Saturday, September 25, 2010

Telling the development story

Holly and I were sitting in a beautiful conference room, overlooking Boston Common and another summer storm. In a month, she would be in Uganda, creating and implementing a curriculum of peace education for  schools, and I in Egypt, devising a program for the empowerment of Arab women parliamentarians. In that Boston moment though, our tasks were different. I was investigating options for travel insurance that would cover a 20-something female in the world's war-torn zones. She was working on compiling her footage and photographs from Northern Uganda into an informative documentary. As she was brainstorming ways to relate the narrative of the Peace Education Project, she sensitized me to a challenge I have come across during my own field work: How do we tell a story beyond the "starving African child photo"?

You know the photo. You have seen the photo. There may be more variations of it than that iconic National Geographic image of the Afghan girl, but it still recognizably tugs at heartstrings. I am guilty of having taken the photo as well. Holly was reluctant to just use an image that would conjure certain connotations and illicit a certain response without tying the child's or woman's story into the narrative, without explaining why this particular child or this particular woman is important to her and the project.

Her hesitation brings up a wider host of concerns: How do we tell a "development success" or "need of development" story by doing justice to its subjects, without falling into all the cliches or merely capitalizing on the ways in which images and words tug at hearstrings? And if the tugging of the heartstrings turns into financial support for projects that do help, if the story motivates people and jars them and shakes them, then is there something wrong with falling into the cliches?

My friend Carl once enthusiastically told me about a book titled Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth. It chronicles the interwoven life stories of three aid workers living and working in conflict zones and the UN allegedly objected so strongly to the accounts that it tried to stop the publication of the book and penalize the authors who had served among its ranks. I read the book almost voyeuristically, in the way that I imagine people now read Stieg Larsson on airplanes. The writing is one long adrenaline rush of dodging literal and metaphorical bullets from Cambodia to Haiti. The book personalizes humanitarian disasters without dodging 'the ugly'; one of the authors writes practically from a grave as he exhumes victims of mass murder. Only on few instances, in my opinions, do the writers indulge in self-glorification. And yet, something nagged me when I finished the book: Does the adrenaline rush and the voyeurism detract from the attention to the causes? Do we read for the intrigue and the backstory? And if the intrigue and the adrenaline rush manage to draw attention to the causes, do my objections still have teeth?

This morning I attended a presentation by ActionAid, during which individuals involved in their organization shared their stories of having witnessed suffering and depravity. A lot of the audience was in tears after tales of the spread of cholera through infected water or confessions of consecutive days of eating rice, corn or nothing at all. These stories raised awareness and motivated people to give (their time, their money, or otherwise). The friends with whom I attended the event asked me afterward: "What was malaria like?" "What did you use to eat?" I thought about my own stories from the field, the way I tell them, and the stories that people like to hear. On the one hand, by having been 'there' and having witnessed and observed and then by retelling the story, I bring my world(s) 'there' closer to 'here(s)' everywhere. Perhaps retelling the story is a form of service in itself. On the other hand, those who are not colleagues in this field rarely ask me to tell them about my Mentorship and Role Models discussion or the Rights Education training Ciudad Bolivar, Colombia, so what kind of service am I performing if I am constructing the (inherently self-involved) Travelogue Through War Zones narrative that people want to hear?

Communities of conflict are full of stories. Telling them can shrink the world: bring Uganda to Boston, Guatemala to Kentucky, Egypt to Greece. Now: Which stories do we tell? How do we tell them? And why?

And if we tell the wrong stories in the wrong way for the wrong reasons, and they still stir and move and mobilize, then is there something wrong with that?

The Peace Education Project in Uganda is in its second year and it has a story that stirs and moves and mobilizes with its beauty and sincerity and commitment to impact. Much like Holly herself.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Revisiting the last lecture, re-learning to dream

I dream. Sometimes I think that is the only right thing to do. - Haruki Murakami

Months after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Professor Randy Pausch demonstrated his ability to do consecutive push-ups in a bursting auditorium. He wanted his audience to know that he may have been on the eve of his death, but this last lecture needed to be remembered as more than a swan song.

That last lecture is now The Last Lecture, captured in book form and on YouTube. Professor Randy Pausch has now passed away, but his memory drove the conversation among a group of women in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina who began discussing the notion of dream fulfillment.

In Colombia, I learned that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and war's ability to obliterate all hopes and dreams makes it difficult to jar the imaginations of ex-combatants or victims of conflict, especially in relation to their own future. In Sarajevo, I decided to temporarily avoid the minefield of memories and start with a simpler question drawn from the past: What were your childhood dreams?

This is the very question that Randy Pausch posed and it drove his lecture:
So what were my childhood dreams? You may not agree with this list, but I was there. 
Being in zero gravity, playing in the National Football League, authoring an article in the World Book Encyclopedia – I guess you can tell the nerds early. Being Captain Kirk, anybody here have that childhood dream? I wanted to become one of the guys who won the big stuffed animals in the amusement park, and I wanted to be an Imagineer with Disney.
The impressive bit is that he fulfilled every single one of them -- including the zero gravity. For the how, you have to watch the lecture. But before that, what were your childhood dreams? Not just what did you want to be when you grew up, but what did you think was possible in this world?

Discussion among the program participants in Sarajevo, all of whom are war survivors, confirmed my initial hypothesis: It was much easier to dream as a child. The very women who struggled to name one aspiration or hope for the future laughed with their childhood desires to be fairies or doctors and to travel to France and to the Far East. As for me? I thought back to the days of wanting to teach so badly that I would line up my stuffed animals, deliver to them what I had learned in school that day, repeating the mannerisms of my own teachers and doing their homework in little notebooks I had created. I made sure to alter my handwriting so the stuffed panda and stuffed rabbit don't write the same. I would then correct the homework with red ink, feeling oh so important for my 6 years of age, and would previously have made sure to make more mistakes when completing the homework of the animals I liked less. As Pausch said, you can pick the geeks early.

How do we dream differently as adults? What are your adult dreams? The New York Times recently told us that 20-somethings in the 2000s picture a different life than 20-somethings did in the 1970s. In order to demonstrate the shift in the priorities, ambition and dreams of contemporary 20-somethings, the article posited:
The 20s are a black box, and there is a lot of churning in there. One-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year. Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once. They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s, more job changes than in any other stretch. Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married. And marriage occurs later than ever. The median age at first marriage in the early 1970s, when the baby boomers were young, was 21 for women and 23 for men; by 2009 it had climbed to 26 for women and 28 for men, five years in a little more than a generation.
Uncertainty is one of the drivers of all the moves between jobs, homes and loves. Many, not only in the conflict and post-conflict zones in which I work but also in the Untied States, critique some young people's deferral of all commitments for the sake of discovering what they are passionate about. A friend in the armed forces labeled this attitude "privileged, almost spoiled." A few summers ago, my own brother earnestly wandered: "What exactly is a quarter-life crisis, anyway?"

Skepticism aside, adults continue to want to dream - whether that requires sampling life on all continents or every apartment in NYC or wanting to paint every wall in Sarajevo a bright color, as one woman confessed. Randy Pausch focused his lecture on fulfilling one's childhood dreams. How to sustain the dreaminess through adulthood is, for better or worse, something we have to teach ourselves.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A fast rise, a steeper fall

We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appears, discovering that we have enough strength to stare it down. - Eleanor Roosevelt, quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, The Home Front in World War II

Moments of glory - then.

In August 2006, I was trapped on a ferry with 300 Greeks and a lone American. Rather, the lone American was trapped with us. It was the World Basketball Championships semi-final match and Greece had just stunned the USA with its victory: 101-95. It was one of those things that will likely only happen once in a country's athletic history, like accidentally winning the Euro Cup of soccer in 2004 or having a Greek, white sprinter win the 200 m. dash race in the Olympics. The ancient Greeks used to tear down the walls of their cities to welcome victorious warriors returning home; their modern descendants pour themselves into the streets, sing and dance until the sun comes up, and declare the members of their victorious sports teams the heroes of the hour. That day, somewhere in the Aegean sea between Santorini and Athens, a ferry rocked from side to side with the enthusiasm of the sports fans-nationalists it carried.

Being the Lone American on it would have been significantly easier at this year's World Championships. The USA refuse to win a match by anything less than a 30 point difference and Greece bid the competition farewell at the octo-final stage. "Disgrace!" and "Shame on you!" graced the front pages of newspapers. Some of the players were the very same ones who won the silver medal at the last championships, the ones whose talent made us all take to the streets and hug strangers. Greece forgets its heroes easily. She transforms them into villains, converting a source of pride to one of disappointment at the bounce of a ball.

Greece loves saviors and heroes. A new Prime Minister (new being used lightly, considering the same two political families have ruled Greece since the late 1970s) is welcomed like the Messiah - until he institutes an unpopular tax or mandates that students need to obtain more than 50% on their tests to graduate to the next year of university studies. A new coach is foreshadowed to bring (back) the days of glory until a devastating defeat, at which point he needs to hire private security to fend off the angry fans. 

When I was little, I used to complain that I would rather stay home alone than visit all the aunts and uncles my mother deemed it our obligation to see every so often. "They only talk about cancer and unemployment and superstition and what they cooked for lunch that day and how fat presenters on TV have gotten," was my grievance. I missed the sunniness. "Too bad. You do not get to choose your family," was my mother's retort. As I have grown past the age of being dragged to these soirees - moving across an ocean really helped with that - I have come to realize that one cannot jump off the ship of her nationality either, even when it is sinking.The ease with which leaders, sports teams or governments in this country are elevated to a pedestal of holiness only to be knocked down to the dirt on their first misstep frustrates me. Loyalty tugs at my heart.

As an ex-pat, I escape the daily frustrations of living in this country. I still, however, experience its baggage and celebrate its moments of pride with twice the ferocity. During these difficult times, I wish the collective, national(ist) 'we' would abandon heroes, fairies and Messianic promises, remember our own fallibility, look inward for accountability for our economic and otherwise woes, and continue to clap for those who seek to bring us joy, whether they succeed or fail.