Breaking the silence

I sit in front of Tonsai pier. On the southwest center of Koh Phi Phi, I look out to see towering limestone formations draped in shrubbery, a stretch of water between me and them. The bay is crowded. To the left is a neat row of longtail boats, the traditional vessels adorned in ribbons to bless the journey and honor the ocean. To the right, clusters of speedboats abound attesting to the booming tourist industry here.

Behind me is a paved road cluttered with shops boasting of imported goods for the tourist’s consumption.

To understand my emotional response, we need to turn back the clock three weeks.

I arrived on Koh Lipe- an island five hours by boat from my current location- on Thanksgiving. More remote, it is in the midst of a transition Phi Phi’s already seen. 

In the past nine years, Lipe went from having four resorts to over 200. The island’s center, once swamp, was converted to a “walking street market”. The local Chao Lay people- originally semi-nomadic fisher folk- are being crowded into an increasingly smaller pocket of land away from the shore.

When the students arrived to Lipe, we met with the Chao Lay group and learned about their community organizing efforts. They told us their story of selling their land to a business man some thirty years. They explained their unfamiliarity with the notion of land as something to own; the enticement of short-term profit without a sense of long-term costs; the twenty-year lag before any consequences came. When the man (now in jail for his role in a human trafficking ring) sold it in plots to hotel owners and other developers. When Lipe joined Phi Phi amongst the must-see spots of Thailand’s attractions.

We spent the next week paddling around the Adang Archepelago camping on neighboring islands. Surveying tourism’s other costs as we snorkled at dwindling reefs whose fish populations decline every year. (To be fair, commercial fishing and changes in climate also contribute to the reefs’ threatened state).

I probably should have better considered all of this when scheduling an island vacation to directly follow. Or perhaps this is the best time to really examine myself as a tourist.

Either way, here I am. Peering into Lipe’s future as I step onto Phi Phi.

Getting off the ferry, there was a line of tourists 200 deep. Just one of six departures for today, as I too am one of countless boatloads being ferried in.

While I want to handle all of this with the complexity and nuance it deserves, today I feel the need to just respond emotionally.

To sit in my sadness. My fear. My guilt. To wonder where we are heading and what my role is in the future of this resilient though greatly taxed planet.

To ask: should I be here? How do I do so responsibly?

What is my every purchase supporting? What livelihoods- and life- does my presence threaten?

How do we account for the fossil fuel consumption, waste production, and cultural imposition of travel? 

These questions crowd my throat, tearing at my voicebox. Begging for a response that alludes me. Stripping me down to the desperate inquiry: how do I find space to breathe in the midst of all of this? Leaving me fearful of the more pertinent: how are my choices choking off the planet’s own breath?

That’s where I land today. On Koh Phi Phi with a growing concern of what that means. I’ll leave you here to go find some trees. Whom I’ll thank for their important work of inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. I’ll breathe in this gift as I unite mind, body, spirit with the breath of the world. As impartial of a response as it seems, I’ll return to my practice, inching closer to a disposition from which to view this crazy beautiful, deeply aching moment in time.

From which to be me: a tourist, an activist, a healer, a consumer. A living contradiction.

Advertisements

First things first

Following my recent post naming this moment in history as white America’s wake up call, I received comments and inquiries from people asking what exactly they can do to contribute to racial justice. This is a great question and one I plan on addressing soon. But before I share that, I want to outline eight core assumptions I hold when working for racial justice.

I am starting here because these mental models inform the action and recommendations that I’ll offer. Without an understanding of how I see race and privilege, I think it is easy to then misunderstand what it is I am calling us to. With the intention of creating mutual understanding and identifying our shared foundation- or points of divergence- I offer this list. Continue reading “First things first”

Dear white friends

4:00am in Chiang Mai. A neighboring dog has been incessantly barking for the past hour.

It feels like the perfect metaphor for my mind. Because another looped alarm has been ringing since the day I left the US.

It was an interesting day to leave the country. June 27, 2015.

You might recognize it. The day after the historic Supreme Court ruling that established marriage equality in the United States.The same day our president stood before those grieving the loss of nine black churchgoers who fell victim to domestic terrorism.

It was a big week. As someone committed to creating a more socially just world, it was a week that made it feel counter-intuitive to be settling elsewhere when the country feels ripened for— and in desperate need of— social change.

I don’t believe in such dualities in terms of where one must be to engage in important work. Yet still, a question of responsibility remains ever present.

Increasingly present in fact, when, in the six weeks I’ve called Thailand home, at least five black women have died in police custody.

It is this that I want to speak to here.

Specifically, it is the responsibility of White America I’d like to address. Continue reading “Dear white friends”

How to change the world?

I encountered Otto Scharmer’s work in my first semester of graduate school. Nervous— budding with unrealized potential and a fear of my own power— I stepped into Zachary Green’s class having registered only an hour before.

“You’re starting with Zachary?!” members of the cohort before me exclaimed. “And you didn’t do the reading?” Their tones were anything but comforting. Neither was his commanding presence; though, at the same time, it was.

It was in that class and with that man that I discovered the beauty of dialogue. That mindfulness became not just a new-age fad nor trend in academia, but a lived practice. That I came to glimpse my power, and with it the potential of groups of people coming together to co-create a better world. Continue reading “How to change the world?”

Cutting off pretty

I did not think it would matter that much. Or at least not feel any different to wake up everyday. Yet, while these mornings don’t include the necessary maintenance of eighteen-inch locks, they host the pains of not wanting to look in a mirror. Of dreading human interaction with the knowledge of what others see. Of walking around wishing for different— no, better. Of feeling a stranger in my body, foreign to the daily weight of ‘ugly’.

In not thinking it would matter that much, I thought myself imperviable to the socialized standards of beauty that surround.

I can deconstruct those standards all day long. Cognitively, I understand the fallacies in what I described above. Better and ugly jump out and demand to be reclaimed, denounced. The activist in me longs to cry out. To dream up new visions of beauty (inner Light shining through). To run up this mountain of gender norms with the speed of righteous fury, boots stomping with such power that it crumbles to dust. From which we come, I’d add.
Continue reading “Cutting off pretty”

Confessions of a well-intentioned white oppressor

Several things happened in the past four months making my hand quiver as I struggled to open my computer and let my words flow.

Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer and the jury did not indict him, choosing instead to follow the media’s lead in a character assassination. Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer. Despite the whole thing being filmed and chokehold’s being an illegal police protocol, the city neglected to even put the officer on trial.

#HandsUp, #ICantBreathe, #BlackLivesMatter developed as people expressed their outcry at what Cornel West aptly named a Jim Crow justice system. Protests and movements were born and revived demanding a better system for people of color in this country and around the world.

Tears, anguish, shouts, and pleas echoed off the fortress of the white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, threatening its walls to crumble from the quake of bold voices speaking love back into our wayward world.

You know these things, though.

The other, smaller, things that happened I’ve yet to fill you in on… Continue reading “Confessions of a well-intentioned white oppressor”

Wish I had my overalls

Lazily, I opened my eyes the morning of the Big Day. Sun pouring in from the window above my bed, I felt a wave of energy surrounding the impending events.

How do you dress for a pig slaughter?

That was the question I pondered as I slowly— still in the fog of my dream-state— brought my feet to touch the cool tiles of my bedroom floor.

Walking through the comfortable house the Program Leaders stay in while studying with the Upland Holistic Development Project, I wonder what questions are behind the immediate one of attire. Continue reading “Wish I had my overalls”

An ugly face

It was painted just outside our hostel. Intentionally, I am sure.

Walking out the gate, it stared back at me with a measuring eye. There were two more along the wall of the alley, my path to the main square.

To be honest- and I do try to be honest here- I wouldn’t have noticed had Josh not pointed it out.

“You see that?” He inquired when we passed the third inscription.

“See what?” I responded as I looked up to see the message screaming to be heard.

IMG_0307.JPG Continue reading “An ugly face”

Where have all the flowers gone?

Wednesday’s journey was long. It started with a private bus from our hostel in the Quito’s center to the city’s bus terminal an hour outside the capital. Once there, we transitioned quickly with everyone running to the bathroom while PLs counted heads and packs incessantly. We loaded ourselves in a coach bus that took us through the breathtaking sierras to the less-than-stunning city of Santa Domingo. Then everyone jumped into the back of a truck— packs and people piled high— to journey thirty minutes outside the city into a rural community of the Tsa’chila nation.

As we bounced along the dirt road leading out of the city and into the Tsa’chila territory, I surveyed the land, noticing a factory and several construction projects that were not underway just six months before when I visited last.

Rounding the final stretch of our trip, we entered my favorite part of the ride where the road weaves under a canopy of trees that line the path to the cultural center. It is the only aspect of the drive that hints at what this territory once was: a flourishing rain forest. Continue reading “Where have all the flowers gone?”

When fathers are killers and killers are those whom you love

Based on the interest and warm reception of a post written this spring, I launched a series of reflections featuring stories which prompt an understanding of the world that better considers the experience of others. The series asks: how do I come alongside people within marginalized communities?; what have I learned from this pursuit of mutual-freedom?; and what do I do with the lessons imparted?. In all of this, you’ll encounter people, places, conversations, and moments that inform an understanding of what it means to be Standing in Solidarity.           

“Your host dad spent a year in prison, you know.” As he says it, he looks at me with expectation. We sit beside the tree where we hold all of our community meetings. It is a hot day. The naked limbs fail to protect from the scorching Rwandan sun and the truth of his words ringing in my ears.

Children surround us in a circle of fascination, watching our every move with an intensity that does not let on to the fact that they’ve observed us in this spot for eight long weeks. Glancing at them now, I wonder at the allure of White skin that has yet to fade despite the regularity of our routine.

I pick at a twig idly, contemplating a reply. My lack of response prompts my companion to reiterate his point. “1995,” he adds.

The message– though unspoken– is clear: for two months now, I’ve lived under the roof of one of the many who killed, by hand, neighbors and friends in the name of “Hutu Power”. The man I’ve come to know and love as a father was a genocidaire.

This is not actually news to me. It hit me suddenly and unexpectedly on my very first night in their home. One minute, I was enjoying the hospitality of my new host family, eating the generous mound of rice on my plate with an eager smile to affirm that I liked the food. The next, I stared across the table at my homestay father, struck with the image of him with machete in hand.

His round face, flat nose, and square short body gave away his identity as Hutu. While it is illegal to discuss your ethnic identity in Rwanda, the same physical markers that prompted the Europeans to privilege the Tutsi minority still exist in straw-person form that East Africans often sheepishly confess “seeing” clearly.

As soon as I conjured the image, I knew that it was one not simply imagined. Between the lines of concern on his face, I read the burden of responsibility. His presence held the power of a past unspoken.

A gut-wrenching fear gripped me. I did not feel in danger in any way, nor have I in my time in their home. Rather, I feared the proximity of atrocity. Underneath this, I feared the potential of the love I feel today. In that moment, I knew– from an inner and inexplicable place– my father’s role in the conflict. I also knew that this would be the summer I learned to allow a murderer to also remain a human.

This, perhaps, is what I feared the most: the capacity to see him with machete in hand and still see myself in him.

When the genocide was something I’d merely read about in books and discussed in college classes, when Hotel Rwanda’s scenes were the closest I’d come to considering the experience of living through such horror, it was easy to distance myself from what we as humans are capable of doing to one another.

Now, such distance is not possible. Unwrapping a package of glucose biscuits the man in question gave me as a gift, I stare into the eyes of my student who delivered the news.

“I thought so,” is all I muster.

Feeling simultaneously non-pulsed and shocked, I sit with a lesson that has been building beneath the surface of my daily experience in our village.

They say that it was either hunt or be hunted. And while I refuse to excuse the crimes of massacre, I struggle to identify the criminal. Is it the executioners, often common farmers brainwashed by the government’s propaganda? The orchestrators, convinced of their superiority and determined to find retribution for years of oppression under Tutsi feudal rule? The international community who ensured the safety of their own people and left Rwanda to her own destruction? The colonial powers that formed nations with no regard for boundaries of terrain or tribe? Or perhaps Rwanda’s colonizers who constructed the ethnic distinctions as they exist today?

To draw blanketed conclusions about the evil of a group of people, delineating “good gal” from “bad” is a privilege (read: ignorance) of my life pre-travel. All my globetrotting has taught me the fallacy of most neat categories: developing/developed, poverty/wealth, oppressed/oppressors.

The temptation to maintain said categories is further combatted with the inconsistency of such a choice. In every case, genocide is made possible by the other-ing of a group of people to such an extent that they are no longer seen as human. Cockroach was the pejorative term in the events of Rwanda. What word could I settle on for my father and others like him without participating in the same cycle of simplification and violence?

Sitting on the grass contemplating this complexity, the words that do come to mind are forgiving and intimate. Predominately, healer jumps out. My father was the one who leaned over me with a cool wet towel when, wrought with fever, my body convulsed under malaria’s grip. I close my eyes and see his own, brimming with concern as he searched my face for signs of progress. For weeks after, he insisted on performing even the simplest tasks, encouraging rest and pressing my eleven siblings to give me space.

These memories crowd my mind as I observe my student working with his team of community members. They are designing new technologies for cow-feed during the dry season to help improve the nutrition and dairy production of cattle. I listen as they talk through the merits of creating a concentrate versus managing a silage system to keep grass in reserves. I distractedly study the lines of each design team member’s face, mentally doing the math to approximate ages during the genocide. They sit, Tutsi and Hutu alike, gathered to better their livelihoods and their community.

I think to myself, “If they can do it– love people beyond this history– certainly, I must pursue the same.”

The face of one woman captivates me in particular. She is my family’s next-door neighbor and my mama’s closest friend. Tall and proud, she walks with a confident gait. It is her stare that captures, though. Beneath her right eyebrow is a messy marring that invokes images of a scalding spoon, her eyelid now permanently closed from scar tissue. She certainly knows of my father’s imprisonment, she likely heard–if not witnessed– far more than I know. Yet, friendship perseveres. I meet her single-eyed gaze now and attempt to silently communicate what an inspiration she is to me.

When the meeting concludes, I walk with my student down the now familiar dirt path.  A breeze rustles through the cornfields providing a melodious backdrop to our stroll. Children’s squeals add to the music as “good morning, teacher,” rings out behind our every step, packed with the pride of sharing the favorite English phrase.

We pass the village shop that is always crowded with patrons of the neighboring bar. As I do every day, I wonder at the correlation between past-trauma and the prevalence of alcoholism in the community.

Smiling at the shop owner, my student and I exchange the usual greetings with friends on the road as we meander towards our respective homes. Progress is slow as I stop to talk with members of every household. Rounding the corner of my street, I head down the long path that reveals a view of Lake Muhazi tucked between the quilted hills.

Neighborhood children run to greet me with hugs, high fives, and a chorus of salutations and questions about my day. Annie, my five year-old friend with special needs, takes her privileged place at my right hand. Mazie, my baby sister, joins the crowd and I place her on my hip with learned ease. We arrive at the house as we do every evening, echoes of laughter announcing our presence.

Papa walks out to greet me. Taking my face in his once bloodstained hands, his eyes sparkle with light. Feeling their warmth penetrating any lingering reservation within, I wrap my arms around him in an embrace of knowing, acceptance, love.

 

Author’s Note: Wondering why I am writing about Rwanda’s genocide as a post for the fourth? Check it out here.