The circle game

In a profound circle, I find myself at the final country of this trip, my first last year. For our South Africa orientation, we are staying at the backpackers where my TBB travels began seventeen months ago.

My first photo from last year's trip, taken at my current accommodations
My first photo from last year’s trip, taken at my current accommodations

As I crawled into the bed I first slept in at the onset of my international tour with TBB, a rush of memories flooded my mind. Faces of students who are now dear friends resurfaced. Conversations and views played on a loop, cycling through various joys and adventures of TBB.

I fell asleep laughing with my co-worker and friend, another repeated experience.

This morning, I wrestled with the water heater and then found a flat spot to lay my yoga mat. Every action is simultaneously new and repeated— not in a boring sort of way, but in a centering one.

With this return to the beginning, I am reminded of the thrill and excitement of the start. My eyes are opened once again to the beauty, the wonder, the daily gift of this life abroad.

On the road to the students’ homestays where they’ll settle into later this week, there is a curve just at the top of a hill. As you round it, it reveals a stunning view of the ocean. The water stretches out behind a row of houses, with the sky as expansive just above. Every day as we made this drive last year, Beth would say “take a moment!”. With brimming gratitude and disbelief at our job, lives, and world, we would look out at the view and feel all that we’d been given.

In truth, this same job is now routine; this life, sometimes tiring. Yet this world is still full of wonder; gratitude and awe are still the appropriate responses to the opportunities before me. Long forgotten in the normalcy of my extraordinary, today I took a moment.

Greeting the sun with some salutations, I felt at home. It was a feeling of at home in the universe that Parks speaks of and to which my blog title alludes. I was rooted in a connected orientation to life.  One that Knows gifts when they are given, that takes time to remember and experience wonder anew.

As I moved through the asanas, the sun rose above the clouds shining directly on me. I stood in its light, in my own Light. I circled back with a smile and sensed that my return is not only to South Africa, but also to self.

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Nature’s whisper on our coastal hike

To Africa

I step tentatively at first.
But the shells are too many
to avoid the crunch under my feet.

I long to rush to your rescue:
gather you in my shirt, protect you
one-by-one
from a world too cruel
for your fragile existence.

Like the potato bugs who-
in my youthful eyes- were vulnerable
to church-goers’ towering heels,
careless steps.

I collected my beneficiaries
and found them new homes.
In Styrofoam cups, nested with torn grass
and good intention.

Just like the critters,
you find your end
beneath my [misplaced] feet and care.

Shadows surface
in the wounded shells and upturned rocks-
more real than any woven story of refuge.
I fear: it is me
from whom you need saving.

Shifting Gears

Like many teenagers, it was a bit disastrous when I learned to drive. My dad took me out first and decided we would stay in the confines of the gates of our neighborhood. Just one hill and cul-de-sac into the lesson, I veered too close to a garbage can for his liking and he warned me too strongly for mine. Flustered by his “yelling,” I turned bratty and his tone and volume grew. Within ten minutes, we were driving back to our house, him in the driver’s seat, both furious. We decided that my mom would teach me to drive.

My driving lesson in South Africa did not start off feeling all that different, sans angry father and hormonal teenager. I found myself picking up the manual rental car after a brief lesson up and down a street in Portland, many kind offers in San Diego which I did not follow through on (thank you for your willingness), and one practice run on a dirt road an hour before we got the car. I literally pulled out of the rental car lot and up to a stop sign on a hill. I was to make a right hand turn (the equivalent of a left in the States) onto the tarmac. There was some traffic and I knew when it was time to go that it was a perfect window. Naturally, I stalled. The line of cars behind me grew.

My companion smiled. “You got this,” he said in his charming South African accent. The look on his face made it clear that he was not so certain. I took a deep breath and started over: neutral, e-brake (already up, pulled by Steve), engine on, clutch in, shift to first, look both ways. There was a small window, but a window. I eased off the clutch and waited for the bite to put the brake down. As soon as I felt it, I wrestled the brake down and went to accelerate as the car approached. Steve cautioned, “I would maybe wait.” To wait, I’d have to break again and likely stall again. Pressing down on the accelerator, I quickly jumped out and around to make my turn before the driver passed.

As my heart rate slowed and I shifted to second with the expanse of the highway stretching in front of me, it hit. “You’re in South Africa,” I thought to myself.

Its been over a month since I last posted and there are countless “shifts” I’ve made. I transitioned from my family in Rwanda to my new staff in Vermont. Together, we dove into wilderness medical training and a discovered love of Portland. Finally, I enjoyed time at home as I adjusted to my sense of place being more transient and fluid. These changes- and all that came with them- felt as bumpy and slow to progress as my driving here does.

Perhaps the greatest adjustment, though, is my move to South Africa. I arrived two and a half weeks ago with sixteen students and two fellow Program Leaders.

One thing that immediately jumped out was the extent of wealth and access to things from the West. In general, it is far more “developed” than anything I experienced in East Africa. And as much as it is my pet peeve when people talk about Africa like it is a single country rather than an entire continent, these differences highlighted the ways that I still subtly thought of it as such in my mind. As I observe the culture, I find myself holding it to the cultures and communities I know and love in Rwanda and Tanzania. And honestly, I miss the “Africa” I knew before. There is no shortage of beauty here, to be sure. But, I grieve the simplicity and community of rural living.

There are a million blind-spots in this thinking. I acknowledge the obvious problems and questions of which areas of each country I’ve spent time in, how long I must stay somewhere to think I understand a culture, etc. Beyond these lie the questions I am interested in- the ones that raise deeply rooted inconsistencies and assumptions that shape my understanding of self and of the world.

For example, what criticism of my own culture is underneath my experience of South Africa? Is my preference for East Africa actually rooted in an underlying dissatisfaction with life at home? On the flip-side, in calling South Africa more developed, I must ask: in what ways do I conceptualize “development” as conforming to my own culture’s practices? And in doing so, am I not just placing the culture I escape as the marker or standard of what others should strive toward?

These two sets of questions alone reveal the paradox of my cultural identity. They demonstrate my push and pull between a critique of individualism and consumerism and an appreciation for the resources and comforts such systems provide.

To me, at the heart of this tension is a dualistic framework that I am seeking to transcend. In the preceding paragraphs, I begin with black/white sentiments of “developed” as bad, or at least disappointing. Simultaneously, I treat “rural living” as all things beautiful and lovely in the world, romanticizing the places I’ve previously resided.

My intention is to allow cultures to be merely different. Not better or worse. Not as static as any one adjective. Dynamic, changing, a marble of beauty and sorrow. I want to celebrate the things of the West that honor human dignity, and dig into the ways we deny it. I’ll rejoice in the ways the developing world lives into community values and think critically about the constraints and limitations present.

As I adjust to my manual car, I adjust too to Plettenberg Bay: a sleepy town with gorgeous views and glaring inequities. From my ocean-view at the flat I live in, I realize that my uncertainty around South African culture is predominately resistance to the mirror it holds up to my own contradictions. The similarities of my life here and at home remind me of the countless ways I neglect to live into my values. In thinking about inequity, I face where I land in this lopsided world- most frequently on the privileged side. And I wish for the world to be different.

I then find myself wondering how I stand in this wish and in my privileged reality with any sense of congruence.

It is not as simple as moving to a village in Rwanda, for this tension exists within my being, not place. When I make false dichotomies of good and bad between “the West” and the “developing world,” it is not actually about those places. Rather, it is about my relationship to the pieces of myself from both [all] of the cultures that shape my sense of identity. Just as I am seeking to hold the paradox that culture is, I must learn to hold paradox within.

The further I get into my twenties, the closer I feel to my teen years- not in my driving experiences- but in my nature. I am changing, in-motion, immersed in the discovering of self. This time around feels like a manual change. Unlike my tweens, I have the awareness to take each step with intentionality; I choose which gear fits. As South Africa’s coasts welcome me, they invite me into a series of choices. Sitting in this ocean of decision, I hold an image of cultural integration that allows for both/and- in my travels and in my being- and I move toward this place, sputtering and stalling along the way.

Health update

I knew- or feared- what it was as soon as it hit me. The body aches, joint pain, and high fever all pointed to it. Fortunately, malaria is quite treatable when caught early. After just three days of meds and a week since my diagnosis, I have fully recovered. I am even returning to morning exercise tomorrow!

It was interesting to have a virus that is one of the greatest killers on the continent (taking 3 million lives in 2005), and find it so treatable. The medication cost the equivalent of 6 US dollars even in the touristy city of Gisenyi.  Within 24 hours of taking it, my fever susbided.

Nkomangwa has a great health advisor program with free mosquito nets distributed to children under 5, at-home malaria tests, and a network (and law) to get moms in labor to the hospital. Many are not so fortunate.

As I reflect on my fairly easy bout, I wonder how many aspects of the global health crisis are as preventable and affordable as this feels.

Opportunity Knocks

[I wrote a lot of this right after leaving Denver and finally had time to put it together now…]

As some of you know, my research for my Master’s explored the role of appreciative inquiry, artistic expression, and visioning in the pursuit of social justice. Essentially, our reflection at the Women’s Center prompted me to posit that social justice work- while good at the social critique- needs to further explore what we are trying to create in terms of a socially just world, so not to merely take an oppositional approach.

And this is true of me personally: I am far better at deconstruction than I am at creation. I mention this here because my time at advisor training further highlighted this for me.

You see, ThinkImpact’s model is based on the belief in market-based strategies, where I am far more comfortable problematizing the market itself and asking questions of if we can really call our activities “development” (or is it actually a new form of imperialism?) to extend/spread capitalism worldwide.

While I believe in the value of these questions, I am also grateful for one of TI’s principles: “Its about the opportunity, not the challenge.”

With that, I am seeking to see the opportunity for me to learn this summer, to consider the value of the market and agency within it, to believe in the process, and to remain open, suspending my assumptions and biases.

I don’t intend on suspending my critical lens, but experimenting with how I use it, focusing on the opportunities embedded in the problems I am oh-so adept at identifying (and let’s be real, “problematic” is surely on the top 10 list of words I say all of the time).

Something that consistently came up for me during my performance evaluations and reflections at the Women’s Center is my need to improve on my supervisory skills. I am a great advisor, as exploring the developmental areas of students comes quite naturally to me. Yet, the more tangible pieces of supporting students with project management is less strong, as I just sort of assume they have things taken care of, and am still learning to give the level of support and guidance sometimes needed.

Thus, the actual design section of TI (“innovate”) not only poses a philosophical opportunity, but a practical one. I am looking forward to gaining experience in both on-the-ground design work and adequately supporting students in the business and technical pieces of their experience, while still exploring my own understanding of the role of business in our lives.

I also see the opportunity to further incorporate the exploration of social justice in the TI curriculum, which I began this evening with an added session on our social identities.

Lastly, on the student affairs side of things while we train the scholars, I am sitting with how much of this process to share with my students (for transparency, power-sharing, etc.) and how much to represent TI as sort of a united front with the other advisors, and as a leader who has belief in the process we are about to embark on.

So, with some questions and far greater excitement, I jump in to the many opportunities before me :)

Drumroll….

And we’re off! The scholars safely arrived yesterday with only a few luggage losses and we kicked off ThinkImpact University (TIU) last night. I am so excited to welcome the students and begin getting to know them.

You might be wondering what we are doing. Here is the rundown…

TIU runs through Sunday and is scholars’ introduction to the curriculum and Rwandan culture and context.

The Institute is an 8-week program that brings university students to rural Africa to facilitate a design project with local community members. My role is to introduce the curriculum to the scholars and support them through their cultural transition and learning, as well as the design process.

Here is my version of what the 5 phases of the program are all about:

MIND: Exploring new areas to attend to this summer including curiosity, habits, and cross-cultural communication

IMMERSE: Connecting with the community, observing the culture, and learning as much as possible

INSPIRE: An exploratory phase where scholars begin forming design teams with local community members to map assets & opportunities and “pick a path” for their work together

INNOVATE: The phase where the design team really focuses on who their customer is, then prototypes and iterates (again and again and again) … culminates in an exhibition to introduce their products and services to the community and future investors

SHIFT: Work with the design team to ensure they have their continuity plan, transition from community, and identify how to bring our work and learning home

“Mindshift,” then, is the ultimate goal with scholars learning the value of an asset-based framework (as opposed to thinking or development in terms of deficits), community members realizing their capacity (as opposed to thinking of their development as dependent on others), and both gaining a process to pull out creativity and innovation.

Lots to do in the next two months! For now, time to sleep.