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.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

the story of eve

this is the story off eve. he is the night receptionist at our hotel. he's maybe 23. we got to talking last night about what my company is doing here and the need for infrastructure and how most of the people here in gabon live. we started talking about how people like me, from the us or europe, come here for business and never see the poverty here. we live in a nice hotel in the north end of the city, right on the beach. our driver picks us up, we drive south down the bord du mer, following the coast and into downtown. we pass high rise hotels, apartments, ministry office buildings. we get out, work all day (around the table of course!), get picked up, maybe go to a restaurant or back to the hotel for dinner...i told eve that its so nice here, and then asked, knowing the answer, if everyone else lived like this because i don't see the poverty i expected. he said the government is ashamed of it, so they keep people like me away from it. he said "vous devez vous ourvrir au peuple" - very roughly translated into english as "you must open up to the people" - you have to go see them because they live just a few blocks east of the bord du mer. so i asked him if he was familiar with the term social justice: “of course, la justice egalité.”

he said many gabonese are frustrated. parents make so many sacrifices to get their kids into school. and when they graduate, there's nothing for them to do. there are lots of major companies working here for oil, natural gas, timber, various ores - but these trades hire few locals. eve left his family and village when he was 16 to go to school in port gentil. his parents worked in markets to make enough money to pay for his education. his goal was to graduate in the top 3 of his class because companies recruit there but only hire the top 3. after his first year he was in the top 10, after his 2nd he made it into the top 5. he spent his last two years top of his class. but when he graduated with his baccalauréat, he found that he didn't get hired because he didn't come from a "known family". he says he discovered that only the students with a "real" family name, someone connected to the political elite, get hired. most likely the handful of families connected to the original french colonial powers and still clinging to the invisible hand of the french. he finally found a term job at a bank. when president omar bongo died, people from all over the world came to pay their respects and hotels needed people. eve found a job here and has worked here ever since and has now been promoted to an evening receptionist. his parents are disappointed - all of his education and he's only a receptionist. but he's proud of his job and glad he has work - most of his friends don't. we talked a bit more about life beyond the bord and he went to tell a story about bongo just before he died.

he was frail, knowing his time here was coming to end. he did one final address to the nation on live television. he was reading from a script and it was riddled with mistakes. so he stops mid-sentence and asked "who wrote this? what do you people do?" he went on speaking from his heart saying that he would be in heaven soon and would have to account for what he's done - being part of creating a country where 80% of the people are poor and only 20% have access to resources (that ratio is better than many resource-poor countries). he went on and called out many of his political peers for taking advantage of the system. that political leaders wasted the potential of gabon and that the people deserved more, that they needed water, food, education, jobs. he went on to say "dieu n'est pas content, parce que il y a une solution" - god is not happy because there is a solution. eve believes that the new president, ali bongo (omar's son) understands this and is trying to find help. that's why he's asked my company to be here and is making changes to diversify the nation's economy to enable more local jobs.

we talked a bit more about life in gabon for the average person, about eve's girlfriend, his dreams for a family, his faith. he said, "my parents made so much sacrifice just so that i have this job. there's nothing else for me to do. i have faith in god that things will get better. when you trust in god, you let everything else go because you have to believe that god has something big for you."

well, eve, i hope so. for you and your future wife and your children and for the million and half people that live on the other side of the bord du mer.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


i want to revisit the hospital. the one in mirebalais, haiti. the one pih is building in conjunction with the haitian ministry of health (mspp). and i want to talk about it in the context of a jack johnson song. i’ll wait for something a bit less heavy to talk about my jack johnson pandora theory…the song going through my head is you and your heart. it’s a catchy pop song from his latest album, but could be from the other ones (surprise – no offense jack). anyway, he sings: you and your heart, shouldn’t feel so far apart, you can chose what you take, why you gotta break and make it feel so hard…

well, right now, me and my heart feel so very far apart. for lots of reasons. but mostly because a big chunk of my heart is in that hospital, in the dirt that’s being transformed into a world class facility, a beacon of what is possible when we set the bar high and are willing to do whatever it takes to get over it. but also for so much more. for me it represents rising up, out of the rubble. you see, zanmi lasante and its sister organization partners in health, was asked to support mspp at the general hospital in port au prince after it was essentially destroyed by the earthquake. it was the place where people brought their dead – to the morgue that reached capacity in mere hours after the quake and so bodies were stacked so deep and so wide you couldn’t pass. it was also the place where nursing students died while taking their lessons, crushed in their classrooms, under their school and left for weeks, only their smell signaling their presence. and beyond the walls, in tent hospitals, in the streets, the people of this country experienced things humans just aren’t built to witness and endure. this is when I realized how the natural disaster caused by tectonic plates shifting a few kilometers below the asphalt exposed the unnatural, systemic disaster of poverty…but the general hospital was also the place where, from the rubble, the team, joined by groups as different as the us army and the swiss red cross, was able to care for so many thousands of patients. the place from where hundreds of patients were med-evaced to the uss comfort for life-saving surgery. it was one of the few centers of emergency care in the middle of a city brought to piles of rocks and twisted steel in minutes.

before 5pm, january 12th, the hospital was the only public teaching hospital in the country. the new hospital in mirebalais is its replacement. we were already deep into the design phase to build a 100+ bed regional referral facility – still to be crown jewel of mspp in the central plateau. soon after the 12th, the team was asked to triple capacity and convert the facility to a national teaching center. so, for me, its very poetic that pih is able to restore the national teaching hospital, rising from the rubble as a sign of hope and healing, aligned with the slogan “build back better”. but also for me, it signifies a healing of the soul, of my soul (if i may be so selfish), to help restore all that was lost in the aftermath of earthquake.

i had the absolute privilege to work with the team until a few months ago when i finished up graduate school and took a job. now i’m in gabon helping to build the main stadium for the 2012 africa cup (the african men’s world cup qualifying tournament). on its own, this is a great job. my family will experience living in another country and we’ll get to see hippos and gorillas and some of the few remaining virgin rainforests left in the world. but its nothing to fill the breach of inequality. so i can’t stop thinking about haiti. a place that has taught me so much about structural violence, oppression, injustice, inequality, power, but also hope, faith and love. i owe her so much for restoring my faith in god and humanity and myself and i feel she needs to be loved and someone fighting for her. not by me alone, but still, if you know me, you know what i mean. i tried finding a way to make it work. but maybe i didn’t try hard enough. maybe i loved myself more than her. regardless, i’m here in libreville now – “free town”, where i don’t feel so free because me and my heart, we’re so far apart. maybe its timing, maybe i need preparation, maybe the world is bigger than haiti. but i can’t stop thinking about what i’m doing here and what i could be doing there, rising.

you ever felt that way?

Monday, September 13, 2010

eid and practical jokes in libreville

what i found out about blogs is that you don't have to write some huge thing every post. just a few paragraphs, some pictures, and before you know it we'll have ourselves a story unfolding. i promised not to make this a standard travel blog, but come on, i am going through some pretty cool and unique experiences, for me at least, so i'll share a few.

this past friday was eid, the celebration of the end of ramadan. i've spent some time in nigeria and so have experiences with muslim culture, but it still fascinates me. gabon actually has a very small muslim population (primarily traditional religions and catholicism reign here), but there are quite a number of people from other african countries (nigeria, niger, mali, cote d'ivoire...) and many of these folks are muslim. friday was a national holiday (the president is muslim - the story has it that his family converted after the libyans promised various forms of support). it just so happens that our office is right next to the national mosque and royal palace (the name for the home of the democratically elected head of state). we had to work and ended up having to walk through crowds of people as we headed to the office and they headed to worship. i must admit, i felt not only out of place, but disrespectful - what with our suits and computer bags draped over out shoulders. but everyone was very nice as we walked through a sea of people in brightly colored dress (i hate to group all of africa as being one place - there are so many different cultures and people and countries here, but there is something very african, west african at least, about the clothes, the smell, a sweet smell). and beggars lined the streets - many women and small children, but also many physically crippled people, shaking little plastic bowls. as we headed in the building, the call to prayer was in effect...Allah abar...Allah akbar...Allah and their sons gathered in the yard in front of the mosque, sitting or kneeling on their prayer rug, as women and daughters gathered on the far side, across the street. we watched some of the prayers from our 4th story window. an ocean of people and color, standing or kneeling in unison with the prayers. it was beautiful...

we didn't have internet all day, maybe we shouldn't have gone to work.

and now something funny. i'm always one who appreciates practical jokes, even if done to me. but some people here have raised the bar. tonight we heard a second hand story about how various leaders take care of their own guy's head had gotten a little too big, so the head guy took things into his own hands. the big-headed guy went to visit a distant town. on his way, the big boss had arranged these thugs to attacked him, place a bag over his head, stripped him down, roughed him up a little (whatever that means!), had him confess to some various things, and then they brought him into a house where the big boss and all of his people had gathered, they had the thugs remove the bag and GOTCHA!!! everyone had a great laugh. and the guy telling the story told it as if they had placed a thumb tack in his chair. good one, huh? wow. i hope i stay on their good side - that's one way to stay humble.

random picture of the day: this is a tree down the beach from where i'm staying - its my thinking tree. enough to keep me humble for a while.

and here's an article on the mirebalais hospital in haiti that pih is helping the government build: . i'm so proud of the team and thank jeff, dan, and victor for helping make the ground breaking happen on friday. wish i was there.

but i'm glad you're here and really appreciate the comments of those who posted. i guess we'll keep the name, welcome to the table.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

the table?

so i'm trying out a blog. i've just moved to libreville, gabon. where is that, you ask...?

i'm terrible at keeping up with facebook and not much with even keeping in touch with people via email, forget phonecalls! but this is such a unique experience for me and thought that i would try documenting life via the blogosphere. but i don't want this to just be a travel blog. my life is going on here, my thoughts, my fears, my experiences, and i need a place to deal with all of that as well. i have a thing for quotes and simple prayers and good friends who send me things i think everyone should read. maybe if i start putting this stuff out there, in print, it will be more real or something. 

also, i have a thing for social justice, that everyone deserves dignity, regardless of position or possession. crazy to think americans are debating, politicizing, and polarizing social justice, its as if people such dr. king, who once said, "the hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood,"are dated - i don't think so. as a dear friend grew up believing, evil continues when good men do nothing. well the first part of doing something is becoming aware, so i like to think that this may be my forum to talk about observations i make and try filling the little cracks with hope and light (and honesty as much as i can), instead of despair and dark.

so about this name - the table. i'm not sure that i like it. but it has some meaning. i've just finished up graduate school at virginia tech and i've come here for a new job. we're just getting started here. the team is small and we're in a temporary office. we're staying at a hotel, we wake up, eat together around the same table everyday, then we go in and sit around another table, then we come home together and eat supper around that table. so right now, my life literally revolves around a table. as we get to know each other a but more, our conversations are getting deeper, we're laughing more. what my british co-workers would call "that bloody table" is now becoming the beloved table...ok, no. its still the bloody table. but i don't know - its where my life is happening right now and so maybe its works for the name of this blog. i also thought that if i'm able to create something more than a travel blog, something other than a whinny journal, that maybe i can also use this as a platform, then maybe i stop writing once we're all able to sit at the table because right now, to be honest, its a table of the privileged, of the powerful, and call me socialist (or naive), but i think we have all been created as equals, and that we should die that way as well.

please let me know what you think about the name and i will try to keep posting, even if it pleases only me.