Wednesday, December 26, 2007

happy merry christmas

It was Christmas and I had nothing to do. I was hoping to sleep in but the three gentlemen who came to fix my fence squelched that idea. It was 6:22 and I was roused awake by the sound of them pounding nails directly in front of my window. I grabbed my Zune, made some coffee and transitioned out to my hammock.

My divine hammock, gifted to me to from a staff member in Gbarnga, is presently hanging in the most perfect of spots on my patio. While swinging gently in its cozy comforts, I had a perfect view of a beautiful mango tree that has three tall palm trees hovering in the background. The sky was glowing orange and it seemed it too was in the process of waking up.

“Good morning gentleman, Merry Christmas!” I said settling into my hammock with my hot cup of coffee. The three of them, each holding a simple tool to get their contracted job done, smiled widely. Already sweating in the morning sun, they each giggled a bit and then energetically wished me a "happy merry Christmas." I asked for their names and heard Mohammed, Varlee and Mohammed in response. It seems one in four men in this predominantly Muslim town are called Mohammed. Each one I have interacted with in the last few days has wished me a very merry Christmas.

Because I was far away from my friends and family during the holiday season (sitting alone in sweltering heat) I tried to talk myself into accepting the fact that today was going to feel like any other day. After a few minutes I realized my attempt to deny the importance this holiday holds in my schema of the calendar year was not working and I felt myself desperately wanting something special to happen. Although I hadn’t gone as far as to look for gifts from Santa under my Mango tree, my leg shook impatiently in expectation.

Eight o’clock. Nothing. Nine o’clock. Nothing. Ten o’clock eleven o’clock: nothing, nothing. There was nothing at noon either. But then all of a sudden there was a knock at the gate and Kolii my very petite, very sweet security guard quickly got up to assess the situation. A stickler for rules, she rarely lets anyone in without my permission. Even people who have come to visit me on more than one occasion are under her fierce scrutiny and they frequently find themselves calling me on their cell phones from the gate seeking my support so they can get permission to come in. If she wasn’t briefed about a pending arrival, nobody was getting in. Today’s visitors were different. The minute she saw them she quickly opened the gate with a big smile on her face and allowed them to enter.

I looked up and saw Korpoo, my hard-working humble housekeeper dressed immaculately in a traditional Liberian outfit followed by her two children, Mohammed and Mawata. They were also dressed beautifully in a pressed suit and flowing blue lacy dress. On their heads sat small blue bowls.

They all smiled matching grins and the children’s resemblance to their mother was striking. Their father had apparently abandoned them when they were living in the refugee camps in Guinea a few years ago and it was evident that Korpoo was working hard at being both mother and father to these well-behaved, well-mannered children.

Dama worships Korpoo and therefore started running circles around this small family as they walked towards me. Korpoo quickly announced they had brought me food for Christmas. They gingerly sat their large bowls on the table and I took a quick peak. In one was sliced plantains, another was full of rice, the third had my most favorite okra soup and the forth had a fully cooked chicken covered in another delicious sauce. It was enough to feed 4 and so I quickly said what all Liberians say when food is around, “let’s eat.”

“Let’s eat” sounds basic but it’s a powerful expression here in Liberia. It took me a while to understand it fully but once I realized what happened after someone said it, I was moved. No matter how familiar or unfamiliar you are with somebody, if you walk by them while they are eating, they will quickly wave you over and say “let’s eat.” You hear it everywhere and it’s amazing to sit in a local restaurant where the idea of individual orders means very little. This is especially powerful for a Western woman who is used to the process of a la carte orders and separate checks. Spoons are passed around and everyone simply eats.

Korpoo and her lovely children giggled and graciously declined my offer to eat, sating they were heading to church. Korpoo stressed the food was a gift to me for Christmas and I should enjoy it throughout the day. I was touched and given I’m not much of a cook I was a bit relieved to discover that I wouldn’t be eating Raman noodles for my Christmas dinner. I sent them off with handfuls of chocolate that my mother had been sweet enough to send to me from Wisconsin and I settled back into my hammock feeling much less apprehensive about the day. The holiday spirit was brisling in my heart.

A few minutes later there was another knock at the front gate and Kolii repeated what she had done minutes earlier, took one peek and then opened the gate energetically.
This time it was Loupoo, my head counselor for the Voinjama clinical team. A brilliant woman who endured a life of being told she couldn’t do the things she wanted to do because she was an orphaned girl. As a direct result of this experience she had grown into a fiercely independent feminist who refuses to take no for an answer. She too was surrounded by a troop of young children some of which were her biological children; others were step-children she had adopted from her husband’s previous relationship. Also, dressed beautifully, they all carried gifts of local food.

I blushed a little thinking they would be embarrassed to find out they were not the first to give me food and was slightly worried they wouldn’t know what to do once they saw my already packed kitchen table; but, they did not blink an eye at the spread and didn’t seem surprised to discover others have already brought gifts. Loupoo quietly stated, “Garmai you are loved here, you see.” They unloaded their bundles and humbly refused my request to eat. They too had a church service to attend to.

Throughout the day others came bearing small gifts and I probably received about 20 text messages wishing me a “happy merry Christmas,” “rich fortunes in the New Year” and “wondrous sprinkles of blessings over this holiday season.” Although I’m sure I stumbled throughout the day, ignorant to local culture and tradition, I was flattered by what happened and only hope I will be forgiven for any of my clueless missteps.

Friday, December 21, 2007

a message to those that whisper

During the Time of Confusion, everyone realized that some part of their essence was extremely fragile. For some it was their body, for others it was their faith and still others believed it was their culture. Their very sense of community was at risk of being destroyed. Although the Time of Confusion followed the Time of Possibility, where as the name suggests, anything seemed possible, the community elders and societal memory keepers recalled that before The Time of Possibility arrived, the Time of Oppression reigned.

The Time of Oppression occurred shortly after The Time of Slavery ended in a land far far away. The Time of Oppression was a direct result of a decision to return former slaves to their homeland. Where some of these fair skinned people in that far off land saw the return of these people as an opportunity, a chance to return home, others saw it as an opportunity to get rid of these recently freed people. To them, if these people (people they viewed as less than human) could not be kept as property, than they should not be kept at all.

The returned people returned home knowing only one thing – oppression. What else could they do but recreate what they knew best? This is when Mississippi surfaced in Africa. The Time of Oppression was filled with inhumane treatment of the indigenous people that were living here when the returned arrived. Brothers kept as property, children kept as slaves; the torment was so reminiscent it was ire.

This period of time lasted a relatively short time in history – about a decade – but the people who returned with this new knowledge about how to rule absolutely still hold much of the power. Even today their decendants have the money, the opportunities and the authority. In this way, The Time of Oppression never truly ended.

Eventually the indigenous people learned what all ruled people eventually learn. They are not lesser or weaker than and if they stand up and speak out they can move towards a Time of Equality. After speaking out and standing proud, a time of peace covered the land like a soft blanket. During this time businesses thrived and tourism flourished. Visitors from neighboring African nations came to visit the beautiful beaches and foreign investors noticed this land was, in fact, a land of rich resources.

This transition marked the beginning of the Time of Possibility. But from time to time, for reasons that can’t always be understood, the terrifying feelings of subjugation surface again, suggesting that the Time of Oppression, like the Time of Slavery in that far off land, never entirely ended. The Time of Confusion occurred shortly thereafter and was filled with 14 years of war, torture, displacement and terror. Today the land and its people are still healing from its occurrence.

Now even though a clear distinction has been made between the different times in the history of this nation, the separation is not as clear cut as one would think. The effect of each age is felt by the next and sometimes the quintessence of one age mixes with another in such a way that one can be confused about what age they are actually existing in. This puzzlement can result in many things. Sometimes terrible mistakes are made but other times unexpected breakthroughs occur. These infiltrations only occur because the people temporarily forget the established rules of their time.

Today this nation is in The Time of Mending. Although for some this time has fostered compassion and forgiveness, for others the wounds feel too deep and too raw, resulting in feelings of bitterness and animosity. This bitterness is unfortunate for many reasons, the worst of which being the effect it has had on the outsider impression of the current state of this nation.

In the halls of humanitarian buildings and corridors of ex-pat housing powerful whispers can be heard suggesting this country does not have a culture, a civilized way of life, a soul. These whispers are contagious and when a fellow outsider breathes it in they at risk of being infected by its message. After infection, there is little that can be done to change their minds. As a believer in the Time of Possibility and a participant in the Time of Mending I refuse to breathe in these toxic whispers and would like to try and discredit their message.

Take for example Mohammed & Nama. You wouldn’t notice them at first; they are not the sort of people one notices. Everything about their clothes and their demeanor makes them blend into the crowd. More often than not they would be overlooked. But just about everyone could learn something from them and their personal and collective stories.

Mohammed is a 44 year old father of three who speaks fluent Mandingo, French and English. Highly educated, blissfully content with life, exceptionally athletic - there are moments it appears as if his feet don’t actually hit the ground. He is an avid believer both in the natural as well as the supernatural. With ease and confidence of only those who truly believe, he shares stories about talking catfish and miniature men he visits in his father’s village. Local tradition suggests catfish are the ruler of the inland rivers and their wise eyes and long whiskers are proof that they live to be hundreds of thousands of years old. Their wisdom is infamous and their advise priceless. The miniature men are tricksters and if one is not careful and accommodating to their mysterious requests one is at risk of being cursed or cloaked with bad luck. Mohammed listens to them carefully and constantly observes their strange requests. He credits all his good luck to his connection to these supernatural forces.

Nama is an auntie to many, mother to none. The war took away everything and everyone she had and yet she was not broken. A few weeks ago during a session on grief and loss we examined the possibility of speaking to our lost loved ones. The group very quickly informed me that they have a traditional way of doing this. The process is called The Passage. In Liberia the distinction between the living and the dead is much less absolute and much more fluid than it is for us in the West. People will unresolved issues are frequently seen passing between worlds and anytime someone visits the interior farmlands on their own, they are prepared to be visited by a lost loved one with something to say.

For Nama her frequent visitors were her young children that were tragically taken away from her during the war. Young innocent babies taken as collateral damage during the Time of Confusion, she both looked forward to and dreaded their appearance in her day to day life.

A resident of Massabolahun, Nama was forced to flea to the interior during one of the most heinous attacks on a local village in Liberia. Acts of cannibalism, gang rapes, homes full of families set on fire and mass decapitations occurred in abundance over a 2 week period of time. Survivors were forced to flea deep into the interior to avoid the rebels brief reign of terror. Nama was fortunate enough to escape one hell only to experience another, the slow unjust death of her two children taken by starvation and sickness. She grieved hard and never fully recovered from this loss but she is strong and carries on in the way only an enlightened survivor can - with grace and grit and a profound understanding of humanity and all its faces.

Prior to this group session Nama was frequently visited by her young children. Sometimes she heard their giggles of laugher, other times she heard their cries of slow painful suffering. She constantly tired to find them but they were elusive. During group she decided she would be the first to attempt to contact her loved ones. Collectively the group decided they would need to first have the bread and the kool-aid that we typically shared at the end of each group. When anyone is having a burial or funeral service the first thing the community does is bring dishes of food to feed the grieving family as a token of tenderness. By eating the bread first we would be acting in accordance with this tradition.

After finishing the bread Nama rose and slowly moved to the corner of the room. From there she explained that Passages between the living and the dead are most powerful at points of contrast. She took a minute to gather her thoughts and then she quickly started to talk to her little ones as if she had no doubt they would eventually talk back. She described the circumstances of their departure from the village, the events in the forest, how she buried their bodies under a tree she has never been able to find again and how she eventually forced herself to treck back to the village for help. She explained the tremendous amount of guilt she felt (both then and now) and described how desperately she missed them. Then she emotionally asked for forgiveness for her actions and inability to protect them. Then she paused. A few minutes later she started speaking as if she was her own children. “Mommie, it’s ok, we know, we were there and we understand, it is not your fault. You did everything you could do and you loved us deeply but you must move on. We let you pass.”

That was how I learned about the process of moving through the passage. With every difficult loss locals find the space and time to ask for the ability to pass. If granted they will stop being haunted by the lost loved one and live more frequently and freely in the land of the living.

Message to the outside whisperers: If this isn’t culture than I don’t know what is. So please, I beg you whisperers from the outside world, please be patient and curious about this mending nation and you too may one day be given the opportunity to experience the culture of Liberia. Not seeing it doesn’t mean it’s not there and if you’re only given the chance to be here for a very short period of time please don’t hold it against them if they decide not to share. They are in the Time of Mending, have justified difficulties with trust and need to focus on survival. The darning process is not an easy one and although at times it looks messy and disorganized, deep down, in this nations heart of hearts, there is a people with a sense of culture that we young nations of the West can only dream of.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

celebrating the anniversary of my birth

I nearly thought this would be the year that shook me. You know one of those birthdays where I would fall into a funk or a much deeper state of depression simple because avoiding the existential impact of it all feels much too daunting. This day, embedded in a sea of much less meaningful days, can be the reminder that every minute, every second we are getting older….moving closer to death….but fortunately, for me, it wasn’t. I have to thank this new group of friends in Voinjama for this.

On Saturday night, the eve of my birthday, Jen an exceptionally gracious and thoughtful community developer with ARC offered to host a dinner. In honor of my Wisconsin roots, she announced we would dine of chili, beer, banana chips, guacamole and salsa. Remarkable don’t you think? Who thinks to do that? Some of the ingredients were creative replacements due to the lack of supplies available up here in Lofa County but all in all it was dead on and I felt as if I was doing a little night time tailgating in preparation for a much awaited Hawkeye/Badger game.

The ARC compound is basic but it has this stellar palava hut (a round clay structure with a palm leave rooftop). Jen had covered all the tables with African cloth and placed candles, plenty of candles in every nook and cranny. The wine and beer were copiously available and the audience was ready to party. Michael, a quirky Canadian who directs a very interesting organizing called Right To Play brought a HUGE sound system that had a microphone in case we wanted to karaoke. A number of other guests brought their I-Pods as a contribution to the ambiance. The music was eclectic, classic, funky, jazzy, contemporary worldly and booty shaking. All the sounds were played in the right order and fully appreciated by all.

I was having a delightful time. Great food, great conversation, amazing music, perfect weather and all along the way everyone kept checking their watches waiting for the moment they could officially send me proper well wishes for my big day.

At the stroke of midnight Jen brought out a key lime pie and everyone sang me happy birthday. Given the frequency this song is utilized, you’d think someone could think up a better birthday jingle – but this familiar jingle is indeed the song that is utilized world wide and in that moment I was moved and soothed by the familiarity of the message. After that Istavan, a UN Human Rights Observer, and Right To Play Michael got on the microphone and announced that everyone should come forward and send me a birthday message in their native language. At that moment the diversity of the crowd was salient and flooded our consciousness like a wave in the ocean. 21 in attendance, 17 rose and stood in a straight line by the sound system to share their message. Ghana, Egypt, France, Morocco, Peru, Pakistan, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Liberia (Mandingo, Kissi, Bande and Loma), Nigeria, Turkey, Gambia, Ethiopia, Holland, Switzerland & America: it was a true melting pot of cultures, a linguistic pot of chili if you will and it felt like I was given spoon full after spoon full of well wishes from across the globe.

To put it simply or perhaps simplistically, it was perfect. I felt youthful and loved by all.


Interpersonal ambiguity
My recent move and interpersonal experiences have caused me to think about the ambiguity in human relationships. The thoughtful gestures done by recent strangers felt exceptionally genuine and I’m not sure I deserved any of it. I hadn’t yet earned their attention or their respect.

I say this because I had only just arrived in Lofa a few short weeks ago and aside from being utterly willing to engage in any sort of sporty activity, I hadn’t really done much to get to know anyone. I wasn’t attending many social functions and I wasn’t really trying to mingle at the clubhouse or PakBat (the only two dinner time options). Now that I reflect back I think I was protecting myself.

International work can be trying when we think about relationships because at the end of the day everyone is constantly coming and going and if you take the time to let someone in you are destined to grieve their departure in due time. In recent months I have had to deal with the loss of Sharon, my dear sweet sista in addition to a number of other meaningful actors in Dukkor and I wasn’t sure I could handle the grieving process again. The ironic thing about loss and relationships is that it is only those important meaningful ones that burn when you lose them. If you don’t care enough to let anyone in you will be saved from the pain of loss but you also fail to benefit from the connection. For the last few weeks I had been avoiding connection.

Prior to this party I found myself struggling once again with the dilemma of feeling extremely. It was if I had been forced to choose between the ones was I readily able to tolerate and the ones I would have to deal with if I showed up and allowed myself to be seen again. Due to the fact I hadn’t quite decided, I don’t think I had really put any genuine effort into getting to know anyone. Maybe they all knew what I was going through and could relate. Some managed to notice certain things about me nonetheless. Michael even commented on the fact that he appreciated how my laughter became silent and shaking if he managed to say something that truly cracked me up.

This party and the survival of yet another birthday highlighted many things for me. Life and relationships are linguistic and energetic ambiguities. And, more importantly connection seems to be about the ambiguities of human relationships. A relationship between two people, just like a sequence of words, is ambiguous if it is open to different interpretations. We can have similar views or different views but we are both a part of it and both definers of our shared reality. If two people have differing views about their relationship -I don’t mean just about its state, I meant about its very nature – then that difference can affect their entire course of their lives.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

mud & the relentless quest for H2O

October 31, 2007

After a long weekend in Dukkor it was time for me to travel back to my new home, Voinjama. Over the course of the weekend I felt myself stretched for time and had the unfortunate feeling of spending a little bit of time with everybody and not enough quality time with anybody. One of my identified gems in the midst of sea of lovely precious stones was also dealing with the pressure of multiple interested parties in his time and energy, leaving us sans a moment for our much appreciated b & g time. Even though he hosted me graciously, we were ultimately denied that piece of quality time we almost instantly learned to appreciate when it comes to our friendship dynamic. The time we share is typically filled with reading our most recent literary ideas, appreciating a stunning or even subtle sunset or slowing sipping on coffee while chatting about the nuances of life, love and patience.

Although I should consider myself lucky that I have finally reached a point where I actually have to be planful about how I spend my time in the big city (rather than sitting around hoping someone, anyone, would take the time to befriend me) I also know one my weaknesses has always been saying no when it comes to requests for my time. From here on out I will need to be thoughtful and cognizant of my wants and needs, otherwise I will disappoint everyone, including myself. I left Dukkor feeling as if I had finished a huge bag of unbuttered, unsalted popcorn – saturated yet unsatisfied.

I spent one day and one night in Gbarnga. Scheduled to hit the road early the next morning, we hoped to hit the most difficult parts of the road by midday. It seemed we had a good plan. It was dry and it was bright and if something did happen to us, plenty of other NGO or UN vehicles would be on the road to offer support.

Sylle my driver for this leg of the trip is much different from Ab who I mentioned in the last post. Both trustworthy and serious, somehow they embody similar traits in very different ways. Ab is private, predictable and somewhat disconnected in his interpersonal style. Sylle is chronically outgoing, engaged and thoughtful. Last month when we traveled to Guinea, Sylle was friendly with everyone we encountered and even purchased a bagful of tea and gave it out to the soldiers working at the numerous roadblocks. A Guinean by ancestry you can tell he is proud and connected to his country and wants others to appreciate all the nuances of its beauty without forcing it down your throat. Persistently generous, I frequently witnessed Sylle giving things out and purchasing food items in bulk so it can be shared by all. Just yesterday I watched as he quietly gave a few bucks to a small boy who was genuinely working on the roads. Here in Voinjama we get so used to seeing entitled, slightly harsh ex-combatants sitting around and demanding money from passerbyers on the road (via makeshift roadblocks and false claims of progress) one is inevitably at risk of losing the ability to notice when someone is actually trying. Sylle always notices.

About an hour into our return trip Sylle noticed something, actually we all noticed. After struggling for 10 minutes in 4 wheel drive to get through a 6 foot deep ravine, we surfaced only to realize something was seriously wrong with the car. I suppose I should mention that when I say ‘we’ I mean myself, Sylle, Augustine (our security coordinator coming to investigate the 1500 gallons of stolen fuel), Fatima and Special, Augustine’s mother and niece, and Amatu the elderly mother of one of our local counselors who wanted to visit her dying brother in a village, deep in the interior.

Due to a hard knock to the underside of the engine, the water tank had been punctured. I was quickly informed that the water tank is important because it prevents the engine from overheating. Once the water is finished the engine is quick to start smoking and parts get spoiled. No worries however - Sylle had a plan. We would continue moving until the indicator light showed us we were in trouble and then we would add more water to the tank. His hope was that we would need to stop two or three times before we hit ZorZor and then our colleagues in Voinjama could send another car.

Although a good plan for water tanks with hairline fractures, or tank’s injury was much more severe and we quickly realized we would only be able to travel 2-3 miles before needing to fill the water tank again. A completely empty tank seems to need approximately 10 gallons of water for it to be restabilized and cooled off. For a car full of people stranded with no water around, that’s a lot of water. Dear sweet Special put it right when she whispered “this car can drink” while witnessing Sylle fill the tank for the fifth time.

The good news is there is small village after small village scattered along the major highways in Liberia and it is a rare occasion that one travels too far with out reaching a small collection of mud huts and some people. Unfortunately for us not all of these villages have a well, let alone a water pump. First stop, second stop, third stop we were lucky enough to find small huts with some combination of an extended family milling around. At each hut a young girl was typically cooking or washing; the boys were sweeping or trying to knock oranges out of nearby trees. Each time we stopped, Sylle would get out of the car and do a big ‘hello how are you what news’ kind of introduction and then proceed to beg for water. More often than not the young woman found cooking would simply get up without pause, find a large bucket or bowl and go get some water. Every once in a while we witnessed a small inkling of hesitation cross one of their faces – this pause was tied to the fact these poor women had trekked all morning with 20 gallon containers on their head to bring this much needed water to their households. In the interior water is a hot commodity. It became even more evident that we were indicators of bad karma when Sylle kept saying ‘a little more please…just a little more.’ Kindness to strangers was customary so they couldn’t dare say no as they were being quietly stripped of something they constantly work so hard to have around.

After a few successful fill ups on the roadside we hit some wide open space. This beautiful stretch of land was filled with palm trees, thick green brush, and mid-land rice fiends. At this point we needed to get a little more creative about how we were going to get water. I had two empty water bottles and Fatima had a small bucket. So the deal became this: the indicator light would go on, Sylle would pop the hood and I would grab the bucket and scan the environment for water. Usually there were a few potholes on the road filled with rainwater for the night before. Sometimes this water was clean enough to use, more often than not it wasn’t. Sylle would start to cool off the engine with the small stock of water we had managed to save from the last fill up and I would start walking in search of water.

The women in the back couldn’t help due to the fact we didn’t have any other buckets and because Sylle had eventually forbidden them from getting out of the car. Earlier in the day when we were conquering the rough spots of the road Fatima had herself a bit of a panic attack and begged Sylle to let her get out and walk. The walk took too long and Sylle was annoyed. Fatima later told us that she had been in UNHCR transport truck that had flipped over during the war. Now she was triggered whenever she was in a vehicle on bumpy roads. Her anxiety was somewhat contagions and poor Amatu began to suffer from car sickness and periodically vomited in a small black plastic bag in the back seat. Sylle was tired of having to organize everyone while knowing that for every second he wasn’t driving after having filled the water tank meant less ground we would eventually cover. From time to time, if you listened closely enough, you could hear Fatima’s whispered prayers.

Approximately four hours later, only half way to ZorZor, something happened to reinforce poor Fatima’s phobia of driving. As I mentioned earlier NGO cars generally look out for each other during the rainy season. In Lofa County this connection is especially close, partly because everyone has needed something in the past. Karma, debts and a joint feeling of helplessness seem to connect people in Lofa. Due to this bizarre connection there is actually a delightful energy on the road and when one finds themselves stopped in the service of assessing the latest stuck truck and possible escape routes, it feels like we are all on the same team. Everyone has an idea and no one is afraid to get dirty.

Following our 21st stop for water, Musu and a car load of ARC workers pulled up and asked if they could help. Sylle and Musu knew each other from the refugee camps in Guinea; it was clear they were close because Sylle didn’t even bother with the pleasantries. He just said, I will hook up the chain from the front hitch and you will pull us. They hooked up the 20 foot chain and Sylle put the car in neutral. For about 3 miles it worked. Sylle's new idea was that they would pull us to ZorZor and we would transfer to another car; let’s forget about the water tank. However, every bump caused a problem because the differing speeds of the vehicles caused a significant amount of slack and the cars would eventually shake roughly when the resistance was checked. It even made me nervous enough that I turned to Fatima and said I think now is the time to pray, this doesn’t feel like a very good idea.

After approximately 7-10 miles of being pulled the resistance checked so hard the chain snapped off the front of our vehicle and flew at high speeds towards the ARC vehicle. The metal hook slammed into the back window and shattered the glass. Sitting just on the other side of the window was one of 7 civilian passengers. Shattered glass cut skin just above the left eye of one of the passengers. Her upper left arm was also cut badly. An exceptionally frightening experience, everyone was affected in their own way. The young woman who was cut and a few others fell silent in shock; two of the men became angry and agitated secondary to feelings of helplessness, others just paced around and shook their heads. All of this managed to re-traumatize poor Fatima

Slowly… slowly… we moved down the road. Within an hour I was covered head to tow in mud. We had probably made approximately 77 stops for water. Dama was also a mess and had brown mud all over her nose and feet. One stop carried Sylle and Dama and I approximately a mile and a half up the road and into the interior in search of water. I quickly learned how to listen to the sounds of the landscape and felt it in my bones when water was near by. Finding it was always a relief and I recall thinking thank God I didn’t take a position Afghanistan.

Once we hit ZorZor it was around 9 pm but Sylle and I were in some sort of trance. We didn’t want to waste time calling anyone in Voinjama or Monrovia and simply started discussing how we could get our hands on bigger containers so that we would have to make less stops to beg for water along the reminder of the journey. This leg of the trip should typically take about 2 hours. We figured we would be lucky if it took 6. Even though we had plenty of money, nobody was selling. All we wanted was to purchase one or two of those large plastic containers seen all over the country. Holding approximately 20 gallons of water, we figured it would allow us to get though two episodes of overheating. Shuffling door to door covered head to toe in mud everybody had a container but nobody wanted to give theirs up. Finally Sylle asked one guy if we could rent his. We would give the guy 150 liberties (roughly 3 dollars) and he would give half the money back when we returned it next time we drove though town. He agreed but made it clear he wanted his container back.

We started moving again and just like the previous 6 hours of the trip we did what it took to keep the engine cool and the car moving. We all were exhausted and Sylle and I survived on small bags of peanuts we purchased from some of the young girls who gave up their precious supply of water to muddy strangers. It was Halloween and the UN clubhouse was having a costume party in Voinjama; for one split second I figured I had a great costume – I could arrive covered in mud and report I was one of those roadside helpers who station themselves at the various rough spots to help stuck trucks with the hopes of getting a small dash. Upon arrival however the party felt like a distant dream and all I could think about was a shower. I drifted off to sleep dreaming of the relentless quest for H2O.

Monday, November 5, 2007

escaping the olive green veil

escaping the olive green veil only to get stuck in the mud

October 26, 2007
Rolling onto my side on the hard mattress, underneath an olive green mosquito net, I listen to the now familiar background soundtrack to my mornings: rosters crowing, the call to prayer at a nearby mosque and Dama’s muted squeaks of joy as she rustles around in the gravel. I clean the sleepers from my eyes and I realize today I travel. For an idle moment I sit at the edge of my mattress with the mosquito net resting like an olive green veil on my back: slowly I surface from my cozy cocoon.

In that moment I feel almost rested but well aware a tough day on bumpy roads is going to wreck havoc on my settled state of mind. Who would have thought sitting inactive in a land cruiser can make one feel as if they had finished a triathlon. In an effort to return to a state of mindless grace, I shuffle to the kitchen. With Dama at my heels, I start to prepare my percolator to make a hot cup of coffee. Before I ignite the flame I take slow deep inhales of the aroma coming from the cylinder of the greatly appreciated French coffee I carefully carried from Guinea.

My idleness is short lived. In the faint, delicate light of a new day I receive a call informing me that one of the drivers has been fired and approximately 1500 gallons of fuel had been stolen from our already scarce supply. I hang up the phone feeling slightly deflated as I tend to take all these unfortunate events against our well meaning NGO personally. Today it feels like I was once again figuratively kicked in the gut.

I start packing for my long journey to my old home, Gbarnga. This time Dama will travel with me because she needs to get her shots and there is only one vet in all of Liberia. This vet was trained in Denmark in the late 60s, speaks fluent Danish, and returned to Liberia in the late 70s. Rather than leave (something he could have done with a valid passport) he remained throughout the war. Suffering direct attacks and a number of armed robberies due to the fact he and his family was well known, he felt he had no other option than stay. His family was here and here was where he felt he belonged. His house, what used to be a beautiful 70s style villa, is centrally located in Mamba Point, Dukkor (the local name for Monrovia, the name I prefer to use as I am constantly disturbed by all the references to American presidents in this country). Presently, if you don’t take the time to look closely enough, you will not notice the gentle doctor and his entire family still live in this house. To the naked eye it looks like an unlivable abandoned burnt out casualty of the war.

The road between Voinjama and Gbarnga is approximately 320 miles and should take at a maximum 5 hours but in the rainy season, anything is possible. In the moments I am packing for this journey I feel my heart quicken with excitement just like it does every time I prepare for a new journey. Propelled by the idea of discovery I move quickly and feel energized by my coffee. Somewhere along the way, in the split second it took me to gingerly place my beloved headlamp into the secret pocket on my well used backpack, something in me shifts: the electrifying excitement from a moment ago is replaced by a hard merciless feeling of exhaustion that has lived inside me ever since. But then just as quickly, it shifts again. A synapse in my brain fires and I am struck by an idea that reminds me to charge my tiny gifted I-Pod shuffle. I contemplate the fact that I will be looking at some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen with an exciting new mix of music playing softly in my ears. I am once again brisling with excitement.

Ab, my very muscular Dukkor driver with a gentle disposition arrives promptly on time and we are off. The road is less familiar than the recognizable road between Dukkor and Gbarnga but the landscape is even more stunning and I sit comfortably with one foot out the window. All of a sudden Ab is struck by a memory, clicks and shakes his head. I ask him what he is thinking about and he begins to tell me a long story. I am delighted by his openness and pleasantly listen as he tells me a story about living in the bush for two years as an adolescent.

At the age of fourteen Ab had decided that he needed to know what it felt like to live deep in the interior. So, he packed up his things and moved to a farm his family owned hundreds of miles away from his childhood home. On the day he departed he made one simple agreement with his father: he would go into the interior and build a small little palm hut and farm their land. He would remain there until something happened suggesting he should do otherwise. There was no time line put in place but Ab sensed he would be there for a while. The work was hard, harder than he had expected, and after 27 months he finally decided to resettle in Dukkor. The event that occurred giving him permission to leave was a fallen tree, or should I say two fallen trees.

On two separate occasions a tree fell on Ab, pinning his leg and his arm to the ground. This he states assertively was the sign – nature telling him he was wanted there no longer. I silently and selfishly appreciate the fact that nature had pushed him away; otherwise, I would not have been given the honor of getting to know this exquisitely stoic and exceptionally serious individual.

The road was bad but maneuverable. Unfortunately it was bumpy enough to cause Dama to suffer from car sickness causing her to vomit fresh rice all over the back seat. At first I actually thought she must have knocked Abs lunch over because the rice was so undigested. This discovery was not as intriguing to Ab given he was barely tolerating the fact the dog was in the car, let alone puking all over it. Throughout our journey I frequently caught him looking at me with a raised eyebrow and a suspicious look suggesting he found the fact that my engaging with Dama in a loving motherly sort of way (a way we in the west frequently tend to treat our canines) was ever so slightly disturbing. The equilivant in the West would likely be something like having to ride cross country with a guy and his pet chicken.

Only once did we hit a spot where we spun out of control and found ourselves balancing on two wheels uncomfortably close to the raven that ran parallel to the roadside. Fortunately for us, aside from the fact that Ab is a brilliant story teller, he is also an exceptional driver and after some maneuvering and digging we were safely set free. The next time we passed a rough spot I actually saw someone point at Ab and say – “oh I know that guy; he’s good he won’t be getting stuck in no mud today.” You have no idea how good it feels to know they are talking about your driver at times like these.

Just as we near Belefani (the district site that houses five of my counselors) a young boys starts waving his arms and screaming. At first I ignore him because people are frequently waving down cars for rides or small dashes for pretending to do work on the damaged roads but then something about his behavior causes me to pause,
Ab, What’s he taking about?
Oh, he’s just saying that there are some baboons in the trees back there.
Baboons!!! Stop! We must go back!
You want to see some Baboons?
YES! Of course – Ab they are in the wild!
Ok we go back.

Gingerly, we slowly back up. Approximately 14 children and teenagers are resting casually underneath the Tuesday market stands near the side of the road. I jump out of the car and scream, Baboons! Where?

A few of them casually lift their arm and point to the trees behind me. I spin around. At first I see nothing. Like a bad hunter I squint and shuffle around but again I see nothing. Ab gets out of the car takes one look and then stands behind me and points over my shoulder so I can follow his finger. I try but again see nothing. Ab starts to get a bit annoyed and says, Gomah – they are right there can’t you see. Right there!

Finally he says, Gomah look at where all the braches are moving. They are there. I look and then finally I see! The branches are moving because a baby is standing on a branch while hanging from another. He is jumping up and down playfully. He waits and does it again and then waits and finally a few trees over I notice a much larger baboon doing the exact same thing. I realize it must be his father and they are mimicking each other. After a while it becomes clear dad is getting tired of the game but his son can’t get enough so they continue playing. A third baboon rests against a thick branch a few feet below – in my mind it is mom getting a much deserved rest.

I can’t believe it! Real live baboons in the wild swinging in trees 200 feet away from me. I start to dance around a little and do that mini-squat thing we primates tend to do when we get excited. My excitement and squeals of joy intrigue the group of kids at the market and they all get up and start acting as excited as I am about spotting the baboons. They start asking questions like, haven’t you seen baboons before? And I’m like, Ah no! And, then their like, Oh have you seen monkeys? Even though I may have seen a few, I’m like, Ah No! They all crack up and try to help me find the best angle to see these amazing creatures with whom we share 99% of our DNA. I settle in as if I have arrived.

Ab waits patiently for a while but then finally says, Gomah it is time. I pout and make a big deal out of it, which cracks up the kids who are gathered around watching me watching the baboons. With my head bowed and my bottom lip pouted I shuffle slowly to the car.

I realize that I have yet to arrive at my stuck in the mud story and have not relayed the details of my 12 hour trip back to Voinjama; but, rather than wait, I will post and teach those of you who are curious enough a little about what it feels like to be engaged in the business of waiting.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

game on

Game on: the experience of a western girl playing basketball with Liberian ex combatants and Pakistani peacekeepers


When I stepped on the court the locals took one look at my first shot and simply said “she can play.” The peacekeepers were not sold so easily and appeared a little more disturbed by my appearance. At first I couldn’t tell if it was the white legs, the need for a sports bra or the cultural perceptions about gender roles. With time and familiarity it didn’t seem to matter too much for some, for others it clearly did, but the feminist in me wasn’t going to tolerate any of it, so in an ever so slightly sassy manner, I stood my ground on a court overflowing with testosterone.

The Pakistanis, dressed in matching green and red warm ups have approximately 9 plastic balls and a plan. They begin standard warm-up procedures, which seems a bit odd in this post conflict Liberian setting but, I have seen stranger things; and, given my own eccentricities, I was a huge fan of the oddity of it all. Very quickly I noticed they all could shoot and some clearly were quite savvy about the game. Two of them were remarkably tall, one of which is painstakingly slim and the other has a serious vertical jump. A number of others, sporting classic middle-eastern beards, had a good eye for the court and a very serious attitude. Most of them have dark bushy mustaches and for some reason I couldn’t quite take these guys seriously. I noticed a few of them refused to shake my hand and others avoided direct body contact with me. At the end of the day it seemed we were all were struggling with the subtleties of it all. However, with time and exposure, we managed to eventually take each others talents seriously. No one quite knew what to do with the fact that something like this has never happened here before and everybody felt a bit confused about the rules of engagement; but, eventually I started to get pushed around and when one guy eventually knocked me to the ground, I knew that they knew I could play.

The local guys are only 4 in number so I can’t tell if they recruited me because they thought I might be able to play or simply because they needed a warm body. Of the four, only one has any skill. The other three are athletic but sloppy and somewhat lazy which gets me agitated quickly. My agitation is partly the result of genetics - I take after my father and am fiercely competitive. The remaining part is tied to my firm belief in defense and teamwork and showy sloppiness drives me crazy. I begin to swear like a sailor and make sly comments about Jesus, Mary and Joseph which might have actually endured to me a few of the players. Although I was all smiles and laughs before and after the game, during the game I was a raging competitor and, aside from Patrick, our very talented point guard, nobody quite knows what to do with me. .

It became evident the Pakistanis are VERY used to wining and tend to be cherry pickers even when they are ahead. It takes some time, but Patrick and I find a groove and the others manage to rebound a little and clean up their acts. We eventually managed to pull ahead and I have to admit I was beside myself when we actually won. After the game the Pakistanis pull out a massive blue cooler with exquisitely clear filtered cold water and graciously serve us in tin coffee cups. All the show and edginess is gone and they are once again a bit timid in their interactions with me. I realize they too love the game and suffer from self inflicted pangs of competitiveness.

Just as easily as it was turned off, it is turned back on and we are all once again relating to one another based on some established developing world gender status quo. Although at some point in the game I became first a player, it quickly wore off and, as the game solidified into a memory, I was once again first a woman. We chat for a while and decide it will be important for us to play every day and add an extra morning practice on Sundays to begin at 6:30. This is serious – no more resting and rock collecting for gv…..all I can say to this is bring it – game on!

Monday, October 15, 2007

a stone, the sky and a few books

One month back in country and I find myself struggling to reengage with my previously mentioned business of not seeming. I wish I could say it was an easy transition and, after a restful break, I was back to my ‘new’ self. But of course change is never that easy, so I am left struggling. Maybe I am reacting to the fact that I find most things interesting and everything else either profoundly touching or completely overwhelming.

First of all I have moved. From my old home Gbarnga, where I was know by many and called Gomah, I have transitioned father into the interior to Voinjama and have been gifted the name Garmai (Ga-my). A beautiful county nested on the border with Guinea, Lofa is likely the Colorado of Liberia. Rolling hills, lush green forests, rumors of a few wild elephants and slightly cooler temperatures suggests it’s a much better fit for a girl like me.

Since my recent move from to Lofa county, I have spent most my days trying to be helpful and profoundly inspiring. This quest is so I can impress my very intelligent and very passionate group of counselors. When I’m not attempting that, I can be found sitting around wishing I had my hammock.

I used to love to be occupied. If life wasn’t hectic I felt like I was being lazy but now chaos seems like an escape from the realty this community faces and I doubt I will find all the excitement of being busy satisfying again. My life, for reasons beyond my control, has been pared down to the simplest human elements – life & death, wakefulness & sleep, suffering & enlightenment, hunger & satisfaction, enjoyment & torture…. Dichotomies of extremes, there is no masking or shades of grey here - it is both refreshing and exquisitely frightening.

An example of the simplicity of it all can be given with the stone that sits here on my desk. A grey stone cut in half by a vein of white. It took me most of Saturday to find it. Many stones were rejected first. I didn’t set out into my neighborhood with a particular idea of the stone in my mind, I just thought I’d recognize it when I found it. As I searched I developed certain requirements. It had to fit comfortable in my hand, preferable gray and be smooth (a soothing stone of sorts for those who know of my college collection). So that was my day, yes my entire Saturday. I spent Sunday recovering.

It wasn’t always like this. It used to be that a day was worthless to me if I hadn’t produced a certain amount of work. That I noticed or didn’t notice the guard’s new shirt, the fruit on the trees, the long collective yet silent journey of the women heading to market – these things were beside the point. But that’s changed now.

In a few weeks I will be living alone. Sharon has left and Andre will be completing his fellowship, but that doesn’t bother me. Or maybe just a little but I know no one could replace Sharon so I accept the loneliness as a respectful gesture of the profound impact she had on me and although Andre’s presence has been refreshing and inspirational, he too needs to go - his own journey is calling him and there is much to be done. At the end of the day it would take an unusual individual to keep me company, remarkable they both managed. I hope I’m not making any of this sound bad. I’m only back one month and I am already fishing for sympathy.

If you wonder what it is I do or see while lying in the hammock I would say I either read or watch the clouds in the sky. Both of which I tend to experience almost unbearably beautiful. What I read touches me because most of the stories are so unlike my current reality. What I see in the sky touches me because I can’t believe it actually is my current reality. That’s what I do watch the clouds and read. Sometimes I even pretend to write and post it on this silly blog site of mine. I know I’m not fooling anyone but I find it almost unbearable touching that you are taking the time to read this right now. Enough of me. Please somebody… send me something to think about.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

cadance

I’m never been much of a collector. Aside from a pretty impressive pencil collection in the 4th grade, I can’t recall collecting much of anything until one day I realized I was a collector of stories. My conscious awareness of this tendency occurred shortly after I decided to become a psychologist and; although, many people would think an interest in stories is directly connected to such a professional identity, I would have to say it doesn’t have to be and for some reason I have always had an intense desire to keep it separate. Of course this is not without saying that it has been helpful for the psychologist in me to be interested in stories, but I consider this overlap to be serendipity rather than intricately interrelated. I love stories and I think I would love stories even if I was an engineer.

I realized this important differential the day my dear friends gave me a CD entitled, the retells.

The Retells is a CD filled with short 3-5 minute stories that I had asked friends to repeat over and over again over the years. Recorded in the story teller’s voice, every story began with: ‘Gwen would always tell me to tell her the one about’….and then they would re-tell the story I so frequently asked them to tell over the years. I cried so hard driving down I-70 in my 10 foot U-Haul moving from Colorado to NYC that I had to pull over in order to prevent an accident. The tears were tied both to the fits of laughter I endured based on the substance of the silly stories as well as to feeling touched by the love and knowledge that I was truly known by those that I adore most.

The stories were tales of accomplishment, embarrassment, pride, shame and humor. No matter what the story is about, I love the way in which a meaningful personal story tends to have dramatic nuances and a personalized cadance. For example, my dear sweet friend Yophy, an exceptionally hilarious story teller, always managed to bring in a number of ridiculous analogies or bizaree descriptions of the circumstances she would find herself in; and, she always artistically placed one sarcastic one liner in the perfect space. She tells the story in the exact same manner each and every time, with one exception. With time and knowledge about what I love about her stories, she changes her story telling style in only one slight manner. Just as she approaches the part of her story that I grow to love best, she dramatically pauses, allowing the silence to fill with my apprehension and excitement.

My time in Liberia has taught me something new about what one is to do with a gifted story. I have realized that although part of me was destined to come here to listen to stories so that I could bring them back to share with the world; part of me has also been beckoned here to do something entirely different. I have realized that some stories are given to another so they could be put to rest. So now, out of respect, I have learned that I will be leaving some stories behind. Having been a collector of stories of sorts, a relentless searcher for a good tale, I find myself struggling with this new category of response to a shared tale, but I respect the need for peace and will honor it profoundly.

Looking forward to tomorrow and the days to come I have promised myself and my beloved story tellers that I will show up and listen with all the gusto that I show up for the ones I love to hear over and over again. For the ones that need to be left behind I have decided that I will carry them with me to the beautiful Liberian coast, far from the interior, and drop them like stones, one by one into the ocean.

For those of who are wondering ‘why now’ about this topic I have to say that story has been on my mind both consciously as well as unconsciously because I have the honor of hosting a consultant and recipient of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Clinic Fellowship, Andre Heuer. Andre is a gifted story teller and avid collector. His thoughts on his experience here in Liberia and more about his project can be read at: http://andresjourney.blogspot.com

Thursday, September 20, 2007

fork in the road

Alice came to a fork in the road. "Which road do I take?" she asked."Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat."I don't know," Alice answered."Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter." ~Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


I’m back in Liberia and I find myself thinking about many different things. First, I’ve returned hoping to see something that may not have ever been here ...or maybe it’s been here all along but I haven’t been about to see it due to self inflicted blinders. Everything I encounter remains confusing and disheartening, but I have never felt so welcomed. Five of my fellas from basketball and two pals from the various task forces I take part in phoned me in the 20 minutes I stood in the customs line at the airport, all claiming I was desperately missed; and, as soon as I jumped in my car to begin my trip back to Gbarnga, my favorite driver threw in our most favorite of tapes and we sang at the top of our lungs all the way home. And, yes it did, in fact, feel like home.

It was a curvy road but I knew the bends well and the journey felt comforting and familiar. Calling this place in which I am currently existing home is slightly ironic given this journey occurred a few short days after I stood proudly in my very own piece of real estate I purchased in Denver: that’s right, while back in mile high city I stood in this empty loft feeling as if the nomad in me had settled, even if just a tiny bit, and I enjoyed the silence of my space. So the question is - how is it possible for one individual to have two conflicting experiences of home? Maybe as the Cheshire cat suggests…….it doesn’t matter.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

they fell in love many times

A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, and always with the same person."
- Mignon McLaughlin


I awoke in the dark at 5:21 after finally managing to get a full night of sleep: rest I desperately needed. The weather outside is a bit chilly. I turn the deck chair and arrange everything so that I am facing the massive mountains of Breckenridge. The moon shines above and I cover my legs with a fleece blanket and place a steaming hot cup of coffee on the arm of my chair. By 6:17 the sky is bright -instantly informing me that another day has if fact arrived. It wasn’t an explosive sunrise or remarkable in any visual sort of way, but being awake and present at the moment night changes to day or day changes to night is always breathtaking for me and makes me feel so incredibly small while somehow reminding me that I am an integral part of things.

To my right is the giant glassed in dinning hall in a multimillion dollar house where the bride and groom will be holding their reception. Fifty round paper Chinese lights hang from the ceiling and white table cloths cover tall intimate tables. The house has been rented by the bride and groom for the purposes of hosting their closest friends and to facilitate the celebration of their nuptials. Heaters are set up outside so people can gather like moths in the night to keep warm during the reception.

I arrived exhausted and fatigued from West Africa two short days ago sans luggage, sans gifts, sans energy; but, due to the fact I am surround by such familiar individuals, such loving one, I feel soothed and reenergized. These friends of mine, friends I almost feel unworthy of, surround me and engulf me in a warm blanket of concern and curiosity and my heart aches at their tenderness towards this friend whose careen choice forces her to repeatedly abandon them and not be around for the important events in their lives. They give me undeserved credit for my endeavors and I sit alone wishing that they could only understand that their ability to do what they do – teach, nurse, design, advocate, build, create, love, procreate, settle, invest………..far surpassing my confused attempt at creating a career for myself.

On my left I see a lovely waterfall and an unending pine forest. Ahead a beautiful balcony facing the slopes of Breckenridge ski resort. At this time of year, the visual is a mixed palate of different shades of green. Lights glimmer in the valley only making this snapshot even more enchanting at night and I look forward to being present as the day unfolds into another night…….


plus one
They wanted to keep it small: something that is easy to say but amazingly difficult to do. Because they are so loving and interesting and outgoing in such different ways their closest friends and family already outnumber their desired size. So they make a big decision – no plus ones. Although a nice idea, the reality is that single individuals often bring unimportant charters from their own lives simply so they have “a date.” These unknowns, these “fillers” take up a lot of unnecessary space and cost a lot. Obliviously, for single people this can feel like another hit to an already marginalized existence - the uncompleted goal of coulpdome. Being single is a transitional point between childhood and commitment. No one is believed when they say “but wait, I am happy, I am complete I am me fully, and yes…I am still single.”

I have never been one of those people who take fillers to weddings and at the tender age of 30 I have attended far more wedding single than as a couple. Even though there were moments in my early twenties where I was struck by pangs of anxiety thinking about what table I would be sat at or paying for hotel rooms and renting cars solo, I grew into appreciating the aura of a wedding as a single observer and have a very interesting set of wedding attendance memories as a single gal.

Following a very meaningful but slightly challenging wedding attendance in Sanibel Island, Florida a few years ago, where I was forced to splurge on all of the aforementioned logistical necessities while in grad school; feeling exceptionally poor and tired of my unrequited love affair with a dear friend of 4 years, I attended a wedding solo because I couldn’t image not being there. I simply adored the couple and rank them in my top five of couples who truly know how to do this thing we call marriage. In attendance would be the first love of my life and he would be attending with his girlfriend. I managed the anxiety and had the most amazing time with the bride to be on the eve of the ceremony, connected with other amazing individuals, enjoyed the couple and the company and ended the night sitting on the balcony with the groomsmen smoking a cigar. The ex and I had a tender moment and I felt confident, beautiful and completely ok with being alone.

But I digress……The reason I even mention plus one is that the groom may have given me the most touching compliment about this state of oneness. While arranging the guest list a few months back the groom told the bride the following: “Let’s leave the option of plus one on Gwen’s invitation because I know that if she were to check that space she would want to be bringing someone amazing, someone I would want to meet.” Even now, as I write this, I tear up at the subtle way in which he complimented me and the way in which these two people truly know me.

I had an amazing time, surrounded by love, hope, excitement and memories and I realized that even though I saw so many beautiful things with my eyes sitting on that deck in Breckenridge, the most beautiful thing I experienced that weekend was felt with my heart.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

awake in the rain

When I opened my eyes I could hear it was still coming. The rain has been coming for a while now, but yesterday it was serious and there were pools of standing water in nearly every crack and crevasse. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock on my phone: 2:22 - it was early but at least it was a good, no rather a perfect time (I simply adore those double twos).

I started thinking about a number of things…..the pending loss of my dear sweet house/teammate who will be finishing her contract in 5 short weeks. This idea kindled a memory of pupino strategically moving his dog dishes around after being fed in such a way that it was clear he had a plan. Next came a hazy thought of my brother and his alleged frustration about me being so indescribably far away. This was followed by a flash of the handsome gentleman I recently met with a rush of what it feels like to be close to him. We experience each other intensely (secondary to some uncanny chemistry) each and every time we run into each other. Then just like that I pictured two of my close friends in Denver. Both brides-to-be who must be feeling overwhelmed by the immensity of it all; but, who take time to check in on me nonetheless. I imagined seeing them in a few short weeks at the base of Peak 8 in Breckenridge. I was struck by the realization that I am most definitely ready for a break, and, then I drifted back to sleep, a head full of the important characters in my life. I awake with a slight chill in the morning, the rain was still coming.

I make the small cup of coffee over a small gas stove in the percolator I carried across the globe. The first sip feels like my single most enjoyable indulgence in this desolate place. I move to the hammock and listen to the rain. In the mornings I don’t rush around like I typically do in the West trying to organize, get ready, check e-mail, check voicemail, pay bills, feed the dog, blow-dry my hair put on make-up. Here I am no longer in the business of rushing.

I am also no longer in the business of seeming. I recently received a couple (actually a number) of calls from the people who know me best. These people are clearly more than a little bit worried about me. They hear my voice crack when I talk about what I am seeing, go stoic when I talk about all the ex-combatants and their veiled threats and go numb when I talk about the trauma that surrounds me and they are all worried. So tonight I sat once again in my hammock and thought about their expressed concern while I watched the clouds move and change in front of me. They shifted and altered themselves so dramatically it was as if I was strolling though an art museum glancing at different palates, different ideas.

ready for a break

I realize that I am exhausted. I have become more withdrawn or maybe a better word would be obscure, as in faint, unclear, distant. I say that and think that’s not it exactly because the thing that I am most tired of is how visible I am. Every movement, every gesture every look – watched, studied, judged. Empty coffee cups gather around my sitting spaces: the few places I feel unwatched are scattered and my journal is full of unfinished thoughts.

This is not to say that I do not feel love for this place, because I do; sometimes I feel it so strongly that I think I might be having a panic attack. In those moments, my heart races uncontrollably and I worry that I may throw up. The love I feel is for these wounded souls who surround me, souls who have survived more than I can even image and they move on, grow - love. Although there are some days where it makes sense that I feel so alone and tired of being seen and it feels so difficult to accept the fact that there is simply no one I can reach out and touch and say nothing with because of the inherent power my “otherness” holds. I am warn down by this reality, hence the need for a break.

reflecting back: a different version of me

For a long time I never revealed what I felt. In my late teens and early twenties I lived by a simple principle: never willingly show fear or pain. I have always been expressive and playful but I was always strong, some would even say tough. I also became exquisitely good at feeling the emotions of others, even the unexpressed ones, and therefore I became good at what I chose to do. Then, following some of my own therapy, I realized that pain or fear must have been the only thing I was feeling – because if there had been anything else, I could have expressed it without violating my principle. I always liked to laugh but aside from my silent boughts of laughter, emotions were a sorted affair. Only now do I realize I was only half way there.

Based on my principle, I was unable to show any of my feelings because in the end they were all painful, one way or the other. The most exquisite joy was a sting to the heart, and love – love was a crisis of the soul. So I lived a very contained very controlled life. I never endured a crippling heart break but I also never endured intoxicating love; I never risked my pride to the point of failure but I also never took a risk for something that seemed unattainable and attained it.

For the last few years I worked on adjusting my principle, and it worked, or at least it worked half way. I was able to speak what I felt, but now I realize that rarely, in any other way, did I truly display emotion. I did so in periodic outbursts, uncontrollable releases but rarely about love and rarely in a fluid expressive manner that didn’t end with me asking the question “am I making sense?” or “do you think I’m crazy?”

In the last few years I reached a point where I could express my feelings through language (except with one kindred spirit out there who may or may not know I am making reference to them because they would have to feel it: with this individual I was chronically reticent). Until recently I had yet to reach a point where I truly felt it and spoke about it in the same instant.

Now I am doing both and those who know me best are concerned and rightfully so. It seems I can’t control it yet. I’m like a little pup: blind and grateful and exposed. It’s like I’ve been cured from a self-inflicted defect and now I can love not just in the general but in the specific and it hurts, painfully so.

So even though it is hard here and I am a little traumatized, I am not ready to walk away. I’m utterly exhausted in body and spirit but it still feels marvelous. And, knowing I have those of you out there who are having your very own abduction fantasies and are ready to jump on a plane to come and rescue me from myself gives me a feeling that is indeed a crisis but a crisis of feeling loved.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

a sinking feeling

I saw Pupino one last time. I had no idea it would be my last. We spent Saturday afternoon playing his new favorite game “shake” for toffees. I gave him a bath and he rolled around on the towel drying off. He got some medicine for his cuts on his nose in a tea cup full of milk. On Sunday we had tied him up because a guy complained. The complaint seemed so fruitless and transparent: an obvious attempt to get money from us, we didn’t even really think about it after the discussion ended. Even if this guy was disturbed, how could he take his frustrations out on innocent sweet Pupino?

Pupino is a 9 month old puppy who had recently discovered his manhood. To prove it he recently began pursuing a girlfriend in the neighborhood. He was frequently observed strolling around with her and periodically invited her over for lunch and would let her eat first out of his bowl. Sometimes he was found sneaking under an added barrier to the fence that the guards had made to prevent him from sneaking out. On a good day these barriers were Pupino proof but on a bad day, when Pupino was feeling frisky, he couldn’t be stopped.

Every morning the guards and the drivers and I made up little stories about the adventures of Pupino and it seemed that these stories were some sort of platform in which we could laugh and joke and be playful together. This is a difficult platform to find in an environment outside your own, but somehow Pupino managed to break down all barriers for us with regards to humor. All our discussions were ironic and sarcastic and preposterous and I loved it.

Never, not once did poor Pupino fight back when all the dogs in the neighborhood would fight and every time he escorted me to the basketball court he would take a long route up over the hill to the left of my walking trail so that he didn’t have to encounter the meanest dog in the neighborhood. He never growled at a human being, actually he didn’t even bark which was not so great (given he was gifted to us to be a guard dog) but it wasn’t his style and he spoiled him rotten for it. All the kids in the neighborhood knew him by name even more so than my own and so some days you could see me walking down a dusty path with him and hear “whitewoma! Whitewoma! Pupino! Pupino!” He was so sweet, such a tool.

He went missing on Sunday night. Earlier that day I found him rolling around chewing at the makeshift rope leash that we had tied around his neck to keep him from going to the aforementioned complainer’s house (had I only known how dangerous this fella truly was). Pupino played with the rope in the way a cat would play with a dangling toy. He looked so innocent that I figured it would take him some time but he would get free and join the dozens of stray dogs in the neighborhood and the guy would cool off because, in reality, Pupino was no trouble at all. I never, not for one second, thought Pupino would leave and never come back.

Allegedly, Pupino had spoiled a screen. When we visited the house there was not window or door on the house that was not already spoiled and the home was not even the beginning of a home. It looked abandoned and the children were all running around with runny noses and the wife was clearly maltreated.

The night it happened was a bad night in Gbarnga. Guns and ammo were found in a small house on Broad Street near the mosque, and dozens of people threatened to light the mosque on fire. They stoned the house of the alleged arms dealer and chanted, “the war is over! no guns! no bullets! no more!” Failing to see the irony in their aggression towards the potential aggressors about being aggressive, an ire sense of instability set in and the UN forces were out patrolling all night. Unbeknownst to me this was the same evening poor Pupino was slaughtered.

I find myself unable to relive myself of two regrets – one, that when that scary man came to discuss the screen door Pupino had “allegedly” spoiled on his house that I didn’t speak with him longer. I figured that by sending him away I was sending a message that no I was not going to engage in these “lets exploit the NGO worker” games. I figured this man, who was claiming this very specific male dog, one of many, was some sort of culprit, a dog with a volitional plan of wreaking havoc on his household, could not be serious. At the end of the day he was demanding payback for a made up issue so that he could access some of the money he so quickly (and wrongfully) assumed we had. And two, that in that last moment of contact with poor sweet Pupino, I had not relented and let him crawl up into the hammock with me in the creeping little way he always tried. I was thinking he was getting too big and he was too dirty and he shouldn’t be crawling on people anyways, but in my heart of hearts, I adored this foolish little dog for being such a lover and should have let him crawl in and cuddle for a minute.

I think it hurts a little bit more because in this world I’m living in, a world where I am always an outsider, I felt I communicated more, not less, with this silly little dog. Pupino never considered my skin color in formulating his impression of me and once I won him over, his love for me was unconditional. I was so proud of him when he would walk with me down to the basketball court, unleashed, with a slight swagger. He would sit patiently in the tall grass periodically grasping for flies, waiting for me to finish. He would wait the entire two hours, play with the kids that were lingering about (if they so desired) and then he would walk me home. With the same studly gait he came, he went, and he would arrive home to greet Sharon with as much love and excitement as he had greeted her three hours earlier.

I once read that holding hands is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together.
I find that a fitting phrase for poor Pupino as I felt so incredibly proud of him the day he finally learned how to shake. Even though it took weeks and weeks to conquer this small task, he eventually became a true gentleman when it came to the shake. After weeks of him rigidly resisting any attempt at the hand shake, he eventually did it and once he knew how excited we got when he did it, he became a shaking fool. Some nights I could even hear the guards outside my window practicing with him and once he did what they asked for, they always clicked and whispered “that’s one clever dog.” From the day he learned how to shake forward he would do that thing dogs do when they can’t seem to get enough; just place his paw up on my hand or my knee and wait, over and over again as if to say I have something to say but since you can’t understand me, let’s say nothing together.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

bridesmaid for a day

the opposite of serving: a short tale of the humanitarian worker who took a break from the field to be a bridesmaid

When I reflect on my time in Liberia, all the things I have posted before and all the things that are likely to come after will probably represent the larger majority of the parts of my experience, but a true composition of my memories will include a memory that will make it uniquely mine. This memory is the night I was a bridesmaid wearing an African made dress surrounded by new, yet profoundly important, friends.

The events leading up to the big day suggested everything should have been a disaster; but, either because it was meant to be (or simply because of unqualified luck) the actual event went off without a hitch and moved me in a way everyone hopes to be moved each time they attend a wedding.

Because I was only a sub-character in a much larger drama, I don’t know exactly how to write about this event, so I won’t write about the real things exactly and I won’t write about the imaginarily things that typically fill my head when I find myself near so much love. I will simply write about the things I know and the things I thought about, because when it comes to feelings, specifically my own, I sometimes feel I don’t have words to capture anything adequately, so more often than not they go unmentioned.

catching the bouquet
Even though I don’t believe in the myth of what a tossed bouquet means and have historically had absolutely no desire to catch one of these bunches of dying flowers, it was a funny experience when it happened to me on this ever so slightly cool night on a beach in Liberia.

First you should know that by design there is nothing within my realm of consciousness that would cause me to feel anything when a wedding bouquet is tossed. I think that because I was feeling moved by the whole event, a desire to feel more began to grow within me and so when we paused to engage in this ceremonial tradition, I unconsciously struggled to uncover a new emotion. Then I saw her peek and I knew.

She made a big show of it and tossed it gingerly up into the air. Heading straight towards me, I let my arms fall to my sides thinking I would let it pass; but then, as I watched it floating down in front of me I cringed at the thought of it falling to the sand, and so I snatched it from the air gently and brought it tenderly to my chest.

My heart was in my throat and for one split second I felt charmed. This beautiful bouquet of flowers with magical powers was all mine: the flowers, the meaning behind it, the chance to to be the next to find love: mine. I can admit, I am not a woman of greatness, I get anxious too quickly, I cry too easily, I don’t’ have a head or a body for silence, intimacy overwhelms me, words often fail me, while others pray I only move my lips, and love usually eludes me, but in this moment the possibilities seemed endless.

the preparations
At the end of the day the actual ceremony is just one moment wrapped in other more vivid moments of preparations and celebrations. What I remember about the days, hours and minutes that preceded the ceremony I will forever remember as the good and the bad parts or should I say: the tragic and the amazing parts.

the tragic parts:
1) The fact that her friend failed her miserably: every promise, ever offer, every pledge was broken. These broken promises were not out of vengeance; however, but rather a result of this friend’s own demons, demons that get the best of her when she finds herself too close to other people’s love for each other. She had a hard time getting out of bed, difficult memories of her childhood collect around her like the half empty glasses around her bed and any additional stressor makes her spiral out of control. Only due to uncanny intelligence and a relentless drive to survive (even though she would deny this drive) is she even making it in this world today. The ripple effects of this friends decompensation was catastrophic and when the bride and groom found themselves without a house to sleep in, without supplies for the ceremony, without a cook for a number of promised dishes, and down 750 dollars in purchased beauty products for this friend from the States (causing serious financial pressures as this is a country without ATMs or the capacity to use credit cards), this couple drove around in a wounded vehicle and simply adapted. Even though they both cared deeply for this friend, they were forced to disconnect from this toxic energy, found a guest house to stay in and tried to not feel so injured by the feelings of disappointment and displacement.

2) The fact that the car broke down and every stop we made for three days prior to the wedding resulted in a catastrophe. Every break down called for a 3rd gear push off running jump start that equated to me pushing and grunting loud enough that eventually some nearby soul would feel bad for me and help out. After getting the car rolling and the engine jumped the bride to be would reach in her bag for the courtesy 20 liberties that was expected for the service. 20 liberties we couldn’t really spare.

3) The fact that the hairdresser refused the brides style requests for a day and a half prior to the ceremony claiming he knows best when it comes to weddings. Not only did he want to charge 300 dollars to come out to the beach to do our hair he simply wouldn’t do what she wanted. Living on 50 dollars between us for a week prior to the groom’s arrival, we couldn’t afford it so we needed to make frequent trips to Terreck salon for negotiations and hit the salon before leaving town to cut costs.

4) The fact that the dress designer, Sista Wonders, who lovingly labels her designs “JOA” (Jesus Our Advisor), had difficulty getting the adjustments completed because she had been awake for 2 full nights having a Revival. She was simply too tired to replace the zipper and exhausted at the idea of straightening a crooked seam.

5) The fact that we had to make frequent stops by the store to see our 15 year old baker, Ali, and remind him that - no we did not want a large plastic figurine of a bride and groom on our simple fruit cake and yes we were having the wedding on Saturday not Sunday.

6) The fact that we needed to stop by the Nigerian ECOWAS soldiers headquarters because they were immensely “worried about us” and calling chronically because they “just wanted to say hi” and make sure we weren’t still upset about the death threats we had received two weeks prior by ex-combatants distraught about the possibility that they might not get their monthly stipends.

7) The fact that the groom’s luggage was lost (with the wedding rings in it) and we needed to find replacement rings. While walking down Broad Street after meticulously finding the perfect pair of silver flip-flops for me, the bride bent down and reached into the grungy gutter. I noticed that she was reaching for a thick platinum spring likely broken off a motobike and I knew instantly what she was thinking. I started laughing at the insanity of it all and this gentleman passing us looked over and said “look at you ladies having a good time and laughing when your friend is picking trash off the ground.” She tried it on and it was perfect. Later on the groom took it to a mechanic and had him cut it in half and smooth off the rough parts. It should be noted, he was forced to do this with the car running in the street at moderately high risk of being car jacked because the bride and I were busy getting our hair done and he had no human hydraulics to get the car going if the car was turned off.

8) The fact that we spent an incredible amount of time hunting the markets for pineapples and side streets for flowers. It was hot and we had already had our hair done and nothing seemed easy.

the amazing parts:
1) The fact that the brides other friends were amazing. For example, Rosa, an absurdly busy Mozambican pal, who is heading a huge department within UNICEF and was dealing with auditors the week of the wedding, volunteered to make a dinner of crab cakes, seafood salad served in a crab shell, lobster dipped in butter, green salad, feta stuffed peppers, and seafood paella. She pulled it off with style and grace top chefs in NYC would covet.

2) The way every single one of the guests of the wedding showed up, dressed sharply and eloquently in white and instantly started helping out in the kitchen or in the dressing rooms. Like a ballroom dance the synergistic support that surrounded the couple was remarkable.

3) The fact that we were able to find pineapples after searching the streets for two days. At one point we endured a tragic miss because I spotted a pair of girls with some fruit balanced on their heads, but due to the fact I was on the phone and didn’t want to be rude, I didn’t say anything and instead started tapping my head furiously. Before the couple was able to understand what I was trying to tell them the girls had turned a corner and were lost. Now and forever, the new sign for pineapple will be two simple pats on the head.

4) The fact that it is rainy season but it didn’t rain. That however is putting it mildly – for 42 hours before and 29 hours after, it rained furiously. On the day and night of the wedding however, the weather was perfect. Circumstantially, it also happened to be Liberia’s Independence Day and for the first time in 17 years they had a fireworks display. So, standing on the beach, following the completion of an amazing dinner in small quaint palava huts with tea lights delicately set in sand, we all sipped a glass of wine and watched a display reminiscent of Independence celebrations in the West. (Note to the reader: these fireworks were made part by a 250,000 dollar donation by the Chinese Government. If anyone is thinking…but couldn’t that kind of money be better spent in a county living in abject poverty I would have to whisper a small silent amen).

5) The fact that 99.9% of the tragic parts mentioned above were someone miraculously resolved. The friend rallied and showed up for the ceremony. She was exhausted and wounded and fragile but she came and it said so much. The car held strong and even though it needed a little TLC every time it was started, it worked and carried the things it was asked to carry. Terrek, the hairdresser, relented and allowed the bride to decide and she looked amazing. A ravenous beauty her haired flowed eloquently throughout the night. I too was delighted with my doo and enjoyed the pampering by a stylist who informed me he had never been formally trained and had “been born” with the talent to style hair. Sista Wonders recovered and finished the dresses. They were lovely and even though a few safety pins were necessary to help with the busted zippers, no one was the wiser except the thoughtful friend who happened to carry a few safety pins with her to the beach. The cake was simple and delicious. The Nigerian soldiers were gentleman. The rings were shiny and perfect.

I returned to the bush full of joy. I was exhausted and slept.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

having new ears

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes

~ Marcust Proust

In recent months, new landscapes, new thoughts, new feelings and new eyes have taken me into and around many new places. I find myself struggling to select one voyage to document.

First, I am struck by the power of song and the ease of which it can flow from us, if we allow it. I, tragically, am one of those typical westerners who suffers from serious anxiety just thinking about rejoicing in song. I flush with embarrassment if I am caught singing in my car by a fellow driver parked idly at a stop light, and I find myself running from a room if I am caught actually singing out loud by a co-worker or partner.

Here in Africa, the expression of song is so fluid and widespread that it is alarmingly common to find people doing just abut anything while engaged in song. During breaks at formal government meetings I have seen some very well dressed and serious men (some of which were former confidants to Charles Taylor) break out in “if your happy and you know it” as a mid-day break. They do this in the way men in the west would ease themselves into a discussion about the NBA finals. I have also seen women gyrating in song while organizing peppers in the markets and ex-combatant on motorbikes literally bellowing like opera singers while waiting for their next passenger.

Just last Friday my team was collectively working on their monthly reports. Every month, each site has a list of things they need to submit and given a fairly severe tendency to procrastinate in general, the last Friday of the month is usually pretty hectic. On Fridays the larger team of 17 sit together to comply their data. The rest of the time they are broken up into smaller groups of 6, stationed remotely at our three various district sites. This means Fridays are unique affairs. The local counselors enjoy each other’s company and laughter comes easily. Last Friday they added song to their typically work day like we in the west add Starbucks. At one point I looked up from my desk to see all 17 of them singing Celion Dion while moving around the table sharing numbers and information. They seemed to be doing it almost unconsciously like the way a housewife might sing while cleaning a glass table or vacuuming the floor. The beauty of this scene was that they weren’t in the comforts of their home and wouldn’t understand if someone pointed out an alleged difference between the two. What we define as “private” vs. “public” doesn’t seem to exist here. The attempted differential would seem odd and confusing because song is simply added to everyday acts without ever thinking about how you sound or look doing it. So there I was, being informed about the power of love: “Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach, I’m everything that I am because you loved me…..” by a group of local sopranos. It was beautiful and I guess you could say I can now add new ears to my discovery repertoire.

I should also take this time to admit I am presently suffering from a serious case of what I like to call unrelenting abduction fantasies. As a clinical psychologist I can understand these fantasies for what they are: unresolved countertransference. Bluntly stated, for more moments than not, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I exist in a semi-dissociative state where I feel like I am in the depths of an intense desire to abduct and flee the county with a small boy and a young teenage girl I barely know.

His name is Morris and her name is Mercy. He’s six and the exploited step-child of a fiercely aggressive step-mother. She’s fourteen and the daughter of an abducted, raped and poisoned mother – events she bore direct witness to during the war. He is a burn victim. The top of his head, both calves and both arms are severely burned and I cringe at the pain he will be facing as he grows. She is a modern day slave being held quasi-captive to care-takers, “teachers” and community leaders.

For six weeks Morris has been religiously coming to one of our kids groups dressed in the exact same Beckman jersey and worn out grey trousers. One week he reported he had actually snuck out of his house to attend group and hoped to sneak back in successfully upon return. Another week his step-mother pulled him out of group just as we were giving out the closing bread and kool-aid and reported he simply had too much laundry to do and needed to go home. During a follow-up home visits one of our female counselors was emotionally shocked by the sheer amount of chores poor Morris needed to do while his step-siblings attended school and rested under the mango trees. We are trying everything: parenting workshops, certificates of excellent performance, verbal feedback and check-ins and investigating options of alternative placements. But the thing is, this poor child wouldn’t be considered to be in grave enough danger by any of the local child protection teams and social services would likely return him to this household fairly quickly, if they even took him out. Knowing this we feel an intense responsibility to try and keep him safe – so confronting the step-monster isn’t exactly the best course of action. At the end of the day poor Morris spends 1.5 hours a week with us and the rest of his days and nights with her.

For five weeks Mercy has also been religiously coming to one of our teenage girls groups deep in the interior of Bong County. Her arms are ripped with athletic definition because every minute of the day she is engaged in some form of viable strength training. Anyone in the west who has ever spent seventy dollars an hour with a personal trainer would squirm with envy. She hauls 15 pound buckets of water on her head, scratches neighbors fields for little more than a bowl of rice and does all of the daily housework for a populated compound. She is well respected by the girls in the group who live similar lives and slightly feared by the ones in the group who have it better. She readily joined the support group and although she is never the first to volunteer personal information she does so in detail upon inquiry and can often be observed sitting in the dirty classroom we use with her head held high. If you don’t look closely enough you would miss the raindrop size tears falling heavily from her eyes. Every week she cries for the losses others have endured just as readily as she will cry for her own.

I can’t exactly tell you what it is about Morris or Mercy that gets me all worked up. There are many other similar, more tragic or more pressing cases I encounter every day. But there is something about these two individuals that makes me want to sneak into their homes late at night, pack a small travel bag and carry them with me across the globe to my tiny little loft in Denver. I see myself whisking them away like a well trained CIA agent. But, even in my fantasy I question the legitimacy of my act and wonder if it would possibly do more harm than good to take them so far away from home.

If pressed for an answer to “why them?” I would have to say I think it’s in their eyes. These two little sets of eyes have pulled me in and keep a fierce hold on my heart. What I see in their eyes is less well defined than the feeling I experience while looking at them, but it’s something. They both have this determined hold on things they carry and a determined look on their faces to match. Even though the two of them have never met, are from different tribes, speak different languages and are separated by 9 years and 120 miles, they have transformed into an important pair in my life.

It dawns on me that they too have been caught in the middle between two pairs: the powerful distinction of being raised by step rather than biological parents, the numbing experience of being surrounded by adults who are fixated on the well being of others, the happy self-occupied step-siblings who can’t or won’t notice the injustice that places them at the top of the familial caste system. Milling around them all, trying to keep my lurking base instincts to abduct them in check, is me, a flawed yet disciplined listener, both clever and clueless, who has absolutely no idea about how to help in a county where few things seem to be working and the simple act of survival rules the day.

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