Archive for the 'Development work' Category

01
Aug
14

if you know something, do what now?

August 1, 2014

Even the New York subway ads get it: “If you see something, say something.” Of course, it’s implicitly clear what you are supposed to say (and to whom). You’re supposed to find MTA personnel or someone in uniform and inform them a suspicious package was left behind. And that simple ad works because of these two steps: 1. Stay informed and alert; 2. Take appropriate action. Clear enough.

And therein lies the problem with our relationship to international news.

Even as we realize, especially over the last two decades, that what happens abroad can bring back consequences, and even as information sources become more mobile and more diffuse, we are actually doing less to resolve these problems. As Lauren Wolfe points out in an excellent new Foreign Policy article, we seem to have an attention deficit disorder with important events abroad. We tune in for a bit, we get all riled up, wave our phones like lighters at a concert or a candlelight vigil – in solidarity – and then, nothing. Wolfe, taking a collective psychosocial perspective, suggests that we lose steam because we do not fully identify with the parties involved. She quotes Gloria Steinem:

“’If we knew even one of these girls,’ she says, ‘empathy would follow. One person would stand for many more.’”

But that view sort of contradicts what is happening, because we are already empathetic – that’s how we know about the Nigerian girls in the first place. It may be that more empathy is needed to sustain momentum longer, but I think the problem is that empathy is not enough.

Take this quotation from a Time Lightbox article talking about two photographers one covering Israel’s view of the ongoing conflict and the other Palestine’s.

If the media “cover this story long enough, there will be a solution,” said Andrew Burton, the photog covering Israeli soldiers. But there is that disconnect – “long enough” suggests we build up great reserves of goodwill and empathy, but then magically a solution will reveal itself?

We do not hear what exactly is that solution, and by corollary, no one actually knows how to get there (or we might be making some progress by now). Alongside the information overload at moments of crisis, we have fewer signposts for concrete steps to make a meaningful difference. So we pick up our phones. It is no surprise then that hashtags and manipulative videos resonate – that’s what we would do. That’s all we know to do.

Another example: a week ago, there was an article about why “All You Need to Know” is the worst cliché in journalism. Not just bad, but harmful, because it sets a low common denominator for understanding a given topic and creates the illusion that we can stop learning more at a certain point.

That article hits at the same problem from the other direction: because we don’t really know what to do anyway, because it is unlikely we will actually change the way things are, here’s all that you need to know to satisfy your curiosity.

To get back to Wolfe’s article, complexity is a major stumbling block. As soon as we learn more, information comes pouring in, passion, opinions, propaganda – all of that leaves us not sure where to go next or what to do with our hard-earned information. Take Syria, already a distant reality. Now add on that the U.S.’ interests in that conflict might align on some level with Iran’s, and there is instant cognitive dissonance. And that’s just one potential relationship. Or the Israel-Palestine saga: we feel for the Palestinian people and their mistreatment by the IDF, but Hamas is also part of the problem, and didn’t the Palestinian people vote them in? And Israel – how to square its policies and ongoing atrocities with its own history, its own perception of itself as an oppressed people fighting for its survival, when it is Gazans’ survival at stake? In other words, if I did want to empathize in this situation, it’s not easy to pick whom.

But above all, once I figure out where my principles should place me, I have no idea to whom I should reach out with my desire for action. Domestic issues have that advantage – maybe I take to the streets, or organize, or write some letters. But where international affairs are concerned, it is leaders and multilateral agencies that pull the strings. Even if we wanted to help the girls in Nigeria, ultimately, we have to count on the Nigerian government to take that action – and how is that working out?

I will bring up one other article that has been circulating recently: “We’re Missing the Story” in the New York Times. It is actually a preview for an upcoming book (which in itself is a strong statement about the market dynamics underpinning journalistic articles). The author Anjan Sundaram makes the point that international news reporting is declining. He laments that foreign correspondents keep their distance in cushy hotels and rarely get the real story. He says he really tried to get real story by living as the Congolese did. Yet, that doesn’t add up – if the content was of local interest and required living amongst the Congolese, then why not just hire a Congolese reporter? And if the information is meant for an international audience, are we surprised that audience would focus on topics that pull them in for their own reasons?

Sundaram switches to an economic argument: there is money for international reporting, he says, it’s just allocated elsewhere. But if you make that kind of argument, then you have to acknowledge that these news outlets are businesses, and if the audience does not see a need or use for Congolese electoral politics, then naturally, the supply will be squeezed. Because what can an American citizen really do about Congolese politics? (Nothing, I hope.) Nor will they see the aftermath, because they won’t have to live under the elected official.

And that’s what it comes back to. Empower people with the news, we say. Inform and engage, we say. But to do what? We need to be clearer about pathways toward solutions so people can use the information we throw at them.

At the end of the day, it’s like learning a foreign language, if I don’t see the need for me to actually use it, there’s little chance I will retain what I learn, so why would I bother sticking with it?

11
Jun
14

why i might watch the 2014 world cup

june 11, 2014

I am a tireless football-lover, so I’ll talk about it any way I can. I’ll happily trot out the psycho-cultural stereotypes to pontificate why the Dutch will lose again, ready some Kleenex (or mugs) for the Brits and their post-Empire tears, wiggle my hips to imitate wiry South American dribblers. My credentials include two World Cups and my brother who was ball boy for the German team in 1994’s opening match. But the World Cup that is starting tomorrow?

Enh.

If you ask me why I was going to tune to this year’s edition in Brazil, I would say it’s because I am a consistent football fan. Now there’s an adjective to stir passions – “consistent.”

Having watched more and more football in the last couple years, and having learned more about economics, human rights issues, and international politics, I realized the sport itself – the on-field product – has shrunk into the least compelling part of the tournament.

Maybe that’s the stage this romance was always supposed to reach. For me, it started in 1986 when I was living in Hong Kong. I remember unfurling a sleeping bag at the foot of my parents’ bed so I could wake early each morning to flip on the TV. The tournament was half a world away in Mexico so I would watch with my dad while he dressed for work. That tournament was about one player: Diego Maradona. He quickly attained hero status with me. With a thrill, I thought, my tie-clad dad and this Argentine, the only one I knew, both were 5’5”. And both men had black hair – but that is definitely where the similarities ended.

In that tournament, I also remember a game of outrageous skill played between Brazil and France. I remember all the different flags and wondering why Italy wore blue. But always, Diego Diego Diego. Those baby blue and white stripes. The mediocre team around him and Maradona’s singular brilliance – which only stood out more for the contrast. I thought, some day I, too, could be 5’5”.

But that kind of devotion couldn’t last. My parents wanted their floor space back.

Since then I’ve discovered that I remember each tournament according to where I am in life, and maybe there is something to that. Sure, there is drama with goals and heroes and scapegoats – there has to be a winner every four years, after all. But something melds the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups in my mind into one thick gray personality. In terms of the football, the drama, and, most importantly (or vaguely), the feel, there’s a worn selfsameness that makes those three. So what happened?

On my side, it’s probably life-changes and increased awareness. In 2002, I had just graduated from college and was too impoverished financially and socially to transform the games into an event. I watched broadcasts on Spanish-language channels at home alone before waiting tables in the evening. In 2006, I had both of those missing cards: income and a diverse social group. The result was morning revelry at a local bar with many friends and more depressed Brits, my photo in the paper (online version), and a culminating event where we served fresh crepes and Spaghetti-O’s in martini glasses to celebrate the finalists. As an overall package, I had the most fun with the 2006 tourney.

But 2006 was also when my worldview started to broaden. I worked for the next two years interviewing political asylum seekers. I would then spend four years living and working in East Africa on human rights-focused aid projects while launching a radio show about life in Burundi. I would attend the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In the last couple years, I pursued Master’s degrees at Columbia in journalism and international affairs. And it would not be a stretch to say those experiences have ruined the World Cup for me – yes, including my attendance at the 2010 tournament.

For that tournament, I flew down from Burundi to South Africa to watch some games with my brother and my dad. It was great – it was like old times attending sports events in Chicago. And then I realized – that’s exactly what it felt like. Crowds filling up fast food joints before the game (we went to a KFC). Stadia hunkered in urban settings like Chicago. And the corporate sponsors. Most of all, that’s what made it feel like a typical commercial mainstream sporting experience. The sponsors were the same you find anywhere, like this (with a white picket fence!):

2010WorldCup_Budweiser

And they mandated that only certain foods could be sold or certain brands advertised, in effect, implying that only certain fans could attend to bankroll all this glitz. So that whole part about hosting the tournament in a brand new continent? New cultures, new fans, new foods, new everything? Marketing tools, no more.

Football has become, to me, a true commodity. The harder question was who gets to consume it? And more importantly, who or what is consumed?

This is what the past few years have taught me: There are issues larger than the game but they influence the outcomes disproportionately. Economics, human rights, inequalities – these things all matter.

Greed is winning over the game’s soul, says Nick Hornby, as players, agents, gamblers, and networks see gold. Owners smash and grab revenues and bribes (No hands, remember? It’s football.). It’s about rotten institutions run by rotten men. It’s become a shady shady enterprise where articles like this Economist piece deploy business-speak to describe FIFA, the football governing body (interestingly, the article’s print edition was “Beautiful Game, Ugly Business,” but online it’s now “Ugly Politics.”) We talk about sex workers, mostly young women, preparing for the spike in demand for their services, right alongside the young men preparing for the games – as if those are the respective roles. To some, they might be. And, most of all, it’s about inertia that helps perpetuate these problems.

The game feels that way, too. It’s not that there isn’t delicious football on offer. But since the late 90’s, European football has received so much coverage, from domestic leagues and tournaments to the Champions’ League, there are few major discoveries. Sports medicine ensures we watch the same players for at least a decade, so we’ve come to know every star intimately. Some surprises like North Korea’s promising start in 2010 gloss over the fact that most of their players played abroad in Europe and in Japan. The question was no longer whether we would be dazzled by new stars and playing styles but whether those brand names would meet expectations.

In this tournament, the sporting worries are already clear: too many injured players. Fatigue after long domestic seasons – by players and fans. Scorching humid conditions. The on-field product turn out kind of bland.

But all of that ignores the mass Brazilian opposition raging against the tournament for this extravagance that only enriches sponsors. Brazilians launch protests daily, some violent, some creative. They demand education and public investment, not just international prestige.

So when the cameras zoom out to a shot of the stadium and the surrounding bustle, I’ll be looking in the corners of the cityscape, wondering what happening in those margins. Sure, I’ll watch the games and what happens on those pretty manicured fields, but my thoughts may turn elsewhere between passes. I never thought I would say this, but football may have become a bit boring.

 

Oh, and Argentina will win.

 

06
Aug
13

there needs to be an app for that

August 6, 2013

My article about mobile technologies assisting the fight against sexual violence in conflict zones ran in the Global Post a couple days ago. Here are a couple links that I wanted to attach to the article to give it more context.

First, about Syria, there have been two major features of the international community’s (lack of) action that I wanted to highlight: political gridlock and weak leadership. These factors exacerbate or even sustain the ongoing violence against civilians, largely committed by the ruling regime.

On the political gridlock: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=42513

On failed leadership: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/07/2013717163831228330.html

The other two links elaborate on the “problematic” U.N. mission in the Congo with specific case examples. The second article cites a damning case of the U.N. not even aware of a mass atrocity 2 km from its base, highlighting a total disconnect from the community it purports to protect.

Peacekeepers gone wild in the DRC: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/second-reading/peacekeepers-gone-wild-how-much-more-abuse-will-the-un-ignore-in-congo/article4462151/

Report of mass rape near U.N. base: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2010/08/201082402724259229.html

I think it’s important to emphasize my article for the Global Post is not a technology-will-save-us-all piece. Rather, this seems a case where technology can and must come in to compensate for larger institutional failures. Ironically, technology could potentially provoke those institutions to act, as with documentation of rights abuses, but its nature as a citizen-driven informal method also guarantees it will encounter major obstacles before it can considered useful to those institutions, either as data or evidence. The fight against sexual violence, especially in conflict zones, can use all the tools and ingenuity it can find, but really, civilians shouldn’t have to resort to that, and agencies like U.N. bodies should consider bolder, even forceful approaches if it wants to really “fight” sexual violence. Smartphones have so many less productive applications that people should be enjoying.

21
May
12

Occupy Bujumbura

From 2008 to 2012, I resided in Bujumbura, Burundi, working as an aid worker for the first three years and then as a radio host and producer of Imagine Burundi (imagineburundi.com). Throughout that time, I became more and more dejected over the divisions that existed along cultural, economic, racial and ethnic lines. My presence as a relatively wealthy individual working in an industry that purported to accomplish humanitarian and charitable objectives made me question our collective motivations. How do we reconcile those competing objectives? Or are we digging deeper lines, between haves and have-nots, between citizens and civil servants, between aid workers and “beneficiaries”. Ultimately, the doubts and criticisms creeping around my consciousness coalesced into a form of protest. This short series of photos is meant to highlight these contradictions, in a place far away – in so many regards – from the a country like the U.S. It is meant as a critique of the international development framework and my presence within that model but ultimately, I hope to illustrate the massive impact that inequality, in any form, has on notions of community and democracy.

You could also say that this entire exercise was an excuse to get photos of my dog online without really blogging about my dog – but that would be kind of insane.

(Special thanks to Seth Chase, Leah Hazard, Dedo Baranshamaje and Chauncey Dog for taking some of the photos, running interference with the police and protesting in spirit.)

OccupyBuja1

1. “In Burundi, in East Africa, I am in the 1%. “

OccupyBuja2

2. “In Burundi, the other 99% face extreme inequalities, a paralyzed government, brutal competition, and total despair about any change.”

OccupyBuja3

3. “Burundi has a democratic political system, but what is a democracy without democratic values?”

OccupyBuja4

4. “I’ve occupied Bujumbura for almost four years. Little has improved in that time.”

OccupyBuja5

5. “The status quo here is pessimism, distrust, and stagnation. When we only see inequalities rising, we feel this situation can happen anywhere.”

OccupyBuja6

6. ‘Foreigners in Burundi like to say, “Life is good.” Yes, it is – for us.’

OccupyBuja7

7. “Outside Burundi, I might be in the 99% but I believe in values like merit and opportunity.”

OccupyBuja8

8. “There is a fight out there, to change the rules, to set things right.”

OccupyBuja9

9. “That is why I am leaving Burundi; I want to join this fight.”

OccupyBuja10

10. “My ultimate protest is to leave. I cannot support this framework anymore. It’s strange to be in the 1%.”

OccupyBuja11

11. “It is time to Occupy somewhere else.”

OccupyBuja12

11
Sep
11

imagine burundi – how it all started

September 11, 2011

I haven’t posted in a long time. I feel awful and rusty, so this post may wander a bit because many things have happened since my last post. I hopped on the Trans-Siberian train and rode from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I flew up in a hot air balloon in Cappadocia in Turkey. I left my post as Regional Director for Heartland Alliance in Burundi. And throughout that whole time, I have been producing a radio program called Imagine Burundi (Learn more about the show at www.imagineburundi.com)

It’s kind of an unbelievable statement to say I have a radio show in Burundi. Let’s take this by stages to see how Imagine Burundi happened.

Something like this usually starts out with a tepid declaration over a few drinks:

“I love radio?” (Questioning glance around the table.)

Then, in response, another’s expression of outrageous disbelief:

“No way! Me, too!”

Followed by emboldened stupidity:

“Really?! Let’s get a radio show!”

And that’s pretty much it. If that transcript of a conversation between my friend Seth Chase and me is not verbatim, it’s essentially accurate. This was back in September 2010.

But there were a few problems. Neither of us knew what to do to produce a show. I had done some broadcasting and journalism work and we both had dabbled in college radio, but if anything, that last one should have counted against me and served as a template of things to avoid. I was feeling quite bold because I had just bought a new MacBook and had the tools for the project. I figured I could just learn as I go. Probably not since discovering girls in junior high have we mixed so much ignorance with such unwarranted enthusiasm.

I was able to cling to one segment idea. For one show. But it was the kind of idea that fit so neatly for so many reasons that it just had to happen. The ideas for that one show laid out the ideal foundation for many of the episodes that followed. The idea was I would interview a taxi driver whom I had met randomly one day on the streets of Bujubura when I got in his cab. During the ride, the driver, Ilunga, seemed completely baffled when I tried to communicate with him in French. This gap was reasonable and somewhat common – some drivers lacked formal education and spoke mostly Kirundi or Swahili. But it was also frustrating given that I needed to point out my destination. So I sort of threw up my hands and sat in the passenger seat quietly. All of a sudden, Ilunga breaks out in English – really really solid English – and asks me where I’m going. So it’s my turn to be baffled. We end up talking the whole ride about how long he has studied English (20 years), if he studied it at school (no) and what he’s been doing since. That meeting happened in 2009 but I never forgot Ilunga so when I finally got approval for my show, there was no doubt I needed to speak to him first.

There were a host of reasons why Ilunga personified the show’s objectives. He was a self-taught English speaker. He was fearless. He had great stories and ideas. He was a taxi driver, meaning he was amongst the most informed, most connected people in the city – in other words, someone anyone might run into. And all of these qualities matched up with Imagine Burundi’s aims. We wanted to highlight motivated people, strong speakers of English, people who were interesting just by going about their lives (which is a lot of people) and someone you might call “working class” in a different context.

I am tired of the notion that most Burundians are poor suffering folks, victims. Yes, around 80 percent of the population is hovering at the poverty line and really struggling to make it under an ineffective government, but portraying the majority of Burundians as small/powerless victims hardly empowers them; in fact, it’s very debilitating. Because Burundians, even the farmers and laborers, are working people, people who are trying to make it, people running households, hosting parties, living lives – they’re trying to build something and framing them as victims seems like a defeat already. The ubiquitous imagery of suffering that we often see hardly expresses the everyday richness of Burundian life. (In my more cynical moments, it even feels like those portrayals are marketing tools for the aid industry.)

Take a young doctor, for example. He or she might have talent, might hold up in any city hospital in the world, but he or she would not be a priority for donors from a development framework that prioritizes victims and certain health issues. Yet, we are talking about a young doctor in Burundi, and that makes a huge difference. That means he or she may end up working at a under-supplied under-funded government clinic, making 300-400 USD a month. He or she might wonder why funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment keeps getting precedence over basic medicines and supplies and trainings when the national HIV infection rate hovered around 4%. While he or she could end up relatively well off, these salaries would not be sufficient to send kids abroad for an education. So this show is for people like that as well – people with the talent and creativity and motivation but maybe not the outlet for that energy. Potential elites, maybe, but elite because of merit. This show is for the men and women and boys and girls making an effort, trying to change things, workers and intellectuals and civil servants and athletes and artists. This show is about recognizing achievement and highlighting inspired individuals. I think after three years of focusing on Burundi’s past, it has been an important evolution for me to view development as Burundians want to view it, as a movement toward a different more dynamic Burundi.

So Imagine Burundi tries to introduce listeners to Burundians, to their thoughts and dreams and ideas rather than their misery and tales of woe. I realized I’m not here to save anyone; I would rather inspire or motivate people. We may want to hear that story of suffering because it makes us feel compassion, even confirms our antiquated notions of “Africa” but it can be a self-serving and incomplete story. Imagine Burundi’s decision to broadcast entirely in English is also a statement about the country’s future direction: Burundi is now working hard to integrate into the regional community its Anglophone neighbors have constructed to increase its economic and political influence. Burundians have responded to this shift by learning English in droves. I am hoping the show will help in some small way to raising that standard as well.

Learning radio from scratch has been so rewarding and maintaining the discipline of a weekly broadcast may be one of the most refreshing parts. The show remains forever in a precarious balance of catering to different levels of English, raising intellectual standards, increasing participation and accommodating diverse audiences. Sometimes, to ensure a segment is communicated effectively, we simplify the diction or we script material or we re-use those scripts so that listeners have a chance to really absorb the message. It started as a side-project while all of us were either working full-time jobs or larger projects. So in the beginning, we gave it what time we could, streamlined production, recorded at ridiculous hours and worked right up to our broadcast time.

In some of the segments from the first few months, you can actually hear our tiredness. Our voices sound deflated, our sentences barely adhere to the subject-verb-object structure, our logic sometimes not fulfilling the requirement of being comprehensible. But we never missed a broadcast. Each and every week, we put out an hour-long show– 60 minutes of ideas and advice and stories and restaurant commentary, each of which took 20-30 hours to assemble and refine. We’ve loved every second of it.

Sometimes people ask me why Imagine Burundi sounds like This American Life (TAL). About the only time I am not asked that question is when my interlocutor has never heard of TAL. One main reason is TAL impresses us with the genius of its clarity and directness. It’s light on music and effects; it frames speakers’ voices in just the right mood with minimal fuss. But maybe the most salient (read: honest) reason is we just don’t know how to do anything else. TAL works because it’s simple. We sound like TAL because we’re simpletons. We’re still learning the basics of production elements like managing audio quality, using the right microphones, editing tape. If we’ve achieved even a tiny measure of comparison to TAL, then we’re already immensely proud. And relieved. Because even after overcoming all the challenges of getting a timeslot in the station’s schedule, there was the small matter of putting out a product people would actually listen to. It’s starting to feel like we’re on our way.

16
Jan
11

border crossing series, pt. 389

13 January, 2011, Burundi/DRC Border at Kamivira

This region plays tricks on my concept of time. Increments of fifteen and thirty minutes feel qualitatively the same. I am continuously calculating how much time I need to accomplish a task and then reducing those calculations little by little while still telling myself that the task can be accomplished. It’s like I believe infinitely in the possible, in being able to meet deadlines, reach a destination, mediate an argument, no matter the reality of my circumstances. Often, this thinking is endlessly optimistic, even more often it is abetted by a lack of structure that makes those gaps exploitable; everything is negotiable. At the highest levels, you might call it corruption, but it’s a spectrum; at the lowest levels, it’s called being resourceful or “getting shit done.”

So on my colleague, Molly’s last visit to Uvira on the other side of the border with Burundi on Lake Tanganyika, we had planned to head back to Burundi at 5:30 p.m. Goodbyes, handshakes, hugs and photo-taking mean we actually left at 5:46. And suddenly, even by my calculations, it strikes me that it was a ridiculous amount of time to drive back out of the NGO quarter, weave our way through town, connect to the road that leads to the border, get our passports stamped and cross no-man’s land back to the Burundi side – this was 14 minutes after all, not 15; the whole process usually takes about an hour. Any one of those parts could take at least 20 minutes. And even though there were several announcements during the year with much fanfare about the relaxing of border regulations and longer opening times, we checked and found out the border still closes at 6 p.m. There might be no negotiating on that point, I think, which then might lead to serious “negotiatin’.” Belt, ignition, lights, gas!

The drive is a blur – a rambling, muddy, splashy “pole pole!” blur. I’m one hand on the horn the whole time, the other all a-flickin’ the brights, spinning the wheel, eyes scanning for every possible danger. Bicycles, motorcycles, carts, policemen, UN vehicles, trucks, buses – who knew there would be rush hour in Uvira!

It is exactly 14 minutes when we crossed the first gate into the Congolese immigration section. Beyond the second gate is no-man’s land, the strip of fertile emptiness that divides Burundi and the Congo in our little corner of the world, and beyond that, the gate back to Burundi. Home. We are still in our car and it looks like we have just entered the parking lot from Hell. The last herd of vehicles crossing back after a day of commerce in Burundi has spilled over from the other side. The cars  and buses are so solidly arrayed, there’s only enough room for humans to wriggle by. I find a narrow path for the car but there’s no room to park the car to the side and walk to the row of immigration offices on our right. At the same time, I am scheming, thinking of things to say to shorten the immigration process. I’m amazed I even think this is possible, and I feel a bit guilty but I couldn’t worry about that then; this is the context in which I live and work.

I haven’t rolled up ten meters when all of a sudden I hear, “Jefferson, traverse directement le frontier!” This is like “Advance to Go” in Monopoly, but better. Skip everything and just go. At an international border. I turn my head in time to see my old friend and immigration officer, Fazuli, both arms stretched out toward Burundi, pointing frantically, face full of concern. He’s hatless, has no time for another word and runs off somewhere. It’s just chaos. I do what he says and drive right up to the second gate. An incoming car gets the gate up and just as I’m about to blow through to the other side, a sharp woman’s voice yells at me to stop. I step on the brakes. Another immigration officer. The game is up; she scolds me and demands our documents. Surely, she is going to take them to the immigration office to log by hand and then stamp. “Immigration Procedures – Lose 15 Minutes. Go back three spaces and spend the night in Uvira.” This would be a disastrous result because Molly leaves Burundi for good the next day and there is a ton of wrap-up she needs to do. The loss of an evening and morning would derail the entire process. So it is pure honey-colored joy when the officer glances at our passports, doesn’t even try with my inch-thick document and hands them back to us with a smile. I shake her hand at the same time I step on the gas. We’re off! Home!

Home. But they locked the door. Figuratively. More accurately, they tied the string. When they tie a string across an opening, like a bridge, that’s the warning – the way is closed. In this case, some random non-uniformed person unties it for us to pass. We get on the short narrow metal bridge and travel the 20 meters across only to be halted by a real gate. The officer manning the gate is in a blue beret and matching poncho and he is doing his best to nonchalantly ignore us. He would turn away, stare briefly past our car and then look at the ground again. Another officer, a big fella, in light blue shirt sleeves has come out of the immigration office to watch. I haven’t been in a situation quite like this one. Sort of a half-hearted farce coupled with willful inactivity. Something needed to give. I hop out of the car, and ask Molly to move to the driver’s side, just in case.

Poncho quickly moves toward me and gives me a firm “The border is closed, you can’t cross, etc. etc.” I don’t really hear him because I can quickly see he’s not the problem. Poncho takes his orders from the Big Guy. I ignore Poncho, swing my legs over the gate and head straight toward Mr. Big.

I start walking toward the large officer with all the deliberateness of someone approaching a hibernating bear. In a steady straight line, concentrating. Except, he’s not hibernating – he’s in full-blooded anger mode, yelling at me to turn the car back before I’m even within 10 meters of him. I get closer. For some reason, I believe if I can get near enough to this raging hulk, I can explain to him exactly why we have to cross and he would listen. At this point, I have to believe in something, I tell myself. Now in front of the still blustering officer, I imagine myself standing in front of a roaring lion, fangs bared – probably not open to reasoned dialogue. I wonder if he is going to eat me.

“TURN AROUND!!! YOU ARE NOT ENTERING THE COUNTRY! YOU WILL TURN AROUND AND LEAVE RIGHT NOW! RIGHT NOW!!!”

But it’s all a show right? A show of authority, a show of power, a show. So I can show no weakness, no uncertainty, no grammatical errors, and to an extent, no emotion: no sarcasm, no indignation, no fear.

I direct a string of soothing declarations at him. “We are aid workers. We were told to cross the border. My colleague needs to catch a flight (tomorrow). I understand we are a minute late. That is why I got out of the car to speak with you. I don’t understand your anger.”

The point is not content – like so many things in this region, it’s about style, appearance. By this point, his objections were verging on the bizarre.

“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO COME BACK! WHY DID YOU LEAVE THE COUNTRY?”

What? Why I left has nothing to do with me coming back. It’s not a ‘why’ issue. I say, “You are right – I should have never crossed the border!” It’s turning into a farce, and it would have, except at that moment as the conversation was descending into nonsense, we both catch a surreal sight in our peripheral vision. Slowly, as if it were the most normal and cordial thing, Poncho gently lifts the gate and Molly guides the vehicle at a slow soft roll in front of the immigration office.

We’re both gawking with our eyes, Mr. Big and me, but our mouths are still churning out bullshit. I think it’s at that moment that he realizes he has lost. Somehow, he loses his communication authority over Poncho who, perhaps in a moment of civility or weakness, decides to let Molly just enter. I thought they had worked this scheme out, but whatever, we are back and there is no point in delaying the inevitable. Mr. Big thinks the same, grabs our passports and stalks off into the immigration office. I join him after a few moments and find Mr. Big at his desk in the now very dark office. (Electricity at an international border post? Nope!). He is holding his cell phone up as a light to the passport registry to fill it out. “Take,” he says and I hold up the light. I’m amazed to see my hand trembling a little. No one likes getting yelled at, no matter how calm you try to be. I close my eyes and tell my hand to stop. I reopen my eyes and the hand isn’t shaking anymore – I think – it’s too dark to tell. When the officer is done recording our info, he folds up the passports and hands them to me with a faint smile. We shake hands. The joining of hands – symbolic applause. The show is over.

I take our passports back and move back to the car. I love their weight in my hand.
In the last three years, I have added pages to my passport three times, the last time incurring a stern warning that I would have to get a brand new passport next time. My passport has graduated from being a pass’port’ to being a pass’book’. “Is that your passport in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” Well, both.

I am still moved by the “Welcome Home” the U.S. immigration officer inevitably offers before spending several moments locating a spot to stamp my passport. I still want to respond with a robust “Thanks!” but now I feel guilty, like I can see the doubt in their eyes. Welcome home, they say (pause, looks at all the stamps), but what the heck were you doing abroad?

It’s a somewhat cliché device, but after all the trips to the Congo, each one memorable and recorded with a stamp, the one I’ll never forget is the one I didn’t get.

A part of me is still there.

Officially.

25
Aug
10

clap, duck and drum

Some hand-clapping photos, all taken by Agnes, one of the counselors based at Dukanure Center. This is from the same visit in July that I blogged about below.

Ben missed the beat early and got thrown in hand-clapping jail.

Directin’.

Whoa!