”

The problem-solving team also worked on how to improve the isolation of patients who think they may have the virus, and how to match the supply and demand for medical equipment with available funding. Another team at the hackathon developed a digital platform that helps family physicians find up-to-date medical information on the virus for their patients.

Savickaite feels Rotary is in a strong position to find solutions to problems caused by the pandemic.

“Through Rotary, we’re able to connect so many people around the world,” she said. “It’s a great way to collaborate in this battle.”

Check out the COVID-19 page for the latest information and resources for the Rotary community.


Rotary clubs help fight the COVID-19 pandemic

Rotary monitors the coronavirus outbreak

How to engage members during the coronavirus pandemic

Joint Statement from Kiwanis International, Lions Clubs International, Optimist International, and Rotary International

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Joint Statement from Kiwanis International, Lions Clubs International, Optimist International, and Rotary International

Woven through the fabric of virtually every community on earth, service clubs of Kiwanis International, Lions Clubs International, Optimist International, and Rotary International are working safely and diligently to maintain connections with each other and our neighbors so that we can cope with and overcome the effects of COVID-19. We are leveraging the strength of our combined networks of 3.2 million members to provide comfort and hope to those feeling the effects of isolation and fear. And we are focusing our collective skills, resources and ideas to support frontline health workers and first responders as they battle this disease and save lives. 

In these times of uncertainty, your local service clubs remain committed to meeting the challenge of finding innovative ways to take action together to help communities around the globe heal and thrive – and become more united than ever.

“The global effort against COVID-19 depends on actions taken in every country. As people of action, this is our time to connect with each other to offer immediate help to people in need.” – Mark Daniel Maloney, Rotary International President, 2019-2020

“The scale and magnitude of this global pandemic requires our world’s citizenry to heed the advice and cautions of the experts.  The work and plans of our collective members and volunteers must not cease!   Our immediate response after the crisis will be necessary to support local Governments respond to the many social and economic challenges that will ensue in its aftermath.” – Adrian Elcock, Optimist International President, 2019-2020.

“Great challenges test us, but they also bring us together. Lions are finding new ways to safely serve. Our Lions Clubs International Foundation has granted over one million dollars to help communities facing extreme rates of COVID-19, and additional grant requests are being received daily.  Our communities depend on service clubs, and we will be there, supporting and strengthening them just as we always have together.” – Dr. Jung-Yul Choi, Lions Clubs International President, 2019-2020.

“During these difficult times, we’re seeing everyday heroism across the globe. I encourage us all to recognize the health and safety professionals who are putting their own health at risk for the greater good. To the educators, grocery workers, delivery drivers and the countless professionals who can’t stay home, the Kiwanis family thanks you. We all play an important role in keeping our friends and neighbors safe. Please follow the advice of the World Health Organization, your local health agencies and the instructions given by your Government. Please, stay safe.” – Daniel Vigneron, Kiwanis International President, 2019-2020.

Rotary clubs help fight the COVID-19 pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads uncertainty and hardship around the world, Rotary members and participants are innovating, caring for those affected, and showing that even at a distance, there are ways to help.

As people of action, Rotary members are engaged in their communities — gathering for projects and offering help to those in need. But in many areas, life is changing drastically. Health experts are urging people to maintain distance from others or even isolate themselves in order to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus. 

Fighting disease is one of Rotary’s main causes, so members already support efforts to promote proper hand washing techniques, teach people other ways to stay healthy, and supply training and vital medical equipment to health care providers. Now they’re helping health authorities communicate lifesaving information about COVID-19 and donating protective gear and other supplies to clinics and hospitals that are under strain because of the pandemic. 

These are just some of the ways that members are supporting their communities right now:

  • In Italy, one of the countries that has been affected most, clubs in District 2080 are raising funds to purchase ventilators and protective gear for overstretched hospitals. And when the worst of the outbreak was raging in China, the district’s clubs raised more than $21,000 for protective masks to prevent spread of the disease there. 
  • Clubs in District 2041, also in Italy, raised funds online to buy protective gear for health workers who will care for COVID-19 patients at a 400-bed hospital being built at Milan’s fairgrounds. 
  • In Hong Kong, Rotary clubs have raised funds, packed medical supplies, and visited public housing to distribute masks and sanitizers. 
  • Rotary clubs in Sri Lanka installed thermometers in airport bathrooms and produced posters to raise awareness about the coronavirus for schools across the country. 
  • The Rotary Club of Karachi Darakhshan, Sind, Pakistan, distributed thousands of masks to people in Karachi. 
  • Clubs in District 3700 (Korea) have donated $155,000 to the Red Cross. 
  • Rotary clubs in Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom state conducted a campaign to raise awareness about the threat of the virus. Members shared information about the illness and how to keep safe at two schools and distributed materials about using good hygiene to stay healthy. 
  • The Rotary club of Metro Bethesda, Maryland, USA, is contacting neighbors who live alone and are quarantined. Volunteers are asked to contact at least five of those people each week to ask how they are and if they need anything. Members are also leaving flowers on their doorsteps. 

Using technology to address the crisis

  • Although clubs and districts are canceling or postponing their in-person meetings and events, they are still finding ways to keep up their fellowship, reimagine their service efforts and respond to the pandemic: 
  • The Rotary E-Club of Fenice del Tronto invited the public to its 11 March online meeting to raise awareness about the coronavirus. A virologist spoke about the virus, how it spreads, and how to keep safe. 
  • The Rotary Club of Singapore hosted a webinar in which an epidemiologist and an infectious disease expert addressed questions and concerns about the coronavirus and the pandemic. 
  • The Rotary Club of East Jefferson County, Washington, USA, used crowdsourcing to create an online listing of area grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants that offer home delivery. 
  • Rotary members in Hereford, England, created a Facebook group for Rotary members and others to use to link people who need support with people or organizations that can help. More than 6,900 people have joined the group since it was started 14 March. 
  • Two days before its annual fundraiser, the Rotary Club of Schaumburg-Hoffman Estates, Illinois, USA, moved the event to Facebook. It auctioned more than 100 items and raised more than $100,000, about the same amount as in previous years. Food set to feed 350 people at the event was delivered to those in need. 
  • The Rotary E-Club of Silicon Valley, California, USA, held an online meeting for members of other clubs to share advice on using digital tools to remain connected. The club recorded the meeting so members could watch it later and share it with others. 
  • Rotary clubs in Zone 34 (Georgia and Florida, USA, and the Caribbean) created a guide to help members stay connected online. The Rotary E-Club of the Caribbean 7020 is helping clubs in the zone arrange online meetings. Read more

Sarah Parcak and the secrets of the satellites

by Diana Schoberg
portraits by Ian Curcio

Sarah Parcak approaches the towering 40-foot-long creature. Its flashing rows of serrated teeth are built to grab flesh and crush bones. If it could sense we’re near, it would be upon us in seconds.

“There she is,” whispers Parcak. “Thank you for indulging me.”

Parcak inches forward. Wearing a brown leather jacket and a cream-colored scarf printed with Egyptian hieroglyphs, she widens her eyes and opens her mouth into a silent scream.

Click! Parcak snaps a selfie. In the resulting image, she appears to be fleeing in horror from Sue the T. rex, the 67 million-year-old dinosaur skeleton that’s one of the crown jewels of Chicago’s Field Museum. When Parcak and I met earlier this August morning, her first request was to see this famous fossil, the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

Parcak tweets the selfie to Sue, who, she explains, has her own “sassy, sassy” Twitter account. “I forgot the ham so @SUEtheTrex roared,” tweets Parcak. “I’m so sorry Sue I’ll do better.”

Sue, she explains, likes ham.

Leaving Sue behind, we pass another prehistoric creature, a triceratops, Sarah Parcak’s favorite dinosaur. Say its name aloud and you’ll realize why.

“You get to the world of the living by digging in the world of the dead.”

Parcak’s Twitter handle is @indyfromspace. That’s “Indy” for Indiana Jones, the fictional archaeology professor, and “space” because Parcak, a National Geographic Explorer, TED Prize winner, and member of the Rotary Club of Birmingham, Alabama, isn’t just any kind of archaeologist. She’s a space archaeologist whose work begins in the heavens to help her discover what’s hidden beneath the earth’s surface. Using satellite photos, Parcak has identified thousands of previously unknown sites: 1,000 potential tombs, 17 potential pyramids, and 3,100 potential settlements in Egypt alone, including Tanis, the “lost city” made famous in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first film of the Indiana Jones franchise. (See “A Lost City and a Childhood Dream,” below.)

Before the Space Age, archaeologists often had few hints about where to start digging. In an ocean of sand, they looked for clues such as stone fragments that were once walls or dense concentrations of slag that may indicate a site where metal was produced. But sometimes there are no obvious signs of a vanished city or civilization. The field of space archaeology helps point the way.

Space archaeologists such as Parcak look at satellite pictures and other remote images for the outlines of structures long buried underground. For example, plants growing over a stone structure will not be as healthy as those growing over other ground; space archaeologists can see these subtle differences in their chlorophyll levels by manipulating the light spectrum using the archaeologist version of Photoshop. Or they look at three-dimensional images created by pulsing lasers mounted on airplanes or helicopters, which reveal ancient sites obscured in dense jungle. Drones may soon advance the field even further.

These whiz-bang techniques might help researchers better decide where to dig, but they still have to excavate the old-fashioned way to see if they’re right, a process known as “ground truthing.” Parcak went on her first dig in 1999, in the Nile Delta after her second year of college, but these days, she’s the excavation director in charge of a team of up to 100 people. “If I do my job right, it means everyone else does their job without being bothered,” she says.

Digging happens for only a couple of months a year, so Parcak spends the vast majority of her time teaching as a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, applying for permits and funding, and attending meetings. “I don’t want to sound like I take it for granted, but I think a lot of the process of science never gets talked about in the press,” she says. “It’s nice, but it’s science and it takes time. I don’t find something every five minutes. And like everyone else I know who does this work, we do our science at 10 o’clock at night after the kids are in bed.”

  1. Sarah Parcak wrote her book Archaeology from Space to inspire kids: “I don’t care if they’re archaeologists. I want them to be whatever they desire. I hope it inspires them to think that they can do what they want.”

  2. Digging at Lisht, Egypt, where an expedition co-led by Parcak discovered more than 800 tombs in a single field season.

  3. The completed excavation.

  4. Parcak and her team used satellite images to identify looting at Saqqara, an ancient Egyptian burial ground.

    Image courtesy of DigitalGlobe

Parcak’s fascination with Sue the T. rex makes sense when you consider that Parcak has her own sassy Twitter presence. She’s one of a media-savvy cohort of young archaeologists who use social media to live-tweet digs, poke at pseudoscience, and share science jokes. But dinosaurs aren’t her specialty. She’s an Egyptologist, after all. So we head to the Field Museum’s “Inside Ancient Egypt” exhibit, where we walk into a three-story replica of a mastaba, a type of ancient Egyptian tomb.

Parcak is hyped up on caffeine and talking a little fast, and it’s all I can do to keep up. She took the last flight into Chicago the night before so she could maximize time with her family, which includes husband Greg Mumford, a fellow archaeologist whom she proposed to at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and their son, Gabriel, whose birthday happens to be tomorrow. “I had four cups of coffee before this,” she says, “because … travel.”

I can practically see the hashtag in my head.

It’s a busy day at the museum, and our visit is punctuated with the sounds of children shouting as they run around among the mummies, jewelry, and ceramics. We reach two original chambers from the Old Kingdom burial site, made of limestone blocks carved 5,000 years ago. Hieroglyphs on the walls show servants trussing geese and bringing offerings. Parcak explains to me how the seemingly two-dimensional art is three-dimensional after all — that is, once you learn to look at it through the eyes of an Egyptian from 2400 B.C. My mind is blown.

A tour group that has been trailing us catches up. Their guide, not realizing who Parcak is, invites us to join them. We climb to the roof of the mastaba instead.

Parcak credits two major influences on her path to becoming a space archaeologist: Indiana Jones (do you sense a theme?) and her grandfather.

As a child of the 1980s, she would spend Friday nights watching movies on VHS with her family in their home in Bangor, Maine, and Raiders of the Lost Ark was in heavy rotation. The adventure in the movie called out to her. (After giving a TED Talk in 2016, she got to meet Harrison Ford, who plays Indiana Jones; she had brought a brown fedora, Indy’s signature chapeau, and there’s a photo of them fighting over the hat.) Parcak became so obsessed with Egypt that she dressed as a mummy for a school project in seventh grade, wrapping herself in toilet paper and rising out of a refrigerator box accurately decorated as a sarcophagus.

Later, when it came time to study archaeology in college, it was her grandfather Harold Young who influenced her trajectory. Young had been a paratrooper in World War II and would plot his landing positions using aerial photographs. After the war, he became a professor of forestry at the University of Maine, where he developed new techniques to map tree heights. As a child, Parcak would look through his stereoscope, a device like the old View-Master toy that created three-dimensional images by looking at two copies of a photo from slightly different perspectives. She learned more about his research after he died, and she was intrigued enough that during her senior year at Yale she took an intro class on remote sensing. That class led to a master’s and a PhD at Cambridge, and to her career today.

Parcak found a new focus after rumors surfaced of large-scale looting of famous Egyptian burial sites in the wake of the Arab Spring. Responding to an email discussion group of archaeologists, she wrote that the only way to know if looting had happened would be to compare before and after satellite images. The editor-in-chief of National Geographic took interest, and the National Geographic Society began collaborating with her to map the plundering. Soon, she and colleagues had identified 200,000 looting pits at 279 archaeological sites across Egypt. The signs were often clear: bulldozer tracks or dark squares surrounded by a doughnut of earth. On the images, they look like pimples dotting the terrain.

Parcak had an ambitious idea: to build an online platform to crowdsource the job of finding and protecting the world’s heritage. That idea won her the $1 million TED Prize for 2016 — the same year she spoke at the Rotary International Convention in Seoul, Korea — and she used the money to build, where citizen-scientists receive a short tutorial and then look at satellite images for telltale signs of looting and ancient structures.

The project started by looking at images from Peru because of that country’s existing innovative work in archaeology. In a little over a year after the platform’s launch, more than 80,000 people from over 100 countries signed up. An assessment found that these untrained members of the public, who ranged in age from young children to the elderly, have a 90 percent accuracy rate. What they find will help ensure the protection of these sites in the future.

Archaeology can be a path to peace, as well as to the past.

We head downstairs to the lower level of the Field Museum and take a look at Middle Kingdom coffins and soul houses, which are like the dollhouses of the great beyond — small clay replicas that often contain sculpted foods to feed the dead in the afterlife. Researchers love them because they show what the buildings of antiquity looked like. As we’re talking about why archaeologists are so interested in tombs — “The irony is you get to the world of the living by digging in the world of the dead,” Parcak explains — I notice a woman listening in. Eventually, she interrupts us. “Sarah?” she asks.

It ends up being another world-renowned Egyptologist, Emily Teeter. The two exchange the usual pleasantries: How’s the family, what are you doing here, what’s next for you. “Small world,” Parcak says as we part ways. “It’s such a small community of Egyptologists.” And here they are in Chicago’s version of Egypt.

We meander through a marketplace scene, checking out 5,000-year-old burnished pottery. “This tends to be most of what we find on excavations: tens of thousands of pieces of pottery,” Parcak says. “There are people who are going to be born in hundreds of years, and they’re going to be specialists in Tupperware.” We see mummified falcons and a pair of woven reed shoes; their backs curve up, making the footwear look like giant commas. “The Louboutins of antiquity,” Parcak says. “Those are fancy. Someone’s wearing shoes like that, you know they’re rich.”

In the middle of the marketplace, Parcak pulls out her phone and checks Twitter.

Sue has retweeted her.

  1. Parcak’s field is changing rapidly as computers grow more powerful: “The computers are so good now that I can go to a coffee shop and process satellite imagery.”

  2. Skagafjörður in northern Iceland, where Parcak used satellite imagery to identify evidence of Viking settlements.

  3. Parcak used image processing techniques to reveal the ancient settlement of Tanis.

  4. Parcak digging at Tanis.

“Think of life as a pendulum, not a balance. That will really shift your mindset.”

We stop at a display cabinet filled with bronze statues of the Egyptian god Osiris and chat about why we should bother studying archaeology at all. This is something that Parcak has a lot to say about.

“When you stand in front of the pyramids, or watch the kids walking around here today with big eyes, it’s because they are in awe,” she says. “When you have awe, it means you are thinking of yourself in relationship to whatever you’re seeing. You see yourself as small in the arc of time. You open yourself up to the accomplishments of other groups of people. It means perhaps you’re open to the idea that people today from other places have value too.”

Archaeology, in other words, can be a path to peace, as well as to the past.

One of the reasons Parcak wrote her recent book, Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, was to underscore that point and to counter some of the pseudoscience out there. A television show called Ancient Aliens, which hypothesizes that aliens had a role in building the pyramids, is a frequent target for her ire. “People don’t think it’s racist, but it is,” she says. “Saying that people with darker skin didn’t have the intelligence to do something is the literal definition of racism.”

Helping people understand how ideas have morphed and been reshaped over time, through the work of not just Greek and Roman scholars, but also ancient Egyptians and Islamic scientists and scholars, can help create more tolerance and international understanding today, Parcak says. “The reality is that the whole concept of Western civilization is a lie,” she says. “There is no Western civilization: There is a long arc of time. It’s a big amalgamation of ideas, and we forget that today.”

Archaeology also teaches lessons about what happens to societies in times of great upheaval and climate change, who makes it through, and why. “I wrote my book for kids, for teens, for young students,” she says. “When people read it, they feel a little more hopeful. I don’t want them to feel like everything is going to be OK, because it’s not, but this tempered perspective is what we need more of.”

We look for a birthday gift for her son at the Field Museum’s store and then hop in a taxi to grab lunch. Over bowls of coconut curry, we chat about, in no particular order: our kids (mine is the same age as hers); our husbands; traveling for work with kids; feeding our kids; bedtime routines; anti-princess books; school gardens; tomato seeds; family-friendly workplaces; the morning’s news; the state of journalism; and the problem with the whole concept of work-life balance. “Think of life as a pendulum, not a balance,” she advises. “That will really shift your mindset.” #workingmoms

As we finish up, Parcak folds her napkin, sets it on the table, and looks at me. “Is there a place we can grab coffee around here?” she asks. Then, conspiratorially, she adds: “Or … I’m not putting any pressure on you, but I’m just saying, Shake Shack is next door. You could get a milkshake.”

I laugh in agreement, and we head over. It turns out that in addition to being an expert on ancient Egypt, Parcak is a connoisseur of frozen custard. She schools me on the flavors: “Black sesame seed if you want to go a little exotic,” she coaches. “I would say with your first one, go with something more standard. No pressure though. You do you.” I opt for salted caramel. Parcak takes my advice and gets a flavor offered only in Chicago called “Penthouse Sweet.”

As we wait for our desserts, Parcak checks her phone and smiles. She shows me her Twitter feed. A friend has posted a gif of Patrick Stewart’s head rolling toward Indiana Jones, a parody of the famous boulder scene in Raiders. And then she has to dash off for an interview at a local radio station. We step out onto busy Michigan Avenue, and Parcak’s cab arrives. “Call me if you’ve any questions,” she says as she tightens her hieroglyph scarf and climbs inside. With a wave of her hand she’s gone, an intrepid explorer of the past racing off to define her future.

• This story originally appeared in the April 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

A lost city and a childhood dream

As a child, Sarah Parcak was captivated by the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, and her favorite part was the Tanis scene. Tanis was Egypt’s capital for about 350 years, and in the movie, it was buried by a sandstorm and rediscovered by Nazis searching for the Ark of the Covenant, the Old Testament chest that contained the Ten Commandments. Indiana Jones eventually enters an underground room with a 3D map of the city and discovers the biblical relic.

In reality, Tanis is partially buried under the modern city of Sân el-Hagar, about 100 miles northeast of Cairo. The site has been explored since Napoleon’s time, and French archaeologist Pierre Montet discovered the largely undisturbed tomb of Psusennes I, a find that many Egyptologists consider among the greatest of all time. But Montet made his find in 1939, and World War II rendered it a distant memory.

In her book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past, Parcak details how she stumbled upon the city of her childhood dreams. In 2010, satellite imagery was still expensive and companies didn’t have as many satellites in orbit as they do today, so Parcak had two images of Tanis to work with: a high-resolution image in black and white, and a low-resolution color image.

Playing around with the color image first, she used different parts of the light spectrum to reveal some fuzzy lines that could be buried architecture. Then she took the black-and-white image and used a technique called “pan-sharpening,” in which she merged the two images. The low-resolution image automatically sharpened to the resolution of the high-resolution image. “I almost fell off my seat,” she writes. “I thought I was hallucinating: an entire ancient city leapt off the screen.”

She then tried other processing techniques, which, she explains, were “like tweaking the radio to get the best possible signal.” Ultimately she had a crisp image, “almost like the map room in the Raiders of the Lost Ark scene, with only a little more imagination needed.”

When she got home, Parcak showed her husband, fellow Egyptologist Greg Mumford. She tried to draw a map of the city using her computer. “Greg had the brilliantly simple idea of drawing the town plan by hand, the old-fashioned way,” she writes. “We would print out a massive poster of the satellite imagery for the entire central city, and then cover it with transparent plastic sheeting, to draw in every detail in pen.”

It took two months to draw it bit by bit on the map, which covered their dining room table. Parcak estimates that a traditional ground survey would have cost $200,000 and taken 103 days to do what took them $2,000 in images and 60 hours. A French team later confirmed through an on-site dig one of the houses she had seen in the images.

“We archaeologists have made so many assumptions about major sites around the world,” Parcak writes. “The more satellite technology advances, the more we find out how little we know.”

The Plastic Trap

Welcome to Plasticville: Population 7.8 billion

We’ve lived in a synthetic world for more than 70 years. Susan Freinkel, author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, wonders how much longer it can last.

Learn more ›

Scientist, farmer, innovator, Rotarian

A plainsman with a PhD, Bob Quinn uses his 4,000-acre Montana spread as a laboratory to revive an ancient grain, rethink agricultural practices, and reinvigorate rural communities

by Bryan Smith
photography by NashCO

Quinn’s connection to Big Sandy’s Rotary club runs as deep as his connection to the town itself. His father, also a farmer, was a founding member.

The day slowly warms. It’s still summer, but in this late season of harvest, the mornings hold a stubborn chill that will not yield until the sun’s full appearance. Bob Quinn is dressed in his habitual raiment: soil-smudged cowboy hat, Wrangler jeans, Western shirt, work boots, thick belt with “Bob” tooled into the leather. He was awake before sunrise and now, as is often his routine, he pulls himself up a ladder inside a lookout tower he designed next to the handsome, sprawling farmhouse he helped build as a boy on a bluff at the end of a long upward-sloping lane. And there it is, spreading before him like an ocean of waving gold: the flaxen tips of spring wheat and spelt haired in rich amber, with the Bears Paw Mountains off to the north and east rising like a small fist of hazy purple on the north central Montana horizon.

There is work to be done. He will get at it in a minute, but he wants to savor the moment a bit longer. There is always work for those who look to the land for their keep, as Quinn has done for 40-odd years, and as his parents and his grandparents did before him — three generations of dryland farmers who have tilled this acreage since 1920.

Presently Quinn climbs down, grabs a basket, and heads toward his “test” orchard, where he experiments with 31 varieties of apples. He inspects the rows of trees one by one, then drops to his hands and knees and begins gathering apples that have plopped to the ground. “Some of them are bird pecked,” he says, holding up an apple and turning it in a work-weathered hand. “But that’s OK. These are looking pretty good.”

Quinn tosses the apple at me. “Just take a bite of this,” he says. On just about any other farm in the area, you would pause. Shouldn’t it be washed? Not here, for it, like everything on Quinn’s acreage, is organic — no pesticides, no herbicides, no chemical fertilizers. That’s the point; that’s his life’s work. It is why he looks out from his tower at the sea of grain surrounding him and worries.

For in this beautiful, sometimes punishingly harsh landscape, all is not well with the food that is grown, at least not from Quinn’s perspective. Like every-where, the fields are soaked in chemicals that, while allowing the corporations that farm them to cheaply produce vast stores of product, suck nutrients from the earth, from the food, and from the small communities that dot the plains. That includes the little town of Big Sandy, 10 miles north of Quinn’s 4,000-acre farm. He calls it the commodity mentality or mindset, “a high-input game [where] the prize is the highest possible yield” — consequences to small farms, small towns, and quality food be damned.

Redemption and renewal, Quinn believes, lie partly in this orchard and in his organic “oil barn” housed in a small building near his house. But more importantly, they rise from a long swath of land at the edge of his property, a pasture where this 21st-century plainsman grows an ancient Mesopotamian grain called khorasan that he believes holds no less than the power to change everything.

  1. A sign touts Big Sandy High School — “Home of the Pioneers” — which Bob Quinn attended.

  2. Quinn joined the town’s Rotary club in 1979.

  3. Bales of wheat straw, left over from the harvest, will later serve as bedding for cattle.

“The most successful businesses are the ones that are profitable but that also help improve the lives of other people.”

I meet Quinn on a Monday night at the weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Big Sandy. Quinn’s connection to the club runs as deep as his connection to the town itself: His father, Mack, was a founding member. Quinn joined in 1979 after he returned from earning a PhD in plant biochemistry at the University of California at Davis. With crinkly blue eyes, a full head of silver hair, and a face that’s weathered without being quite craggy, Quinn looks as if he could have stepped out of the pages of a Zane Grey novel.

Like the high plains figure Quinn cuts, and like the town he calls home, the meeting seems a step back in time. Held in the senior citizens center at the end of the two-block downtown, it features on this night a dinner of fried chicken, cottage cheese, and potato salad, doled out from aluminum foil trays. There are cold pitchers of lemonade, and a seemingly bottomless stainless steel urn dispenses piping-hot coffee.

Fourteen people, including a visitor from Germany who uses Quinn’s grain, gather around a table where, after passing around worn copies of Rotary songs, they sing “Home on the Range” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Quinn joined Rotary, he says, for reasons bigger than wanting to continue the family legacy. He finds that the organization’s Four-Way Test — with its emphasis on truth and fairness, goodwill and friendship, and a mutual concern for the well-being of all — dovetails with his own way of thinking. “My philosophy in work is ‘everybody wins,’” he says. “The most successful businesses are the ones that are profitable but that also help improve the lives of other people.”

In his 2019 book, Grain by Grain, which chronicles his “quest to revive ancient wheat, rural jobs, and healthy food,” Quinn writes: “As an entrepreneur and scientist working in the midst of rural American poverty, I have seen firsthand how putting food and other fundamental goods like energy at the center of a value-added economy can foster health, economic opportunity, and ecological regeneration, particularly in some of our country’s poorest com-munities. … I measure the success of my business by the degree to which it’s added economic, ecological, and nutritional value all along the supply chain.”

Today Quinn, at 72, travels the world spreading his gospel, which has as its premise that the way food is grown and produced — the Big Agriculture approach of making as much as possible as cheaply as possible, with a heavy emphasis on chemical pesticides and fertilizers — is destructive to the land, to communities, to farmers, and to our health. He also preaches the corollary: that organic farming not only is the right thing to do by consumers, but also is highly profitable for the farmer and a prescriptive for towns like Big Sandy that have found themselves struggling for survival.

The results have been as obvious as towering stalks of wheat, says Jon Tester, a U.S. senator from Montana whose life and career have also been closely intertwined with Big Sandy. “It’s simply undeniable what he’s done for the Big Sandy community,” Tester says. “He’s contributed jobs and a lot of economy to the town. We don’t have enough people like Bob. He’s fearless, a true entrepreneur who is not afraid to take risks, and at the same time he’s somebody who believes in rural America.”

Examples of Quinn’s entrepreneurial spirit, and the greater-good benefits that derive from it, bloom like apple blossoms across his property. On the occasional tours he gives, which draw workaday farmers and ivory-tower agriscientists, Quinn refers to his land as his laboratory. It’s clear why: There are his experimental gardens, of course, where he tries to see which fruits and vegetables can thrive in Montana’s notoriously fickle climate — if only, he says, “to show people we can do something other than wheat and barley.”

Ten feet underground, inside Quinn’s root cellar, bins of potatoes, all grown on the farm — Yukon Gems, Red Norlands, Red La Sodas, and Purple Vikings — are kept naturally cool. “Potatoes are particularly hardy for our northern climate, and they have an excellent shelf life,” Quinn says. A few hundred feet away is what he calls his oil barn. Inside, where Quinn milked cows as a boy, the seeds from farm-grown safflower are pressed into a cooking oil, which he sells to restaurants and grocery stores; it’s also used in the kitchens at the University of Montana, after which the waste is returned to Quinn. “The oil we get back from UM is enough to provide about one-eighth of the fuel needs for our farm,” he writes in Grain by Grain. (A pioneer in sustainable energy, Quinn played a leading role in creating the Judith Gap Wind Farm, which opened in central Montana in 2005.)

And then there is the ancient grain. Known as khorasan and rechristened — and trademarked — by Quinn as Kamut (pronounced kuh-MOOT), it likely originated centuries ago in the Fertile Crescent, that agriculturally rich region in the Middle East that gave birth to several ancient civilizations. Quinn was introduced to the grain at a county fair when he was in high school and an old man thrust a fistful of kernels in his hand and claimed they were “King Tut’s wheat.”

“I was amazed by how big they were: three times the size of the wheat we grew on our farm,” Quinn recalls in Grain by Grain. “I had no inkling that this grain would, some 25 years later, change the whole course of my life.”

Today, Kamut International is a global operation that, while promoting organic farming and healthful eating, also serves as a model for struggling farmers and small towns searching for a return to prosperity. “If you look at what Bob has pushed for and what he’s done, it’s not conventional,” allows Tester. “I mean, it’s not stuff that the university system would say, ‘Go do this.’ For example, in a time when [corporate farms] were shipping grain out in 52-car unit trains, he was setting up a cleaning plant to ship wheat out in 25-kilogram bags. He had a different vision for how you could market grain and make a few bucks off it and employ people.”

Jacob Cowgill, who worked on Quinn’s farm for two seasons before starting his own organic farm and bakery, marvels at Quinn’s willingness to try the unconventional. “The thing that I took away from working with Bob is the idea of experimenting,” Cowgill says. “He always has multiple projects that are still considered pretty radical and ahead of their time. In fact, it seems like anything that he jumps into is a radical idea — until it isn’t and more people are doing it.”

“He’s the most incredible idea generator I’ve ever met,” adds Bruce Maxwell, a professor of agroecology at Montana State University. “He has one after another — ways to make his own farm more sustainable and more profitable — but he’s also got a real dedication to his community.”

Since 1920, three generations of the family have tended the Quinn Farm and Ranch — and Quinn’s roots as a farmer extend back to his ancestors in 17th-century Virginia.

The Rocky Boy’s Reservation lies green and windswept at the foot of the Bears Paw Mountains, a flat table of land spread across Chouteau and Hill counties, some 50 miles south of the Canadian border. The last and smallest reservation created in Montana, it is home to about 3,000 members of the Chippewa-Cree tribe. Quinn, having grown up on the family farm, about 15 miles southwest, had long known about the struggles of the reservation’s people, such as poor health and high unemployment. Of particular heartbreak to him is that the reservation is a “food desert” — a community barren of quality grocery stores where the residents can buy the kinds of healthy foods that might mitigate some of their worst problems, such as rampant diabetes.

Quinn wanted to help, and believed he could, but the tribal council, to say nothing of the people of the reservation, were wary of a white man trying to tell them what was best for their Native American community. “It took years to win their trust,” says Quinn. “Now I’m invited to their sweat lodges, and I have a number of friends here.” It has taken another decade for real progress toward the goal of “food sovereignty”— where, rather than relying on outside grocers, the reservation can supply its own healthy food.

Tribe member Jason Belcourt grasped the implications immediately. “I met Bob back in January 2019, and I heard him speak and he just blew me away,” says Belcourt, a member of a food sovereignty team that includes representatives from the school health program, the tribe’s ranch and farm, the local college, and the reservation hospital’s diabetes program.

“Rocky Boy was an island,” he says. “There’s nothing available but processed foods and frozen food,” snacks and sugary drinks. “We’re trying to re-establish our relationship with Mother Earth so that, ideally, we can grow our own food and provide for ourselves. Hopefully we can have it turn into something that we can take pride in.”

As Belcourt speaks, Quinn walks through a 1-acre plot inspecting rows of winter peas and new potatoes planted a few months before. “I’m really jacked,” Quinn says, removing his cowboy hat and cradling it as he drops in the golf-ball sized spuds. “We’re going in the right direction.”

“What’s crazy is that Bob doesn’t have to come up and help us do this, but he has volunteered,” Belcourt adds. “We have no equipment, so he brought up his to help us weed, and he has given us advice all the way. He gave us the corn seed. That’s Indian corn over there, which I actually planted.”

The yield from those particular seeds is less than spectacular, but Quinn reassures Belcourt: “This is the first year. You shouldn’t be discouraged that it’s not perfect.”

  1. A combine dumps a load of harvested wheat into an empty truck.

  2. A selection of Kamut pasta from Italy sits on a shelf above a collection of grains and seeds grown on the farm.

  3. Randy Edwards prepares Kracklin’ Kamut wheat snacks at Big Sandy Organics.

This 21st-century plainsman grows an ancient Mesopotamian grain called khorasan that he believes holds no less than the power to change everything.

If Quinn initially faced mistrust from the residents of Rocky Boy, he encountered outright skepticism from the people of Big Sandy, including the farmers in and around the town who have spent most of their lives using conventional synthetic chemical agricultural practices. He still hears whispers that he’s trying to impose fancy big-city ideas on their small town — though even the most hard-bitten skeptic has been forced to acknowledge Quinn’s successes. “These young farmers are looking at his new equipment and talking over what’s going on, and they’re saying, ‘I don’t know if I can tolerate these weeds, but damn, he’s making money,’” Maxwell says.

Quinn is sympathetic to farmers wary of new systems. “I was raised farming with chemicals,” he says. “I never questioned our use of fertilizer and herbicide. These were the new tools that my dad quickly adopted after a little experimentation. He thought they could help us be better farmers and make more money.”

Grain by Grain is devoted to debunking that myth. Yes, the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers allows farmers to produce large amounts of food quickly, but the abundant supply continues to drive down prices, which reduces profit margins. That forces farmers into trying to produce even more. Eventually, small farmers are chased off their spreads, unable to afford the vast acreage needed to keep up with chemical commodity agriculture.

Those factors blew through Big Sandy and other small towns like tornadoes on the plain. For proof, you need only look at the past half-century of decline, Quinn says. When he was a boy, for instance, Big Sandy’s population was 1,000 — today it has dropped to below 600 — and it boasted a car dealership, two hardware stores, a couple of secondhand shops, a jeweler, a dry cleaner, a lumberyard and farm supply store, and a movie theater.

Quinn’s dime tour of today’s Big Sandy downtown takes a couple of minutes: Over there is the lone grocery store — a good one, he says, but the only one. The last hardware store closed months ago for lack of business. There’s the senior citizens center, the bank, and a combination bowling alley and restaurant.

“The driver [in] all of these social and economic losses to small, rural communities,” Quinn writes in one of his frequent blog posts, “is the quest for cheap food and cheap goods without regard of the cost to those that make them, not to mention the loss of friends and neighbors unable to support their families, which results in fewer jobs and smaller communities. It’s really too bad the true price of these cheap goods isn’t listed on the price tag. If it were, maybe we would think twice about who and what we really want to support with our purchases. It begs the question: How much is our community — our friends and our neighbors — worth to us?”

Quinn hands a newly dug potato to Jason Belcourt on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, where they have both worked to establish “food sovereignty.”

Quinn dedicated himself and his career to farming without chemicals, making him one of the pioneers in organic agriculture.

Quinn’s own aha moment came a lifetime ago, in the 1970s while he was on a college field trip. He was a graduate student at UC Davis, one of the nation’s premier agricultural schools, and one class outing was to a peach farm. When he stepped off the bus into a “sea of peach trees,” he expected to be overwhelmed by a sweet fragrance. Instead, he smelled nothing. The reason, he learned, was a petroleum-based spray one of his professors had developed that made the peaches look ripe even though they weren’t — which explained why there was no rich, distinctive aroma. In that moment, Quinn says, he was certain of three things: that the spray couldn’t be good for the environment; that unripe peaches were not nearly as nutritious as ripe ones; and that when he returned to Big Sandy, he was going to find a better way.

From that moment sprang Quinn’s dedication to farming without chemicals, making him a pioneer in organic agriculture. (Winner of the Organic Trade Association’s 2010 Organic Leadership Award, Quinn helped draft Montana’s and the nation’s guidelines for organic farming.) “A lot of people said it couldn’t be done,” he recalls. How would you fight weeds and insects without synthetic pesticides? Ever the scientist, Quinn pioneered a system of soil building, green manures, and crop rotation to discourage the growth of weeds and insect infestations. “For many years, people thought I was spraying at night,” he says. “They couldn’t believe anyone could find success without chemical inputs.”

Once he started successfully growing the ancient khorasan wheat, he came up with healthy snack products made from the grain, opening a small plant in Big Sandy that added a few jobs to the economy. (Today his Kamut products are marketed as pasta, cereal, and other foodstuffs all around the world.) When he learned that buyers wanted wheat that had already been milled, he opened a milling plant in nearby Fort Benton to grind his healthier grains, adding jobs there.

Because Quinn doesn’t pay the exorbitant costs of “chemical inputs” — pesticides and herbicides — and because the demand for his healthier grains commands far higher prices from buyers, he not only hasn’t succumbed to the forces dragging down other family farms, but has thrived.

But old ways die hard. Despite Quinn’s successes and the jobs his new endeavors have created, some still cast a jaundiced eye. For one, Quinn committed what to some people is an unpardonable sin: He believed that climate change is both real and man-made. What’s more, he was convinced that the production and employment of the nitrogen-based fertilizers typically used by U.S. farmers generated the greenhouse gases that contributed to climate change.

“He has certainly encountered skepticism,” says Liz Carlisle, a lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University and the co-author of Grain by Grain. “But I think he recognized that commodity agriculture was not going to sustain his farm. Chemical inputs are getting more and more expensive, and we don’t like the government subsidies that essentially cover the cost of those inputs.”

More to the point, she says, “is that he’s thinking at the scale of his whole community. It’s not just ‘How do I save my farm at a time when agriculture is really difficult?’ But ‘How can I help create conditions under which our whole community can really thrive through a smarter, healthier food system?’”

  1. In Quinn’s apple orchard, piles of straw cushion the fall of ripened apples.

  2. The farm’s root cellar provides year-round storage for fruits and vegetables.

  3. In his dual role of scientist and farmer, Quinn carefully tallies the apple harvest.

The field lies vast and hot in the late afternoon, the sun pouring amber over the wheat, which is packed so tightly the landscape looks like a single golden bar. Quinn stands knee-high in the grain, cowboy hat tilted back, his shadow stretching three times his length. He reaches down and pulls a single stalk. Behind him, a combine scythes row after row of the season’s final harvest. He brushes the stalk gently as if it were an ancient artifact, which in some ways it is. “To me, there is something almost sacred about growing wheat,” Quinn writes in Grain by Grain. “Nearly every spring of my life, I have held in my hands a seed passed down over 500 generations, a seed that has nourished my fellow humans for some 10 millennia.”

Just as he likes to begin his days looking over the land from the tall white tower that rises next to his home, he can think of no better way to end them than to be out here, under the big Montana sky, with the golden dust thrown by the combine filling the air with shimmering confetti.

The following morning, he will rise early to make pancakes for a group of visitors. In anticipation, when he leaves the field tonight, he will grind some of his Kamut wheat in a flour mill: Two cups of grain make 2 1/3 cups of flour. He will add 2 tablespoons of the nutty-smelling safflower oil extracted from his homegrown safflower plants; he will add the same amount of honey, extracted from the honeycombs in his own bee farm, as well as two eggs hatched by his daughter’s chickens. He’ll spoon the batter onto a griddle and within a couple of minutes set steaming stacks of golden Kamut pancakes before his guests, along with small bowls of fresh raspberries and chokeberry syrup he made himself. The whole production will be a symphony of food sovereignty, with Bob Quinn as conductor.

For now, however, he shakes his cupped hands like a miner panning for gold until he has reduced the head of the wheat stalk to a small collection of grain. One by one, he pops the kernels into his mouth and looks out onto the fields, his seamed face smoothed by a contented smile.

In our November issue, Bryan Smith described how Rotarians brought a new basketball court — and an anti-bullying program — to Yonkers, New York.

• This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

Crowned by the sun, Quinn basks in the afterglow of a successful harvest: “To me, there is something almost sacred about growing wheat.”


Since 2015, more than 4 million people have fled an economically devastated Venezuela. Tracking the stories of three who left puts faces on that staggering statistic

by Vanessa Galvinskas

Héctor Herrera was driving his father to José Tadeo Monagas International Airport in northeastern Venezuela when they approached a government food stand. Even at 5 a.m., the line was long. “I never thought I’d live in this misery,” Herrera’s father said. Suddenly a fight spilled out into the street in front of them as two men wrestled over a frozen chicken. “At that moment, my father said to me: ‘Son, if you have the opportunity to leave, go,’” recalls Herrera. “‘I will miss you, and it will be difficult, but this is already as low as a person can live.’”

That was in the summer of 2015. A teacher, Herrera was 28 years old and a member of the Rotaract Club of Maturín Juanico. A city that boomed in the 1980s as the oil capital of eastern Venezuela, Maturín is now crippled by the country’s collapse — an economic meltdown that, for the people living there, is worse than the Great Depression. According to a survey released in 2018, 9 out of 10 Venezuelans did not earn enough to buy food, and more than 17 million had fallen into extreme poverty. The BBC reported that desperate parents have been giving away their children rather than watch them starve.

  • 1.45million

    Number of Venezuelans taken in by Colombia, the most of any country

Those conditions are fueling the biggest migration in the history of Latin America as more than 4 million people flee Venezuela. Economists say the country’s collapse is the worst outside of war in at least 45 years, while the Brookings Institution predicts that Venezuela’s refugee crisis will become “the largest and most underfunded in modern history.” From a distance, those facts and statistics can be mind-numbing, obscuring the individuals caught up in this social and economic catastrophe. But the stark reality comes into focus in the stories of three people who fled.

Eduardo José Campechano Escalona, a Rotarian from Barquisimeto, fled to Peru after being targeted for speaking out against government policies. A onetime Rotary Youth Exchange student, Victoria Garcia Baffigo returned to the United States after her former host family grew concerned about her safety and her future in Venezuela. And taking his father’s advice, Héctor Herrera left for Mexico with only $200 and the promise of a place to stay. Each of them had ties to Rotary, which in the end would be their hope and, to an extent, their salvation.

Héctor Herrera in Mexico City

Photo credit: Pato Portillo

On 10 November 2015, the day Herrera left Venezuela, he took a photo of himself to remember the moment. “When I look at that picture now, I see fear, uncertainty, and sadness,” he says. Fortunately, he knew Ferdinando Esquivel through Rotaract.

Herrera had met Esquivel, now a member of the Rotary Club of Zinacatepec, on a trip to Mexico in 2013. The two men became close friends, and Esquivel offered to help Herrera if he ever decided to leave Venezuela.

At the time, Herrera thought things would improve in his native country. But two years later, life was much worse. “The stores had nothing,” he says. “Not even toilet paper.” He had a passport, but without access to dollars, he couldn’t buy a plane ticket. So Esquivel bought it for him and invited Herrera to stay with him in a small town near Toluca. After two weeks, Herrera thanked his friend and boarded a bus for the 40-mile ride to Mexico City, where he hoped to find a job that would give him a work visa.

When he got off the bus in Mexico City, Herrera started to panic. “Left? Right? I didn’t know where to go,” he recalls. “It felt like there was no floor beneath my feet.” He found a place to sit and pulled out his cellphone to text Alonso Macedo, a friend he had met at a Rotary event in Mexico. Macedo had agreed to pick him up and let him stay with him for a few days. But what if he didn’t come? Herrera thought. Where will I sleep tonight? And then, Macedo appeared.

 “After that I looked for work every day — anything that would give me papers,” Herrera says. “I couldn’t sleep, so I’d get on the computer at night and search for jobs.” Finally, a school run by Venezuelans that taught English asked him to come in for an interview, but the school was located four hours from Mexico City. Then another problem arose: He had nowhere to stay. His host was leaving on a trip.

 “That night, it was storming,” Herrera says. “I walked to a restaurant, opened my laptop, and started to send messages to people in Rotary and Rotaract whom I didn’t know personally, but whom I had a connection with through Facebook.” He had no choice but to ask strangers if they would be willing to take him in for the night. He finally got a response from Laura Martínez Montiel. They didn’t know each other, but they had several mutual friends on social media through Rotaract. She gave him her address and told him to take a taxi. Herrera wrote back and explained he didn’t have enough money, so they agreed to meet in a closer neighborhood where Martínez was heading to a Christmas party.

“I was in such a bad state,” Herrera remembers. “I was all wet, and my clothes were dirty.” He worried that Martínez would take one look at him and change her mind about hosting him. Instead, she took him back to her home and introduced him to her mother, who washed his clothes and fixed him something to eat. He explained that he had a job interview the next day, and together they mapped out how to get there on public transportation. At 6 a.m., Martínez gave him a ride to the metro.

“My plan is to get my family out. I don’t have any hope that things are going to change in Venezuela. The damage to the country has been huge.” — Héctor Herrera

When Herrera arrived for the interview, he saw a familiar face. It turned out he had reviewed the interviewer’s thesis a few years earlier. After talking awhile, the interviewer asked if Herrera could start on Monday. “No,” he replied, “I want to start today.”

Herrera’s job was to make hundreds of calls looking for clients for the school; if someone signed up, Herrera was paid a commission. He stayed with Martínez and her mother for another week and commuted four hours each way until he asked for an advance on his salary so he could rent an apartment closer to his job. “On 15 January, I got my first commission,” he says. “It was a relief, because as of the 14th, I only had $2.”

By April, Herrera was promoted to advertising manager, and in July, he finally received a work permit. Two years later, he found a job that better suited his teaching skills, working as a trainer for a company that advises businesses on streamlining their processes.

 “I started giving lectures around this beautiful country,” Herrera says. “But on 3 December 2018, I received an email from the national migration authority saying I had to leave Mexico in 20 days.” A migratory alert had been issued for him after immigration authorities visited his previous employer, the English school. When they rang the bell, no one answered the door, so they flagged it as a fake company. “I could not believe it,” Herrera says. “I was doing well, but now it was worse than the beginning because I no longer had papers. I had to start over.”

For the past year, Herrera has been fighting the alert with the help of a public defender. Each day that it remains unresolved, he’s at risk of being deported. He’s seeking asylum to be able to stay, but with Venezuela’s crisis worsening, his claim is one of thousands. “Mexico is now returning Venezuelans immediately when they arrive at the airport,” Herrera says. Still, he says he will not give up. “Until I have my dream of a visa, I will not rest.”

Eduardo José Campechano Escalona in Trujillo, Peru

Photo credit: Florence Goupil

Eduardo José Campechano Escalona started having anxiety attacks in 2015. “There were constant riots in my city,” says Campechano, a former member of the Rotary Club of Barquisimeto, Venezuela’s fourth-largest city. “My children could not attend school or go out. They had to live literally locked up in our apartment.”

Though he and his wife were university professors, their income no longer covered basic necessities. At the time, hyperinflation was 181 percent. (At the end of 2019, the International Monetary Fund estimated that the annual inflation rate was 200,000 percent.) What’s more, several incidents led Campechano to believe the government was targeting him.

 “I had questioned government policies,” he explains. “[Government-issued] textbooks omitted parts of Venezuelan history and only highlighted facts related to the government of Hugo Chávez,” the country’s president from 1999 to 2013. After speaking out publicly about the inaccuracies and biases in the mandated textbooks, Campechano says that he started being denied access to grant funding. When he and his family decided to leave for Peru, Campechano went to a state-run bank to get a credit card so he could access dollars for a plane ticket. Again, he was denied. “It was a way to intimidate me,” he says. When he posted about it on social media, he received a threatening email.

“It was painful to leave, but we are very grateful for the opportunity in this country. Now we feel safe.” — Eduardo José Campechano Escalona

Running out of options, Campechano asked a friend living abroad if he would be willing to buy him a plane ticket to Lima. Campechano had secured a position at Universidad César Vallejo in Trujillo, a city in northern Peru that he had often visited as a guest lecturer and where he had a work visa lined up.

Campechano moved to Peru in March 2017. Four months later, he brought his wife, their two adolescent children, and his mother-in-law, who was sick with cancer, to Peru. “During those first months, my family was the Rotary E-Club of Fusión Latina Distrito 4465,” says Campechano. When his mother-in-law died, their Rotary family consoled and supported them.

Campechano remains connected to the members of his former club in Barquisimeto, and he says they are still engaging in service, despite the hard conditions. “There is no Youth Exchange program anymore,” he says. “They are just trying to get basics, like food and medicine, to people.” Alberto Avelino Camacaro Zerpa, a former governor of District 4380 in western Venezuela, estimates that 20 to 30 percent of the country’s Rotary members and nearly 40 percent of its Rotaract members have left Venezuela. Yet many clubs continue to meet when members aren’t limited by access to gasoline and electricity.

“It was painful to leave,” Campechano says, “but we are very grateful for the opportunity in this country. Now we feel safe.”

Victoria Garcia Baffigo in Aurora, Illinois

Photo credit: Ramon Perez Palacios-Pelletier

“I think everyone who returns home after studying abroad gets reverse culture shock,” says Victoria Garcia Baffigo. “I had that, but worse.”

After spending the 2015-16 school year living as a Rotary Youth Exchange student with Dave Siegfried and his family in Aurora, Illinois, Garcia went home to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Venezuela. “Some days we didn’t have power for 10 hours,” she says. Hyperinflation had gotten so bad that her family could afford very little at the supermarket.

One day the phone rang. The caller told them they had her brother and demanded money for his release. Thankfully, they didn’t really have him, she says. Still, the call rattled the family.

Chris Olson, a member of the Rotary Club of Aurora Sunrise, had been monitoring the situation in Venezuela from Illinois. “Chris told us Victoria had gotten back to Venezuela and found things had changed dramatically from when she left,” says Charlie Schmalz, who, like Olson and Siegfried, is a member of the Aurora Sunrise club. “She had spent all that time studying here, and now her whole future was destroyed. It was a terrible thing. So a group of us got together and said we should do something.”

 “The first call that Chris made was to my mom, and then my mom talked to me about going back to the United States,” Garcia says. “I didn’t ever think about staying in the U.S. because my parents couldn’t afford for me to get an education there, and I wanted to get my college degree.”

Now Garcia had the opportunity to get her degree in the United States, fully paid through a fund the Aurora Sunrise club set up for her. “It’s still hard for me to understand,” she says. “I can’t believe that people who are not family are doing this for me.”

It took more than a year to make the arrangements. Much of that time was spent waiting to get a student visa. “Airlines started pulling out of Venezuela,” says Schmalz’s wife, Mary. “We were so close to Victoria getting the last papers, so Dave bought a seat on the chance that she could come. He bought the seat, and the day before the flight left, Victoria got her visa. It was a miracle.”

“Some days we didn’t have power for 10 hours,” Garcia says. Hyperinflation had gotten so bad that her family could afford very little at the supermarket.

Garcia is now in her third year of college, at Aurora University, majoring in biology and health science with a minor in biotechnology. She’s the first person in her family to go to college. Though the original plan was to rotate host families, she has stayed with Charlie and Mary Schmalz for more than two years now. “We’ve bonded over board games and watching TV,” Garcia says. Adds Mary: “She meshes so easily into our lifestyle. She’s like a grandchild to us.”

Still, the couple knows Garcia misses her family, so one Christmas, they surprised her with a ticket to visit her mother, who had recently migrated to Peru. When Garcia and her mother lived in Venezuela, they shared an apartment with her grandmother, who remains there. “Every evening, we used to sit on my grandmother’s bed, and my mom, my grandma, and I would talk about our day,” recalls Garcia. “Then I’d do homework and my mom would make dinner. My grandma and I used to read the same books and talk about them.”

Garcia is concerned about her grandmother’s health, but her uncle, a member of the Rotary Club of Valencia, has been crossing into Colombia to get her medications. “My grandmother worries about getting food,” Garcia says. “She worries a lot about money and if she’ll have enough. It’s really hard.” Garcia hopes to see her grandmother again one day in Venezuela after she finishes college.

Until then, she’s focused on her studies and talking to local Rotary clubs about her experience in the United States and the crisis in Venezuela, raising awareness about the people suffering in the country she loves.

“At the beginning, Victoria was often sad,” Mary Schmalz says. “She’d say, ‘There’s no way I can ever pay all of you back for this.’ I told her, ‘We don’t need to be paid back. What you need to do is, when you’re in a position to help someone, you do.’”

  • 89.00%

    Share of Venezuelans who do not have enough income to buy food

My father died in August,” says Herrera. “I feel 1 percent pain and 99 percent gratitude. I’m grateful for his love and that he was always there for us.” Herrera was unable to return to Venezuela when his father died; had he traveled there, he would have been denied re-entry into Mexico. He takes solace in knowing that his father would want him to continue trying to build a life in his new home. “My plan is to get my family out,” he says. “I don’t have any hope that things are going to change in Venezuela. The damage to the country has been huge.” The Brookings Institution estimates that the number of Venezuelan migrants could eventually rise to 8 million, even more than the 6 million who have fled Syria — yet Venezuelans have received less than 10 percent of the international aid committed for Syrian refugees.

“The hardest part of migrating is changing your heart,” Herrera says. “When I encounter Venezuelans in Mexico, the first thing they talk about is the bad things happening in Venezuela.” Instead, Herrera has chosen to honor his father by working toward his dream of success. He even started an Instagram page called “Migrating to Success”; he uses it to share inspirational quotes with his 4,000 followers. “Having to start over isn’t all bad,” read a recent post. “It’s shown me that anything is possible.”

Additional research and reporting by Claudia Urbano

• This story originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

More than a library

After the genocide of 1994, Rotarians led a successful campaign to build Rwanda’s first public library. A bastion against ignorance and tyranny, it has become a gathering place where a culture of reading, the arts, and democracy thrives.

by Jina Moore
Photography by Andrew Esiebo

Twenty-year-old Noella Umutoniwase and her friends have been hanging out at the library for as long as they can remember. They come to study in its quiet spaces, chill at its rooftop cafe, or chat with friends in the garden. In fact, if you ask her whether she remembers Kigali before there was a library, Umutoniwase scrunches up her face in disbelief. “Before there was a library?” she asks, as if evoking the dawn of time.

For her, it might as well be. The brainchild of Rotarians in Rwanda, the Kigali Public Library was born, at least as an idea, not long after Umutoniwase herself. Back then, the Rotarians who proposed it must have seemed crazy. Only six years before, more than 800,000 people had been killed in an event known today as the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. Farms and businesses were destroyed, basic infrastructure was broken, Rwandans were traumatized. A public library must have seemed like a strange priority.

In the stacks, a patron reads a book titled Transforming Rwanda, one of the library’s 19,000 volumes and 30,000 digital titles.

But the members of the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga, Rwanda’s first English-speaking club, thought the idea made sense. One of them was Beth Payne, an economic, commercial, and consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda and a fan of libraries; she had put herself through law school partly by working at one. But it was more than a personal affection: “I had always believed that a free library is one of the cornerstones of America’s democracy,” she says. When the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga was chartered, in 2000, Rwanda was focused on its future — on ensuring peace and reconciliation, stability and security, and economic growth — and Payne believed it was the perfect time to think about how literacy and access to information could support those goals.

Payne taught a class about the internet to Rwandan businesspeople. “I watched how they responded to this wealth of knowledge and information all of a sudden becoming available to them,” she says. “So I suggested to our club that one of the ways to support stability and growth, even if it’s not as direct as other ways, is by having a place where people can come and get information and knowledge. And that captured people’s imaginations — although, I’ll be honest, I was thinking of something a lot smaller.”

Thinking small, however, wasn’t something that the country’s newest Rotary club wanted to do. Most of its members were Rwandans whose families had fled the country in 1959, in another episode of violence that many consider Rwanda’s first genocide. They had grown up on stories of Rwanda and dreams of return, and now that they had arrived, they had ambitious ideas and limitless energy.

Gerald Mpyisi, the charter president of the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga and a key figure in the library’s founding, was one of those people. He had grown up in Zimbabwe, gone to college in Uganda, and worked in Kenya, where he had loved the McMillan Library — Nairobi’s oldest — a neoclassical edifice filled with literary treasures. He drew on the inspiration he had felt while wandering its stacks to galvanize his fellow club members. “Those of us who had lived outside knew the importance of libraries,” Mpyisi says. “I said, ‘Guys, let’s think big. There’s no public library in this country. Does anyone here know a country without a library?’”

“You cannot learn when you’re in trouble. Psychologically, you just can’t. A library needs peace.”

Building a library was a daunting undertaking. But the club was new, energetic, and ambitious, and the members felt buoyed by the scale of the project. “Everyone was in unison; everyone thought it was a great idea, even though we didn’t have the means. But if you don’t dream big, nothing becomes a reality,” says Cally Alles, a member of the Rotary Club of Colombo, Sri Lanka, who lived in Rwanda for more than two decades and is now that country’s honorary consul in Sri Lanka. As a member of the French-speaking Rotary Club of Kigali, Alles helped start the English-speaking Kigali-Virunga club to channel the energy of the country’s earliest returnees, many of whom had grown up in Anglophone countries. The club received a $2,000 Matching Grant from The Rotary Foundation for a computer and other items and decided to raise the construction funds itself, tapping support from then-U.S. Ambassador George McDade Staples, himself a member of the Kigali-Virunga club, and the country’s president, Paul Kagame, who was the guest of honor at the club’s first fundraiser in November 2000. In one night, the club brought in $250,000 in cash and pledges, about 20 percent of the project’s total budget, Mpyisi says. “That boosted our morale,” he says.

Rotarians carried the message abroad, and soon they and their friends were donating hundreds of books to the future library. The club began hosting monthly used book sales of duplicate or unneeded volumes, putting the proceeds toward the costs of construction. At the time, books in Rwanda were difficult to find, and prices were far beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, so the club’s sales became hugely popular. Virtually all the books on offer would find homes, but some were more sought after than others. “This was when Americans were all getting rid of their encyclopedias,” Payne recalls. “Imagine, in Rwanda back then, seeing a whole set of encyclopedias, and you could buy it for $5. People ate those encyclopedia sets up.”

At one early book sale, President Kagame and his family showed up unannounced. His children picked out several books — and, Mpyisi remembers with a laugh, their father insisted on a receipt.

In fact, Kagame was a key figure in the library’s evolution. In his personal capacity, he was among its first donors. Later, when the global economic crisis stalled the club’s fundraising and slowed the library’s construction, the president stepped in to help keep things moving, according to Paul Masterjerb, a member of the Kigali-Virunga club and the current chair of its library committee. In 2009, Masterjerb says, Kagame donated $500,000 personally and asked the country’s ministers of finance, infrastructure, education, and culture to make a plan and allocate funds to finish building the structure.

In 2012, the library opened its doors. It is managed as a public-private partnership between the Ministry of Education and Innovation Group, a local company that offers online and offline creative platforms to communities. The partnership is overseen by a board that includes representatives from the offices of the president and the prime minister, as well as the Imbuto Foundation, a private foundation of first lady Jeannette Kagame that promotes literacy and other programs. The Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga also has a seat on the board, held by the club’s library committee chair. Masterjerb says this form of partnership ironed out some early wrinkles in the library’s day-to-day functioning. Now, he says, it’s “perfect.”

“We all felt most comfortable at the library because it’s a public place suitable for equal discussion between equal parties.”

The Kigali Public Library has taken its place as a major institution in the now-bustling capital. On any given afternoon, the reading tables in the “study zone” are full of people in deep concentration, many of them secondary school or university students.

“The library came at the right time,” says Jenipher Ingabire, the Kigali-Virunga club’s current president. “We didn’t have places you could sit down and read. During summer holidays, when my three children are at home, I take them to the library. We borrow books; sometimes we sit there and read together. For adults, I see it as an opportunity, as a good place for us as Rwandans. As a club, we are really proud to have built that place, for having come up with an idea that not everybody would have thought of at the time as a priority.”

There are also older patrons for whom the library is part of a daily routine. Aime Byimana, 62, is one of them. He wants to start his own firm, and nearly every day for the past year, he has spent a few hours reading textbooks about information systems, corporate management, and business strategy. He finds the library, free and open to all, a hopeful and exciting place — and a reminder of how far Rwanda has come. “You cannot learn when you’re in trouble. Psychologically, you just can’t,” he says. “A library needs peace.”

Byimana doesn’t have the money for the membership fee of 12,000 Rwandan francs, or about $13, that is required to check books out of the library. But many patrons say they prefer to leave the books on the shelves — and hold on to an excuse to get out of the house and come to the library, where they can peruse the more than 19,000 volumes that are housed on three floors (the library also has 30,000 digital titles in its collection). Byimana spends his days upstairs in the study zone; that floor also holds a collection of French books and a corner that’s home to the Institut Français. The ground floor, or “interactive zone,” has a large, colorful children’s room, an internet cafe, and the Korea Corner, a kind of self-guided language and culture lab. The basement is the “collaboration zone,” with a large conference room and smaller meeting rooms.

That is where Joseph Kalisa, current president of the Rotaract Club of KIE, coordinated the team that planned a national trauma symposium in February 2019 that brought together mental health practitioners, social workers, and community leaders. The symposium, the first of its kind in Rwanda, was one of the events held in 2019 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide, and Kalisa says the library was a key force in making the symposium possible. “The planning team chose the Kigali Public Library for its neutrality,” he says. “We were 15 or 20 people from different organizations and NGOs, and we felt it was important to work from a neutral space where no one would be seen to be taking the lead. We all felt most comfortable at the library because it’s a public place suitable for equal discussion between equal parties.”

A thriving culture of arts and literature has also blossomed here. Huza Press, the first independent publisher in Rwanda, got its start in a library conference room in 2015. For several years, Huza Press offered a literary prize to encourage Rwandans to write their own stories and to identify emerging talent. Last year, on the library’s rooftop exhibition and events space, the publisher launched RadioBook Rwanda, a three-part audiovisual chapbook series of new fables written in the tradition of Rwanda’s old tales, the kind that Huza founder Louise Umutoni grew up listening to her parents read at bedtime. “The library is a space that’s been created as a celebration of books, as a celebration of storytelling, as a celebration of literature,” says Umutoni, who grew up in Uganda. “We’ve worked hard to reinforce that and to use the space that celebrates what we do as a publisher.”

“The regimes that were here knew that the best way to rule over people was to keep them ignorant. If you have a library accessible to everyone, it’s much harder.”

Solange Impanoyimana feels the same loyalty, born of the same appreciation. She’s a co-founder of Generation Rise, a local nongovernmental organization that uses literature as the foundation of a leadership curriculum that teaches girls in secondary school self-expression, confidence, and creativity through discussions, debates, and journaling about books. “The library promotes the culture of reading and helps people understand that reading is important, especially in the lives of young people,” Impanoyimana says. “When young people have access to books, they are exposed to different opinions, different stories, different places. They train their minds to imagine new things or to be creative, not to find themselves locked in one place. The more they read, the more they can believe in different possibilities, not just what they have seen in their families.”

Creating “a culture of reading” is precisely what Paul Masterjerb and his fellow Rotarians had in mind nearly 20 years ago. Though the young generation that fills the library’s corridors today doesn’t think in these terms, its elders believe that literacy is one of the most powerful tools to help fight the divisions that led to so much tragedy in the past. “The Rotarians thought that we need to boost a reading culture in our society so that the people can know more about what has been written historically in the world, and then they won’t be pulled so much toward committing genocide,” Masterjerb says.

Mpyisi, who chaired the club’s library committee for six years, says that preventing another genocide was “at the core of our thinking” from the start. “You know, it was easy for simple-minded people to be influenced by bad government. The reason why people were so quick to kill their own people was because the majority of the people in the country were illiterate. For them, any word that comes from the government at any level, that is the gospel truth,” he says. “The regimes that were here knew that the best way to rule over people was to keep them ignorant. If you have a library accessible to everyone, it’s much harder to keep people ignorant.”

For Nancy Wanny Mpadu, a 24-year-old medical student at the University of Rwanda, the tranquility that the library nurtures and protects for those who spend time there is like sunlight or oxygen — part of the invisible fabric of everyday Rwanda. She was born after the genocide, and heavy words like “reconciliation” and “stability” don’t weigh on her the way they do on the generation before her. For Mpadu, another value stands out: equality. When she first walked past the library a year or so ago, she didn’t know what it was or how it worked. “They told me the place is free for anyone to use,” she says. “And I feel good seeing so many people here. I even see my senior colleagues here, senior doctors. It’s a place any person, big or small, can come and mix with anyone else — a place that’s equal for everybody.”

Jina Moore, formerly the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, has been reporting from Africa for 15 years.

• This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.

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