Tuesday, November 30, 2010

heart is breaking

For some reason today, I have been very sad today - it's a rather holy type of sadness, though, a deep feeling, in recognition of the fallenness that surrounds us.

At work, I think I am finally beginning to understand some of the reasons for the suffering that has set this region on what sometimes seems like an irreversible road of decay. I hope I'm wrong about the irreversible part, though!

Meanwhile, I am saddened by the fact that most people around me somehow seem to be unhappy. Or perhaps its my own sense of sadness that is making me see sadness even where there is none?

But what truly set my heart off, and nearly but not quite brought me to tears, was this link I saw on twitter via a friend:
(only visit it if your heart can take a bit of sadness. It is sad.)

What saddens me most is my own heart: to realise that I am not as shocked as I should be by those photos.

But some of them shocked me, and so I'm sharing them here so I can put a face to a little bit of my sadness today:
According to the caption, this is the home of a drug lord, in the favela (slum) - where he most likely came from before he made a fortune off of the suffering of others. He chooses to live in the land of squalor, as the king. I almost would have rathered he'd escape to a richer neighbourhood, instead of allowing such tragic juxtaposition.

According to the caption, this is a cocaine stash house. According to the writing on the wall, the Portuguese reader amongst us will recognise this as a church.

Gang soldier aiming his machine gun beyond an average guy walking on the street - seemingly oblivious to the fighting, can this be for real?! - at his target. Again, the juxtaposition

Sunday, November 28, 2010


Due to a little practical glitch -- a very little glitch, when you consider the myriad of things that could go wrong in this line of work in this particular location -- my colleagues were not able to go out and do their work today: they spent the whole day in the office.

Since most of them are new staff, we kept them busy by giving them a tour and introductions around the office, orientation to our project, showing them how to open their new work email, and the like. During these moments, I learned that half of my staff has no idea how to operate a computer. Good thing to know, I guess.

The team leaders took advantage of the time to do some planning with their individual teams, and I also did some planning with them. But there was still a good chunk of time when they were patiently waiting for the day to pass, waiting until the glitch was resolved and we could get on with our plans.

So they raided our bookshelf. I've amassed a humble collection of manuals and texts on quality development programming, social stuff and planning stuff.

Our junior team member is a 25 year old boy who looks 15. He just graduated from university and this is his first job. He's bright as a star and sharp as a pin, full of energy but also a quiet listener. He went to the shelf and found a manual for quality programming - it might be considered "the" textbook for my organisation. It's also a basis for all the work we're doing, although we've been giving the soundbites instead of burdening the staff with heavy-laden academic humble jumble. Especially since the manual is in English and my team speaks mostly Arabic.

But this boy, he sat down at a desk, opened the book, and cracked his notebook. Starting with the preface, he began to take detailed notes. For about an hour he pored over the book.

Then he called his supervisor over and started showing him what he was learning. The two of them studied the manual for another half an hour. Then they asked me if they could take it back to their field office with them. I said it was my only copy, but if they'd like I can print it out for them. They said yes and practically jumped for the printer. As soon as it was printing they handed me a USB flash drive and instructed me to give them a copy.

For the rest of the afternoon, they kept studying.

I love the motivation!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

thanksgiving blog

Facebook is great: for the last two days, friends have been posting updates of why they are thankful this year. I'm loving the reminder of thanksgiving, especially since I'm living in a part of the world where few people have ever heard of the holiday.

So... I shall now register my gratitude for

a loving and forgiving family that demonstrates the unconditional love of God
the cuteness of my nephew
skype so that I can see cute nephew
my duvet
the flexibility that I've been forced to learn due to all the unexpected turns in my life
friends who pray
friends on skype
friends who email
lovely colleagues and housemates everywhere I've lived for the last few years
little trinkets that make my room feel more like home
my mac
an ereader
ceiling fans and a desert breeze
a job I love and the feeling of satisfaction that comes at the end of most days
a body that is capable of jogging and yoga
hands to type
a job that comes with R&Rs
the lovely people who I get to visit on R&R
coffee shops, especially those with iced coffee and a view of the sea
people who believe in me
colleagues who inspire me
the fact that rodents have hardly bothered me since my arrival in the Dar
blogging, including Imperfect Prose community
the opportunity to have learned Arabic and found a job in which I speak Arabic every day
spending most of my life absolutely spoiled by good food to eat
my stomach of steel
sunsets and the cool fresh air of the morning
living in a place that doesn't get too cold

I suppose there's a lot more, but I think at least once a week, if not once a day, a moment of gratitude for the things listed above crosses my mind. May I stop to truly embrace those moments.

Especially, I thank those of you indirectly mentioned above: friends, family, colleagues, loved ones near and far, for in so many ways continuing to provide the substance of my life even though I hardly every see you. (M/D/P/K, please thank D for me, since he can't read yet. I love you all.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

imperfect prose: a repost

I don't suppose it's officially Christmas season yet, but I watched a re-run of a West Wing Christmas special the other day and it put me in the mood. So I've bursted out the holiday tunes.

One song in particular reminds me of a deep spiritual reality. It's a fun, upbeat song with a catchy tune. But the truth of it is a lesson that I hope I re-remember every single Christmas season for the rest of my life.

This post is where the truth behind the song hit home. It was a difficult season for me, but as usual, I learned so much through the challenges. If willing, please click over to the post and share this memory with me. I may repost it annually...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

the cutest thing

Our guards coordinate across all our houses by radio:
"This is xxxx yyyy zzzz calling dddd cccc bbbb do you copy?"
"This is dddd cccc bbbb loud and clear OVER."
Then they switch channels and go on with their chat.

What makes this so cute is that these guys know all of about 11 words in English:

And they just say it in the most adorable accent, as if they were singing along with a popular hit song that they'd sung along with the radio hundreds of times and didn't even notice anymore that the song is in a foreign language.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A cultural compass

I am an exceedingly culturally aware person. I don't say this to throw flowers on myself, because more often than not, this means that I second-guess and over-analyse the world around me.

Today was a big holiday in town and my colleagues and I went visiting co-workers and friends. As we were chatting with new acquaintances and doing our best to celebrate the local holiday in the best possible local-but-we're-not-locals way, I realised that my cultural compass is very different from theirs. My cultural compass represents several different cultures and is somewhat mobile, but it still points me in a direction of how I would describe "good" behaviour.

How does a person know which cultural compass to use?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I woke up last night around 2 a.m. in a cold sweat. The guards outside were fighting! Not just discussing or arguing, but they were in each others' faces and on the verge of coming to blows with each other. A dozen tall and skinny men dressed in their long white robes with their peaceful white caps and stubby beards which usually look so friendly, were glaring at each other, stomping and shouting.

And it was my fault.

I realised quickly that this was just the aftershocks of a bad dream, but I also remembered clearly the way they had got to blows. My team is training in how to learn from the communities where we work: how to do activities designed to get people to think about and explain their social structures, their history, their concerns. We want to know what has gone wrong in their past and how we can help them move beyond that. We want to help them build a better future for themselves. To do that, we need to be creative and resourceful, willing to discuss hard issues but in a way that is not intimidating.

In my dream, my team was practicing on the guards and they did a great job: one of the guards remembered some grudge that his grandfather had against the uncle of another guard. He mentioned it in a less-than-forgiving way, which evoked a provocative response. All too soon, the discussion got out of hand and our guards, who are usually so peaceful and kind, were fighting.

Instead of helping, thanks to me, we had made things worse.

I mentioned this to some colleagues today. One responded with flattery: it is a sign that I care. Another responded with practical wisdom: it's time for my vacation.

sharing this today with Emily's fabulous Imperfect Prose community

Saturday, November 13, 2010

See? That's God

Living out in the desert has given me my fair share of time for introspection, for evaluating my life, relationships and priorities. I tend to do it anyway, but I've been considering things a bit more systematically than usual, I suppose.

It is now the beginning of winter, by local parlance. It's still air conditioning weather and I'd be wearing sun dresses if it were culturally appropriate - but the nights, at least, have grown chilly and crisp.

The stars are amazing. It's like there's absolutely nothing between me and them. During the last few evenings, I've been wandering around the compound as I brush my teeth or chomp on an apple, head turned up staring at the sky

Tonight all three female residents of the compound were out when city power shut down, as it is wont to do around midnight each day. There was about a 30-second lag until the generator came on, and we were in absolute blackness during those 30 seconds. Blackness except for the varied speckles of light in the black black sky. Little stars, big stars, the moon. The three of us stopped what we were doing, turned our heads upwards, and stared for 30 seconds.

And now, as I pray, I realise that what I really need... what all this introspection comes down to, may simply be the following: I just need to be held as I gaze at the stars and to be told: "See? That's God."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

if I added all my work colleagues as facebook friends, I'd really have too many

Today I had to go visit an official esque person on some official ish business. He was very kind and gracious and chatted with us as he pored over documents. He gave us a hard time but then covered it up with sugary words. He smiled a lot and... well, you know when you have to visit an official office and you feel like it's you vs. them? It wasn't like that: it was the feel of we're all in this together.

Probably the moment to remember, though, was when we got to chatting about my previous posting where I met our guest, a colleague who arrived today and also went on said visit. A third colleague asked the officialesque one if he knew a certain someone. This someone had worked here and now works there in my old posting which is exactly on the other side of the world. So how awesome that she might be a friend we all - colleague, official, guest and me - have in common?

He puckered up his eyebrows and hmmmmmmmed for a bit. Then all of a sudden he broke out in a big smile. "Oh yes, I've seen her on facebook! She is facebook friends with so-and-so and such-and-such from your office!"

Of course so-and-so and such-and-such are his facebook friends, an the line between social networking and work networking has earned yet another big smudge.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

cat and mouse

I'm back in the field! I'm back in the village where life doesn't really stretch beyond the compound. Literally, I only went out once in the last two days, straight to the UN compound for a breathtaking sunset jog and back again.

(But upon my arrival, a member of my team was so kind as to invite me to his house for "fatour" - breakfast eaten punctually at 11:00 a.m. each day. I was late. Me and six of his brothers ate at 11:30. The poor guys looked like they were starving.)

The big adventure yesterday was a mouse that was shamelessly exploring the room of one of my guest-house-mates. She chased, she had the guard set a trap, she snoozed in my room while we waited for the trap to do its thing, she and the guard conquered. It was a humane little box of a trap, so the guard set the mouse free somewhere outside. And an hour later the mouse (a mouse? we don't really know it's the same dude) was running around again.

I hate mice. So I broached the subject of getting a cat.

The girls loved the idea. Tomorrow our guard has promised to procure us a cat.

So I tick off my biggest reservations in coming to work in this region:
- rodents and no cat. We're getting a cat.
- boss with an unsavoury reputation. Yesterday was his last day.
- nowhere to exercise. UN compound sunset jogs!
- middle of nowhere with no sense of a normal life.... oh, yeah, this is not likely to change anytime soon.

I'd love to draw some lovely deep analogy between our hopefully-new-cat and the mouse. But all I can think of is that, at the same time as the guard - a white-haired man always dressed in a white gown and carrying his security radio - stepped up to the plate and handled the mouse for my housemate... at that exact hour, my boss called me on the phone and took over resolving the painful situation I was in yesterday (see yesterday's blog).

But we're still getting a cat. There's some comfort in feeling I, not some older man, figured out how to take care of the mess...

Friday, November 5, 2010

more perspective

I'm reading through the Imperfect Prose blogs from this week. There are stories about babies and family, about the changing of the seasons, about an inner realisation of deep spiritual truth.

Meanwhile, I am resisting the urge to keep checking my work email, where the bad news seems to keep coming. Mostly. There's a bit of good news in there too, but the bad news overwhelms. For the last 24 hours, every time a new email popped into my inbox, a feeling of doom overtook me. When I opened the email and it didn't introduce a new controversy, I let out my breath. When it introduced more stress, I replied quickly so that I could move on.

Then yesterday I was reminded that instead of focusing on how work conflict affects me, I should look for ways to be a light in the lives of others. Surely there is a reason they are acting this way and they could use some tender-loving-kindness. But then I wrote yet another harsh email reply - because I thought that perhaps by getting it all out in the open we wouldn't prolong the feeling of doom.

I have seen people give up their lives for work, I have friends who walk through 23 hours and 55 minutes of each day in perpetual tension - the remaining five minutes are full of just enough laughter to keep going. I know that the vision of importance in what we are doing can feel like it outshadows the awful people we too easily become.

The stresses are there, and I do believe in what I'm doing so want to do a good job. But need to keep things in perspective. So for today I will go back to reading stories of real women and men, most of whom are very different from me, but with concerns of their own, and their reminders of the beauty in everyday life.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

imperfect prose: random thoughts of joy from a stressful week

Dear imperfect prose friends,

I'm headed back to the land of the questionable Internet but plenty of free time. I look forward to reading your stories tomorrow. Because of the unending transition and travel, I am afraid I've forgotten to blog this week.

So all I have to share with you are a few random thoughts:
- I was reminded this last weekend that I am an introvert. We went to a Halloween party that lasted until 5 a.m. and it has taken me four days of almost non-stop sleep to recover. Not only that but I was particularly not-good at making new friends at said party.
- Also at this party was I reminded at how desperate many people are to make their life count by having fun. I pray for constant reminders that life counts because of what God sees, not because of my performance at a party.
- I was supposed to travel this morning (after waiting a month for my permit to travel) but at the last minute it fell through again. Don't you love those moments in life when things go SO SO SO wrong that when just another thing goes wrong, all you can do is laugh?
- Village life can be boring, but the calm and the solitude really are healing to the soul, aren't they?

Bless you!