The Big Island Chocolate Festival

Knowing we would be on the Big Island of Hawaii by March 21, we looked at the calendar and saw the BIG ISLAND CHOCOLATE FESTIVAL put together by the Kona Cacao Association scheduled for March 22-23. Oh my. How do you resist something that has three of your favorite things in its title?

What a concept for a community-based special event. Some of the farmers on the island grow cacao and produce chocolate. Some of the microbreweries add chocolate to their stouts or porters. Several of the wineries use chocolate as an ingredient in special wines. Some of the chefs at the four and five star restaurants serve chocolate-based sauces in their savory creations.

A Waikoloa Hilton chef shows off the great chocolate torte.

A Waikoloa Hilton chef shows off the great chocolate torte.

And clearly, people love chocolate. The potential for thematic convergence around this delicious ingredient seems obvious. But the best

festivals are designed to support a good cause and in this case, the festival funds generated by a series of events including demonstrations, competitions, auctions, and a capstone gala will benefit the $1 million “Equip the Kitchen” campaign for the future Hawai‘i Community College-Palamanui and efforts to build a community amphitheater at the Waldorf-inspired Kona Pacific Public Charter School in Kealakekua.

We arrived at the sold out gala at the Fairmont Orchid Hotel just after the doors opened at 5:30 PM anxious to find out what happens at a chocolate festival. Fortunately, a friend, whose company, Dolphin Journeys, happened to be a generous sponsor of the event had offered us VIP tickets. We were in. The outer wall of the ballroom had tables with chefs putting their best chocolate forward. Our job was to eat as many of these delightful items as we could stand and vote for our personal favorite. There were eight kinds of chocolate wine from local wineries at a tasting table and craft beers with chocolate added to porters or stouts were free with the ticket.

We wandered and ate and enjoyed the wonderful flavors. Our personal favorite by the Waikoloa Hilton chefs was a small bun with a tasty chocolate sauce drizzled over a delightful mix of pork, veggies and jalapeños. The chocolate torte at their dessert table was delicious. Most of what we tried was beyond wonderful. Portions were small, allowing us to try a wide variety of treats (gelato, chocolate fountains with fruit and tiny crème puffs, veggie/meat mixtures with delicate sauces, cheesecakes, truffles, and more) without

Tasty temporary chocolate tattoos were available just by sitting down with the artist.

Tasty temporary chocolate tattoos were available just by sitting down with the artist.

feeling overstuffed. Chef Donald Wressell of the Guittard created a beautiful chocolate sculpture with flowers and leaves as the crowd watched in awe. A live band played jazz in background. We took part in the evaluation of the varied sweet and savory creations with enthusiasm, bid on auction items, chatted with people, and danced a bit. It was a perfect evening.

The 400 plus people at the gala ultimately voted to give the People’s Choice Award to the Fairmont chefs for their spicy ahi cone. This Second Annual Big Island Chocolate Festival obviously took a lot of work by volunteers and sponsorships by restaurants, chocolatiers and local tourism businesses, like our friends at Dolphin Journey. As far as we were concerned, the Kona Cacao Association has a hit on their hands. We left with a very warm feeling for the event, the food and the good people who put it all together. As much as we enjoy the whales, this gave us another reason to keep coming back to the Big Island.

– Tim Merriman

Saving Lives with Songs, Dances and Storytelling in Malawi

Aaron Maluwa of Museums of Malawi relates stories of the danger of HIV to people in the community.

Aaron Maluwa of Museums of Malawi relates stories of the danger of HIV to people in the community.

Last week we wrote about a flood in Chikwawa, Malawi that left over 5,400 people homeless and hungry. Our friends with the Museums of Malawi told us of the situation and several of our readers have asked us how a museum has become involved with natural disasters and disease.

We first met Aaron Maluwa and Michael Gondwe at an international conference in Vancouver, Canada. They presented their work as museum educators at the Museums of Malawi, describing the challenge of being keepers of Malawi’s cultures in the face of growing numbers of deaths from AIDS and malaria.

The Museums of Malawi are in Blantyre and Lilongwe and several other cities, and like most museums have exhibits and collections. But Malawi is one of the poorest nations on Earth and 90% of the population live in rural areas, lacking the opportunity for education much beyond primary grades. Aaron and Mike realized their museums would mean little to those people, because people in rural communities rarely come to the cities and are generally more concerned about fighting disease and hunger than viewing the museum’s collections. Aaron and Mike realized they would need to work on these basic issues if they truly wanted to preserve the culture of the country in their roles as museum educators.

Davis Mckandawire relates a personal story to Chikwawa students of how HIV changed his life.

Davis Mckandawire relates a personal story to Chikwawa students of how HIV changed his life.

They decided to take their programming to the people instead of expecting the people to come to them. They use familiar cultural dances, songs and storytelling of Malawi as their vehicle for interpretation. As they visit remote villages, they ask local women to embed HIV and malaria prevention messages into traditional songs and stories. Then a month or so later they return to the village to do half-day or longer programs on HIV or malaria for everyone in the community. The program includes video about the disease, interpretive programming and conversations with villagers and practical assistance such as mosquito nets to prevent malaria and HIV testing to identify those already infected so that they can receive medications.

It is estimated that one in nine in this nation of 13 million are HIV infected, but many are unaware of their condition. The Museum program helps villagers understand the need to be tested and many line up for an exam after the program. The Museum brings along testing equipment and clinicians to do the testing on-site. The cultural songs, dances and stories tell how important  it is to protect your family by changing social practices (e.g. use condoms, stay only with your partner, etc.).

We visited Chikwawa community in 2009 and watched a full day of programming that culminated with about 1,000 people watching dances and songs. Local women have taken on the challenge of getting young people to understand the danger they face. Men hang back, reluctant to be tested and find out their status. But women and children line up and get tested and begin the Anti-retroviral drug regimen (ARVs) if they are HIV positive.

Malaria is still the largest killer of children in Malawi, despite the great danger of HIV, so programming shifts to that disease during the season when most exposure occurs. The museum staff take along mosquito nets bought with donations to give to pregnant women and children to place over their beds. The malarial mosquitoes are night active so the nets are valued protection from bites.

Mike has recently retired from the museum to work on starting a non-profit organization to do this work in continuing cooperation with the museums. Aaron continues to work from his role as a museum educator. The impact they are having on tens of thousands of people in Malawi is inestimable. The joy of the programs is both the celebration of cultural traditions in the programs and the deeper realization that they are having a real impact on peoples’ lives.

International Humanity of Czech Republic recently learned of their work and is sending money and other medical resources to Malawi to help. But the need is much greater than their resources to support these vital programs.

Flood victims in Chikwawa receive one cup of grain per day for their family's sustenance from the aid program that is available.

Flood victims in Chikwawa receive one cup of grain per day for their family’s sustenance from the aid program that is available.

Museum education in Malawi is saving lives and preserving valued cultural traditions. The program money is inadequate and the need is great. We can all help by donating funds to them. Right now your donation through us will not be tax-deductible, but we are working on creating a non-profit to assist this program through a 501c3 nonprofit. We hope at some point in time you will join us in helping them buy more mosquito nets, HIV test kits and the supplies to keep working. We have been assisting this program with our donations for five years as we are able and hope to continue doing that. If you would like to help, we can promise that 100% of your donation will be forwarded directly to this program (we cover the administrative costs of wiring money, etc.). The need is great and with the recent flooding, has never been more immediate. Thanks for spreading the word and helping financially if you are able.

– Tim Merriman

The News You Never Hear

Children and adults in Chikwawa community in Malawi gather under a tree for an HIV program.

Children and adults in Chikwawa community in Malawi gather under a tree for an HIV program (photos from our trip to this community in 2009).

People sometimes ask us why we bother with trying to help people and animals in African nations, particularly the ones that no one else knows much about, like Malawi. The answer is simple. No one knows much about these places. What we’ve learned in our travels is that many people, places, plants, and animals are in dire need of assistance. Their prospects for solving their own problems can be slim to none.

It seems to come down to this – if a country has something that someone else wants (ivory, minerals, gas and oil, for example), that country will have a spotlight focused on it. But there are countries, and some remote parts of better-known countries, that have no resources to be exploited. And that means they get ignored. Rwanda received attention only after experiencing horrors beyond words and is still struggling to establish a viable national economy that is not dependent on foreign aid.

Malawi is one of those countries . . . often called the warm heart of Africa, Malawi’s people are friendly and welcoming. But this tiny country that has lost a great deal of its natural areas to farmland and much of its native wildlife is not known as a tourism destination. It has no significant resources that any other country wants. And so its people suffer silently because they do not have a global voice.

Aaron Maluwa of Museums of Malawi relates stories of the danger of HIV to people in the community.

Aaron Maluwa of Museums of Malawi relates stories of the danger of HIV to people in the community.

One of our friends and colleagues in Malawi contacted us this week with a plea for assistance that I would like to bring to light because this is not a story that will be covered in the news. I’ve been watching for it and there’s been no mention, though this event happened over a week ago now. CNN, AlJazeera and the many other international news networks miss this kind of story because it is in one of the planet’s poorest nations, preferring to report on politics and celebrities.

Aaron Maluwa, who works for Museums of Malawi, regularly visits rural communities with programs that focus on HIV/AIDS awareness and testing, antimalarial messages, and other important health and cultural issues. On his most recent visit to a rural village in the Chikwawa District, he found 1993 families living in seven tents where people were “sleeping like potatoes in a basket” because the space was too small. The 5409 individuals Aaron found there had no food. A local sugar company is providing one cup of maize (corn) for each family per day and that is all the food currently available. The clinic has at least 15 patients in each room and people are already dying for lack of food. Aaron witnessed one death while he was standing stunned by what these people are going through. The flood came at night, surprising the village. The survivors stayed in trees for two days before the government rescuers could retrieve them.

Davis Mckandawire relates a personal story to Chikwawa students of how HIV changed his life.

Davis Mckandawire relates a personal story to Chikwawa students of how HIV changed his life.

Aaron did what he could on the ground immediately with appeals to local authorities but he has very limited funds and resources with which to work. He made this appeal in his email: I am therefore requesting for your support mainly with funds so that we can buy them food i.e maize, mosquito nets, blankets, kitchen untensils just to keep them alive as they wait for water levels to go down so that they can go back a start afresh but with no starting point at all. Let me emphasize that this is an emergency what I saw last week is that many lives are at stake especially of children and the aged in absence of food and other basic necessities such as blankets and mosquito nets 

Aaron has never asked for anything though his innovative and important program needs regular support. We have done what we could over the years to help and proceeds from the sale of our book “The Leopard Tree” are earmarked for assistance to Malawi. In this case, the need clearly outstrips our ability to help financially so we are trying to raise awareness and ask others for whatever assistance they can offer. We have contacted Rotary International to see if something can be done to help this situation and are waiting to hear the result. If you are interested in doing whatever you can, please get in touch with us and I will see that your efforts are directed to do the most good. Thanks for staying aware.

Lisa Brochu

Seven Ways to Connect with a Large Audience

Have a mike ready when inviting comments. Jay Miller is sharing a comment in Seoul, Korea.

Have a mike ready when inviting comments. Jay Miller is sharing a comment in Seoul, Korea.

My wife says that I can sleep anywhere. I’m pretty sure that is true. I slept in church as a kid, snoozed my way through large lecture halls in college, and I’ve never survived a planetarium program without a nap.

It’s easy to look out at a very large audience and lapse back into lecturing even if you routinely use questioning in your work to get people engaged. It seems daunting to be interactive if 500 or 1,000 or 3,000 people are looking at you, perhaps watching you on dual projection screens and listening to your amplified voice.

There are still some great options to helping your audience feel more involved. Here are seven ways you might keep most of your audience and even people like me paying attention.

  1. Take a poll – Ask questions that lead into your thematic presentation that have yes or no answers and ask for people to put up their hands or stand up. “How many of you have seen a bald eagle in the wild? Just hold up your hand if you have.” This is a great way to do some on the spot market research. You can find out if they have visited before, what they enjoy, and what they would like to know or do. Just the act of standing up gets them involved, engages their minds and shows that you’re interested in what they think.
  2. Honor members of the audience – Ask someone to stand up and tell a story about her or his achievements. Let them know before the presentation you will ask so they are ready. You can honor more than one at once. I was often host to an audience of 1,000 on Veteran’s Day and would ask all veterans to stand and then invite the audience to thank them. It was a good way to recognize the holiday, the veterans and set a tone for the morning program. You might ask all who have won an award or whohave made a major donation to stand up and be recognized.
  3. Sing a familiar song with the group – I was astonished when I attended a Prairie Home Companion performance in San
    Scott Mair is the master of getting audience involvement through songs and audience participation

    Scott Mair is the master of getting audience involvement through songs and audience participation

    Antonio at a beautiful old theater. Garrison Keillor’s program was quite good, but the intermission was even better. He stayed on stage and sang songs with the audience. I did not get up to take a break and was glad I did not. I raced out for a restroom break immediately after the intermission, but I came back for the second segment as quickly as I could with renewed interest. He brought the audience closer together with the universals of songs common to our culture. It was wonderful to look at people on either side smiling back, humming when they couldn’t remember all the words.  Home on the Range brought down the house, as they say.

  4. Invite questions from the audience – If you do this, be sure to have people with cordless mikes standing by to allow everyone to hear the question or comment of audience members. This keeps you on your toes as a presenter as you attempt to respond thoughtfully to the questions that are asked, and keeps the audience listening to your candid answers with real interest. Be sure to thank those who participate.
  5. Ask a challenging question – if you do this, consider having a gift for the respondent. It could be the book you wrote, a fun t-shirt, or a wrapped chocolate truffle or something symbolic, like a squeezable toy in the shape of something related to the theme of your talk. If it’s something you can toss without risk of hurting anyone, audiences seem to enjoy trying to catch or watching others catch the item.
  6. Try working without a net – Use your speaking ability and physical presence to command attention instead of relying on Powerpoint presentations. Unless the images you can project are truly necessary to illustrate your program, you might find that your audience can pay attention more easily to your face, voice, and body language. Go down into the audience wearing a portable microphone and talk directly to individuals, always moving your attention (Hint: Watch Ellen DeGeneres on TV for ideas).
  7. Bring some up front to take part in an activity – Involve some from the audience and their friends will pay even more attention. Those who take part will enjoy the attention. Others will wonder if they might be next.
Maria Elena Muriel had many in her audience build the warp of a loom from cords to demonstrate weaving.

Maria Elena Muriel had many in her audience build the warp of a loom from cords to demonstrate weaving.

There are, no doubt, other ways to keep a large audience presentation from being a boring lecture. Think about what you might do that challenges the audience to stay involved, to think about and process what you are saying.

And if you need me there in the front row as a test of how interesting your program is, just let me know. I never intend to take a nap, but if you can keep me awake, you know just how good you really are.

–Tim Merriman

P.S. All of these photos were taken in Korea in 2006, when the Korean government invited interpreters from many agencies and nations to demonstrate “hands-on learning” to communities and universities.

Akagera National Park and Ruzizi Lodge, a Wildlife Experience


We recently visited Akagera National Park in northeastern Rwanda to fill in our understanding of the amazing progress being made in this small nation to protect important habitat and wildlife populations.  Akagera, named after the river of the same name, includes montane forests, savannah and wetlands in its 1120 square kilometers. The park was badly damaged during the civil war in 1994 and in the following years when half of the park was made available for settlement and agriculture. Although the park’s area shrunk, it still provides viable habitat for many of Africa’s savannah species. which are slowly being re-established.

On our brief visit, we were quite taken with every aspect of the park. I smiled when I read a scathing complaint on about tsetste flies in the park. The writer must not have ever been among wildebeest and zebras in Tanzania or Kenya during migration. Savannah parks all have tsetse flies, but the amazing experiences are worth the minor annoyance. Akagera has incredible birding, antelope populations (topi, eland, reedbuck, bushbuck, impala, and sittatunga), buffalo, elephants, zebras, giraffe, and black rhinos. The wetlands are amazing with lots africanwattleploverof hippos, monitor lizards and wading birds. We enjoyed the wildlife watching very much.

The big cats are, for the most part, missing, though leopards are occasionally sighted. The park managers hope to restore lion populations in coming years. The Stichting African Parks Foundation and their U.K. and American non-profit affiliates manage the African Parks Network, which provides primary funding for selected parks throughout Africa. They took over Akagera in 2010 in partnership with the Rwanda Development Board. This great program takes on some of the most challenging parks in Africa and provides conservation management and careful business management to rebuild them. They work under a 20-year partnership with the government to make the park operate sustainably to give it the best chance of long-term success as a viable conservation area that also provides and encourages tourism opportunities.

topiWe had the opportunity to sit down with Jes Gruner, Park Manager, and Sarah Hall, Marketing and Tourism Development Manager, at the new Ruzizi Lodge near the south gate of the park. They are rightfully proud of Ruzizi Lodge, this incredible addition to the existing park amenities, which include Akagera Game Lodge, a concession in the park. Jes and Sarah designed and built Ruzizi with regional materials and local craftsmen. The result is amazing. Trees that were growing where the lodge was to be built were incorporated into the building and still grow through the thatched roof. Logs washed up on the shore of Lake Ihema were incorporated into the decks and fencing. It all feels very organic and very Rwandan.

Jes and Sarah explained the challenges of the park with optimism. They must confront and arrest poachers on a regular basis. They are committed to improving the quality of the visitor experience with more professional guiding, reintroduction of native animals and collaboration with local communities. Their management system recognizes that partnerships are key to success and local community leaders, governmental wildlife/park agencies, commercial enterprises and financial partners are included in their management processes.

frontporchTent camps like Rusizi create jobs for local people and give guests a unique experience with wildlife and sense of place in the park. We found the tent cabin in which we stayed to be equal to and in some cases better than very nice ones in Kenya and Tanzania. The quality of food and service was exceptional with Ian, the lodge manager, and Eric, a server, caring for us thoughtfully. Our tent overlooked the water of Lake Ihema with hippos snorting in the shallows. The cabins and walkways are elevated so nightly visits by hippos moving onto land to graze are no threat to guests or hippos. The bathrooms have a tub, shower and two lavatories along with a flush toilet so creature comforts are as good as any five star hotel.

We left our tent flaps open all night with just the screens between us and the night music provided by nature, letting the light from the moon and stars shine through. When morning came we sat on our front porch awhile enjoying the antics of monkeys in the trees and then walked down to the waterfront restaurant to enjoy breakfast while looking at hippos and watching weaver finches build nests over the water.

roomWe will return to Akagera for the wildlife experience, and look forward to seeing the diversity and numbers of wildlife populations continue to increase and thrive. Ruzizi will be at the top of our list of places to stay. It is an amazing experience close to nature and comfortable beyond belief.

Rwanda’s national parks offer three unique experiences, the mountains and gorillas of Volcanoes, thirteen species of primates and an inordinate number of endemic bird species at Nyungwe, and savannah and wetlands wildlife at Akagera. Rwanda is definitely worth a visit for anyone who loves African wildlife, so we’re putting together a safari to all three of its national parks for later this year or early next year (with an extension to Serengeti for those who need lions and cheetahs). If you have an interest in supporting the efforts of this small, often overlooked country in developing its tourism capacity, consider joining us when we have the details worked out. We promise you won’t be disappointed.

– Tim Merriman

 P.S.  Our Akigera Photo Album is posted at