Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holiday Letter 2009

Happy New Year everyone!

2009 has been a very busy year for the Dynes family. Our biggest news is that we moved to Georgia. It was an emotional move for both the parents and the kids. Saying goodbye is never easy and after seven years of developing close relationships, the goodbyes were particularly tough. Colleagues at Mayo gave the family are really nice send-off party, and even played a super funny joke on Michelle on her last day at work (you know who you are)! We are so grateful for the friends we made in Minnesota and have no doubt the friendships will carry on for years to come. And by the way, still waiting for y'all to visit! ;)

Living so far from family has been an adjustment, though we have had several visitors in the months since we've moved. Trav's sister and brother rode down to Atlanta with Trav and the kids in August - 18 hours in the car with three children under eight is no small feat! Way to go Zach and Hannah! Trav's sister, Dominique, visited in October, traveling all the way from Guadalajara, Mexico. Trav's grandparents stopped by for dinner on their way to Florida (best not to mention the GPS incident), and more recently, Trav's mom and Michelle's mom visited in December.

The kids have made the transition to Atlanta with unbelievable ease. They have made many new friends in the neighborhood and have play dates with schoolmates regularly. We have become frequent visitors to the Georgia Aquarium which is truly an amazing place. We have climbed Stone Mountain a few times, usually involving some sort of a race to the top (and I believe Forest is undefeated!). We also took a road trip to Savannah's historic district when Michelle's mom visited this month.

Shen turned four years old this year! Wow! He started at Frasier Center Pre-K in August - all day, everyday. The school is connected to the High School, so the idea of Shen walking the halls with upper class men is beyond funny. He is delighted to be a bus rider for the first time (though parents not so fond of the 6:55 AM boarding). Shen is excelling in school, as we expected and seems to be making friends. We are fairly sure he has a photographic memory which will serve him well in school. He also loves to build things and figure out how they work (a budding engineer?). He is a funny little guy and makes us laugh on a daily basis. His sense of humor seems beyond his years, something even his teachers have caught onto. Shen played soccer this year for the first time and was a hoot to watch. He rarely managed to kick the ball in games, but chose to run around instead (at least it was in the direction of the ball) and laugh and laugh! The very last game of the season was a highlight. The ball went out of bounds and the coach for the other team noted that Shen was standing in front of the goal alone, so she rolled the ball right to him. He gave it a kick and in it went --GOAL! Shen's coach ran up to him and threw him up in the air several times - it was as if he had just won the World Cup! Oh, and Shen's favorite new word is 'Uffda' (good to know he still has some Norwegian in him).

Amara turned six this year and started Kindergarten. She is doing really well in school and seems to have a lot of friends. She is quite a reader and keeps herself busy by writing and illustrating books, songs, etc. She has become a very good swimmer and mommy is still trying to talk her into swim team for the summer! Amara also played soccer for the first time. She pretty much dominated the games, making goal after goal after goal. She is surprisingly coordinated, though we are not convinced she was made for team sports. She likes to make the goals herself (rather than pass the ball off) and she doesn't always pay attention to what's going on around her - a wee bit of an absent minded professor. Amara is quite a linguist (it only took her a month to learn English) and now flaunts a southern accent when it suits her. We are discouraging this, of course, being the good Minnesotans that we are (ya you betcha).

Forest turned seven years old this year and is in 1st grade. He really loves school and has made some good friends. Forest has been participating in both Science and Math Club as school, both of which he excels. He also played soccer for the first time with team "Thunder". He is fast on the field and surprisingly aggressive. We wouldn't be surprised if soccer becomes Forest's sport of choice (daddy sure would love that!). Forest has become quite a good artist, particularly with drawing animals. He also showed us his creative side with the invention of something he has named "Bobble Bodies" which are little animals and people. The body, arms, legs, head/tail are separate pieces of paper and he connects each piece with safety pins (thus, the bobble). He was so excited when he discovered this little trick that he made one for each of his classmates with individual instructions and all.

Michelle is now officially finished with one semester of her PhD program. She has an amazing advisor and the greatest classmates one could ask for. Michelle will be focusing her research on global maternal child health with an emphasis in maternal and newborn survival in developing countries. Other activities this year have been helping to co-teach HBLSS for the ACNM in March and August and attending the LSS workshop in November (sorry for the acronyms). Michelle also spent two weeks in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) conducting a needs assessment at Panzi Hospital. This hospital provides care to women and young girls suffering from fistulas resulting from rape or prolonged birth. Michelle came away from the trip with an overwhelming sense of admiration for the women of the DRC - for their ability to keep moving forward in the face of unspeakable trauma. She will be returning in April with a group of health care provides from Mayo Clinic.

Travis has had another busy year as a stay-at-home parent (though "stay-at-home" just does not capture the breath of the role!). He finished up his terms on three boards that he served on for the past several years in Rochester. He has been very dedicated to his volunteer work and was even nominated for an award for his work in with the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Trav also received an award from the Rochester Fire Department (along with Forest!) for their assistance in identifying and calling for help when a home in the neighborhood caught fire. Since moving to Atlanta, Travis has continued caring for the kids and has also picked-up some part-time work at Emory and a bit of carpentry work for his great-uncle (not to mention official organizer for Michelle's school 'stuff' - thanks honey!). He continues to look for a full-time position, though the extra help at home has been a blessing over the past few months.

2009 has been a crazy and wonderful year, filled with great change and new beginnings. We are truly blessed to have family and friends who continue to support us through the years. Our door is always open!

Love and peace to you and your loved ones for the coming year!

Travis, Michelle, Forest, Amara, and Shen

Introducing the debut of "It is Nighttime"

Amara loves to sing and recently wrote a song titled "It is Nighttime". She says it is a lullaby for Shen (awwww). I decided to videotape the song to mark her debut as a singer/song-writer. Shen was happy to sing back-up vocals, and Forest decided he would be the videographer. They took several takes with Forest giving directions after viewing each take such as "the rocking of the chair was distracting..." or "Amara, you were holding the paper over your face". It was a fun afternoon activity, and I have to admit, I am pretty impressed with Amara's song writing debut. Enjoy : )

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Most Patient Santa Ever...

We took the kids to see Santa today at the mall. Forest and Amara spent some time making their list of "wishes" before leaving home. All three kids went up to see Santa at the same time and squeezed into the sleigh to have their picture taken. Santa patiently allowed each child to read his/her list (at the speed of early elementary readers) - he truly exuded the essence of Santa! Shen did not prepare a list ahead of time. Rather, he told us that his list "is a surprise" and "it is in my mind". Turns out Shen's list was the shortest list (imagine that) and also the most humble. We tried to overhear his conversation with the big guy and we believe he mentioned something about a "Christmas light" and a train.
For the record, Shen told us the other night he thought he definitely was on Santa's "nice list" (this in response to seeing another little boy throwing a tantrum). You just gotta love kids!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Amazing Face Painting at the Aquarium

Disney Visits the Aquarium

We spent Saturday morning with my classmates, Angela and Debbie, and Debbie's three children. We started off the day having a scrumptious breakfast at the Flying Biscuit. Then we headed to the Georgia Aquarium where Disney was sponsoring an event in preparation for the opening of the new movie 'the Princess and the Frog'. There were lots of activities including pictures with various Disney princesses, the "frog jump", and face painting. The kids also got to do their usual favorites at the aquarium such as touching the sting rays and watching the whale sharks swim around in the enormous tank. They had a great time and it was really nice for the 'moms' to get together outside of school.

More Soccer Pictures!

Soccer 2009

The kids all participated in youth soccer this Fall. They had really great coaches and learned a lot. Amara is a star player and manages to find the goal more often than most. She is coordinated and quite skilled. Forest is a team player, a fast runner, and more aggressive than you would imagine (he even had a foul called on him during one game during a sprint to the ball). Shen just plain has fun out on the field! He runs around and laughs. When he manages to get in position to make contact with the ball, he gives it a kick and says "hi-yah". Then he just stands there and watches where the ball goes...all the while, laughing and giggling. He is a hoot to watch play!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

More Halloween Fun

During Halloween Day, we met my classmate and her kids at "Monkey Joes", a jumping place for kids. The kids really hit it off and had a lot of fun. Later during trick-or-treating, we took some pictures of school friends and all the craziness of Halloween.

Pumpkins 2009

The kids had a blast carving their pumpkins this year. They did a great job! We also roasted pumkin seeds and made pumpkin muffins which were enjoyed by all!

Halloween, Atlanta Style!

This year, Forest decided to be one of the "X-Men", Amara was a cow-girl, and little Shen was the cutest little Eyore you have ever seen! During the build-up to the big day, we started getting the sense that Halloween is a pretty big deal in Atlanta. Well, I am happy to say that we were not disappointed! The street behind our apartment complex was bustling with costumed children and adults alike. If you can remember the Halloween seen in the movie "ET", that is pretty much what it was like (minus the extra-terrestrial). It really was fun! The kids ran into many of their classmates while out and about. There were even offerings of adult treats (beer and wine) at a few of the houses! You gotta love it!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Amara's New (and much shorter) 'Do'

We finally reached a critical turning point in regards to Amara's hair. For those of you who don't know, Amara was blessed with a very LARGE amount of beautiful, tightly coiled, and soft hair. It grows unbelievably fast, and because it is so soft, loves to tangle if not continuously braided. Until this point, I have felt reasonably able to keep up with the needs of her hair. Unfortunately, the combination of being a PhD student and her hair length down to the lower point of her back, I haven't felt able to spend the time needed to really do her hair as I would like. I have been contemplating options that I never thought I would consider (chemically straightening, locks, routine flat ironing, cutting). I have never wanted to consider these options because I don't want Amara to feel that her hair isn't perfect just the way it is. That said, I also realize the importance of sending her to school with hair that is done nicely and not a complete disaster.
After much contemplation, I finally decided to cut her hair (and I mean really cut). I still hate the idea of chemically straightening it, so cutting it this seems like the least of two evils. So the other night, after spending a good 4 hours combing out her hair (no kidding, four hours just to untangle it), I approached Amara about the idea of cutting it. She said she really didn't care and that was just fine with her...ha...who knew?
So we proceeded to the bathroom where I started the big cut. When I was done, she looked into the mirror and exclaimed "Momma, you didn't cut very much! You have to do more!". Well, I begged to differ, looking into the wast basket completely full of freshly cut curly hair!! Last night, I sat down and braided Amara's new short 'do' and it only took 2 hours (oh my goodness!). Compare this to the 8+ hours it was taking before the cut and you can imagine my excitement!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Delirious in Goma

August 23, 2009
I have been lucky up until yesterday afternoon. After arriving in Goma, I had lunch and later met with Jennifer from UNICEF. The meeting went well, but shortly after, I found myself curled up shivering under my covers. I had planned to have dinner with Celine and her friends, but that was not meant to be. I continued to think I was fine and would be OK to go out for a bit, but reality eventually struck and I had to cancel. I didn’t eat anything for dinner, or breakfast the next day, or lunch. I was up to the bathroom off and on all night. The worst of it was the fever that made me practically delirious, though I can’t even say for sure since I was out of it (just ask my mom what I am like with a high fever!). Now imagine me in the DRC, waking up and needing to find the bathroom FAST, only to find out that the electricity is off and I have to inch my way there. I tripped over the doorway into the bathroom and found myself lying on the tile floor for some time (on the plus side, the tile felt cool and probably helped the fever!). The electricity did come back on shortly, which resolved much of my confusion within a few minutes, thank goodness!

I am happy to report that I was only sick for 2 days, thanks to Cipro and good old time itself. I still run a low-grade fever on and off, but the worse is way over. I did manage to visit HEAL Africa, an organization and hospital in Goma that does fistula care. It was the first morning after the above incident and I hadn’t had anything to eat. I took a moto taxi (motor bike) because I was running late and couldn’t expend the energy it would take to walk the short distance. I met with Lynn Lusi who is a program manager there and married to the director of the hospital. She talked with me and showed me around, and eventually took pity and drove me back to the hotel. It wasn’t my best moment. She said she would be happy to stay in e-mail contact so that I could ask the questions I would have asked had I been feeling well and truly in the moment. She was very kind and I look forward to further correspondence.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


August 21, 2009
I had to be at MONUC Headquarters at 0530AM in order to catch a shuttle to the hanger. I arrived at the airport at 0700 and ended up waiting until 1130AM for the flight to board. During the wait, I sat and talked with two other travelers; one UN volunteered based in Goma, and one pilot from India based in DRC for one year. We had a really good time getting to know each and I hope we will stay in touch. The flight was supposed to be via helicopter, but it got changed to a C130 big cargo plane. They allowed pictures inside the plane, so I took advantage. We all got ear plugs to use during the short flight due to the noise. We flew at 10,000 feet which allowed for some really beautiful views out the window!

Good Pizza and Enlightening Conversation

August 20, 2009
Since Thursday was my last day with Daisy and Moses, I decided to invite them to have pizza at the restaurant at Coco Lodge. We had a really nice time talking and getting to know each other even more. I shared things about American culture, they shared about Congolese culture. Daisy also gave me a long and detailed account of Rwandan/Congo conflicts since the 1950s. He has lived through much of it, so to hear his account was priceless. I will try to share an abbreviated version sometime soon.

Last Day in Bukavu

August 20, 2009
On Thursday I made one last trip to Panzi to tour the surgical facilities. The people at Panzi have been very helpful in letting me take pictures of equipment and other facilities. I also met with Aziza, the head of the SGBV program with UNFPA. She gave me a really detailed explanation of the UNFPA’s work in Bukavu. She also described the work that the SGBV Working Group is doing; all of the major players in the area doing SGBV work gather twice monthly to discuss lessons learned, review statistics, etc. She also provided me with the stats for the past 6 months in South Kivu. The numbers are staggering, especially considering they may only represent a small portion of actual cases. Later in the day, I met with a representative from IRC in Bukavu. IRC is supporting SGBV work through financial contributions and trainings. They provide support to local NGOs who help survivors with reintegration. We also drove to the Congo-Rwandan border which is within Bukavu and very beautiful.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Stories that Will Break Your Heart

August 19, 2009
This afternoon, I went back to Panzi Hospital to interview survivors. I was able to meet with two young women who were gracious and courageous enough to tell me their stories. They were OK with me sharing their stories so that the awareness of this sort of violence against women can be raised further. To protect their privacy, I will not use their real names. I will try to use the words that the young women used (through the use of a Congolese interpreter), so as not to undermine or overdramatize their experiences:

Shamima's Story
Shamima is a 16 year old girl who arrived at Panzi little more than one week ago. In the dark of night, three armed men forced their way into her family’s home. Her mother was at a nearby hospital because she had just given birth. Shamima and her father, along with three siblings were held while the men looted food, clothing and livestock. The men left the three young children in the house, and they forced Shamima and her father to walk to the grandmother’s home where they looted again. Her father and grandmother were left in the house tied up and Shamima was taken into the bush. She was forced to carry all that the men had looted, including pulling along two goats. At one point, the goats got away and they said “We will kill you. You let them go, today you must die”. They also threatened to cut off her foot. After 1-2 hours, she begged the men to stop walking because she was exhausted from carrying the heavy load. They said “we will kill you and then you will rest forever”. She continued walking. Later, the men told Shamima to undress and she refused. They pushed her to the ground, beat her, and ripped her clothing off. One man raped her followed by the second. The third man did not rape her because there was already so much blood. The men left her then and Shamima walked in dark through the forest. She came upon a house where a man answered. He let her in and listened to her story. He immediately prayed for her and then helped her lay down with his children. In the early morning, Shamima decided to walk home. The man prayed again for her and then sent his daughter to walk with her. On the way, Shamima spotted her aunt who was out looking for her with many other people. Her aunt said she thought she was killed – that they were out “looking for a dead body”. The aunt and others prayed to God for her life. Her aunts danced with happiness. They then went to her father’s work where he embraced Shamima and wept with joy, saying “God is really mighty”. A neighbor came and advised Shamima that she should go to Panzi Hospital for evaluation. There, she received an evaluation and medications to reduce the risk of HIV, other sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy related to the rape.

The Story of Lucy
Lucy is an 18 year old young woman who arrived at Panzi Hospital one week ago. Lucy will be delivering her first baby in September and has come to Panzi for this purpose. She also came to Panzi because, in her words, the baby is a “bush baby”. Lucy was abducted by five men over three years ago at the age of 14. Lucy was at home with her mother and father when the men broke into their home. Her father was murdered and her mother was severely injured. Lucy was taken by the men into the bush to a “forest prison” where many men and women were already tied to trees. Lucy was first raped along the way into the forest. For over the three years, she lived as a sex slave for three men. At some point, Lucy’s menstrual cycle began and she became pregnant shortly thereafter. When the men found out that she was pregnant, they wanted her to leave. She walked and walked until she met a man who took her to her home village. He knew about an organization that helped survivors. The organization brought her, along with other women, to Panzi Hospital where she is receiving care for pregnancy. Lucy says she will not go back to her village. The people there say she is a “wife of the Hutu”, so she does not feel she can return.


August 19, 2009
Daisy and Moses are teaching me Swahili. They are so kind and patient. When I try to talk with the local people, they just smile at me as if thinking, “look at the funny Muzungu (see list below) trying to speak with us!”. It is all in good fun and I join them in laughing; they seem to at least appreciate the effort. I also had the chance to meet Daisy's wife and children (7 children in total -- the baby was asleep inside); I will attach the photo. Here are a few words and phrases I learned today:
Jambo – Hello
Coco – Thanks in the local language
Asanti Sana – thank you very much
Jina Langu – My name is…
Jina Lako Nani – What is your name?
Nani – Who is that?
Nini – What is that?
Wari – Where
Hapa – Here
Pala – There
Nina toka America – I am from America
Habari Ngani? How are you?
Muzuri – Good
Muzuri kito go – a bit fine
Muzungu – generic word for white person