The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu

The grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Cantu struggles to understand his family’s relationship with the U.S. Mexico border patrol by joining the border patrol itself! As a Mexican-American studied in the international issues, with a tender heart, and the necessary Spanish skills, he hopes to be able to bring some kindness to the families being turned back at the border while helping establish justice and fair rules. He wants to know where and if there is a balance between the two. So the story starts there – leaving his schooling to pursue training on the ground as a border patrol agent. In part two, he is transferred to an intelligence position, which gives the audience a look into a second aspect of how the border patrol runs. Finally, having stepped away from the border patrol after a few years of service, Cantu learns that a wonderful friend has been detained after trying to cross the border and has to decide what he can do to help the family.

Next to the man it reads: “For (To) a world without walls”
Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

I honestly can’t imagine a better method of addressing this issue than what Cantu has accomplished. He mixes his schooling and research on the matter, his family and personal demons, as well as his professional experiences into a really beautiful illustration of what has been occurring at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Not only is he articulate but there’s something really poetic and simple in his style that just sucked me in and made it all so much more emotional to read. I especially love the way he maintains his identity and culture by unashamedly weaving in bits of Spanish conversations without translation throughout the book.

I also appreciate that I kept waiting and waiting for him to give his solution, or any solution, or for him to just call out a problem and curse it for its awfulness. But he doesn’t. The voice in my head that I’ve created for Francisco Cantu speaks with a softness, and sometimes is sad, but never accusatory, crude or judgemental. And because of this, as I read I felt like I was able to make my own decisions about what needs to change and be done. What is working well already and what has shown improvement.

And after watching this video now, I think I’m mostly right about my choices in his voice. Here’s his similarly short synopsis and invitation to read the book:

Inferno by Dr. Steven Hatch

This book is the reason I finally caved and downloaded an app for ebooks, betraying all the wonderfully dusty-smelling pages of the tangible (albeit tree-killing) books that I love. Initially, it was kind of a random cover on the shelf at the library that caught my attention a while back. I went ahead and rented it, but with two little boys, carrying around a paperback book can be dangerous, so I didn’t get even close to finishing before it was due for return. But it had caught my interest.

So yeah, I rented the ebook version instead. And I’m glad I did.

“The University of Liberia was due to close because of an Ebola outbreak. But students protested and were meet with officers in full riot gear. I was one of the only American journalists there, an officer met my camera’s gaze.” Photo and quote by Monica Melton on Unsplash

In the book “Inferno” Dr. Steven Hatch takes readers with him on his very real medical mission assisting in the heat of the Ebola crisis. He describes the complex web of racism, world politics and a medicine culture that led to one of the most alarming modern outbreaks of a deadly disease.

Most of us in the developed world don’t pause to think how amazing it is that we drink water from a tap and never once worry about dying forty-eight hours later from cholera. Spending some time in Liberia might help to reveal just how truly amazing that really is. In a two week tour, I saw examples of how the lack of such wonders as running water, the ability to summon light at any moment of a twenty-four hour cycle, and cheap and efficient transportation all led to people worrying about dying from any number of maladies, even including cholera. Liberia’s rudimentary infrastructure underscored how these normally invisible advances that make life so livable elsewhere are crucial to the chances that you’ll live to see thirty.

“Inferno”, Steven Hatch

I loved so many parts of this book, but one thing that killed me at the beginning were the “go figure” and “the logical place to start” statements, because, as I told my husband, I was CLUELESS about the ebola outbreak. I think I had even forgotten that it had started in Liberia, only remembering that it had in fact happened somewhere. I couldn’t decide if I thought he was stuck up, if I was really in need of a history lesson, or if he was just writing to a very different and more activist-type audience than, well…me. I’m going to say the latter, but still haven’t entirely ruled out the other possibilities. After the first few chapters of the book, I felt like he had laid a sound enough historical background for me to understand where he was coming from.

Aside from that, I thought that this book was so well written and I felt that the author stuck to his word and tried to be as fair and unbiased towards the people and culture as possible, sharing what he saw without too many assumptions. I respected that a lot and was astonished at some of the events he described. It’s a great read, especially for those interested in medicine and activism.

The Beekeeper

January now officially kicks each new year off with National Human Trafficking Awareness Month! And as such, it seems like appropriate a time as ever to catch up on some book reviews, namely “The Beekeeper”.

Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash

This book is a true story, and one filled with true horrors. With that being said, I want to share a quote from a book called “Slave Stealers” by Tim Ballard before getting into this.

“Do you have children, Tim?”

“Yes,” I responded, my eyes matching the intensity I was reading in his.

“Then let me ask you something….” He hesitated. He must have known the question was somewhat cruel. But he went forward with it anyway.

“Could you get in bed and sleep at night, knowing that one of your children’s beds was empty?”I knew the answer was no, but I couldn’t get the word out, as instant tears and emotion blocked my ability to vocalize. I just shook my head.

“Slave Stealers”, pg 56, Tim Ballard

Books like this can be hard to digest, but Tim Ballard argues that if we don’t learn how to make it personal- imagining our own children and recognizing that the victims are real children of other heartbroken parents – and act as if our own families and loved ones were on the line, then this criminal market will never end. So in the parts when your heart and tear ducts start to swell at the same rate, and you think you’d rather just not finish, consider for a minute why you feel that way and what you can do. It might just be a defining moment in the start to someone’s rescue.

“The Beekeeper” is based on true stories from Abdullah Shrem, a beekeeper working to help liberate Yazidi women kidnapped by Daesh (aka ISIS), who through many means and people escape. He tells their stories in hopes of bringing light to the problem and to “rally the troops,” so to speak, against ISIS.

But for all the horrors, this book is very interestingly written, leaving no words to the author alone, but always quoting verbatim the conversations she had with the beekeeper and others involved in the rescues or being rescued.

If you’d like to learn more about the author and Abdullah Shrem (the beekeeper), then you can also check out this PBS News Hour Report and interview with her!

Fun Facts All About Africa for Kids and Families

Before the holiday season crept up, I was discussing Kwanzaa with one of my VIPKID students. I realized that she knew wayyyy more about Kwanzaa than I did, so I started studying. Kwanzaa, Africa, African-American history, the whole big black hole. So. In this post, I’m going to try to tie in Kwanzaa with some fun facts about Africa!

Did you know that every December all across the USA African-Americans celebrate a holiday called Kwanzaa? When Dr Maulana Karenga began researching traditions to bring African-Americans together, he looked to their common African ancestors’ for inspiration and learned all about them. He drew from many different African “firstfruits” traditions to institute a beautiful holiday in the US. Kwanzaa is now celebrated every year from December 26th – January 1st.

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

To celebrate Kwanzaa this year, you can also learn more about Africa, it’s people’s traditions, and the sacrifices African-Americans have endured throughout the history of the USA. To kickstart this educational celebration of Kwanzaa (which is especially the way I recommend you do it if you are not African-American), let’s learn some fast facts about Africa.

Questions answered in this post, and types of attached resources:

  1. How many countries are in Africa? (fast facts)
  2. What is the biggest city in Africa? (pictures)
  3. What is the highest point in Africa? (video)
  4. How long have people lived in Africa? (research)
  5. Where are the most animals found in Africa? (AWF website)
  6. Where is the driest place in Africa? (video)
  7. What is the largest river in Africa? (video)
  8. How many languages are spoken in Africa? (children’s series)

There is something for every age group here, and to add more fun to talking about this with your children, I have created some fun Kwanzaa activities, including one Spin the Wheel questionnaire that gives very simple answers to the 8 questions above. You might consider spinning the wheel and then finding more info right here on this post! Just click the green image below to get your copy of the accompanying activities!

How many countries are in Africa?

54! Although Somaliland and Western Sahara might try to tell you there should be 56, the UN only officially recognizes 54 countries in Africa. Somaliland and Western Sahara’s independence are currently under dispute.

Another word to describe an independent country is “sovereign”. The process to become a sovereign nation is a little fuzzy, but it ends with recognition from the UN. The newest country in the world at the moment is South Sudan, which succeeded from Sudan in 2011. Pretty interesting, huh?

Photo by Maksim Shutov on Unsplash
Can you spy Sudan on this globe?

What is the biggest city in Africa?

Lagos, Nigeria is Africa’s largest city with a population of over 21 million people, and a size of 452 square miles. Lagos used to be the capital of Nigeria, but still is a hub for government agencies. Nigeria itself is a developing country, which you can see in the contrast between high-rise buildings and the suburban slums.

What is the highest point in Africa?

The country of Tanzania houses a nice hike of 19,340 feet (5,895 meters) above sea level to the very peak of Mount Kilimanjaro – the highest point in all of Africa. This doesn’t automatically make it one of the biggest mountains in the world though. Turns out there are ridiculous number of ways to classify the size and height of a mountain. However, it is safe to say that Mount Kilimanjaro is the largest non-shield volcano, and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world!

As you can probably guess, it’s a popular place for climbers looking for a challenge. The process to climb a mountain like this is just insane to me, but who doesn’t love to try something a little crazy every now and again? Check out this guy’s climb up Kilimanjaro and all the neat facts about it that he shares:

How long have people lived in Africa?

The short answer is….drumroll…. probably 200,000 years!

The longer answer though, National Geographic says best:

Our species is an African one: Africa is where we first evolved, and where we have spent the majority of our time on Earth. The earliest fossils of recognizably modern Homo sapiens appear in the fossil record at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, around 200,000 years ago.

Genographic Project/Map of Human Migration

Whenever I read these numbers about evidence of humans found 200,000 years ago, or whatever other 6-digit number, all I can think is “HOW DO YOU KNOW?! SHOW ME YOUR FOSSIL!” It just blows my mind. So if you’re like me, The Atlantic science journal shares a little about more recent fossils found in a cave called Jebel Irhoud, about 65 miles out of Marrakesh, with links to some of the details and studies released:

They mark the earliest fossilized remains of Homo sapiens ever found. Until now, that honor belonged to two Ethiopian fossils that are 160,000 and 195,000 years old respectively. But the Jebel Irhoud bones, and the stone tools that were uncovered with them, are far older—around 315,000 years old, with a possible range of 280,000 to 350,000 years.

Scientists Have Found the Oldest Known Human Fossils
Photo by Pawan Sharma on Unsplash

Where are the most African animals found?

South Africa has been labeled a “megadiverse” country, meaning that it is one of the few countries with a majority of our planets animal species. In this case, South Africa houses a majority of the world’s mammals. AWF is an organization that works to protect and study these animals and has a truly awesome website for animal lovers to learn about African animals and get involved. You can search animals by categories- like how endangered they are- or search by country. If you look up South Africa on their website ( you’ll be shown a map with South Africa’s location and learn some facts like:

  • South Africa is home to the largest population of rhinos on the continent, but poachers are hunting them into extinction. The site then gives ideas for how the poachers can be stopped.
  • Some of the native wildlife includes: blue crane, cape buffalo, elephant, lion, rhinoceros, leopard, kudu, cheetah, ostrich, black mamba, and the riverine rabbit (which is endangered!)
  • If you visit, you might like to see the popular landmarks, such as: Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park, Cape Floral Kingdom, The Vredefort Dome and Kruger National Park

You can also search all the neat animal bios here

Photo by Kevin Folk on Unsplash

Where is the driest place in Africa?

The Sahara Desert is the driest region of Africa, covering about 3.6 million square miles. And if you take an even closer look, you’ll find in the middle of this desert Al-Kufra, or just Kufra. It’s about 30 square miles of land that can see a full year pass without any rain. And people still live there! You might be surprised to know that the driest place in Africa is also home to the largest man-made river. Traditionally, people in the Sahara desert have gathered their water from springs and oases. But the past couple of decades has brought more irrigated water closer to them. Tons of water now runs under the sand between the scarce towns and villages of the Kufra district. “The Great Man-made River”/ Al-Kufra Water Project is one of the biggest construction projects ever. It’s really pretty remarkable!

I like that this video isn’t so focused on the federal policies and income, but on how the water is affecting specific individuals and families. What a great report!

What is the largest river in Africa?

At 4,132 miles (6,650 kilometers) long, the Nile river is not only the longest river in Africa, but arguably in the world! Now, you may be wondering, how can you argue over its length? Is or isn’t it the longest? Turns out, scientists can actually have a really difficult time deciding where the head and origin of a river actually is. So you may see some reports of the Nile saying it is 6,650km long, while others state that it is closer to 6,690! It depends on where you think the river starts and stops running. The Amazon comes in close as far as world rivers are concerned.

Since the Nile has always been such an important part of Egyptian civilization (as well as the culture of the 10 other modern countries the Nile flows through), Egyptians have a special celebration called “Wafaa Al Nil”. Today this celebration of the Nile is held each August with family-friendly games, concerts, poetry contests and so on.

How many languages are spoken in Africa?

It’s hard to get an exact count, but somewhere around 1500-2000 languages are spoken across the African continent! Say Whaaaat?? The most common of those languages is Swahili, followed by a number of languages I’d not heard of, but with Zulu at number 7. (My grandma used to have a disc of nursery rhymes that included one about Zulu warriors. Also, the intro to The Lion King is in Zulu.)

This particular episode is in English, but some of them are in Swahili and are such fun introductions to different aspects of
African history and culture for young children! Isn’t it cute?!

Again, don’t forget to check out these fun activities during Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) by just clicking on the picture below!