Monday, March 31, 2008

a psychologist who tries to write

Gwen/Gomah/Garmai’s Departure…

Goodbyes make me feel old. Yet, as expected, whenever I feel something in Africa something else happens to directly contradict what I’m feeling. This time it was the rain. When I say rain I don’t mean light rain fall on a cloudy day afternoon. I mean serious fence breaking, window shaking rain. The good thing about rain is that I know I am not older than rain. It’s been falling for years and after I go it will keep on falling.

I will depart Liberia on April 4, 2008.
I’ll leave a different person than who I was when I arrived.
Even the way I sign my named has changed.
I’ll leave with a suitcase full of country cloth, calabashes and a pair of worn out jeans.
Mercy and Morris and Dama will stay.
The change is fluid yet vague.
I am confident I will miss my hammock.
I will carry with me my found soothing stones and know they will work when called upon.

I will arrive back home feeling known and unknown by the people I left.
They knew me before; they know me well.
There is one individual here who knows me better than I know myself.
Sometimes I’m not sure I know myself at all.
I will ache for this place and I won’t be able to explain it, so I will be quiet.

Really, there isn’t much to say.

Gwen is a psychologist who tries to write.
Gwen fell in love with a place and its people.
It was her life for 12 months and 11 days.

Friday, March 14, 2008

greetings and misappraised misfortune



handshake, snap, side hug, one kiss, two kiss, three kisses, a-frame hug, shake, wave.

Being a global citizen is not easy-o. The mix of traditions about greetings can lead to some very awkward first encounters. As an American girl with a rather large pre-established personal space it can be a disaster. What I have learned is with the French its two kisses no matter what: sitting, standing, coming, going, male-female, male-male, female-female. With the Dutch and German it can be three kisses, but not always. With West Africans it’s either a handshake that ends with a snap of the fingers or a rather large hug with a lingering moment of hand holding while beginning a conversation. Other Africans also seem to appreciate the lingering handshake or a side hug. With a fellow American it’s typically a “What’s up?” with no body contact; on some occasions so you get the closed fist jailhouse bump or a clumsy a-frame hug.

I could go on but I think you get the point. For someone who gets a little anxious when people invade her personal space all of this is a bit disorganizing. Secondary to this experienced encounter confusion, I tend to make a lot of mistakes and end up head butting Swedes or jailhouse bumping proper Kenyans. At the end of the day everyone involved is about as confused as I am about the encounter.

misappraised misfortune

A few posts ago I mentioned I had suffered my third battle with malaria. Well guess what folks, last weekend recognizant forces brought in some reinforcements and world war IV was declared against your pal, Gomah. Ironically I was sitting in the aforementioned men’s group I have been ever so enjoying in Massabolahun and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I was struck by a series of bone shaking chills. Even though it was 99 degrees, my goose bumps were the size of nickels and I started to literally feel the parasite multiplying in my blood. The poor group members and local facilitators initially watched me attentively but did not comment on my rapidly changing state of being. This changed after I myself commented on it and jokingly mentioned that I might need to go get some sun to warm up. After that they quickly expressed genuine concern and started to convey a tremendous amount of empathy and a series of theories about what was happening to me. Excellent diagnosticians, their theory was confirmed once I returned to Voinjama and once again visited the local clinic.

Upon entry the staff quickly welcomed me with a “hello Gwan.” Apparently Gwen is an exceptionally bizarre and difficult to say name here. To them it sounds like you have something stuck in your nose. I love my name nonetheless and failed attempts at saying it doesn’t phase me because I also love all my new names and embrace each one of them like I have been given a chance to redefine myself.

But I digress…once at the clinic the physician assistant instantly grabbed an intake form and was able to fill out the first 7 lines without consulting me. I was briskly directed to the lab, given a paracheck for confirmation and then back to my car with my special malaria fighting formula in hand. Fortunately, I once again recovered like a rock star and was back at work on Monday.

Then came Tuesday. Typically a very lucky day for me (or maybe more appropriately a day I have turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy of lucky moments given I named my adorable canine at home Tuesday and started to adore the actual word and day as much as my mutt) this Tuesday was an exception.

After a day in the field with my staff I returned to the office a bit late; it was 5:33 to be exact. On any other day I typically start playing basketball between 5 and 5:15 so I was contemplating skipping it for the day. However, one of my buddies called from the court to inform me it was a good game. Given I felt the need to get a little exercise because I had relaxed in my hammock the ENTIRE weekend (recovering from the malaria) I quickly changed my clothes and headed to the court. Upon arrival my local boys promptly stopped the game and asked that I sub in. I was shocked by the sheer number of people around and all the new faces. Apparently a bunch of people were in town from Monrovia participating in the census and this game was serious because it was village versus big city. You see, just like every other country in the world, small towns can, at times, struggle with inferiority complexes when comparing their lives to that of those who live in the big city and those in the big city struggle with Napoleon complexes even if their lives really aren’t that great. They find it necessary to bluff with the best of them when they return to their home village and the locals find it necessary to prove that the cosmopolitans are not better men because they just happen to live in urban centers.

On my second run down the court something very unfortunate happened. I was heading back to play defense. We were playing a zone and I was a low post. I reached my spot and turned and I saw this giant 6 foot 4 monster of a guy heading straight for me for a lay-up. In my head I contemplated taking the charge but they don’t really understand the concept of an offensive foul here (and rarely call it) so I moved slightly to the left to get out of his way and just hoped that maybe I could knock the ball out of his hands. Before he took his first step he lifted the ball above his head and started his jump. This caused him to come down a little bit earlier than I had expected. His elbow ended up landing right between my eyes, knocking my forehead exceptionally hard. It hurt, no doubt, and I was a bit irritated by the experienced force of the knock but I knew it was not intentional and figured it was no big deal. That was until I looked at the faces of my teammates.

Everyone quickly gathered around me and started yelling, “Garmai you are bleeding bad-o!” I stepped off the court and realized I was in fact bleeding profusely. I went to my land cruiser and looked in the side mirror and revealed that the reason I was bleeding profusely was because the cut was incredibly deep. Everyone was freaking out so I became very calm and grabbed my phone to call my friend Enrica who is a nurse for ICRC. She didn’t answer so I called her teammate and even though he didn’t quite understand me he told me to come over (later I was informed he thought I still wasn’t feeling well from the malaria). I had one of the guys from the court drive which, due to his inexperience and high levels of adrenalin from playing and seeing what had happened to me, drove incredibly bad. We were stalling and shifting at all the wrong times and our entire trip to the ICRC residence was a disaster. Upon arrival Enrica took me inside and asked me to sit while she washed her hands. I realized I had forgotten to tell Enjamal, the volunteer driver, what to do so I went back outside. Enrica came back only to find me missing and came chasing after me to get me back in the chair. At that point I realized I was shaking; finally allowing myself to let the shock settle in, one giant tear dropped from the corner of my eye.

Enrica called the doctor who works at my malaria clinic. He told us to meet him at the clinic. She transferred me across town with a huge bandage on my head. When Dr, Berhanu arrived he gently patted me on my back and quietly said, “Why am I not surprised it is you.” At first look he didn’t think I needed stitches but then he went to disinfect it and made a clicking noise in this throat and said, “oh yea we will need to stitch this up a bit.” 25 minutes later I excited the clinic with a 3 inch long zigzag on my forehead. Having inspected it today Enrica thinks it’s very good work and I will likely have no scar. Dr. Berhanu is an exceptionally well respected surgeon from Ethiopia and Enrica later informed me that I was very likely living in the best village in Liberia to receive a surgical procedure in.

So now I have a week of trying to be creative with my head wear as the bandage is huge and wrapped around my head in such a manner I look like one of those guys in an old World War I war movie who had just stepped off the front lines with a battle wound. Good thing is all my African sisters are masters at the head scarf. Last night I sat in front of my mirror practicing what I had been taught so I can make it through the week without frightening our clients and small children on the street.

With all this being said a few of you might be thinking I am suffering from some bad karma right now. I might have agreed had the following not occurred to suggest otherwise:

This very kind doctor invited me to his home so he could change my bandage. While sitting there I was introduced to the regional health delegate who was here visiting his team of doctors in the field. Utilizing my usual defense mechanisms I was trying to crack jokes and ease the evident concern in the room. I mentioned I have suffered from four boughts of malaria in the last three months in addition to dealing with this wee gash on my forehead. This health delegate quickly became very interested and said, “This shouldn’t be happening tell me everything about your episodes and treatment.”

I proceeded to tell him my long story starting at my first battle where I was med-evaced out of the bush and vomited all over the chopper to the most recent experience of bone breaking chills. Somewhere in there I was able to make it explicitly clear that the doctors in Monrovia had informed me I had the Vivax strain of malaria. Right there he stopped me and said, “The Vivax strain, are you sure?” I was in fact pretty sure because my very concerned father had asked me to find out what strain it was while I was hallucinating in the bizarre container the Jordanian docs had put me in Monrovia and I had saved the text message on my cell phone for a number of weeks.

The doctor became very animated and said, “In West Africa this strain is exceptionally rare occurring in only 1% of the cases and this strain needs different medicines than the ones you are currently taking. What you are taking treats the majority of the symptoms and causes the strain to go dormant for some time but it does not kill it off,” hence the break through episodes. Although they do not have this medication in Liberia he would send it from Dakar as soon as he went back.

I was instantly reminded of a fable that my dear friend Andre brought to Liberia last October when he was completing his Human Rights Fellowship on the Utilization of Story in Therapy. It goes as follows:

One day a man woke up to find a beautiful horse in his yard. No one came to claim this horse so he kept it and used it to help farm his land. His neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend it’s amazing how this horse just showed up and stayed with you, you truly have been blessed.

The man said, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.

A few weeks later this horse ran away. The neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend how tragic that your horse ran away it seems that you have been cursed.

The man said, maybe it’s good, maybe it’s bad.

A few more weeks passed and the horse returned with a herd of horses and the man kept these horses on his property. The neighbor stopped by and said, dear friend how amazing not only has your horse returned but has brought all these other healthy horses with him, you truly have been blessed

The man said, maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad

Another couple of weeks passed and this mans son decided to try and ride the horse. He was bucked off and broke his leg. The neighbor heard the news and came and said, dear friend how tragic this horse has hurt your eldest son. It seems that you have been cursed

The man said maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad.

A few days passed and the King declared war on the neighboring county and made an announcement to be spread throughout the land that all young men were to report to the border to defend the country. Due to the fact this boy had broken his leg he could not go fight. Then neighbor returned and said, dear friend how amazing you son will not have to fight because his leg is broken.

The man quietly walked away whispering...maybe it’s good maybe it’s bad
So you see I have indeed endured much in the last couple of months with regards to illness and misfortune. Dealing with these things in unison with my pending departure has been a bit overwhelming, to say the least. But for some reason this recent accident, a massive gash on myhead, seems to have been a blessing in disguise.

Friday, March 7, 2008

the glory of the mustard seed

entanglements of human relationships, solace of nature: comforts of human relationships, isolation of nature.

Entanglements of human relationships. On Friday I returned to the office after an incredibly touching men’s group in Massabolahun. It should be noted that the pressure to control one’s emotions is also indoctrinated into the fabric of the culture here and the subtle reminders that ‘real men don’t cry’ can sometimes result in resistance to the group process. Given these groups have been created with the sole purpose of helping trauma and torture survivors process their memories and express their emotions, most men who get involved in therapy end up feeling a little bit conflicted about what to do. They seem to quickly forget all the emotional and environmental problems they reported upon first contact with our organization. In direct contrast to this frequently observed resistance, this very unique group of men in Massabolahun have embraced the idea of affect expression wholeheartedly and are not only processing difficult emotions openly, but trusting each other with some very sensitive and very personal information. The later of the two is the added benefit of having group psychotherapy instead of individual treatment. The building of human relationship occurs automatically and when something personal is shared, a sense of togetherness is experienced without any volitional goals set to accomplish it – it’s just happens naturally. The push pull of engagement and mistrust is ever present for psychotherapy groups no doubt, but members who are willing to process these feelings tend to make great gains with dealing with the entanglements of human relationships.

Upon arriving back at the office after this very touching group session I entered the compound in a bit of a rush thinking about all the paperwork and evaluations that needed to get done. On my left I could hear our administrator talking loudly in one of the palava huts to a group of security guards, counselors and our well dressed gardener (I say well dressed because he was once again wearing his Iowa Hawkeye’s Outback bowl t-shirt). I figured the administrator had organized a staff meeting. Given its hot and my window was open I heard the following:

What Jesus did and what he said is the path for the glory of god. You understand? All that glory that comes is brought by God. Size and wonders will follow you so everything is done in Jesus’ name. So this power is yours. Get it? As human beings you are able to rise again. But it’s not happening now you might say and I would say it’s because you don’t now have that faith. You understand? A mustard seed is small. You understand. Because the mustard seed is smaller than a benie seed you might think it’s less powerful but that seed is able to produce more and that is the power behind it. You understand.
[there is a brief pause]. Hey AB do you even know how to program that phone. Bring it. I have the knowledge for these things. There are many things it can do, you know. I know about these things and I’ll show you because I know things you don’t know. I understand because The Glory of God is behind me. Behind ME you hear. The Glory of God is all powerful. Do you understand?

I don’t know about you but I don’t understand. And by ‘not understanding’ I mean I don’t comprehend a single spoken word of that entire speech. How is that possible? How can it be that this typically intelligent very kind fellow sounds ever so slightly disorganized and very arrogant when he is standing in his self made pulpit? I have no problem with him having faith and sharing it with fellow believes but I am not quite sure I understand the message here especially when I notice that half of his audience does not share in his religious affiliation and AB is starting to feel bad. I’m also not sure I will ever understand this process of religious beliefs leading to unconstrained superiority. But, please dear reader do not take this the wrong way. By no means do I wish to comment on anyone’s identity as a religious person or how they live their life. I personally have a very difficult time understanding my own identity and belief system in light of the fact that I am open to the validity of beliefs held by many traditions and do not have issue with any single tradition. What I know is that my own understanding of life and death has been transformed, purified, and enriched by the ways in which I have come to understand all traditions, not just one. There is an incredible amount of diversity in contemporary practices of religion and I am touched and moved by the manner in which people do wonderful things in the service of their beliefs. I only hope I some day reach a point where I can resolve my agitation about how religion is at times exploited and can lead to the maltreatment of others as I know religious identity is complex issue. Presently I struggle with two extremes – some days I feel hardened against it and want nothing to do with it and other days I feel so willing to learn more, try more, incorporate more into my life that the possibilities seem endless and the beauty of faith comforts me like a soft blanket.

With that being said, I didn't think aobut any of this on the day when I heard this gentleman start demeaning his colleagues level of knowledge about technology and for some reason I bristled at his bogus sense of righteousness and screamed out the window – ‘hey: let’s watch the references to faith in this compound, we are a neutral organization right?’ I see his face freeze in a state of anxiousness and I flush at the crudity of my own words and wonder if I am being unfair. Nobody seems to notice the intensity of our non-verbal interaction and everybody casually gets up and starts to go about their own business: business that had plenty to do with cell phones and the latest Nigerian movie playing in the nearby movie house but little to do with the glory of the mustard seed.

Solace of nature. The relief I get from nature tends to vary in direct relation to the environment and state of mind that I am in. What I can say is that I’m not very good at “being” with nature. This tragically comes from a girl who has decided to settle her belongings in Colorado – one of the most conducive places on this planet to appreciating the solace of nature. Just last year I was blessed to connect to someone who had recently relocated to Colorado from California. This gentleman had an amazing ability to just ‘be’ in nature and at times it even appeared that if he was indoors too long he started to feel suffocated and smothered. He craved the air, the water, the earth like an addict craves their drug of choice and he made it his mission to be outside engaging with nature as much as humanly possible. He even lived out of his VW bus from time to time so he could simply roll out of bed onto a beach or into the forest or whenever his heart so desired. His style of engagement with nature was inspirational, untainted and pure. I was lucky because I learned much from him, but once again I have to admit that I’m not very good at just being, especially when it comes to nature. I am quick to get distracted, I have a tendency to rush and I have this uncanny ability of attracting mosquitoes.

For me, what I am good at when it comes to engaging with nature is playing in it. As a small girl I lived in a woodsy area where I was the only girl in a sea of boys. I very quickly learned that if I wanted to play I would have to play their way. We built forts, rode skateboards, dug tunnels and secret passageways in snowy banks and aggressively engaged in sports. Anything from basketball to badminton was included and it was always with a no holds bar attitude. So to me nature quickly became a place where you do something. Today this typically means taking a long walk with Tuesday, loading up my snowboard for a trip to the mountains or grabbing my basketball and finding a court.

Comforts of human relationships. Interestingly, but maybe not so surprisingly, some of the most comforting human relationships I have made are tied to a mutual love for play. A few months ago I wrote about my experience of playing basketball as a woman in Africa surrounded by ex-combatants and Pakistani peace keeps. Well this experience, an experience that was sometimes tense and sometimes uncomfortable, has unfolded into a very special part of my life. Nearly every evening and twice a day on the weekends I have gotten together with a group of local men ranging in age from 15 to 40 and we play. There is Massallay, my most favorite of teenage boys. He lost both his parents during the war and presently lives in town with a friend of the family so he can go to school. From time to time he is given permission to visit his maternal grandmother in the village. He loves this grandmother dearly and would prefer to live with her but there is no school in this village so he must tolerate the neglect and misfortune that infiltrates his life in the big city for the sake of his education. In spite of it all, he is polite and thoughtful and charismatic and developing into a true leader. Then there is Kobe Bryant. I don’t know Kobe’s real name as he was been gifted this name long before I met him due to the fact that every time he plays basketball he proudly wears his Kobe jersey. Any chance he gets he downloads NBA footage to his phone and after practice he can been seen practicing these street savvy moves with gusto. He is talented, a good observer of other people’s weaknesses and is quick to exploit them. He’s a bit of a ball hog but at the end of the day you have to be if you are truly going to be one of the greats and he has the potential, no doubt. Finally there is Mohammed. Also known as Coach, Mohammed is the eldest and BEST player on the court. Aside from being a true athlete he has an amazing sense of humor and contagious laugh. We truly enjoy playing together, are known by all as partners, and when ever it is time for 2-on-2 we step up and play together. We have yet to be beaten and just yesterday we both showed up at the court wearing flip flops and work clothes as neither one of us had time to go home after work to change. In reality neither one of us had really planned on playing but it is commonplace for all of us who play regularly to at least stop by the court to say hello on our way home for the evening. As Mohammed and I stood there and chatted about the pending dinner I wanted to have we were challenged by a few of the guys on the court. Being the fierce competitors that we are we couldn’t tolerate not accepting the challenge, so we accepted without hesitation. Even in flip flops we couldn’t be beaten. He has an exquisite eye for the pass and with time we have learned to read each other incredibly well.

The reason I am having this dinner is because these guys decided to accept me into their little world and treated me as an equal and last weekend they did something incredibly touching. Together, unbeknownst to me, they decided to plan a farewell/exhibition game for me. For weeks they arranged the rosters, invited important people from town and even put an announcement on the local radio station. On the day of the event they all showed up in matching jerseys and arranged benches around the court for the fans who showed up to watch and support us. It was youth vs. old school. You may be surprised to hear this but I played for old school. Every trip down the court they would look to me for the pass and set all these elaborate picks so I could get off a shot. It was fun yet serious and at the conclusion of the game there was a long series of speeches all thanking me for my passion and interest in basketball. Even the superintendent showed up and he remarked that my playing basketball with the locals was probably more helpful that my professional work here. In some ways it might be true. Tonight I hope to thank them by having them all over for dinner. So, even though I struggle in some ways to find solace in nature, my tendency to get outside and play has paid off in spades for me here in Voinjama.

Isolation of nature. Although as I just noted that I have a difficult time taking solace in nature I can strangely say that when I am feeling connected to nature it typically happens when I am in complete isolation from others. Lying in my hammock looking at a sunset, standing on dusty path in the interior of Africa, searching for soothing stones on an abandoned beach; these are the times I feel most alive in nature. When I’m alone and isolated from others I can engage with nature or maybe more correctly I can feel what it’s like to be close to nature. If you bring anyone else into the equation, even a stranger that is not directly relating to me or infiltrating my personal space, I lose it and I am overtook by an urge to move.

I love traveling alone because I can set out for the day and make decisions like, “today – I walk,” and, nobody will take issue with the fact I didn’t visit the famous museum or historical landmark. Or today I sit at the café and people watch for 4 hours. The isolation in my decision making and lack of anxiety about deciding something and wondering about how it will affect someone else is exhilarating. But even then, even when I feel freer than I have ever felt before, if there are people around I need to move. It is only in isolation from others that I feel held by nature. Nature may at times be isolating but the world is a populated place and sometimes isolation is the best prescription for our troubles.

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