Category Archives: into the blue again

8 posts

OK, it’s the end of the year, and thus time for summing up last year and writing listicles, year-in-reviews and predictions for next year and all that jazz. So here’s a list of my 8 favorite posts of all time here on Shotgun Shack, in no particular order.

Fragility
Butterflies
Holes
Promises
White Woman
Finding Meaning in Africa
Rwanda, Bubbling Quietly
Pot Bellies

I hope to find time and space this year to do some more reflective writing. That’s going to take some maneuvering of workload and focus, but it’s what I like doing most, so I’m going to give it my best shot.

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Promises

Several years ago I was sent by the INGO where I worked to a nearby country to accompany and translate for a photographer and a reporter who were touring a post-conflict zone. They were going to take photos and write stories about the situation in the country and the work we were doing to address the impact of the situation on the most vulnerable communities. A driver and someone from a local NGO counterpart accompanied us.

There were many indigenous groups in the zone that we visited. It was my first experience at translating in a multi-lingual rather than bi-lingual setting. The journalists would ask a question in English. I’d put it into the official language of the country. A man from the indigenous group would make sure he understood what I was saying, and then he’d turn around to the group of men that had gathered to meet with us and relay the question or comment to them. They would have a long discussion, or sometimes  what seemed like an animated argument, and come to a consensus on their answer. Then he would turn around to me, give me the group’s answer, and I’d put it into English for the 2 journalists. Sometimes the two journalists would clarify to each other in their native language, which I didn’t speak.

The group that we visited in one particular community had been forced off their land by the government who declared the area they had always inhabited an ecological reserve. They believed this was a political move rather than any real government concern for the delicate ecology of their homeland. They felt the government wanted to weaken them by removing them from their land and decimating their culture and their capacity to resist. This was part of the government’s approach to dealing with ‘lack of development’ in the country.

The photographer took lots of pictures. The reporter was thrilled with the story. The local counterpart representative looked happy. He was very supportive of our visit. Certainly it was worthwhile if it meant some more funding for his local NGO. I was excited to be in communities I’d never normally get to spend time in, plus, the journalists were really fun to hang out with. A great visit for everyone involved…. right?

As we prepared to say our goodbyes to this particular community, the headman said to us. “There is one more thing before you go.

Yes? yes?” said the reporter, adrenaline surging at the fascinating stories she would write about the lives of indigenous peoples and their romantic struggle for survival. “Tell us,” said the photographer, spirits high, imagining the colorful photos he’d print of the people in native dress against the pristine natural background, the bare-breasted women with babies tied on their backs, washing in the stream.

“Don’t take our photos and our stories with you if you are not going to help us.”

We realized we might be there a bit longer, explaining ourselves.

The photographer promised heartily that he’d send copies of his photographs. The journalist, instinctively holding her hand over her heart, promised she would send a copy of any articles that were written. I translated the promises, and made my own promise to send any articles and photos to the local counterpart, who promised to get them to the community.

They didn’t look satisfied, so now it was us conferring amongst ourselves to come up with a response. We agreed that I should carefully tell the headman that we couldn’t help them directly. I should explain to them the concept of ‘advocacy’, and tell them how the work we were doing would help ‘raise awareness’ about their situation and pressure their government so that they would not be moved off their land.  I should help them understand that the local counterpart, the journalists, my organization and I were all ‘advocates’ for them.

They understood all those ideas just fine, but shrugged, not so satisfied. We felt uncomfortable. We didn’t have anything concrete to offer. And anyway, we didn’t see ourselves as ‘whites in shining armor,’ coming to save them. No no, we were beyond that, better than that. We had progressed beyond all those other organizations. We were ‘changing policies’ not ‘giving hand outs’ and through our work we would be ‘catalyzing sustainable and lasting changes‘ in people’s lives. At least that was what we wanted to believe.

But what we were really doing was taking their story to use as a way to shine a light on our story about how any funds donated to us would empower them (and other beautiful, brown and colorfully dressed people like them) to save themselves. We really did believe that we could make a difference with our newspaper articles, our photos and our advocacy. Truth was that it was still more about us and our organization than it was about them.

“People come and take our stories, and they never come back, and our situation doesn’t change,” they said. “We hope that you will be different.”

Sure, we wanted to be different, but I’m pretty sure that the story that the reporter wrote and the pictures that the photographer took  didn’t help this particular community at all. I never heard anything else about them after our visit, and I’m fairly sure they never heard anything about the 3 of us. Though I bet the next few times they saw the local counterpart, they asked.

The journalists got some fantastic photos and nice stories about the organization I worked with placed in the most popular newspaper in their home country. We all believed those stories were helping a larger cause somehow, and therefore that it was a good thing. Who knows, maybe we did make some kind of small difference in the big scheme of things.

Several months after our visit, I got a press clipping in a language I didn’t speak, which I sent off by post, not really knowing if the community would ever get it. We fulfilled our promises in deed, but that visit has always stayed with me.

“We hope that you will be different.”

We were not.


Fragility

Once when the guy I had recently started dating (and would eventually marry) was late to pick me up, I decided I should be angry. I should practice my assertiveness (something I’ve never been very good at) and let him know that I was not going to take that kind of rudeness. That I wasn’t to be taken advantage of. That we needed to start this relationship off on the right foot.

I imagined what I would say when he finally showed up. The non-assertive voice in the back of my head kept popping in to make me doubt myself. Maybe there’s a reason… he’s never been late before… be patient… see what his story is. No, I argued with myself. I’m a feminist. We young women shouldn’t be taking this kind of crap. My friends and I need to demand more respect from men, and here’s a perfect example of what we shouldn’t be putting up with.

Time wore on. Thirty minutes. An hour. I veered back and forth between ‘you should be angry‘ and ‘maybe he’s not interested in you/he’s blowing you off‘ and ‘maybe something happened to him‘. Two hours. Two and a half hours. Three hours. Then a phone call. He’d been detained. Oh….

***

Then there was the time after we were married. We were living in his country. There was a war going on in the background. We were at the market and had run into an old school friend of his who was very flirtatious. She kept bringing up things they had in common that I hadn’t been around for. She kept touching him on the arm. She was pretty and she had an exotic name. On the one side it was obvious my husband was head over heels for me. On the other, this woman made me feel jealous. She invited us out to her mother’s place for lunch. I didn’t want to go. I knew I would feel out of place and uncomfortable. I made up an excuse to stay home, not saying what I really felt. Come on, my husband said. Come with me. I want you to go. At the last minute, I agreed.

We took a public bus out towards her parents’ home. About 45 minutes outside of the capital, we came across a group of soldiers. A long flatbed military truck was parked off the road with some civilian men and boys sitting in the back. The soldiers stopped our bus. A few of them boarded, guns slung over their shoulders. They glanced around, looking everyone over. The bus was silent. They started pointing: You. You. You. You. Get off the bus, they motioned. One of the people they pointed at was my husband. He got up from beside me. I got up too. No, no, stay there, he said. No, I said. I followed him off the bus, my stomach heavy. What was going to happen?

The soldiers noticed me.  No, no. You. Get back on the bus! they told me. I’m with him, I said reaching for his arm and circling mine tight around it. He is my husband.

Oh oh, they said graciously, raising their hands, palms out in front of them in defense. We are very sorry. Excuse us. Excuse us. Sorry, sorry. They directed us away from the group of unlucky boys and men who were not married to me, who didn’t have an excuse for not climbing up into the military truck, who didn’t have a way to get out of being forcibly recruited. Two soldiers walked us back to the side of the main road. One of them stopped the next bus and put my husband and me on it. We went on our way, off to lunch, the incident just a little 10-minute sidetrack for us.

Meanwhile those other sons, brothers, boyfriends, husbands would not be going on their merry way at all. What was it like for their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives when they never arrived for lunch that day? Were the women imagining the assertive things they would say? Were they musing over a reaction, only to realize they were oh so very wrong? When night fell, did they become desperate, looking for their boys and men? How long before they found out what had happened to them? How did that chance bus ride change a family of lives forever?

My husband’s old flirtatious school friend didn’t seem so threatening or important any longer. We rode the rest of the way to her house silent, sitting close, hearts pounding. Hyper aware of what had just almost happened. What if I had stayed home? I have no recollection at all of the actual lunch, that trivial thing that I had been ridiculously concerned about.

***

There was also the time that I was sitting in a chair in a tidy air-conditioned office, waiting for a job interview. Sitting there in my nice clothes, nervous about the interview, idly chatting with the secretary. While I was there, worrying about the interview, my husband was being held hostage by four heavily armed men out on an empty plantation off the side of a rural highway a couple of hours out of the capital.

It was a random thing. He and some co-workers were coming back from a training session in a community. Four men with automatic weapons stepped out onto the road and told them to halt, probably because they were in a decent looking 4×4. It was a robbery, not anything political or military, just simple post-conflict organized crime. While the robbery progressed, the old man with the machete who guarded the plantation ventured over to see what all the noise was. He was shot. The police happened by. There was a showdown of sorts but everyone came out OK, well, everyone except the old man with the machete.

My husband arrived home on time that night, but shoeless and carrying a small cardboard box. There was a wounded mourning dove in the box that he’d found and brought to give to his mother (she loved birds). His shoes, cheap watch and silver wedding ring had been stolen. It struck me that I’d been calmly sitting in an NGO office, interviewing for a new job while he and several others were sitting in the middle of a field, wondering when they were going to be shot. The whole thing felt surreal. What if we’d left the house angry with each other that morning and things hadn’t turned out OK for him?

***

Life goes on. The day-to-day takes over again. But underneath it, you keep your awareness of life’s fragility.


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Swimming Lessons

YMCA pool

When I was in 4th and 5th grade, my mom signed me up to go to the YMCA after school. In the dead of winter.

A bus would come to my Catholic grade school and take us over to the Y every day after school for 2 weeks. 2 miserable weeks. Each year I was signed up for the same three 45-minute sessions: gymnastics, swimming and crafts.

After gymnastics, I’d go over to swim. I’d sit on the edge of the pool, lips blue, teeth chattering, body shuddering. Only when the instructor scolded me in front of everyone would I get in the water and swim to the other side or try to do the dead man’s float for the longest 1 minute ever. I remember swimming as cold and scary and feeling very small and vulnerable.

Once swim was over, I had 5 minutes to rush, still shivering, dripping wet, over to the humid, chorine-y smelling locker room, and yank my clothes on over my wet skin to try to get warm as soon as possible. From there, it was to the craft room to make some kind of something or other out of yarn and popsicle sticks, and then the bus ride back to the school parking lot.

And then, the interminable freezing cold trudge home in the near dark, with my heavy backpack and still wet hair, to do my paper route and my homework.

I’m not much of a swimmer to this day.

****

Rock Classic Hotel pool by day

Fast forward to the Rock Classic Hotel in Tororo, Uganda, some years later. I was with a group of US and Ugandan kids on an exchange trip. It was the first time they’d met. Their English was so different that none of them could understand each other very well. Things were pretty quiet and stiff.

The second night was balmy, so we decided to hang out by the pool. It was my night for adult chaperone duty. The hotel was empty except for our group. The night guard put his radio out for us. The tinny sound was small in the quiet of the night, the stars in full force, and the big Rock that gives the hotel its name still visible through the dark in the distance.

Most of the kids didn’t actually want to get in the water, but one of the American girls, E., realized that one of the Ugandan girls, J., did. So E. jumped in the pool. J. followed suit, but she hadn’t ever been in a swimming pool before. It didn’t occur to her that a pool is different from a river. A swimming pool is deep.

She jumped in and went under. She panicked. Before I could even get out of my chair, E. had her in a gentle embrace and was floating with her over to the shallow end.

The two girls, spent the rest of evening together in the pool, E. showing J. how to float, holding her in her strong arms so she would feel safe. A totally different kind of swimming lesson than what I ever had: warm, caring, physically secure.

The rest of us drank sodas and mineral water by the side of the pool and listened to the radio. The dancing started. Two of the Ugandan kids were not supposed to dance due to their religion. Two of the US kids were too cool to dance. But within a couple songs, they were all in a circle together, swaying at least a little bit, and singing and doing campy poses to Michael Jackson.

The laughter had started, the barriers had lowered, and by the next morning it was like they had known each other forever.