Monday, June 18, 2007

Scratching a Coup

Last week I showed up for one of my favorite groups and nobody was there. For a long drawn out second my heart stopped and I thought that somehow I had been mistaken. That all the feelings in the room over the last 6 weeks, all the disclosures, all the tears were a façade. But then I buried my doubt and asked, “But why? Where would they be?” One of my local counselors saw the disappointment on my face and stood and said let’s find out. She rose and left the empty school room without looking back. I followed hesitantly at first and then rushed to catch up, “Justus, what are we doing?” “We are going to find out,” she said firmly with her back towards me she was on a search for today’s Justice (signifying the appropriateness of her given name).

A few minutes later we landed at the compound of one of the girls in the group. “Mama, hello, where are they?” Justus asked flatly. “They went for a coup, the principle canceled school.” Justus looked at me sadly with a small bit of misgiving, “Do you want to see where they were forced to go?” “Yes” I said immediately, “Let’s go.”
Are you sure, it’s not easy”
“How far?”
“I don’t care, let’s go”

We reached the narrow entrance to the interior on the far side of the village and were forced to start walking one by one. We walked for nearly 45 minutes, crossing a small quick moving stream with unique sounds of the African bush following us. Gradually, the sounds changed and we started to hear a drum beat followed by female voices. The closer we came the sounds became more and more defined. Drums followed by a chant, and then again. We grew closer and without any volitional intention we were suddenly moving in pace with the song from afar. We reach the burnt barrier to the plot of land they were working and the sounds embraced us.

All of a sudden we saw approximately 40 teenage girls, dressed only in short lappas or worn out shorts. They were all topless and a few of them had white paint on their face. They notice us and start moving towards us slowly without any pause in their singing or impact to their work. A few moments later Justus and I were facing two young girls bowing slightly before us so we could touch their backs. I reach out and touch one back (I notice she has a series of small razor marks along her lower back and spine indicating membership in a bush society). Without consciously knowing what is going on, I do exactly what I am suppose to do and I reach out and pat this small topless girl softly on the back. It appears as if she is both asking for and giving permission at the same time. Out of the corner of my eye I see Justus do the exact same thing. With no verbal message relayed, we become part of them, part of the coup.

I walk slowly following their lead. Slowly I reach out for the tool a young girl next to me is using. Justus does the same and joins in fiercely; making it evident she has done this many times before. We bend slightly and start digging in short powerful jabs at the top soil. After a few quick digs the crusty grey soil starts to turn and a dark rich under-soil rises to the top. According to one of my guards (who I processed my experience with later that night) this activity is called highland farming because of the vista of the land. The land owner has the capacity to plant and grow rice, corn and cassava on unbalanced surfaces and lets things grow more wildly than the traditional rice growers of the East.

We work tirelessly for approximately 55 minutes and then all of a sudden I realize the reason we are not tired is intrinsically connected the three boys who are accompanying us with their drums. The music is energizing and facilitates a sense of togetherness without demanding it.

At first Justus keeps checking in to make sure I really want to be there but at some point, (likely at a point when I didn’t realize she was checking in), she stops doing it and simply focuses on the work.

A few hours pass and the principle of the school appears clean, well-rested and unruffled. He is topless, dressed in rain boots and loose fitting pants with suspenders. On his head sits what appears to be massive a Mexican Sombrero with a thin string keeping it tied around his chin.
The principle takes a quick double take of me but then sits down slowly under a large palm tree and begins chewing on a toothpick. I’m enraged and coil at his entitled manipulation of circumstances and complete lack of participation in this extremely taxing activity. Apparently, in the interior, it is commonplace for teachers and principles to take the students out of school for weeks at a time to scratch their land. These teaches claim that it is their right because they are not getting paid adequately by the government. They see the children’s work as payment for all their hard work. Today’s scrap is day seven of 9 hour a day unpaid child labor.

The students have no choice in the matter. If they want to pass they must work for free; in the interior the planting season lasts nearly 5 months. The female students likely see scraping as the best of a number of bad alternatives; one of which is being forced to perform sexual favors for passing grades. In a school in the next district over it has been rumored that three young girls under the age of 15 have all been impregnated by one young male teacher who drinks palm wine while teaching class.

Thankfully I am tired enough not to react to my impulses which is to approach this bizarrely dressed principle and start yelling and demand an explanation. Instead I decide to approach him with a smile and present to him the 3-4 Kpelle phrases I have managed to learn. “Good afternoon. How’s the body? Looks like rain.”

He clicks at my ability and nods. I play dumb and ask him to explain what is going on and why the children aren’t at school or attending the group he had previously supported. He makes no attempt to hide his motivation and clearly states his unconstrained beliefs and entitlement regarding his exploitation of this coup.

I figure I won’t help anybody (especially the girls) if I loose my cool so I start to tell him a little bit about CVT and our activities. We both know he has already heard all this as we always do a community sensitization campaign before we start the intake and assessment phase of our program. We also always get permission from the teachers and principles before using their school building to hold our groups but I feel the need to talk about the effect of human rights violations on children and remind him of the maltreatment these young girls had endured to date. He is obviously very smart and has no trouble following my fast paced English and seems to agree but simply states, “yes yes what your organization is doing is very important for these students and I have already seen some improvements in some of them. So many children have trouble concentrating and many are nervous or act out in aggressive ways. I never saw this kind of behavior before the war, but it’s time for farming and there is work that needs to get done.”

I then ask (almost sheepishly) if it would ok if the girls stayed back for the one and a half hour long group held once a week on Tuesdays for the remainder of the farming season. At first he denies my request but then notices the girls have all paused to eavesdrop and it becomes obvious he will be the bad guy if he doesn’t accept the offer. He quickly changes his mind and announces he will be granting the girls permission to stay back for the group. A few of the girls giggle and screech and then just as quickly as it all began, we are back to work, hoping to get the whole plot of land turned before the end of the day.

It was a small achievement but our next group was powerful and this event managed to join the group, making it even more cohesive than before. Upon arrival to the small, dirty classroom the girls quickly run to the doorway and begin singing the song I had become familiar with on the farm and they each present their backs to me for a pat when as I enter the classroom. Again we never discuss the meaning of this gesture but I go home and dream I was initiated into their small bush society and rise tiredly in the morning feeling for small scars across my lower back.

The honor is again mine and my heart aches with pride when I think of these young girls. Hard work won’t break them, the lack of respect and basic rights won’t break them, the denial of education won’t break them and their strength and resiliency amazes me completely.

Thoughts on human consequences

This experience of mine was just a small example of the human rights violations I witness here every day. There are many other things I see and hear, things that I try to document but can’t, things that simply won’t fit on these pages that I imagine sharing wiht others. Many of these things are heinous things: things that enraged saddened and stunned me. This blog is my small attempt at sharing and staying connected to my other self - my other life. I am touched and moved that you take the time to read it.

I hope to come back home and share what can be shared; but, what can not be shared, what does not fit in these pages, is another form of trauma because it is my secret. I wonder if there will be things that I attempt to spare from others like I am spared by people like Justus. The powerful individuals that surround me here allow me to bear witness to traumatic stories while feeling safe and I am grateful for each and every survivor I have met. Their strength courage and commitment towards recovery is an inspiration.

Top Ten Reasons I Love Rain Fall in Africa

10) The already lush green trees and shrubbery delight in the attention they are given from the skies and they brighten up in an almost hallucinogenic way.

9) The amazingly hardworking women of Africa who spend every moment of their day doing something to help support their families (i.e., cooking, cleaning, gathering fire wood, pounding cassava, selling at the market) get to pause under an awning for at least one brief second, balancing the gender ratios under leafy mango trees or inside small gathering huts.

8) The visual of seeing a Bangladeshi UN peacekeeper walking down the road in full uniform holding an AK-47 in one hand and a pretty pink umbrella in the other.

7) The marvel of the sky as it shocks and awes everyone under its watch, constantly changing in form and color. One minute you see low flying clouds lining the tops of the palm trees and the next, rolling dark purple and blue clouds posturing for space in an ever changing atmosphere.

6) The thunder and lightening reminiscent of spring time thunder storms in the mid-west evoke fond memories from childhood. The crash and boom is fierce and unforgiving, but the pure natural intensity of the event forces one to think about the possibility of a higher power and all the worldly unknowns of our time.

5) The sight of umbrellas. From Ganta Parking in Gbargnga to Park Avenue in NYC I have always treasured the visual of umbrellas. They are like your own private delicate structure offering equal treatment to all and an escape from nature while remaining in it. A sea of color that looks like bouncing upside down tulips engaged in a grand ballet.

4) The significant drop in temperature offering a respite from the unrelenting heat.

3) The sound of rain falling on metal roof tops while lying in a hammock.

2) The pending occurrence of seeing plenty of goats standing on small things as they surface towards the sun to dry off. They stoically tilt their head towards the sky while balancing at an elevated altitude and appear to be telling the gods above: “You won’t get me that easily.”

1) The sheer amount of naked babies with distended bellies running through the rain with lathered soap shimmering on their skin. They know very well it is much easier to take advantage of this massive shower faucet from the skies than to wait and make a trip to the well to haul of gallons of dirty water back to their huts cross town. They glisten and shine in their unabashed activity and remind everyone about the innocence of childhood.

the risks involved with #6

It has recently come to my attention that there is some risk involved in loving thunder and lightening. Due to a number of confounding variables that lead to fatal accidents each year, lightening is an event that has the power to drastically change someone’s life, even if the individual isn’t directly touched by lightening.

Yesterday I visited the local jail – a long structure filled with half completed cells that is made to hold approximately 40 inmates. Currently it is holding more than 300. Although a drastic improvement from the pervious jail (a local hut with small piles of knee high bricks demarking the space between each cell allowing for somebody to escape with one high step that was controlled by guards with guns and other torture devises), the state of the new jail is a greivable human rights violation (please note I did make a report to the local UN human rights representative after my visit; we will see what happens with this complaint).

Sharon and I had been called to the jail because a local woman had been arrested for infanticide (murder of one’s newborn infant). Apparently 12 short hours after she delivered, she simply rose walked to the nearest public well and dropped her baby into the 24 foot abyss. The body was never found but there were some witnesses and she flatly admitted her act upon inquiry. Although this is unfortunately not a classic case of post-partum psychosis, mental health issues and prior trauma are evident and it is likely we can be of some assistance in her case and chance to receive some treatment.

In the cell next to this tragic nursing un-mother sat a thin man in his mid to late thirties. When we walked by his cell the guarded immediately began teasing him for the reason he was there. This man never looked up, not once, and he appeared almost catatonic. According to what was relayed during this heckling, he had been convicted of “death by lightening.”

Death my lightening is the charge someone gets when someone else in the community dies by lightening. You are at highest risk if you happen to be in an on-going dispute with the struck individual or had engaged in an argument with him or her in the days immediately proceeding the event. According to old juju beliefs someone who is vexed with somebody else, for reasons such as stealing a girlfriend or making a bad business deal, can go to a traditional witch doctor and participate in a cursing ceremony. From that day forward the object of their disaffection is at extreme risk of dying by accident. Lightening is just one of the many forms the curse can take.

The young man in the cell had been locked up since 2003 with no lawyer or trial granted. It was a given he was guilty because it was widely know he was “enemies” with the victim and this victim had died by lightening.

Morale of the story:
One must take the death by lightening phenomenon as a clear warning against joining the adorable naked babies playing in the rain but it shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the power of water, in all its many forms.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


Alvin, the pockmark-faced amputee, rushes to direct me into a parking spot I am already half-way settled in and stops me as I exit my vehicle. “Good Day my friend,” he says, “I help you, now you help me.” Although unclear as to what “help” he had offered exactly, I nod curtly stating, “Yes I will get you on my way out, keep on eye on my car.” This is the deal, the destitute amputees “protect your vehicle” while your in the store and you tip them for it on the way out.

Alvin means well but something inside me bristles at his entitlement, and the aggressive way in which me makes me feel indebted to him. Just as quickly, I flush at the crudity of my own thoughts. I leave my new “friend” in charge of protecting the car and I enter the supermarket to buy some supplies for my pending trip up country.

As I exit the UN Supermarket, I am again accosted by a sea of beggars. They know their chances are much better on my way out as I may have some ‘small small’ change, making it nearly impossible to get past them without giving someone something. Three or four of them grab at my grocery bags and others simply make a path to my car. One quickly grabs at the door handle after I unlock it and asks for a handout. I manage to get in after tipping my friend Alvin and two other gentlemen for gesturing physical support while I placed my bags in the back seat. I take a deep sign and turn the ignition: nothing. Shit! Alpha Victor Two had overheated from a long day at work and I needed to do a hill start in 3rd gear to get the engine to turn over. In an effort to find humor in my predicament I pictured myself as one of the sub-characters from Little Miss Sunshine.

I open the window to 12 pair of gleaming eyes staring in at me knowing exactly how to help. One look at their faces tells me they are ready to push me get out of my predicament with only approximately 4 feet of open space to utilize for the roll. They quickly push me forward but the engine doesn’t turn, so they are forced to push me back to try again. In a perfect ironic twist thunder crashes and rain starts to fall. We try again – no deal. It becomes clear that I’m not completely savvy about these things and this gentleman peaks in my window and says, “Move over I’ll do it.” I look around and see all eyes on me and figure this guy won’t be able to do anything inappropriate with all these witnesses watching, so I scoot over and squat in the passenger seat. With rain falling hard, not one of my helpers moves toward the awning for cover.

Another car leaves, giving us approximately 2 more feet of room and my friend calls out a few fast commands in Liberian English and we are quickly being pushed at an exceptionally fast pace for such a limited area and then chug chug purrrrrrrrrrr – she’s good to go! My new buddy jumps out of the driver’s seat and walks away without looking back. The rest do the same (except for a few straggles hoping I might decide to tip them). Between the help, the rain and the lack of expectations I am nearly brought to tears by this expression of selfless charity and scream out, “Hey wait!” They all turn around quickly and move toward me. “Listen if I tip one of you will you break it up fairly amongst yourselves.” I get a quick “yes yes no problem” in surround sound. I check my wallet and hand one small boy a 20 dollar bill and speed off. I hear screeches of delight and see a few of them dancing in the rain in my rearview mirror. I wish I would have given more.

I shake my head, to clear out the earlier irritation I was feeling and I am overwhelmed with a warm feeling of optimism. With the rain falling hard, anything seemed possible.

Monday, June 4, 2007

loss of innocence

Peace is much deeper than the absence of war.
Wars without beginnings, wars with pauses, but wars without ends.

War is an appetite.
It is its own reason for being.
There are no adequate answers.
The residue stings.

With war comes the loss of innocence for all involved.
For children, for women, for men, for soldiers, for leaders, for humanitarians.
No one is left untouched.
The loss of innocence becomes an appetite to experience the loss again. For others, being suddenly stripped, the collapse of the façade of ones virtue brings with it a peculiar feeling of debt, and the maddening cryptic question of who pays for someone else’s loss of innocence.

Or consider a loss of sexual innocence, whether by force or choice. Remembered as a loss, it can contribute to a life of grief, a life of anger or numbness. What comes of the choice to no longer be innocent is different for every pilgrim but to choose is to risk a region of the soul.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Liberia is coming along miserably, if at all. For a forensic psychologist, the concepts of truth, justice and accountability lie at the heart of my training and my understanding of victims, perpetrators and forgiveness. The process of recovery and rehabilitation includes victim impact statements and consequences, period. But, what if the system of justice is corrupt? Or what if the system alleges consequences but in reality it is a dangerous façade.

In Liberia the process is simple. What one sees is a group of men. These men carry clipboards (which sometimes causes them to be mistakenly perceived as Jehovah Witnesses). These men travel from house to house righteously demanding memories. With no opportunity for informed consent, support when the memories are too intense or a guarantee of anonymity, people wait in fear of the men with clipboards. With Prince Johnson (an infamous rebel leader who briefly broke away from Taylor in the late 90s only to create his very own rule of law that included heinous acts torture and power driven by fear) recently “elected” as the Senator of Nimba County, and rumors that President Ellen Sheriff financed and participated in the some of the destruction as a “revolutionary”, begs the question, why testify? Why remember when the leaders remain in power and indifference is pandemic.

In a few short months I have learned a few things. For me the goal is no longer to ensure that the names of those who sent others to die or serve or brainwash young children are prosecuted, but to reach a place where the victims recall their names only with difficulty when if ever they want to recall them. We cannot undo the past, but we can have a presence that will diminish its size, see to it that our experience of darkness does not take up more room than it’s due. The goal in recovery, I think is to circle back less and less.

This stance is against everything I believed in 6 months ago when I was sitting in the comfort of my library in the West studying war, truama and recovery. Is it ideal? – no. Is it satisfactory? – no. Does it bring more anger? – yes……but maybe embracing the anger, embracing it and them working through it is a first genuine step we can take towards healing.

We humanitarian workers will struggle most with this concept of anger as progress because it is we who believe war and aggression, anger and revenge fantasies should never be discussed or expressed; that only peace and forgiveness and kindness should prevail. But, if something heinous has occurred, something that is worthy of raw and unadulterated anger – isn’t the most genuine response to express it. Otherwise we are stuck - stuck in a limbo of sorts with feelings being repressed or denied, feelings that fester from generation to generation, feelings that if worked though have the possibility of leading us towards something new something outside the box we currently exist in.

It seems the wages of trauma is anger. The resolution of anger, my text books inform me, breaks the grip of the traumatic event. But how do we truly resolve the anger? It’s not enough just to arrive at a place where no one, not even yourself is to blame. You have to go further….

That is anger, now… on to love
How do we love if we are angry?
For me, I will start small
I will start with a mango
I will love a mango, its summer juice running down my chin
Then I will be in love with memories
The sound of my fathers car as it pulls up the driveway on a spring night, ready to enter
The look on my brohters face as he waits for his favorite pizza, lovingly picking up his dog and placing her on his shoulder, ready to love
The words of my favorite stories, given as a gift from friends who know how much I appreciate the retell, the familiar diction and delivery of a tale I have already heard but crave nonetheless, ready to soothe
The feelings connected to a recent relationship
The surge of energy that occured when our fingers accidentally brushed against one anothers
All that was then, all that is now, the slow semi-conscious physical gestures, everything I remember but won’t or can’t articulate because the words are unsupported by reason.

These feelings, these memories these sensory events – they make me feel innocent again.
Others may have a different journey towards the reemergence of innocence but this is my new theory – We must reengage our innocence to resolve the anger, to love.

Anger, innocence and love may sound simple or idealistic but when I am in these camps, or burnt out villages or mass grave sites it is not the events themselves or even the suffering that takes a fierce hold of me. The thing that has outraged me is the indifference I encounter all around it. I grew up thinking hate is the opposite of love, but now I believe it is indifference that is the true opposite of love.

At mass grave sites no one had even a piece of paper to write down the names of the dead.
At accident sites no one took even a moment to cover the young blameless bodies
At home, acts of domestic violence go unnoticed. Up and down every block the sound of the switch or the screaming of a woman hovered in a corner while nearby faces are flat with indifference – faces untouched by the violence.
Common sounds as tragic background music in an invalidated nation of angry victims.

Of course you could say that some man or woman, a group or government body, was to blame; but ordinarily selfishness or simple-mindedness is not the evil
It seems to be the shape of the indifference, the failure to love is what is toxic. This absence will take anyone down after a while, in any corner of the world.

Maybe indifference began by accommodating the impulse to affix blame. Growing out of a need to separate oneself from the brutality one witnessed. A need developed for expediency’s sake to make the suffering an abstraction.

To be angry or to be in love- both are loaded with consequence.
And I know that, at times, love can feel like the greatest of all risks
But not to follow it out, not to take the risk, wouldn’t that leave us isolated from all connections? To fall short of this final loss of innocence, to never say to another human being, I give you my life, wouldn’t that be the most tragic of all tragedies.

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