Friday, February 27, 2009

Everything is Connected: Part I

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to 
everything else in the universe.” - John Muir

Is everything really connected?  Some connections are easy to find and others take some work. But when we realize that every apparently separate item or thought is actually part of a greater whole then we have learned one of the keys to life. Understanding our connections helps us go from survive to thrive as we can better predict cause and effect of actions and see why acting in line with “the golden rule” or Albert Schweitzer's idea of “reverence for life” is not only an ethical but practical calling.

First let's look at some examples of connections. Searching for someone on Facebook reveals a list of people that have mutual friends, some surprisingly in other parts of the world you may not have predicted. Or one can draw on some knowledge reserves and research to find noteworthy connections of the current breakdown of the finance capitalist system.

For example we can read that Vladimir Lenin predicted finance capitalism as the last stage of imperialism before an inevitable collapse and movement towards more government influence in the economy. Then we see today the mortgage crisis and failing of banks in the US and Europe, investment and consumption rates greatly decreasing thus Chinese product makers laying off workers en masse as demand for their exports have sharply declined. And following we observe a reverse of the migration trend in China (people are heading back to the countryside from the cities) and a renewed interest in Maoism amongst many Chinese “proletariat”. When we look at Maoism we see how it is focused on the agrarian people surrounding cities instead of the urban industrial laborers rising up as was the Marxist idea that Lenin revised a bit to include more of a role for the rural poor. So here we see how history and current economic events are just points on a web of threads of time strung by the needle of human ideas.

Though one beauty of Muir's statement is that it applies universally, he was speaking in the context of conservation of natural ecosystems in light of human population growth. In his close studies and relationship with the Sierra Nevada mountains he was one of the first modern humans who realized that natural resources are not infinite and environmental degradation not only threatens natural wonders like Yosemite Valley but the continued health and economic sustainability of human societies. He established the Sierra Club in 1892 to bring awareness to this issue and advocate in the political arena for conservation.

So why I am I talking about this in a blog based on my work for an economic development organization in East Africa? What is the connection? I have been in parts of Kenya and Uganda now for three weeks.  As I indicated in my first entry I arrived here with only a vague idea of what my work would be.  However the basics of my responsibilities, the people I met through my interviewing with Village Enterprise Fund and of course the mission and approach to poverty reduction of the organization were in line with my values and interests. One piece of this approach is to partner with other organizations to tackle complex problems. And one of my primary jobs while I am here will be to evaluate, coordinate and manage pieces of our project and partnership with the highly-visible international conservation organization Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) in the communities that border the Budongo Rain Forest, one of the few remaining habitats in the world for chimpanzees.  

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Energy of Questions

There has probably been a moment in your life when you've asked yourself, “What the hell am I doing?” Perhaps it races through your head as you are kissing the person you have just told you love though in truth you are not really sure. Or maybe the question haunts you five years into a job when you realize you have no passion for the work. Or you accept a ride from a kind stranger in a new city who you quickly find out is a reckless driver.

In these moments we wonder what we are doing but an immediate and practical answer is usually not what we need. The question is more philosophical. It is often the flower that blossoms from a bud of fear, confusion, or nervous anticipation. And what we are really asking is often more something like, “How did I arrive at this moment?” and “What is to come?” So there is emotion and we can be swept out to sea by a strengthening undertow of fear, confusion, or nervous anticipation. Or we can start to reflect. We can feel the tide pulling while our toes can still dig into the sand below us. We can observe and accept the feeling and find the questions behind the question. And we can then choose to be swept away or walk back towards the shore in a new direction as masters of our own destiny.

I am on a plane to Nairobi, Kenya and I've just had a “what the hell am I doing” moment. It will be my first time in Africa save a day trip to Tangier, Morocco when I was sixteen on a school trip to Spain. I can vividly remember that day crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in the early morning on a barge. There was a mist over the Mediterranean and as it cleared the northern edge of the plateaued African continent slowly emerged and grew larger. It was awe-inspiring, not only because the sight was magnificent but because up to then I had only imagined Africa. In my mind it was a wild and dangerous place. It was intense desert or dense jungle. It was the Pyramids and the Nile, the Zambezi full of water snakes and crocodiles. It was The Gods Must Be Crazy. It was lions, giraffes, and elephants. It was a violent place with a violent history. It was slavery, colonialism, civil war, and apartheid. It was desperate and diseased people speaking unfamiliar languages. It was the Dark Continent in so many ways.

Even so I was enchanted. And this was mainly because of the African music I had heard. One song specifically piqued my curiosity. It was the “Limpopo River Song” sung by a choir that my 10th-grade World Cultures teacher, Mr. Allen, had given us as part of a collection of music from around the world. I listened to it repeatedly on my tape player. The song moved slowly and heartfully as a serene and familiar river might carry you in a canoe towards your home. The song was infused with a sadness of something lost, but the strength of a community that can still sing together and the comforting softness of a lullaby. Of course I didn't understand the lyrics but I knew there was a rich culture and story behind the song.

So now I am back to Africa thirteen years later after my day as a tourist in Tangier. But beyond occurring on the same continent this experience is bound to be entirely different. Since then I have learned a lot more about the land and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Africa's people past and present. I have developed units and taught lessons on parts of African history, cultural and physical geography. I have enjoyed so much more wonderful African music and food. I have African friends and colleagues.

But with all of this additional knowledge and exposure I still don't feel like I know “Africa.” It remains mostly imagination, literature, textbook summaries and news reports. It's Arabic in the north, Swahili in the east and a smattering of other languages in other regions. It's famine, AIDS orphans, the specter of malaria and the ravages of cholera. It's Things Fall Apart or Cry, The Beloved Country or The Lost Boys of Sudan. It's the damage of dictators like Amin or Mugabe contrasted with the inspirational leadership of Mandela or Tutu. It's Lucy in the Ethiopian Highlands, gold, diamonds, copper and cobalt in the Congo. It's Islam and the Sahara creeping south. It's still lions, giraffes, and elephants.

But my greater knowledge and experience is not what will make my time in Kenya and Uganda different than my day in Tangier. For one, I am not here as a tourist for a short time. I am here to work through several months with Village Enterprise Fund, an organization that provides seed capital, business training and mentoring to small groups of people living in remote villages with the aim of reducing poverty. If you made a Venn diagram to compare living and working in a foreign place to just visiting it you'd have very little to put in the middle section. I can attest to this from my experiences living in the Czech Republic and Costa Rica and touring parts of Europe, Asia and South America.

Another reason this experience will be unique is that I am no longer coming to Africa with the common error of the Western mind that lumps all of Africa together. One can't come to know Africa by a visit or even a long-term stay with just one or two of it's fifty-three countries just as one can't know the US if he or she only visits New York or California. So I am no longer imagining that I will know Africa after my term here, but simply that I will become more familiar with some people, some of the culture and land in parts of Kenya and Uganda. I am ready to stop imagining and generalizing because my ego would like to tell my friends, “Oh yes I know Africa. I lived there for several months.” Instead my aim is to be fully present in my immediate environment and observe how that shapes my earthly and spiritual connections.

However most of all, my experience will be unique here because of the reasons I am asking myself, “What the hell am I doing?” or rather the feeling of nervous anticipation of “what is to come?” and “How did I arrive at this moment?” The truth is I know little about my job and the people and places I have committed myself to for the next good portion of a year. So yeah, I am a little bit nervous and eager to experience and not just wonder about my reality in Kenya and Uganda.

But there is a definite reason for how I arrived at this moment. And when I remember this reason I feel calm yet inspired, righteous though humbled. I am here to read a new chapter in the book that answers the question I have asked since my day in Tangier. The question is, “How can I contribute to greater peace in the world?” You see, on that day not only did my friend receive a death threat from an aggressive salesman (“3000 pesetas or I kill you!”) but I witnessed the first incident of direct and intense physical violence in my life.

After a stop at the beach for the hokey opportunity to have one's picture taken while sitting on a camel, our group was approached by a small boy asking for a handout. Someone in the group gave the boy some change and then we all loaded onto the bus. As we sputtered away leaving the child smiling despite enveloped in a cloud of smoke I looked back to see him confronted by two teenage boys in the middle of the street. They seemed to demand his money and when he resisted they proceeded to push him to the concrete and kick him in the head and ribs until he released the change from his clenched fist. When he did they grabbed it and ran away. There had been many people around but no one helped. I was speechless horrified, deeply saddened, and angry. I felt helpless as we continued on, the bloodied child still unmoving and growing smaller in my sight. He lay in the street in danger of being run over as an oncoming rush of cars approached. We turned a corner and were gone from the scene. I don't know what happened to the boy.

Being a witness to this violence was hugely impacting in my life. Reflecting on the incident and my feelings, comparing it to my own life of abundance, wondering about connections between the boy and myself, thinking about it in light of historical and current violence set me on a path of formal and informal exploration of how I can contribute to the cause of peace. It has been the driving force of my educational and young professional career. I could not help the boy in that moment, but I can help uplift humanity in other moments.

So to learn and practice peacebuilding (and of course for some adventure) is why I am on this plane headed far from home even though the work can be done anywhere and in so many ways. And I am full of hope that if we can each do a little towards the cause of peace the world will be an increasingly uplifting place for boys, girls, men, women everywhere. So join me in this practice. Join me vicariously through this blog. Or join me with your own unique contributions toward greater peace in the world upon a few pieces of awareness:

1. Realize the boy was beaten for something like fifty cents, that this kind of incident happens everywhere everyday and you have to ask yourself if there is a connection between poverty and violence.

2. Remember that no one helped the boy (myself included), that even mass murders and genocides in the Americas, Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Sudan, Congo and other places have been or are being carried out with little attempt at intervention from knowing outside observers and you have to ask yourself what values we embody as acting members of the human community.

3. Become conscious of the fact that by your work, consumption, and political choices you can exacerbate or alleviate the unnatural and often brutal suffering that millions of humans and other life on earth experiences every day.

And now it is a good moment to ask yourself: “What the hell am I doing?”