My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then. (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!
In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)
Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).
This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):
Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:
I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:
2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:
2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:
I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:
2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:
…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.
Christmas morning, my brother Steve reading the newspaper while I try to share the last wildly varied batch of 2011 photos before it becomes 2012. Croissants are doing their final rising over in the oven here at my mother’s house. This is my second winter holiday season at ‘home’ or with family since 2004 (since then, in order: China, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, NYC, India, Congo…no wonder I get confused sometimes). Perhaps the smell of croissants baking will prompt Mom to rise and then we can satisfy my older brother’s curiosity about what might be under the lovely Christmas tree off to my right. Last year at this time I’d been in my new home of Mweso for about two weeks and was celebrating these holidays with new colleagues in a beautiful new location and a great new job.
I wrote the last blog entry my final morning on the island of Lamu, in Kenya – early August. Then I returned for about eight final weeks of challenging and productive work in Mweso, did the fastest debriefing and return to the US that I’ve ever done — left Mweso on 30 September, Goma on 2 October after a full day of meetings there, debriefed in Amsterdam on the 3rd afternoon and 4th morning…and did a short presentation about Mweso and MSF’s work to a group of NYC high school students on the afternoon of the 5th. Since then I’ve spent: a wonderfully relaxing five weeks getting my head together and biking along the coast a lot in LA; the thanksgiving holiday with Steve, our mother, and our uncle and aunt in Pittsburgh; and the past four weeks with my mother here in the NYC suburbs. What I’d like to share with you all are photos I took during all that time – last weeks in my Mweso home and our outreach sites around the zone, plus images from lovely outings in my various US homes. Between assignments, I really am an unemployed homeless person but I’m blessed with lots of generous friends and families who welcome me to share their homes here.
Returning to the US was a bigger shock than usual this time – spending my first few nights with my friends near Columbus Circle, I’d stare out their windows at the towers of midtown Manhattan and the bustle of traffic on the street, and wonder if I was really still in the same world. I know I am, but the shock of transition and change can be so overwhelming at times. As usual I’ve taken full advantage of so many luxuries, from Thai food and midnight bike rides through quiet, safe , good streets to concerts and plays with lots of friends. Email conversations have just begun between me and MSF about where I’ll go next, and when. I’ll be in SF for most of January and some of February and then tentatively plan a cross-country trip to visit friends and relatives scattered through the nation’s mid-section…but as always the plans remain open to amendment based on evolving news about possible future assignments… More on that if and when appropriate.
..Above: me in June, on day one of construction of the health post in the beautiful mountain-top village of Ihula, something that we & the village & the BCZ can and should be rightly proud of. Above that, Mweso sunrise a few days before I left in September; Steve, Mom & me at Fallingwater late November; Calder on a hillside at Storm King early October; and two views of the Great Falls in early December. Below, a self-pic the evening I got back to LA.
I don’t want to write much now – I’ve said it all before and I hope the photos are interesting enough on their own. What I’m throwing up here are are photos of the following which occurred in the order listed: a trip Mom and I took in early October to Storm King Sculpture Park in New York State; a few Venice sunsets; a trip with Steve, Mom, and Aunt Judy & Uncle Bill to two Frank Lloyd Wright-designed houses outside Pittsburgh – one being Fallingwater, arguably his most famous creation and the other being Kentuck Knob which also has a sculpture garden on its grounds; and some wintertime views of the Great Falls in Paterson, NJ in early December, which we visited to give Sam a different image of NJ…perhaps they’ll do the same for you. 🙂 I’m organizing the photos based on variety and visual pleasure for me, and hopefully a sense for some of you of why I sometimes find simple questions hard to answer – when you consider that all of these photos were taken between mid-August and mid-December in places that felt at the time, at least to some extent, like home to me. A bit lower down, I will include in italic some text that I wrote on about my third morning back in the US when my nerves will still a bit raw at how totally different everything is here than where I’d been living so very recently. Since it’s sat unfinished for 12+ weeks and I’m now in a very different space, I’m not going to bother completing it… I hope the photos may tell you things I can’t find the words for now. May 2012 bring more peace, more health, happiness and stability to us all, known and unknown, all the rich, beautiful, conflicted & organic mess that is modern homo sapiens and our green home world.
All the autumnal photos of beautiful grounds on a sunny day with sculpture in foreground or background were taken on … October 10 … at Storm King, one of my mother’s and my very favorite places in the NY metro area. I’ve been visiting Storm King since the late 1980s any chance I get and am always happy I’ve gone; this day felt unusually blessed because the weather was so lovely and walking around the grounds cleared my head so well and reminded me some of the things to which I have access here, that I can’t see when I’m working normally.
And here’s the text I started in October and never finished: Early autumn in New York rather than early spring in the high country of North Kivu. (Late September = early spring south of the equator, technically…) Quite the change of location and cultural milieu to take in. As I write this I’m watching the sky grow lighter off to the east, as the nighttime lights of New York City’s skyscrapers slowly wink out and the deep blood-red-orange of sun’s earliest warning lightens to pale peach and the upper sky goes from black to pale blue. Soon the ball of the sun will blaze out and make it uncomfortable in this lovely window seat overlooking central park and the skyline. I’ve been fortunate to take advantage of good friends’ hospitality here in Manhattan, which coupled with three jet-lagged early mornings and three stunningly clear, sunny early autumn New York days have combined to give me three of the best-ever sunrises I’ve seen in New York. Quite the welcome home, really. Pity I didn’t think to bring my camera, but just trust me that the views of central park, skyline and sunrise make this an amazing window seat.
Which is just as well because it all adds up to helping remind me I’m not in Mweso any more. And I’m not really even sure quite what or how to say about that. Since I’ve put so little about Mweso on my blog, I feel a need to give it more air time, so to speak. It hardly seems right that the past ten months of my life were based in this place where I and my colleagues (both international staff and national staff) all worked hard, week in and week out, to do some very good work (if I may say so), and of which I’ve barely put anything up on the blog. Some of my friends have seen emails with more detail about my life and work in Mweso, but since this is always a personal blog and since my life in Mweso was 95% about work, there didn’t seem much to say about life in Mweso.
Most of these photos from DRC were taken during several different days I spent high in the hills at and near the town of Ihula, where we ran a mobile clinic 1x/week, when I arrived there a year ago, and where we worked during my time to construct a new health post which would then make quality care available, with our support, every day of the week to the folks up here who’d otherwise walk many hours – often across front lines – to get to health care. The sunrise shots sprinkled around were taken from our expat home & base-office one morning before my departure.
And so what you see are mostly photos of Lamu and London for the past ten months. Sure, both are great places that I was delighted to visit on my vacations from Mweso. But what have my last ten months been about, really – trust me, it was not dominated by the waves on the beach or great dance and theater in London. (Oh by the way, the sun is about halfway above the horizon over around Queens now; a livid pinkish-orange ball that I can already no longer look at. When I look at the two entries here in which I did show photos of North Kivu and say a bit about it, I think I did a fairly decent job of talking about how we live and what I was doing there, more or less.
My first day back in the US, I spoke to a group of high-school students here in NYC about MSF, our work, my work, and so on. One student asked about common misconceptions and I responded about over-romanticizing, or over-dramatizing, what we do or how we live. (And that’s where I ended in October. Not gonna finish those thoughts now. You probably get it. Lower down there are actually some pics of me at work, hauling rocks and shoveling sand for the foundation of the new health post.)
Above, Fallingwater; below, Kentuck Knob. Fallingwater: a magnificent house constructed on/in/over a waterfall – truly spectacular. Kentuck: so much less dramatic, but so much more like home: I would LOVE to live in Kentuck Knob, and would feel comfortable and happy all the time, I suspect. I think Fallingwater would make me feel constantly overwhelmed by its own magnificence – it doesn’t feel homely to me. 🙂
Mom, Paul & Steve at a Berlin-Wall segment installed in the sculpture garden at Kentuck Knob, which also contains some Andy Goldsworthy stone work, cousin to the two twisty curvy stone walls you’ve been seeing in photos from Storm King. If you don’t know Andy Goldsworthy, find a place to see his installations – photos can’t do them justice; they are site pieces best seen in person. Stones, water, walls are themes in these photos – from hauling stones for the foundation at Ihula, to Goldsworthy’s playful stone walls; from the huge stone support wall on the downslope side of Kentuck Knob to the waterfalls at Fallingwater, the Passaic River in Paterson, or at Ohiopyle on the Youghigheny River downstream from Fallingwater, below.
I rarely know what I’m going to write about with a blog entry, before I start writing it. The blog’s always been about the photos and trying to give my family & friends – wherever you may be in the world – a visual on my life now. Or on my cranial and facial hair levels now… This is also always a personal blog, about my own personal & life experiences in this world since I ditched the shortsighted and shallow corporate world and took up this wandering, experiential lifestyle. That is, it’s not even a semi-official blog related to the wonderful work of the organization which has been my only employer since then, even if it’s nearly impossible to avoid referring to my work every now and then since….well, when you do what I do, work = life usually. Which may be why – now my current assignment is so utterly all-consuming (and the internet connection so utterly underwhelming) – I seem destined never to post anything except when I’m far enough away to relax a bit, and find sufficient internet bandwidth.
As I type these words into my little notebook computer, I lounge in a cafe in the village of Shela on the island of Lamu off the coast of Kenya. Lamu, from what I gather, is an older, smaller and quieter cousin to Zanzibar – and Shela is the smaller, quieter (but newer) village on Lamu. (Lamu is described as the oldest living village in East Africa. What, precisely, would that mean in the birthplace of humanity?? Perhaps more on that later, when I get around to posting about Lamu itself…) So me voici in great comfort on a daybed with tons of pillows & ceiling fans whirring above to dispel the mid-day equatorial heat, while chador-clad women alternate with bikini-clad Westerners walking past on the terrace out front, in the small strip of land between me and the water. This is the waterfront of Shela – where the dhows & motorboats that ply back & forth to Lamu town stop by, where the handful of watefront shops & restaurants are clustered, where the high tide laps right up onto the sidewalks and the low tide leaves a strip of runnable beach. Across the sound is Manda island, though I admit to being confused about Manda island. To get to Lamu you land on something called Manda airstrip and take a boat over to Lamu island; long story short, the island I landed on is defninitively separated by a big channel from the island people now tell me is Manda, and it ain’t no high-tide channel either so maybe the Manda airstrip is trying to consfuse us all by hiding out on yet another island. Or maybe I was just having a blond moment when I landed and have become quite geographically confused & challenged. Who knows, and I’m sure you really don’t care. 🙂
Anyhoo, if you are reading this more than a few days after I post it, you will likely already have seen photos of Lamu and environs, because I’m taking many each day and hope to sort and color-correct them for posting before I leave Lamu, early next week, for the arduous and many-segmented return journey to my current home of Mweso.
So yeah, about Mweso. It’s a lovely village and I really ought to get out and take more photos of it! In these two entries you will see…precisely three photos that were shot in the village of Mweso. Oh well. But you’ll see LOTS of others that were shot in the teeny little mountain village of Ihula. And here’s where that boundary of personal blog starts to blur. Because, you see, I’d also like you to understand a trifle about what it is that fills my days so full now. We’re in Mweso because the general reference hospital resides there – source of nearly all secondary care for a physically large & very mountainous zone with a great shortage of even vaguely-passable roads and a great abundance of health, nutrition & sanitation needs among a large, diverse and generally quite vulnerable population. The hospital is the largest and most time & resource-consuming activity we run from the project I’m currently managing – lots of patients both in- and out-, on all wards, etc. In addition to this we support two health centers.
Americans and others from highly-developed and over-health-cared nations might want to step back a bit and look at the structure & theory briefly. (The US is over-health-cared, even if tens of millions can’t access the system easily or affordably and the current republican lunatics are fighting to the death to keep those tens of millions locked out…) In DRC there are rural health zones – roughly 23 or so in the province of North Kivu, which is very roughly the size of the former West Germany. We work entirely in the rural health zone of Mweso — though Mweso is not the largest town in the zone (Kitchanga, 45 minutes down the road and site of an MSF sister project, holds that distinction). Mweso has the zonal offices and the eponymous Hôpital Général de Référence. Our own base (house & office) is next door to both. Each zone is broken into a number of smaller units called an ‘Aire de Santé,’ each of which has its own health center. Kicker for all you tea-party supporters among my readership: in DRC the theory is all patients see a nurse first, not a doctor; all health centers are nurse staffed and the only doctors in the zone are based in the hospital, though two of them make oversight visits to the dozen+ health centers in their zone. A really large aire de santé might have health posts under it, but at least where we are not much of this can function very well unless there’s a partner agency – like us – to fund it all and preferably, again like us but unlike many other agencies, to help supervise and support it with medical expertise and training rather than just medicine and funding for staff incentives.
So coming back to what we do: aside from the hospital, we we also support two health centers in Kashuga (lots of IDP’s, smaller number of regular residents; IDP or internally displaced person is what the UNHCR calls a refugee who’s not crossed a recognized international boundary even if they have crossed from one zone of armed control into another) and Kalembe (better balance of regular residents & IDP’s there). Kalembe is the center for an enormous honking aire de santé, and that aire has villages in three different political territories (think county in the US, Landkreis in Germany) — Masisi, Rutshuru and Walikale. We have a mobile clinic on the other side of the river in Walikale territory, high up in the mountains in a little village called Ihula. Ihula is literally the end of the (dirt, this being DRC) road. And since it’s such a big aire de santé with a lot of population spread out over mountainous areas with some funky stuff going on here and there, we and the people of the village & the good folks of the health zone management all thought it would be a nice idea to establish a regular health post up there, so the mamas can have a place to deliver their babies or get their sick kids cared for every day of the week, instead of just the one day a week we manage to get our cars and team and meds up there. So – we’ve been working w/the village for the past two months or so to actively get this thing built. It’s been a tough slog – logistical and other complications, as you can imagine. Then there’s the always interesting general context in which we work, but that’s something I’m sure as heck not going into on a public blog, sorry. 🙂 Suffice it to say I am mightily proud of what we are accomplishing and deeply hope that, within the weeks after I return from this island idyll in the Indian Ocean, we will actually have a fully funcitonal health post operating up there. Fingers crossed, one and all, please.
gotta have a little bit of wildlife, folks – true, ants massing are less interesting and strangely more scary than an elephant seen in the distance, but this is what I can offer you, sorry…
…ok, ok, ok: I know the whole ‘women with things on their heads’ is as overdone as the whole ‘adorable kids smiling big huge smiles’ thing is. But, rather like stereotpyes, there’s a reason it’s all so overdone: the kids are just more naturally less shy than the adults, and … well … the whole carry things on head thing never ceases to amaze me. How do they manage without hurting their necks?!
Above, my friends, is the start of the health post (private blog, I know, but I’m both publicly and privately proud of what we’re doing here), and below is a young patients (at our current mobile clinic, with his Mom) in the single most popular form of t-shirt worn by kids in our zone: the Obama t-shirt, which comes in dozens of varieties and can be seen everywhere.
I’m learning a lot about the traditional building style in the region – you may have noticed that the foundation goes in last? – and about the anti-insect properties of used motor oil on wood. The planks are shaved so they’ll overlap each other nicely, thus providing a touch more weather protection.
Enough about the work. A bit about the life. There’s not much of it. Flying from Nairobi via Malindi to Manda Airstrip on Saturday morning, I had a delightful chat with a doctor from Scotland who worked in Kenya for 20 years before deciding she needed to get work back in Scotland in order to send her kids through UK secondary school and university…and the point is, yes: I said something to her about working 70 hours weeks & really needing a vacation, and then I stepped back to see if I was exaggerating. I actually came up – for myself – with a likely average figure of between 65 and 75 worked hours per week. It’s all cool – not like there’s a lot of multi-plexes and orchestral and theater performances to take up the rest of my time, so I’m quite happy to do the work; there’s that added nudge when you basically know that, yes indeed, your work really is saving lives every day especially when your project has been scrambling since early May to keep up with the periodic outbreaks of cholera scattered here and there around the zone (oh yeah, on top of the structures we support all the time with everything, we also do epidemic response even in places we don’t usually work, if it’s close enough and no one else really can), and the ongoing never-ending seasonal fight against malaria in Kashuga which came back with the heavy, late rainy season and so far WILL NOT go away. Enough about that – it’s been frustrating, but we’re doing good work. What was my point: we work hard, and don’t mind it since we know it yields results. Right.
Look closely at the image above and you’ll see how steeply the hill drops away: the center of Ihula village is on a saddle with very steep drops on either side. Pictures can’t quite capture it but it’s really a very dramatic landscape.
So this is the miscellaneous photos section – various items accumulated over the months and stuck here as the second of two entries I’m posting same time, more or less. Above: from the hillside in Rwanda, descending toward Gisenyi and the border, the north shore of Lake Kivu and the a bit of North Kivu in the DRC. You know it’s shot from Rwanda there are no roads even vaguely as decent as that in all of North Kivu – at least none in Goma or anywhere I’ve been! Below – other shots of the lake from the expat houses, of the base in Mweso, a rainbow over Kitchanga, and a few miscellaneous shots of Kashuga. The rest of my lengthy text continues…below. 🙂
We do, however, live wonderfully well within our compound, and when we have the energy we even pop a movie onto a computer and beam it onto a sheet hung on the wall in our common room. I usually cook something lovely from the garden on Sundays – if you’ve ever known me any place I even vaguely live, you’ll know that my thing is to cook for the folks I like, or love, or wish would love me or like me or…whatEVER. Anyhoo, so when Hosanna came to the project back in February she brought tons o’ seeds: we’re talking swiss chard, kale, string beans, basil, you name it. And I admit to some pride at the pretty fine soups, quiches, stuffed calzone-type items, and pot pies I have been churning out. It goes like this: wake up early Sunday (because I always wake up early, because I always go to bed early, because there’s nothing else to do in the evenings in Mweso except look at the amazing stars in the amazingly dark sky or listen to the beautiful chorus of frogs – there are different kinds and they sing in shifts; no kidding), sit on the porch (picture in the second of these two posts over which I plan to string this text; if you look closely you’ll see my cup of tea & my book on the table at bottom of photo…yup, that was a Paul Sunday morning in Mweso) drinking tea & trying the internet (if it takes less than five minutes to get an email to display, it’s a good morning; usually I give up after about ten minutes with no results) or, as a backup, writing in the ol’ journal or reading. After that: maybe yoga, maybe a session on our cool new elliptical machine (miracle for stress management, that), maybe some eggs (lately, Raghu’s been developing a fine way with a frittata and we’re all benefiting), and perhaps a nap.
If the workload is too heavy, I might actually spend middle o’ day working, but I try to wall Sundays off and not even enter the office once. Then in the afternoon I’ll grab the sheers and fill a basket with what looks good in the garden, then start cooking. Usually Carla will help me chop and peel, unless she’s in the operating theater. Usually others will be playing cards or listening to music on the other side of the porch; and if I can, I’ll join them. Or we’ll all play a game of Risk. Then, when the food’s ready, we light some candles in the paillotte (two photos of it all decked out for easter brunch in the same set as the porch photo) and settle in for dinner. Sometimes after that comes a movie, or a campfire; sometimes it’s back to the card games or Risk or just off to read and relax before bed. Then, the next day, the work week starts up again and before you know it another week’s gone. And that, my friends, is how my past eight months have swept by rather like a river in flood – amazing, overwhelming, intensely educational & rewarding, and really rather exhausting. Hope you enjoy the photos. If all goes as planned, I’ll have a bit less than two months to go still in Mweso after I return; and with any luck, I’ll return from this vacation with more than enough energy to have a strong finish. Let’s hope so. :-).
smw, slt has finally made it to a place where bandwidth is both sufficient and reliable enough to permit the posting of photos to the blog. Sadly smw, slt has also been more constantly and consistently busy than ever before in life, so not very many photos have been taken but herewith we share those that have. Last night I sat with H&G in the stalls at Sadler’s Wells & watched the Russell Maliphant company perform an astonishingly beautiful piece called AfterLight. Earlier in the day while enjoying views of London from the upper deck of a bus I’d been reading a Harper’s article on the tendency in hyper-developed consumer democracies (my words, not theirs) to fight constantly against pain or discomfort or any general acceptance of (real) pain, impermanence or unpredictability. “There is a terrible blindness in happiness. Just as trash, in the consumerist universe, ends up invading every space and reminding us of it existence in countless nauseating ways, so suffering, unable to express itself, has begun to proliferate, increasing our awareness of our vulnerability. The West’s error, in the second half of the twentieth century, was to give its people the mad hope that an end would soon be put to all the calamities; famines, poverty, disease, and old age were supposed to disappear within a decade or two, and a humanity cleansed of its immemorial ailments would appear at the gateway to the third millennium having proudly eliminated the last traces of hell. Europe was supposed to become, as Susan Sontag put it, the sole place where tragedies would no longer occur.”
I think those last words are the give-away: Europe (and by extension the US, Japan, Canada – the G7 or G20 or however many hallowed nations were to be allowed into the new world order’s club of the blessed) were to become that lucky zone of infinite possibility. Literature and popular culture are rife with futurist stories in which the wealthy & powerful invent ever-new ways to protect their own wealth, power and comfort while maintaining their control over the legions of have-nots. And I guess that’s the thing – it feels to me on some level as though Americans, whom I know best, sit uneasily with our unfair access to and domination of the world’s resources, so we invest vast amounts of time into convincing ourselves that not having the latest i-phone app is a legitimate tragedy. This way we can remain focused on ourselves and our own pains and woes, and ignore anything else in the world.
I remember when I was first introduced to the concept of existentialism, in ninth-grade French classes. 15-year-old Paul was singularly ill-equipped to ponder a philosophy of life’s bone-wearying essential emptiness. Ever the pragmatic optimist, such deeper questions as why am I here, and is there really any meaning anywhere never grabbed much of my attention. (Young Paul’s answers: a) because Mom gave birth to me; and b) does it matter, as long as we’re learning & getting good grades & having fun? ) However one side-effect of my current global-wanderer lifestyle in which I toggle back and forth between two worlds that often seem barely connected (even though both have lovely human beings in them and both occupy space on the same rock hurtling through space) is that I find myself pondering the deep imponderables much more often than young Paul did. When minor culture shock – or at least a deep sigh of relief – can be caused by the simple act of crossing from the DRC into Rwanda by walking around the little border-barrier – and then hopping in a nifty modern seat-belted little car to hurtle towards Kigali along the flat, even, paved roads of Rwanda after six jolting hours on the usual volcanic-rock strewn “roads” of North Kivu, you can imagine how other-worldly the view of Oxford Street in full swing from the top of London Transport bus can seem.
Where’s my point? There are two. I’m definitely in some culture shock, but the concerts and dance performances seem to be calming my mind and freeing it from the virtual lock-down its been in. (Did I mention that we’ve been working unusually hard of late? All good, and all important, but one does become a bit tired and work-obsessed.) More importantly, I find myself still troubled by how much we developed-world powerful folks, most especially my sadly blind American compatriates, remain wedded to the dream that we can divide this precious earth and this precious humanity into different worlds and treat some of its places, and some of its inhabitants, better than the others. It’s just not very sustainable, my friends. And if you think that your wealth and comfort have no connection to the lack of wealth and comfort in so many other parts of the world…ask yourself how realistic and logical that is. From what I hear and see when I’m back here in the developed world, it seems a lot of the folks here (developed = where I am now) would benefit – really, in a meaningful way, and I’m not being cynical – from spending a little more time with the other half. And there’s little doubt that a lot of the folks that I work with in my usual work life – whether the populations we serve or the specific people I work with day to day – would benefit from a bit more access to what we have here. It’s not about equal access to i-phone apps; developed-worlders seem constantly to complain about the lack of meaning and the lack of connection. These are not complaints one hears where I work – there the complaints tend more often to be about lack of food, lack of educational opportunity, or lack of treatment or testing for malaria.
It’s about, in the words of the sixth UU principle, “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” I’m trying to live so as to put meaning to those words. This does not make me a hero (much as a few friends try to tell me it does every so often), it makes me someone who is trying to answer the existential question and greatly enrich my own life by choosing to live in constant awareness that there is, truly, a whole world out there and I am one very small piece in it. And my sense of life and worth and joy and sadness are all much greater when I connect myself with that flawed whole, rather than trying to live my life in some state of semi-perfect numbness, disconnected from contact to other people and other places.
OK, so much for the deepness. Can’t much help it when I’ve done the leap from one side of the global divide to the other, sorry. Readily admit, though, that dance at Sadler’s and vegetarian Vietnamese Pho on Wardour Street are lovely things to have access to. 🙂 Be well. Enjoy the pics. Keep in touch.
..and now for the captions: I don’t carry the camera around much on road trips – for security and other reasons, a good rule of thumb on the roads is to only take what you really need and don’t much mind losing – so most of these photos are from the town of Mweso; but some are from Kashuga and Kalembe, towns where we work with ministry-of-health health centers. I show quite a few of life around the compound in our office hours, including an example of how well we use our front porch for those lazy Sunday afternoons when it’s gotten a bit hot and everyone’s a bit tired. Tip: if you put your cursor over any of the photos, you’ll see the name of the file, which I’ve tried to keep informative.
Above: a lovely sunrise view of the front door to our compound and the hills to the west; below, part of our garden (we grow lots of our own vegetables and of our newest expat arrivals brought kale and sugar-snap pea seeds!), and if you look through the fuzzy focus (sorry) you can see some hill in the background and might make out some of the huts from the IDP camp on the hill up there.
Ok, this may or may not work because the photos keep trying to overlap each other but I try to mix up the layout a bit…anyway if it works out you’ll see this caption in between two shots of me talking at the farewell party for my successor (back in December), then down below a shot of the whole team as of late January; of this team which I inherited only three still remain and one of those will be leaving the day I return. (Sob. Constant turnover, a fact of life with us…)