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.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Juba, Part 2

During our two days in Juba, I was left over and over again with the impression that every system that might keep a city alive was failing; meanwhile there were always people around who would keep their own lives and the pulse of their neighborhood beating, just on a much smaller scale.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get money from an ATM. I went to every single ATM in Juba, to no avail. Despite claims that Visa would work, this incedibly intricate network designed to ut money in people's hands was useless to me. The money changers who sat at the perimeter of the car park, however, always smiled to see me and always gave me an excellent ate of exchange to turn my fleeting supply of Ugandan shillings into Sudanese pounds. They kept my low grade sense of panic from developing into a full throated outbreak.

Sarah and I spent an hour walking around the Ministris complex looking for the office where we needed to extend our visas. When we did find it, it was hidden behind a building which was hidden behind a building - and by building I mean a stack of prefab boxes. Once we actually got our visa renewed, we found that they were marked for single entry - pointless for us as we were leaving the country the next day, but the SPLM official in charge assured us, "as long as the date is valid, nobody will care if it's single or multiple entry."

By late afternoon we found ourselves at Oasis Camp - one of those prefab hotels along the river Nile. It was only a few hundred meters from our guest house, and while the rooms were overpriced, the restaurant (though still expensive) served delicious meals in a sitting area that sat right on the banks of the Nile in an environment of calm and serenity.

Maybe that captures Juba: calm and reprieve can be found for a price, otherwise life is chaotic and governed by the circumstances of the moment.

After two days in Juba with no ability to access money, we had run through almost everything we had. After paying for our guesthouse and a ride to the airport, we were left with 150 pounds (about $50); we were delighted. Juba airport, though, was about to wipe the smiles off our faces. In the airport terminal there wasn't a single computer, there was a single boarding gate, brown outs were frequent, and our boarding passes were handwritten - I saw one man given only a confirmation number written on a torn off scrap of paper.

And then there was the shakedown: as we went to get exit stamps in our passports, the immigration agent told us there was a 92 pound exit fee per person. I told him I didn't have 184 pounds, he told me I could pay $90 instead. I told him I didn't have that either, and he just shrugged and held onto our passports. I asked, "if I can't pay, does at mean I can never leave Sudan?" He shrugged again. I pulled out our last 150 pounds, offered it to him, and watched as he counted it. "Where's the rest?" he asked; it was my turn to shrug. He sampled our passports and returned them to us.

For the next hour we sat at the gate and waited for our flight to board, stewing in frustration. And then our flight was called, we were patted down for security, we boarded, and sitting inside the prop jet we were returned to a world of order and sanity - a salve on our wounds.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Juba, Part 1

A month ago, Sarah and I found ourselves in the unenviable position of needing to visit Juba (municipal motto: "Coming soon: a real city!") - the capital of South Sudan (national motto, with thanks to Danie Hauer: "There's no way of knowing!" which is the most correct answer to almost any question a person might ask about the new country). It is noteworthy that it has taken me a month to even touch this topic; I want to remember as little of it as possible, so think of this entry more as an act of catharsis on my part than anything else.

Juba is a city of readily apparent contradictions. Along the river Nile lies a long expanse of private compounds, each hiding an upscale hotel behind its gates. Of course, describing a hotel in Juba as "upscale" is a bit inaccurate. Nearly every upscale Juba hotel is a grossed collection of prefabricated boxes with individual air conditioning units whirring away and the promise of a bed, satellite television, and a hot shower within. A more appropriate term for this kind of hotel is "expensive" or maybe "exorbitantly expensive", with prices for a room for one person starting $150. The reason that the term expensive is not applied, however, is because in Juba this is the starting point for the price of a hotel room, and the constant presence of innumerable foreign NGOs ensures that these hotels are fully booked.

Immediately inland from these hotels lie fields of shanties built of sticks, cardboard, and tarp - each inspiring the observer to marvel at how a family could fit themselves inside, but somehow they do (as to the exact method? There's no way of knowing). No matter how many times one stumbles upon these shanty towns immediately juxtaposed against an image of prosperity, it never fails to darken the spirits at least a little. In Juba, I found myself wondering how these families felt about life in Juba as compared to life in he refugee camps from which they likely came, and I realized I couldnt conceive of an appropriate response.

Sarah and I found the prospect of spending two-thirds of our monthly income on a two night hotel stay daunting. By a fluke of chance, we happened upon the phone number for a Catholic retreat center that offered the very reasonable rate of $50 for a double room - the caveat being that it offered neither conditioned air, nor television of any kind, nor hot showers (though the kind sister who took our reservation assured me that the bathroom and shower were self-contained in the room). After I had made the booking, I asked where exactly in Juba the retreat center was located and was told to call before I arrived for precise directions.

The morning we were set to depart Nimule for Juba I did just that, and while the answer I got wasn't exact, it was a start: "go to the Aquana factory and call me from there." Despite the fact that I had no idea what the Aquana factory was nor where it was located nor how the word Aquana was spelled, I felt confident that once we got to Juba somebody would be able to get us there. That confidence began to dissolve in the Juba bus park as I asked one motorcycle taxi after another if he could take us to the Aquana factory and was greeted with blank stares and shrugged shoulders (where's the Aquana factory? There's no way of knowing). When finally a driver gave us a confident nod that he knew where the Aquana factory was, I put Sarah on the back of his bike, found one of the clueless drivers, ordered him to follow the non-clueless driver, then squeezed myself and the suitcase that held clothing for Sarah and I for an eight day trip to Ethiopia onto the back of his bike. This arrangement pushed me up against the driver in a manner that is as physically intimate as I have ever been with another man.

At the Aquana factory a short, plain woman ambled up to us and told us to follow her, which we did - on foot, around puddles and along stretches of road turned to heavy reddish mud, with one of us carrying an enormous suitcase. We walked alongside one of those heart-crushing shanty fields, across from which was a walled compound with a small gate, which we went through and found ourselves in the surprisingly verdant courtyard of the Friendship Guest House. The woman, who I took for a nun, sat us down and got us each a cold bottle of water.

For the first time in my life, I actually experienced something I've long espoused: in an unknown, uncertain, and potentially unfriendly environment, the demonstration of Catholic kindness and hospitality hits the soul with incomparable resonance. Despite my own wishes otherwise, I'll probably have to go back to Juba someday, and when I do I'll take solace in knowing that I can stay with the Catholics.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Library, Part 2

(You can find part 1 of this story here)

One day while you're still recovering your strength and learning to trust your stomach again, you find yourself sitting with a small group of small boys and reading to them again from the same book that you've read from a hundred times. Somehow, they still love it - they love pointing to the picture and telling you what is happening on the page, then telling you what will happen on the next page, and the older ones even love showing off and reading a few words here and there. You start to say something to them, as you've said to them each of the last dozen times you've read from this book, but this time instead of "one day we'll have a whole library of books" or "one day we'll open up those 18 boxes of books in our library," what comes out is "do you guys want to read some new books?"

Something in their eyes - the incredulity tempered by a spark of curiosity - sets something off. By the time you're opening the door of the library, a group of 3 boys has become a group of 6 which soon becomes a group of 8 and then 10. They seem to understand intrinsically that the 35 pound boxes they are handling are worth more than their weight in gold: the first box that each boy opens reveals its contents, and - without fail - their jaws drop and eyes widen.

One box contains nothing but chapter books - The Westing Game, Indian In The Cupboard, Island of the Blue Dolphins - the books that you may have read in your boyhood, and they transport you back. Without meaning to, you're holding up books and whispering in reverent tones simple sentiments like, "oh, wow, you're going to love this." Book after book after book comes out of the box, and each one carries in its title a unique and precious memory. The boys are stunned that you've read so many books, want to know what each one is about, want to stop unloading and start hearing the stories each book contains, want to find the books they can read themselves. Soon, they bring every book to you and ask, "this one? Have you read this one?" Harry Potter and Hatchet, Little House on the Prairie, A Wrinkle in Time. One time not long ago, you might have thought these books weren't culturally appropriate for these kids, but seeing the way that they are delighted every time they come upon a book from your past, you can't help but spend 30 seconds or so spellbinding them with the wonders within. It's less than an hour before both you and they can't tolerate simply looking at the covers of books anymore, and you gather in a cluster and break open one of the Narnia books that they've picked out. They listen attentively, and at the end of the first chapter, they get up to go - the last two boys out pausing in the doorway to ask, "we can come back tomorrow?"

The library becomes a source of endless fascination and word about it spreads among all the children. Before the week is out, you can't walk from your house to the latrine without a child running up to you to ask if it's time to go in the library. Once that door opens, the children - girls as well as boys now - set to work unpacking boxes, stamping books, putting books into baskets and then onto shelves, and - of course - finding a few minutes here and there to read and look and wonder.

One Tuesday night is declared Story Night - in the afternoon the children working in the library select a handful of books that three members of staff will read to them, huddled in small groups throughout the church sanctuary. They pick out Frog and Toad Are Friends, A Disney Princess Adventure, and Goodnight Moon. At 8:00pm, the small petrol generator is fired up, and by 8:05pm 50 children are sitting in the church buzzing about which story they want to hear. Even the normally disinterested teenagers have made sure not to miss this night; in fact, as you read a chapter of Frog and Toad and encourage the older children to help you out by reading a paragraph or even a page, it seems like they might be enjoying the book even more than the kids who are just listening. Soon every child who is able wants a chance to read, and when they reach the end of a paragraph or a page they don't want to stop. At 8:30pm, the petrol runs out and the generator dies. Sitting in a suddenly darkened church, no one moves. By 8:31pm, flashlights come on and the reading continues until the books are finished.

And you can't know this for sure, but you like to imagine that the children fall asleep that night with images of princesses, frogs, toads, and moons running through their minds.

A library comes to life slowly, becoming a thing that lives in minds and imaginations before it becomes an organized collection housed on shelves. There are still boxes to unpack, and books to stamp, and bookcases to build and fill with stacks and stacks of books - but you have a library now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Cornerstone Library, Part 1

(if you haven't read this, you might want to before continuing - if for nothing else than an embarrassing confession from my adolescence)

500 pounds of books packed into 18 cardboard boxes packed onto a single pallet do not move easily or quickly from one continent to another. And naturally, as estimated arrival dates come and go over and over again with not a box in sight, anticipation increases and often blends together with frustration until it's hard to distinguish one from the other, despite knowing that the strange amalgamation of the two has reached its boiling point.

But a single email finally arrives, heralding the arrival of that single pallet with 18 boxes containing 500 pounds of books, and like a strange alchemical reaction the frustration melts away leaving only the anticipation still threatening to bubble over.

Soon you find yourself in a wood-paneled, gleaming metal office in the heart of the warehouse district of an overlarge, overcrowded, overtrafficked African city, where an overlarge woman sitting at a desk crowded with coffee cups and glass soda bottles accepts your customs taxes and sends you out through a wrought iron gate into an industrial wasteland that looks like something out of season 2 of The Wire - with shipping containers the size of railroad cars stacked ten high and monstrous vehicles with magnetized arms picking them up and moving them around like a giant sized carnival game.

Your small van dodges these behemoths and the various tractor-trailers who have come to take shipments much larger than a single pallet, and soon you are at the mouth of a vast warehouse handing another overlarge woman a receipt. She disappears into the cardboard, wood, and plastic labyrinth, and when you see her again she's leading a forklift that's carrying a single pallet that you are seeing for the first time, and you think to yourself, "so that's what 18 boxes with 500 pounds of books in them looks like."

There is no way that the pallet fits into a small van's cargo hold - not even with both rows of passenger seats folded down - so, with the help of the driver you cut through layers of thick plastic, and place each box into whatever crevice it will fit, counting them all to make sure that there are indeed 18 there. When finally the black plastic pallet lies bare, the overlarge woman asks if you'd like to take it with you, and is utterly unfazed when you decline. Maneuvering back through the maze of shipping containers and vehicular minotaurs, your driver finds his way back to the wrought iron gate and out into the perpetual traffic, and for the first time all those books are fully in your possession.

And there is excitement - but a qualified kind of excitement that keeps reminding you that you still have to transport those 18 boxes across 200 miles of paved road, another 80 miles of unpaved road, and across a national border where you may or may not have to pay any number of people an unspecified amount of money to finally bring these 500 pounds of books home. (As it turns out, you follow the best piece of advice you've received since moving to Africa - "smile, thank people a lot, and keep doing what you mean to do" - and end up paying nothing to anyone.)

But once those 18 boxes are unloaded and carried into the room that in that moment is transformed from "room with random stuff in it" to "library" your excitement is so uninhibited that you can't help but... spend the next 4 weeks sitting in various meetings, attending to the daily needs of myriad children, taking care of your sick wife, and becoming extremely sick yourself; you never even open a single box.

Monday, May 16, 2011

People You Should Know: Akera Emmanuel

Akera Emmanuel is the office manager at Cornerstone Children's Home and one of the founders of an organization in Nimule that presents community health training all around South Sudan. He is an unrelenting supporter of the Arsenal Football Club. Akera is also a good friend, someone I feel proud to know.

I first met Akera in 2006 on my first trip to Sudan. He was a 21-year-old who was in the familiar predicament of coming of age and the foreign predicament of living in a country experiencing peace (or at least a lack of armed conflict) for the first time in years. I remember him from that time as a young man who projected great self-confidence, despite an uncertainty over where that confidence came from that left him hesitant and a little uncertain of himself. He was never without a camera, having figured out that he enjoyed photography and could make a little money at it by shooting portraits or sometimes just being at the right place at the right time and capturing a moment someone might want to remember. In hindsight, I recognize what a unique and bold act this was: at the time, people with cameras made the Southern Sudanese authorities very nervous. It was impossible to know who might be a northern spy come to scout out potential targets for future hostilities. But Akera trusted the depth of the relationships he had developed in his community

The Sudanese civil war was an experience that shaped him in ways deeply social and personal. Most profoundly, from boyhood he was without his father - an army medic who was posted away from his family for years at a time. Akera developed an unbreakable bond with his mother, crediting her for making him who he is today. Despite a disability which has left her with a severe limp, she worked - often doing manual labor - to put Akera and all of his brothers and sisters through primary school.

Akera wanted to continue with his education, but his mother found herself unable to support his dream. Furthermore, the village where he was raised lacked a secondary school, so at the age of 16 he moved to Nimule and found himself independent and alone.

With little economic activity in Nimule, Akera took up one of the most physically demanding jobs - one of the only jobs available - making bricks. The work requires literal mudraking to mine the materials, and then working a blazing oven in the already blazing sun. It pays very little, bricks selling at 5-10 for a dollar. Akera woke early in the morning every day, worked 2 hours making bricks, left for school (often imploring the headmaster to give Akera just a few more days to pay his school fees), returned back to the mud fields to continue with the bricks, and then made his way to the small house he rented when the sun went down to do his homework by kerosene lamp light. During school holidays he worked from sunup to sundown in the mud fields or found construction jobs when there were any to be found.

Akera finished in the top division of his class every year (except, he admits ruefully his third year - when he dropped into the second division). He finished his Ordinary Level academic work and continued on to his Advanced Levels, where he continued his daily grind and continued earning top division grades.

Akera doesn't have a hint of disdain or resentment for his absent father, his mother's disability, or how hard he had to work to complete secondary school. In adulthood he has built a relationship with his father, he takes pride in now providing for his mother as she provided for him, and he continues to dream of one day going to university...for now, though, he is content. He's an acknowledged leader who is rooted in his community, a trustworthy and conscientious worker who can balance the demands of multiple responsibilities, and a happy newlywed. He has found a balance that I still struggle to understand: he gets things done, all the while infusing his life with rich relationships.

You can stop reading here, but I want to brag about Akera little bit - about accounting and stuff. Read on at your own peril:

A few weeks ago, we hired a new administrator at Cornerstone Children's Home - Harriet Rose. Months ago, when we first arrived, I had designed a new accounting system for the home that involves a paper record of all debits and credits and a ridiculously complex Excel spreadsheet into which those records are entered and then tracked by date and category. 

Within a couple months, Akera had learned Excel and taken on the data entry. While we were away in March and April, he took over purchasing - and kept flawless paper records in addition to electronic ones. But that's not exactly what I want to brag about. 

A week and a half ago I asked Akera to show Harriet our books to help her get acquainted with how we record all of our transactions. In my mind I meant for him to show her our paper records just so she could begin to see that we have a few different accounts, and then I would train her on what goes where, how we categorize expenses, how our spreadsheet works (she, too, had never used Excel before). 

An hour later I returned and found that Akera had Harriet at the computer entering transactions into Excel...and doing it perfectly. 

I know bookkeeping is mundane. When you have delusions of grandeur about transforming the world - or at least some part of it - very rarely do those delusions involve paperwork and financial records. Still, there's no way to describe the swellng I felt in my chest when I came upon that scene. 

Akera Emmanuel - he's good people. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

On Growing Up

February 24, 2011
Last summer, as we were preparing to move here, we received an email with the names and ages of all of the children who currently live at Cornerstone Children's Home, and we were stupefied: half of the children were over 15, some of them over 18, and a few of those over the age of 20. "Why are they still living in a children's home?" we thought to ourselves. 
You may think this thought makes us terrible people. While you may be able to find damning evidence of our terribleness, let me argue to you that this thought should be inadmissible: 20-year-olds are not children - especially here, it's not uncommon for one so old to be married and even have children. A 20-year-old who lives with children, in a home whose rules are geared toward children - and is therefore treated as a child - will act, inevitably, like a child. 
The number of ways in which a 20-year-old is not a child are myriad - the impulses and desires felt, the capabilities acquired - and at some point those differences are so manifest that they simply cannot be ignored. A 20-year-old who is treated as a child will one day have an abrupt awakening to the fact that childhood is, in fact, gone. And what then? Will the 20-year-old no longer child be able to support shimself or have any sense of how to spend money wisely? Forgot about day-to-day living, what about making big life decisions wisely?
When we arrived, we found that the situation was as we had feared: the older children bristled against the rules and had grown accustomed to having everything done for them. And they expected that the status quo would hold forever; with no exit plan the children were becoming a bit hopeless themselves. The staff feared the children were becoming lazy and spoiled. 
But what can you do with 33 teenagers/twentysomethings and 4 staff (not to mention the remaining 27 children)? To start with, you hire more staff. 
For about 4 months now, we have been working on a program to give our young adults the skills to reintegrate into their families and communities and be able to provide for themselves. The center piece of the plan is an after school work program that will build vocational skills, starting with agriculture. 
We have spent hours dispelling the myths that we are chasing them away and reinforcing the idea that we want the best for them. We have assigned each of them a staff mentor to guide them through the process, and we have given them a month to prepare and get used to the idea (in hindsight, that also meant that we gave them a month to disseminate misinformation among themselves. Oops). 
That's how we ended up with 30 boys & girls one day swinging hoes, digging up rocks, carting manure, and laying bricks to build a chicken coop. At first, many of them were resistant - like most people they fear change, and they fear the unknown. I'd love to say that they all came around and realized that this was going to be totally awesome. That wouldn't exactly be true, however. But here's what is true: they worked, and they worked together in teams, and they worked hard, and when the time came to call it a day a handful of them weren't quite ready. It was only the first day; starting something is often much easier than maintaining it, but it felt good to at least start it. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A home apart

I find it hard to describe the feeling of being both a part of and apart from the same thing, but this is the moment that brought it most vividly to life inside me:
I am sitting in an office where we keep all the toys, games, and medicine for the kids. We call it the POD office (POD, as in Parent On Duty - "who is On Duty?" the kids ask with a special emphasis on the capitalized words).
The POD office is in a building on the north end of our four acre compound, and the room that has become the POD office was chosen for that function because it allows the P who is OD to look out over the entire compound as it slopes down from the office.
So I am sitting perched on a hill that affords me not only a view of our compound, but a view that stretches out for miles. I can see the clouds in the sky and she shadows they cast on the trees and hills in the distance. The foreground is composed of children at plag (at the moment football and Connect 4), the middle ground a mixture of green-roofed trees and thatch-roofed huts, and the background a mix of the tans of land and the greens of the bush leading to four hills that descend in height, one to the next, as I scan from left to right.
So I am sitting looking out over this as I read a back issue of The New Yorker on my iPad.
We are home yet not home; it feels more like home than it ever has before - I move as a warm knife through butter rather than as a chainsaw through a redwood trunk - still it presents me with these marked juxtapositions that remind me that I both belong and stand out. The really cunning trick that I need to learn is not how to make myself fit in more in order to feel at home, nor is it to carve out a little niche of deep familiarity where I can feel at home. It is to feel at home in standing out.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Sell all you stuff - it's worth it- would I lie to you?

We sold or gave up almost all of our possessions when we moved to Sudan. I used to hear stories of other people doing this sort of thing (you know told in awe) and I would think “yeah, big deal” or “what a pain in the a**”. I’d also heard the "how romantic/how freeing" sentiment and could understand that.

When we made the decision to move to Sudan I didn’t think twice about how it would feel to lose everything I owned. Don’t laugh but I’ve never thought of myself as materialistic. Prior to my career in fashion I had never paid more than $30 for a pair of jeans. My apartment was decorated solely in items either given to me or found at thrift stores. It had a vintage feel, but not in a cool hipster or shabby chic sort of way, more like a creepy cat lady way. So I never really expected to identify getting rid of all our stuff as one of the hardest things about moving to Sudan.

I’m not sentimental either. I don’t keep cards or letters, my photo collection fits in a shoe box. Most items from my childhood burnt up in a fire a few years back and I didn’t shed a tear, but I’m telling you I cried nightly as items left our home eight months ago.

Now granted, I had a wardrobe I loved and the likes of which I will never have again. It was personally handpicked (by myself) from every designer in the country and had a retail value of over $15,000. Each item had a special memory, all of a sweet time in my life when I owned a successful women’s boutique, worked with my best friends, and met my husband and Jesus. As each item was sold or given away I felt myself go with it and wondered if the new owner was worthy.

There is a saying that I think most people are familiar with that goes “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Simple enough right? The rich are bad and can’t get to heaven – sweet. deal. No problem for me ‘cause I’m not rich. I really always filed this saying under weird things Christians quote.

Then after all my items were gone I found myself reading and weeping. What Jesus is actually saying here is giving up all your stuff freaking sucks and it is likely if you try to follow God, at some point he may ask you to do just that and you probably won’t want to.

The good news is life goes on; I’m making new memories with the new things I own. Best of all I never worry or stress about losing my things, I have a freedom from trying to constantly obtain stuff or worry about my appearance.

Oh man, I’m totally lying to you. I hold on to things tighter than ever knowing how precious they are and how hard they are to replace. I think of things I want all the time and I hate my clothes.

Maybe someone out there more virtuous than me and can tell me how to get that “freedom” and “romance” other people feel when they give it all away.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Here We Go Again

We've been here before, just eight months ago: everything packed up into a few bags that necessitate last minute decisions about what we really can't do without (this time: no, I can't do without my stovetop espresso maker. Seriously), awkward moments with friends when we have to figure out how to say goodbye while trying not to let despair creep into our tone of voice, counting down hours and then minutes until we get on a plane, and this sense of anticipation but also anxiety - we tend to live our lives so fully enmeshed in community, and now we're going back to a place where friendships are few and far between.

I would submit that for me at least, the second time is harder. The first time I didn't entirely know what we were getting ourselves into, the kind of internal anguish we would encounter, the battles we would have to fight in advocating for children who have been neglected or overlooked, the long hours and days when Sarah and I would hardly see each other, the intense heat, the chronic loneliness.  Going back, I have to remind myself that it doesn't have to be like that.  I have to remind myself of that over and over again.

And I would submit that this time will be different.  Eight months ago, we knew exactly what we wanted to do.  We had programs and timelines and goals and objectives.  Oh, and folly.  We had that too, but we didn't really know it yet.  In just a few weeks we will pass on the administration of the children's home, and we will be left to our own devices.  What we have this time are ideas and hopes and values.  We have a couple programs we started, which were not a part of our original plan.  Our goals are more like, "try and work less than 60 hours a week" or"make time for cooking together" and less like "develop sustainable, replicable programs in literacy and microenterprise." What timelines we have are loose and flexible.

I still want us to be sustainable. And replicable for that matter.  I still want us to do work that reaches as many people as possible...but I've found myself trapped by that desire and neglecting the individuals and small groups of people right in front of me.  I like lots of the ideas that we had a year ago for programs, but I don't want to neglect the small ways that I can serve and enrich the life of one of my neighbors when that doesn't fit cleanly into a program.

Last time we were leaving, I hadn't been in Sudan in over 2 years, but I was confident in my ideas of how everything would go.  This time we're returning after 1 month away and 7 months of living there.  Ironically, this time I feel like I know very little about what life will hold for us.  Ironically, I have more hope for this nebulous hope than I've had for anything in a long time.  I don't know exactly what we're about to do, but I believe in it deeply.  I believe that over the next several months we will participate in the strengthening of a community and the enrichment of people's lives.  I'm pretty sure we'll see some kids learn to read and some people who have lived on the margins of society come into their own.  I know that it is worthwhile, without knowing exactly what it is.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Context Matters

2/17/2011 Being out of context
It has now been six months since we arrived. One of the best
indicators that the "living in rural Africa" novelty has worn off is
when the opposite of what was novel becomes novel. For example:
staying in a hotel and delighting that you don't have to walk 100
meters to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. And, well, the
novelty has worn off. I saw my friend Ken, the Maybe But Probably Not
Murderer yesterday and it barely registered. The constant presence of
lizards, spiders, et al for even the most private acts (like
defeating) is assumed. Even the 105 degree heat doesn't faze me any
more than the average Joe. There are rhythms and patterns of
familiarity that typically govern the day.
My role in the lives of the children is as the provider of things -
school supplies, medicine, food, soap, games, bandages, the occasional
smile/hug/word of encouragement (wouldn't want to be too generous with
those, though). And someone always needs provision, and someone always
has a complaint about what has been provided. And it's exhausting
sometimes, which is why I wasn't particularly excited about the
prospect of taking a group of kids to the market to buy sandals
A brief but relevant digression: I have come to recognize that every
relationship can benefit from a change of context (digressions from my
digression: this may be why romantic relationships need dates. Triple
digression: please, people, don't call it "a date night." It is a
date. You might designate a specific night for a consistent date, and
that might be "date night," but please don't use an article with the
As a teacher, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to
go to as many extracurricular events as possible. When I didn't have
to be the warm yet strict, extremely focused taskmaster and could just
be present and enjoy myself and take pride in my students, my role as
an educator was strengthened not undermined, because I wasn't only an
educator, and I wasn't an adversary (which I often was in the
classroom) - I was a supporter with no other agenda.
As the provider of all things, my relationship with the children is
pretty strictly limited to our home. It's about four acres, so it
encompasses a whole host of different interactions, and I tend to
escape from the compound for exactly three reasons: going out of town,
going out on a date with Sarah (to one of three restaurants), or going
out of my mind (this tends to involve a long walk in which I mutter to
myself and try to avoid the various crazy people who have recognized
me as one of their own).
Funny things happen on the way to the market: instead of sixty
children, I find myself with only three, and suddenly we're having a
prolonged conversation (about why I don't cook for Sarah and whether
she will one day beat me because of it. They, of course, would never
want a man to cook for them). There are no chores for me to remind
them to do, and no supplies for them to request of me, so instead we
talk and laugh. It must be appealing, because soon three other
children join us.
In the market, I make the children at first pretend like they don't
know me, so as to avoid paying the white person price for their new
sandals. I pretend to shop for myself while keeping a distance of
about 50 feet from the kids, and when they've found the sandals they
want and settled on a price they come to me for the money. This works
for about 15 minutes, but the market isn't huge and it's hard to
disguise six children coming to the white man to get money from him
and then returning with the balance (which makes me feel a little like
the Artful Dodger).
Girls of a certain age want to see every pair of sandals being sold by
every vendor before they make a decision, so shopping takes a long
time. I am greeted by approximately one thousand people (the novelty
has worn off for me, apparently not for them) while I wait for them to
find just the right pair and haggle it down to just the right price
(they know that if they can stay under the budget I have laid out for
them, I'll let them buy sweets with the balance. This makes them much
more discerning shoppers).
We push ever further back in the market, but by the time we find our
way out all of them have new sandals that they picked out themselves
and - if the smiles on their faces are any indication - that they
love. What they don't have is a remaining balance, but I find myself
feeling unexpectedly generous and unhurried by the slowly setting sun,
so we stop at the various storefronts along the way looking for
something called Super Dip, which the children love and which I
suspect might be one of those Chinese candies laced with cancer that
the FDA forbade in the US. But, again, the children love it, and I'm
feeling particularly indulgent toward the children, so sugary cancer
it is! And again, we find ourselves in a prolonged conversation (this
time about eating pig - which they all claim they have done and
liked...until I say we should buy one and eat it, then their story
quickly changes).
We arrive back at the compound in the twilight of the day, and the
children rush off to show their new sandals to their brothers and
sisters. Twelve-year-old Kasara looks at me and says, "Seth, I also
need sandals." Two others immediately echo her refrain, and a third
complains to me that Sarah told her she couldn't get new sandals yet.
Then she starts crying, and a too brief step out of context comes to
an end.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Growing Up

"So, what do you think you might like to do when you grow up?" I ask
the 17-year-old girl sitting across from me. She promptly looks down
and away and says nothing. 30 seconds elapse; still not a word. I
try a different question: "Have you ever thought about what your life
might be like when you leave this home?" She continues looking away
and heaves her shoulders in a sigh. No reply.
This month we are launching a program at Cornerstone Children's Home
to help the children reintegrate into their families and communities
when they reach the age of 18. The program aims to teach them a
vocational skill, learn to create and manage a budget, and find a
place to live. To help them along the way, each child age 16 and over
was assigned a staff mentor to guide them through the process over the
course of one to two years. It is a big step forward for the home,
which up to now has had no exit strategy for the kids – several of
whom are already in their early 20s.
I expected to encounter resistance; the kids are being asked to
shoulder the responsibility for their own futures. They are learning
by doing – learning agriculture by growing food and raising chickens.
They are expected to work 10 hours each week on a project around the
home. This program marks a significant paradigm shift, and this
change – as with all change – feels both difficult and frightening.
As I sit with the girl, however, I realize something I hadn't
expected: she isn't resisting me because she doesn't like the idea of
work, nor because she is afraid of the prospect of change. She isn't
even actively resisting me; she has just never thought about the
future before. This is shocking to my American sensibility, to my
proud cultural heritage in which we start preparing children for
university while in utero. When I ask her what she thinks her life
might be like in five years, she can't answer because she has never
thought that far ahead.
I take a deep breath and begin again: she went to visit her older
sister at Christmastime – what was that like? What did she do while
she was there? Did she like cooking? Really? What can she cook?
What else? What else? Did she cook with her sister? Would she like to
become a tailor like her sister? But what if someone taught her to sew
first? Does her sister's husband have land or are they just renting a
house? Would she like to live there with the sister's family? Was it
fun seeing her sister's children? Would she like to have children of
her own someday? Aaaaand…that's when we were imagining too far into
the future. But on the way there I discovered that this young girl
not only knows how to cook, but she enjoys cooking. She knows how to
embroider and might like to learn to sew. She definitely does not
want to become a nurse. She has tried growing food before but wants
to learn the right way.
All in all, I'd call that a productive first meeting.
Of course, I can't get the other five children with whom I need to
meet to stop running away every time they see me coming.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Longing & Settling In

I’ve always told friends when they move to a new city, “you have to give it 6 months, the first 6 months are always bad.” I found myself having to take my own advice on more occasions than I’d like to admit these past months.

Sure enough six months in I’m happier here than I’ve ever been. I have adjusted (resigned) to the 105° weather and that not much will get done between 1 and 4 in the afternoon. I can juggle several children’s needs without having a complete meltdown – sometimes even with a smile. I am no longer surprised if not yet comfortable with the creatures I may have to remove from my house at any point in the day (here is a short list: bat, monkey, goat, scorpion, rat, spider, one-eyed dog).

I am truly enjoying my days here, my time with the people and even the town in which we live. Let me tell you this is no small miracle. It has taken me all these six months to say “I’m glad we are here, it’s been worth it.” Most days I didn’t feel that way.

Now we are preparing to go home for three weeks. We will be leaving the compound to begin the three day journey back to Denver in exactly 10 days and I cannot wait. I can smell Denver, see the mountains, imagine every street corner and each friend and family member’s laugh and smile. The longing for home is possibly stronger, yet with less grief than ever before.

Then I see our four year old Amana smile and run to me and I can’t stand the idea of leaving for a month. I see our older children working in the gardens and hate that I will miss the first planting. I know life hear will go on just fine without me, Amana will run to the arms of one of the other mother’s we have hired and there are people here who know more about planting than I do, but now this is home and I’m going to miss it.

Malaquan for Me

“ You going to grow in that rocky place?”
That was the most common question I heard when I started purchasing supplies for my small garden.
The children and neighbors laughed at me as I began chipping at the small plot of cleared earth with a pick ax (come on, you would have laughed too). They laughed as I collected dried grass, manure, and kitchen waste from around the compound and piled it near my hopeful square.
But then it started to take form and others joined in. They removed stones bigger than some of our children and made my pile grow taller than me.
Of course, when it was finally time to plant everyone had an opinion of what I should grow. I had imagined it as my garden with all the things I would want to grow and eat. A perfect little kitchen garden. Here was my second lesson in how nothing in Africa is mine (I’m not sure how many dozens of lessons I’ve had since then, but I’m still not getting it). Everything is communal, everyone gets a say, and so it was determined that I would grow okra and malaquan (sour greens) in all four of my small beds.
Water had to be pumped and brought in 20L jerry cans from the well about 150M away. I paid my child laborers with “Cornerstone Shillings” and promises of okra.
We ended up growing enough greens for all the children to eat several times - that is more than enough to feed 70 people once a week for four weeks. I even had two people come by from the community to see if they could buy my malaquan – booya!
Okra it turns out will produce, produce, produce. Even after we stopped watering and were letting the pods dry to collect the next seed, small determined blossoms would arrive on the stalks, letting our young girls cook and enjoy the small pods all through the dry season.
The first garden has been dug up and we are preparing to plant again as the rains come this month. I now have teams of kids 16 and older starting their own gardens, all part of our new “self-sufficiency” program for young adults at the home and no one has said to me “we can’t grow here.”
Recipe for Malaquan (I’ve never actually made it, just eaten it):
Malquan – Sour leafy green grown by the Acholi tribe in East Africa (substitute: any leafy weed, add lemon)
Sweet Potatoes
Groundnut and/or roasted sesame
Over an open fire roast sesame and/or groundnuts in oil. Remove from heat and grind nuts into a fine butter with a stone. Sauté Malaquan with oil, add nut butter. Serve over boiled sweet potatoes

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Death of Johnny Cash

What do you say about a monkey who died? On February 22, we found one
of our monkeys, Johnny Cash, dead in his cage and the other monkey,
June Cash, standing by the corpse in a bewildered state.
I liked Johnny, but I wouldn't say we had a close personal
relationship. Instead, I'll leave it to others to share about Johnny.
The following was said by the mourners gathered around the funeral
pyre (because we had to burn the body, because it would have been
super gross to bury it. And yes, someone did sing 'Ring of Fire' at
Johnny Cash's funeral pyre. And yes, it was me):
"Why Johnny Cash? Why not Simba [our dog]? Simba deserves to die." -
Lawa Joyce, our head cook
"Johnny Cash bit children and scared them. Johnny Cash bit me and
scared me." - Dorothy Mandera, 7-years-old
"I am not sad that Johnny Cash died." - Kasara Lamwaka, 12-years old
(who, nonetheless teared up a little bit)
And then there was 13-year-old Amacha Emmanuel, the happiest and most
resilient child at Cornerstone. In my 6 months here I have seen Amacha
deviate from happiness one time (when he got angry and bit another
boy). Other than that, he has an ever-present smile and cheery
disposition. Perhaps it was because of his unflappability (read, the
fact that he never screamed and ran away when a monkey came near him)
that he and Johnny Cash had developed a special bond. Johnny climbed
all over Amacha, and Amacha just laughed.
As the fire was burning down, I realized I hadn't seen Amacha and went
to see if he was alright. I found him in his bedroom, lying on his bed
and drawing a picture. He seemed a little quiet but otherwise fine, so
I asked him if he had heard the news. He looked at me, nodded, and
broke into his trademark grin, and I realized: no, he hasn't.
I told him, and his face was crossed with a look of pain and shock.
The knowledge settled over him, and he began to sob. His body shook,
he wiped tears away again and again first with his hands then with his
t-shirt, and he kept trying to make himself stop and failing. Before I
knew it, I was crying with him.
And I asked myself why, because I thought Johnny Cash was alright, but
I had no special affection for him. And I realized: Johnny was
Amacha's friend, and more than that Johnny gave Amacha the opportunity
to feel like he was good at something special - when every other child
fled, Amacha stayed; when Johnny was acting like a crazy monkey,
Amacha could calm him down. Johnny made Amacha's life more full, and
Amacha did the same for Johnny. Amacha has other talents and
abilities, other ways that he feels special now - but it's distinctly
possible that being the monkey tamer was the first time he was able to
feel that, and now it's gone. Amacha will move on, but that's
something to grieve.