Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Postcard from Qatar -

All Aboard
The tall man in his 30s, sitting on the aisle seat immediately in front of me, raises his voice belligerently toward the young Indonesian flight attendant. Apparently he doesn’t think his drink was served on time. The flight attendant kneels on the cabin floor and her hands together in front of her as though in prayer. I can see she is upset, she is trying to apologise, but he just keeps talking over her, her eyes now brimming with tears. She starts to move away and I touch her elbow and tell her “tidat apa apa”, don’t worry, you tried to serve, you can’t take responsibility for every bad tempered Bule[i]. Now she is crouching in the aisle beside me, says how she feels she has delivered bad service, her tears begin flowing and making dark spots on her bright red skirt. She is new to this work, she just can’t understand this man’s rudeness, she is trying to adjust to a new set of norms. The French man behind me hands her a tissue as she straightens and returns to the rear of the plane.
I chat with the attractive Indonesian women next to me. She is probably in her late twenties and has just been to visit a man in a small town in Wisconsin for 6 months. He is a machinist in a large factory. She met him on the internet, she hopes they will marry.
Next to her in the window seat of my row, there is another Indonesian woman, probably in her early thirties. She is using kerundung (the Muslim headscarf) and I am guessing she is one of several hundred “migrant workers” on this flight returning from “Arab Saudi”. The issue of migrant or “remittance” workers is something that interests and concerns me and I am trying to get time to figure out how I can engage with migrant workers in our ADPs so that some of the money they earn can help them to set up small businesses to provide ongoing support for themselves and their families after they return.
Through the woman next to me, I explain that I am involved in economic development work and would like to ask her some questions. She graciously agrees.
Her story is as follows. She went to Saudi Arabia as a migrant worker for two years but is returning after only four months. She explains she had to leave because her employer kept trying to rape her. She comes from a poor village in central Java and has three children. Her husband left her and now two of her children stay with her ex-husbands family and the third with her parents. She decided to find work overseas to earn money so that she could provide her children with an education and was expecting to be able to send back about USD$80 each month. To get a work placement overseas she registered with an Indonesian based Saudi employment agency. She didn’t receive any training before she left and was sent to a family in Saudi Arabia as a housekeeper. After several months she complained to the agency that the husband of her host family kept trying to rape her. They advised her to ask her employer for extra money and sleep with him. Rather than do that, she decided to come home to Indonesia. This means that for her 120 days work, away from her village, her children, everything familiar to her to a land which she didn’t not speak the language, she has only been paid USD $150. The balance was deducted by the agency to pay her original plane ticket. She seems resigned to things as they are and is looking forward to seeing her kids.
Because people smugglers only charge a month’s salary as opposed to 6 to 12 months charged by the “official agencies”, many migrant workers become “unofficial” which makes them even more vulnerable to potential abuse and exploitation. Impacts on the workers themselves can be life shattering. Men returning to villages with HIV and AIDS, naive village women who may have no rights or access to any outside help in a new country may be beaten by their hosts for failing to perform as expected or raped by household men. There are many stories of female workers returning with unwanted pregnancies and as a result, losing their husbands and becoming ostracised by their families. Money sent back by a married woman may be used to fund a second wife for her Muslim husband back in the village or to pay for celebrations, house extensions or assets that mostly need to be sold again, at a loss, within a few months of the migrant returning. Then the family is back to where it started and the migrant worker returns overseas again.
Throughout Asia issues surrounding migrant workers are not new. There are some 6 million Indonesian Migrant workers sending almost USD 10 billion home each year[ii]. It is Indonesia’s second largest source of foreign earnings, the number one earner in the Philippines and high in almost every Asian country. Governments are unwilling or unable to train workers in vocations or in their human rights or pass regulations to protect workers like the simple self sacrificing, brave village woman sitting on the plane next to me. She has the “life in all its fullness” clearly in mind for her children, and has been prepared to take almost unimaginable risks to “make that so” , we share the same aspiration and there must be something we can do together.
I remember a quote "In development work, we have learned more about how to measure poverty than how to reduce it. "[iii] But I think to myself but there is always something we can do.
I am flying on Qatar. Their logo is an Oryx , before now I had never heard of an Oryx, the magazine says it is a type of antelope but it looks like a goat to me. If you are starting an airline why would you pick an oversized goat for your logo? Which leads me reflect on flying Kangaroos.
I did have a real piece of luck on the previous Washington DC to Doha leg. I sat next to a Colonel who introduces himself to me as Dr. Bill. He is a member of the US Army and on his way to Doha to deliver lectures on emergency field medicine to military physicians working in Iraq. We become friends, talked philosophy, daughters, wars on Taliban, wars on poverty. When Dr. Bill retires he wants to work for an aid agency he thinks he could help introduce some US military systems thinking. I gave him my card and he gave me 6 tablets of Ambient . Now , Dr Bill explained to me each tablet has a half life of 3 hours so if you take a full tablet it will knock you out for 4 hours cold.
“The trick is” he says ,
“don’t take a tablet until you are about half an hour in the air and fairly sure the plane is not going to turn around and make an emergency landing. Because you won’t wake up and your friends will have to carry you off the plane. But after four hours you will wake up fresh as a daisy, no side effects, scouts honour.”
Now to a person in my position who at that point had not slept for 24 hours and still has many hours to travel and as one who doesn’t generally sleep on planes, Bill is a drug bearing gift from God. Unfortunately it is too late for me to take an Ambient on this leg, we only have 3 hours to go and I don’t have any friends to carry me off the plane to wake up somewhere in Doha.
After a 7 hour stopover in Doha ,we are onboard again for the 8 hour flight to Singapore. I wait for an hour to make sure we are not turning back and take just half a tablet.
I wake up 3 hours later after the most wonderful sleep, I can’t believe it. And I am full of life an bon ami that I go and sit beside a French women at the bulkhead . Her young son seems to have more arms than a Hindu deity and all of them in her breakfast. So I hold him while she eats and tell this delightful five month old boy about the wonders of the universe.
It turns out that the French woman’s husband is Indonesian and flies for Qatar but she doesn’t know anything about Oryx either.
The plane is getting ready to land and a woman’s voice makes an announcement which ends;
“and we hope you have a plentiful supply”
A plentiful supply of what?
I turn to the Chinese guy across the aisle from me, who has something to do with repairing electronic eyes on oil drilling equipment.
“What did she say?”
“She said we hope you had a freasant fright”
And I look around the small community of friends I have made during the flight and think that all in all it was a “freasant fright” partially made possible by the US Army.
[i] White person
[ii] Business in Asia Today - Sept 2, 2009
[iii] DR. MANUEL OROZCO Inter-American Dialogue Conference on Remittances and Millennium Development Goals, 2008

Some Feedback to Postcards

I began writing what I call ‘postcards’ for fun and to communicate with a few friends about some of my reflections as a result of my work in the field. My first postcards were written around August of 2008. And not long after that these short written slices of life began to be published through the intranet at World Vision Australia which is available to around 600 staff. It never really occurred to me that I was writing for more than my own amusement or to fill in time doing something creative (and safe) to while away hours in some dull hotel room in whatever far flung country where I happened to be. And it has been a surprise to me that these little vignettes are meaningful to others in the organisation and to cause a surprising number of people to reflect on their lives and work in ways that seem to be positive. And it makes me pause and wonder how generally casual I am with what I say, as well as my shallow understanding of what my gifts are. Of how important it is to acknowledged that everything we do has some impact somewhere and my own need to listen to others to help me understand my own giftedness and voice when I have been too busy or self focused to notice. What a responsibility we have to play a small role in the lives of one another, in helping us all become all we are called and have been gifted to be! So for the record I have copied in some of the feedback I have received. It never occurred to me to save peoples responses until now so below is some of the feedback I could find from the last few months.
I found it incredibly moving and also felt a sense of hopelessness for the people in the Wema region that Jock meets with. I wondered what/Who keeps Jock upbeat through all of these incredibly difficult and emotional issues?
I found the quote from Thomas Merton that Jock commented on helpful..... “Do not depend on the hope of results....you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself....You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people....In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything." Thank you Jock so much for sharing with me. It brings the work we do so much closer to home when we read your stories.

You do more work for the organisation in your missives than 10 of those 'expert' wankers do all year.
I have been enjoying reading your postcards. The stories and insights assist me in connecting to the field. I have encouraged my team to read them as well as it can be difficult to remember why we join this organisation after time. This type of information can help us not lose sight of the important things. Thanks
So good to read your postcard from Wema. These days I find it increasingly difficult to really stay connected to our work - being lost in the maze of phone calls and email civility. This morning your postcard with all your insight and sensitivity dragged me back to the kernel. The stark reality of our work.
Whether we make a difference or not ultimately is indeed as you say another matter. The fact that our hearts are in the right place when we are doing what we do - has to be a large part of it. Thanks for showing me your heart as you faithfully involve yourself in our work. Thanks for showing me that my heart had become full of weeds.
This was very powerful, I love the descriptions of the people - their character and dress, have you planned your first novel? Writing as colourful and evocative of life on the other side as this would be very popular. Your writing style reminds me of No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It is a sobering reminder of what poverty really is on the ground - people desperately trying to maintain their dignity in the midst of hunger.
Just loved your postcard of life in Utsar. I used to find development dilemmas such as us wanting to develop independence with our community workers so we didn't pay them to plant trees to allay erosion. Then the government came along and paid them to plant trees - a good thing to plant trees - but then community dropped our scheme and even used to pull up plants so they could be paid to replace them.
Anyway, thanks for these postcards.

Just wanted to pass on a quick thanks to Jock for his published stories in weekly vision. Always a great laugh, and thoroughly enjoy reading about his latest journey's. Please pass on my appreciation if you can and encourage him to publish a book as it would be a best seller.

Loved your story from the field - the many truths and our role in that! Was great!

Loved the latest instalment on the hub! You should be a travel writer

Your postcards are gold. Thank you so much for these. They make me feel both there and connected, but also very much that I am not there - and thus sad. Maybe doing WV work, in this mostly vicarious way, from the computer back in the homeland is not all I should be doing? Anyway your postcards stir the passions for our work giving me 'yourworkjoy' envy..... probably wrong..... but your passion for your work is very contagious.... even when the roosters need their heads cut off..and more green flashes and sunsets please

It was really good to read your story on the web (once again!) - I loved the Merton quote - these are all issues I think we all grapple with all the time - and difficult to find answers to, but Merton quote does help, and I personally do think it's the walking alongside, and validating people in their experience and truths, as you say - good reminder while we're in the middle of the meta-evaluation which brings all the questions of 'results' to the forefront and makes you despair at times, thanks for your article,

Thanks for your postcard story from Kenya...I love the way you construct your story so that we can enter into the experience...& be humbled by it... I will share this with a number of key church people around the state...

Just love your postcard from Kupang airport. Been there and done that but probably got too used to it to notice all the little bits although one trip I do remember was with Enrico Guterrez, the notorious gangster from the E Timor massacres at independence time. As I sat in Kupang airport, I wondered who else was with him and which firearms he was carrying, given that it was unlikely anyone would have prevented him from taking them on board. And wondering what I would say if his seat was next to mine.
Great stuff.

You have once again written a piece that is entertaining, and engages the reader throughout: I'm a big fan of yours!

I hope it’s OK to cry when we read stories on the Hub
Thanks for once again reminding us all what it’s really all about

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Believing into Real.

Postcard from Flores
(Left; Flores kids on the beach at Maumere)

Belief in what is real takes all kinds of forms. I recently bought a new pair of glasses in Jakarta. The ones that I felt suited me best and gave me a new look, were some by Giorgio Armani. They cost about the same as they would have in Australia, but I needed them, my world increasingly out of focus. I proudly collected them a week later and I am now wearing some spec s that turn my head into a bill-board for Giorgio Armani. That Giorgio reputedly sniffed so much cocaine that he burned out his nasal passages and had to have a stainless steel plate inserted in his nose, didn’t diminish how special I felt for the first few days. I think it was about the fourth day that I was and working with an economic development committee in a slum community. One of the Ibu’s (women) came out the front of the room to write up something on the flip chart, and I noticed that she was wearing the same glassed as mine. She too had the silver Giorgio Armani emblazoned on each side of her glasses. Were they real, were they fake, did it matter that this humble woman was also sporting my precious designer look? Did she spend $400 at an optometrist or $5 down at the local market?
A few months ago, I also became the proud owner of a Rolex Submariner. I had wanted one since I was a teenager. Naturally, it has a Swiss movement, a shiny Oyster case with the little bubble in the glass to better see the date and the weight conveys strength, reliability and quality. The Balinese man who sold it to me swears that no one can tell the difference from the real timepiece, in fact he said he is not sure, it may even be real. That it was made in Korea and was $4000 cheaper than the original made it affordable, believe me, I didn’t put any Swiss watchmakers out of work. I wore it proudly for my four days in Bali between work assignments and spent time in restaurants looking admiringly at my wrist. But there is a problem. It is so realistic that I no longer feel comfortable wearing it. When working directly with people who are poor, it is one thing to wear a $50 watch, but quite another to wear one that is $4000. And what is the point of wearing such a watch if you have to explain to everyone you meet that it is a fake, whenever you look at the time?

I have been wrestling with the idea of what I believe in and my role in helping others to believe in things that are a lot more real than my Rolex. And I am struck that the value of something or someone has a lot to do with the belief we project and how we name it. I notice that I am much more productive and infinitely more creative when others believe in me. And I am astounded by the power of my belief in others. Some of this has to do with our use of words. For example I have begun to discipline myself to say “people who are poor” rather than “poor people” as I think this better conveys the belief that we are all people first and we share a common humanity rather than a portfolio of labels. It is like, we don’t say “cancer people”, as though their cancer defines them, we say “people who have cancer.”
I am travelling in a car to a remote town on the East Indonesian island of Flores, it is late, the other five passengers are asleep. I am sitting in the front seat and exhausted. I only returned from Africa the day before yesterday, that trip was 25 hours with no sleep. In Dubai I bought a new Canon 550D digital SLR camera, I think it was a good deal but I don’t really know, anything looks like a good deal when you are sleep deprived . So I am somewhere between excited by my new purchase and concerned that I have just put the equivalent of two years income for one of the people I am working for, on my credit card. I know from past experiences that sleep deprivation merged with a deep ingrained retail compulsion is a risky combination . Like when I bought some Bose ‘noise cancelling’ earphones and latter discovered from my credit card statement that they had cost me the equivalent of a small car; not of course that I need a small car when travelling in an aeroplane at 35,000 feet.

We flew 5 hours today and are now taking a 4 hour car trip to Larentuka in the east of Flores. It is just dark, we are on a narrow bitumen road that passes through small villages, there is no electricity, just the soft glow of a kerosene lamp here and there. On my lap the new Canon, in case we pass the shot of a lifetime, or because it makes me feel special,? A slight contraction of the heart, I am too tired to work it out. Around each curve our headlights reveal one surprise after another, a broken down truck, some rocks from a landslide, a section of road partially collapsed to the valley below, we swerve to miss a some brown skinned villagers walking in the middle of the road. The women wear beautiful locally woven ikat sarungs dyed in dusty earthen colours. The men have the sarungs draped around their shoulders like Indonesian Masai, have I been on the road too long? The radio is playing country and western music by a local band from Flores. Every so often one of the songs is in English. The chorus of one is “He drinks tequila and she talks dirty in Spanish” , this refrain goes over and over in and out of my half sleep, I see the Sphinx and the Pyramids and again the road as we swerve to miss another group of locals.
The hotel is uncharacteristically clean, we come through the doors into to a wide entrance hall and all the rooms open on to it. There are armchairs beside each door and there are half a dozen men relaxing with sweet tea smoking clove kretek cigarettes. The men look relaxed , do they know that their island fags are now being produced by the global Philip Morris and have twice the nicotine and three times the tar of a regular cigarette? Marlborough country. There are also mosquitoes, swarms of them. I have a little plug in anti-mosquito device, but there is no power, so I give one of the boys some money and he goes off to buy me some mosquito coils. There is no towel in the room. I ask the house boy but he thinks I want soap and I can’t make myself understood. I am so tired I give up. I take a bath in the mandi, throwing cold water over myself from a water tank in the bathroom and dry myself with the shirt I have worn all day. About 3am, something smacks my cheek, it has legs, and in a second I am standing on the bed, heart pounding not really knowing where I am, but knowing that something and I have had an unnatural connection. Fortunately the power is now on, and I see a cockroach the size of a cigarette lighter running for its life. Not fast enough though, my one litre bottle of water nails it to the floor and it is an ex-cockroach. At least I know what it was. It must have been running across the ceiling and lost it grip, landing inauspiciously on the cheek of the only white man in Larentuka. I go back to sleep wondering if God loves cockroaches.
Next day. My work this morning is work with twenty of our staff to help them come up with ideas on what they can do to help to increase the incomes of people in this ADP in eastern Flores. They have been working in the area for 10 years and generally household wealth has not increased. It’s not that these earnest young men and women don’t want to make a difference to peoples economic wellbeing, but it just seems that they don’t know how. And part of not knowing how is that they don’t share a belief that things can really change. They are often so preoccupied with all the problems, the powerlessness of villagers and our own systems that they seem almost confused as to their role. I ask them, one by one, “why are these people poor?” and they come up with a number of different answers, one says “because they are not educated” and I say, “ but I know uneducated people who are not poor” another says “because they are not motivated” and another says “because they are lazy” and I say “ but I know people who are not motivated and who are lazy but they are not poor” and then one says “because they don’t have enough money”. And as an economic development person, that is the answer I am looking for . Someone else says “but it is not in our Annual Operating Plan” and I say, “the people in your ADP cannot eat your AOP (Annual Operating Plan).“

There is a lot of malaria here and this morning I noticed some mosquito bites and so on the way to the ADP I bought some anti malaria tablets. So in the middle of this discussion, I have just remembered I have them and take a couple of bitter pills. It is a brand I don’t know and I have a reaction to some anti-malarials, I know I should have started a few days ago, but what to do, probably can’t do any harm and believing I am doing something, makes me feel better.

I am a very expedient user of Bible verses , I use them to make points I want to make, and I am not always sure that this is what God intended. But I believe this is my calling and I am trusting in a forgiving God.
So I quote some of Mathew 6 to the staff.
2"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

I hear myself saying: “what you put in your reports it is the equivalent of being honoured by men, a good report is acknowledged and acclaimed, and that is acclaimed by World Vision and there is your reward. But I am also asking you to do some things that may not me in the plan or in the AOP, that you may not be able to put into your reports, that you may not be acknowledged for and no one may know except the people who you are helping. But if really we want to make a difference then you have to make a choice about what is really going to make a difference here and perhaps add some activities beyond what you are doing now.”
I am thinking about how difficult it is, how long, how invisible, this practice of community empowerment and it is no wonder that this is not in their AOPs, and not being measured how hard to keep this in focus. And I am looking at beautiful open faces and I have some sense of the demands on them, and I know they want to do some things differently and are torn, and I can’t say for sure that I have made any difference or that they can, but in this moment I absolutely believe in them and I know that there is nothing more important for any of us right now than this moment. There is a silence that it is not right to fill.

I am awestruck whenever I catch a glimpse of this power of positive belief to make the unseen Real, it is what sustains me in this work. When my African friend Peter decided he would do something about water in the Wema ADP none of us had any idea he could mobilise local people to dig over 90 dams, he infected each group with his belief that they could make a difference. Now we jokingly call him ‘the Minister for Water’ but before he believed he could do something, he was just another dirt poor farmer in ragged clothes. Peter’s belief is contagious and now I see him and some others like him inspiring and empowering our own ADP staff.

I remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit and for a moment I wonder whether I should take the risk and tell them. I decide not to. Once in Timor I made the mistake of trying to tell the story of the “King with No Clothes” . The people I was addressing had absolutely no clue what I was talking about, and the more I talked the less sense the story made, from beginning to end. It is hard to answer sensible questions like “if the King was so gullible, why was he still the king?” . The Velveteen Rabbit is a children’s book about a stuffed toy rabbit who becomes a real rabbit because of the love a of child. Let me quote you a section: “Real isn’t how you are made, “ said the skin horse. “it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with , but REALLY loves you, then you become Real. it doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been rubbed off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I am musing about how what I believe in defines me as individual, whether that belief is in Rolexes, or Giorgio Armani glasses, ADP staff or African damn builders. And how what I believe in, is always a choice and if I want to make a Real difference, how often I may need to transcend the limitations of what I think of as ‘the facts’.
I wonder if sometimes I am more worried about a portrayal of what our donors or our experts will perceive as real, than the potential for my work to believe others into Real. To help others “become” . Not being sure what is Real and what is not, means that at times I can become cynical and focused on all the things that might not work and I risk missing the opportunities to believe in the miraculous and in truly awesome potential of untogether and broken individuals. Of course it is safer to try to systematise approaches than risk and believe in the power of people to do things in time frames that don’t fit funding agreements.

Talking of risk, I am checking in to the hotel in Surabaya, the attractive receptionist’s name is Risky. I use her name a couple of times. “Yes Risky, thankyou Risky”, “Risky can I have a room on an upper floor?”, “Thank you Risky”. Now it maybe a middle aged man thing, but I notice that I am much more interested in talking with in a young woman named Risky than I would be in say, an Agnes or a Mary. I was delighted to learn later, that in Javanese, Rizky means blessing or gift from God.