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.