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.


Jason Groessel said...

Dear Gwen,
Wow! I am so glad my mom ran into your parents in J'ville recently. I just got off the phone w/ my mom and she filled me in about your blog. I just finished reading your 07/11 entry(today's) and I plan on reading them all. I don't remember the last time I saw you... a long time ago I know...and I'm sure I was drunk and stupid which is probably why I don't remember. Anyway, write me when you get a chance (if you have a chance), I would absolutely love to hear from you further.
I really hope to hear from you soon,

Jason Groessel

rebecca said...

I love this post. After only 5 days here in West Africa (Ghana), I practically shouted at my housemates today "Does anyone want to see my 'Hyper-Happy Good Morning Dance'?

Perhaps now I don't have to blame the malarial prophylactics... :)

Sara said...

I have no words for what you communicate through your writing Gwen. One cannot begin to imagine what you witness each moment you are in Liberia. Thank you for sharing a piece.

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