22.11.2008 - 04.12.2008
Here's what it is. As I get more hyped up as I get ready to go, I have two thudding pulses that I keep going back to.
First, I am almost shamefaced that I am so untravelled, that I have never even skirted toward the truly unfamiliar, despite my self-image of a Worldly Cosmopolitan Person. Europe, North America, New Zealand. Not even *Mexico*, not the North. One day trip to the north tip of Morocco when I was 9 (children playing hopscotch barefoot in narrow streets, a man in a tent with tea, camels, a scratchy hat). But except for some truly in-the-bush paddling and hiking trips, always the land of espresso, even if offered in gargling Danish. And because of this, I do feel like I could wheel around, off balance, and tip off the edge of the earth. This takes the form of being breath-gasp nervous thinking about arriving in the dark by myself, nights without power. I have lots of books.
Second, I realize I'm still fumbling to describe even what I'm doing. I think I mentioned before in this blog that I have some pretty strong opinions about what we're even doing in this project. It's something about how I'm positioning myself, how "we" (westerners, our little group) position ourselves in relation to this project, to the kids, to the continent.
I met a woman last weekend at the event I was at who said that the thing is, I'll be a white woman in East Africa, like she was a black woman in East Africa. And the world being its polysemous self, I don't know what she "meant" by that, exactly, except that I do. I think that is mostly about the fact that my whiteness has meaning, probably different meaning in different contexts, but I can't assume what that meaning is.
I keep coming back to the word "witness" -- and I get more and more tentative about what we're doing. Kianga -- this woman I was talking to the other day -- talked about a traumatized culture. (I didn't get her words exact, and that seems to matter, but I'll go with that as a placeholder). Where that takes me is -- "first do no harm." And what I've realized in the two+ years I've been involved with this project, it's easy to do harm when you have all of the good intentions in the world.
Case in point. There was a kid in our group who was horribly mutilated when he was five. Rebels killed his family in front of him and castrated him. A couple of years ago, when a few canadians went to the orphanage to meet the kids, set up some programs, one woman promised the boy that she would bring him to canada to get him medical help. Hm. Well-meaning promise in the face of heart-breaking life. So she did it -- she corralled the resources of her world, got a grant, brought him here, got him surgery.
And then. And then?
Well, of course the lived story wasn't nearly as simple as the imagined. He was re-traumatized by the surgery, had nightmares every night, woke up screaming. No one slept. There was some follow up. Surgery was successful, but life was impossible. So our woman moved him to a family who had other internationally adopted kids, and that didn't work out. So he was moved again. He can't go to school because of fuzzy immigration status, because he's 8 years behind his age group in learning. So he's living in an untenable situation, his third home in Canada in less than a year, health repaired but a looming question mark.
It's complicated, and it's so easy to feel like the right thing is obvious, when it turns out to be totally the wrong thing. There is another woman, a german woman, who met the kids when her husband was volunteering for MSF. She took a shine to a girl who is 13, who has HIV, who is a total orphan, as the jargon puts it. She bought her a cellphone (never thinking how this would change the girl's status among her peers), wants to bring her to germany "for a visit." How is this a "treat," how is this a good idea, to take a child out of her own world and show her a world that she can never have?
I don't know the answers, and I know it's proven almost impossible to persuade people like these two women that their "loving and generous" impulses are the wrong ones. And then I also find myself positioned in a kind of ignorant judgment -- I don't know the answers, but I sure can say when I think someone else is wrong.
So that's what going is about. Witnessing, observing, posing real questions to myself about what it really means to be useful in this situation.