Namibia: Close and Personal – Moses Helao of Karakulia Weavers

In one of my earlier posts I talked about my Afrikaans teacher, Aunty Martha. She was such a wonderful and interesting person that I felt I needed to tell you all about her. The thing is, I’m constantly meeting wonderful and interesting people, which is only reasonable since I’m in a wonderful and interesting place. (Duh!!!)

Anyway, I thought I’d start sharing some of the stories of the folks I meet and have been lucky enough to call my friends. I’ll call out these types of posts with the title: Namibia: Close and Personal. Since Aunty Martha was the first, this post will be the second in the series. I hope you enjoy them.

When I’m in Swakopmund on business, which tends to be during the weekday, I try to get around town by walking. It isn’t the fastest means, I could and catch taxis for that, but walking lets me see more and I get my miles (or kilometers since this is a metric country) in.

On one of my jaunts I walked passed a fairly nondescript building with these words painted on the side, “Karakulia Weavers, Handmade Rugs”.

“Ok,” I thought, “that could be interesting.” And I filed it away in the back of my mind to investigate later.

Walking also means that I put a hurting on my shoes. I have a pair of Wolverine 1000 mile boots that I’ve worn a hole in the sole and had to get repaired. I figured I needed another pair of shoes to walk around in and some friends, Georg and Xenia (hopefully they’ll be the subject of an upcoming Close and Personal), recommended some locally made shoes. As it turned out, the shoe shop is directly across the walkway from the rug maker. The shoe shop didn’t have the color or size I needed, but promised they would soon and said I should stop back. Since I was there and the rug maker was open I thought I’d stop in.

I’m glad I did.

Karakula wool


Moses Helao owns Karakulia Weavers. The small factory is one of the oldest businesses in Swakopmund. It was established in 1979 by Ms. Jenny Carvill. Mr. Helao started as a wool cleaner in 1991, learned the business and ultimately bought the factory in 2011.

Moses Helao, Owner of Karakulia Weavers


When I walked into his shop Mr.Helao was emerging from his office. He is a tall man who smiles easily. I guess he’s used to curious tourists dropping in all the time, but tourist season is only just beginning, and I was alone. Not your typical camera toting sightseer. Mr. Helao must have recognized that I was different and, after our greeting, he asked where I was from. I told him.

“What brings you to Namibia,” he asked?

I gave him a brief version of my story and he said, “Ahh! The Peace Corps! I know of them. They do good work. I hope you enjoy your stay.”

Mr. Helao shaving a rug.


He then offered to give me a personal tour. I was happy to accept. He showed me a video of a sheep getting shorn, then the resulting bales of raw karakul wool sheared from local sheep. We moved on to stations where the wool is cleaned, processed, and dyed. The dyed wool is laid out to dry in the sun, then spinners take the piles of freshly processed wool and turn it into yarn in a way that is not too different from how its been done for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. I passed bins containing skeins and spools of spun yarn in such a variety of colors it would shame a rainbow. And then there were the looms. Maybe 20 of them, each manned by artisans who took the yarn and turned them into beautiful rugs and wall hangings.

Rug being made to order

Looms!!


Mr. Helao’s pride shown brightly as he showed me each station and explained each process. His is a story of hard work and a passion to preserve a manual process in an increasingly digitized world.

Rainbow in wool


Mr. Helao is humble and soft spoken, but lights up when asked about his business. He’s a man who has worked hard to get where he is, yet he hasn’t lost site of his humanity. His company employs over 20, and ships it’s products worldwide. Whenever I come into his shop Mr.Helao stops what he’s doing and greets me graciously. He does this for everyone who comes in whether they buy or not. It’s who he is and I am happy to be able to call him a friend.

Check out his website: http://www.karakulia.com.na/workshop/

Stay tuned.

Vern

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Something Old, Something New

Yes, I know it’s been a while, and to claim I’ve been busy would be a true, if somewhat worn claim. I’ve also been a bit under the weather, but again, it’s an excuse.

The real cause for my lack of blog update is a mild case of writer’s block. I have a seemingly endless list of topics to write about, but I like to feel out my topics before I start writing, and for most items on my list, I’m just not there yet.

Be that as it may, I promised to blog and blog I shall, even if the subject matter is a bit scatterbrained. Please forgive me.

Florida:
To my friends in Florida. My thoughts were with you as Irma blew through. I stayed up and watched whatever news feed I could get and chatted with friends in Florida and elsewhere who could get information better or faster than me. I know that some of you had damage and/or are without power. It is tough to watch as such events unfold and there’s nothing I can do but offer hope for minimal damage and speedy recoveries, but if it helps at all, that’s what I offer. Please feel free to reach out to me if you need to vent, sob, joke, or just chat.

Down for the Count:
The last half of last week was a tough one. I started feeling ill on Wednesday. Typical flu-like symptoms; chills, body aches, very tired. I had a fever, but it never exceeded 99℉. I figured I’d just ride it out. I had a meeting that I could not miss on Thursday, however, so I trudged into the office and sat in. My supervisor kept watching me as I sank lower in my chair as if the fever, now just over 100℉, was literally melting me as I sat. He ended the meeting and threatened to take me to the hospital. I declined explaining that if I could just get to bed and get some Tylenol in me I’d be ok.

He dropped me off and I staggered out of my street clothes, into my very warm PJs and piled as many blankets, coats, even dry bath towels on top of me as I had available to reduce the shivers. Thursday night was likely the most painful night I’ve spent in Namibia. My body, especially my lower back, felt like I’d been trampled by a heard of rampaging elephants. My head felt like a balloon a few seconds from popping from over pressure. My skin grew sensitive. Ever the hair on my arm hurt. Sleep was evasive. I finally took some extra strength Tylenol and within an hour I was asleep.

I stayed home Friday though I needed to go into Swakopmund, which was smart. When I woke I felt better, but still weak. Even though I hadn’t eaten since Tuesday night I was only mildly hungry, so I drank some fruit juice and ate a few crackers. By Friday evening my fever stayed under 100℉ and I was eating food.

My friend, Florian, offered to drive me into Swakopmund on Saturday if I felt up to it, and I did thinking that I would take care of the errands I needed to attend to and come back for more rest. Florian was with his girlfriend, Welma, and they had other plans and invited me along. I was feeling about 80% recovered so I thought why not (MISTAKE!!!).

Dunes and Flamingoes:
Just south of Swakopmund are dunes. I mean big dunes like the kind you see in National Geographic specials. We went there first. I had my trusty Canon GX7 MarkII with me and I whipped it out to get a few sandy shot like this one…

Dune


The exertion of climbing a dune to get into the position to actually shoot that shot was deceptively easy. I was breathing hard at the top, but the effort was worth it I think. After all, I could then go back to finish recovering, right?

Nope.

The Florian suggested that since we were the road to Walvis Bay, why not visit?

Ok.

He found an area called The Lagoon and it’s wonderful place for bird watchers or anyone looking for a relaxing stroll. Since Florian was with his sig-oth I felt like a party crashing 5th wheel, but he and Welma assured me I was not a bother. Even so, I tried to give them as much couple room as possible. Easy to do at The Lagoon because there were so many flamingoes about.

Flamingo

Flamingtrio


Again, the pix were worth the effort, but my body was slowing shutting down, I just hadn’t noticed it yet.

Drinks on Him:
On our way through Swakopmund Florian suggested we stop for a drink, so we rolled into The Ocean Breeze, a nice size tavern tucked in the southern corner of Swakopmund. I got a glass of merlot (drinkable, but nothing to write home about) and watched a strange game being played between the bartender and Afrikaner who was determined not to lose, but did anyway.

The game involved three dice in a cup, each player has this. As near as I could tell it’s played like Yahtzee on speed. Three of a kind beats straights which beats two of a kind. It was fun to watch though I doubt I fully understand the rules. Even so, the Afrikaner lost twice while I looked on. Losing meant buying shots for players. I can tell you that the bartender can definitely hold her liquor.

While all this was going on a band struck up and played tunes either I hadn’t heard before, or they were butchered beyond recognition. I knew it wasn’t going to a good musical respite when during warmup the drummer couldn’t keep a beat.

Ah well.

The Return:
We did make it back to before dark (driving on the highway after dark is not for even the stoutest of hearts. Roads are occupied by the young, foolish and often drunk, and the occasional springbok. The two don’t mix.)

Only after I had settled in with a glass of wine that I noticed I was shivering. I checked my temperature and it was back to 100℉. No body aches this time, but I suddenly felt extremely tired. A hot shower, warm PJs and warmer bed was the cure. I spent all day Sunday recovering. This time the fever stayed down and by Monday morning I was 99% my old self again.

Sunset:
This photo has nothing to do with anything, it’s just me showing you what cool sunsets we have here.

Sunset


There’s more to come. I promise.

Stay tuned.
Vern

Namibia: Observations: Matured

Laura, a friend and fellow PCV, was grousing to me one Saturday. “Every time I get in line at the ATM the people in front of me insist that I go to the head of the line,” she lamented. “It’s like they’re afraid I’m going to fall over dead before its my turn.”

Laura is in her mid-sixties and keeps in shape by doing a weird aerobic two-step while wearing headsets and singing to whatever tune only she can hear. The exercise helps to keep her body on par with her extremely sharp mind, and keeps the local children entertained.

“It doesn’t matter how much I protest, they won’t take no for an answer. I guess I’ll have to live with it,” she concluded.

The “they” she referred to are the people of Namibia. They are the Herero, San, Nama, Ovambo, Colored, Basters, Whites, and the dozens or so other tribes and sub-tribes that inhabit this country. Their cultures and histories intertwine and are as diverse as their languages and appearances, but they all share a deep seeded respect for those they believe have been around a while.

I’m also in my mid-sixties, though time and life has been kind to me physically I’m starting to hear “Papa” or “Tate Kulu” associated with my name. These are titles of respect for older folks, though I guess they don’t respect me enough to usher me to the front of the line just yet.

Ah well…

I’m finding that Namibians view older people differently that we do in America. Back home everything is youth focused and advancing in years is something to be continually fought. We can’t do anything about the passage of time, but we’ll be damned if we have to look like it! We envy the smooth skin and firm bodies of the young and when we see seniors who have become comfortable with themselves we assume they’ve just surrendered to nature, they’ve given up the fight.

Here in Namibia, that you’ve been around a while seems to be cause for congratulations. Life here is naturally tougher, but its also hard due to created conditions. That you’ve managed to dodge death for so long means that you are either very lucky or very smart, and both should be respected.

But there seems to be more to it than finding ways of fending off one’s eventual demise. Namibians seem to understand that the longer we’re around the more we are changed. Our experiences make us different as we go through them. Some changes are subtle while other are fundamental, but that we are changed is the key. And the changes accumulate, they are integrated into ourselves so that we become something more than what we were. So, here, the passage of time isn’t just aging, it’s maturing.

That concept is applied to everything. For instance, in America our cheeses are ‘aged’, here they are ‘matured’. The flavor of matured cheddar is bolder, the color is richer, the smell is more pungent. It’s the way cheese should be experienced.

18 month matured cheddar. Tasty goodness!


There’s a matured (2014) South African pinotage that I’ve found that, unlike younger pinotages, is smooth and flavorful, and relatively inexpensive. It’s become my ‘house’ wine.

You may not find it Stateside, but if you do, get it!


It’s not just things, time and experiences enriches one’s ability to produce as well. Music expertly played on real instruments sounds far more intimate than the throbbing beats of canned tunes DJs push out. Shoes made by sewing leather soles to leather uppers seem to mold themselves to your feet, something plastics can’t do. Jewelry designed and painstakingly made by artists carry with them a bit of the creator’s soul. These and more require skills one only gains through time and experience. And the same is true for those of us who can truly appreciate them, us matured folk.

Earrings being crafted by a local artist


It could be that my time here in Namibia is forcing me to slow down a bit and see things through matured glasses. It could be that what I’m experiencing is just what everyone goes through when they’ve packed on a few years. I’m thinking it’s a combination of both.

And I like it!

Stay tuned,

Vern

Namibia: Pitch Black

In my last post I talked about how dry The Namib Desert is. I didn’t fib, The Namib is, indeed, one of the driest places on earth, and dust is literally everywhere. But dry is a relative term.

Winters in Florida are ‘dry’, but there it means we get rainfall maybe a few times a month and the average relative humidity hovers around 40% instead of raining five or more times a week with humidity hanging above 80% in the Summer months.

In the Namib humidity can get as low as 10%, but that really depends on where you are. Coastal regions will get fog so thick that clothes left outside to dry can come back wetter than when you first hung them. When the conditions are just right the dry desert wind stops and moisture soaked breezes from the Atlantic will push inland, sometimes up to 100km, blanketing parched sand and rock with an almost viscous layer of fog. This may occur 2-3 times a month with moisture ladened air, not enough to form fog, wafting in a bit more often. It’s hard to predict when it will happen.

Nights in the Erongo Region are usually crystal clear. It’s amazing that there aren’t more optical telescopes here because the skies at night are so full of stars it looks unreal. The Milky Way is easily visible, there are so many stars that constellations are tough to make out.

Yesterday I thought it would be a good idea to climb Mt. Arandis and stay until after dark to get some night shots of the skies. I bought a nice little tripod for my Canon GX-7 Mark II, a head lamp, a snack and some water and set out, timing my climb so that I could also catch the sun as it settled in the west.

I did this alone. (Do NOT try this at home boys and girls!! I did tell people where I was going and was in near constant contact the whole time, but it is still not a wise thing to do.)

Long shadow in the setting desert sun


I’d climbed the small mountain before so I knew the paths and felt confident I could pick my way down in the dark with the help of my head lamp.

My destination


As I ascended I noticed that, of all nights, last night was one of those misty-but-not-quite-a-fog nights. I could see the heavy air as the orange sun settled behind it. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to see many stars or even the Milky Way given that the peak I was on was only 600 feet above the desert floor, but I stayed and took photos. Here are a few.

The sun setting behind a thick mist from the Atlantic

B2 Highway and part of Arandis after sunset

Misty Arandis


In that last shot you can see how thick the air was over Arandis, clear just a few hundred feet up.

As it grew darker I became aware that things look a lot different with just a small spotlight for illumination. I stayed anyway, waiting until it was dark enough to see the Milky Way. I got lucky and was able to capture a shooting star.

Milky Way and shooting stars

“It’s full of stars!!”

OK, photos taken, now I have to climb down in the dark with no defined path to guide me. It was slow going and the wind can make you hear all sorts of things, stoking the imagination.

I made it down without incident, but still had a 40 minute walk in the open desert with nothing but my little head lamp to guide me. I kept wishing I had bought a brighter light…, and a shotgun.

I focused on the red light of a mobile phone tower in the distance, a familiar landmark. My pace was a quick one and all the while I kept feeling like I was a extra in the SciFi movie, Pitch Black, waiting for the spot in the script where one of the monsters would swoop in out of the darkness and make a meal of me, and not even Vin Diesel could save me.

I’m happy to report that no monsters, lions, or even an ill tempered gecko bothered me. While the shots are not perfect they aren’t bad and are worth the adrenaline rush.

I may try it again, and maybe the next time it’ll be drier, and I’ll have a brighter light…, and a maybe a baseball bat. Just in case.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Namibia: Dust to Dust

Namibia gets its name from one of its largest and iconic geographical features, the Namib Desert. As one would expect, the Namib is dry, very dry. Average rainfall is less than a tenth of an inch a year. It’s been a desert for an estimated 60 million years, making it one of the oldest deserts in the world. To the east of the Namib is another desert, The Kalahari. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean and desert’s winds blow mostly from east to west, limiting any advancement of moisture from the ocean to inland regions, making the air extremely dry and dusty.

Dust is everywhere and gets into everything. You breath it, drink it, eat it. It permeates your clothing, your hair, and gets into your eyes. There is no escaping it. Dust is part of the environment, like moisture is in a rainforest.

When a westerner first comes to Namibia and sees a boy covered in dust we think that child is that way because he’s poor and can’t afford clean water and soap. His clothes are ragged because his parents can’t afford to dress him in anything newer, cleaner.

While that may be true for some what we fail to realize is that these people live in this very dry, very dusty environment and they have adapted. That child is dusty because that’s where he lives. His clothes are ragged because new clothes would soon be in the same shape in this unforgiving environment. Newer clothes are saved for school, church, or special occasions. We fail to see that while he is running barefoot through the dust he is laughing and playing like any other child anyplace else in the world. If we looked closer we’d see that he is well fed, has a place to sleep, and has a family that cares for him. His needs are all met and he is not suffering, but prospering. It is the dust that clouds our perception of him.

View of the Namib from atop Mt. Arandis


The wind blows and with it comes more dust. It comes through the cracks around the doors and windows and settles on everything in my house. I sweep out and mop my house once a week and I’m always surprised at how much dust I have in my dustpan. I wipe down surfaces and the cloth and it always comes away brown.

Dust.

On Sundays I do laundry. I don’t have a washing machine, but I’m luckier than some because I have a bathtub and I can hand scrub my laundry there.

It’s winter here in Namibia, a period that’s even drier than the rest of the year, if that’s even possible. The days can be warm and the nights very cool. I wear jeans and khakis a lot and, as you’ve might have guessed by now, they get very dusty. When I wash them after a week’s wear the water is always a dirty brown. Shirts fair better, it’s the collars and cuffs that get a brown stain.

A great thing about the desert, anything you hang out to dry, regardless of how wet it is, dries quickly. Dripping wet jeans are bone dry in an hour. Shirts take about 20 minutes. Underwear are dry in 15 minutes! Nearly everything is wash and wear here.

Least you think that the boy I described earlier walks around with years of dust layered on him you’ll be relieved to learn that children here often bathe at least once a week, on Sundays from what I can tell. Two Sundays ago I set out to climb Mt. Arandis. While in route I came upon about 7 kids, between 3 and 5 years old, lying wet and nearly naked (they had on wet underwear) in the middle of the street. The morning was cooler than most, but the sun had been up a while and had warmed the asphalt. The kids were drying themselves after a bath. They were lying next to each other chatting and giggling, some with eyes closed, apparently enjoying what must feel similar to the sensation we get when we snuggle in towels and sheets fresh from a dryer on a cool day.

You may wonder if lying in the street defeats the purpose of bathing. The answer is clearly, no. Remember, there is no escaping dust. If you stand completely still you’ll quickly wind up with a layer of it. Bathing cleans and refreshes, but there is always dust. They’ve learned to live with it. I’m beginning to. I mop my floors and wash my clothes and accept that my efforts are only temporary. I now look pass the dust and see the bright smile and shining eyes of the child beneath. I see the Namib as a living environment that exhales sand and dust made of mountains nearly as old as the Earth itself. I breathe it all in deeply and I look out into the desert and watch as the dust tinted light of the setting sun paints the sand red, and I smile.

Sunset on the Namib


More to come.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: Up North and Here

Again I must apologize for being slow on my post updates. Whenever I think there will be a span of free time for me to sit and write I discover it’s just not so. Such is the case this passed two weeks.

I have been:
– Trying to get my home for the next two years in some kind of order
– Meeting people in my community
– Trying to understand my new assignment duties
– Trying desperately not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the needs I must address over the next 24 months

And the list goes on and on. And, as if I don’t have enough to do already, I went and joined the PC Namibia Media Committee. Our job is to tell the world the Peace Corps story through a variety of traditional and current social media. My first assignment was in northern Namibia where we interviewed Krystal, a PCV living and working in the Ohangwena Region.

What an eye-opening experience.

Some PCVs join The Corps thinking they’ll live in a mud hut, eat bugs for breakfast, learn strange native customs all while teaching their hosts and the surrounding community some fundamental skill. Maybe that was true back in the 60’s, but today it’s harder to realize that romanticized idea of PC life. We do teach and render aid, but more often than not PCVs, especially those in the Economic Development arm of the Peace Corps, will find themselves assigned to urban areas where often the need is greater.

Krystal heading home

Krystal, on the other hand and to a large extent, is living that idealized life. For the passed year or so she’s been working as a health care volunteer in the Ohangwena Region and while her hut isn’t mud and has a concrete floor as per PC requirements, her roof is thatched and she live in an Ovambo homestead. The homestead is basically a collection of small buildings surrounded by a wooded wall. It’s like small forted community where the citizenry are all related. The walls serves as a pen for smaller domestic animals and living space for family members whose ranks can swell to 15 or more, depending on the time of year or family event. The kitchen is traditionally outside. Older relatives may have their own hut, or live in the main house, which is larger and may contain a food prep area, bathrooms and gathering space.

Inside an Ovambo Homestead


Krystal has her own hut which is spacious enough for a large bed, closet, at least 2 desks and still have plenty of room to move around. I was envious. I can be dusty, goats and chickens wander by your door from time to time, you are far from any modern convenience, but the experience is pure, and it can feel genuine. By comparison, I have an air conditioned office with computer running Windows 10, and an alarm system in my concrete block house. To able to experience just a bit of what Krystal does, even for a few days, was just what I needed.

A dapper tatè (fatherly old man)


My experience didn’t stop there. One of the tasks I had was to take still shots of the environment; the people and the day to day activities they pursue. I did get some really nice photos too. I’m sprinkling a few here.

Something to crow about


It’s a rich environment, full of sights and sounds that are both foreign and familiar. Cows, goats, chickens, and even donkeys graze alongside the road unfazed by the roar cars and trucks zooming by. When they decide to cross, they do and traffic slows to avoid them. The landscape in this region reminds me of north Florida. It’s flat, dotted with palms and other trees, and here and there were pools of water, or places where water was and will be once the rains begin in Summer. (I know it may seem counterintuitive to some, but it’s Winter here. Similar to Winters in Florida, it’s relatively dry and sunny. In northern Namibia Summer brings rains, and crops and livestock flourish. As I understand it, the area becomes lush with vegetation, dry river beds come raging back to life, and the whole area is transformed into a seasonal Eden. I hope to see this for myself while I’m in Namibia.)

Market Day Delights


As part of the media committee I get to travel to many places in Namibia for projects, so I’ll get to see parts of the country other PCVs may not. But I’m also finding beauty here in the desert.

For instance, the weekend before I traveled north I decided to climb a local mountain, Mt. Arandis. It’s small in comparison to other peaks in the area, but this one is relatively accessible. The peak is a mere 2460 ft above sea level, but once at the top the view is spectacular. Local beauty.

View from atop Mt. Arandis.


And in another instance, the night I got back from up north fog rolled in from the Atlantic, which is about 60km from here. The mist makes everything look mysterious. The starkness of the desert is hidden and what you can see, even the familiar, looks strange and otherworldly. More local beauty.

Student heading to school in morning fog


There’s so much I can talk about, but I need to address other things, so I’ll pause this for now. More to come soon.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Namibia: Observations #2

People like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are beyond rich. That doesn’t make them bad people and we shouldn’t hold anything against them or their wealth, but the amount of money they have can make the word ‘rich’ seem like an obscenity. Gates and Buffet are generous, through foundations and other organizations they give back to the world that gave them their wealth in grand and purposeful ways.

Merriam-Webster defines counterpoint as, “the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture…” There are counterpoints to the Gates and Buffets of the world, and I recently discovered one here in Namibia.

My language instructor, Martha Bezuidenhout (lovingly called Auntie Martha), recently told me a story of a time in her childhood when her family was rich.

This was back during Apartheid and her father worked on a dairy farm. Circumstances occurred where her father needed to buy a cow to support his family’s need for milk (more on that story in an upcoming post), so he asked his employer if he could buy one of the cows on the farm. His employer agreed and in the following years Martha’s father was able to expand his cattle holdings into a nice sized herd and was able to sell cream to others, thus further supplementing the family’s income. When a cow was butchered they just gave away any meat they didn’t use themselves to others in the community. Because her family owned cows and had a small plot of land on which to grow crops her family always had food, even enough to share with those less fortunate. As Auntie said with a gleam in her eyes as she smiled at the memory, “We were so rich!”

Auntie Martha


To Auntie Martha the term ‘rich’ meant to not know hunger, and to be able to help reduce hunger in her village. The memory of her father’s industriousness and ability to provide for his family, his wealth, is an important part of who Martha is. Her father’s wealth, small compared to a well paid technician in a Fortune 500 company in America, was enough to define and shape a person who went on to become a teacher and, in turn, positively affected the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of students.

And now she has positively affected me with her warmth, patience, insight, and intelligence.

Martha Bezuidenhout is not rich monetarily, her wealth lies in a lifetime of knowledge and experience, and her ability and need to share that wealth enriches the lives of all she comes in contact with. She and those like her are the counterpoints to the Gates and Buffets, who, together and in their own way, give to make the harmonic texture of our world richer.

Stay tuned. 

Vern