Archive for June, 2009

RWANDA: Hardship and Hope

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2009 by klustgarten

June 2-6,  2009– Kigali, Rwimiyaga, Gacundezi, Nyagatare

assignment:  write/produce a video for Food for the Hungry, an international relief organization  


Rwanda is called “the land of a thousand hills” …and 10 million smiles.  A land-locked country in E. Africa the size of Maryland, today it is said to be the safest and cleanest country on the continent. The national language is Kinyarwanda. There are 576 Rwandan francs to $1 US.  The largest franc is equivalent to a $20 bill.      

Fifteen years since the genocide, the green countryside is peaceful now. 

countryside 2

President Paul Kagame is considered an enlightened leader in Africa. He invited all who fled during a war (including the 1959 uprising) to return in peace to their homeland.  More than a million were repatriated from neighboring Uganda, Burundi and the DR  Congo.  He declared after the genocide that there will be no more references to Hutus and Tutsis, everyone will be called “Rwandans.” Blaming the French for provoking genocide, he kicked them out and replaced French with English in schools as the second language. Most signs are in English.

 Since their villages had been looted or destroyed, many returning  house, clay bricks and scaffold branches refugees  were settled in a huge wildlife preserve where they received a measured   plot of land to begin anew—enough land for a house (hut) and to farm. They built from scratch with tree branches and mud bricks, but at least they were safely home. 

 Kagame received a military education in the US before securing victory. I’m told he’s a Christian who was inspired by Rick Warren’s book A Purpose Driven Life and decided to become a beacon of light for Africa after reading it. 

 He outlawed plastic (except water bottles) because it’s not biodegradable and causes litter. Upon retrieving our suitcases from baggage claim in Kigali, the capital, visitors who had wrapped their suitcases in plastic (for security) or carried plastic bags were stopped and asked to dispose of them in the trash before leaving the airport.  Indeed, when driving  north from Kigali through rural villages we did not see a spec of litter.  Rwandans are required to devote one Saturday morning a month to community clean-up work.   

 June 2, 2009

Brussels Airways has the direct flight (8 hours) to Kigali.  I was one of a handful of Caucasians on board.  

Jacksons at Kigali home  Brenda, the wife of Food for the Hungry’s country director, picked me up at the airport and welcomed me into their Kigali home, large enough to serve as a B & B for all the staff and visitors passing through each year.  She graciously had dinner ready and a guest bedroom and bathroom for me with hot and cold running water, a luxury that would not last long.

June 3 

The camera crew and I set out in the morning with our suitcases in the van and the client’s Rwandan driver, Jean-Claude at the wheel, driving three hours north past remote villages where some had never seen a white person.   

  The sunny green countryside was pastoral and lovely.   countryside The land seemed to be sectioned off into equal parcels for huts and farming.  This is a beautiful country of gentle hills and savannahs. 

 People were friendly, waving and smiling to our van or responding to our waves.  We passed an endless stream of men, women (many swaddling babies on their backs) and school children walking up and down the hills along the dirt shoulders of the paved two-lane highway. There were few vehicles on the road, so people noticed us. Children especially waved enthusiastically.  

I observed Claude exchanging hand signals with each driver in a vehicle passing in the opposite direction.  He showed me the signals for “police check nearby, slow down” or “all clear, no police” or “police in next village.”  We did pass a couple of soldiers and a few traffic cops on the roadside.  One stopped us and asked a few questions in English then let us go after glancing at Claude’s papers. Claude said they mostly look for speeders.  

 In passing many rural villages, we witnessed how arduous life is for subsistence farmers in a primitive culture.   bike, girl help father 

bike carries goods from market

Here at the equator, work is back-breaking.  They use only a rusty hoe (no tillers or machines) to plant and machetes to cut the corn stalks, banana clusters or tree branches for construction and kindling.  We saw adults walking miles uphill in worn, torn flip-flops along the shoulders of the highway with bundles of goods balanced on their heads or loaded on bikes they were pushing and pedaling uphill, every inch a painful test of endurance.

 Children of all ages walk to school by themselves for miles in the heat along the dirt sides of the road in worn out sandals.  Some walk six miles each way.  Your heart breaks passing so many friendly, decent people working to the bone to bear up in poverty.  bike, bananas

I don’t know how a primitive life without infrastructure is possible to   survive. The average lifespan is 49 years. Infant mortality is 85 per 1,000 yet I never saw so many children before; there are 6-8 per family.    

 After driving three hours, we pulled up to two small office buildings set back on a dirt road in the Rwimiyaga Sector of north east Rwanda.  A group of about 15 men and women from Highland’s Church in Arizona were already meeting with the sector leader and pastors.  They have established a long-term plan to build alongside the villagers a much-needed sustainable community.   

We videotaped their meetings and I conducted a couple of interviews, then we followed the group in a three-van caravan to nearby Gacundezi, where we taped a small milk collection center. 

African cows have horns  Along the road, we passed some herders tending their cows, a sacred animal because of the milk (African cows have horns.).  We spotted many zebra, gazelle, lots of cows, even  a monkey.  We followed the other vans as they turned down endless dirt roads deep into a resettlement area near a lake close to the Uganda border.

 The residents approached us with curiosity; vans just don’t pull up in these parts, especially ones filled with Caucasians.

  Paul, family at resettlement area

Many had never seen a white person before.   village, kids never saw white person

The children were especially shy when we waved and smiled to signal that we are friendly.  The older ones waved back; the youngest turned and headed up the hill a bit frightened.  Dwight, the country director, spoke in Kinyarwanda and with the help of Paul, a native on staff, they were able to determine the needs of the people living in this temporary resettlement for the past year.  The area lacks a school and health clinic. 

One pregnant woman with five children said she was ill and needed a doctor. kids, lollypops in purse The nearest clinic is more than eight miles away; the only vehicle is a bicycle.   

 We asked permission to take their photos.  I mimed my request by holding up the camera and pointing.  I couldn’t tell if they understood, but we took photos anyway and showed them the digital feedback in the cameras.  They were so excited to see images of themselves!  They began to pose with each other for more photos so they could see the result.  We learned that smiling and waving first, then taking a digital photo and showing it in the camera was a great way to break the ice.  

 On the way back, we stopped at another village where they had never seen a white person.  As our caravan pulled up, people emerged from their huts and the fields to greet us.  village gathers, never saw whites

village people curious

Having visitors is an honor in Rwanda. 

village, distant women   Women with babies swaddled on their backs hung back under the trees, but large groups of men and children swamped our vans excitedly.  I heard a child scream when I got out so I walked over to her in her mother’s arms.  The child screamed louder and covered her eyes.  Her mother smiled at me and turned away to calm the child.  I followed, taking out a lollypop but that made things worse.  It took a moment to realize that with red hair and white skin, I was a monster! 

   Dwight and Paul conversed with a group in Kinyarwanda while the rest of us smiled, waved then took digital photos. 

K, camera  Again, when we showed the result in our cameras, everyone gathered around to view it, then wanted more shots taken to see more. Soon we were engaged in a nonstop picture-taking-showing fest.  Too bad Polaroid cameras were discontinued because permanent photos would have been a treasured gift here.    village, boy poses

We climbed back into the vans and headed out while the entire village gathered to bid us goodbye, smiling and waving.  All but one little girl still screaming. 

 We arrived at the Nyagatare District and town at dusk and checked into the Blue Sky Hotel.  Curiously, it’s the only hotel in the entire sector (county) for miles around. We all had private rooms and bathrooms upstairs (no elevators or air conditioning in Rwanda).  Mine did not have hot water.  

mosquito net over my hotel bed  Each room included a mosquito net over the bed and a TV set with remote control. The one working station was broadcasting a “Friends” episode.    

 Fortunately, the hotel staff was prepared for our large group of about 20 and served a full buffet dinner: fish, meat, rice, vegetables, potatoes, mashed bananas with bottled water, Fanta, coffee or tea.  Fruit is the only dessert.  Rwandan coffee is excellent.   

 Since I don’t do cold showers, I did what I could with bottled water before retiring.  I should have appreciated what was provided because there was no running water in my room thereafter.  

 June 4, 2009

Following a hearty hotel breakfast of eggs, toast, potatoes, juice and coffee, we set out for a long day of videotaping in various locations, a few with the church group. Our first stop was the Gacundezi Primary School.

  When we drove up, a sea of smiles and waving hands in blue school uniforms greeted us.  

Gacundezi Primary School & K

The head master mentioned that no one has visited this school before and these children have never seen a white person.  We were greeted like rock stars.  Some kids gently touched my hair and skin to see what I was made of.   Rwandans have shaved heads, so my full hair and color must have seemed bizarre.

 I rolled a suitcase out of the van into the headmaster’s office.  Inside were school supplies I packed from my home office, 200 pens donated by TD Bank in Delray Beach and assorted stuff from home:  frizbees, balls, glitter and glue, balloons, books.   I gave half the contents to the headmaster and saved half for the school we were videotaping next.  He was most grateful.  

Taking digital photos with so many kids surrounding us was a major event; they could not get enough of seeing their images in our cameras.  The headmaster tried to steer students back into their classrooms, but they followed our van to the gate, waving and calling “Goodbye” until we were out of view.

  Rwimyaga Primary and Secondary School was the next stop.  When we drove up, two classrooms were being conducted under the trees. 

Rwimyaga Primary School, children under trees, teacher 2  In each class were nearly 100 elementary school children in green uniforms sitting like sardines on benches learning to count in English by rote.  Each teacher under the trees wrote on a blackboard with chalk but no erasure.  When we came close to videotape, the children stood up in unison and welcomed us in Kinyarwanda.  Unlike in the US, teachers are strict and students are respectful and well-mannered. 

 We met with the headmaster who explained there are more than 2,300 in his  school and not enough supplies or classroom buildings for them all, so the trees serve as classrooms.  I rolled my suitcase into his office and gave him the rest of the supplies.  He said many students do not have pens, so with only 100 left from TD Bank, he decided to single out the best students to receive them. 

pen distribution at Rwimyaga Secondary School 2  He called a few to his office for a picture-taking moment of the pen distribution for my bank back home.   I’ll try to get more pens, a valuable school supply here.

 The day was hectic videotaping several more interviews and a school celebration held outside for the church group.

Gacundezi Secondary School, celebration 2, c-u  Students welcomed them with a ceremony that included singing and dancing then a dance join-in session. After the celebration, we followed a few church group members to their home visits with children they sponsor in the Gacundezi cell (village area). 

Rwimyaga, home visit 1  Here sits a typical primitive village where families of 10 live in small, two-room huts. One woman who was here during the genocide agreed to be interviewed in her hut.  Her eight children came inside and sat quietly (just like American kids).

 With Paul interpreting, she spoke about being beaten then, and how happy she is now to live in peace in her hut and have Food for the Hungry provide the school uniforms and supplies for her children’s schooling. “My life is good now,” she said. 

 We thanked her then I asked permission to take a photo with the children around her.  She shrugged not knowing what I meant.  Paul said it was OK, so I snapped a picture and showed her the image in the camera.  She was overcome with emotion when she saw her family portrait.

   Rwimyaga, home visit family

 Back at the Blue Sky Hotel, there was no running water in my room but the buffet dinner was delicious. I learned to appreciate bottled water, especially during the day.  To everyone else, the weather at the equator was hot, but coming from Florida it was just fine since there is little humidity.  

 June 5

Along the drive back to Kigali, I asked to make stops so the crew could videotape typical scenes of daily life here.  We experienced several touching encounters with villagers when we pulled over.  First we smiled and waved then mimed permission to take a photo. Showing the image in the camera helped get the approval to videotape.  Gacundizi Primary School, boys in trees 1

 We stopped to tape a group of women, some with babies on their backs, pumping water from a central field pump.  I could see their reluctantance to allow the cameraman to videotape so I got out of the van and approached them.  One woman gently pulled at my white shirt and said something.  I looked at Claude, “What does she want, the shirt off my back?”  “No, she wants clothes,” he said.  “She wants to know if you have any clothes you can give her.” 

 I held up my index finger meaning “wait one minute” and dashed up to the van, opened the trunk, unzipped my suitcase and yanked out what was on top.  It was a long, cotton nightshirt in lime green (not a common color here) with several pink flamingos in sunglasses across the middle and the words “Delray Beach” underneath. The nightshirt had two white bleach stains on the bottom.  

 I hurried back to the water pump and held up the garment for her approval.  She smiled, took it from me and examined it, then put it on over her African ethnic dress.  It fit her perfectly.  She smiled again and gave me a thumb’s up! 

 Greg took a picture of us with the rest of the women by our side.  When we parted, they smiled and waved. Carrying water jugs, the women disappeared down a dirt road that cut into the field to their huts. Despite the heat of the day, she did not take off the nightshirt.  In an unknown village in Rwanda somewhere between Kigali and Nyagatare, the City of Delray Beach has a presence (photo coming).  The same with Boca Raton, but that’s another story about a cap.

It was nearly 3:00pm when we pulled up at Brenda and Dwight’s Kigali home dirty, hot and hungry.  Brenda had lunch and our rooms, complete with hot water, waiting for us.  I did everyone a favor by taking a long, hot shower that felt wonderful.  She and helpers were preparing her famous buffet dinner this evening for all 20 of us.

Dwight calls it the “Mt. Kilimanjaro” dinner. On a big plate, you build a mountain starting with rice, then curried chicken in sauce over that, then some kind of beans, chopped tomatoes, chopped onion, chopped mango, chopped nuts, some other chopped items I can’t remember, raisins and topped with shredded coconut.  It was fantastic!

 June 6

I awoke to Brenda’s scrambled eggs, the best bagels I’ve ever tasted (from a bakery in Kigali) and delicious Rwandan coffee (wish it were available online).  Chatting for awhile with Brenda and Nathan, I learned about his complex project building a pipeline delivering sanitary water to remote villages and all the construction and people challenges he confronts daily, including the recipients. There’s a book in this. 

 Betsy helped load my suitcases into her car and drove me to the Kigali marketplace where I bought some beautiful hand-made baskets before heading to the airport.   Kigali Market, boy w grain

   Kigali market, grain section

It was difficult to bid farewell to the wonderful, dedicated staff with Food for the Hungry.     Jacksons, K, Elgin, Becky, Greg

  This  remarkable, moving journey in Rwanda is one the crew and I will never forget.  I smiled, waved and bid everyone farewell.   The Kenya Airlines flight to Dubai included a long stopover in Nairobi.  From primitive to futuristic, another culture shock was waiting in the Middle East.   –KL

MORE PHOTOS: of Rwanda at



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HAITI: T-Shirts for Haiti, a Journey of Donations

Posted in News with tags , , , , , , , on June 16, 2009 by klustgarten

March, 2009–  Before leaving for Haiti to produce a video for Friends of the Orphans, I viewed some of the client’s raw footage taken in Cite Soleil, the largest slum in Port au Prince and branded as the worst one in the world.  In the video were many kids without clothes living in appalling squalor  among sewage, rubble, mud, polluted water and garbage picked over by wild pigs.  I decided the children could at least use T-shirts as simple protection against the harsh conditions, an article of  clothing Americans have in abundance. Cite Soleil 1

A month earlier Ivan had donated bags of clothes to Caring Kitchen, which services the Haitian community in Delray Beach.  I had given bags to Goodwill.  So I sent an e-mail to a few friends about collecting used, clean T-shirts in any size to bring with me and distribute to children in Haiti’s notorious slum. Within five days I received 205 T-shirts and 61 other clothing items that filled four hefty suitcases.  Lisa packing suitcase

In Ft. Lauderdale, Lisa packed a huge duffle bag suitcase.

 Kathy's 2 bagsKathy and Gabby gave enough bags to fill a suitcase of their own.

   Paul's bag           

 Paul in Lake Worth donated a haul to fill another big one.  

Henny Pennys 2

The Henny Penny women in West Palm Beach brought 33 clothing items and Gene in Boca Raton donated 25 golf shirts only worn once

Anabeth 2, winnerIn Deray Beach, Gloria, Charles, David, Annabeth and Marjorie donated the rest.

  TD bank in Delray and Boca donated 300 pens for the orphanage school.

pen giveaway 2   pen giveaway

 I was overwhelmed by the response in such short notice.

 The four full-sized suitcases were checked from Miami to Port au Prince on March 25 along with Darryl’s camera equipment.  Fabi, our Haitian production assistant (coincidentally) and I had carry on cases, so we met the quota for checked luggage.  suitcases at PaP airport 

suitcases at airport

To accommodate all our bags, the client arranged for their driver and bus to pick us up at the airport.  We were driven to the client’s St. Damien Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre, an area in Port au Prince. There we videotaped the wonderful facility treating the sweetest and sickest youngsters. 

 I interviewed Father Rick, the priest and doctor who established the facility along with schools in Cite Soleil and an impressive orphanage for 500 kids in the misty mountains of Kenscoff.  K, Jen, kids, crop

                                                       Kenscoff Mts from cafe 2

It was still light when we finished videotaping at the hospital so Fr. Rick agreed to take us with suitcases to one of the schools he founded in Cite Soleil where I could distribute the T-shirts and take photos for the donors in Florida.  St. Anne’s school is located on the perimeter of the slum, not deep inside where the video of naked children was shot.  As deplorable as conditions are along the perimeter, these kids were wearing clothes. Conditions are worse and more dangerous deeper into the shantytown and Fr. Rick did not want us to go there. He does outreach work in the inner slum twice weekly, but felt it was not the right time for us to go. Cite Soleil 2 

When the children saw five of us plus three suitcase carriers walking through their narrow, rocky “street” toward the school, they followed with great curiosity.  Visitors, especially three Caucasians, are somewhat rare here. The kids were adorable, respectful and friendly.    Fr. Rick warned that there would be a stampede if we opened the suitcases in the street, so staff carried them into the small school yard area then closed the large metal door to block the view and entrance.  He had the children line up, letting a certain number inside while the next group were lined up.   Cite Soleil, Fr Rick & man & kids                 

 Before opening the suitcases, he made a short speech in Creole and all the kids sang a song.  I decided to say a few words, too.  With Fabi translating, I told the children, “I brought these gifts from people in Florida who care about you very much and want you to know that they love you.” 

Cite Soleil, T-shirt distributions 5Then I unzipped one suitcase.  Their eyes grew wide when they saw the treasure of clothes.    Cite Soleil, T-shirt donations

 Me and two staff members began handing out one T-shirt at a time.  All the hands went up.  Some kids got extra excited for certain colors, styles or items.  We tried to give to each the item wanted the most.    

 Cite Soleil. T-shirt donations 4 Soon the kids were rushing the suitcase rummaging through the clothes.  We closed the case, Fabi told them in Creole to back up to where they were sitting and the cycle began again, then all over again with the next group of kids.    

When I got to the stack of Gene’s golf shirts, I held up a few and looked at Fr. Rick.  They were his size and he was wearing a golf shirt.  He said, “No, thanks, I have everything I need.”  Later Jennifer told me she’s sure he only has the one he was wearing.   Eventually we distributed the donations in three suitcases (the fourth one saved for the orphanage).

 During the commotion, Fabi had me hand over a stack of T-shirts from Delray Beach’s recent commission election.  She disappeared with them into one of the school rooms then emerged  asking me to quickly take a picture inside.  A dozen adult students in class had put on the election T-shirts.  The effect was much like a club shirt or school uniform. Cite Soleil, students in campaign T-shirts 2

   Cite Soleil, students in campaign T-shirts 3

We headed back to the bus, children surrounding us smiling for the camera and making hand gestures, holding our hands or just gathering in curiosity.  Although they appreciated the clothes, I still wanted to get more for the naked kids I saw on videotape in the inner slum.  Fr. Rick said he’d see that any items I send get distributed there.

 Thank you all for your much needed and appreciated donations!   The Haiti T-shirt drive did not end with you. 

 Northwood University T-Shirt Drive

 Gayle from Henny Penny’s was in a meeting with Northwood University Professor Janice Scarinci in West Palm Beach and mentioned she had to leave and drop off T-shirts for Haiti.  Dr. Scarinci wanted to know about this spontaneous T-shirt drive because she has a special empathy for Haiti’s children.   She invited me to do a media presentation for her class, showing my photos and video of the T-shirt drive and the video I wrote/produced for Friends of the Orphans, Haiti.    Northwood, K at screen, T-shirts, blurred

After the media presentation, Dr. Scarinci asked the class if they would like to duplicate my T-shirt drive, involving the entire college.  The class was excited about the idea and the planning stage began right there in class.  The drive was spearheaded by Anna, one of the students who said she was inspired by the presentation, the great need and the donation response I received from one e-mail to friends.

group, Carol, J, K, students T-shirts With only two weeks left before graduation, the hotel and hospitality class of about12 seniors had to obtain college permission, design and distribute flyers and set logistics for the collection, counting and delivery of the clothes on campus.  The goal of their year-end “Give the T-Shirt Off Your Back” drive  was to collect 1,000 T-shirts for naked children living in Cite Soleil. By May 11, they had collected 1,330. Northwood, carrying out T-shirts

  Northwood, Counting T-shirts

Dr. Scarinci asked me to do another presentation on collection day for the general student body and staff.  This time I brought Alfredo, a representative from Friends of the Orphans who manages the Miami-Haiti in-kind donations warehouse. 

Alfredo, Sherman, T-shirts 2 Alfredo was an orphan who grew up in one of the homes supported by Friends of the Orphans.  The students had lots of questions and were touched by his story. 

 On May 16, students bagged and trucked 1,330 T-shirts down to the Miami warehouse. Alfredo will put them in a shipping container to Haiti where they will be received by the orphanage staff there and distributed by them to children in the poorest slum in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  

Northwood, group shot under display Dr. Scarinci and Anna said they hope this T-shirt drive will become an annual event at the college.  They will remain in touch with Alfredo “to keep it going.”   I hope some day soon all children in Cite Soleil, Haiti will have at least one article of clothing to protect them.    —


MORE PHOTOS:   of Haiti and the T-shirt drives at  Haiti   

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Haiti Earthquake Update 1/15/10

I just saw a photo of the collapsed building in Petionville (a section of Port au Prince) where the camera crew and I stayed 10 months ago producing the video. Friends of the Orphans owned the building, which included a day care center for handicapped children and a “hotel” for visitors like us. 

This photo was taken of us in front of their building March, 2009.  Now it’s gone.  There but for the grace of God go I.

 I saw on MSNBC that one of the schools in Cite Soleil established by Friends of the Orphans was destroyed along with the children in it.

 It was the very school where we distributed the T-shirts many of you had donated.    

 I cannot comprehend that this school and the precious children are gone now!   Located in the mountains, the orphanage  received some structural damage but not extensive.  However, some employees who were working at sites in Port au Prince the day of the quake perished.  

 Fr. Rick Frichette in the mini-documentary is the Haiti director for Friends of the Orphans.  Also a doctor, he  established the only pediatric hospital in Haiti.  We taped his interview at his  beautiful St. Damien Hospital in Tabarre.  Although this hospital suffered damage, it is still standing and has become a center where the wounded are brought for treatment.  News segments about him and the hospital since the quake at   VIDEO: ABC News at St. Damien Hospital  and  VIDEO: NBC Nightly News at St. Damien Hospital 
         Message from Fr. Rick on January 14, 2010, 12:45 p.m. (EST): 
Our 120-bed pediatric hospital has moved all of the patients outside into the driveway and courtyard areas due to the government’s statement that no one should be inside buildings because of the numerous aftershocks. We are working on obtaining tents from the United Nations to try and make the children and parents more comfortable. Most of the perimeter walls have collapsed and there is some structural damage to the main hospital walls. A source explained,  ‘It is not easy for the children to be outside and obviously some are not able to receive the intensive care that they need. I was there for only a few hours on Tuesday and many injured people were brought in with horrific injuries. Everybody is terrified. As of this morning, people with very serious conditions are still streaming in. Nurses are working hard and doing their best to cope.’

Fabi, our Hatian production assistant,  translated for us on the shoot.  She worked part-time while in college then moved back to Haiti last month. I met her lovely parents while there.  Her sister in Florida called the office to report that Fabi and her parents are OK but they could not locate all their relatives and learned that some died.  No word if they are homeless. 

 Most of the houses in the hills of  Petionville where they lived have collapsed.   (Petionville, 3/09) 

HOW  YOU CAN HELP:  AT   They suggest donating essential life -saving relief supplies:  medicine, dry beans and rice, flashlights, batteries, water purifiers, and bottled water.  In South Florida, take your donations to their office:  7175 SW 47th Street, Unit 207,  Miami, Florida 33155; phone: 305/663-6211.  They have their own shipping containers that go to their Haiti orphanage and hospital.  – KL  

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