Monday, December 30, 2013

Postcard from Yerevan,

Of Swans and Wolves

My fourth floor balcony in the center of Yerevan overlooks a small man-made lake. It is called Swan Lake and it is in the shape of Armenia. Up until recently the weather was mild and the lake had water in it. Sometimes the two swans swimming on it were white and at other times the two swans were black. I guess someone switched them every few days. Black swans are hot weather birds from Australia. Recently it began to get cold and I am imagining as it begins to snow, one black swan turns to the other; “what the frick was that?”

Now the lake has become an ice skating rink. The swans have gone and I watch the skaters doing ballet moves to Celine Dion’s Titanic song, loud through big speakers in the crisp air, ‘near far wherever we are, I believe that the heart does go o-on…”.

Today it is -5C, it started out this morning at -13C so it is warming up. My little electronic weather station also tells me that the humidity is -55%. What do you suppose that means?
Having a cup of tea on my balcony I noticed four council workers each carrying a life-size white plastic swan and apparently a map trying to figure out where to put them. I came out later to clear the used tea bag from the patio table and found it had frozen solid to the glass table top. That is a new experience for me.  I see the neighbor below puts bread on the table in the balcony below presumably to keep it frozen.

I have found this winter weather is fine if you dress for it. A few weeks ago I went to the outdoor market and in preparation for these days and bought a Russian fur hat. One of those hats you see people wearing in Moscow on -30 degree news reports. The Armenian man at the hat stand spoke no English and so we did miming interpretations of the various animals, he had hats made from rabbit, mink and other animals I couldn't figure out from the miming.  I wanted something a bit exotic and ended up in buying one made from Wolf fur. Thinking I might be  part of some wolf extinction story,  with passer by translating, I asked him if the wolf was a problem in Russia or if it was somehow sustainably farmed for its skin He looked at me like I was completely mad and even with translation I was not able to get any kind of coherent picture except for, a wolf is a wolf you stupid man.

When I got home I checked on the internet and sure enough wolves are a problem in Russia. Recently 400 wolves got together in a super pack and surrounded a village and villagers had to mount snowmobile patrols while they waited for the army to arrive.  Apparently there is a high bounty paid for dead wolves and in Siberia the state has extended the hunting season on wolves to be all year round and on January 15 is officially beginning a “three month battle against wolves”. Anyway I bought the hat; it looks ridiculous but better than my ears shriveling up with frost bite.

Speaking of fur I noticed many bars in Yerevan have signs that read ‘fur bar’. I never went into any of them as I thought it might be the local term for pussy bar and that is not my thing. But now I know that the Armenian script for Bar looks like fur.

I still only know four things to say in Armenian; Barev dzez  - hello, barev luys - good morning,  lav em -how are you? And my newly mastered shnorhakalutyan – thank you. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Saint’s Tooth

Stories from the Road

The Saint’s Tooth

Once upon a time, there was a village where the people were very poor. There were many reasons for this. The ground was hard clay and covered in small iron pebbles. In the dry season top soil became a fine dust and the hard clay on the tracks and hillsides dried and cracked. Often in the summer months the wind picked up the dust and carried it into the people’s huts and into everything they owned. The summer heat made thermals and the grey dust spiraled upwards in mini tornadoes that in the local language were called “the angry person”. And in the wet season the rain came in torrents and turned the walking tracks and roads into rivers and the dust became mud and each year more of the scarce top soil was washed away. Because the people were so poor they progressively cut down the trees on the surrounding hills to use for fuel to cook their food and boil water. The villagers grew as much corn and vegetables as they could and kept a few goats to milk for their children. In the previous year the rain came early and then stopped and the crops which had begun to shoot died and there was no time then to replant, so now there was hunger in the village. There had also been feuds and land disputes between villagers which went  back many years and the people did not trust each other and only worked together grudgingly.The chief was a wise man and realized that the people’s lives would only improve if they worked together and built an irrigation channel from the river that was over a kilometer from the village. But the people couldn't agree how to share the work and many thought that those who had land closer to the river would stop their labor once it had reached their land and so the work was never started.

One day the chief called a strong young man and said “We need a miracle if our village is to survive; I want you to go and find a holy relic and bring it back to the village so that we can pray to it and God will bless us and we will be saved.” So the young man went off with all the food he could carry in search of a holy relic to bring back to the little split logged dirt floored church.Initially the villagers were hopeful that the young man would return but several months passed and there was no sign of him and soon he was forgotten.The young man, faithful to his task traveled the county searching for a relic from a saint, but his food had long run out and he lived by scavenging what he could. Eventually in a barren place, weak from hunger, he tripped and fell. And next to where he fell there was the carcass of a dog. In desperation he pried one of the teeth loose from the dogs jaw. In a few days he returned to the village with the tooth. He told the whole village of his search and his eventual success in finding the tooth of a venerated saint. The villagers took the tooth and together built a case in which to display and venerate it in the church.

Now when the villagers came to pray at the church, they felt they were in an especially sacred place. Together they felt their village was now special as it was the home of this sacred object. Some people said that they had their prayers answered and others said that they had seen the tooth glowing in the dusky half-light of the church.The chief again called a meeting to discuss the digging of the irrigation trench. Now there was a different mood among the villagers. Seemingly there was a certain unity as they now saw themselves as the village of the saint’s tooth and blessed by God, where as previously they only thought of themselves as a poor cursed village.  Now they felt that they were unified as the only village in the area that had a relic from a genuine saint.It was not long before the chief was able to organize a team to begin work on the channel and they decided together that they would all start the trench from the furthest farmers land and work back toward the river. And within a month the trench was dug, the water flowed; the villagers built bonds of trust and friendship that had not existed before. Some said it was a miracle made possible by the tooth of the Saint but others wondered why they had not been able to work together all along.


I have told this story numerous times when trying to generate thought and discussion as to  how when we believe that something is possible, that it often is. This is a story about the power of faith and hope and also how we create our own reality,whether we live in the cursed village or the blessed one, the future is in our hands or rather our heads. It is about the realization that we live in mystery and, in this mystery, the hope that we can make a difference in our own situation.On one memorable occasion I told it to a group of poor Muslim farmers in Senegal and they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. I remember well my colleague at the back of the room looking up at me from her laptop and I could see she was thinking, ‘can’t wait to see you get out of this one’. As is my habit I kept digging myself a deeper hole for a while before just giving up in front of the very respectful but perplexed audience. I think what I failed to do was to make the link between their current situation as they saw it, their fate, and the possibility that a different future was possible. This required a shared belief and, based on that belief, a shared hope; what could be their Saints tooth?It is a fact that some towns or neighborhoods prosper and others in similar situations struggle socially and economically and even disappear. What is it about their faith and how this links to  hope and then action for a future which results in success? Believing in something outside ourselves is generally called faith and often it is this faith that allows us hope and in turn the motivation to work towards a different or better future. I am always encouraged by the following words by the esteemed late Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician Vaclav Havel.
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless as ours do, here and now.”[1]

Jock Noble November 2013,

Jock Noble is the Lead of World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.

© Words and pictures Jock Noble: Original pictures by the wonderfully talented Armenian Artist - Anna Avetisyan

[1] Václav Havel in Disturbing the Peace: A conversation with Karel Hvížďala, (Knopf, 1990), p. 181. Originally published 1986. Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson. Also available in The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear by Paul Rogat Loeb, (Basic Books, 2004), p. 82.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The People of Rome

Stories from the Road

The People of Rome

There was once a traveler who was on his way to Rome, it was a long and dusty path and he had misgivings about the city. He had heard so much, traveled so far and he was nervous about how he would make his way in the new city. A days walk from Rome he reached the top of a hill from which Rome in its glory could be seen. And sitting in the shade of a rock sat an old man. He walked over to the man.
“Wise one” he said, “ I have traveled far, please tell me, what are the people in Rome like?”
The old man looked at him for a moment and said, “Where are you from brother?”
“I am from a village outside Athens sir” replied the traveler.
“And how are the people there?”

And the traveler replied “The people from my village are generous, kind and understanding, they welcome travelers and treat all men as equal”
“Well” said the old man, “You are in luck, for the people of Rome are just the same”

The following day another traveler reached the top of the mountain, looked toward Rome, noticed the old man and walked over to him and said: “Wise one, I have traveled far, please tell me, what are the people in Rome like?”
The old man looked at him for a moment and said, “Where are you from brother?”
“I am from a village outside Athens sir” replied the traveler.
“And how are the people there?”

And the traveler replied, “The people from my village are mean, unscrupulous and lack any compassion, they are suspicious of travelers and only look after their own interests.”
“Well” said the old man, “I regret to tell you that the people of Rome are just the same.”


We often feel that a situation is bad and many times we relate this with particular events and circumstances that seem to us unique to that situation. However so many times we fail to ask ourselves if we have encountered the underlying issues before and whether it may in fact be us who is the common element. We are inclined to take our baggage with us.
I believe that wisdom is paying more attention to what is going on around us than the next person and seeing our part in this; and this includes us recognizing our part in repeating patterns. We are almost never a neutral party in anything we are a part of.
Thus for International Development we must try to see how we take our own projections into various situations, staff groups and communities. And be aware of our own inclinations to make judgments and prophesies based on our own assumptions and then to see how these tend to become self-fulfilling. Just as the travelers in the story above we tend to see our situation as being the result of others behaviors rather than the result of our own interactions with others. We expect others to be open to change and have positive mindsets when so often we fail to be genuinely open and positive ourselves. We expect others to have self-belief when we do not believe in our own power to be real catalysts for change. And we expect others to take risks and be advocate for change, when we do not take risks or challenge the authorities in our own circumstances.

Jock Noble November 2013,
Jock Noble is the Lead or World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.

© Words and pictures Jock Noble: Original pictures by the wonderfully talented Armenian Artist - Anna Avetisyan

Stone Soup

Stories from the Road

Stone Soup

 Once upon a time there was a traveler who walked all day without food and arrived at dusty village; two rows of small stone and mud walled houses with broken tiled and tin roofs each side of a stony potholed dirt track. It was hot in the early afternoon and the village smelled of charcoal fires and cow dung. The villagers sat on split log benches pressed hard against the walls of the houses or squatted in the pools of shade under the few trees in the central common near the village well. The flies were thick and tried to find moisture in the corners of the kid’s eyes and mouths and around the goats that looked for the last blades of grass and weed. Into this village the hungry visitor made his way.

The first person the traveler met was a women walking with two small  children and when he approached they clutched her skirt and moved behind her peering at him around the folds of tattered fabric. The traveler said, “Mother, I am hungry, can you spare a few mouthfuls of food?” But the woman said, “We too are hungry uncle and no one here has any food to spare, I can’t even properly feed my own children.”  The traveler knocked at the door of one hut and then another but the villagers who came to the door said the same. The visitor was travel-weary, tired and hungry he took rest for a while under one of the trees.

In the cooler part of afternoon he went to where the well was and spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard through the whole village. “I see everyone is hungry, and so I am going make a big meal and feed everyone, please come and join in the feast, this evening we will all eat well today.”

The visitor asked for the biggest pot in the village and someone brought it, he asked for some fire wood and the kids collected what they could. And the man asked the children to fill the huge pot with water and he then put it on the fire. And when the water was boiling he took out a large polished stone from his bag and announced. “I will now make stone soup!”
After some time the visitor took out a spoon from his bag and took a mouthful of the steaming liquid. “Ah it is coming along well, I think it just needs a little salt, can anyone spare a little salt?” and someone brought some. And the pot bubbled and the villagers chatted amongst themselves and waited expectantly. And the visitor again tasted the liquid. “Oh wonderful” he said, “Its coming along well, all we need are one or two onions, can anyone help with two onions?” And the onions  were supplied. And so the soup bubbled and every so often the visitor would taste the broth ask for one more ingredient, one time carrots, the next potatoes, and the next some chili and the next some corn and finally a chicken. And when the soup was ready everyone had more than they could eat and there was plenty left over.

(The story of Stone Soup has no known author, is apparently some hundreds of years old and is retold in many countries in many forms, from nail soup in Scandinavia, to Axe soup in Russia)


After telling this story I ask participants, what they think this story is about. And someone generally says , “It shows how when everyone works together there can be more than any one person working alone.” And typically everyone nods. And I ask what else? And sometimes someone will say something like “The traveler had to trust and believe that the villagers had it within them to respond, otherwise all they would have had was hot water with a rock in it and the visitor would have to run for his life. “

And that to me is the is the wonder of this story, that a visitor to a community would be prepared to risk himself or herself not based on a belief that their job was to be an expert or to own a success but to take a risk that other could be shown they have the answer. To have faith in the possibility that ignited belief in one person might be the beginning of fire and change a world. And this is unlikely to ever happen through a log frame for soup or a professional Power Point presentation, or some action learning or evidence building activity.

The shadow in the story is the voice of the skeptic, what in fact is the traveler really offering?  We all have our own answers to this but certainly he is offering his belief in people and he is trusting in peoples curiosity to take a leap of faith towards something, in this case a never before heard of soup. There is a magic in this and he is the catalyst of it. And the magic is performed through the courageous belief of the traveler. Of course he is hungry for a result and keen to meet his own objective to eat a meal. He is not a neutral player. And neither are we as development professionals. We all need each other and the leap of faith taken by the communities we work in, to succeed.

The traveler holds a vision, he cannot be sure how the soup will progress or what the community will be able, or prepared, to offer. And yet in the story, as in life, something can manifest from very little.

It is also significant that the traveler is the only one who is potentially putting his life on the line, he has more to lose than the villagers. They are only offering what they can actually spare. The traveler like the development professional is offering himself, his credibility, his future in that village, perhaps even his life; he is raising hopes with no certainty of the outcome. 
Yet by his faith alone, in himself and in the community as not being different in essence from his own character, humility and brokenness, he is able to build and generate the trust that brings about something none of the participants could have done on their own.

In the international development context, my view is that this story is more about the courage and unshakable belief needed by development professionals than it is about communities being able or obliged to work together.

Jock Noble November 2013,

Jock Noble is the Lead of World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.

© Words and pictures Jock Noble: Original pictures by the wonderfully talented Armenian Artist - Anna Avetisyan

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Oracle

Stories from the Road

The Oracle

Once upon a time there was a village where the people were hungry and dissatisfied with their situations and no one knew what to do. The chief of the village summoned the strongest young man and said, “Go over the mountains, find the wise Oracle and bring her to us; she will tell us what we need to do”. So the young man set off and after much hardship and many weeks he found the Oracle and brought her back to the village.

The Oracle asked, “So I am here, what is the problem?” And the villagers replied, “Great Oracle we are hungry and unhappy!” and the Oracle asked them, “So what is the answer to your problem?” and the villages stared at each other in confusion and one brave villager replied, “We are hungry and don’t know the answer to all the problems in our village, that is why we sent for you so that you can tell us the answers.” And the Oracle asked them many questions about those things that the villagers already knew about their situation and about the challenges they were facing and the reasons, and then she said, “ You know a lot about your situation, if you can’t find the answers in what you already know then I won’t be able to help you”. And slowly she stood up, picked up her walking staff and without another word began the trek back over the mountains to her home. The villagers looked at each other in disbelief; they had expected the Oracle to give them a simple answer that would solve their problems. Wasn't she the one they had been waiting for, the one they had put their hopes on, the wise one? Some villagers were disappointed, some were discouraged and some were even angry.

Some months went by and the poor conditions in the village had not improved, so the chief consulted with the elders and they agreed, they would send for the Oracle again to seek her wisdom. They agreed also that this time when she asked if they knew the answer to their problems, half the village would say they knew the answer and the other half would say they didn’t and in this way they would elicit the answer from the Oracle to what they should do to make their lives better and more successful.
So again the young man was sent to beg the Oracle to visit and she consented and together they slowly made the journey back to the village of hungry people. And again she asked if they knew the answer to their problems. And as they had agreed, half the village said that they knew the answer and half the village said they did not know and they asked the Oracle what they should do. The Oracle thought for a moment and then said, “Those who know the answer tell those who don’t know.” And then she took her walking staff and without another word left the village.

That night the chief had a dream and the next day he called everyone together. And he said, “The Oracle did in fact give us the answer but we didn't have the ears to hear it. The answer is that the solution to our problem lies within us, because we can only respond to things we already know to be true. If they were beyond our comprehension we could not respond, so anything we can do is within our comprehension, so the answers to our problems are already with us.”


I have told this story many times. On one occasion I was talking with a group of staff in Vietnam about local value chain development. They had been furiously taking detailed notes and I had the strong sense that they were expectantly waiting for me to give some miracle solution for what they should do for producers in their communities. They all had a copy of the ninety page local value chain manual and they wanted copies of all available PowerPoint presentations as well.

I could feel the pressure on me to be the expert but was very aware also that the answers were not in the notes. So I stopped and said something like:

“Market development is easy, first you find out what buyers are buying, then you find out what people are producing, after that, you and the community try to figure out how the market might work better so that producers can get more for their products. And this is generally by assisting producers to buy inputs like fertilizers and better seed, to supply more of what the market is demanding and increase their bargaining power by selling collectively. And to the extent that it is possible, farmers work together and partner with other organizations with which they share common interests. Then you all work together and innovate what seems to be working so that whatever successes have emerged can be maximized and experiences are shared about what has been effective. At various times you take a step back to see what the impact has been and what can be learned and discussed for the future.”

And everyone agreed that they knew this already and that it was helpful when it was spoken so simply. And so I told the story of the Oracle above and then said:

“The answers are already with you. And the answers are in the communities you work in and you must be the Oracle to them; just as I must be the Oracle to you, the one who helps you see what you already know. And perhaps helps you fill in some of the missing pieces when you have decided what you want to do.”

 I believe there is something we all need to learn about our tendency to believe that answers lie outside ourselves or beyond our ability to find them and our tendency to believe in the power of the expert to solve problems that only we can solve.

I think as development professionals we too often fall into the trap of our own need to be useful, which quickly becomes us wanting to be the experts, to hold the answers, to want to be of more value in pitiful situations and not to disappoint the expectations of those we are working alongside.

A less obvious trap is that those we are engaging with expect us to come up with simple answers to solve their challenges and put pressure on us “just tell us what to do”. I have seen this in communities where villagers are effectively saying “just tell us what to do and we will do it, you are the expert”. But in fact, between the lines, mostly what the villagers are really saying is “you commit yourself to us, you tell us what to do and give us what you can and we will decide what we think and what we will do, and if we do what you say and it doesn't work out then it will be your fault not ours.” I have seen this tendency when working with field staff as well, “you are the expert, stop trying to facilitate us and just give us the answers!”

I see this story of the community and the Oracle as a gateway into one of the fundamental challenges of international development, namely we being the “experts” and trying to transmit new knowledge or ways of seeing things beyond the current knowledge of the community or staff that we are engaging with. We can think, “If others don’t know the solution that seems clear to us, isn’t it our responsibility to educate them and tell them what they should do? “

What I have observed is that too often we introduce new concepts and or language which becomes appropriated at the hearers own level of understanding. But then often the words or concepts lose their power, if they are just acted on as a theory that is not really understood rather than a process of applying different ways of doing things because we see our situations differently. The way we learn new ways and worldviews is typically by doing and reflecting. It is a personal journey of lived experience, not an adopted one belonging to the “expert”.

Many times I have observed international aid and relief organizations, whose collective worldview very much revolves around compliance, policies for everything, risk minimization and staff fitting into the current culture, talking about the organization’s need for entrepreneurship, creativity and risk taking. Yet the people who are talking about these things and the recruiters who vainly try to recruit new creative and entrepreneurial staff, struggle to recognize people who are creative or entrepreneurial. This is because they have no significant lived experience of these ways of seeing the world. When these recruiters come across someone who is genuinely creative or entrepreneurial, they tend to see them as unsuitable for the organization.  The recruiters have appropriated the language of innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, given it new meanings consistent with their compliance driven world views and in so doing made the words and concepts largely impotent. If creative people are recruited they tend not to be effective or not to stay with the organization, as their talents are generally not respected or they are given too little autonomy and support to be effective.
The question is whether it is really possible for us or others to conceive of things for which we have no relevant existing experience to tie the new learning into.  And if we do, then potentially we can find the wisdom in ourselves to take the next steps. In community development the following saying is often quoted “The wisdom of the local people always exceeds that of the experts.” But do we, who may be called experts, actually believe this to be true? Of course there is role for people who know more and who have more experience. But  perhaps this role is more that of a catalyst, where we can assist in opening  up possibilities and allowing others to see new opportunities, to have new dreams but leaving the answers and the action with those we walk beside. Like a wise guide on a hiking track that we know well, we point out the flora fauna and places from which best to view the landscape but the journey of those we are guiding is always their own. Here it is our job to be the Oracle and theirs to discover their own next steps. And that is what the Oracle in the story did; she came to the village with the purpose of helping the villagers to see their challenges in new ways and that they already held the answers to many of the problems they were asking her to solve.

Some of my work in Kenya’s Rift Valley is an area we call Wema , we work with communities in two areas, one is Weseges and the other Maji tamu and we have combined the two names. Weseges people are primarily Kalenjin and in Maji tamu the people are mostly Kikuyu. They are traditional rivals and at times there has been violence between them. We are meeting in a hut with a tin roof, concrete floor and split log walls. Bright light shines through spaces between the logs like halogen into the half light of the room. The windows have no glass but shutters for lock up. It is like the hut in a Wild West movie and has recently been taken over by the Waseges committee on loan from the local government and the group has renovated it. They have installed a 2 meter square blackboard at one end and the room is filled with white plastic molded chairs. The group proudly tells me they purchased the chairs from membership contributions. I am meeting with around 25 men and women who comprise management committees from the two economic empowerment groups. Normally I ask them to tell me what has happened in each of their group’s during the six or so months since I last visited.

Getting a true sense of what is happening can be awkward as the achievements for one group in some areas may overshadow the other and there is an unspoken competitiveness. This time I decided to try something different. I made a vertical chalk line on the blackboard and at one point put ‘Start’ and the other end I put “Now”. And then I asked all those present to help me plot the achievements of the last 3 years. And from their own history it emerged that they saw the first year was about dreaming what might be possible, the second year was dealt with difficulties and disappointments including many resignations within the committees and some confusion about direction. And then when we came to the third year there were so many actions and achievements that there was hardly space enough to write everything in. And I joked that is seemed like a marriage; the first year was the honey moon, the second year we realized the reality of our choices and that our choice to work together was not going to be easy, commitment and faithfulness were required not just dreaming. And the third year was when the babies came and now it was our work to nourish and build what we had created. And there was a great explosion of laughter and and little speeches by various members about the truth of this.

And I said, “Do you remember when I had first come and you said “Mzungu, tell us what we should do” and you looked at me expectantly with you notebooks out and the pens ready? "

Heads nodded and faces lit up, there were embarrassed smiles and a hum of agreement

And I asked them,

“Does anyone think now this Mzungu can tell you anything about what you should do?” And we all laughed and laughed, like it was the silliest thing in the world.

Jock Noble November 2013,
Jock Noble is the Lead of World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.

© Words and pictures Jock Noble: Original pictures by the wonderfully talented Armenian Artist - Anna Avetisyan

Postcard From Albania

The Salt of My Father

I shake the salt container into my hand and sprinkle it onto the chips, I do this again and again as a reflex, watching the white sand in my palm and the unconscious motion of the sand to the chips. I think when did I start to do this in this way? And I remember it was what my father did, reluctant to let the shaker determine how much salt went onto the food. I remember as a six year old watching my father read the paper and eat breakfast toast. I watched through the window of the laminex top that was a kind of bench between the living room and the kitchen. My Dad ate the toast, read the paper and unconsciously ran his thumb across his fingers, with the skill of a pianist, to shed them of crumbs. And I thought when I am an adult this is what I will do. On the wall beside the laminex counter is a shadow box with blown glass birds and once my sister ran into me holding one and the sharp glass neck of a stork cut a long deep gash in my finger near the hand and  fifty years later I still have the scar. Like I still have the scar of my father’s strengths, my father’s weaknesses and his way of shaking salt.

But I am in Tirana Albania eating sword fish at a Greek restaurant and my father. long since dead, lives in me and in the way I use salt. He never traveled except to Thursday Island in the war where he waited for action which never came and caught sharks on big hooks and blew up reef fish with dynamite.

My father was a man who was honest in the world, he valued honesty, his name and his reputation for being a good man. And that is also the salt I look from him. While fearlessly honest in the world I don’t think he ever went deep with it within himself. I have tried to do both. He taught by his example of honesty and straightforwardness in the world and he taught me by his example of fear of self-examination. And I resolved to follow one and address the other.

I have done neither as well as I would have liked. I believe I am a calculating rather than a courageous man. I have been courageous at times when I have ventured into the unknown with communities I work with, not knowing whether I have the stuff to address a situation. But it is only them and me that will know if I have or I haven’t and maybe that is not such a risk.

When I was forty something,  I received the highest honor from the prestigious  private school I went to.There was one medal given each year to an alumni who had contributed greatly to the Australian society. So there I was in the company of the man who developed the world acclaimed bionic ear and several of what Australia calls its National Treasures. I was receiving my medal as the exemplar of that year in front of four thousand people and had thirty seconds to accept and say something. I started by acknowledging the indigenous people on whose land this auditorium  was built and more than implied that our White man success was only possible through their loss of county. This was like serving pork at a Jewish barbecue, and the school has never invited me back to speak to students. And this was brave, I knew it at the time, it was brave.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Foolish Man

Stories From the Road

The Foolish Man

There was a poor man who lived at the edge of the town in a house of old bricks, with poor fitting windows and a rusty steel roof. In summer his house was very hot and in winter it was cold, when it rained the roof leaked. The man thought he never seemed to have any luck, he had stopped taking pride in his appearance, his hair was unkempt and his clothes ragged. He had just enough land to grow food to feed himself. From time to time the man found work but one way or another the jobs finished and he never seemed to be further ahead, it seemed the more he worked the less he had to show for it. His wife died after their first year of marriage and they didn't have children. And the man would like another wife he thought he had nothing to offer prospective brides and so he lived alone.
One day the man resolved to go and find God and tell him of the unfairness of his life and ask God to grant him a favor. So he set off into the forest in search of God.
On his way he met an old grey wolf, so thin its ribs showed clearly. The wolf growled and asked the man where he was going.
“I am going in search of God” said the man “ To tell him of my trials and sufferings. “

 “Well” said the wolf, “ Since you are going to find God, when you see him will you please tell him there is a wolf roaming in the forest who cannot find food and is hungry day and night. As God created me please ask God to feed me.”
The man committed to tell God about the wolf and continued on his journey.
Not long after the man met a pretty young woman collecting small wild flowers in the forest.
“Where are you going” she asked the man.
“I am going in search of God to ask him to help me.”
“Then” said the young woman, “Please tell God there is a pretty young woman, healthy and rich who is not happy. Please ask God to help her.”
The man committed to tell God about her and continued on his way.
After some time the man came to a tree on a dry bank beneath which was a flowing stream. The man sat in the shade of the tree to rest as he had been travelling all morning.
The tree spoke to the man saying “Traveler where are you going?”
“I am going in search of God” said the man “I am going to ask him for help”
“Well” said the tree “ if you are going to ask God for help, please ask him to help me also, please tell God there is a dried up tree on a bank whose roots cannot reach the stream below and it is dry on the bank all year round.  Please ask God to send some water so that I may become green again.
The man promised to tell God of the tree’s plight and continued on his way.
Eventually the man found God manifesting in the form of an elderly man with a long white beard sitting in the shade of a high rocky outcrop.

“Lord” Said the man, “I have come in search of you.”
“You are welcome”, said God, “What can I do for you?”
The man said, “Life is not fair and I want you to be fair to everyone, I work twice as hard as many I know
yet they are rich and live well and I am poor, lonely, often hungry and unhappy.”
God though for a moment and then said, “Please go now and you will be rich, I grant you luck, go find it and enjoy it”
“I have something else to tell you Lord” said the man, and he told God of the troubles of the hungry wolf, the pretty young woman and the dried up tree.
God promised he had help for them all and told the man what he must do. The man thanked God and began his journey back, almost at a run to begin his new life as a rich man.
On his way back he came to the tree.
“What is Gods message to me?” said the tree
“God told me that you have a pot of gold buried beneath your roots and once it is dug out then your roots will become free and you will be green again.”
“Wonderful” said the tree, “then you are just the man to dig out the gold, you can keep it for yourself and then I will be green again.”
“No” said the man “I have no time now, I am in a hurry, God has given me my luck and I must now go and find it so that I can have a happy life.”
And the man rushed off and almost ran into the pretty young woman who had been waiting for him.
“Sir what is God’s word for me? How will I ever be happy?”
“God told me that you must find a precious friend for yourself and then you won’t be sad anymore and your life will be joyful and you will be happy,” said the man
The young woman gazed openly and directly to deeply into the man’s eyes and had he looked he would have seen her tender heart, “Please! Will you be my precious friend?” asked the young woman with much feeling.
But the man averted his eyes “No, I have no time to be your friend” said the man, “ God has given me my luck and I must go and find it and enjoy it”. As he said these words the man was already leaving at a half-run rushing off up the path.
The man had not gone far when the hungry wolf ran toward him on the path.
“Traveller, does God have a message for me?” said the wolf
The man told the wolf that God had told him that the wolf would go hungry until he found a foolish man. And when he found one he should eat him immediately and he would be satisfied.
Then the wolf said “Where on earth am l likely to fine a man as foolish as you?” and with that he ate the man and was satisfied.
(This is a retelling of the story “The Foolish Man” by the famous Armenian poet and writer Hovhannes Tumanyan 1869 -1923)


I have used this story in a variety of forms in communities who are poor as well as with staff working in those communities, to create a discussion about what as a community we have now and what we think is missing.
Firstly of course, is that we have the eyes to see, that there are people and opportunities around us that we can work with to improve our condition.

If we are waiting on Government, NGO’s., Head Office or others to change our luck, the likelihood is that we will be missing those opportunities that can be grasped in the present. This is obviously the basis of  a “Strengths Based” approach or sometimes we call it ‘Appreciative Inquiry’.

Several years ago, I was in a remote area of Kenya and we were on our way back from meeting with some community business councils that I had been mentoring for nearly five years. That day on our way back we traveled through undulating scrub land, parched hard rocky red volcanic earth, along tracks so narrow that the thorn bushes scratch the paintwork of the land cruiser 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[1] camp.”
“How many? “I ask
“Around a 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 nearly 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. There are hundreds 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, it is not in our annual plan and 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.

I often talk about what I see as the three elements of action for change. There is “I” and what I can do, there is “we” or “us” and what we can do together and there are “others” such as key persons, institutions and/or NGOs who we can approach and discuss mutual interests. The “I”, “we” and “other” dimensions align with the dimensions of our worldviews: egocentric, socio-centric, and world-centric. These dimensions relate as much to the way the staff of NGOs see the communities they are working in as they do within communities themselves. In the story of “The Foolish Man”, the poor man misses the opportunities around him not only for wealth, but for love and happiness. It is easy for us to miss the point that it is likely through our interactions with others and benefiting them as well that we ourselves can find what we are looking for or what is promised to us. It is also the case that if we don’t have a flexible mindset that our own tight focus will also keep us from the opportunity to unlock the power and love in others, just as the story’s foolish man demonstrates.
I have found that more likely than not, the best outcomes appear in unexpected quarters and our role, as facilitators of change, is to be mindful enough to notice them and by recognizing them to make them real in a new way. We may have a focus on value chains or small business development however we are wise not to overlook the pride of a man saying, “Before I began working for my community based organization I was just a poor man, now I am helping change lives, my life is meaningful and I am respected.” Or the group that sends two representatives to local Government meetings to voice their community’s need for roads and water who say, “Before we were part of our committee we would never have dared to come to these meetings and speak for our community”. And this mindfulness is also what the man in the story lacked. In his very focused quest for results he ignored the wider picture and missed everything that he had hoped to gain. This not only kept him in the “individual – I” state, but it meant that others also could not fulfill their opportunities through his agency. And predictably he died as a result, as often does the hope in individuals and community groups or in our own staff. These issues of focus, unfulfilled possibility and death relate just as much to well-meaning programs as they relate to individuals. A program design can have a narrow view of success and staff can sometimes be so focused on achieving the aim of the program that they not only miss opportunities for transformation but do damage to others as did the foolish man. Inflexibility or inert program designs or logframes can also encourage a narrow focus or mean that we do not have a broad enough perspective on what we measure as beneficial change.
I have found the I, We and They (or the Other) perspectives very useful in focusing staff groups and communities on what can be done. It also helps focus on the short medium and longer term nature of opportunities.
I always start off with “what can individuals do?” and then move to the group. Only then do we discuss how individuals and or the group can engage with “others”. Invariably if the group begins talking about its collective neediness, what they think needs to be done, most actions tend to end up as the responsibility of the “other”.
Another extension of how worldviews can fundamentally change a situation, are the perspectives of first, second and third person. The foolish man is stuck in the first person world view and his interactions with the other players in the story don’t move him to include them. A second person perspective would open up his view to consider me and you, the man and the maiden, or the man and the tree, for example and what they can do together for mutual benefit.  A third person perspective would be the “view from the balcony” where the man can potentially see himself as part of a design and his place in a broader system and see how he can potentially work differently as part of a bigger picture of potency and opportunity.
There is always a wolf ready to pounce on the foolish. The man had the opportunity to avoid the wolf with riches and a new wife and bring new life to a tree and its sustainability for generations. Who knows he may even have been able to feed the wolf.
God in this story has effectively told the man, that if he doesn’t change his perspective the wolf will eat him, the man actually gives the wolf this message himself. Thus it is really only a change in worldviews that would allow the man, or individuals in a community to “keep the wolf from the door.” Not to change is not a viable option as it makes us, as communities or development professionals vulnerable to the hazards that are always present.
Often the place of God and divine intervention comes up and my response is to acknowledge God as the fundamental giver and to say that what he has indisputably given us at this time is ourselves, each other and organizations and institutions we can share our interests and messages with.

Jock Noble November 2013,
Jock Noble is the Lead of World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.

[1] Internally Displaced Person – after the post-election violence in 2007

© Words and pictures Jock Noble: Original pictures by the wonderfully talented Armenian Artist - Anna Avetisyan

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Postcard from Yerevan

Home is where you put your weight down

Smelling the roses after lunch at Dolmamas 

I am stretching my legs with a walk up to the galley next to the toilets on the Fly Dubai plane on my way to Yerevan. Two men are chatting outside the service galley, look like soccer hoodlums to me but it turns out that they are missionaries from South Africa who come to Armenia each year to preach at a summer camp for young adults. Some kind of church to church support. As they tell me about their upcoming few weeks in the Armenia countryside. I am imagining a big tent with open sides and lots of people, singing and clapping and praying in tongues and saying how happy they are to be here and the people up the front saying how excited they are and using lots of words like majesty, savior  holiness, redeemer, justified, kingdom and more about personal and you than about others and us. Who knows, anyway I liked them and their commitment and if it wasn't about Jesus and in another place these guys would likely be ready to blow themselves up for some Jihad somewhere.

It was a long flight, fifteen hours from Melbourne, seven more as a stopover in Dubai and then on to Armenia, my new home. At the luggage carrousel, I stand chatting with a suave Armenian guy named Karen, who is in his early thirties and looks like he has just been unfolded out of a shirt box. He lives in Dubai and sells luxury cigarettes for $30 a packet. I ask him if he smokes and he says no, neither does his boss. And then one of the mishos comes up to me and says that God has given him a prophesy about me, he bows his head and moves in close and I am pinned between him, Karen and a concrete pylon and I look up to see if there are any vines to Tarzan my way out. The mishos shinny bright eyes look knowingly at me; I guess he thinks I am looking to the heavens.  He says that the work I will do in the region will be much more impactful than I can possibly imagine and that the image he has is of an atomic bomb going off, it is so powerful. He is imagining grace, I am thinking self destruction. But for my first day here, seems like a good sign. Karen gives me his number and says lets hang out, I say why not.

Yerevan in summer is a dry heat 32C, wide pavements and big green lush tree lined streets, a city of parks and monuments and pillars with the bronze busts of poets and politicians of old grand Russian buildings and shopping. So many young women with shopping bags from the summer sales, the kind of girls who dress and laugh and walk intertwined arms and legs like sibling puppies and sway as they do in that kind of way that would make a bishop want to kick in a stained glass window. And there are churches here that go back to 300AD and now when they build new churches, they build them in the same shape and style as the old ones. If you are on a good thing you might as well stick with it for a thousand years or so. I think it is different where I come from, if you are on a good thing you tend to take it for granted and then grow unhappy and want to get rid of it, do a new design and make it bigger or smaller and more modern, more something. I wonder where modern comes from.

I have made new friends in the office, many people with names so different from any I am used to, like Armenuhi, Artak and Aramazd and surnames that are like some kind of scary Sudoku puzzle, Ghalamkaryan, Bezhanyan, Khaleyan and Saghatelyan. The good thing is all names seem to end in “yan” so I remember the first letter, and then mumble something and add yan at the end. Friends here are suggesting I learn Armenian, I am thinking I would rather be boiled in oil and I will be doing well if I can confidently get a few surnames right after a year. I do know two short phrases to get me out of trouble. “Problem cheeka” translates to “no worries” and “lave em” means “I am fine”. I am still working on “thankyou” which is pronounced “shnorhakalutyun”; seriously.

One of my friends here in the office told me a story about international development.
He says a man was traveling along a dirt road in a shiny Toyota Land cruiser, he is forced to stop as a large flock of sheep is blocking the road. The man gets out and walks over to the shepherd.
“If I tell you how many sheep you have, can I please take one for my research?”
The elderly shepherd nods in agreement.
The man from the car pulls out his Ipad, goes to a satellite App and after less than a minute says, “You have 353 sheep.”
The shepherd scratches the stubble on his chin and says, “If I tell you who you are, will you give me back my sheep?”
And the man from the car nods his agreement.
“You must be from USAID.”
“How did you know? Asks the man with the Ipad
Well I didn’t ask you to come here and you told me what I already know……… and now, will you please put down my sheep dog?

After an intensive search I found a two bedroom apartment right in the centre of Yerevan that will suit me well. The search itself was an adventure, with agents and agents of agents, sometimes five in a room speaking Armenian or Russian, one time I found myself mistakenly trying to do business with the guy driving the Mercedes, he turned out to be just the driver of the agent but he nodded a lot and seemed to like shaking my hand after each apartment viewing. Most apartments’ here are fully furnished. In Yerevan that means that every surface is covered by something, walls lined with grand cabinets and side dressers and little carts with little wagon wheels to put drinks on, paintings and chandeliers and mirrors. They find places to include some mirror in part of everything and if there is nothing to put mirror on in they just do straight mirror on the wall, size of a door. Like Louis the 14th meets Salvador Dali. I have been wondering what I am going to do with the 1800 kilos of furniture and personal possessions I shipped from Australia. I have found these things have a way of working themselves out but as yet I can’t see how this one will. Landlords here don’t want to take things out as they don’t know where to store them. My apartment is just round the corner from the Opera, which is one of the main landmarks in Yerevan. It was built in 1933 and has the Aram Khachaturian Concert hall at the back. Most people know Khachaturians Sabre Dance, it goes: DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DUH DA DA DA DUH DA DA DA DUH DA DA DA DUHDA DA DA DE DOODOO DOODOO DOODOO DOODOO WEEOO DEEOO WEEOO DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DA DUH DA DA DA DUH DA DA DA DUH DA DA DA DUHDA DA DA DE DOODOO DOODOO DOODOO DOODOO WEEOO DEEOO WEEOO BUM BUM BUM BUM BUM BUM BUM BUM,

I am going to the opera tomorrow night to hear Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who can forget his duet with Soprano Anna Netrebko in St Petersburg. I was lucky to get a ticket.