Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Will to Live

I’ve anticipated today for a while now. I’m ending my day in that quiet peace of night, the girls asleep, healthy and at peace. I stayed busy all day, thankfully. Although, at times my memories would almost overtake my amazing ability to repress emotion as a knot would fill my throat, tears would form in the corners of my eyes, and just before losing it, I would recover. I’ve been through tough anniversaries before (April 16th for one), but this is so much harder. Partly because I am still so confused and angry to have witnessed so much horror, destruction, death and agony, partly because I am just so sad.

I’ve been watching the headlines and getting emails from listserves. Some talk about the failings of Haiti’s reconstruction (when can we start calling this what it is: Haiti’s construction?– I really hope Haiti can build back something better than the result of the last 400 years of injustice and inequality), some talk about the cholera epidemic and post-election violence on top of today’s recollection and how Haiti is just Haiti and cursed. Others talk about the promised funds still not issued, or celebrate the little victories and show positive signs of improvement, but seem condescending considering the scale of problems facing Haiti right now. It’s easy to let hope slip away when we listen to these voices.

I tried writing a draft of this over Christmas. What came out was a long diatribe of blame. I want to place responsibility on someone, something, perhaps on God. I went into the brutal history of Haiti and how this natural disaster uncovered (for those not already aware) the unnatural disaster of poverty and its ties to systemic forces and power that can only be understood through social and anthropological analysis. I wrote about witnessing the suffering of the destitute, sick and poor and wondering how anyone of privilege could ignore it. While such root causes are so important, again, those same voices seem to erode hope. And its hope that I, that so many, need today – and tomorrow. While I can’t escape the horrors, the smells, the cries, the awful memories, what I keep going back to is the incredible solidarity of support witnessed and that I am proud to be a part of.

First was the simple will to live. We often herald Haitians for their dignity and resolve in the face of so much suffering. It’s often the only positive thing said about poor people and sometime comes across as patronizing. But damn if witnessing the will to live in such an exposed and intimate manner didn’t humble me. While so many from so many places came to Haiti’s rescue, it was the will to keep fighting, the will to live under the rubble until found, the will to keep the leg despite it being crushed and infected, the resolve to keep digging until they found their friends, to willingness to come to work at their hospital after losing family and without pay, that I recall. Anna gave me a wonderful book, Eight Days, A Story of Haiti, by celebrated Haitian author Edwidge Danticat and illustrated by Alix Delinois, that speaks of resolve and hope in those early days after that Tuesday afternoon. The first responders were Haitians and they are the ones still there, still fighting. And, yet, they were not alone.

I got an email from a friend who recalled the peace at night within the walls of the General Hospital. There, teams of hospital staff and international volunteers saved so many lives, saved so many limbs, saved so much future. Surrounded by so much destruction, here was this oasis of dignified care and healing among the wards and among the beds covering every open space outside, under the tarps. People ate and drank clean water. Family members slept, with some peace knowing that the worst was over. Resources flooded that hospital to support the Haitian staff, resources so different in capability and philosophy, spanning American paratroopers and social justice health care workers, solidified toward a common purpose – coming to the aid of fellow human beings, doing whatever it took to make things better. And it wasn’t just people doing things in Haiti. There were countless stories of people all around the world doing little things and big things. How cool that Change for Haiti started with Anna taking the girls and some friends around the neighborhood going door to door asking for spare change. Or Stride for Haiti that originated in Austin, Texas by Lindsey Olinde and her friends, then quickly spreading around the country even garnering the support of high school students living in rural Virginia (themselves living below the US poverty line). These are things I want to remember.

I don’t know why such terrible things happen. No matter how much we study or try to understand horrors, it’s a part of our humanity. But so too is compassion, solidarity, and love for each other. The true horror comes when we fail to act for our family, friends, and neighbors, regardless of geography and history. My heart breaks for all of those who remember this day as the day their mom, or dad, or wife, or husband, or little girl or boy died. My anger over systemic poverty and broken promises sometimes gets the best of me. However, I rejoice in the will to live, in our collective ability to act, and have hope that as we move forward, our scars remind us, not of the horrors, but of what is possible, that justice in an unjust world is possible.

Pope John Paul once wrote, “Love must inspire justice and the struggle for justice.” We can’t get those people taken when tectonic plates shook Haiti to the ground. But we can begin to vindicate their deaths, and so many like them, when we decide that the world we touch can be better, when we decide to pay attention to what too many call the voiceless poor (oh, they have voice). And when we listen, we then must make a choice, to run in fear or step forward in love and do something, any little thing, to give back, to let someone know they are not alone, to participate in the struggle for justice. So to close with a prayer of Mother Teresa:

Lord, open our eyes,
That we may see you in our brothers and sisters,
Lord, open our ears,
That we may hear the cries of the hungry, the cold, the frightened, the oppressed.
Lord, open our hearts,
That we may love each other as you love us.
Renew in us your spirit
Lord, free us and make us one.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Glass Justice

The other day, Roger and I went to the corner store just down from our hotel. We needed some water for the week and were checking this place out – the Glass Center. We live in a section of the city called Glass – hence the name of the store. As we entered, we noticed a bit of commotion down one of the few aisles. Being the nosy one, I went down one aisle to come back up the next where I saw the security guard (who was maybe 6’-5”, 230 lbs) lifting this guy off the ground who was maybe half his size. A couple of other guys were around him and they were all yelling at the guy whose toes were barely touching the ground.

The security guard was holding the guy by his shirt collar twisted a couple of turns in his fist. They were all asking the guys questions and getting madder as he could answer. The guy could hardly breathe and started making a husking sound as a dog does when it’s pulling too hard against its leash. It got to a point where the guy couldn't breathe, his eyes were popping out and the others were getting louder with their yelling. It was not a comfortable situation (and talk about letting culture do its thing versus knowing when to step in). Just as things were getting worse for this guy, the owner, a small Chinese man, came over, said something to the big security guard who then carried and pushed the guy through a door and into a back room. It didn’t take much French to know the guy was about to receive the beating of his life, and all for an apple.

It must be tough being poor and hungry in a place like Libreville where even the judicial system doesn’t see you or hear you crying.

Papa Sam

Yesterday, Pierre, Mohammad and I wanted to go up the coast – where we heard good beaches were – to Cap Santa Clara and Cap Esterias. (Pierre, from France, and Moe, from Lebanon, are recent additions to the table). We asked the receptionist about getting a taxi – Pierre has a great guide book on Gabon that says we should have been able to get there and back for about 4,000 CFA each (about $8). The taxi’s here are great for getting around the city, but many of them are little more than metal cages on wheels that would have a tough time on the bumpy dirt roads to the Cap, that is, if we could convince someone to take us, let alone find someone to get us back. Hilda, the receptionist, told us about cars and drivers the hotel rents for about 5,000 CFA an hour.

We went out front, talked to a greeter and in a couple of minutes this black Toyota Camry pulls up. We go to the driver and start talking about our options – he said Cap Santa Clara was maybe an hour away and Cap Esterias was about 2 hours away. He said his car couldn’t go on the road to Santa Clara and that the round trip to Cap Esterias would cost us 40,000 CFA. It was already noon and the time and money was much more than we had planned on. Then came the first piece of wisdom from the driver when he said, “Guys, this is Gabon. There is no time here. We can go, you can be there, and then we can come back.” As for the money, he was firm and looking back there’s no way a cab would have gotten us there and back for 12,000 CFA. We almost backed out, but decided what the hell. It was that or sit around the hotel and we do that enough. Plus, we each agreed that we have one life to live so we decided to live it yesterday.

Papa Sam told us about how he had worked as a driver and translator for Survivor Gabon for three months a few years ago when they filmed here. He made enough money to buy his Camry which has been his livelihood since. Like many drivers here, he’s not a native Gabonese. Papa Sam is an Igbo, originally born in the Biafra region of Nigeria. He came here for work and without knowing how to speak French. He said he learned to speak on the streets, out of survival. He said language is the first key to getting through life – if you can communicate, you can make friends and make money. He said, “If I’m in school, I’m too scared to make a mistake. But on the job I have to push and fight to speak. My job is my exam and it gives me reason to work hard at communicating. Because I speak English and French I am able to buy this car, not because I went to university and have some piece of paper.”

The drive ended up taking us about an hour and half and while it was another slow, bumpy ride, it was great to get out of the city again, into the trees and the fresh air. The beach was great and the trip was well worth the money. As we were getting back into the car to head home, Papa Sam asked we enjoyed ourselves and joked that we almost got in the way of ourselves and didn’t go. He’s right, so often, we keep ourselves from trying new things, but once we do, we can’t imagine a life not having that experience be a part of our story. Pierre then asked if he could throw his bag into the trunk, to which Papa Sam replied his thick Nigerian accent, “Sure, man, you’re as free as air.”

Thanks to you Papa Sam, I am a little bit more free.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Lopé – Part II: Into the Park

Once again, I found myself way behind on posts – I actually have several in the queue, its just a matter of making the time to write, find pictures, and post them. So, accept my apologies as I’m sure you’ve been waiting on the edge of your seat to find out what happened on our safari…

After a beautiful, but bone jarring eight hour journey, we finally arrived in Lopé and to a lodge where we would spend the night. We had pre-arranged a package deal that included our rooms and one excursion (a walk the next morning through a forest deep inside the park). We wanted to take a boat ride along the Ogooué River, but the “captain” was sick. Too bad for that guy, and to be selfish, too bad for us because the river there is almost majestic, no, it is majestic. It runs a very eratic path through the valley of high, treeless hills - very fast, dark water churning past, and through, and over black outcroppings of rock resembling old lava flow, but some kind of geologic formation I’d never seen before. And, so we decided to jump on a driving safari tour. It was almost cheesy how cliché it was – the lodge had fitted out an old Toyota pick-up truck with several rows of bench seats and a canvas cover with rolled-up side flaps. Its was actually pretty cool as we journeyed to the park. If this blog is called The Table in part because that’s where my life is being played out right now, then this weekend I could have changed the title to The SUV because in the end we spent about 20 hours total bouncing in one 4x4 or another.
Mozza livin' the dream!

We passed through the small village of Lopé and into the park. Besides us, our 4x4, and the road upon which we drove, there was no sign of human existence for as far as we could see – no cell towers, no houses, no farms or fields or orchards, or airplanes, or trains, no sounds of humans. We were out in the middle of somewhere grand. We saw elephants, buffalos, monkeys, listened to the forest come to life as the sun set – frogs and birds and chimps. It was actually more driving around to find animals than actually seeing them. But my favorite part of the evening was standing a bald hill overlooking a stream meandering through as narrow valley along which a family of elephants were walking, drinking, eating. There was such a peace, a simplicity, as the cool air came in through the valley, as the sunset painted the huge sky in hues of oranges and pinks and then purples, and all along we watched the family end its day. Parks sometimes have a plastic, false atmosphere – its too bad that we need fences to keep the animals in and the people out. But the reality is we need them, to protect land and animals from ourselves. And I’m so grateful we have them, otherwise I wonder if my kids will ever get to experience the same thing.

We woke the next morning for a trek through one of the park’s forests. Yesterday, we had been hesitant about the driving safari, but I’m so glad we did it. Unfortunately, the walk did not prove so exciting in terms of animals. Don’t get me wrong, it was great to be walking in a new place and the piles of elephant dung gave us hope that we would come upon a group of elephants. But no. A couple of the guys did, maybe, see a spider monkey. Towards the end we asked our guide to tell us about the forest – the trees, the fruit, and flowers. The experience got me thinking…

The forest was not unlike one you might find in the Blue Ridge, even the mountains and valley reminded me of the Shenandoah. Mossa and the Grande Fromage said the hills reminded them of Scotland, and CBS suggested that the Ogooué reminded him of parts of south east Asia. There is a fair amount of habitat diversity around the world, but one can travel to various places and be reminded of somewhere else. In a way, the world is more homogeneous than I think it is – flora and fauna and terrain changes; the Himalaya is drastically different than Kauai which is nothing like the Saudi deserts – but again, one terrain looks like another. However, as I travel around or even see pictures or movies, it doesn’t feel so homogeneous.

To start, you can see a postcard of a Greek island and one of a Spanish village in the Mediterranean. The land is very similar, but the architecture, the boats, the colors are dead giveaways as to which place is which. We have structural differences – rich and poor, sick and healthy; we have language differences, food differences; differences in music, art, manners, ethics, laws, religions, believes, entertainments, sports, history, and culture. Landscapes may look similar around the world, but the vibe and atmosphere and smells and experiences can be so different because of the people and the way they have adapted to their environment in different ways and the ways in which they have adapted or rejected other peoples’ way of dealing with what’s around them and expressing themselves. And, yet, Globalization is making its best efforts to homogenize us.

There are some good things that come with the blending and merging of cultures. I do believe in certain universal rights and truths and the power in unity to fight for them when someone weak cannot do it on their own. It is good to know when something bad happens in the world, and those with the ability to help and respond can – we are connected and that’s a good thing. Our ability to witness evil and calamity in our world increases our responsibility to do something about it. Similarly, I think it’s a cop-out not to do something to stop an evil because of some deference to culture - its easy to blame hate and violence and racism and genocide on culture (too often we suggest that its their issue to sort out, we should stay out of it). No, globalism gives us the power of observation, we are connected, no longer do we have the excuse of “We didn’t know how bad it was until it was too late”.

But I really do hope that we can maintain some of our differences. It makes our world so much more interesting and special and unique. Our differences do matter – its means that our culture matters, our history matters, each one of us matters. I think there’s a tendency to mimic our animal friends, we tend to hide and camouflage ourselves, coupled with globalism’s ploys to make us all the same in order to make and sell more of the same products. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite dialogues from The Incredibles. Dash has been using his super speed powers in school when he’s not supposed to and his Mom (Helen aka Elasta Girl) is telling him how he can’t do that:

Helen: Right now, honey, the world just wants us to fit in, we gotta be like everyone else.
Dash: But Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.
Helen: Everyone’s special, Dash.
Dash: [muttering] Which is another way of saying no one is.

So, yes, I want a place for everyone at the table, but if we lose our cultural identities in the process, we’re in for one boring dinner party.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Lopé – Part I: The Journey

Sorry that it’s been so long since I’ve posted. It’s been a busy couple of weeks and I fell out of the habit of writing. And while sometimes I feel blogging is a bit “oh, look at me” and I’d rather stay in my shell, I’m gonna try to keep this going. So I’ll start with a couple of posts about my first safari.

Last weekend, four of my colleagues (Chris, aka Mossa, Roger, aka Rogey Baby, Thierry, aka Cool Bitch Supreme, and Bill, aka Le Grand Fromage) and I went to Lopé National Park. It’s near the geographic center of the country, about 180 km east of Libreville. It took us about 8 hours to get there. The roads are either asphalt – mixed with potholes and stretches of various levels of deterioration – or single lane red dirt. Mind you, this is National Highway 1. To give this some perspective, Libreville and Lopé are about the same distance apart as Washington, D.C. to Roanoke, VA (about a 3 hour drive). People we talked with after thought we were crazy driving there. But I’m so glad we did.

The scenery was amazing and we were able to see how people outside of the Libreville live. We drove out of the city as the landscape transitioned into dense jungle, through the occasional roadside village (really nothing more than a 5 or 10 houses, maybe a school, and always a football pitch). We passed many random tables where people left various things for sale – mainly produce (citrus, tomatoes, yams, bananas, and avocados), but also dried fish and bush meat (we saw several monkeys hanging up and a small crocodile). We also drove through huge rubber plantations, through cut forests, and by several huge saw mills.

Housing was very similar to those found in Haiti – mixes between thatch houses people have probably made for thousands of years, wood frame houses with corrugated metal roofs, and every now and then a concrete and block house. Some painted in reds, and, blues, and greens. Lots of the green, yellow, and blue Gabonese flags. Children carrying water cans to or from the local hand pump well or playing in red dirt yards. We came into the lively town of Ndjolé (pronounced similar to En-julie), that with its old Catholic Church on the hill, for a second reminded me a town you’d find in northern New Mexico. We stopped to fill-up right in the middle of the town next to the market full of what I can only describe as African Reggae music blasting from some ancient box speakers across the street. It was here where we left asphalt for dirt and began climbing into hills, covered in even thicker, now virgin, rain forests.

I saw some of the most incredible bamboo I’ve ever seen – bamboo here grows in large clumps and the stalks splay out in all directions. Clumps are spaced out randomly say 30 or 40 feet apart so that they create a maze into the hills or down into valleys leading to streams. As we crested the hills and crossed the Ogooué River, we entered the plateau and into savannah region. We continued following the river all the way to Lopé where I kept thinking to myself that this is the Africa I dreamt about when I was a little boy.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

staying strong, staying weak

there's a haitian saying kenbe fem that when translated to english means "stay strong". coming from a culture of hardship, its a saying of hope and encouragement in the face of some pretty tough odds. as eve and i ended our conversation the other night, i said to him, "kenbe fem". he looked at me strangely at first - while haitian creole has a foundation in french, it also mixes in tens, perhaps hundreds of african languages. to someone who speaks only french, creole is not understood. but eve said that in his mother tongue (bantu-fang) he knows the word fem as a strong person. so it was pretty cool to see the linguistic connection between gabon and haiti. but that's not what i want to write about today, i want to write about what it means to stay strong.

sometimes we need that kind of encouragement - we go through times in our life when we can't see the light, but we know if we keep walking, one step at a time, taking on life from one moment or day to the next, we can make it through to the other side. but there's a price with that way of living. we're surviving, getting through the day. we might shut out other possibilities, other leadings. so what if instead of staying strong, we stay weak? kenbe feb?

we don't like the idea of being weak, it leaves us vulnerable and living in fear. however, perhaps by being weak, we can admit that we need help, that we need to reach out and rely on others because none of us can do this alone. and it might also mean that we stay humble and open to something more than survival. this is what i was thinking about under the tree this morning and saw a similar analogy out in front of me.
this tension between strong and weak is similar to that between going with the flow and taking things into your own hands. you can stay in the water and go with the flow. again, sometimes we feel the need to just let go, stop forcing things, and move along with the water, where ever it may take us. but then when we do that, its not guaranteed that we'll make it to shore and we have to accept where and when we land if we do make it.

or we can take a surf board, choose a wave and take control of where we go. the outcome will likely be very different (the journey certainly will be) and we take the responsibility for where and when we land. now that does not guarantee that we won't fall off or be saved from getting caught under a wave, tossed around and held under not knowing which way is up. but when we resurface, we can try again and again.

so which is it? do we stay strong? or do we stay weak? do we go with the flow? or do we paddle out into the swell and surf? i think we need to do all four. the art of living a good life, though, is having the wisdom to know when.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

free time in free town

this is my second weekend here. starting yesterday afternoon, i've been able to get out a bit. my first journey was to a couple of project sites with my new boss (we were still on the clock, so maybe it doesn't count for weekend time, but its worth talking about).

we visited two of the 15 can 2012 sites - a practice field and a hostel complex for teams. they are well underway and should be ready by early next year.  here's a picture of the site manager standing along side the newly installed pitch and another view of the field:
 the sites are located on the eastern part of town, so i was finally able to get beyond the bord du mer. in many ways, the neighborhoods were not unlike those in port au prince. small block houses stacked on top of each other and up slopes of hills. but there is definitely a higher level of well-being here with really nice houses sprinkled about:
more on that in bit...last night we went to dinner at a place called l'odeka - it specializes in african game food and definitely caters to the expat community, so doing the touristy thing we had to try it. we each ordered a plate and shared it family style - so now i can say that i've eaten antelope, crocodile, python, and porcupine! i wish i had pictures of scary snake heads, horns, croc teeth, and quills, but the plates were actually really boring, which i guess is good because we really shouldn't make a spectacle of such things (i can hear my vegan friends cussing me now - sorry y'all!). anyway, we had big chunks in sauce - so it looked more like beef stew rather than anything else. the python was the most interesting - really bony, but good (you had to suck on it like you might do eating a chicken wing), the antelope was a lot like venison,the crocodile was excellent - better than a good piece of chicken, but the porcupine was just nasty. those things don't need quills. certainly an experience, but i'm not sure i'll go back!

earlier today (now saturday), we went out to the libreville golf club. this is where the stomach tightened up and the guilty feelings came swooping in. i'm not a golfer, but two of the guys are, so we went to hit some balls at the driving range and have lunch. it is one of the greatest symbols of power here and ironically we had to drive about 20 minutes through some of the poorest shanty towns to get there. the guys were certainly humbled and said how grateful we are to be in our position. we talked about how most of the world lives like this - young girls gathered around the only water pipe collecting water for their house, carrying what they can manage on their head. boys playing soccer with an old and flat ball barefoot in the broken street full of rocks and broken glass. open drainage trenches full of trash and standing water in a malaria endemic area. its easy to fall into the trap that poverty is not systemic, that as this country develops their infrastructure, diversifies its economy, and educates its people, that its just a matter of time before they life themselves up and reap the benefits of modernity. i know i get preachy and judgmental, but until poverty is exposed as a consequence of this type of development, a development that i fear will maintain the current structures of power and violence, the people who have "made it" here will keep speeding through the shanties on the way to catch their tee time. i need not mention that lunch didn't taste very good.

trying to close on a positive note...after wards, we stopped off at a couple of markets.

we don't get many fruits and vegetables, especially at the hotel. we're told that gabon doesn't grow anything and must import so much of their food. well, it was a great relief to find masses of fresh fruit and veggies! bananas, pineapples, avocados, carrots, greens, onions, peppers, yams, okra, limes and some i tried learning the name of but can't remember! here's what i walked away with for less than $2.

i even found some local honey. it has a strange taste between the honey i'm used to and molasses. i look forward to eating this stuff and getting to know a bit more about life away from the table. until then, i'm heading out to sit in the thinking tree for a while.