Monday, March 9, 2009

why I do what I do

I often ask myself that question while sitting at my computer, watching light fade from the day as I finish a funding application or prepare for a meeting. I work to promote football and life skills learning for youth who might not otherwise have the opportunity to play.

This evening I was reminded of the full force and beauty of what I hope my actions may mean for the thousands of young people. I met three young boys this evening on the beach. They had their small plastic football so we formed teams and began to play. As the sun sank lower into the horizon, we spun past each other, splashing over the waves as they swept at our feet, shoving our shoulders into each other in an effort to get the ball, giggling as we slipped and fell into the soft, sugary sand. For those moments, I felt I belonged. I was a part of something bigger than myself, and yet nothing greater than the gritty high fives after goals, the bright white smiles, and the quick feet and knowing passes. We all were a part of this sinking sun and gentle silver beach; we brought our breath, our skin, our passion and our laughter to the dusk. Though we hardly spoke the same language, we were family.

Football is so simple but the sense of place it gave me this evening reminded me of how powerful it can be. Next time I am sitting, tired at my desk, I will try to think of what this would mean for a young girl or boy in a village. I will remember my joy at learning this sport and do my best to bring that joy into what I am doing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


I am shifting uncomfortably to remain straight and keep my cheeks from falling asleep on the uneven seat. There is sweat and grime between my toes car is hot with the breath of the six other passengers. I am in the middle seat, watching the road ahead and trying to anticipate when the bush taxi driver would swerve to avoid another pothole. His careful, steady navigation of the road is unusual for someone getting paid only a few dollars for this all day trip.

In the distance, shimmering heat, salt fields stretching to the horizon, and a large white shape gaining shape on the left side of the road. The driver slows; I can sense his eyes taking in the situation behind Top Gun style sunglasses: a white mini-bus, what we called ndiaye ndiaye had tipped over on the side of the road. I have seen plenty of overturned cars in my time in West Africa, but never an accident so fresh. Baggage is strewn like confetti: red backpack, a blue plastic grocery bag, white sacs left tumbled and shimmering along the asphalt. It looks like leftovers from the Mexican piñata. I don’t see any ambulance; only a few people boarding another white bus on the other side of the road.

As I glance back for one final look at the wreckage, I catch the hard eyes of the woman in the seat behind me. Her eyes are staring straight at me and her face is stiff. I turn back around noticing Ellens’ hand is still clenched onto her heart in a gesture of disbelief and sorrow. I try to focus on the road ahead rather than on the silence in the small car.

Not five minutes down the road, I see a bright blue ndiaye ndiaye coming fast towards us. I watch as it veers suddenly left as if the driver had nearly missed his turn off. The bus does not slow, and its momentum carries it across the road. My hand drifts to my open mouth as slowly, the weight and momentum carry the top of the bus towards me and tips, strewing suitcases and baggage towards us like gifts for the highway gods. The front driver side wheel spins against the backdrop of clear blue sky. We slow to a stop, and the driver leaps out without turning off the engine, picking up a suitcase that has been hurled 20 feet towards us. A young man steps out of the back door followed by a young woman with a baby. There must be at least 25 people in that bus but not too many are coming out quickly. After a few minutes, our driver gets back in the taxi and puts it into gear. To the sounds of the other passengers, he grumbles that there is not much gas left in the vehicle and if turns off the engine he will not be able to restart it. As we pass the toppled bus, glass shards glitter in the hot sun, the low wail of a woman emanates from the interior, the tire spins endlessly into the hot afternoon.

I had so appreciated Dakar: sidewalks, crosswalks, murals and mosaics decorating the intra city byways; huge sculptures on the side of the road made me feel welcome and safe. Now, only a few hours outside the capital city, I see two overturned buses, and wonder at the human cost. Soon after passing the buses we abandoned the paved road all together, opting for bouncy dirt tracks and dust filled nostrils rather than the minefield of potholes on the government kept road.

Sometimes I feel like that tipped tire, spinning and spinning in the hot open air; What am I doing here if the government cant even make the commitment to take care of its people, to keep its roads safe? Am I just burning open air? I remember the silence. Sometimes I find the answer to these questions in the bright faces of the people I work with; Sometimes all I can remember is the silence of that car, filling the space where I would scream until I saw change.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day 2008

The morning starts to the hard fresh breezes off the Atlantic coast. Halfway between day and dreams, I feel that I am poised halfway up a cliff. I am clinging to the rocks, stagnant and tired. It has been a long, hard climb, and I feel disheartened to continue. In this early morning state, I am no longer myself, but the whole world. I am not the one with tired fingers, I am my father who fights to keep his job; I am my mother who wonders how she will afford to send her children to the doctor; I am my sister who see no more hope in her school; I am my brother will no longer accept the destruction of the environment; I am my friend whose reproductive rights are being stripped away from her; I am my lover who watches his countrymen work long hours for a bowl of rice while billions are being spent on a useless war; I have stretched and reached to find footing; I have climbed with hope, with vision that the world could be better than what I see before my eyes. I am tired.

And now I wake. The winds are rough and cold, alive; they whisper to me of change. But I am afraid of what change could mean. Change is a word I have heard countless times and have somehow learned to stop listening to. Over the past eight years, Change has meant more war, less civil rights; more money for the big business, less for schools. Change has meant my library closing and my faith in democracy evaporating. But over the past year I have heard a new voice of change, and this one is filled with hope, a hope that I can believe in.

Change today in the USA means change in the world. I know because I here it shouted and whispered by dark tongues and hopeful faces in the streets of Dakar and Bamako. People shout ‘Obama’ as I walk down the street. And for the first time in my adult life I am proud to respond with a great smile, a grin, proud to say I share their hope and support their vision, and that this day could mean change in the way I have always envisioned it.

Today the wind is full, thick with a heavy decision in the hands of American Voters. We are poised to move on, but we must make the choice to do so together. Please help me keep climbing. Vote Obama.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

a meal for two

To stand in the kitchen with your man after a long week of nights out can be intimidating. The veggies wilt on the counter, protesting your neglect by looking as unappetizing and uncreative as possible. Not only are you faced with the challenge of creating a meal you both enjoy with this motley crew of faded colors, you realize that it has been a long time since you have spent time ‘just being’ with him. While you are both smiling and bright with friends, dialogue between you has rusted a bit, like the not so sharp knife you brandish for the vegetables.

It is best to start with the garlic. The pungent little heads don’t fade and will rarely disappoint. Slowly you begin to relax into the quick slicing rhythm and the familiar spicy aroma. When he smells the sautéing onions, he decides to warm up too and reaches to measure out water for the bulgar. Soon you are both negotiating the small stovetop, and the quick laughter comes back. You tease each other for silly exploits with friends as you slice into the eggplant and discover that its inner flesh looks sweeter than its skin. As he adds the thinly sliced okra, you marvel at the delicate flower shape and slippery seeds inside the pods. You inhale the silence and activity of this communal meal with deep contentment.

After you have sat down, the heavy ceramic plates are empty, and your bellies full, he reaches into the into the cast iron pan and licks his finger. You pick the last lonely eggplant. Soon the heavy pan is gleaming clean. He sighs, “That was a good meal; Its been a long time since I’ve eaten a meal I really enjoy” You nod. “me too, thanks”.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dogon Country Part 1

Pays Dogon lifts me out of slowness. The houses are quiet and square; yellow gray granaries are topped with woven grass hats that twist and lean like drunken dwarfs. As we wind through walled avenues, children attach themselves to us, small grimy fingers easing into our sweaty palms. The old men have creases in their faces; each wrinkle seems to tell the story sun and dirt. One old man with a wide straw hat strikes up a conversation with Yann as he shows him how to create fire out of flint to light his pipe. Everything is small and mud coloured except the tall baobab trees that rise out of the dry earth.

In this country we walk- shedding sweat, gathering dust and becoming more and more awed by the ancient complexity of the towns traditions and their apparent timeless harmony with nature. We pick our way down cliffs, swirled with granite, punctuated by the vibrant green of trees that only show during the few months of rain. Below us stretches a plane that helps me understand how people once believed the world was flat. Wandering troupes of goats and cattle gather where the waterfalls flow.

It is the morning after the rain. Before the clouds came we pointed out stars in an endless sky; I found the direction of the North Star by looking at the Big Dipper. I lay on the roof with Yann, watching sparrows dart through the sky. The sun rises slowly in the east, levelling layers of colour into a brightening sky. I do Yoga, pray, feel peace.

Now I am looking into the cliffs, at the houses that make this country famous. At the top of a steep, rocky incline stretches a row of tall rectangular structures. They are the base of a cliff that rises imposingly another 200 feet into the blue sky. I see small squares of darkness that are windows and yawning gaps that seem to form caves. All of the buildings seem too small to be houses.

The story is that in the 11th century, the Dogon people began a migration, fleeing from Islam in Segou, to finally arrive here in the 14th century. They found the cliffs already inhabited by Pygmies, a race of very small people who seemed to fly to their tiny dwellings in the cliffs. Eventually, the Dogon pushed the Pygmies out and began building their own communities in the cool, dry rock. Over the centuries, the Dogon people have developed a distinct cultural identity, which they maintain today despite heavy tourist traffic and an increasingly challenging environment. This culture is evident in their burial rituals, their elaborate dances, their secret dialects. I am particularly impressed by the circumcision ritual, which all adolescent boys must go through. They spend several months secluded together, learning a secret dialect. When the time comes, after several rituals and dances, they present themselves to the blacksmith. The blacksmith tosses a lime into the air and tells the boy to watch the lime. By the time the lime has fallen, so has the foreskin. I imagine a green lime spinning into the great blue sky, symbol of change.
Our daily trek starts in music when we stop to watch the women pounding mil (like couscous) and Karité (Shea butter) in a communal mortar. The morning is filled with a rhythmic pounding as all across the village, women circle around carved wooden bowls on pedestals with tall walls. Most have babies strapped to their backs in bright indigo fabrics and hold a four foot long staff, carved thin in the centre for better grip. One woman starts by raising her staff high above her head, then hurling it into the bowl, as hers comes out, the next woman’s’ staff falls into the empty space, and finally, the third woman throws her staff in. The pounders fall rhythmically into the bowl, and as the women notice us watching, they grow playful, singing and clapping their hands as they throw their staffs ever higher into the air and pound them ever more violently into the bowl. As often happens in moments like these, I am first touched by the romanticism, the familiarity and simplicity of this daily ritual. The women, their babies, clapping their hands, singing to hold the rhythm fills me with a sense of nostalgia for some past that may never have existed where I come from. Even so, a part of me recognizes how hard these women work for so little. There must only be two or three handfuls of grain in each bowl and the women spend several hours each morning pounding out lunch or creating the butter we pay loads for in the west. After I have tried my hand at the pounding, to the great amusement and delight of these women, I wave goodbye and begin to make my way up to the cliffs.

The Dogon are known to have astronomical knowledge that surpasses and surprises modern day scientists; unfortunately the old hunter who was going to show us has drunk too much local beer, and asks us to come back another time. Instead, we look in awe at the hanging stuffed monkeys, leopards, snakes, beetles, and other unidentifiable animals. He will use these to heal villagers and perform rituals

Monday, September 1, 2008

One coach

Fily stands in front of the classroom. His hands are spidered together, his voice gentle and convincing as he tells his students why he believes in AIDS. He has just asked his class to defend their beliefs in the existence of nonexistence of the disease. After listening to his students express themselves, and summarizing their arguments, Fily steps up, and stands quietly in from of the room, telling why he believes in AIDS. The transpiring young faces lean towards him like lilies, eyes fixed on him, waving fans of hands pause as his words strike into their consciousness.

Fily once played football with a man who was big, strong, fast. No one had believed this teammate when he told them he was HIV+ until he began to grow progressively weaker and skinnier, and finally passed away. Fily finishes by talking about how AIDS has slowly progressed in his country. “I’m first here for myself. I believe in it. Second, I’m here for my family; I’m here for you; I am finally here for Mali.”

110° heat. 100 flies. 50 students. One coach. In this hot, dusty classroom, someone is making a difference.

Friday, May 30, 2008

remembering to sing

I just passed through a really rough period where I felt lost, self absorbed, lonely, and so exhausted that I couldn't find the time to love myself, let alone anyone else. My heart hurt, my stomach grew tight, I cried, I missed home, I noticed every horrible aspect about life here and continued to compare it to the paradise of Oregon; I couldn't respond to the problems of my friends because I was so wrapped up in my own.

As I began to realize that People I haven’t heard from in ages, the friends on the periphery and the close ones too sent emails reminding me of who I once was and who I strive to be: someone who cherishes life and celebrates it with compassion, understanding and acceptance. My old roommate, Chris, sent an email mentioning a time he eavesdropped on me singing into the wind as I rode away from the house on my bike. A postcard from my dear friend, Jill: flowers in Paris; notes from close friends at home expressing frustrations that mirrored my own; a package from home full of chocolates and silly photos of my youngest sister. I can tell by the light in the photos that it is midmorning, and by her expression that my mom probably said, 'Hey, let me take some pictures of you to send to your older sister' and Kai probably rolled her eyes, then got into the role with her tongue deeply planted into her cheek. All these messages, images, thoughts tumbling in on me from far away, started to tug back at me. 'You are not alone', they all seemed to be whispering. It was strange to have such an influx at a time when it was most needed and least asked for. Perhaps more than anything, your messages gave me faith that I am more connected than I had originally thought.

Today, the sun is just as punishing as it was last week; I have just as much work and just as little time; I will still be called 'White girl', or worse ' Pink Ears' by strangers on the street; but something has changed. I have poked my head back out of the shell, and begin to notice that there is light outside. That light is the presence of people and love around me, close and far away. Rather than close my eyes and ears to the opening day, I stand on my roof and do yoga, then slip back downstairs to wake Yann with gentle touches on his back. I notice that perhaps it is more therapeutic for me than for him, watching my fingers trail across his smooth skin, the rise and fall of his body with the steady rhythm of his breath. In some way, me touching him was my way of also trying to touch everyone else who is reaching towards me through letters and emails and facebook comments. And these words are my way of saying thanks, instead of grabbing you in a hug as I would like to do.

I sit on the back of my moto on the way to work this morning, zipping past the Sotramas and dodging potholes. The aroma of early morning cooking fires mixes with the fumes of exhaust and heavy dust. I suppose it's no bicycle and these are not the deep green streets of Portland I loved to fly down. Nonetheless, I see my shadow float past the shops, and rather than notice the un-swept garbage, today I notice the quality of light on the oil stained street, and I hear my own voice in the wind, and it is singing.