Thursday, September 30, 2010
Aisha next morning at reception
What am I doing here?
I am in an aisle seat and a traditionally shaped African woman in a tight full length dress, colourful like some giant exotic jungle bird, is in the seat next to me. She gives me the hint of a smile, and I understand her completely. She has only been in the seat 15 minutes and in a series of deft public transport manoeuvres, no doubt perfected on bus journeys across whatever African country she is from, she has claimed all of our joint armrest and the smile is just to let me know that for the next 8 hours she can do this whenever she likes. For the first time get a sense of why there are so many border skirmishes between African states. But I know one thing that she doesn’t. After a movie I am going to take a sleeping tablet which will totally knock me out for 4 hours and given her size and tight dress she will be landlocked and could find herself praying for a miracle if she doesn’t go easy on the water. I watch her take another sip from her water bottle with more than a little smugness, and smile back.
I watch a remake of the Karate Kid. Young African- American boy, Dre Parker, recently moved to China with his mother .......is bullied by the local kids. He meets Mr Han, a scruffy aging building maintenance man who just happens to be a martial arts expert, still grieving for the death of his wife and young son. Mr Han mentors Dre who prepares heroically for his upcoming fight at the martial arts tournament. Overcoming self doubt, being misunderstood and injustice, Dre wins the tournament, the respect of his former enemies, the crowd and his teen love interest. They would be lucky to share a hormone between them.
I successfully fight off another blatant territorial incursion from the African state to my right, whose open magazine had clearly drifted well across the border. One movie merges into another and I am watching Ninja Assassin. In this tale, the hero fights the brutality and oppression of his previous teacher to save world from evil and bad Ninjas. Ninja incidentally can mean ”the unseen”. So the hero here is fighting the unseen to restore the world to safety and righteousness.
The plane lands in Dubai at 5.30am. My sleeping tablet only worked for 3 hours and my African nemesis must have a bladder like a camel, because she didn’t move from her territory the whole 8 hour flight from Singapore. The next leg of my journey begins in 9 hours with a ten hour flight to Dakar in Senegal via Casablanca.
So I am passing time in the Emirates lounge, having sandwiches and a beer at 11am, who knows what time it is in the world I have come from. Drinking half a glass at a skull is like diving into the foam of a dumper at Lorne on a bracing sunny winter morning and surfacing, tingling, eyes watering, gasping, and triumphant, completely in the moment.
I am thinking of the movies from the flight, of the role of the hero, the role of the mentor, of unseen evils and fighting injustice and oppression. I think about our work in the International Development sector and about my work. And I am thinking of the heroes, mentors and of the archetypes at play in the hero’s quest. And this is where it gets a bit sticky. I know I am jetlagged but I can’t figure out where we fit in and I have a feeling that there is something very wrong.
Typically the heroic story will follow an outline something like this: The hero leaves the safety and comfort of the “ordinary world” to sacrifice him or herself for a righteous challenge in the “special world” in order to restore balance to the “ordinary world”. A Mentor provides motivation, insights and training to help the Hero with his quest. The Hero faces trials and tribulations, overcomes self doubt, yet committed to his quest devises a plan and finally meets his enemy head on. In the process the hero needs to experience an inner death in the midst of the ordeal and to be reborn....... having overcome fear and difficulty. Ultimately the Hero triumphs, seizes the prize and returns to the ordinary world again with new rights, having earned his place and bringing the treasure or an elixir to share with others and heal the wounded land.
As I sit in the Emirates lounge pondering this, I am thinking this is sounding uncomfortably like the story the international aid and development sector seems to be telling itself. Do we really see ourselves as heroes fighting against the seen and unseen forces of darkness, to restore balance to the world? Or are we seeking to empower our donors to be heroes, or are we mentors trying to assist the heroic poor to vanquish poverty and injustice? There is something that doesn’t feel quite right about any of this, yet our story as we tell it, fits well with the archetypal heroes’ quest. I know why people don’t speak too much of these things, it is because it does your head in. Things you thought you knew become empty and words become hollow and you wonder what you can still hold to be dear.
So why am I uncomfortable? It is this: in the hero’s story, in order to live out my quest I need the poor, and in this story my identity is forged as I bring back the treasures of achievements to donors, our agency and our land of plenty which cannot be free unless we confront poverty and injustice and bring back the prise of achievement.
At the same time I know that this is not how I work when I am consulting or mentoring our staff or working with people in communities who are poor. In summary, my modes’ operandi is, showing up, letting go, and letting come. The “letting go” part of this seems risky as it involves demonstrating confidence in the outcome and a fearless certainty that I and others will have what we need to solve the problems at hand. It involves me “letting go” of the known and falling without knowing the answers or the outcome. Then “letting come” is allowing for the discovery of a new future and a plan together. I have generally found that this future is something quite unexpected that comes neither from me nor from others but emerges as something more or less in its own right. And when this happens it is something to behold, those there stand back and say:”Wow, look at what we discovered.” And it may be that this is attributed to me, or it may be that a group attributes it to itself, or it is seen as a joint creation. But for me the mystery is that it is dependent on us showing up and that it doesn’t exist separate from us, but that this new vision for a future also has some identity from its own side. It is as theorist Otto Scharmer says “allowing the inner knowing to emerge”.
In this story there is no hero, it is just being present and the motivation for this “showing up with fearless awareness” is a mystery. This mystery is not something I will be trying to sell to one of our donors anytime soon and yet I wonder whether we need to begin to try. Because if I have any certainty at all in this work, it is that a replication of “our western future” is not a sustainable solution among people in many of the poorest places. There will need to be a new future, one in which we probably have a role, but it will need to come from a place of co-creation, not heroes from foreign lands.
The hotel reception is just up the passage from my room; two women in their late twenties sit behind a high dark wooden counter and watch French soap operas on the television in the entryway reception. Opposite the counter there are a half a dozen cable television receivers stacked on top of each other flashing green lights. Behind the counter in the corner sits a gangly young man tall as a door hunched over a computer balanced on a box knee high off the floor. I register with one of the women who tells me her name as Aisha, she looks like one of the soap stars on the screen behind me. She records Jock Noble as Jacques Le Bon, I think, good choice for a stage name and sign Jacques Le Bon. The television screen is showing a man with an exaggerated Elvis Presley hairstyle kissing the neck of a sighing blond woman and there is a flash of bare breasts.
Aisha is wearing a black, low cut, body hugging evening dress, her chocolate brown skin shiny with the humidity, pretty face, bright eyes, long hair pulled back. She has diamond shaped partings her scalp marked out in lines of bright red ink. Aisha’s eyelids are painted fluorescent turquoise like tropical butterflies; she blinks lazily and flirts effortlessly. Named for the young wife of the prophet Mohamed, Aisha makes graceful slightly exaggerated gestures before her small audience. The gangly boy nods at me, grins appreciatively at Aisha and says he wants to marry her. His name is Serigne and he is the brother of the owner.
The other young woman behind the counter is wearing tight blue denim jeans and a blue tee-shirt which reads in white letters “I Am the One”. It could have something to do with Jesus but I am thinking probably not. She stares vacantly at something invisible and every few minutes flicks her wrist to check the screen of her mobile phone and intermittently sends a slice of herself into cyberspace.
The hotel is on the road just outside Kaolack about 4 hours south east from Senegal’s capital Dakar. I have been assured by the staff here that it is the best hotel available. Today I have no illusions of self sacrifice. I am tired, it is just 10.30pm Senegal time but it 8.30am Melbourne time and I am still trying to adjust. I had half a night’s sleep after arriving and we drove down from Dakar at 7am this morning. The mosquitoes in my room are the size of small birds. A cockroach runs across my cheek and I slap at it but am really too tried to care. Noise from the front desk, someone shouts angrily in a French soap opera, guests shouting in the passage, banging doors, and the wooden vibrato squawk of furniture being dragged by ghosts in rooms to the side and above.
As I drift off to sleep I am wondering if, like Don Quixote, I have constructed a heroic fight against the ferocious giant of poverty, a battle in my imagination against turning windmills and that the solution lies in a different kind of turning entirely, the miracle, which for some reason feels like a privilege, of just turning up and being completely present, no room for heroes in this space, they would only get in the way.
 Liberally adapted from"The Writer's Journey", Christopher Vogler
 Language borrowed from Otto Scharmer, “Theory U”
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Travelling with Osama bin Laden; Solomon and the deaf cousin
I walk up the hill towards the apartment where am staying with friends in the Damascus suburb of Al Afif. Directly in front of me, desert sand coloured houses are stacked against the steep rocky side of Mount Qasioun and shimmering in the midday heat. I cross the street and have no option but to walk between some members of the Republican guard standing under a tree on the footpath. Some strikingly handsome, Omar Sharif like in dark suits and sunglasses, others in a mix of army disposal garb, like urban duck hunters. They are not difficult to spot. For a start they look at you penetratingly as though you are guilty of something, which of course you are; guilty of feeling guilty and they know it. And then there are the automatic weapons with well worn stocks casually slung across their shoulders, a kind of fashion obscenity. I ask my friends whether they ever shoot anyone and no one is sure. Someone says there are occasionally body sized blood smears on the footpaths. I believe that Coca-Cola is excellent for removing bloodstains from street scapes.
Escaping the heat back at the apartment, I am watching Syrian President Bashar al Assad in a BBC interview. He is saying that Israel’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla has increased the chances of war in the Middle East, and that war could begin at any time and that when it started it would start unexpectedly and suddenly. Israel doesn’t have too many friends in this neighborhood, it is still holding around 700 square mile of Syria’s Golan Heights. The only condition to obtain a visitor’s visa to Syria is that you don’t have an Israeli stamp in your passport. Sitting on this couch in a darkened living room, not many blocks from the Presidents house but just over 9000 km from the Whitehouse, I am feeling we in Syria are misunderstood. President al Assad seems like a serious man and right now I am taking him very seriously.
I am here to do some work with my friend Paul who is consulting for the European Union. Together we are exploring ways in which development can be done more effectively. The approach we are using is mostly to do with the ways in which multiple players see and understand a development situation. We are attempting to build a generative process that takes into account these different ways of knowing and understanding and includes for an infinite range of possibilities and unknowns which can still be included into program design and implementation.
What we are working on is less about what to do and is more about how to engage in development using building blocks that only emerge as a program develops.
Recently a number of people have told me I am the Guru of World Vision’s innovation in Economic Development. My knowing is mostly based on how little I know, knowing that all truths in this work are only partial, and knowing that if we are going to make a significant impact in economic development we need to come up with new ways of seeing the issues we are confronting. Some Guru!
At Damascus International Airport, my flight to Kenya has been delayed by three hours. Sitting in a comfortable chair in an airport lounge, I pull out my Utne Reader, a magazine I subscribe to from the USA and whose motto is “best of the alternative press”. Puzzlingly a number of Arab men in full length flowing white Dishdashah gowns stop in front of me and give me disapproving stares. I give a friendly nod, “Australian” I say, in case they think I am the American enemy....then I realize, on the cover of the Utne Reader is a picture of Osama bin Laden outrageously photo shopped in shorts sitting on a couch watching TV eating chips with a Coke. I am not sure how Osama is thought of here. I consider ripping off the cover and eating it to destroy the evidence but decide to stow it, I move seats and mentally rehearse plausible excuses incase some of the Republican guard appear.
Ultimately I was untroubled by the Republican Guard and some 10 hours later my plane lands at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport but now am more concerned about the possibility of being hijacked on the way to the hotel ...it is 4am, still dark, it is better not to travel in the dark here. I remember a story I heard when I first came to Nairobi four years ago. A hapless development worker takes a taxi from the airport but it stalls at an intersection on the way into town. The battery is dead and the driver and passenger both get out to push start the old Toyota. The engine starts and the taxi roars off leaving the passenger with just the clothes he is standing in, but at least with his money and passport. The newcomer finally finds his hotel and exhausted after his 24 hour flight takes a shower and on emerging finds his clothes, money and passport all gone. He has been in Nairobi a little more than an hour and he has lost everything but the hotel towel he now stands in. As they say here, welcome to Nairobery.
The latest advice from the Australian Governments travel advisory reads:
The level of crime in Nairobi is high. Violent crime against Westerners, including armed carjacking, kidnapping for ransom and home invasions, occurs frequently and can be brazen and brutal. There have been fatalities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that foreigners are increasingly being targeted in homes, tourist areas and while travelling by road.
You should avoid walking or travelling after dark or on isolated roads, especially in downtown areas, public parks, along footpaths or on beaches, and remain vigilant during daylight hours.
Muggings and burglaries are common, particularly after dark. Jewellery and bag-snatching from open vehicle windows frequently occur while motorists are either stopped at traffic lights or in heavy traffic. When driving, you should ensure that windows are up, doors are locked and valuables are out of sight.
The risk of armed banditry, violent robbery, carjacking and kidnapping is also high on isolated roads and after dark. Crimes of this nature are common in Kenya's urban centres, Due to the very high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, victims of violent crime, especially rape, are strongly encouraged to seek immediate medical assistance.
In Nairobi, confrontations between police and criminal suspects occur regularly. Bystanders have been wounded or killed as result of indiscriminate gunfire in crowded areas. We advise you to remain vigilant at all times.
But I am delighted to be back and though I have had a couple of uncomfortable encounters with corrupt police at night and daytime street thieves, I have always felt reasonably safe. And what I have never been able to reconcile is why there is so much crime when Kenyans are generally such friendly and relational people.
A few days later I visit an area called Soweto in Nairobi’s Eastands area. It is typical of Nairobi’s poorer urban areas, no reliable power or water, deeply potholed dirt roads winding randomly between buildings. Rough two and three story grey cinderblock apartment blocks of perhaps six or ten units, most owned by exploitive landlords, barred windows and steel doors painted bright turquoise or burgundy. Negotiating potholes teh land cruiser dips and weaves like a ship in rough seas. We pass small ramshackle businesses, timber buildings impossibly constructed with Dr Suess angles or solid concrete bunkers with steel doors and can be locked up like a safe.
We pass a seedy bar called Zebra Lounge with black and white painted stripes across the front, sloppy on the woodwork, coloured lights above the doorway, then New Hope Dressmaking next to the Ebenezer Butchery, which is not much bigger than the hanging beef carcass inside and The Ebony Fashion Centre, Glory Beauty Salon and Salvation Shoemaking. Youth unemployment in these areas hopelessly high, as is the rate of crime and most residents stay indoors after 9pm.
We have pass a church called Helicopter of Christ Ministry and meet the Economic Empowerment Committee at the Crown of Life Victory Centre, a corrugated iron shed with a concrete floor. Inside the walls have been roughly lined with Masonite painted cream and draped with cloth bunting which gives it a sad, day after the wedding feel.
I have been leading a workshop about how the group can plan and sustain itself into the future. We have broken for lunch and a meal of Ugali , bitter greens called Skuma Wiki and goat meat strew. It is 1.30pm and this will be the first meal of the day for most people in the room. Mysteriously food in Africa seems to keep the strong taste its origins. If it is cooked chicken you can taste the feathers, if it is milk there is the flavour of fermented cud and a sweet cow dung aftertaste, and if it is goat, like we are having today, then it retains a flavour that goes with the smell of freshly butchered meat when the skin has just been peeled off and the flesh steams in the morning off the warm carcass. I have renewed my vows of vegetarianism and am trying hard not to smell the stew.
I sit with Solomon who is a member of the group we are advising. Solomon is probably in his early thirties, he stands about sit foot two, his eyes are bright and he is so thin that I can see all the muscles in his face working when he talks. Solomon tells me he started his own community organisation for people who are deaf. Solomon has a diploma in business and marketing but learned sign language to help his cousin who is deaf. No one was able to assist the cousin so Solomon decided he would and he helped set him up with a hand cart so that he could earn some money by delivering water throughout the slum. And then Solomon began to help others and now there are 45 people who are deaf in the self help association he established. I asked Solomon how he managed to support himself. He said that he is able to pick up sporadic work doing deaf signing at meetings and he tries to pick up odd jobs here and there. Solomons wife sells fried donuts on the street each morning and a friend who runs a small school lets his three daughters attend school at no charge. “We get by” he says with no self pity.
Solomon says he is now studying counselling. I ask him why, and he tells me that the deaf cousin who carries water is often beaten because he gets angry in frustration and people don’t realise he is deaf. “He has developed a slow knock..... Poor fellow has lost his mind”. So Solomon has decided that if he studies counselling he will be able to assist his cousin and then perhaps others as well. As we talked more I began to see that Solomon sees himself as part of a human web in which we all have an important part, and his independent self interest was just not a high priority for him except as it had to do with benefiting the whole.
That evening go for an Indian meal. I have eaten Indian food all over the world; my favourite is the Bukhara Room at the Mauyra Hotel in New Delhi and next is Angithi at Westlands in Nairobi. I went there with my book for company and was shown to a table for two, last in a line of four tables for two. At the first table was another single male, maybe eastern European, pasty complexion, balding, probably in his late thirties. The waiter, and I were following the unwritten rule of men’s urinals, single men should be as far away from each other as the infrastructure permits. When I was seated I leaned towards the other man and said “excuse me... ah hem...excuse me” and the man looked over. I held up my book as if to say it wasn’t great company and said “would you like to eat together? “ Now this may seem slightly unconventional, but to me two westerners in far off places sitting alone in a restaurant should have something useful to contribute to each other’s life journeys. “I am fine thanks” he answered shuffling uncomfortably.
“Of course you are fine, I wasn’t offering you a kidney transplant, I just thought as two solo voyagers at an Indian restaurant, me with my book and you with your magazine, we might relate”. But of course I didn’t say that, the John Cleese in my head did. Instead I nodded, smiled and tried to put on my best heterosexual look in case he thought I was trying to pick him up.
I think that one of the greatest problems in life is fear of relating to other human beings and that we develop life time strategies just to deal with this one fear. Unless of course, we have the wisdom of Solomon.
 Maze flour cooked as a porridge until it reaches a dough like consistency
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Hopelessness and hope
Nicholas the driver and I left Nairobi in a white Toyota troop carrier at 7.30am. It negotiates the Nairobi traffic like a whale but soon we are out of rush hour and hurtling down Waiaki Way towards Naivasha in the Rift Valley. Occasionally we swerve to miss a policeman who is standing in the middle of the road trying to wave vehicles over. “They just want breakfast money,” Nicholas tells me. No helicopter pursuit here, Nikolas doesn’t even check the rear view mirror, just turns up the gospel music CD, holy rolling in the Rift.
It is 9am and we meet the Project Manager, Shinina, at the local governments Child Protection Office.
Shinina is wearing a suit that I am guessing came from a synthetic zebra and she looks like a million dollars. I haven’t seen her for two years and we kiss cheeks in a happy greeting.
“Why are we picking you here?” I ask.
“One of our sponsored children has been abused.”
“What kind of abuse?”
I know if I keep asking questions it will be like watching a whipping. I wince.
“How old was the child?”
“Boy or girl?”
“Was it a person known to the family?”
“Yes ......it was the boy’s father.”
And I am wondering whether to keep looking or walk away.
“How long had it gone on?”
“Probably some years.”
“How was it discovered?”
“The boy’s aunt sent him to a home and it came out there after three months.... behind he is very damaged.”
Shinina looks into the tree beside us. “His father will be arrested today. And his mother also because she knew all the time it was going on. And we had to act now because there are two other children at home and we can’t let anything more happen to them. “
Shinina went on: “I haven’t slept all night, actually I am very traumatised.” And she gave a sad smile a half shrug and with that we climbed in to the big white whale with the orange swoosh on the doors and hurtled off down the road to the project.
But I don’t see the road ahead yet, I am lost in reflections on the priceless importance of our work and of all the Shininas in World Vision. We put child protection and the welfare of children ahead of everything and I know that Shinina’s sleepless night is one of many for her and I know that her intervention has been critical for this child and his siblings. That this is just the beginning of her new journey with this family. And where the law is weak, as it is here, Shinina’s interventions are essential even though at times they put her in very real danger of retribution. But for Shinina this is not a job, this is her vocation and she will do whatever it takes for every child who needs her help.
I have been coming to the Ndabibi ADP for four years and it was almost exactly four years ago that I met Florence who is the Chairwoman of the Chemi Chemi women’s water tank group. She is waiting at the project office when we arrive.
Florence is 55 and wears a brown barbie wig. She has lost most of her front teeth, but her eyes are bright. She is on fire and we hug like lovers so glad to see each other, and she won’t let go of my hand and I am trying to manhandle my bag and my book and my coat and thermos and Florence and we kind of dance into the office as you do if you are trying to hold on to me and my stuff and my limp and stay on your feet. A kind of collapsing in to place shuffle that I have turned into a philosophy.
Three hours later and we are standing in Florence’s shamba amongst her rich green tomato plants. Under an immense Kenyan sky in a part of the country which without rain is almost violently harsh, where I have seen people farming dust and wondering how anything lives and yet here, now, the smell of the tomato plants is strong you can almost feast on it. And I say to Florence that I think the miracle of the thing is that the water from this new dam is not just watering the tomatoes, it is watering the hope in people’s hearts. And she nods and smiles and looks at me kindly like I am from another planet.
Florence started the group about seven years ago. When I met her she had a group of 100 women and had begged her way into a 2300 litre tank for each member so that for seven month s of the year they wouldn’t have to spend three or four hours each day carrying water.
Then over the last few years I was able to challenge the group in ways of thinking and find donors to pay for more water tanks and Florence was able to build and strengthen the group so that the leadership is now diverse tribally. Florence is a Kikuyu who, as land owners and fencers, are often bitterly at odds with the Masai who like to roam their cattle on traditional pastures. The group’s treasurer is now a Masai. The secretary is a Muslim Borana from the North of Kenya, When Florence first introduced her to me, she said bluntly “She is Muslim” and then shrugged and giggled in seeming disbelief that there could be people in Kenya whose tribe did not believe that Jesus was the only way.
The Chemi Chemi group grew and matured and over the years we were able to come up with 328 additional 2300 litre water tanks, work together on building a store, introduce some commercial concepts so that the group is self-sustaining.
According to Florence I taught her the concept of “thinking outside the square” and she has now found a way to fit this into all sorts of sentences and it seems to be her validation for big ideas. And with a bit of luck, some connections we facilitated and a lot of work from Florence and her committee, Chemi Chemi , started working with World Wide Fund for Nature. WWF agreed to fund one neoprene liner for a pilot dam. So Florence and the womens’ group, now numbering 428 women, dug five massive three meter deep dams of around 250,000 litres each with hoes and buckets. WWF was so dumbfounded and left footed that they altered the proposal and donated liners for five dams at a cost of USD$25,000. And now those dams are all full of water.
My continual mantra here has been that strength attracts strength and action attracts investment, and I have sometimes hung to this like a life raft and wondered if it is really true; and it is true here and my belief is nourished as well as theirs.
The Chemi Chemi women are currently constructing a sixth dam and the local government has committed to funding the tank liner, a drip irrigation system and a green house. The groups intention is to dig a further 200 dams. Each of the members who has a dam dug on their property has an obligation to allow the group to use 1/2 acres of their land to grow one crop to provide seeds to the members for five years. Irrigated from the dams this cultivation is the beginning of a seed bank and currently each of these five plots been sown with Amaranth, tomatoes, beans, peas and potatoes to loan seeds to members. The group has been able to purchase 10 half acre drip irrigation kits through our last grant and these are feed from the dams. The kits are being rented to members for 20% of the cost to be repaid from after each harvest. The income from these kits (costing $340 each) is being used to buy more kits for members. The contributions they receive from members against the 2300 litre tanks is not only buying more tanks but they have just purchased 2.5 acres of land and are erecting a hothouse and store on it.
The foundation of all this activity is that we have been able to free up hundreds of thousands of hours a year for members who instead of walking miles to collect heavy loads of water on their backs can now take better care of their kids, engage in activities that increase family nutrition, provide increased incomes, build community and nourish a solid sense of purpose for the future.
The weather here in the Rift Valley is wetter and warmer than usual and a few of the Jacaranda trees are fooled and have begun to flower early.
My favourite time of year here is October, which is when these Jacarandas, the height of six story buildings, flower heavy mauve among bright green foliage, and the earth is rich chocolate brown from soaking rains, and the little flower bells felled by heavy rains scatter the ground at the base of the tree, and the contrast of mauve and chocolate in the strange yellow light as the sun tries to shine through dirty rain filled clouds takes your breath away and just then your taxi rounds the corner and there is a flame tree with tail light red blossoms that hits you like a bat. Here is a purity that you know is a lie but you want to believe in it anyway. A stream of people walk over the fallen blossoms; men on their away to labouring jobs and women on their way to house help. It is likely at best most only had sugar tea for breakfast.
 Area Development Project
 “water spring” in Swahili
 “farm” in Swahili
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
We follow a road through the heart of the Larentuka Township.
Our destination is the village of Duntana, a collection of around 30 huts at the end of a steep gravel track. We are maybe 10 kilometres inland from the coast now. There is no electricity here. Each house is surrounded by a fence of stick or wood planks; the earth around each house is swept bare and sprinkled with a smattering of animals and kids with guileless faces, white teeth and big brown eyes. Some houses have palm leaf rooves others are corrugated iron, the walls are mostly made from bamboo slats and woven palm leaf matting. In the doorways of every second or third house a women is standing with a kid on her hip and I look past them into the semi darkness of living rooms; a few cabinets, maybe an old couch, some chairs, a Mary or Jesus print with a red radiating heart and maybe a couple of family photos.
The farmers in Duntana have worked out a system where they pool their harvested cashews and hold an informal auction with a number of middle men and then sell collectively to the highest bidder. We have learned in Surabaya that if the producers made a small investment in a hand powered machine to crack the outside of the cashew nuts, then they can potentially get two to three times their current price. But the middle men, who are the farmer’s windows to the world of trade, haven’t told them about this and perhaps they don’t know.
Middle men are true entrepreneurs but are often labelled as “the” problem, standing between farmers and the higher prices the bigger buyers pay. Through our interviews and discussions we learn that each middle man provides some vital services. He gives the farmers upfront cash, he provides transportation and he takes care of all the risk. But there is more to it that this. In Flores, like most of the islands in the east of Indonesia, a families standing is largely determined by the “gifts” they make during celebrations that occur for baptisms, marriages and deaths. If someone provides a pig at your daughter’s wedding you are obliged to provide a pig when their daughter marries and if you provide a bigger pig then so much the better. Because of the regularity of these celebrations and that villagers become obligated to one another they are part of a cycle from which they cannot escape. If you have already provided, then you want to stay in the system until it is your turn, if someone has provided to you, tradition and obligation keeps you bound. I sit with three men. One of them lights a kretek cigarette which crackles into life, a puff of smoke, smell of cloves little sparklets of salt peter and he is ready to talk. “Yes, we must have costly celebrations no more again, but it will take time”. The three men all agreed the system needed to change because it uses up most of the excess assets that could be used to improve businesses or to provide emergency resources so that they are in a better position to take business risks. But they also agreed this would take time and no one had a plan. And this is where the middle men come in. He provides needed credit; sometimes cash but generally in the form of livestock, medication for sick children, tin for roofing or household items. In return he obligates the farmers to pay him back in cashews or other produce. So when harvest comes, the farmer’s cashews are often presold and the middle man determines the price. This system of pre-selling is called ijong, but the story doesn’t end here. The village buyers borrow money from other collectors who intern take advances from the buyers in centres like Surabaya, each locked into a system that in a way suits them yet all ends up making it difficult for producers to escape poverty.
Our task is to find ways in which the market can work better for producers through them adding value to what they produce, finding ways in which they can better understand the way the market works and have more freedom from ijong to sell at market prices. The collective they have formed is a great start and we believe that the information and support our Market Facilitator is offering will help them to take the next steps and to influence others to begin similar groups. And in our conversations we begin to formulate a future plan to take some farmers on an exposure tour that will include a visit to Surabaya so that they can better understand the value chain they are a part of.
We will have lunch with about 15 men from the village. Casey who is travelling with us grew up in Malaysia so speaks passable Bahasa Indonesian. He said they had given us a choice of fish, poultry or dog, and he has requested fish. But Casey got it wrong; the village leader was apparently telling him we were having fish poultry AND dog. And as the plates of food arrive one was filled with small greasy clumps dark brown meat on chopped bones and little ribs. And as we leave the other village dogs look us in the eye, heads lowered eyes upwards they slink away knowingly. One less bark around the village tonight.
We are late, it is already 2pm and we are only now finishing lunch after the morning’s interviews with community groups. We go over the details, when we planned the day we were told it would take an hour to get to the next producer group. We are now told it will take 2 hours each way. I wonder out loud whether it is worth the time as we have already gathered a lot of information. “No” we are told, “it is actually one and a half hours”. I ask why last night it was one hour. I am told that it is one hour if we take the good road and one and a half hours if we take the bad road. I ask why we can’t take the good road and I am told we can. “So it is an hour right”. “Yes” everyone says. My colleague Olivia and I pass a knowing look. An hour and a half later we arrive at the village.
While we are there we also take some video footage for a short movie. We are not filming a success story but taking footage which describes some of the challenges we are grappling with in our efforts to assist impoverished farmers on Flores to sell their products more profitably. In Development, this area of economics is known as “Access to Markets”.
Pak Johnson Tobing is our camera man from the Jakarta office and he has an expensive professional Sony camera that is slightly smaller than a rocket launcher. He is very experienced and uses all the film terms. When it came my time to give a short interview there was a bit of confusion as he assumed that I like he, was a professional. The dialogue went something like
“My name is Jock Noble and I am World Vision Australia’s Manager for ...”
“Did you get the first bit?”
“Shall I continue?”
“Are we ready?”
“My name is....”
“Pak do you start at Rolling or Action?”
But now I am doubled up in laughter so that my stomach hurts and I can’t breathe and tears are streaming down my cheeks and I can’t say another word.
Later we arrive at “Sea World Club”, a group of beach bungalows and a small dive centre and will stay here for the next 5 nights. Karyn at reception has the clear face, smoky eyes and willowy body depicted in one of those paintings of beautiful island women. She smells of soap and sundried clothes and is wearing a Rolling Stones tee shirt with a huge red tongue on the front. She is facing a computer screen and I see the Vatican website is open and she looks up under a fringe of thick black hair and her face lights up with a smile.
The founder of Sea World is a German missionary named Father Bollen , a big man, now in his eighties, he still fills a doorway. I met him one morning as he walked bare-barrel chested among the coconut palms on the beach with his white monkey ‘Hanoman’ on a long lead. “Don’t come to close” he said, looking lovingly at Hanoman, “dis vicked moonkey bites”.
It is very dark and I am walking back from the restaurant to my bungalow and the warm evening breeze has picked up a faint smell of beach, of coconut oil and cooking fires. I pass a middle aged East European couple sitting outside on their veranda, a bottle of Bintang beer between them, Bintang means star. The thick set woman has a tattoo the size of a hamburger on her thigh and he wears a tight green Harley Davidson tee shirt stretched across an immense belly like a balloon. A computer is on the table and playing Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ a tinny attempt to add something to the moment.
The sky here, so much bigger than the land and sea, is covered in a crazy scattering of star lights, mystical patterns, lines, crosses and dips. I suddenly feel more than see, a sense of order in the chaos and I wonder how I have not seen this map for ancient seafarers so clearly before now. And I am thinking how the situation at Duntana village also seems so filled with complexity. But our journey, like the ancient navigators has started with the destination in mind and we at least have that to guide us for now.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
I arrived in Jakarta last night. It is midday Saturday and I am in a chair with a woman at my feet. Rogers, with its white marble polished floors and large central tank with colourful corals and exotic fish, is bustling like the lobby of a five star hotel. Young women in Rogers uniforms are purposely carrying trays with tall glasses of iced tea for customers. In chairs all around me, wealthy Indonesian and Chinese women are on Blackberrys; talking or tapping out messages. The Blackberrys are in colourful or jewel studded cases and have silver initials, little dolls or plastic dogs dangling from them. The women mostly come in looking gorgeous, and then they get ugly in the chairs - hair wet like rat’s tails, blotchy pale bare shoulders, puffy faces, and then they leave gorgeous again. It is a sort of butterfly – caterpillar - butterfly thing. The only discernable difference I can see is, as they leave, the women walk with more accentuated movements and purpose. I guess a lot of feeling beautiful is the fleeting lifebuoy in the storm moment, that how you feel you look and how you actually look, are more or less aligned.
‘Kalokagatia’ is a Greek word which means “beauty - good” a fusion between goodness and beauty. It occurs to me that a beautiful person may not necessarily be good, but a good person almost always tends to be perceived as beautiful. For me, the latter is lovely image; of saints and goddesses. Maybe I should start a beauty salon for goodness.
A middle aged woman with a kind face is working on my feet, using a variety of implements to sand off the calluses, scraping out the cuticles, cutting off bits of skin and nail. Abdul, my regular hair stylist, wanders up half way through the pedicure and removes the blue towel that has been draped across my freshly shampooed head. I have been looking like a cross between an aged Middle Eastern matriarch and Hitler to this point. Abdul starts cutting my hair, and I have complete confidence that he knows what to do. And anyway, he speaks no English and I have learned in the past I may as well talk with a parrot as Abdul just repeats whatever I say, and nods and smiles and then does his own thing. He is very skilled and it always seems to turn out fine. I am not facing the mirror as my feet are having things done to them that I could never do, and I just acknowledge his presence with a thumbs-up.
It is the wet season and facing the outside windows, I watch the rain falling in sheets. The road is now around 10cm deep in water, moving on its own past stationary vehicles, scurrying pedestrians with newspapers covering their heads making exaggerated leaps, upright cyclists covered in makeshift clear plastic ponchos leaving snake like wakes. And through the darkened glass, from the comfort of my chair, I secretly observe the freshly beautiful women waiting for their chauffer driven cars from under the covered entrance way, trying not to end up looking like wet animals again.
Finally the work on me is completed. I look down at my shining toe nails and then sideways to myself in the mirror. It seems that Abdul has become creative and I am now an aging white man with a teen idol Mohawk. I tip my mechanics, pay at reception and walk out into the chaotic, humid, mid-afternoon Jakarta streetscape. I have no concerns about the rain, this hairstyle may not get better but it may get different. There is a certain freedom in letting go any pretention to beauty; maybe I can just be good.
I meet up with a friend and we go to a coffee shop that harks back to the Dutch colonial era. There is a sign on the wall that says “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love” which when I think about it doesn’t make any sense at all and I find myself playing with the words, in different orders like love, hell and death, a weird kind of ink blot association thing.
Three days later and I am in Surabaya, an hour’s flight east of Jakarta and Java’s second largest city. I am here to conduct a 3 day workshop for our Business Facilitators and today I ran a workshop on ‘How to Negotiate’ for 20 Indonesian staff. My haircut has settled and I think I now resemble a US Marine General.
I am staying at the Bisanta hotel. At breakfast this morning I read the table place mat which encourages guests to use the full range of hotel services. One of the sections reads:
“We’ll make sure all your wedding just more Romantic and Perfect it will be the Unforgettable and Beautiful moment”
“Hotel Bisanta.....feel the new luxurious”
It is now 7.30 in the evening and I leave the “new luxurious”, wave to the young woman named Risky at reception and step out into the night. The air is heavy, so humid I feel like I am breathing through straws. I am on my way to a Chinese restaurant opposite the hotel. It is where I go when I get sick of the Club Sandwiches with cold french fries at the Bisanta.
The Flying Duck, a name you don’t want to say too quickly, is a strange place that caters primarily to Surabaya’s Indonesian born Chinese population. Inside is the size of a town hall, there are twenty five, twenty seat round tables, each table covered with a burgundy cloth and expectantly set with many bowls and chopsticks. There are huge Chinese golden motifs around the walls and abundant curtains; the cheap lavishness of a theatre set. The waitresses mill about and have skirts the same colour and fabric as the table cloths. As always, I sit at the back, because there is a live five piece Karaoke band on stage and the music is loud. The way it works is that the band plays and sings requests from the audience and between songs they invite and cajole members of the audience on stage to sing. Sometimes they help the singer along, other times the guest does a solo, generally in Mandarin.
The MC is a Chinese man named Eric who I guess is around sixty and has a lovely silky singing voice. Eric typically wears a colourful harlequin shirt and reminds me of an aging Jockey; his polyester black pants fastened high, successfully restraining in his paunch. His hair is dyed black but there is grey around his crown and some reddish bits that I don’t understand. I think he is a little drunk most of the time. He remembers me and comes to my table with a beaming smile of greeting, “Hello Mr. Jo, so good to see you again”. I am wary, the last time I was here he invited himself and over time a variety of others, to come to my table and to share my wine. Wine here is expensive and I had been hoping to make the bottle last a number of nights.
The woman on stage is Ari. She is singing something that sounds vaguely familiar but I can’t make out if she is singing in Bahasa or Mandarin. I am the only person in the restaurant, sitting solo at a table for 10 and Ari is singing to me, looking in my direction and nodding appreciatively. She finishes and says something that ends up with “Mr Jo”, and I smile and nod my head acknowledging her. Ari begins a new song; it is the Elvis song, “Vize maan sey .... And the refrain “I can hel falling in love vid you....” and she is casting me long meaningful looks. Ari has remembered that six or eight months ago, under pressure from Eric, I requested this old Elvis favourite. I am still the only person in the restaurant. I do some more appreciative nodding and return to my book “In Patagonia“ by the enigmatic Bruce Chatwin and resolve someday to write travel as well as he does.
I remember the last time I was here another singer, Aline, who is not here tonight, came a sat with me for a while. She was visibly upset and told me one of the Chinese man from a centre table tried to grope her... who did he think she was... just a thing... that he could touch her? Tears welled up in her eyes, she told me she was a single mum, that she supported herself through her singing. I listened and nodded, and she invited me to come to the restaurant she was singing after this one. I made an excuse, and we said “maybe next time”. Aline is probably around thirty, but up close, she has lines on her face from a tough life, dark under eye rings of weariness, sad eyes and the poor skin of a bad diet; her beauty is fading. I didn’t know whether I am just a sympathetic ear or being manipulated. Aline went back to the band table, shoulders bowed, her stage confidence gone. There was a real sadness about her situation and I felt the least I could do was to feel her sadness deeply.
Ari sings another song. She is moving like a MTV star, hips swaying and she is beautiful again. Another large round table has now filled with seven or eight Chinese men; Ari has finished her song and leaves the stage to greet each of them individually. A special look here, a nod there, a touch of the shoulder, as though with each she shares a special secret. Then she comes to my table and sits down. I don’t mind, I know it is her job to keep the customers happy, to make us all good friends.
Like Aline, up close Ari also looks much older. She has lost most of her teeth on one side so that just the front teeth are intact; I think she knows that her time as a stage diva will be coming to an end in a few short years, and there is no social security here for karaoke singers past their prime.
I hear my name mentioned again. Eric is on stage, “would Mr Jo like to sing?” Of course I would, but I can’t sing to save myself and so decline. I think I might one day but not tonight and I pour myself another half glass of the ‘Two Oceans’ wine from South Africa that cost me $30 for the bottle and is only slightly better than vinegar. I am celebrating; my workshop went well, very well. I have long recognised how little Indonesian staff seem to know about negotiation and today was my first chance to share some of my knowledge and the participants loved it, hungry for new skills.
It is only 8.45pm but it is time for me to retreat. The Chinese man from the audience is now on this third song, every note seeming flat and out of tune, I can no longer concentrate on my book and can wait to get back to the quiet of my room.
Ari is at the door, as I leave she gives me her best conspiratorial smile, I think she is hoping that at this moment she looks as beautiful as she wants to be and deep into my eyes she says “Mr Jo, don’t forget me”.
Saturday, February 6, 2010
By the time I boarded the train in Prahran I was fairly certain that there was something seriously wrong with me physically. I felt exhausted. The month of December, leading up to my move back from World Vision in Jakarta had been stressful and busy, and since returning to Melbourne, work, family and returning to my apartment after two years had given me no time to rest. Ongoing neck and back problems and aching joints had all exacerbated my general feeling of dis-ease.
I had planned my annual medical check up in Melbourne a couple of months ago while still in Jakarta and had all the blood, urine and other tests done in the lead up to Christmas. It is nearly two weeks later, and my Doctor always insists that we go through the results together, in person. So today, I am on the train going back to get the results. I am wondering how he will tell me “I am sorry, the news is not good, we need to do more tests”.
I sit across from a young man with milky complexion. He is bald except for a few clumps of soft fluffy hair; I am guessing he has had cancer and radiotherapy. I wonder if this could be me in a month or two. I picture myself alone in my St.Kilda apartment retching into the toilet, the after effects of my chemotherapy. I think of my friend now in recovery from Hodgekinson’s lymphoma and the pain and discomfort he endured over the last 12 months, or another friend who had prostrate cancer, then surgery and now needs to use a little air pump to get an erection. They are both a few years younger than me. Every day leading to now, I have found myself thinking about various scenarios of sickness and how I will deal with them. Over the washing up, painting my apartment, showering, going off to sleep, a stealthy fear, attaching itself to my psyche like a leach, and when I become conscious of it, this leach is feeding on me, hard to be free of and each time leaves a wound. And now today, results day, has come the more I intuitively know that my life as I have known it is going to change forever and not for the better.
I wonder whether perhaps I would have been better not having the check up and just carrying on until I drop and die and friends and work colleagues saying “I saw him just weeks ago and he didn’t say anything, but I thought he didn’t look well, I can’t believe he is gone.” Another friend Kim, was diagnosed with stomach cancer, rather than have chemo, embarked on a regime of natural juices and he was dead in 6 weeks. The images of my future are so real and I am almost moved to tears of emotional self pity. I wonder at the courage of the man opposite me, and how much I really want to keep living and about what I can still do in the time I have left and how much I am prepared to endure for that. At least if I am well enough to make my next trip to Kenya then maybe that will be enough.
Returning to Australia after Jakarta involved much more than just hopping on a plane, there is a lot of reconnecting, renewing acquaintances and becoming a resident again particularly with my family. Even getting on this train, with an impatient queue behind me, figuring out which zone I am in, what kind of ticket I need, searching for the right money, adn do I need to validate my ticket or not. In this transition back from two years in Jakarta I have lost all my routines, everything seems complex and uncertain.
Working in the Burwood office. It takes me a while to get used to all the white faces and that I understand what everyone is saying. In Jakarta it was understandable that I didn’t really connect deeply with the challenges and changes in the lives of those around me as I couldn’t catch the peripheral conversations. Here I can and yet I realise how little I know about my friends and their particular struggles. How little they know of mine. One of my friends takes me aside and very politely tells me I am speaking too loudly on the phone and making it hard for others to work. I am grateful to him. I am learning to be part of the World Vision hush.
I make email connections with friends:
“Hi John, wonderful to hear from you, I hope you are doing well. Last Thursday I arrived back after my two year stint in Jakarta. I will now be based in Melbourne again. So please when you are down, give me a call, I would love to catch-up, buy you a meal and swap stories.
Very best Christmas wishes to you, Alice (JB’s wife) and Talooka (their oversized Afghan cross dog). “
John: “Mate, Glad to hear you are back and for sure would love to catch up.
Just so you know, Alice and I are not together now........ Talooka is with Alice. “
“Oh John, I am so sorry to hear that. And it is so hard to find a good dog.”
And reconnecting with family. One of my daughters has just broken up with her boyfriend of eighteen months. She loves him but is still young and couldn’t see a future at the moment that involved them both. He is still holding out the possibility that they can get back together. We talk, I give some fatherly advice. And get a text message at midnight that says “We talked and I followed your advice, and the crap hit the fan, oh Dad, what I mess, I blame you..........you owe me a trip to Africa”
My eighty-two year old Mother seems to have aged since I saw her 9 months ago, we sit and drink tea and eat Christmas cake and talk about how unseasonably hot the weather has been, how it has damaged her garden and scorched the Christmas lilies, we go and look and I see how the once perfect trumpet like petals have been burned by the nearly 40 degree pre-Christmas heat wave and now look forlorn and are dying prematurely and won’t make it until Christmas. My mother takes the heat personally as a betrayal, ‘it is just too hot” she says, as though personally wounded. I eat more Christmas cake guilty about the 3 kilos I have added over the last year; my mother is a wonderful baker with a lifetime of experience. She tells me how her friends are aging. How one has just decided that she can’t drive anymore and tried to sell her old car and couldn’t find a buyer. She took it to a scrap-metal dealer and they gave her $150 and then, as my mother says, before her eyes it was flattened into biscuit!! I am thinking that at this point Mum and I probably have different ideas about what this biscuit looks like. But our conversation is about aging and things passing not about biscuit facts and we both laugh at whatever we are thinking and move on to talking about whether on Christmas day we should go to church at Mums retirement village or at her former church in the suburbs. We decide on the church service at her retirement home.
On Christmas day, and with my sister, her husband and kids, we stroll together down to the events room at the retirement village where the service will be. It is confronting to be surrounded by so many elderly people in one place. They are a collection of unsettling vulnerability; frail walking, talking, sitting and especially the transitioning movements between are all filled with uncertainty, bodies only lightly anchored to the earth, autumn, dry leaves at winds mercy. Around half the congregation have walking frames. Mum tells me that they are supposed to leave them neatly parked outside the room but increasingly people can’t get from where they are supposed to leave their frames to their seats, and though this a place of many rules, many written in large letters, polite but firm on the surrounding walls, people turn a blind eye to those who drive to their seats. A drive in church. There is an oversize lighted NO EXIT sign above a door at the back which seems a bit incongruous to me at this moment. In each corner of the room there are also neatly parked four wheeled walkers interlocking like shopping trolleys. Most have been personalised with bits of ribbon and cottage industry knick-knacks. Several have teddy bears strapped onto the front. I am thinking that like the drivers of Kenworth trucks and old sailing ships there must be something in the DNA of humans that we like to put a mascot on the front of our vehicles as we navigate the uncertainties of the way ahead. I look at my sisters boys, eight and eleven and think that they too may one day need walking frames, and throughout our whole lives, how death is always more certain than tomorrow and when is a good time to leave our body and move on.
I am now on the train again on my way back to Prahran. I have been to the Doctor and all my tests have come back fine, Cholesterol up a little but otherwise a clean bill of health. I feel light and healthy and very ready for the year ahead. I try to put myself back into the frame of mind I had on the journey in, but it is illusive. It is as though my present reality has erased my past projections. Like a magicians slight of hand, my updated reality has replaced what was there before. And I reflect on how I seldom stop to consider the error between the “anticipated” and the “actual”. My present version overwrites and saves the last version, and that is all have on my hard drive, and mostly without me noticing. This amnesia like tendency is a very strange thing and I seem to keep repeating this, as though experience has taught me that it was effective, which seems not to be the case. While I see that I do need to organise and plan my futures, I don’t need to try and live in them as well. Not only could I have avoided my recent “near death experience” but I could have been more engaged at times over the last 3 weeks as well. I am wondering how much this kind of projecting is hindering my “attention” when I am in the field and working alongside people who need and deserve my total mindfulness and how listening with everything is sometimes the best thing any of us can bring.
T.S. Elliot’s line comes to mind “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything” and I have resolved to make increasing my capacity to pay attention, to mindfulness, my New Year’s Resolution.
So much for mindfulness, lost in thought and unfamiliar with the Sandringham line, I miss my stop and have to navigate my way back, but never mind, apparently I am not dying as fast as I thought and probably have time.