Thursday, September 30, 2010

Postcard from Senegal

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 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.[1]

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.[2] 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.

[1] Liberally adapted from"The Writer's Journey", Christopher Vogler
[2] Language borrowed from Otto Scharmer, “Theory U”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Postcard from Kenya


Mount Qasioun

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 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 [1], 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.

[1] Maze flour cooked as a porridge until it reaches a dough like consistency