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


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

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