Thursday, September 22, 2011

One Take on the Machine Gun Preacher

In August of 2006 a series of unfortunate events at the Cornerstone Children's Home (CCH) in Nimule, South Sudan, left me - a young volunteer at the home - sitting awake between the hours of 2am and 6am, brandishing an AK47 to protect the children from intruders. Peace in South Sudan and Northern Uganda was still fresh, and various militias and rebel groups were known to be on the prowl, and I had been given a three minute tutorial in the Arabic phrase to call out to someone to find out whether they harbored malevolent intentions; that three minute tutorial did not include what responses a person could offer. It also didn't include a primer on how to operate my weapon, because - as anyone who has ever handled the automatic Kalashnikov will attest - any moron can figure it out. At the time I considered myself a pacifist, yet there I sat with my weapon in hand coming to terms with the fact that, yes, if someone tried to harm these children I would do everything in my power to protect them.

For the next several weeks I kept vigil every night, and when professional soldiers from the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) were hired to take my place, I was relieved that I never had cause to use the dreadful weapon - the most serious threat I encountered was a woman coming to the well right by the home to do her laundry at five in the morning.

I don't know if I can call myself a pacifist anymore. During my 2006 stint at CCH, we heard a lot about the other children's home in town: the one where the American director was known for venturing out and raiding prison camps run by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) - the most prominent of the local militias - in order to rescue children who had been conscripted as child soldiers. That story has now been turned into a major motion picture starring Gerard Butler, "Machine Gun Preacher." At the same time, the children's home started by the film's protagonist, Sam Childers, was shut down by the local government last month.

Over the course of the last year, Sarah and I knew extended families who were taking their children away from the home, which surprised us. As the LRA's strength had waned in South Sudan, this children's home had broadened its focus from rescued child soldiers to all orphans and vulnerable children - which made it all the more shocking to us that families would be taking their children back: by definition, these children had come to the home because the families were so ill equipped to care for the children in the first place. At CCH, we had families who would lie about their circumstances in order to get their children in, so it struck us as strange that the opposite phenomenon was taking place on the other side of town.

It gives me no joy to report the closing of a children's home; the last news I had was that community leaders were reading out to the NGO Save The Children to step in and take over the care of the children who had been living in the home, and that seems to me a grave injustice. At the same time, I find nothing just in the allegations of neglect and abuse that we heard from the home and which eventually led to it's shuttering. Good intentions are not enough. That's a simple enough lesson. This is a more complicated one: we often sow the seeds of our own destruction.

I don't personally know Sam Childers, only his children's home, so I have no ability to speak about what kind of person he is. But I can say this: when you allow yourself and your work to be defined by a symbol of violence, you should not be surprised if violence seeps into places you'd rather it not be. The desire for vengeance can warp even the noblest of intentions. The good news is that when it comes to orphans, vulnerable children, and former child soldiers there are lots of people doing excellent work; I have seen it firsthand. Instead of arming themselves with a gun, however, these people are armed with reserves of love, compassion, and peace. While that might make a transformative impact on the lives of traumatized children, it doesn't make for an entertaining movie. So be it.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Braving the Cultural Mine Field

I've often said that I feel like I'm constantly walking through a cultural mine field. I just never really know what step to take and which one will blow up in my face; half the time I don't even realize I'm in the mine field until it's too late.

This feeling has a lot more to do with my own insecurities than with the reality of my relationships with my South Sudanese friends, neighbors and co-workers.  They know I'm different - it couldn't be more obvious - and so they give me lots of room to mess up, apologize, and learn.

While Seth and I have the benefit of an entire village of people whom we can learn from, for many of the people we interact with, they will only meet a handful of Americans or Europeans (let's just say whites -  what the Sudanese would say), and they will draw many conclusions and assumptions from these few interactions.

This has led to some fascinating discussions and discoveries.

Here to Make Money
When the former co-director of the children's home, our dear friend Ross Kelly, was preparing to move back to the US, our head cook, Lawa, made the comment, "I guess Ross has made his money and now it's time to go back."  This comment was shocking on so many levels.  First of all Lawa loves Ross; they had worked together for five years and she has great affection and respect for him.  So we knew this was in no way a callous remark. She really thought Ross was making a lot of money to work at the children's home and he was heading back to the US a rich man.  She was happy for him.

Just to be clear Ross did not make a large profit living in South Sudan.  In fact he gave up everything to be there and left empty handed.  But…South Sudan is a hot spot for international development, and jobs at non-government organizations (NGO's, US non-profit equivalent) are the best paying, most sought after jobs around – especially because there’s so little economic activity otherwise.  So why else would Ross, or any other white for that matter, come all the way to Sudan if not to make money?

This whole discovery led us to ask Juma John (our friend, pastor, boss and cultural liaison) if people also think we were there to make money.  Juma gave one of his brilliant all knowing smiles, laughed while shaking his head, and said, "Of course they do!"
Let me just gather my body parts.  

Those Materialistic Sudanese
While taking a break from digging the garden, I had a lively discussion with our Program Manager Robert about teaching the children financial responsibility and the value of hard work.  Then Robert says to me, "the problem we have here in Sudan, that you don't have in America, is that people are so materialistic; they spend more than they make."

Yeah, if only the Sudanese could be as non-materialistic as Americans!

Once I got over the initial hilarity of the comment, I thought about trying to describe the causes of the US financial crisis, American's outrageous amount of credit card debt, and numerous other example of American excess.  Instead I asked, "Robert, what makes you think American's aren't materialistic?"

"Well" he answered, "the American's I've met here dress poorly and don't care about how they look."

Oh burn, missionaries!

"Also" he continued, "they are always giving their things away, they are very generous."

Well done America.

Selfish Whites
Seth and I recently moved into a new home in Nimule.  We invited all our neighbors and friends over for a sort of house warming Sudanese style.  After everyone went home our neighbor, Alfred, with whom we had become close, said, "friends all go home, but family gets to stay." This warmed my heart to no end.

So the three of us grabbed another soda and sat on the veranda to enjoy the evening air.  Alfred began to compliment us on the success of the night (and to explain how we could prepare the food better next time). He expressed how impressed he was with our generosity, the way we shared with the people around us, and how we welcomed them into our home. He said, "before I met you I thought all whites would not share with others."

Turns out a few years back Alfred had been a driver for some "whites" who were in Nimule.  He described how careful they were with every shilling and how they required the drivers to pay for all their own meals and water.  Even within the group they were very careful that each member paid their own way.  The experience led Alfred to believe that all whites do not share; that they are not hospitable (as Seth likes to say, “white people are a**holes. Perhaps some of you have had the lovely experience of my husband asking you to disprove this statement?).

After this conversation Seth and I went to bed with heavy hearts, realizing that to maybe 100 or so people in this small region of South Sudan we have represented all whites, in fact all of western civilization.  Oops.  Hope we didn't screw it up too much.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Great Moments in Parenting: Bad Morning

Seth and I are about to become parents to our own child, but for the last year we have been full time (24 hours a day) caretakers to 60 kids.  Luckily for our kid, it has taught us a thing or two.  We've even had parenting fights - a surreal experience I have to say.

Over the year there have been some great moments, here is one.

Bad Morning
Kasara is with me and numerous other children in the Parent on Duty office.  We are having a full blown battle over her taking her medicine. You see, Kasara is an independent girl and I've learned over time to not get into these battles of wills with her. I've learned that if I want Kasara to do something I better be careful in how I go about it.  Here are a few of my rules:

  • Never directly tell Kasara she has to do something
  • Always give detailed explanations
  • Give her options
  • Talk to her alone if possible
  • Make sure the consequence it a fair one and you follow through
  • If you pick a battle make sure you win
  • Be quick to ask for forgiveness and to forgive
But this was a bad morning.

After cleaning Kasara's infected foot for the millionth time, it was only looking worse.  She'd been hobbling around on it for well over a week, complaining the whole time.  So I decided it was time she took a round of antibiotics (you didn't know I could prescribe antibiotics to 10 year olds? Pffft, shows what you know. I'll tell you more about my medical misadventures another time). 

I say to Kasara with no explanation, "You have to take this medicine for 5 days, 2x's a day, you can't miss and you have to finish it. Here take this now."
Kasara goes into complete and total stubborn battle mode - she is not budging.

Ah, poop.  What are my rules again? Oh yeah. Ok, give her lots of explanation so she can decide to make a smart decision.

"Kasara, you have to take this medicine.  Do you want to end up like Concy?"

Context: Concy is one of Kasara's bffs, she doesn't live at the home but is around a lot.  She only has one leg, she lost the other leg from an infection or cancer or cancer that was treated and became infected - the story is a little muddled a lot like the medical care she received.

Yes, that is really what I said.  Brilliant, huh?

The sound of shocked gasps turns out to sound the same in Nimule as everywhere else and this is what I hear as the office goes deadly quite.  

Concy is standing behind me.  I am a complete jerk.

So now I've got another hole to dig myself out of.

I turn to Concy and apologize for my insensitive remark, but then ask her to justify what I just said ("I mean, that is how you lost your leg, right?").  Once a jerk...

Luckily, children are gracious.

Concy forgives me.  Kasara, for her friend's sake, takes the medicine and immediately changes the mood of the entire room to a light-hearted fun environment.  I'm telling you she has this kind of power.

A few minutes later we've all moved on and are enjoying each other. I'm continuing with medical issues and Kasara is my happy side kick.  Mostly I think she is trying to make sure I don't screw up again.

The two of us are standing in front of our very large very tipsy medicine cabinet.  Kasara then decides to lean her weight on the cabinet door. The whole thing starts to come down on us.  This is what I do:

Yell "KASARA!" Grab the cabinet and hit Kasara.  Yep.  HIT her.

Again, silence.

Kasara and I look at each other shocked and dumbfounded and then break into hysterical laughter.  Then I know that to be given this much grace, I must not always be the worst parent ever.

Concy & Kasara

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Things I've Wanted to Tell You

Seth and I are leaving South Sudan. If you read our blog you already know this.
I’ve been sick to varying degrees since May and with the baby on the way it’s time to come home. So all of that is happening, but that’s not what I wanted to tell you.
What I want to tell you about is this year we’ve lived. I’ve wanted to tell you the stories of our lives and friends here; from the absurd to the painful to the laughable. I’ve wanted to tell you about the hard and beautiful moments. It would be a lie to say I didn’t have time to tell you these things while they were happening. The truth is I didn’t have the clarity of mind or the will.
So indulge me if you will as this blog (at least for me) becomes a reflection of the last year. I will try to post regularly over the next few months as many of the stories as I can, so check back often.
Let’s start with a monkey story…
The Education of Johnny Cash
Some of you may not know this, but I know how to break horses. I don’t mean I worked a summer on a ranch and learned a thing or two; I mean I rode and trained horses several hours a day for more than a third of my life. I was good at it, and people paid me to do it.
My background as a professional equestrian has given me a knack for training most animals and an understanding of animal behavior. Like when my friend says to me that her aggressive rat of a dog pees on her when they are at the dog park, I can say, “That’s because he thinks he owns you and is marking his territory.”
I really hate undisciplined pets.
That brings me to Johnny Cash - the Cornerstone Children’s Home pet monkey (and his sidekick June).
I had determined before reaching Nimule that I was going to train Johnny… you know, as a side project. Sure, there may have been some grand ideas of all the useful things Johnny Cash could be trained to do for us, like go to the market for hot samosa, mingle posho (cook, basically), carry an AK-47 and guard the compound, discipline children, and spy on our teenagers when they left the compound - you know useful things. In reality I just wanted him to stop biting people (or at least the wrong people), and I knew this would take some serious will breaking and most likely neutering.
Johnny lived on a compound with 60 resident children; another 200 school children under the average age of seven were on his compound daily. If I could get him enough under my control to keep him from terrorizing and trying to maim these children, then I would feel pretty good.
Prior to our departure I tried to do a little research. There are NO books on training monkeys, no websites either (I know, can you believe that?!?!). For several thousand dollars you can find someone to train your monkey and train you to train your monkey. All I figured out was that Johnny Cash is a vervet monkey and is not recommended as a pet. Sweet.
My biggest inspiration came from a podcast we heard one day while driving around Denver. You can listen to it here; I’m going to summarize it and probably not very accurately so you should go listen to it later – it’s great.
It’s told by a guy who was doing lab research for his Ph.D in Neuroscience. He had a lab of monkeys that he was using for different experiments. One monkey in particular was precocious, and he grew a strong affection for this monkey and it’s lively spirit. This affection soon began to affect his lab work as the monkey would not do as it was supposed to, and as the man ended up compromising and pleading with his beloved monkey, his work became impossible. Eventually he had to shut down his personal feelings and attachment towards the monkey and become very strict, cold and unwavering in his interactions with the monkey.
After many months of this treatment the monkey finally fell in line, but it seemed to lose all its spark and life, and all the things the man had loved about the monkey were gone. The monkey became resigned and dull.
The man continued his lab work and completed his Ph.D, but he was so crushed by his experience that he decided that if he had to continue that kind of research to pursue his career, then he wouldn’t pursue his career. 

He couldn't stand that he had had to break the monkey’s will.

At the end of the story I turned to Seth, who was practically in tears and said, “that’s what we need to do to Johnny Cash.”

I will continue the story of Johnny and June over the next few months.
Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 29, 2011

An ellipse to end a chapter

It's a simple story really, but confusing nonetheless:
Two months ago, everything was moving forward as planned; our project at Cornerstone Children's Home was wrapping up, and we were cultivating new relationships and dreaming about new projects with our friends in Nimule. We had moved into our new house and were busily making it into a home - buying furniture, putting in a solar electrical system, figuring out such issues as water collection and waste disposal. We had said we planned to be in South Sudan for two years, but the way things were going, it seemed like that horizon could extend even further out.
The one surprise, a happy one, was Sarah's pregnancy, and we were going back and forth about whether to go to Uganda for the delivery or spend some time back in the US. In the meantime, we were making the three hour bus trip every month to see our obstetrician in Gulu, Uganda. Sure, Sarah had been sick and her energy level was low, even as we headed into our second trimester, but we chalked those up to the normal maladies of early pregnancy.
We were only slightly alarmed, then, when Sarah started having some severe cramping late in July. Our calendar indicated a doctor's appointment only a week away, but we decided to play it safe and make an early trip just in case. The news started bad and got worse: Sarah had lost weight between weeks 12 and 16, her hemoglobin and iron were low, and - the coup de grace - she had typhoid and had carried it for the entire pregnancy. For the next week we were back and forth to the hospital each morning and evening for Sarah to get injections that would start combating the illness. Miracle of miracles, even after finishing the treatment, our baby was still healthy.
During that week we made the decision that we couldn't live with taking unnecessary risks on behalf of our unborn child, and staying in South Sudan had suddenly become one of those unnecessary risks. We decided to return to Denver in early September and stay indefinitely.
We're stepping into a great void of unknowns. With ever improving mobile phone and Internet service, we plan to stay in touch with our colleagues on South Sudan, supporting them, and developing projects together. We don't know exactly what that will look like, but we are confident that it will be beneficial. We have met with unwavering support from our friends here in Nimule as we have faced this challenge, and we are looking forward to introducing them to our child one day.
At the end of the day, we are sad to be leaving so many wonderful people but honored to have such profound friendships. We are proud of the work that we did at Cornerstone Children's Home. Mostly, we continue to feel blessed by the prospect of parenthood and the hope we adhere to for our child. Uncertain of what the future holds exactly, we nonetheless look forward to what it may bring.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ethiopia and what came after

The first thing I remember about arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is the Ethiopian Airlines employee on the shuttle bus that took us from our plane to the baggage terminal. I asked him, "who's the best wireless carrier in Ethiopia?" (hoping to get a SIM card once we cleared customs), and he laughed, "there's only one carrier in Ethiopia: the government." My initial impression was, "that does not bode well for Ethiopia." (The next morning when my friend Jon and I walked around for an hour trying to find a place that sold SIM cards, were eventually escorted by a young woman who was eager to help us, and found a large concrete building where they wouldn't sell us a SIM card because we didn't have passport photos at least partially confirmed that impression.)

(No, it is not equally difficult to get a mobile phone in America - just a mobile phone contract. If you don't believe me, go to your nearest convenience store and peruse their prepaid offerings.)

But the second thing I remember is that we left the airport and drove to our hotel on a three lane highway that was both paved and flat. I didn't see a single motorcycle taxi the entire way, and I wondered if we were really still in Africa.

The truth in Addis, as in so many places, is that the impression it leaves depends very much on what the observer chooses to pay attention to. Addis is vast and sprawling, unafflicted by the population density - the sheer amount of people - that I'm accustomed to in African capitals. Addis is well-developed, with its paved roads and not totally unbearable traffic, tons of restaurants and coffee shops, and well-maintained power grid. Of course to see that, one has to overlook the shanties that press up right against the walled compounds and ignore the fact that many of the restaurants are pretty empty and what tables are occupied are as often occupied by a foreigner as not.

Nonetheless, I'm still riding high on Ethiopia generally and Addis in particular. Sarah and I joke that we should go there on vacation again sometime when she's not pregnant and can actually enjoy the food (except we wouldn't fly through Juba again). The reasons for my affection for Ethiopia are, in no particular order, as follows:
The generally excellent climate as a result of its high altitude. It never got too hot - at times it maybe even got too cold - and when the rains came they were a sight to behold.
The ubiquity of the best coffee in the world. Our unassuming hotel served up what I deemed at the time to be one of the best espresso machiatos I had ever had. This prestigious award was revoked a few hours later in a hole in the wall coffee shop that actually served the best espresso machiato ever. Even when we were in a far flung village with limited medical services and a dicey road, our $5/night hotel (bed bugs no extra charge) served us top notch espresso machiatos with every meal. I wonder if the Italians give away industrial espresso machines as part of some aid package or something (and, if they do, Mr. Berlusconi, might I draw your attention to the fledgling nation of South can have as many wives as you can afford here).
The Ethiopians we met were, across the board, kind and hospitable. As in, business owners were willing to let strangers use their bathrooms and people smiled at us but didn't stare and stuff. Even the black market currency exchange guy (who jumped into our van, pulled money out of his sock, made sure that we counted it all to ensure that he wasn't shortchanging us, and then jumped out at the next intersection) was really sweet.

Maybe the most important reason that I'll think fondly of Ethiopia was because the projects we saw there were examples of the kind of development I want to be a part of. In particular, we were able to visit three child sponsorship sites run by Compassion International - and at all three we were with friends who sponsored children at the site.

Compassion caught me a bit off guard: I've seen the evaluations of child sponsorship programs by various development economists that suggest that child sponsorship isn't a very cost-effective approach. Visiting a Compassion site, however, reminded me that cost-effectiveness isn't always the most important measure of a dollar spent and that some things that can be observed can't be measured. Goods given and services rendered can be quantified, but is there an equation that measures the depth of kindness and affection that caretakers demonstrate towards children? Is there a way to gauge the impact of the hope offered to families when other members of the community come alongside the families to support their children? I'm not asking if anyone has ever attempted to quantify these benefits - I know people have - what I'm suggesting is that those measures always miss the mark.

In short, visiting a Compassion site reflected to me the tensions that I feel like we're constantly holding: data and good management matter, but so too do people; strong programs can be impactful, but so can strong people. We hold out effectiveness over mere good intention, at the same time recognizing the vital role of relationships in fostering truly vibrant communities.

Sarah and I came to Nimule armed with knowledge that we thought we'd immediately put to work and change people's by the hundreds and thousands. Right away. It has been almost a year now, and as we look back most of the things we expected to do haven't come to fruition - no teacher training, no literacy programs, very little small business development - and the truth is, no one is beating down our door begging us to do those things. And I should be devastated by that fact, except for this: there is a children's home that is right now this very moment being run entirely by a local staff, and those people love those kids with profound affection - we got to be a part of that transformation; there are specific kids that we have seen overcome unthinkable trauma and become more fully the best versions of themselves - we got to stand with them through that process; every day now, children come to our house to read stories, play games, do arts & crafts, and help Sarah in the kitchen - we get to continue investing in their lives; we have men and women from the community come into our home every week and share with us their vision for this community - we get to be a part of helping them achieve that vision.

We are not superstars. We are not anyone's heroes. I think at one time I wanted to be both of these things. Instead, I find that I'm happy with what we are becoming: we are a part of many people doing what they can to bring wholeness, reconciliation, and redemption into this world. It's humbling, it's a whole lot different from what we expected, and it's something that we will carry with us the rest of our lives - no matter where we are or what we are doing.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Our New Nation

When I remember the independence of the Republic of South Sudan in the years to come, it won't be the flag raising or the official ceremony that I'll remember. Instead,
my first memories will be of the final hour of unity and the first minutes of separation.

On that night people began gathering a few at a time on the compound of Cornerstone Children's Home, where our friend Juma John had told everyone to come for a midnight celebration. The crowd would bring light to the new day by lighting candles at midnight, illuminating a new nation.

The gathering grew steadily larger and larger, from just a few dozen at 8pm to several hundred by 11pm. Groups presented songs and dances, men made speeches. Between every presentation someone would interject how many minutes remained until independence.

Juma's speech (30 minutes until independence) was a call for the citizens to be responsible for their new nation, to live in righteousness and combat corruption, and to remember the sacrifices - millions of lives lost along the way - that had brought them this new hope. The plaintive nods and murmurs of agreement drove home the reality that everyone in attendance had a story of deep personal loss along the way; they all knew someone who had died in the war or in exile, and in this final hour they were all remembering. By the same token, they had all worked for this peaceful transition and chosen a path of forgiveness over vengeance.

At Juma wrapped up, he called for someone from the crowd who had been alive to celebrate Sudan's first independence from Britain in 1956 to come forward and share what that experience had been like. Not a single person took up the invitation, so he asked again and still no one accepted. He called on the oldest person he knew to come up and share; the man diplomatically informed him at he wasn't that old. I scanned the crowd for someone and couldn't pick out anyone who fit the bill. Maybe it was the late hour, but maybe it was the already scant demographic. They moved on and began distributing candles.

At midnight, the first candle was lit by Samuel Juma. Samuel, a Sudanese refugee living in America, has been the driving force behind Cornerstone Children's Home. When nobody else was doing work with orphans in South Sudan - and despite the fact that he himself had no experience doing so - he felt like he had to do something for the vulnerable children in his homeland, so he started a feeding program. He hoped and believed for this day for as long as anyone, and now - framed against the 24 bedroom home that already houses 60 children - he brought the first rays of light to the new day. From him, the candles of those next to him were lit, and so on until hundreds of people of all ages and sizes stood holding their candles aloft in a sea of radiance. They all placed their hands over their hearts, closed their eyes tight, and sang their new national anthem for the first time. And then they danced. Played. Laughed. Prayed.

I didn't see anyone cry; maybe they had shed enough tears each the last 25 years. That didn't stop me crying, of course. Over and over again, one of the many young girls who live at the home would run up to me in delight, face aglow both from the candlelight and the enormity of her smile, and I couldn't help thinking that this new nation was for them - a nation of promise and possibility. It's not a perfect thing - far from it - nor is it a guarantee that everything will be good and right from now on. But maybe, just maybe, they'd be able to live the rest of their lives as uninhibited and full of joy as they were on this one night. It's not such a bad thing to hope for.