Saturday, October 31, 2009

these are the things I must never forget

My history, my friends, my adventures and this country: its plight, its struggle and the amazing capacity that resides within.

To capture my reasoning for the final memorable item I would like to share a story.

I will call this story "bit dine thow: throw ever stand."

Bit Dine Thow is the name for a famous toy from this country; the meaning also seems to capture the resilient aspects of the civilian population here, forever being tossed around; forever managing to land on their feet.

I learned about this special toy a few days ago. It occurred during a training I was facilitating on Child Development and Experiential Education for a number of local Community Based Organizations (CBOs). After presenting on maternal health, the importance of reading to children between the ages of zero and three, mental health problems in children and the Mozart Effect, I asked the group to break into small groups and design a toy that would help foster the healthy development of all aspects of child development (i.e., physical, motor, cognitive, social-emotional and language). Interestingly, rather than design what I imagined (a high tech futuristic toy with all sorts of gadgets and interactive educational parts) each group choose a simple yet highly effective toy that have been around for ages. One group selected a jump rope and described how all 5 aspects were developed, another chose the game of musical chairs with an added trivia component to push participants in the cognitive realm. The final group chose a Bit Dine Thow.

Bit Dine Thow is one of those round weighted balls that always lands right side up. I have seen them before but I can’t quite remember where I saw them or how they were designed. I will never forget the Bit Dine Thow and just in case I ever would have this group of trainees were kind enough to gift me one as a remembrance for our time spent together. I will cherish it for its appropriateness to my training as well as for the manner in which it was presented to me.

A day to never forget:

I start the day like any other in Y: up early at my relatively swanky hotel with a cup of Nescafe instant coffee and time to work on flip charts. I enjoy getting up early in general but I appreciate it here a bit more because it is one of the rare windows of opportunity I am given to connect with friends, family and other cherished ones who are living on the other side of the globe. There is a 12 and half hour time difference between here and Colorado (10 and a half to Tennessee). After a shower and coffee and a few skype conversations I head out for my 30 minute walk to the training center. It’s a complicated walk of traffic jams, intense drivers whose cars are made for British style driving but the rules of the road match American ones, busy buses, buzzing markets, calls to prayer, musical request to give alms to the monks, church bells, curb side tea shops, load music houses, internet cafes, kids playing football, adults playing caneball, women sweeping, men hustling, women selling flowers and women and men escorting uniformed kids to school.

Upon arrival to the training center I find my very reliable very organized tag team of county coordinators and interpreters waiting for me. They are quick and they are energetic and they are passionate about learning and incorporating new skills into their already diverse portfolios. Typically we have a quick meeting of minds and then start preparing for the days training; but today was different, today I would travel. Today I would see more than my hotel and the training center. Today I would taste some freedom and meet some local kiddos. Today was a special day.

The plan is to walk another few short blocks from the training center and meet the rest of the 21 participants near the post office. They are a team of teachers, community developers and doctors. After connecting we will visit the school they built for a convent of nuns to run with at-risk/poverty stricken kids and apply the new skills they learned in the training. This team knows these kids because they volunteer their time at this school teaching English and offering medical care.

Upon arrival to the meeting spot we find 7 of the participants sitting on short stools at a curbside tea shop enjoying a breakfast of samosas and rice curry. They are all laughing and chatting and it is clear they are a close team that enjoys each other both personally as well as professionally. They welcome us warmly and I order a tea (strong not too sweet). The tea here is truly unique and there are unique ways to order it mostly based on how sweet and strong you want it. After finishing a cup of milky/sugary tea you are welcome to have as many glasses of green tea as you like and tea kettles sit in the middle of the table for the purpose of a quick endless re-fill. This endless cup of follow-up tea facilitates the opportunity for folks to linger in tea shops and pontificate on all sorts of things. I firmly believe this is one of the many reasons the interpersonal skills here are beyond reproach.

This place has a tea culture and being a tea or a coffee culture is a welcoming sign for any outsider to any country. Without a tea or coffee component to the culture it seems a bit harder to break into the local realm of socializing; it’s not impossible, but it is definitely more difficult. Sometimes I wonder if this issue alone isn’t one of the primarily reasons outsiders believe Liberia is a difficult culture to live in. Although the average Liberian is exceptionally giving with their food and will say “let’s eat” (and mean it) to any stranger that passes by when they are eating: for some, this offer of food seems like too much to give when struggling and thus the offer is denied and the opportunity to sit and share time and space with locals is denied. Without coffee or tea (which is common in places such as Afghanistan, China, Bosnia, Nigeria, much of South America and most of the Middle East), there is a void of opportunities for casual connectivity in places like Liberia that does not involve alcohol or food, which can get expensive and/or rowdy, and thus the disconnect.

But I digress, after a quick tea, supplemented with a lovely conversation about romance and dating in Burma, we jump in the back of a flatbed truck that has been set up with seats along the sides and a hard top cover. Once all 21 of us were safely inside, teaching supplies and guitar in tow, we are off. Although I am delighted to see someone had brought along a guitar, I assume it is for the school based activities and sit back to take in the scenery for the 45 minute journey. Fortunately for me, and all my travel companions, the talented musicians in the truck wouldn’t give up the opportunity to play and sing and begin singing a series of traditional and modern songs with energy and passion. After a few brief moments, 90% of the riders delightfully join in on the singing. The young woman who sits next to me thoughtfully translates the words. The songs are about not being able to live without seeing the sparkle in a girl’s eye or the inability to think without knowing the next time they will be together.

Romantic, cheesy loves songs: can it get any better than that?

Along the way we cross a bridge where we see hundreds of fishing boats hard at work. We also pass by farms, houses and storefronts all busy with people trying to make a living. Feeling the impact of the numerous pot holes and observing the many severe shades of poverty is so much more difficult to witness here in a country when, one knows, deep in the back of one’s mind, that the suffering here is not due to lack of resources or wealth, just due to an all powerful all greed driven leadership.

Upon arrival at the school house the first thing I notice is thatch roof houses that make up the living quarters, outhouse and kitchen of the school…..bustling about is about 100 pink clad junior nuns, 60-70 matching adult nuns that are either playing the role of teachers or spiritual leaders and about 90 civilian kiddos all gathered together for a day of school and learning.

The teachers did a great job with their experiential education lesson plans and following the completion of all the psycho-social activities we shared lunch and had a brief reflection session about the training and what they took from it.
Following a brief certificate ceremony I was showered with gifts and a Bit Dine Thow.

As I sit once again in my swanky hotel working on flip chats and skyping with loved ones back home I realize I’m happy and content in this very complicated place and I feel blessed to have this new orb of people in my life. In Buddhism it is said that every person you meet has played a part in a past life and we are destined to cross paths in every life to come. I like that idea very much and know that with people like this around me I will indeed land on my feet and if I ever feel thrown away or thrown down I will land on my feet forevermore.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

these are the things i know as true

My name is Gwen and it is not an easy name to say around the world. My dear sweet country director in our Fang project, Pao Hom, reminded me of this when, shortly after I arrived, she noted that her father said, “oh dear that’s the one with the difficult name.” The good thing about that is I have been gifted many variations of my name and delightfully turn my head to Gwan, Glen and Gwoon in this corner of the world. I also know I am prone to adopt stray dogs wherever I go. The good thing about returning to these places is that I have learned dogs have fabulous memories and if for some reason I have done everything wrong in this life I will be happy to come back as a dog in my next life. My only hope would be that the dogs that have colored my life come back as dog pals or as humans for me to love as well as I’ve felt loved by them.

I know all this, yet there is much I don’t know or have failed to learn. A hundred times over I have been trying to figure out what I love about the place I am in now and although I try, the truest reason constantly eludes me. While I seem to know exactly why I have come to cherish the continent of Africa, specifically the West African region, the reason for loving this place is less clear. Regarding Africa, if the idea of past lives turns out to be true, I know deep in my heart I once lived a life there. My gut tells me I was a large graceful woman with 10 children, with magnificent head wraps and a fabulous singing voice. I also enjoyed laughing until I cried. This last quality seems to be the only quality that remains in this reincarnated life where I am called Gwen or a variation thereof. I can no longer sing and for some reason I am now fiercely independent with a bland sense of fashion. I appreciate the brazenness of Africa superimposed on its wisdom and eternal beauty. When given the opportunity, I also love to call it home.
My love for this place is different, no less powerful, but different in many ways.
What I do know is that I love the people first and then the environment. The universal character of the people here is awe inspiring and I feel deeply pleased every time someone smiles at me or says hello. Collectively they are gentle, and sweet and smart and quick to smile. They also are deeply curious, playfully sarcastic, self-deprecating and passionate about learning. The environment is beautiful no doubt, but it pales in comparison to the everyday person you meet in the street.

I also think that in this place the suffering has indeed led to amazing moments of enlightenment. I am surrounded by survivors but no one appears to be that distressed. It makes me think of the Chinese pictogram for crisis. In it is a combination of two symbols: danger and opportunity. Although there is nothing to suggest there has been opportunity here for decades, people persevere and shine and enjoy none the less.

So as I was saying I have much to learn but I have realized that there is something interesting about the quest for wisdom. It’s not the material you find on masters level examinations that matter; the art of knowing starts not in big lessons but in small nearly unremarkable experiences of everyday life.

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