Sunday, 21 July 2013

Remembering a boy with no name, and feeling strange

Coming home has been strange.
It is strange to be born somewhere, and then to feel distant from that. It’s not that you fit in somewhere else. No, certainly not that. It’s just noticing a progressive removal from your own culture, and then being suddenly thrown into about a thousand realizations about your existence, and being acutely and unequivocally alone in that.
At some point in history, this would be what we’d call a pariah. At another point in history, we’d call it a witch. Insert Monty python reference. At another point in history, we’d call the outcast a Jew, or a fag, or a slave, or a myriad of other hideous offensive comments. I do not pretend to share this lot in life. My life is altogether highly tolerable and I have yet to endure physical or verbal torture at the hands of someone else. However, this feeling of complete isolation from everything around you, this feeling of floating alone at sea, is something I do claim to know a bit about.
It is this being adrift that is cause for most of my melancholy lately. Moroseness eats holes in my sails like moths. I flip through memories of the last year or so, fondly turning mental pages and longing for those days now lost forever. Though there were definitely times of torment, I now hold them with reverence, as though they were my most prized trophies at the tippy top of my proverbial memory trophy case. Made entirely of glass I’d imagine. One might even call it a “glass case of emotion”. Har har har.
I amuse myself too much sometimes. It’s not very good to make jokes with yourself. Its not very good being the only person who can console you when you’re in a downward spiral.
Yes, the trouble is being inconsolable.
“What is your big issue??” says independent/driven Alicia. One of my many personality profiles. She is a favorite of mine and I try to coax her out of hiding more often than some of my less useful personalities. For example, I try my absolute hardest to ward off tragic/melancholy/chain-smoking Alicia, because in all honesty she can just be a real piece of work. And also weepy/needy Alicia is intentionally kept at bay until she pries her cold, ravenous hands from out of the personality closet. She is my nemesis, and I will defeat her one day or bob’s my uncle … that’s how the saying goes right?

Do you ever feel like all the worst parts of you are loosed at once?
This is yet another description of my current mental state. You are still reading so let me apologize for this. And thank you for reading. The self-pity has evaporated for the time being and I promise it won’t return for at least 1500 words.
I want to talk about memories.
The ones you relive in your mind a thousand times.
Warning, I am now releasing nostalgic/sentimental Alicia intentionally. Like how a pokemaster releases a Pok√©mon, “Nostalgia-tender-fondness … GO!”
Memories are my favorite of all mental faculties, which makes me afraid of Alzheimer’s with a crippling fear that would lead me right off the edge of a cliff. To remember something is so crucial for a human being because it helps us to navigate ourselves through the days to come. Without memory we have absolutely no bearing as to where we are going and what we are doing. People remember doing things they regret and then in theory they correct themselves later and prevent a similar outcome. Conversely, people remember a positive outcome and try to duplicate that. I would say that memories with positive connotations are the stronger force of the two. Like how people often overlook regrettable memories if there is even the slightest chance that pursuing a certain pathway might lead to more positive memories. Even if that certain pathway will most definitely also lead to more painful memories, the good somehow trumps the bad. And this is the birthplace of codependency.
This phenomenon is something I think my generation is lousy with. In both senses of that word. First, we are lousy with it because we are somehow inept with identifying the things in this life that have a degree of lasting value. Secondly we are lousy with it because we are constantly chasing these effervescent ideas of “the perfect night” or “the perfect man/woman”. Our existence is consumed by these things. We mindlessly pine for “the perfect life”. We are so deluded by things with empty promises. We are like moths to the flame, and the flame is euphoria. Euphoria is fancy Greek happiness. We sometimes idolize escapism as a means to achieving some momentary bliss. But what if this bliss is false, and what if everything we have learned to attach to this bliss as a probable outcome actually leads to cavernous personal emptiness? What if we all constantly fall into a big fat lie that bliss is the most important pursuit?
When I was in India I felt alone in a very similar sense as to how I do now. I was the tall, pale, stranger. Also I was/am female and this seemed at times a cause of concern for some people there. Furthermore I’ve been known to enjoy an ill-advised escapade or two, which drew extra attention to my presence (as if I wasn’t already painfully obvious), and also highlighted the fact that I am actually a very strange girl. Especially in India. It was like I was everything peculiar about white people incarnate in one body, and everywhere I went, the eyes of the multitudes would follow. This causes a feeling of being an alien in a place that you don’t belong. I can’t be sure but I think this is why Britney Spears shaved her head. Alone is definitely what I felt for the first while being in India, and is definitely what I am feeling now amongst all the familiar sights of my childhood, grain elevators and two-storey house cutouts in a middle class neighborhood. I drive through my hometown as an alien, and nobody even stares at me anymore. There’s nothing special about me here to cast me out, yet somehow I’m left standing apart from the rest of the Edmontonian bipeds. I speak their language but I can’t always communicate with them and I don’t know what the hell is the matter with everyone. “Why are you eating and driving at the same time? Why don’t you look me in the eyes for longer than 1.5 seconds? How many groceries can one household possibly ingest?? If you hate your job so much than why don’t you QUIT?? WHY IS THERE ANOTHER MALL BEING BUILT THREE BLOCKS FROM THIS ONE?? WHAT DO YOU MEAN MY PIZZA COSTS TWENTY DOLLARS??!!#@$!$%%@$%^?”
Let me tell a quick story about someone I met in Kolkata. I do not recall his name which actually somehow makes the story more poignant. This story is about a little boy I met in a train yard. I was with two of my friends who go and get to know kids from these types of areas, they buy them food and talk to them about life, and try to be nice to them in hopes they’ll feel like even two random people care that they exist. People in these circumstances are the outcasts of their society, especially the most vulnerable persons like women and children whom are preyed upon. Generally, they will not be able to attend school and the women will sell sex for money to feed their families. I try to sometimes imagine that being the only commodity I have to offer to feed myself and my dependants, and the thought of it makes me shudder. Tres les miserables. I’d do just like Causette and sell my teeth first but the persistence and inhumanity of grinding poverty would eventually crush my pride I am sure.
I remember meandering the refuse surrounding this one train yard, weaving through narrow cement corridors between buildings and finally coming to a sort of little camp built on a garbage heap. The reason we were at the train yard that day was to talk to the family of two of the kids we know and try and convince the mother to let her children return to school. Meandering through cement corridors and serpentine well-trodden pathways I noticed the buildings were becoming less and less built of things like bricks and more and more composed of bits of garbage. Tarps, rice sacs, sticks, cardboard. That sort of thing. Finding our way through this slum was obviously upsetting because of the state that people and children somehow manage to live in, but I think my brain could tell that I was on the verge of some sort of psychological break and so the raw and uncomfortable bits of this reality faded out to prevent a sensory overload and I was then only able to notice some things as a sort of survival mechanism. We meandered a bit more and eventually reached this home. The woman inside was cooking dinner, and her tiny garbage house was definitely built for Bengali people and not for my gargantuan Nordic self. But I bent over as much as possible and stood like a crooked tree, listening to her speak to my friends and ask them questions. This conversation was naturally not conducted in English and so I started to daydream and noticed some interesting things here and there. I noticed the fish she was cooking, tiny silvery translucent things with no scales and no eyes and circular mouths like spaghetti o’s. She was cutting the lips and the tails off on a rusty blade and chucking these little wretches into some tomato based curry. The thought of it still makes me reel. I hate fish and I especially hate fish curry and even more still I hate disgusting slum mutant fish curry. These fish hail from the holy Ganges, a teeming river of pollutants, which is run amok with all kinds of filth and toxic waste that has caused the fish to mutate and become the hideous creatures they are today. They are only eaten by the poorest of the poor because they’re loathsome and probably carcinogenic. But they are free.
Eventually the smoke from the cooking fire was starting to sting my eyes, so I found my way outside where there were some little kids staring intently at the white freak and the Nepali and the Anglo-Indian man that were standing in front of them. Fortunately I was able to break this awkwardness between us. I found some ribbon from a cassette tape that had been ripped out, and a broken piece of metal with sparkles on it and made a bracelet and tied it on one of the little girl’s wrists. She went and showed her mom and said “Auntie eta tikka che!!!” which means contextually, “The white lady is actually okay!!”. I had won them. We had all kinds of giddy fun after that.
Sadly our errand was a failure, and we were ultimately rejected by the mother who explained there was an older doctor who was interested in potentially marrying her 10 year old daughter, and so she would not be returning to school with us. My friends tried to explain to her in the most animated language that this person is obviously a child trafficker. Older successful doctors do not often go wife shopping in slums and to marry pre-pubescent girls from Dahlit families. But of course the mother chose not to see this. And at first it just made me filled with rage and I heaped fiery condemnation on this woman in my mind, but eventually I realized that perhaps I’d be less morally upright and idealistic if I was living in such a state of chaos and feeding my hungry family sewage fish for dinner and maybe the prospect of that small dowry for my daughter’s hand in marriage would be enough to give us a chance at eating normal food for a while, and maybe that prospect would be enough to push me to consider it as a valid option and ignore the red flags. Its too easy to sit and assess the choices of people we don’t understand, but starvation and poverty do terrible things to people, and I don’t think I’m able to blame any one of them for such actions while I drive around in my Honda with a sunroof so removed from the extent of their suffering.
As we walked out of the slum we crossed over a cement wall that divides the little garbage subdivision from a roadway, and this road was plastered in little cakes of animal (perhaps human) excrement which were drying in the sun to be sold for fuel to start fires and such. I breathed out of my mouth to combat the consuming stench and I watched all my little friends chase after us along the other side of the wall, blowing kisses and smiling at us with rotten teeth. “Auntie we want to come to the white school with you!!!” They shouted in Bengali. And I stopped to blow them kisses back and they reached over the wall to hand me various trinkets. A little plastic panda bear whose eyes were worn off, a tiny blue plastic car from a kinder surprise I think, a sparkly earring, and a plastic bracelet. I swear they might as well have been bits of gold. I haven’t ever loved any possession of mine more than I do these four things. I winced my eyes to keep my stupid tears at bay and I blew them kisses and told them I hoped to see them again soon.

On our way out of the slum is when we met this boy I mentioned earlier. He was no more than ten, I am sure he was high, the kids in this area sniff cheap glue that helps them cope I suppose. His complexion made him seem familiar because he looked Native to me. “Native” being Aboriginal Canadian or First Nations or whatever politically correct term you care to insert as a title. Because he looked Native he seemed like one of the kids from the youth center I used to work at. It was in a rough part of northeast Edmonton and that neighborhood has a really high Native population. It’s interesting to me that those kids are also frowned upon by their society, as if their existence is uncomfortable for the more affluent demographics to encounter. As if the wealthier parts of society would prefer them to never have been born. These have always been my favorite children, and I cry when I think about how they are handed their tragic fate the second they are born and then subsequently punished for it over and over until eventually they combust (metaphorically). They are my favorite children because when they are young they are so resilient and more often than not they respond so quickly and adamantly to any iota of positive affirmation, or attention from an adult. At this age it is as if they somehow haven’t had all the good battered out of them quite yet, and it is still possible to peel back those layers of hurt and rejection and see the beauty that lies within their precious hearts.
Anyways, this kid in the train yard looked Native and he was wearing a funny shirt that was almost virtuous, or ironic, or meaningful or … something. It said, “Don’t be so open minded or else your brain will fall out”. 

The boy in question.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

the Return to Zambia

I will never forget this day.
The return to Zambia has been so surreal. I remember the last time I was here I was 17, blonde hair, real chatty, big long limbs, goofy, and wildly insecure. Its funny how so much changes and still nothing changes at all. I remember being here and noticing differences everywhere. Red earth, shoddy roads, headscarves, dancing and singing that brings tears to your eyes, huge aloe plants, babies strapped on backs, sticky white porridge for every meal, roadside stands. Africa from a safe distance. I remember thatched huts and children in bare feet chasing after our car as we’d drive by. I remember big smiles and throngs of affectionate kids tackling me and braiding my “slippery” muzungu (white person) hair that was so surprising to them. I remember doing presentations about Aids prevention in high schools but not quite getting it myself. I still don’t “get” Aids but I now know many more people who’ve experienced its crippling blow. Now I’ve stayed in places that it’s actually affected. I walked through communities that have been crippled by it. Drank their water, ate their food. Prayed with them, laughed with them, danced with them. Also “them” has become names of actual people. Lives that have now meshed with mine. Stories I hold in the safest places in my heart, as if I could put them in a place of reverence and safety that would somehow right all the wrongs in the world. Stories that would change your life if you were open to it. I implore you, for your own sake if for nothing else, open your heart to moments like these. Let it cut deep into your life, bleeding empathy and distain for injustice into every area of your consciousness. There is pain here. So if you choose read on, please try to feel that pain.

This is the story of my return to Zambia. I thought I knew something about this place, about Africa as a whole. But also I was excited to experience it as an adult, knowing that I’ve grown and that things are probably not just as I remember. I know now that I hadn’t really seen Zambia at all until this time around. This is because I didn’t get to know the people last time.

Last week I went to a place called Maposa. It just worked out for me to tag along this particular bluebird day, so I happily hopped in the car with a sandwich and a coffee. And a coke zero. And a bag of cashews. And off we went into the crystal clear sunshine of the Zambian morning.

We drove down highways past a long line of women on the roadside selling gigantic watermelons. I have since eaten at least two of these watermelons. It’s like an African drive through. You pull up, 2o kwacha out the window and a lady gives you a melon and you zoom off. I’ve never questioned McDonalds until now.

There are much more significant parts of my culture that I’ve started to question though, which actually says more than you may know. Because I really REALLY like McDonalds.

1)    I’ve started to question the way we live. Living to work. Productivity and work ethic, now I look at commerce and I think “So what? I’m going to the park”.

2)    I see the way we interact with each other at arms length until finally we are able to wade through the many masks and faces we all wear to actually get to the core of a person. It may seem strange but that’s not what its like in other parts of the world.

3)    I’m sick of practical problem solving. Since when are people REALLY able to solve problems anyways? Look at foreign aid in Africa from the last ten years. Good job practical problem solving. Bad gets worse and we can’t understand why. It's because our culture is obsessed with efficiency and tact and all of it has nothing to do with the way things work around here. Transforming a life takes much more than money and meals could possibly provide, and the transforming of lives is exactly what suffering people need, in addition to practical things.                                                      

4)    In western culture we think we know everything. We think we have things figured out because our quality of life is better. We’ve been “educated” so we walk into a situation and go “blah blah blah” until everyone is sick of us. We’ve got systems that hum along without us. The world hums along without us as we work ourselves silly, and then stressed out and wealthy, we wither away in sterilized senior homes with overworked nurses who can’t remember our names. We build systems not friendships. And the systems all fail us in the end. It’s ironic. And it’s inhumane.

5)    Giving for us is only out of surplus. We sequester off a portion of our storehouses and think that makes us generous. We think it’s our ticket into heaven. On the African continent, good people give everything they have. I’ve witnessed it and received it. It’s an altogether different type of giving that I want to fully adopt. However I’m not sure I can fit a camel through the eye of a needle. Fingers crossed though.

So we drove to Maposa. The return to Zambia continues. And we went to visit a family of orphans that is being cared for and fed by a group of local women. Hands at Work then support this community based feeding point, which is what I’m a part of. Anyways, we walked to this little house and found this cute grandpa named Gideon. The kids were away but we stayed and visited with Gideon anyways. This family has been hit by tragedy but has been able to overcome it to an extent. They have no hospital anywhere close by, which Gideon says is a huge problem for the local people. He spoke excellent English because he worked for a manufacturing company when he was younger. Now he just farms his land and looks after his grandkids that lost their parents in 2009. We don’t know how they died. Although there’s obviously a great deal of hardship in this story I left Gideon’s house feeling encouraged. He and the children’s grandma have a home and a garden and a field of maize to sell. It seems as though these children will be alright for the time being. Thank God.

We walked to the next home feeling happy and hopeful because it seemed like this community was doing a great job gathering around orphans and looking after them. After many disheartening visits to suffering orphan families this was like a breath of fresh air. We meandered through thick bushes and tall grass, and I heard in the distance sounds of children laughing and playing. ­I expected another family getting ready to eat lunch, so it caught me off guard to find a yard littered with trash, and a group of kids running around and yelling at each other between two door-less and decrepit shacks. It was like walking into “Lord of the Flies”. Potato sacks were strung together to cover gaping holes in the crumbling bricks in an attempt to keep out the dust and wind. Three children came forward from the rest, covered in dirt and wearing especially tattered clothes. I noticed the youngest boy hiding behind his older brother. This little boy hadn’t had a haircut in some time, which is a good indicator that he doesn’t have a mother looking after him. He looked confused, his eyes darting around from stranger to stranger. His head wobbled from sensory overload and our eyes caught. “He’s autistic”, I thought immediately, and he quickly averted his stare, unsure what to do with a foreign face. “This is Benny”, said the local care worker who had led us to the house. She pulled him closer and explained that she’s the only person who bothers much to look after these three. Benny’s hands fidgeted as he bit his lip and stared at the ground. Their parents have abandoned them and gone to Kitwe. The father returns from time to time with a bag of maize meal, but they hadn’t seen him in a couple months. The oldest boy was 16, a really handsome kid named Jacob. His shirt had one button left. Embarrassed he tried hiding his one shoeless foot as he explained how he’s had the same shoes for a long time and the right one burst because his foot has gotten too big. Now he has no shoes for school so he doesn’t know what to do. He hopes he can fix them or the teacher won’t notice because he’ll get thrown out. School is free in Zambia but you have to be clean and presentable to attend. I have a hard time understanding that children may not be able to go to school because they can’t afford a bar of soap. I liked Jacob right away and could tell he’s a bright kid with good social skills. We started talking about school and I asked him what his favorite subject was. He said math, but we found out later he hadn’t yet learned multiplication. Also I noticed Jacob was really small for his age, a good indicator that he hasn’t been getting enough food during his first growth spurt. This may impair his stature for life. He’s got a good face though, amazing smile and big dimples that brought his whole face to life when he laughed as I sputtered out broken Bemba like a clown.

The middle child is a girl named Constance, she and Benny are both 13 and they are fraternal twins, though Benny has an obvious mental disability impairing him and an underdeveloped foot that prevents him from walking to the feeding point. Constance is beautiful and their shack has no door, which makes her particularly susceptible to sexual predators if Jacob can’t protect her. It’s possible she’s been abused already because children in such vulnerable circumstances are often an easy target for opportunistic evil. Should they miraculously receive food packages or housing supplies, these things might be taken by neighbors. Basically nothing is easy for kids like this, without parents and without any semblance of security they are left prone to suffer.

I’ve talked to a couple people from Hands at Work here in Zambia, truly amazing people who have come out of all kinds of difficult backgrounds, not unlike the horrors I’ve just described, and together we’ve made a plan to get Jacob school shoes and to make sure that a meal goes home to Benny who can’t walk to the feeding point. These local people have stood up to fight for a different future for children like Jacob and Constance and Benny. But still. I can’t help feeling that whatever they are able to do for this family, it won’t be near enough. The needs of these three kids are so far beyond any human help that can be offered. They need these practical things too, obviously. They need a house that’s safe and waterproof for starters, a reliable food source, water (for heaven’s sake), and some sort of income for clothes and just to keep their little family afloat. And mostly they need parents, people that actually care they exist. The fact that their parents are alive and willingly abandoned them makes it more difficult for social services to intervene, though that service is functioning poorly at best. But these kid’s problems are so much deeper than that. It’s a whole different level of atrocious. On every plane of existence they face obstacles far too big to overcome without some sort of divine intervention. So please, for these three people that have cracked deep into my heart, pray. Pray hard.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Auntie Chris

Some friends and I climbed the tallest mountain in Swaziland the day after I got the news about my Auntie passing.

Its remarkable how mountains give a person perspective somehow.

Sometimes there are no words to describe a situation. Things happen, and they don’t make any sense, and we can only look up at the sky and wonder why. Why everything. Why anything at all.

I’m alive and I don’t have any idea why or how I made it here. I just know that I am. And I know that I love people and yet bad things happen to them, through no fault of their own. I will not sugarcoat that. I refuse to cheapen the pain of an innocent people who suffer. And I think God is big enough to handle that questioning. Plus if God is real, and if he is who he says he is, he will help us understand. He will help us understand the reality of life and death.

Sometimes people can be cruel and evil and selfish, and they can do inconceivable bad.

But then there are good people. There are people like my Auntie Chris. Someone who was just such a good person to her core. Who lived her life for her family, and worked harder than anyone I know. Someone who loved me and cared about me my whole life. Someone who was the first one to help when it was needed. The first one to stand up and do dishes, the first one to make coffee, the first one to visit after a car accident.

This amazing woman has passed. I did not get to say goodbye and tell her how unbelievable I thought she was. One of my favorite things about getting older is that you’re able to get to know the adults in your life as friends, and you just start to see them as normal people kind of. Hanging out with Auntie Chris at family dinners is something I looked forward to. Visiting with her and hearing her thoughts about life, her hopes for her children, and reliving old memories. I often marvel at how men in my family have an uncanny ability to find the most exceptional women.

Auntie Chris wasn’t someone who would spew out empty words and hollow advice. Some people have so much to say but its just noise. She was just the opposite of that. Everything I know about my Auntie I know because she lived those things, because that is the person that she was, and so naturally her actions reflected her selflessness and her goodness. She was loving, and sincere, and strong. She was a woman of caliber, and all these things live on in her children. Marissa has her eyes and her smile and her laugh, Reeann has her quietness and her tenderness, and Brandon has her strength. And my Uncle Blair has her heart, and he always will. This is one of the wonders of love, it is one of the few things that live on after we are gone.

Auntie Chris, your love lives on in us.

She represents the kind of people that give me hope for humanity. Because how could good like that spring up for no reason? How could good people exist by chance? Usually the bad in the world points people away from God, but for me it’s the good found in certain people that points me towards Him.

I believe one day I’ll find myself outside this cage of skin and bones, and I’ll see my Auntie Chris and baby Caitlyn, the cousin I have yet to meet, and they’ll be waiting to greet me somewhere far beyond. Free from pain and suffering, I’ll hug her and we’ll both cry tears of unspeakable joy. I choose to believe this.

I choose to believe God is good, and that he hurts with us when we hurt, and he walks with us when we have nothing else to cling to. That he gives us peace when we can’t make sense of the tragedy.

Auntie Chris thank you for loving me, and I promise we’ll all take care of each other.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Joe's Vloggys

Some links to videos made by a friend I met here.
Just kinda filling in on what I've been up to the last few weekends.

Joe's Vloggy Blog Part 7 from Joe Wilkins on Vimeo.

Joe's Vloggy Blog Part 6 from Joe Wilkins on Vimeo.

Joe's Vloggy Blog Part 4 from Joe Wilkins on Vimeo.

Monday, 25 March 2013

life is a beautiful struggle

He will do great things.

Doin' some dishes under the ol' tree.

Two beautiful friends.

I am a human being.

I have no idea why I am in this body, or why I am in this mind. I do not pretend to understand this world in which I find myself.

But how could all this possibly be coincidence?

Every now and again I have these profound moments in which I’m awestruck by the joy and the symmetry of life. It’s a bittersweet joy, a bittersweet symphony even. For though there is so much in life I can’t seem to understand, I’m also aware of this breathtaking narrative that’s playing out as each moment falls into the next. This is one of the most beautiful parts of humanity, that our lives are fleeting, constantly slipping through our fingers, and so when we laugh and love and feel things with our whole hearts, its this sublime miracle that lives on in our hearts after those moments have long since passed. It makes our time more precious because you’ll never be sitting just where you are ever again. This phenomena is threaded throughout all of humanity. Its one of those few things that occur regardless of culture, context, or social status. Its in all of us, and it’s part of what makes us human.

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to stay with an African family in their home. I cooked with them, laughed with them, washed dishes, slept on the same cement floor, took a bath in a plastic bucket, and also watched African soaps which is the most entertaining television I have ever seen. Rythym City is just the best show of all time for oh so many reasons, but basically it is two solid hours of salacious drama that makes Paris Hilton seem like stale white bread. It’s amazing how enjoyable it can be watching morally corrupt rubbish programming, I suppose it just makes a person feel normal. Also one of the main characters is named Suffocate. I feel like that says an awful lot about the show itself but I’m not sure if it means anything to someone who hasn’t spent a great deal of time here. South African mamas are always naming their babies things like that. I’ve met people named Fortunate, Accolade, Peaceful, Divine, Distance, Pretty, Sensitive and also “Banele” which translates to “Enough”. This is apparently what you name your child when you are done with having kids. There are an unbelievable number of people with this name. I am told childbirth can be quite unpleasant.

The youngest sibling in this family is a remarkable young man. He’s 18 and he and his four older sisters have been orphaned for the better part of ten years. He speaks excellent English, sings in a choir and is really involved with his youth group, gets great marks in school, and tells me that he’s working towards becoming a social worker so he can better his community by helping children like him and his sisters. “I know what it feels like to be an orphan”, he told me softly, smirking to conceal the deep pain hiding inside somewhere. He reads a paint splattered Encyclopedia that he found with his friends in a trash heap. Its only the “S” volume, but let me tell you, this boy knows nearly everything there is to know about the letter “S” up until 1996 when the book was published. I was explaining to him about Seattle where my Uncle lives and how they’re famous for their coffee. He could not believe that I’d actually been there. “You are so lucky! One day I will go there when I am successful,” he said, lovingly flipping the worn pages of his most prized possession.

Usually I love encouraging people his age to dream big. They have their whole lives ahead of them and it seems to me looking back that I could’ve played my cards differently and wasted less time fretting and more time just chasing after those worthwhile dreams. It also seems to me that all the worthwhile dreams were the really big ones. However, this time I couldn’t help looking around his cramped cement block house, and wondering about the odds of that dream trip to fabulous Washington ever coming true. If his present surroundings are any indicator of what lies ahead of him, he’ll probably get a girl pregnant in the next couple of years, eventually contract AIDS, and die before his thirty-fifth birthday. I crouched stirring the pot of pasty white porridge that would fill our stomachs that night, praying desperately that God would intervene and give this amazing person a fighting chance. That he would be protected somehow and exempt from his probable fate.

It is really something though, because getting to know this young man also gave me a certain sense of hope. And this illustrates perfectly what I mean when I say, “getting glimpses at the most beautiful parts of humanity”.  I see this young man rising from the ashes of his tragic life, taking all the negative things that have been placed in front of him, and pushing them aside. I look at him and I see how something good can come out of something brutally awful, and it makes me think that God hasn’t given up on the world.

One of the older sisters in this family is called Faith. She is twenty-one, born the same month and year as my younger brother. She told me that if she could be anything she’d be a police officer, which made me giggle because my grandpa was a policeman, and that’s what my dad always wanted to be when he was growing up. When I asked her why she wanted to do that said she likes the hat policeman get to wear. I imagine that her aspiration is at least partly related to her family situation, and the fact that this girl has had so little control over her own life and the overwhelming obstacles she faces if she should ever attempt to dig herself out of poverty. A career as a police officer would give her the stability and the control over her world that she has never had. The interesting thing about poverty is that in theory, the solution is just to give poor people money, and then eventually they won’t be poor. It seems so straightforward. But this logical mentality doesn’t account for the human element in the poverty equation. People are not simple and easily fixed, and this in part explains the current state of Africa, crippled by greed, corruption, war, famine, rape, murder, disease and death. All of this despite the fact that on paper all the aid, tools, and resources needed to succeed are here, and should have pulled this continent out of turmoil long ago. Yet we find many parts of Africa worse off than they’ve ever been, with people emotionally destroyed, and constantly suffering with all kinds of tragedy. These are the things that are not easily fixed, and this is what charities and non-profit organizations are starting to realize. If you want to help people you have to address these emotional issues as well, and bring a type of holistic healing that is not easily implemented. This aspect requires much more than money, it requires divine intervention, and a group of willing people who are ready to sacrifice their lives fighting the battle of “love your neighbor as yourself”.

This family I stayed with suffers from a specific set of unfortunate circumstances that represents of a great number of the neediest population in this part of the world. Their parents fled Mozambique after one of countless violent uprisings. They did not have the proper documentation entering South Africa, so now they are left without I.D.’s that are essential to function normally in this society. Without identification documents you can’t receive financial help from the government, you can’t go to the hospital, and you can’t work. You can’t even write an exam in school. Aside from the fact they are orphans, this is the number one contributing factor to this family’s crippling poverty and their subsequent problems.

When we were having coffee one morning, Faith told me something I found particularly disturbing. I had been encouraging her to try and figure out a way to get I.D. and some financial aid to make her dream happen. I was trying to make her believe that big dreams are worth chasing with your whole heart, and I really thought I was getting through to her until she said, “But white people are clever,” with deadpan expression, and complete certainty.

“My dear girl” I replied shaking my head in disbelief, “I promise you there are an infinite number of amazingly stupid white people. There’s a good chance I might even be one of them.”

“My schoolteacher has told us a story at school,” said Faith despondently “about two white men and two black men.”

“They were left in a field and given shovels and their boss told them to get to work digging holes. The black men started digging as they were told but the two white men went and sat under the tree. When the first black man went over he asked the white men “Why are you not working? We were told to dig this hole!”

One white man stood up and held his hand out to the side “If you can hit my hand with the shovel I will come work”. So the black man swung his shovel at the white man’s hand, but the white man quickly moved his hand away so he missed. The black man went back over to the hole where he had left his friend digging. “What did he say?” asked his friend as he turned around to face him. Then the first black man put his hand over his forehead and said “If you hit my hand with the shovel I will keep digging with you but if you miss it I won’t.”

First of all I reckon this is about the worst teacher of all time. But to be fair to him he was probably told that same story when he was younger, which shaped the same twisted ideology in him. I found it frustrating though, because how could I ever dig deep enough into this girl’s life to rewrite her identity? To feed her is not enough, because what she so desperately needs is love and encouragement and someone just taking an interest in her.

And all this made me think about my own life, and how I managed to get so lucky. I think about God, and how he has healed so many things in my heart over the last year. I think about all the wonderful people I’ve been surrounded with my whole life, and how many times a day I need their love and encouragement just to keep going. And then I think about Faith, and how she has so little of that loving affirmation that people so crave. When I left the village, I had made these new friends who will remain in my heart forever, and as I relive those memories I ponder whether or not God would bring me all the way to Africa to tell Faith she’s smart and that her life has value. Then I realized that those memories are like living water for me too somehow, and so I see that it’s exactly the type of thing God would do.

I think we are all alive for a reason.

Monday, 18 March 2013

home visit

(fade from black)
We see a basic two-room cement house with two front doors. One door is painted red and the other blue. In the room with the blue door, there's a teenage girl sleeping and we can see she is pregnant. In the red doorway an old grandmother is sitting crouched in the stoop cutting an onion. The yard is overgrown and there's 40 ounce glass bottles and crushed beer cans haphazardly strewn all along the fence. The grandmother's eyes meet the camera and we can see she is going blind.

(Close up of grandmother's face, she was once very beautiful.)

"This is all we've ever known" she says smiling, but there is pain in her face. 


Two local women wearing CBO t-shirts enter the yard under an umbrella, smiling and chatting with a neighbor as they walk through the rusted chain-link gate.

"Sanbonan Gogo!" they say in unison.
"Yeybo" the grandmother smiles and looks at her hands.

Pleasantries are exchanged, these women have obviously known each other a long time.  

"I am going to the clinic again tomorrow, so they can treat the cancer. When i went yesterday, the nurse was not there.", the grandmother wipes her forehead with the back of her hand.

"How have you been feeling Gogo?" says one care worker. 

"I have pain" the grandmother presses her hands to her aching womb. "They've given some new medicine to me i think".

The visitors sit on the stoop on either side of her. 

"When you go next, try and get us your treatment records. It is good to know what they are doing. Perhaps these new medications are only for the bleeding and the pain", the care worker motions at the horizon in the direction of the only clinic.


One care worker stands facing the camera in front of the grandmother's withered garden.

"Often cancer of the womb is linked to AIDS/HIV virus. When you are positive your odds go significantly up for this particular cancer. We are not sure if Gogo is positive, but all of Gogo's children have died of AIDS, and that is her grandchild we see sleeping in the room just there. She is not attending school because she is pregnant. She is a friend of my daughter."


The grandmother goes into the red door and returns with a baby boy.

"My great grandson," she says proudly. 
"Babies are a joy. I pray this next one is a boy too … for his own good." the women laugh.

"Gogo how can we help you today?" says the care worker.

Cut to care workers doing dishes and sweeping the yard 

Grandmother smiles shyly and waves at the camera from the red doorway.
(fade to black)

Monday, 25 February 2013

worry (read this in an english accent)

We people are a funny bunch wouldn’t you say?
If there are aliens, and they are some sort of humanoid with big green noggins, I highly doubt they spend even 1/24th the amount of time worrying as the average son of adam. Maybe we were God’s first batch, and he realized its just too volatile making beings so emotionally driven. I bet the next race would be much more sensible. I bet they play a lot of chess and grow heirloom tomatoes.
The trouble about being so emotional is your mind can just run away with you, because you are so invested in silly things like love and happiness. It seems to me that emotional people aren’t much good at taming their thoughts. Instead our wheels get turning a million miles a minute until smoke comes out of our ears and which leads the majority of us to the liquor cabinet or our friendly neighborhood 420 shop. Instead of these things I really try to turn to God. It’s less of a let down. Also, it even helps me solve the problems that I'm so upset about. When you resurface after a good bender your problems are all still there, and sometimes you’ve even created more problems for yourself. And also usually your wallet has moths in it.
Lately my brain is absolutely tireless. If I used my muscles as much as my brain I’d look like an Ethiopian sprinter. And maybe not the female variety. (that tends to happen when girls work out too much).

I’m thinking about the past year of beautiful, heartfelt, painstaking growth. I’m rolling all that around in my mind. And I’m thinking about the whole of Africa. Seeing starving, suffering children all day isn’t exactly cheery. AND I’m thinking about the rest of my life. I mean what on earth am I going to do?? I wonder if I’ll ever be at a place where I can just relax. I wonder if I will just settle right down.
I’m realizing more and more, that there is really something to be said for just pushing all that away, and instead choosing to live in the exact moment in which you find yourself. More often than not I find that God has provided a world of beautiful things for me. A smile starts to creep across my face, and usually this just takes me to a place of gratitude. My mind rests a whole lot easier when I can make it behave and choose the peace in letting things come as they may. I still feel like I’m treading water quite a bit. However, there are these other times where I’m standing in a secret jungle waterfall, or I’m looking out over vast stretches of land, or I’m dancing in a glorious thunderstorm with people I’ve just met. And then I think to myself, life is beautiful.