Thursday, August 28, 2014

Responsive Ramblings

I was watching the news last night and there was a story of a slum in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia that has been quarantined to help contain the Ebola outbreak.  Read it if you dare, but it is haunting and unsettling, and it cost me hours of sleep and frightful thoughts. Ebola in itself is a horrific terror that has come to West Africa, but to cut off an entire community of approximately 70,000 people who have no way to provide for their families sufficiently on the best of days, is an unimaginable violation of their human rights. A nurse speaks of the "clinic" she works in being dismantled, of what little it had to treat patients, and patients having disappeared, back into the very crowded conditions of the slum that they live in. The images of the poor and desperate who are now unable to go to work outside of the quarantine area, the lack of food and proper sanitation that was already a health risk now becoming a death sentence...I'm thankful I can turn off the imagery but unfortunately, I can't make it stop for them.

And then my thoughts turn to a community, a shantytown of similar haphazard accommodations and overcrowded, under serviced conditions and my thoughts turn instantly to fears. Though not close to where these outbreaks are occurring, there are always things to fear in regards to what faces our children and families in our communities. I think of children in communities I've walked in who are so afraid of strangers and outsiders that they cry and hide wherever they can to avoid looking at our foreign faces. Imagine the fear of a sick child seeing someone in a hazmat suit coming towards them with gloved hands and hidden compassion. These are the lucky ones who have access to medical attention. Not as lucky as those who have home countries who will transport them away from the situation, to sterile and safe environments with nutrition and medications optimal for healing from the ravages of fever and pain and death. I'm struck by the incredible contrasts of it all as the nurse they interview shows the empty "clinic" - bare cement walls, glassless windows and an iron gate that were supposed to be a safe shelter for those who were exposed to the virus. There was little comfort in these walls to begin with but I guess that the luxury of a space to come and feel "attended to" was more than some could allow to go on.  It's unspeakable.

I watch the interviewer speak to a woman in the West Point slum, who works as a hairdresser outside of her community. She now faces the loss of income and the loss of her ability to care for her own family and her extended family because of the quarantine. I recognize the resignation on her face as she explains that she must go and check on her mother, who has sent word that she is out of rice, her staple food, and has no money to purchase more, even if it were available.
There is something in this woman's stature that reminds me of so many I have met and walked with, that speaks of the exhaustion of poverty. It is a weight that these have carried for far too long, with so many extra obstacles added on daily,'s a wonder she can stand up at all.

Here are the facts of the Ebola outbreak, a series of videos that has put together to help pass along accurate information about the virus. While it's important that we educate ourselves, let's remember it's not enough to know...we must speak out against myths and misperceptions and most of all, we must act against the human rights violations such as what is taking place in the West Point slum in Monrovia. Support Amnesty International as it speaks against these government actions that cost lives.  Give to Doctors without Borders who are on the front lines of the fight against Ebola. Be active. Speak up. We can turn off the news but we can't make a difference without being responsible for what we've seen and heard.

This is rambling and disjointed and the result of being again, overwhelmed by the things that continue to make our world an incredible example of the injustices of privilege and poverty. I'm going to just put it out there. Be grateful today for what you're dealing with. And do something to ease the pain of what others are dealing with. I think that's the only way forward.

Friday, August 22, 2014

On the Unimaginable

I don't know.
There is no "why".
In my mind, there is only "now what do we do?"

So here's the "now what's" that I can suggest. And they are just the basics. The starting points. At which I will start and invite you to do the same.

We remember James Foley. As he appears here, full of life, in his element, taking calculated risks to bring to light the stories that are affecting so many. It's unimaginable that he would risk everything for a story that we would flippantly skip over so that we could catch up on the Simpsons or see who gets a rose in the never-ending saga that is the Bachelorette...and yet, I'm sure I'm guilty. Of seeing the images caught by his camera and wanting to move on to things much more pleasant...or entertaining to say the least. Guilty pleasure has a new and darker meaning to me now.  Let's be mindful of what we watch and hear. Choose these images over the ones ISIS released of hatred and beheading. This is James. A son, a brother and a photographer with stories to share. Loved and missed. Think of his family and remember him well.

And we pray for those who are being held hostage and are being threatened with the same fate, particularly, it would seem, Steven Sotloff, another freelance journalist who has been detained and threatened with execution since August 2013. Is it even possible that these men have suffered detention and the physical and psychological torture since 2012, as James had, without us even registering their plight? Indeed it was for me. I was ignorant to their suffering but it isn't without regret. 

And in Ferguson, Missouri, where the protests and unrest continue with few answers or transparency on either side of the situation. My heart goes out to a family who lost a son, whatever the reason, and again, my ignorance assails me. I know nothing of the prejudice that leads a nation of young black men to fear law enforcement. I know less of the pain that a family losing a son feels when it is minimized in the media and his name is slandered for the alleged crime of shoplifting that may or may not have led to his having been gunned down in the street. What I do know is that I feel compelled to figure it out and to stand with Ferguson, if only from a distance, and say that the truth must come forth and that America (or North America) needs to take a good strong stance on this type of racism and eliminate it so that law enforcement is above reproach and young men can move on to their futures without the threat of an abrupt end to their lives for little more than being the wrong colour in the middle of the street.  Let's remember Michael Brown's family, in the midst of the storm, grieving their son in a sea of accusations and uprising. Let's stand with them and say, "We want answers too." And let's listen to the voices of those in Ferguson who remember it as a town where people come looking for a safe community to raise their children, no matter the colour of their skin. 

And we need to continue to watch and learn and intervene financially or physically, wherever possible, to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the Ebola virus that continues to decimate communities across western Africa. While the World Health Organization continues to issue warnings and watches about the continued spread and death toll, let's remember those who are on the front lines, fighting the virus at great personal risk - not only from the virus but from the myths and perceptions surrounding the spread of the disease. If you are going to become immune to the news of Ebola, please don't allow yourself to become numb to the staggering numbers of people dying and suffering from it. If you want to support those on the front lines, I would strongly suggest making a donation to MSF (Doctors without Borders) who are working in incredibly stressful situations with little respite. The containment and treatment of the disease are difficult enough but working in situations where the heat and the humidity are tiring, the hazard gear you have to wear is incredibly cumbersome and the nights of rest are few and far between with no end in sight? These are heroes of epic magnitude and yet, we may never know their names or hear their stories. What can we do to tell them we're with them, to encourage them? I'm not sure. I know that giving towards MSF will allow them the tools they need to do their jobs well and give them one less thing to worry about in a situation that is filled with worries. And let's remember too, there is hope, stories of it in the midst of the hardest days of exhaustion and death.

There's a million things out there that can overwhelm us with all that is wrong in the world. We need to start where we are and work on what we can. Humanity doesn't require us to fix one another's problems requires us to act with compassion and love, wherever we're at. 

That's where I'm starting. Ready? Go.

Monday, August 18, 2014

This Fragile Mindset

A Saturday afternoon at the beach with a friend and her small boys was a welcome day out for me. I enjoyed having only one small bag and a towel to carry while she wrangled her one and three year old out of the vehicle, balancing sand pails and towels, toys and snacks, with a drink in one hand and her keys in the other. Of course, I helped her after a moment of gratitude that I was so lightly loaded. As we sat on the beach and the boys ran around and chased birds and dug holes, I was reminded of the many times I'd sat on this same beach with my boys, not many quiet moments, no time alone and certainly no use for the books I would always somewhat optimistically bring along. For me, it was one of those "when the boys are bigger..." type days. I could swim alone. I could lay on my towel. I could play and build sandcastles but I didn't have to change sand filled diapers or eat sandy chips or have a juice box squirted down the front of my shirt.

After an afternoon of sand consumption, ice cream and digging, we made our way out to our vehicles. My friend strapped in a sleepy baby boy and seat belted in his wailing brother who wanted nothing to do with leaving the beach.  Her family all secured, I in my quiet car alone, we began the hour long drive back through the country to the city. It's a particularly pretty drive this time of year with the fields nearly ready for harvest. I often turn off the radio and just open the windows and enjoy the ride. Just about 3/4 of the way home, I was coming up on a minivan that had turned onto the highway a few miles ahead of me. As country roads beckon you to, we were both doing at least a few km over the speed limit, which was 80 and then turned to 100 right around where things went sideways. 

I was still about a quarter mile behind the van when I saw a woman fly into the ditch, rolling. I couldn't believe my eyes. I thought that she was a pedestrian who had been hit by the van, who was now pulling to the side of the road. I quickly pulled in front of the van and jumped out and ran towards the ditch. The driver of the van was calling 911 as I ran by him.  After assessing and addressing some of her injuries, and stabilizing her until the ambulance came, it turned into a long conversation with a distraught young mom.  As it turns out, she had made the 'decision' to get out of the van because she and her partner were arguing in front of her three small boys. She was overwhelmed by her physical pain at times but more so by her anguish at having subjected her boys to the trauma of seeing their mother jump out of a moving vehicle. There's not much you can say when you're listening to someone lament their decisions that have affected young children. My friend and her boys sat in their vehicle, just ahead of the accident scene, and I just couldn't imagine what on earth allows one mother to have the kind of afternoon we'd just had at the beach, while another is launching herself out of a vehicle to escape a barrage of accusations that you can't refute. Lying beside her in the ditch, my clothes bloodied and my words inadequate, I wanted to weep with her. I just kept her still and trying to keep her comfortable as possible when lying on the stubbled ground with road rash on every conceivable part of your body.

As the ambulance and police arrived and she was taken to the hospital, I was left with my bloodied clothing, blankets from my vehicle and about another 20 mins till home. I drove carefully, watching the ambulance in my rear view mirror and offered up some disjointed prayers - for her, for her boys, her partner, for the paramedics and for the doctors. And then, for myself. And then I approached the road where I turn off towards home and my friend keeps on straight,  we waved out the window and then I started to cry and shake. I started to cry thinking about how I was going to get in the house with bloody clothing and past my own boys without answering questions. I couldn't figure it out and it felt insurmountable so I texted, while driving, my husband at home to meet me in the driveway in 5 mins. I probably pulled into my driveway around the same time that the ambulance pulled into the ER at the University Hospital. I was met with a hug and concern and care and I hope she received the same.

I don't know that I'll ever know how this young mom made out or which way her life leads her. I do know that her name is embedded in my mind and that she'll remain in my prayers for a long, long time. I choose to be hopeful for her because she wasn't able, in those moments, to muster hope for herself. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Days Go By

I've been a little sad over the past week, simply because my time in Zambia always slips away entirely too quickly. And yet, the days were full - of colour, of love, of family. The stories are just beginning to assemble themselves in some order in my mind and I'm beginning to think clearly about all I heard and saw and experienced....and I'm so hopeful. I'm so very hopeful for this little community that has become such a second home to me. I'm hopeful because the longevity of the work that the care workers are doing in that community is showing such beautiful response. It shows itself in the eyes of a boy who I've seen grow year after year into a kind and smart young man who is ready to lead in his community. It's in the eyes of the care worker who has been welcomed back into the arms of her friends despite several detours in life that left them sharing the responsibility of her children to be cared for. It's in the eyes of a grandmother who can laugh and joke though she and her grandson's only possessions, meagre as they were, were stolen recently and left them with nothing but reliance on the generosity of others who have not much themselves. This is the hope. Community based care. Love in its simplest form. Serving others starting with what you have, however little. It's not alleviating poverty or even suffering but it is an approach that shows humanity in its best form. When someone, a neighbour or even a relative stranger, comes and steps into the pain and suffering with someone, there is suddenly a lightness that comes to the situation. It doesn't always change the outcome of the situation for someone living in poverty or fighting a life threatening illness ... but it alleviates the darkness and loneliness that comes from feeling your on your own in it.  When a mother can lock the door at night and know that in the morning, there will be those care workers who will come and check that she and her young daughter made it through to another day, despite the threats to their security because of their beauty and vulnerability. 

I just wanted to share too, a glimpse of the natural beauty that I saw in Zambia. In the light. And the sun. And even in the dusk as the light was lost for another day. And too, the beauty in the darkness that was a million stars reflecting on the water...too incredible for my untrained eye and camera to capture, but that's okay too. Sometimes the most beautiful things aren't meant to be held anywhere other than in your mind's eye and in your heart. 

This was our last full day in Zambia. We spent it on the Kafue River and just caught up with one another as a team, some of the last conversations we would have about our time together before we disbanded and travelled home. In all of it, there was incredible, untouched beauty...and here's just a sample. Of the light as it  warmed us then left us and even the beauty of the hippos in the dusky water, grunting their unique song as we headed for home. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Snapshots of Mulenga Life

The real truth of what I "do" in Zambia?  I just spend time in Zambia. I don't "do" or "teach" or "train" or "bring" anything substantial. Sure, there are opportunities to take part in things that may, as part of being there spending time, turn into teaching or doing...but for the most part, the best part, I just spend my time with people that have become my family. And I have a lot of family in Mulenga. Even with photos, it's hard to convey the reality of life in Mulenga. It's always just a snapshot of any given moment and I guess there is always a tension I feel that portraying things one way is to write it in stone for many people who have never been or will never go. If anything, life in Mulenga is always in flux. It can be painful and difficult, anxious and consuming with thoughts of how to find food and get food and eat food and share food. It can turn a healthy family into a vulnerable one in just a heartbeat. It can turn from nightmare to security in days. And vice versa. It can be incredible joyful and filled with songs and dancing. It can be incredibly painful and filled with abuses and inconsolable grief.  Sometimes I think life in this little community is much like a game of chance. Some days your odds are good that your little home will be spared and that there will be food and good health and a chance to earn an income to get by. Some days, life is stacked against you. Illness means job loss and loss of food security and even death. A child can get a basic running-down-the-road-tripped-over-a-rock scraped knee that can turn into an infection and suddenly you're dealing with life and death or loss of limb. The rains come. The dry season comes. The fires burn and the smoke lingers. The day to day work of staying alive is always present. And yet, there are moments of laughter and play and friendship and support that can equal the difference between hope and hopelessness.

The beauty of spending time in Mulenga is that the more time I spend, the more glimpses of the "real" life and love and hope I get. Sometimes I can capture them - if I'm quick and no one is looking - and sometimes you just can't. And that's ok, because to be witness to them is often more beneficial that capturing it outright. Like this little moment between friends. Genuine love and laughter between care workers Dorothea and Joyce.
 Yet when I turn the camera on them, it's all African seriousness as quickly as they can! Catching just a HINT of Joyce's smile while Dorothea tries to get serious, makes me laugh because these ladies are just full of joy and laughter but for some reason, Zambians tend to want their photos to be stoic and serious...despite a lot of cajoling to just please smile! It's always a challenge but I love these women too much to let the world think of them as stoic or stern...though let me tell you, if you're thinking of dropping out of school or getting married young or having a baby, you don't want to mess with these ladies. They will grandmother you into recommitting your life to education and the betterment of all people before you even finish your sentence!

At the care point, this is a lot of what I "do" in Zambia. I sit. In the company of some of the most incredibly selfless people I've ever heard of. Sitting in the shade of the care point, waiting for the kids to arrive for their lunch, there is a lot of beauty on one cement ledge. These women share their lives so deeply that you can not help but want to just soak it in. Sometimes I sit for over an hour, listening to them chatter in Bemba, catching only 1/3 of what is being said but taking in all the laughter and love and concern that is being transferred between them. This particular group of care workers have been exemplary in how they care not only for the vulnerable in their community, but for each other, in times that are difficult, embarrassing, humbling and that I dare say, that if we could only learn from, our world would be a much safer place to mess up and recover. 

These care workers practice selfless love every single day. By the minute at times. With each other. With those they are responsible for.  For those that don't deserve it. For those who can least repay it. 

If that, only that, was what I take time and energy and money to sit and take is more than worth it on my end. And yet, what is it worth to them? There's that always-with-me-nagging-thought that perhaps just sending a cheque for the equivalent of the airfare would be more useful and valuable than showing up once a year or year and a half and stumbling through my inadequate Bemba and cultural differences to walk through their community with them. Please hear this...if all I was doing was showing up and being an observer and then coming home and going back to my daily life as usual, then yes, it would be more valuable to cut them a cheque and stay out of their way and let them be continue to shine in the work that they are doing in their community.  There is only value in going and bringing others, when there is something on this end of the trip. Advocacy. Change. Education. Involvement. It's about fostering that relationship and standing together,  in spite of the distance. 

Spending time in communities like these can be so fulfilling and enriching that we forget to tell the reality of the story to others. Yes, the children are joyful and willing to play but they also go home at night,  having had only one meal that day. The mornings we woke in our beds with blankets and mosquito nets, it was chilly to get up and going, yet these little ones that greet us slept on cement, without mosquito nets and get up in the same clothes they wore the day before and before that.  Sometimes, it's difficult to imagine that the children that play with such tireless energy are sick or exposed to abuses we can't see. On this past trip, many of our home visits were pretty encouraging. Kids were doing well in the program, benefitting from the meals they were given, and being cared for and visited by care workers regularly. And yet, as good as that is, I think perhaps this team saw a bit less of the vulnerability of the families we visited. One home visit we went on was the home of an older grandma who was caring for 6 children, all her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She had buried 9 out of her own 10 children. We asked if we could help her with chores, though the one room they lived in was spotless, there wasn't much to mess up. We asked if she needed help with laundry and she smiled, though sadly, and told us that they were wearing all that they owned. Does that get by anybody? That everything that 6 children and an elderly grandmother own are the rags on their body. That there is not more than three plates on the cupboard and a few threadbare blankets folded beside them. This family sleeps on the floor, huddled together in a space where 4 or 5 of us were crouched knee to knee, because the only bedroom is rented out so that they can make a small income of less than $20 USD a month. Vulnerability looks like an aging grandmother eking out a living by renting the only bedroom in her house so she can feed her grandchildren. 

And then this beautiful girl, Lana*, and her aunty. She is living in a small home by herself for months on end. Her parents were married and raising 8 children together when they both became ill and passed away. Each of the parents' siblings took a child, spreading the brothers and sisters out across Zambia from Lusaka to Kitwe and beyond. Imagine the grief of a girl like Lana, about aged 6, coming from a family of 10 to becoming the only child of an elderly uncle she'd likely never met before. She arrived in Mulenga and her uncle has to leave her alone because he walks for miles into the bush to make and carry charcoal back to Mulenga for sale. He is in his 70's, raising a young girl and working that hard to make an income. The care workers provide him with some much needed peace of mind that when a nearby aunty can't care for Lana, that they provide her with a daily meal and visits to ensure she is less vulnerable. Decreasing vulnerability for a girl who sleeps along behind a padlocked door every night, unable to go outside to use the bathroom because it's far too dangerous - it looks like care workers visiting and sitting with Lana almost daily so that those that would prey on her know that she is being care for and watched by adults who take responsibility for her.  I can't imagine the loneliness that Lana has experienced in her few years. Grief. Separation. Long, dark nights alone in a strange house in a foreign community. 

The beauty of this girl's life is that she has care workers and teachers at the community school who stand up in the community and say, "This girl is ours. She is with us." which makes her vulnerability decrease substantially among her peers in similar living situations. 

When we asked her what she liked to do, she said, "Reading." She reads and reads and reads, whatever she can get her hands on, repeatedly.  Her aunt spoke up excitedly when Lana said this, and explained that wherever they are, if there are words, Lana reads them and explains them. "She reads signs and billboards and plastics (shopping bags)...she's always reading," she said proudly. We asked Lana what she would like to be when she gets older and her answered surprised us. "A princess", she said.  Oh, this girl can read. And dream. And imagine. And that's exactly what the love and support that she is getting from her care workers and teachers is enabling her to do. 

Lana and her proud aunty, who lives nearby and checks on her when she is alone. 

*name changed

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Upon Return

...and just like that, I'm back. In my office, high above the manicured gardens of the Bess, with the South Saskatchewan flowing quietly by, I have been sitting here for a while staring at the photos on my wall of the kids in Mulenga and marvelling how lovely it was to see them growing and thriving and playing. Some have passed on and that's always hard, to see the gaps or walk by the homes where children or adults you've known have lived out their last days.

Five years is a long time in the life of a community in which there are so many, many needs. On my first trip to Zambia, at the same time of year, the country was new to me. So, too, were the kinds of poverty and vulnerability that I would witness as I walked through a community I had only read about and known from a distance.

Distance is tricky. It can still stir empathy and compassion, but when you walk the uneven paths, strewn with garbage and sewage, carefully placing each step one in front of the other, you get a different perspective. The smells and the sounds of a community deepen the understanding of the type of lives that you can possibly live here. A good roof. A lock on the door. Some piece work to provide an income for the day's meal. Those are the things that people strive for in a place such as this. It's not an easy setting but the first time I stepped into those streets and the homes of children and their care givers living there, I knew I was being called to something.

Over the years, there is no less sense of calling when I walk through Mulenga. Though there are so many hopeful and amazing stories of lives being absolutely transformed by the love and selflessness of a group of men and women who have chosen to serve those who need it the most, Mulenga remains a very challenging place to live and grow and survive. While the economy of Zambia and the stability of government have brought improvement to many lives in Zambia, it has yet to trickle down to the poorest, living still in communities such as this, communities that lack infrastructure and services to make living a lot healthier and more sustainable. It's when I return that I become increasingly aware of what sacrifice and commitment the care workers who volunteer in this community have. It's so humbling. I have nothing that compares - even to those I love the most - that would match the kind of love they are living out daily - every day of the five years since I first met them and beyond.

I'm often humbled by their friendship and their love for me. It feels undeserved and somewhat wrong that they would assume that I too, exhibit that type of selflessness and love to others. That's what challenged me the most on this particular trip. That Elizabeth and Sylvia and Beauty are daily making nshima, no small feat in itself, for 150 kids while I'm here, in an office and coming and going to my comfortable home, knowing the homes they sleep in are no better than the ones of the children they serve. I know too, that often their own homes provide shelter for children in need of security, or comfort when they are lonely or sick. How often do I provide that sort of shelter though there are many in my community that could use it?  I know that we live in a different economy but it's not an excuse. I'm not going to be a martyr here and beat myself black and blue, but I am going to sit in this discomfort for at long as I can, until I find the calling in the challenges and can see a way to act on it.

Regardless of the beauty of our friendship, I want to stand with my friends and know that I have not only learned from them, but acted upon it. Not that they need that for them to love me as they do...but  it will allow me to accept that type of unconditional love that they so generously give to me.

Dorothea and Joyce


Immanuel and Esther

The teachers in Mulenga - (l-r) Catherine, Jacqueline, Immanel, Alice and Reuben (front)
The beautiful care workers of Mulenga.
(l-r front) Esnaut (field coordinator - red tshirt) Elizabeth, Cynthia, Immanuel, Jacqueline (teacher), Mildred and her son Tawonga, Sylvia, Alice (teacher) and Reuben in front.
(l-r back) Joyce, Cleopatra and her little Mathilda, Catherine, Esther, Dorothea, Flora, Loveness, Gytness, and Beauty.