Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Postcard from America

Land of the free

 Back in the USA and it doesn’t matter which side of the tracks you grew up on, everyone here seems to like Bruce Springsteen and he has just been touring to rave reviews. He sings a lot about struggles and battlers and working against the odds. Although The Boss is famous for keeping ticket prices down, rich people love him, with some paying thousands of dollars for corporate boxes at his concerts. And the words of his songs are on bumper stickers and tee-shirts and quoted by presidents and senators and connect with the rich and the poor like. Paradoxically some people become richer and more powerful by identifying with and telling the stories of people who are poor. How does that work? Is it that in our depths we all feel a poverty and through vehicles like Springsteen’s songs we somehow feel known, feel the essence of love somewhere in ourselves and for a time, maybe just a moment, something feels true and timeless. And there is a preciousness about this and maybe it is the song or maybe it pries an opening in our hearts, but whatever it is, it touches us. I guess that is what an artist does, connects us to ourselves and frees us to sense more, who we are.

 Speaking of free, songbird Beyoncé does a heartfelt version of Lee Greenwood, “Proud To Be An American”. A couple of lines that stand out for me are:

And I’m proud to be an American,
where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died,
who gave that right to me.

I am not sure which men died to give America its freedom, maybe Beyoncé is thinking of the slaves who died so that by 1965 when national voting legislation was passed, there would still be some African Americans left to vote, not that many young black men, one in three of whom can expect to spend time in a prison during their lives, would sense that much freedom as they abseil up America’s level playing field. Maybe Beyoncé is singing about the young Americans who are sitting in a drone flight centre in New Mexico, killing people whose families adhere to an old testament religion that says if a family member is killed by an aggressor they must never, ever, ever leave that death unavenged.

 "Did we just kill a kid?" asked the man sitting next to the drone pilot.

"Yeah, I guess that was a kid," the pilot replied.

"Was that a kid?" they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.

Then, someone they didn't know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. "No. That was a dog," the person wrote.

They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?[1]

 So I guess young men will be fighting for Beyoncé’s freedom until infinity. Go figure that. But the irony for me is that the USA is one of the most unfree places I visit and almost everything done in the name of freedom seems to end up as one more way to be unfree.
For me this is evident from the minute you land at the airport to the moment you leave.

“Remove everything from your pockets sir and enter the x-ray booth and place your feet on the designated area”

“What’s that in your pocket sir?”

“Oh.... ah..... that’s a handkerchief”

“I said remove everything from your pockets sir......remove the handkerchief from your pocket sir and hold it above your head”

I remove my dirty hanky, hold it above my head like I am a hostage and the x-ray circles and whirrs around me.

“What’s that on your wrist sir?”

“That’s a wrist watch officer”

“Kowalski, check the man’s watch!”

Kowalski inspects the plastic watch as though it was a piece of dog turd strapped to my wrist. “Okay sir you are clear to go.”

 In how many free countries of the world does the freedom to own handguns that can blow a hole in a person as big as a football or assault rifles that can pass right through a car, result in so many people getting killed for just waking up? Where else do rich people have arguments about the freedom people who are poor have to  bad health care? I guess it’s a kind of freedom that can be traded as a commodity. How is it that having more rules to protect the weak, more government support and higher taxes to fund more health care, education and freedom of choice for a greater number of people can be seen as a lack of freedom?
 My colleague Steve is from Arizona, he has the square jaw and youthful good looks of a comic book superhero and he makes lots of "awl " sounds when he talks  guess that is why they call it a drawl. Steve tells me that the USA is the greatest country in the history of the world. He is serious. I asked him about the Roman Empire that lasted 1000 years more or less and covered most of what is now Europe, and he looked at me blankly in a kind of George Bush 9/11 moment. So I say, what about the British Empire that was around 300 years and covered more than one third of the world and produced unsurpassed riches from the Commonwealth? And that I think America’s time as a great power will be lucky to last for a hundred years before they go bankrupt and lumber around the world like one of those 60's Chevy Belair’s, faux luxury, expensive, high maintenance, best in a straight line,  hard to park but kind of stylish in a nostalgic way. And then I am thinking of the cars of Cuba.

Sounding a bit like Mohamed Ali, Steve said “Of course America is the greatest country, they beat the British........... twice” and I said that didn't mean anything, and anyway who won in Vietnam and did that make the Vietnamese the greatest nation that had ever been? Steve looked at me and I could see the wheel was still spinning but the hamster had left in confusion  like Steve had just been told that he had won a million dollars but only had 60 seconds to live and in that moment I had deep compassion for Steve. 
I am in Washington DC for a conference, and on the first day attend a presentation on access to markets for poor producers which is facilitated by a white South African woman. The audience of about twenty-five is about one third Africans and a smattering of others from the Subcontinent and South America and the rest Caucasians. At one point the presenter was referring to a dynamic within communities called the ‘tall poppy syndrome”, which as we know in ‘Anglosphere’ refers to the tendency among some cultures to resent or attack and generally ‘cut down to size’ those who show talent or achievements.  In her broad South African accent she talked about this “tall puppy syndrome”......... I looked around the room and saw that this had the attention of even the sleepiest of the Africans, they may never have heard of a poppy, but they sure know what a puppy is. And then the presenter elaborated, saying that the people in some cultures “cut the heads off the tall puppies”; the Africans at the back shot up like meer cats. They had no idea how headless puppies and the alleviation of poverty fit together but she sure as hell had their attention now.
I am thinking that in a way we all need to have an environment in which to be tall poppies, to be free to flourish and flower, somehow to connect with that inner poverty that makes us strong, kind of like the lotus in its magnificence rising from the mud. And how we are bound together more out of our collective brokenness than through any competitive heroics.
Later I had dinner at Le Chaumiere in an expensive restaurant in Georgetown just up from my hotel. I didn't realise quite how expensive it was until it was too late. At the table just across from me sits independent Senator Joe Lieberman, formally a Democrat, stood for Vice President in 2000, supporter of gay rights in the military, outer of Bill Clinton during the Monica thing. And he is sitting right there almost next to me. His hair is amazing, not a strand out of place, like the fuzz on a grey pink tennis ball. He is with his wife, who is kind of loud and they seem to be hosted by a guy in his early 40s, who looks very Jewish and rich and has an attractive, slightly overweight Pamela Anderson wife. The Jewish guy has bad posture like he is keeping his head down so as not to be noticed, perhaps he too had heard about the tall puppy syndrome and was playing it safe. He is wearing beautiful soft black leather shoes and no socks. No socks in a restaurant like this, that has wine for $650.00 a bottle, means you are very rich or in the wrong place and risk finding yourself a&se up on the footpath. Anyway, the French red wine ordered by the guy with no socks is not  on the menu........ I looked but in the entire restaurant it was the only one that was decanted into a crystal carafe. Lieberman looks up at one point and at me directly, okay, I might have been staring. I nodded, he smiled, we were mates. I paid my $100 for a glass of sparkling water, two glasses of wine, a buffalo steak and piece of chocolate cake and left. Characteristically I trip on the sill at the door and explode onto the footpath outside. Might have been the wine but I am blaming my bad leg and I did the exaggerated limp thing to keep the world in its orbit for the foursome of silver-haired people who were just about to enter the restaurant but are now collecting themselves and their beating hearts. Ah it’s good to be alive.

[1] Nicola Abé,  Spiegel International, Dreams in Infrared (14/12/2012)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Aliens Christmas

Resident Aliens Christmas message.

I emptied the coffee grounds from my plunger in to the toilet turning the water a rich chocolate grainy brown, wondered what the cleaning staff would think about my health if I forgot to flush, swung to leave, clipped the Blackberry attached to my belt and I knew without question the plickplop that followed was my phone into the toilet.  Instinctively my hand in the bowl deep into the water, there it was. And I had what I imagine is a feeling similar to the onset of death, when we realise that this is actually happening to us, personally,  and that life as we know it is slipping away from us, how could this be happening to me....?  in the certain knowledge that it was.

Apparently like lives, Blackberry’s are incredibly resilient and a couple of hours in pieces on the dashboard of the Hilux in 35 degree heat dried it out a treat, and now  it works fine.  Except there is one small glitch and as hard as this is to fathom, after the dip in the toilet the “P” doesn’t work properly.   It is from such unfathomable mysteries that tribal religions arise.

I am staying in Nakuru township in Kenya’s Rift Valley, around two and a half hours north west of Nairobi. The road from Nairobi to Nakuru good now, when I first started working in this area the road  was so pockmarked and potholed that the Matatu’s that plying the route needed weekly repairs just to stay on the road. It was like a hell realm dream  in which you are riding one of those mechanical barroom bulls for an infinity of bucking ...and the Africans are sleeping through with their heads lolling around like they were dead. Then it used to take over 2 hours from Naivasha and how it is half that.

Naivasha town is now bypassed by the new freeway and the main business area is developing but it still has some old British buildings with low rusty wild-west sheet iron and wooden post verandas from when it was one of the main towns of Happy Valley.  Settlers  from Britain, many the black sheep adventurers from  wealthy families came, hunted game and mounted the  heads of dead animals on walls, drank whisky and gin, swapped wives and  displaced the Massai and Kikuyu peoples from their lands and they raped their women and shot their men for poaching.  God is on the side of the big battalions so we don’t know much of the Mau Mau rebellion that rose up in response and terrorised many of these settlers off their land by metering the same unspeakable violence in return, and the rebellion gave Kenya Jomo Kenyatta their first president, who came from nothing and ended up a multimillionaire and still now there is trouble because of this troubled national birth. Even in Naivasha if you go to a few blocks  behind the main area, where the roads are like river beds and many people don’t have power even thought KenGen the nation’s main ‘hot rocks’ power generator is only 30 km around Lake Naivasha. The water is delivered to houses by kids from the few working town taps that are controlled by the Mungiki  mafia and they  fill rusty blue 44gallon drums loaded onto small wooden carts mounted on fat car tires, pulled by a sad skinny donkey with ribs pronounced like one of those sad TV pictures of refugees  starving.  And in 2007 in the post election violence that was stirred up by politicians, who could do this because of issues still to do with land and injustice, Naivasha was one of the hot spots and people burned car tires in the streets, threw rocks and gangs of young men hacked at each other with pangas and hundreds died and hundreds more were wounded and thousands were displaced to camps and still to this day are not are resettled.

The rooms  at the Merica hotel  in Nakuru have all been done up new flat screen TVs and the carpet that used to smell like a wet dog has been replaced, the threadbare blue spidery towels gone and in their place new thick fluffy white embodied  towels with the Merica crest of a water buck, which has a head something like a deer, embodied in gold thread.  I am not sure what Merica means, something tells me it has to do with a family of snails but I think the hotel name is rough Swahili for America. For me the highlight of staying at Merica has been the evening buffet and that night at the buffet,  I learned why the hotel has a new life. It is full of Chinese tourists. The waitress Mary says  these days their guests are mostly packaged  Chinese tourists,  the men packaged as baseball fans or faux  camouflage  and Safari  jackets and packaged  women in Mickey Mouse and panda bear jersey pyjamas at dinner. They shout loud across the dining in Mandarin, swarming on new plates of food so that by the time I get to it there are just leftovers.  The mystery that there are Kenyan translators who somehow learned fluent Mandarin knowing Chinese would be here one day and this moment are confidently moving among the guests solving problems, conveying the next day’s arrangements.  Gone are the things I am used to and I am no longer a  special  foreigner amongst these new colonisers. My comfort was among the stuffy African business men and politicians telling stories of common things that make laughter and back slapping as they pile their plates high with Nyama choma, ugali and African bitter greens. And of the groups of boisterous young church volunteers at a tables of twenty, saving the world in earnest self confident conversation and you sense they are bottled like home made ginger beer and that some of them will eventually pop and self destruct but here they are playful brothers and sisters in whatever and shepherded by proud and happy overweight church leaders or gaunt serious pastor types who nod knowingly as thought they hold all the answers and will always know more than you, from somewhere in the middle of the United States where life revolves around pigs and corn, and guns and God and it is so flat that you can watch a dog run away for three days.

This morning we drove about 2 hours out of Nakuru and are visiting the farms of some of the members of an economic empowerment group that I have known and love for five years.  We have helped the group over the years and they are wanting to show us the farms of some of their members. When we help it is mainly by discussions that end up with  people believing more in themselves than in us. And I am standing in on the edge of a corn plot in the hot sun, and I am feeling that hot sun nausea in spite of my hat, it is a kind of a daze and i don’t know if it is jet-lag from the plane or dizziness from knowing that I don’t have real answers but am supposed to, and the courage to shut up and trust that there will be an unfolding process that i can contribute to. Then Enoc from the committee, a guy of about fifty with only one giant tooth in his upper gum when he smiles, tugs the shirt on my arm and points to the ants running over my shoe. “fire ants, move!” and I look and they are brown and small and I nod and  move unhurriedly, like I knw more than he does about ants.

We gather in a nearby the farmers stick and mud walled store where there is dried maze stored and conversations about prices and middlemen.  And I get a sharp bee sting pain on my calf. Yahhhhh, I jump and to my leg and to the ant hanging on to my flesh as though its life depended on it, which it didnt. Wow fire ants are a wakeup call to clear the head like a blast ammonia.  Jim our business facilitator says matter of factly, “fire ant bite, there will be more”.  No sooner had he said that then  like a gunshot to breast another bite and I pulled the ant off and squeezed the life out of  it. We are still in the dusky half light of the store and I am now wired and awake like there is a snake in the room and then a third bite just under my testicles and truly I saw a flash of lightening then fireworks went off somewhere in my head and I lurched out of the door my gammy leg trying to keep up,  behind the mud hut but in view of giggling kids and chickens and who knows what else so that i could drop my pants and pinched the ant free of me, and its still smarting like a burn and I have tears in my eyes.

There is a lesson here somewhere about size and of foreign interventions and impact adn the arrogance of foreigners when they are given a sign, and i think i will think about this later when i am not so hot and dizzy but I don’t.

That day on our way back we  travel through undulating  scrub land, parched hard rocky red volcanic earth , along tracks so narrow that the thorn bushes scratch the paintwork of the landcruiser  like high pitched nails on a backboard.  

“Whats that?” I ask and point

“Where?” asks one of the staff

“There on the hill”

“Oh that’s an IDP camp.”

“How many? “I ask

“Around four thousand, you will see.. we are driving through very soon.”

And the road we are on goes through the camp and on the side of the hill amongst the thorn bushes and stunted trees of land so dry and hard it yields little and when the hard rain falls this ground is as hard a clay pot and the water runs of in destructive torrents that sweep away he the little top soil that may have been there  to leave just clean clay and rocks. The displaced people have been there a year and are living in make do tents that have UNDP tarpaulins as the cover, some supported by arches that turn them into a dome, I guess they came with the covers, and many others held up by branches and saplings so that there are no standard looking dwellings and none much bigger than the space of a double bed. There are no stores, no readily available water, no amenities, no gathering place. There is nothing except the shared humanity and the proximity of other little dwellings none stronger than a piece of cloth. I work out there are at least 800 of these dwellings on this stony hillside.

What work are we doing here?  I ask

“We can’t do much right now, it is complicated, you see the government resettled the IDP’s without having a proper agreement with the owners of the land and now there is a dispute, and if we provide some services we are likely to be upsetting the people of the area that we have been working so hard to gain trust with over the last six years. “

I know this is an area that has been very prone to tribal violence. I know this is not simple and fraught with dangers, I know we have a thought through plan and that this influx of unexpected arrivals is not part of it and if we change the plan in a reactionary way we risk undoing so much of what we have gained.  And I know also that I know nothing. I know I look with western eyes and I am thinking “no room at the Inn”.... again.