Friday, October 29, 2010

When You Take Away Hope…

This desert story from India is almost surely apocryphal. I heard it a year ago, but it has stayed with me. I heard it from the venerable Aruna Roy when she was speaking at the Pushkar Literary festival, in Rajasthan. She's given up her life of comfort to live and work among the people in that part of the desert. She shared this story with the audience to illustrate the sustaining power of hope.

In the western Thar desert in Rajasthan, life is hard. Many families face an acute shortage of food and water. One family of five occupied a small hut, among a cluster of similar huts. The father and mother were both itinerant migrant workers, and they barely earned enough to feed their three young children and themselves.

One summer, the drought was so severe that there was no work to be found in the village. So the couple made a tough decision – they decided to let the kids remain in their hut while they went to other villages in the desert to search for work. They knew that their neighbors would look after the kids until they came back.

Before setting out, the couple gathered the children. "You see this mud pot?" asked the dad. "It has laapsi. It is the only thing we have, but we can't have it now." Laapsi is a sweet wheat porridge dessert, and it is prized as a delicacy by those who reside in the desert. "I am going to dangle it from the hut's roof. When your mother and I come back, we will all feast on it."

Then the couple went away to look for work.

The three kids managed by themselves, with the neighbors helping out a little. Even if the neighbors wanted to, they couldn’t give much to these children because they didn't have much for their own family.

On some nights, the eldest brother would tell the other two, "We don’t have anything for dinner. We only have some water left. But look up there! When papa and maa come back, we can feast on that laapsi!"
"What does laapsi taste like?" his little sister asked.
"No dish tastes better than laapsi," her brother told her. "It will be so sweet and filling!" That night, the three kids sipped some water and went to sleep hungry.

This way, the kids managed to scrape by for several months.

Eventually, their parents returned. The kids were so happy in rushing to welcome them that they didn’t read their body language. They hadn't found any work. The parents had no strength left to do anything.

"Papa, let's have the laapsi now!"
"Kids, let's wait a few more days."
"No!" The kids were adamant.

So the father was forced to bring down the pot that had been hanging from the roof. Very reluctantly, he showed it to the kids. The pot was empty.

The laapsi that they had been dreaming about for months wasn’t there. Within a week, one by one, all three kids died.

Sometimes, when I hear someone expressing false hope I have this urge to contradict them. But remember this story and hold my peace. When hope is the only crutch someone has left, we should pause before kicking it away.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stationary Travel

People say that you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you’re going to see just about all you can handle.
Paul Auster, Smoke

Friday, October 22, 2010

All Things Must Fight To Live

Most of this week I spent reading Bryan Mealer's Congo book, "All Things Must Fight to Live." The book's subtitle is "Stories or War and Deliverance in Congo." I picked this book up mainly because I know so little about such a vast country. The definitive contemporary book about Congo -- King Leopold's Ghost, has been languishing on my to-be-read list for years.

Bryan Mealer is a Texas-born UT Austin graduate, and an AP staff correspondent covering central Africa and focusing on Congo. This book covers a four year period in Congo's history, roughly from 2003 to 2007. Bryan is based mostly in Kinshasa, and goes to the front-lines of the war-zones just as the conflicts are erupting, and he reports what he sees. That makes up first half the book. The second half of the book, the deliverance part, consists of two epic journeys that Bryan sets out on. One on the Congo river and the other on a long train journey, once the railway finally starts operating.

By necessity, the book deals with a lot of violence and pillage. Bryan writes in a very even-handed way, no melodrama, no sensationalism. I guess when the subject matter is so harrowing there is no need for those devices. The book makes good reading, though it is definitely not light reading. All Things Must Fight has gravitas.

In many ways, this is not a travel book. It is really a journalist's take on a country that many of us won't probably visit anytime soon. Journalists like Bryans spend months and years in these places, so that they can bring us these stories and it is up to us to draw whatever conclusions we may.

Bryan writes with understated humor, and it provided much needed relief.
I found myself having the same conversations I'd had in every African election I'd covered.
"What kinds of changes will you demand from the winner?"
Silence. "Hmmm."
"So you're demanding peace, electricity, and better schools for your kids?"
"Oh, yes, yes….peace. Peace and schools."
But those sections are few and far between. Throughout the week, as I worked my way through this haunting book, I would repeatedly get dispirited about the bleakness of the events and the situation there. I had to put the book away, read other books on more "positive" topics, and come back to All Things Must Fight.

Very early on, I noticed that more than the description of the brutal killings, it was the overall hopelessness of the situation that really got me down. It was Bryan's descriptions of the rampant lawlessness, the cops' corruption (partly because the government owes them months of back-pay), the abject poverty in the interior where people's clothes rot and fall off from repeated use. Hordes of citizens of one of the world's richest countries in terms of minerals are resorting to illegal mining in the scorching heat, and getting paid a mere $5 for a week's worth of work while giving away 1000's of dollars of minerals. Railway workers living in camps, who barely have enough to eat, are still showing up to work every day even though they haven’t been paid in two years.

Normally, after reading a good book, I get evangelical about it, recommending it to everyone I come across. But this book is not for everyone. It is very good reading, but it is not pleasant reading. If you are up to reading the realities of a gruesome street war fought by machete-wielding and stoned 12-year olds, you should pick this book up.

I waffled for a few weeks about whether or not to read this book once I learned of the topics it covered. Ultimately, I think I read it in order to punch a small hole into my cozy suburban existence, to let a little bit of raw reality seep in.


Excerpts: Listed below are a few sentences from Mealer's book that I jotted down when reading.

[Bryan Mealer taking stock of the situation after he's been in Congo for around a year.]
All we really had time to do was make some record of the killing and the dying and hope to tell it the right way. I'd been there maybe a year, covered a war and followed it through. It wasn’t a long time by any stretch, but long enough to understand that total comprehension was impossible, no matter how long you stayed. No one really understood how twenty-five thousand people could walk twenty kilometers, meet in the same remote valley, and start dying there immediately. No one really understood what drove someone to behead a five-year-old girl with a farm tool, or to wipe out an entire village for the sake of a few dollars in gold or loot. It was too abstract, even as I think of it now.

[A pastor is serving as the journalists' translator to earn himself much-needed money. The pastor has just been approached by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who want him to join them and help their efforts.]
It touched [the pastor] that MSF doctors left six-figure salaries in Europe and America to be frontiline medics in places most people didn't even bother pronouncing right; that in places where all hope and sanity were lost, these people were always the first to arrive, blood up to their elbows and never asking thanks. And in Congo, their staff had been kidnapped and held hostage for doing it.
"If it is God's will for us to live a healthy life, to escape the bondage of death and poverty, then MSF is doing the work of God. There are doing a kind of sacrifice. I respect you journalists because you give me money, but I respect MSF because they are saving the lives of us, they are doing great work, God's work! In the name of God, I will join MSF, even if they will pay me nothing!"

[Sometimes, for the river traders who paddle in small boats up to the barges to trade, their entire inventory ends up in the unforgiving river. I liked this paragraph because of how the Congolese react to this misfortune.]
The pirogue [traders' boat] might catch a bad wake after releasing from the barge and spin like an oil drum, spilling [the traders] into the river, vegetables and racks of smoked fist slowly vanishing beneath the water. But no one ever seemed worried. Instead, crowds would gather along the side of the barge and cheer. The dumped passengers would give an embarrassed wave and swim ashore.

[On his river journey, the tugboat that is pulling the barges simply detaches itself and turns back. It might be two days until it returns, and it has left all the passengers in the barges stranded in the Congo River, with forests all around for miles and miles.]
Instead of panicking, the Congolese only amped up the party. The saucy soukous of Werrason now roared behind an arsenal of fresh batteries, and jugs of palm wine sloshed from camp to camp. Stranded on a remote stretch of river in the middle of Congo, they reacted by dancing as if it were the last night on earth.

[Reporting from a polling station when a much awaited election finally takes place.]
I stood and watched the voters enter the Catholic mission and drop their ballots, and when they emerged into the bright morning sunshine, each had the strangest look on their face, one of deep abatement, as if every muscle had relaxed for the first time in years. It was then, while staring across this place so overrun with death only days before, that the significance of the day finally set in.

Related Post: Somebody's Heart Is Burning: Tanya Shaffer's Book

Friday, October 15, 2010

Somebody's Heart is Burning - Tanya Shaffer's book

Sitting on buses and tro-tros, I find myself repeatedly telling strangers the story of my life… Some need seems to drive my narration, as if through the telling I'm constructing a self-image that I can anchor myself to and believe in. I want the events to be linear and the lessons cumulative, building on each other like Legos: this led me here, and I learned this, and then I was here, and I was lost, and I found this. Life, of course, was never so orderly. It was more like my hair after a ride in the back of a truck: an ungovernable tangle... Growth happened when I wasn't looking. It happened later, after I'd given up hope. And love wasn't like that: so transparent and unequivocal, a balance sheet of pros and cons. Life was life and love was love. All the explanations came later.
From Tanya Shaffer's "Somebody's Heart Is Burning"
Tanya Shaffer's book Somebody's Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa is different from many of the other travel books that I have read.

Her real-life stories do not at all adhere to the typical arc of it-was-so-difficult-then-but-seems-funny-in-retrospect travel writing narratives. Tanya's stories don’t end the way we might expect them to, and this being non-fiction, they don't end the way we want them to end.

Tanya Shaffer is an American (Bay-area based) woman who spends a year going to western Africa to volunteer in various projects. She travels mostly in Ghana, with side trips to Burkina Faso and Mali. The stories (15 of them make up the book) are mostly about the people that she meets, their lives and ways of thinking, and about how the Western volunteers interact with the locals. She writes with vividness, choosing many small anecdotes and details that bring the many facets of Ghana's daily life alive for us.

Every writer strives to portray themselves in a good light. Tanya resists this impulse and chooses to include aspects of herself that many other writers would have rather left out of the stories. And this makes the writing very authentic. In particular, I enjoyed the story titled "Sand Angel" which is about her eventful boat trip up the Niger.

To me, good travel writing has to do at least one of two things: 1) I should feel that reading about the place is just as good (if not better) than going there and 2) it should make me want to go there to experience things first-hand. Somebody's Heart is Burning does both.

Those who like travel books might want to check out the book.


There is one paragraph towards the very end of Sand Angel that I really liked, even though it is quite possible that the sentiments she writes about were developed much later than when the events unfold in that story.
It struck me, then, that the only changes we humans are capable of are small ones. You can beat yourself up for years, wishing you could be kinder, happier, more decisive and secure. And then one day you realize you've made a slight shift, moved your inner lens a fraction of an inch to this side or that. Not a whole new self, a remade identity, just a little change in perspective. A loosening, really, an out-breath, a drop of acceptance in the salty ocean of the soul. You haven't solved everything, maybe you haven't solved anything, but if you're lucky, that small shift will be the difference between holding your life in grace and simply holding on.