Monday, November 8, 2010

Tough Times (4th of 5 Five for Oct. posted in Nov)

Tough Times. For Zane. Who is persistent in telling me that he wants to know how I FEEL.

I have a good friend who did a great deal of research about going overseas to do development work as he is also working overseas. He would relay to me that after about two months many volunteers would get very homesick or depressed in their placement.
I haven’t found myself to be homesick. I miss my children very much. That is the hardest part of being in Mozambique. I miss the immediacy of contacting other family members and seeing my parents. I miss friends who, the longer I am away, the more I realize how large a part of my day to day life they were. But, honestly, I haven’t had trouble with being in Mozambique.
Some of being here is fantastic! I am not sure if my stay here will always be this full of new and interesting things but it is incredible. Most of the time I just tell people about the exciting things. The beautiful things. The amazing things. There are many. Many wonderful people. Many wonderful customs. Many beautiful places. As for the flip side – I guess I have felt it is too hard to relay the other stuff. Some things are just so overwhelming that I can't process it all, much less find a way to share it.
If you have read any of the blogs in this October set you know that I have spent three intensive weeks seeing terrible living conditions, and coming face to face with abject poverty, as well as people who struggle to survive day to day. The first ten days or so, I didn’t acknowledge my personal connection to what I saw. I was observing, being the messenger, trying to engage without being engaged. The third week into interviews and touring neighborhoods, I lost my shield. I could still professionally report and maintain objectivity but at the end of the day, my connection as a fellow human being allowed the bleakness of it all to flood in.
I haven’t shared about “how I feel” in my blog, although I get requests about that all the time. It has seemed too personal for such a public forum. But I am making an exception this time because if you are one of the people asking to understand what it is like here doing what I am doing, then it is as important to share the hard things as the rest of it all. And I think it is important, as other fellow human beings to allow yourselves to try to connect with the reality of “here,” to experience this world so foreign to my own and probably yours, because we are all part of the global “us.”
The places I’ve been and the people I’ve spoken to come from all walks of life. I’ve met the Prime Minister of the country. I interviewed the Minister of Youth and Sports. I have interviewed many people involved in development work from top management to front line work. But the most intense interviews, and the ones I actually feel the most privileged to be able to do, have been with those people for whom the study I’m working on is being done. Those identified as being among the most vulnerable in urban Mozambique.
I say “privilege” because it has been through great courage and unselfishness that people spoke to us and allowed us into their private lives. Consider your own life. How difficult it would be to allow a stranger to sit in your home and ask you to honestly share the difficulties you face, especially if sharing that information might harm your chances of job somewhere, or your status among the people in your neighborhood, or merely your own sense of pride. On top of that, I am a stranger – and they are trusting that I am coming to speak to them as a peer, a person interested in what they have to say, and that what they have to say is most critical to the work we are doing.
In my darkest moments, what I find myself thinking about is how vast the problems are. How monumental the task is to eradicate the sort of poverty that puts people on the brink of life and death on a daily basis. I think, “what is a ‘bad day’” for someone who lives in the conditions I see around me. And from there it is an easy slide into questions in my head about "what am I doing here" and "does it matter anyway." I fell small and ineffective, as though there is nothing I can possibly do that makes change happen. I described it to someone as feeling as though I am pushing peddles on a paddle boat, trying to push harder and harder, only to find that the paddles aren't reaching the water. Nothingness. No matter how hard I try, there will be nothing.
Some of the things I have been doing are so hard to handle that I expend a great deal of energy trying not to think about them. But they have to be thought about. It has been rough. People have let us into very personal aspects of their lives and their lives are awful in so many ways. It isn't that I am typically caught up in any one person’s personal life - or feel responsible to helping this person or that person. You can’t do this kind of work and do that. It is that the people we speak with are representative of thousands of people living here in horrible, horrible conditions. And, honestly, I do get to know some of the people we interview. I meet them on the street, or at their vending corner and I say hello, and get a big greeting and we chat. Just as though I were meeting a friend at home in the USA in the grocery store. But I know it isn’t the same at all because I know what they go home to my flat, they go home to a completely different landscape with incredible challenges.
People in these tough neighborhoods love their children and do their best to take care of them every day just like I have with my family. They look for ways to shelter, to feed and keep their children alive. I haven't had to think like that. I have had to think about feeding, sheltering, and educating my kids. When that last bit is the prevailing factor every day – not education, but how to stay alive or ahead of any singular negative impact that will spiral your family towards life and death - well, life looks completely different.
Other times when I’m lying in bed at night and all is quiet, I think about how much doesn't have to be the way it is - but it does just because it is that way. And it will be a long time for things to get better. I force optimistic slogans trying to override the futility I feel. I try to think that every day is a possible moment for people here to make changes. There is just so much work to do.
I have seen so much. And I have been told so much that is beyond my imagination. There are pictures I have flashing into my consciousness that I don’t want to think about. But they come unbidden.
For example, In the city I went to up north, I spoke with three different groups of young people who were taking about problems and challenges in their neighborhoods. One was a group of university students the same ages as my kids. They are part of an organization that does some very good things in the community including going and helping at an orphanage that has very little resources. They didn’t mention crime as being one of the problems, which I found interesting so I asked about it. They said petty crime is still a factor but very violent crime was down. When I asked what had made a difference, I expected some sort of community watch system, better policing, something along those lines. They said some word I didn’t know and moved on to another conversation. When I had them stop and explain the word they had said this is what they said. There was a time when violent crime was rampant in their neighborhoods. And criminals wouldn’t stay in jail when they were arrested; with bribe money and pressure from gangs of bodily harm, police would let them go. Finally the community got tired of criminals being let out of jail, particularly ones who then came back to hunt down people who turned them in. They grew frustrated knowing that their neighborhood wasn't important enough to protect from these guys. So they created their own justice. They catch these guys, put a tire filled with gasoline over them and light them on fire. As the guy burns to death in the street, kids will even run at them and hit them with long sticks. I’m told it happens about once a month in different areas of the city. It is called "linchamento." And, they said. This is the reason hard-core crime - murder, rape, etc – has drastically declined in their neighborhoods.
That is something I never want to see - a person being burned alive. I told Quim, the person I was with up there in Beira, not to turn on any streets where there was smoke. I can't even get my head around what I think about the moral implications and really - I don't believe in this context I am going to judge the community based on something like that. I imagine that were this situation talked about around a table in the USA there would be people screaming “human rights” and how wrong it is, while others would be saying vigilante justice has to take over when other more civilized ways break down to be nonexistent. What kicks in for me is on a more incidental level - I can't get the thought out of my head that kids are brought up seeing guys burning to death in tires and so on and so on.
I put something like this in context with the population who are made up of people who came out of a bloody and nonsensical civil war, a guerilla war, not even two decades ago where, by the end of the war, there was no ideology or political fight going on. By then, people were fighting to stay alive - fighting for food and fighting because if they didn't fight, they would be killed. In Beira, the city that this story is all about, the majority of "rebel" or guerrilla fighters and their families came to live. The war started after the Portuguese left in 1972. So the largest demographic (15 - 36) as well as any one older are the people who survived that experience and their families. They are the population of the country for whom life and death is being seen through a completely different lens. It still doesn't make sense exactly - but it doesn't seem so unthinkable if I were to imagine how people who lived through such circumstances might think about justice. And how I might feel if I felt that there was no option for protection for my family from my government.
I know that to be here I need to be constantly learning and I want to try and understand. I have to be vigilant. I have to be observant. And I have to keep asking ask questions. But even there - when I heard about the “linchamentos” – this sort of thing draws me up short. There are just going to be questions I don't even know to ask.
So, that is the sort of thing that I sometimes think about at night. Like I said in the beginning, I can feel so insignificant. I feel like crying – and I do. I feel confused. I feel angry. I feel frustrated. I feel frightened. I feel tired. Very tired.
Feelings aren’t something I can control. Being who I am, though, these feelings have to be harnessed and used to help me make sense of what I am doing here and what I have in front of me. In this country, there is an incredible resilience. People living these complicated, vulnerable lives talked to us because there is a belief that somehow, some day, things will be better. They see fellow countrymen and women who are successful and live well. It is possible. As long as there is hope, there is room for change. Who am I to doubt? I alone am not going to change the way things are here. But maybe as part of a larger picture there is a reason for me to be here. Most of the time, I feel enough hope to imagine what can be. That is why I am still here. Because I also feel challenged, responsible, imaginative, driven, creative, excited, and I feel hope.

In and Around Beira
The Grande Hotel, Beira


  1. You make an immediate impact by befriending these people and allowing them to speak, and paying attention. They welcome your gift of trust and concern.

    In the longer run, what you teach is up to them to accept or reject and to put into practice.


  2. Thanks for sharing your feelings. Or at least trying to do so.

    Some thoughts... It seems that your feelings about the facts associated with lynching are tough to put into words.

    I've been struggling to rationalize another less immediate example of the killing of outlaws without trial. Missiles fired from Langley VA from drones over Afpak and other areas are used without kill in a process outside of any transparent judicial review. Dead, vaporized, atomized are not only the human targets but also collateral, i.e. their property and any family, associate or prisoner on the premises. lately these missiles have been downgraded in terms of explosive power to minimize "collateral" deaths. Other collateral have been "errors" - innocents erroneously targeted. Now the acknowledged error rate in selection of targets has decreased to under 10%, according to a story in this November's Atlantic.

    As for the toleration of horror, I can't imagine the trauma of witnessing either form of death. Certainly one form is intended to be witnessed by a large community, the other to be imagined by enemies of the States.
    The similarity is that in both cases the selection of targets for elimination is opaque to outsiders, the executions are not widely challenged on any moral ground, and discussion of more transparent methods of justice remains off the table.

    That's my perspective from SF for the moment. I would be interested in learning the who, what, when, where and why about any, if any, judicial reform. Here and there both. But I know that's not your job, or mine.

    sending a virtual hug from SF, S.