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It's about time

By William H. Foege '57

It is a recurrent theme at reunions. People ask, “Where did the time go?” As Malcolm Forbes once observed, “Unless you are serving it there is never enough time.” Time management courses teach the obvious. We can’t manage time. We can only manage our use of time. Two things I have noticed over the decades about my use of time:

First, the days disappear anyway but they seem to disappear faster for lack of a plan. There is something satisfying about planning efficient use of the day.

Second, much of the day disappears forever unless you keep a journal. It is one of the great helps in keeping past events straight, recalling places visited, the exact words of wisdom uttered by children and grandchildren and especially the emotions of a sight, event or discussion. I keep a daily journal of events but on occasion I write the equivalent of an essay. I did that recently when a friend was arrested for stealing and I wrote an essay to remind myself to avoid cynicism…to trust people until they disappoint rather than to mistrust everyone until they are worthy of friendship. That caused me to look at past journal entries and I realized I had already lost some feelings of a visit to India six months ago. To read my notes reinforced the value of keeping a journal. I will share some parts.


We were met at the slum entrance by women and children dressed in their finest. With great ceremony they placed a mark on our foreheads. I walked through the slum in Ahmedabad on Sept. 12, 2005, feeling both anger that life is so tough for some, and sadness, but not sharing, because I was going to be walking right back out. The truth is I was unwilling to spend even one night in that life.

The slum had no running water so people had to queue up early in the morning at a stand pipe some distance from the slum. The water would run from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Those in line at 8 a.m. were out of luck for another day. The slum dwellers said the problems tended to cascade. If children did the task they could not get to school. If the mother went she missed the best time to buy vegetables that she would later sell in her community. No one suggested that the husband might stand in line.

The lack of toilets meant that women were forced to go to neighboring areas before dawn or after dark to go to the bathroom in a vacant lot, along the road, or on the railroad track. A case of diarrhea was an almost impossible situation for the women and greatly feared. It made dignity impossible.

In the midst of very difficult living conditions, what possesses people to show such hospitality? We toured their quarters and then crowded into a room in the home of a woman who was the primary health care giver for the community. We heard about the difficulties of living and at the same time laughter and good humor permeated our conversation. How do they maintain such a sense of joy?

The second slum had been assisted in the past five months by SEWA, the Self Employed Women’s Association started by Ela Bhatt and now managed by Miari Chatterjee. They have their own bank with 250,000 women depositors, and they provide loans to a thousand new women a month.

In the past women could not find a secure place to hide their small amounts of cash as rats would eat it or husbands would steal it. The bank allows them a place to put the money knowing it is safe. The board of the bank is made up of women elected by others in their category. The categories include rag pickers who scour the dumps each day, incense stick makers, flower or vegetable vendors, etc. We met with the board for lunch and I asked the naïve question of whether they would consider lending money to a man? They translated their long and vigorous discussion into a single sentence. “Men have too many temptations and can’t be trusted with money.”

We were met at the second slum by an even larger and more elaborate greeting party. This second slum had been similar to the first one only five months ago and the transition was remarkable. Each house had running water, a flush toilet and electricity...the entire community was involved and it changed everything.

Spiro Agnew was wrong. If you have seen one slum you haven’t seen them all.

This slum community was experiencing a miracle. Again we sat in a crowded room. The chief engineer for the project stood beaming as one woman explained that she had lived in the community for 20 years and every day she had gone to find water. This was the first non-rainy day in 20 years that water had come to find her!

Keep a journal!



William H. Foege

Speaking earlier this year at the dedication of The William H. Foege Building at the University of Washington, President Jimmy Carter called Bill Foege one of the two men in his life, other than his father, “who have shaped who I am.” Also speaking at the dedication, Bill Gates credited Foege with providing early guidance for the development of the global health team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Foege is an epidemiologist who is widely recognized as a leader in the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s. He graduated from PLU in 1957 and received an honorary degree in 2000. He is currently a member of the PLU Board of Regents. He spoke at PLU’s commencement in May.

He has championed many issues, but child survival and development, injury prevention, population, preventive medicine and public health leadership are of special interest, particularly in the developing world. Foege is a strong proponent of disease eradication and control and has taken an active role in the eradication of Guinea worm disease, polio and measles and the elimination of river blindness. By writing and lecturing extensively, he has succeeded in broadening public awareness of these issues and bringing them to the forefront of domestic and international health policies.

Foege was director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was executive director of the Task Force for Child Survival and served as the executive director of the Carter Center. He remains active at Emory University as Emeritus Presidential Distinguished Professor of International Health and as a senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

William Foege ’57 believes keeping a journal is one of the most important ways we can record our everyday events, feelings and impressions.


© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2006

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