In May, then 25-year-old Alex Bechtold spent 10 days in western Kenya teaching 3,000 high school kids a fun exercise called Pushing for Peace, designed by Master Marilyn Cooper of California. The reception was overwhelming.
In response to the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, Master Cooper developed the program how to deal with violence among children at a small private elementary school while teaching Tai Chi. It is challenging to teach slow motion forms to children, so she developed a series of 9 games that are fun, easy, and convey the feelings and ideals of Tai Chi. They were later codified in Oakland, CA with naming assistance from children. The Peace Games have been taught in Paris, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, Kent Island, St. Chester (MD), Arnold (MD), Sweden, Switzerland and several countries in Africa. In 2013 Marilyn attended a “Neo Humanist Global Educational Summit” in Sweden and taught the Peace Games to 70 international educators who taught children in underserved communities all over the world. Since then, there have been requests for presentations at schools in Holland, Egypt, Israel, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and many others. Master Cooper stated that Tai Chi is like a universal somatic language that all people can feel. It establishes a connection that transcends age, nationality, and gender. And she thinks that every village needs a Tai Chi Master!
Born in New Jersey, Alex grew up in an environment where Chinese martial arts and Tai Chi were a part of everyday life. His dad Bill Bechtold of Little Creek Kung Fu School (Chester, MD) designed Kung Fu games for him to play at home. He learned Push Hands and other martial arts from Marilyn. With her recommendation, he studied with Master Zhao Gauhong in the U.S. and followed him to China in 2014 and 2015.
According to Alex, he was born into Pushing for Peace. He remembered being in its earliest focus group and practicing the Games as they were being developed. He worked professionally with Pushing for Peace in 2012 when he helped teach the Peace Games to students in the Peace Studies Dept. at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. He gladly accepted the “assignment” to go to Kenya teaching Pushing for Peace when needed.
Ahero is an agricultural town in west Kenya that is part of Kisumu County. According to a 1999 census, it has an urban population of 7,891 and a total population of 61,556. It is about 200 miles west of the capital, Nairobi. It took 6 hours to get there by bus; worse off, the return trip took 12 hours because the buses broke down three times and he had to switch four different buses. That did not dampen Alex’s spirit. Young Alex excitedly recounted that he saw lots of the wild animals like zebras, monkeys, as well as farm animals and beautiful mountains and trees on the way. Below is an excerpt of my recent interview with him regarding his teaching mission in Kenya.
Violet: Have you ever been to Kenya before?
Alex: I had never been to any African country before.
Violet: What was your first impression of the location?
Alex: Kenya looks like the movie “Sector 9” and it’s so sad. They have so little and it is heart-wrenching.
Violet: How was your room and board situation? Did it meet or exceed your expectation?
Alex: I greatly appreciated having a mosquito net. It felt comforting and cozy inside of the net. My bed was nice, comfortable, and the house I was staying in was happy to cook vegan meals for me and gave great care to making sure I felt welcome and at home. From my time spent in China before, I feel comfortable with squatting toilets and the rural living situation of countries outside of the USA. I did not expect that they eat with their hands but I just allowed myself to dive into the culture of the place.
Violet: Did you get sick there?
Alex: I did not get sick, and I am very lucky because other than rinsing my hands before meals and going to bed before the mosquitoes came out I was really not too careful.
Violet: How many students did you have? What are their ages? Boys versus girls?
Alex: I taught to maybe as many as 3,000 people. The schools I visited were Kenyan equivalents of high schools. Their campuses were of 600, 1,100 and 1,200. I also taught to a workout group, a martial arts school, and the local guys involved in the organization that hosted me. I did not expect to be teaching to such large numbers and I had to quickly figure out how to speak to and work with number of students in the many hundreds and even up to 1,200.
Violet: How many hours each day did you teach?
Alex: I would teach/lecture for about 4 hours. That’s not including talking to the staff and teachers at the schools whom we spent a lot of time with both before and after presenting to the students. The travel time was significant. We arrived late almost everywhere because the drives and the dirt roads.
Violet: How was the students’ enthusiasm? Not interested?
Alex: Everyone I worked with was extremely enthusiastic. They wanted to learn and were excited by what I was showing them. Often, at first everyone was shy and no one would come over. Then slowly some would come to see what I was doing or talking about. Before I knew it I would be surrounded by children, the whole campus would be there. Then I would call for volunteers, again, no hands at first, but after some pressing I would get a small handful and as time went on more and more of them would be sneaking into the group.
Violet: What was their expectation? Was their expectation met? If so, how do you know that?
Alex: I get the feeling that they all expected something boring and silly, and the teachers and staff thought I wouldn’t be able to reach them or capture the attention of the crowd. This was never said explicitly though. The kids also showed this a little bit with being majorly uninterested at first and by the end I would have to wait for the cheering to stop before I could continue speaking or demonstrating whatever I was doing. By this measure, I think I exceeded their expectations.
Violet: What did they think about the exercise?
Alex: I have three quotes:
From an all girls school, “These girls do not want to participate in sports because they are rough and difficult and so they do not want to exercise, these games get them moving around and interacting without the violence of team sports, they are working together and they are not afraid to play these games.”
From a mixed school, “It is difficult for these kids to practice peacefulness when they have to walk home past the same man who cut off their father’s arm or they go home to the same woman who beats them with a stick. Here in Kenya there is so much violence they have nowhere to practice peace so when we tell them about peace they do not know what to do with it, it does not work on the soccer or rugby field and it cannot happen at home. When the children play these Peace Games we can see they have a safe space, to practice and play and laugh and that is what these children need, they need somewhere that they can open up and be children. What is great about the Peace Games is that they are also teaching them something about peacefulness.”
Violet: Have you heard from them after you got back? Can they practice it now without your presence?
Alex: They call me probably once per week and I have sent them both soft, electronic, and physical copies of all of the teaching and training materials of while I was there. I tried very hard to transmit as much of the information as I could so that they would be able to continue to practice and share the lessons. They are working now to unite the Peace Games with a Peace Club (a separate organization that is trying to make a similar impact within Kenya).
Violet: Anything interesting, funny, exciting, scary, or terrible happened during your staying there?
Alex: There was a little girl I met while I was visiting an organization that trades food to schoolchildren in exchange for their continued attendance. She had just made her way to the facility (an open rough structure of a simple roof and low walls). Her mother had died some days ago, the young girl was shy in admitting she had not eaten nor been to school since. The most heartfelt moment I had was when leaving one of the schools, after teaching the Peace Games. We saw down the long dusty dirt road was a tiny young girl, very thin, very small, carrying two giant buckets of water. We caught up to her and offered to carry the buckets. For a moment she kept up and danced and spun, as if she was so light she floated. She twirled around behind us for a few paces, then hopped and skipped the rest of the way until we turned a corner, at which point she looked at us and took back her buckets. The look in her eyes said to me that she believed neither myself nor the other young boy who had taken the buckets would be able to make the trip she would be taking.
Violet: What did you get out of this experience?
Alex: I saw what it really means to live in poverty. We are all so unbelievably privileged and yet there are many that truly have nothing. It’s a state of living that is really unimaginable until you see it for yourself. It is much worse than they make it seem. Even the most tear-jerking story is nothing like being there in person.
Violet: What do you miss most since you are back now?
Alex: I miss being able to live simply. There’s an innate happiness associated with having little and living carefully and taking care of what little you have. I enjoy frugality, nothing is disposable, everything must have a purpose and there is nothing in excess. I wish in the USA we could recycle and conserve as much as they do in Kenya but our societies are just not designed the same.
Violet: Will you go back again if time and money allow?
Alex: I would go back as soon as I can, they need that the most. People come to them all the time, they make big promises of big changes and wonder off and never return. So many Westerners will come for the photo opportunities and disappear, never really having helped. They told me this regularly, they would beg before I even left to not give up and to not forget, they need longevity and sustainability, they would plead that already I should be trying to figure out the next trip. They need long lasting support. If I really wish to reach the people, if I am sincere in this regard then I must go back. If we really want to help we must be ready to accept the challenge and not be foolish as to assume we have fixed the world in 10 days.
Violet: Will you recommend this mission to any other people?
Alex: Yes and no. I would suggest to anyone and everyone that they should go, but I would warn that they figure out how to build their health and immune system up first, they learn to squat, and they get past the idea of eating off of rinsed, not washed plates at restaurants and eating with dirty hands. I would warn against going to the toilet at night, and tell then to be prepared to walk through the mud and not get a shower. Maybe it is the most unwilling to change to whom I would recommend this trip the most. After all, they would have the most to learn from it.
Violet: What type of training do people need to be a Pushing for Peace trainer to go overseas, especially to a third world country technically, culturally, and maybe mentally?
Alex: They need to be prepared to put down the Internet. There will be very limited or no connectivity. Be prepared to listen to the fears and superstitions of the locals. Even in a physical sense, conform to their customs and beliefs, if you bring your home with you then you will not be welcomed into a new home. You are not going to bring your home to them, you are the guest and I suggest you be a soft and open minded one. I think most of the training needs to be mental. Be prepared to take your taste-buds outside of your comfort zone, foods may be more spicy, more bland, more salty, or more dry than you expect and there will be no escape form this, you must be prepared to live totally inside of this environment, there is no cheating, there is no other option. I think if you can accept this you will be ok.