Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Returning to Addis

The everyday kindness of the back roads more than makes up for the acts of greed in the headlines.
Charles Kuralt

Sweet faces at Kality Centre in Addis Ababa.

Hauling water to communities without access. 

A new friend in Sheshemane region - her wisdom and laughter stay with me. 

These sweet faces at home in Turgo


Gentle. Man. 

Brothers. Siblings caring for siblings.


Shy. Joy. 

Pride and joy.

I'm heading back to Addis Ababa next week. I'm looking forward to showing it to a new team of guys who are going to be working on construction projects for Canadian Humanitarian in and around the Addis Ababa and Gindo Areas. I love going new places and although I've been to Addis, I've never been to Gindo.  I'm looking most forward to being in communities and homes of the children that Canadian Humanitarian serves through their programs. They have a holistic approach to caring for kids and it hinges on knowing these kids, staying invested in them for the long haul and returning 5-6 times a year to remind them that someone overseas is sharing their stories and speaking up for them.
Though this is only my second time to Ethiopia, I am looking so forward to the things I will learn and feel and see and touch. I love that though photos do a poor job of capturing the vibrancy and beauty of the people I've met, they remind me of what awaits. Joy. Laughter. Tears. Stories of heartache and stories of hope.  Regardless of the stories in the media that inundate us with stories of hatred and terror, there is still much more good in the world. I'm going to surround myself with it. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Happy Birthday Eva!

I'm a mess. Sitting in a soggy sweater with snot on my sleeve. Gross. Read on though.  Seriously, you need to know this stuff.

I'm sitting in a sunbeam on the landing of our stairs, with a dusty dog and just enjoying a book on my day off when my phone rings. I don't recognize the number though it's long distance and I risk my solitude on the chance that it's not a telemarketer...and the familiar crackle and pause before I hear my friend, Dorothea, in Mulenga, saying hello!  Suddenly, I'm back in the heart of it...my day pulled rapidly into focus by the voice of my friend, her accent, her news. She tells me that tomorrow is her daughter Eva's birthday. She will be 9 and she wanted me to know. And then, she's there, on the phone, the voice I'd know anywhere...saying hello and how are you and I am fine, as she does when we're face to face. I wish her a happy birthday and tell her how much I love her and she says "I know!" and I love it. I love the precious 1:48 seconds of connection between her little house in the corner of Mulenga, on the edge of the river. I love that I know that in the darkness, she has light and food and a door that locks and a family who loves her. I love that when her little brother, Joshua, starts to chatter into the phone, that I can picture him on the couch or standing just behind, crowding in on her phone call and shouting greetings into the phone to hear me say, "Hi Joshua!" and "How are you buddy?" and then laugh. I can hear Eva's parents...a mom and a dad prompting them when their English fails or perhaps they can't hear well...and I love that they are together. That for 1:48 seconds, we are together.

This family has been in my life for nearly 6 years now and I'm so thankful that I have been in theirs. Despite the distance and the incredibly long months between our visits, I know that there is a home in the bottom corner of Mulenga, that there are photos of my boys and their kids, photos of Eva and I, photos of our dog and their relatives, all in a book that sits on their shelf, next to their dishes and their pots. And I know that at any time, I can go to that home and be part of that family in person. Or that they can call into my home and be part of mine.

So, soggy sweaters and snotty sleeves, those are just symbols of what happens when you love someone in a space far from your own. The cost of risking a financial investment and long flights to see how other people is high. And six years later, I'm reaping the rewards of letting myself love a little girl who peeked wordlessly around the corner of a school house and walked right into my heart.

Happy 9th Birthday Eva. I hope we share many, many more.
Eva holding her littlest brother, Jesse. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fall Back Positions

I was reading through my Twitter feed tonight in lieu of actually watching the Grammy's. I'm lazy like that - judge as you wish. I read a few responses that went out when Pharell's "Happy" song won a Grammy and in that moment,  I really felt, well, happy for him. It's not that the song itself is so incredible but it provided a soundtrack to what was one of my favourite moments of 2014 for me.

At some point in November, I found myself on a soccer field, flowers in hand and in my hair, surrounded by children, clambering to play and have their photos taken. The sun was waning and the dusk was quickly approaching. A soccer game was in full swing and some of my travelling companions were fully engaged, with the passion worthy of world cup contenders, despite the rough field, rugged goal posts and lopsided teams.

I was chatting,which involved much gesturing and guesswork between Bengali and English, with a group of girls who had danced traditional Indian dances for us before we had walked down to the playing field. They were continuing their displays proudly, showing off hand positions and intricate arm movements that seemed to require double jointed and reversible limbs.  Still in their best dresses and costume jewelry, make up and best hair, the talented performers became girls again as we talked and laughed and played silly hand games along the sidelines, ducking every now and then to avoid wayward soccer balls launched in our direction.

As the light faded and the day came to a close, our group of adults and children, meandered back towards the community centre where we had first met up with them. In the approaching darkness, we met parents coming to pick up their children, greeting them and hearing the pride in their voices as they picked out their child or children from the group. Standing alongside the road, lined with ancient homes and small businesses, people returning from work in the nearby centres, and more than a few small animals...the leader of our group pulled out his phone and turned up the volume on Pharell's song. "Happy" blared among the most incongruous gathering of souls and yet, in those few moments, we all danced. Laughing, singing, waving....eye contact and lip-synching the only language between us...mothers, grandmothers, aging men and small boys barely strong enough to stand....we danced. Teachers, fishermen, labourers and housemaids....we danced. Foreigners, their first time in India intermingling with the descendants of those that had inhabited the land for literally generations beyond their memory....we danced.  My one hand holding the small hand of a little girl who had danced so seriously in her performance, now shimmying and laughing so hard she could hardly catch her breath. My other hand, holding the hand of a small boy in his grandmother's arms...his eyes wildly trying to take in what was happening around him, such a flurry of colour and sound and activity....we danced.

Sometimes, in our lives, we need to go back and revisit the moments in which we feel absolutely and incredibly free. There, in what was only a few minutes, with Pharell's song weaving cultures and people and ages together, we danced. I danced. Me. And in that, I was completely untethered and free. It's hard to remember that type of freedom when the tentacles of daily life continued to wind around our ankles and hands and hearts, keeping us tied up in the day to day business that keeps us from being free.  In a life where words like "busy" and "tired" and "multi-tasking" and "overwhelmed" can become part of our everyday self description, we need to redefine ourselves. We need to create the moments that become our fall back positions. So that when we think of ourselves we can include new defining descriptions. Words that come to us when we give in to the invitation to dance with strangers half a world away.

Untethered. Free. Uninhibited. Happy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Beauty in the Cold and Dark

We have been stuck in a deep freeze here in Saskatoon lately, and I'm not going to lie, it's really affected my mood. Normally, I like the deep cold of -40 and sunshine and blue sky but this year, I'm not sure why, it's felt like a slap in the face every time I went out of doors. It's as if the air and the cold were conspiring to beat me down before I could muster any optimism for the beauty it also brought along with it.

Despite the cold, there is an incredible beauty that comes with the plunging temperatures. It's hoarfrost on absolutely everything, turning ordinary objects like the patio table into a display of crystal layers and intricate lace designs. There is something that happens when the moisture in the air freezes that though it dries everything out, it does it with such a dazzling brilliance like a million particles of diamond dust filtering through the sunlight. It makes a mockery of the word "breathtaking" because it really, physically takes your breath away and no Slurpee in the world can replicate the brain freeze of a sharp wind taking you to -40. It pokes at every piece of exposed skin and causes your jeans to freeze and stiffen, scarves are encrusted with ice as every exhale freezes in place. Eyelashes become laden with ice and stray hairs become icicles...and yet...we live here. And work here. And even play here.

Just before New Year's, on the coldest night of the year, with warnings out all over the media, we drove ourselves to Manitoba for our annual family gathering with Jason's family. We left after work which meant it was already dark and the already frigid temperatures were plummeting even lower as we drove km after km, for 8 hours. The inside of the windows of our car were crusted with ice and the heater seemed to only stave off the chill for those seated in the front. Our Charlie, supposed to be staying in the hatch of the car, had had enough of the solitary confinement in the cold and clambered into the back seat which she "shared" with Easton and I. Under blankets and with a dog on for warmth, we continued on through the night, unable to see anything save for out the front defrosted window.

As we left Virden, MB, still some hours away from where we were heading, I took over the driving and therefore, had a heated seat and some blowing warmth. It was incredibly dark in between towns and there were few others on the road, even the professional drivers pulled their rigs into truck stops and idled for warmth. We pushed on and as I drove, I could see so many stars dotting the night sky. I wanted to see the northern lights and then, as if on command, there appeared a green smudge in the sky to the north. I watched it, wondering if I was imagining it but it slowly began to brighten and replicate until the northern sky became a waterfall of green phosphorescent glow. There were moments where they all but disappeared and then moments where the lights seemed to touch the earth. The guys were sleeping or listening to their iPods and completely uninterested in my calls to see what I was seeing. Even if they could have...they were separated from the spectacle by an ever thickening wall of ice on the inside of the car windows.

I drove for about an hour before I turned southward to our final leg of the journey, and it was probably one of the most incredibly intimate displays of beauty I have experienced in a long time. The cold weather can isolate us and beckon us to abandon play or travel or community in an effort to avoid the discomfort...and yet, if we venture out, we are sometimes the solitary witness to an act of beauty that should command the attention of a wider earthly audience. We knew that warmth awaited us at the end of our journey, just as we all do, but I had dreaded the cold and the darkness of the journey itself, not knowing that that was what would make it worth the while.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Feeling the News

After the past few days of terrifying news and horrific images, it's hard to imagine feeling light and cheery heading into the holiday. These days are heavy.  Just yesterday, mothers had sons walking to school, forgetting their homework on the table, rustling around for their lunchbox and waving out the door with a piece of toast in hand, much as I did.  And yet, just yesterday, those boys (and girls) lay in hospital beds, having witnessed suicide bombers shooting their friends and classmates, burning their teachers alive, and as the boots of those same murderers passed by where they lay, they pretended to be dead, in hopes of saving their own lives. And worse, some of those kids came home from school in coffins, stacked atop the coffins of their friends and classmates so that mothers could find no comfort from others, each death amplifying their own unimaginable grief.
The day before that, co-workers grabbed a quick coffee on the other side of the world, in the middle of a central business district, surrounded by wealth and affluence and development. And that night, or early the next morning, hostages fled the coffee shop having endured 17 or more hours of fear and uncertainty at the hand of someone who proclaimed himself a spiritual healer. Yet, two couldn't flee and a young man who is only spoken of as giving and consistently caring was dead, having risked his own life to allow others to run for theirs. And a woman, shielding her pregnant friend, is shot and dies, saving a child's life while leaving her own three children motherless.

I feel the weight of these things though they are so far removed from my world. And yet, this morning, dropping my son at school and picking up a coffee, it suddenly felt quite sacred. And closer than I care to think.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Boy. He's India.

There is an image of a boy that keeps coming to mind since I left India.  It was in the final moments of my trip that I saw him. I didn't meet him. I don't know his name. I don't know his age. I didn't even see his face. And yet, every night and every morning, this boy runs through my dreams. In the car, driving to work, washing dishes, delivering papers...he is there.

I was on the transport bus from one terminal at Mumbai Airport to the other where my plane home was waiting. It was dark. The bus was crowded. I sat in the front seat of the bus on the passenger side and I was taking in the last of what India had to offer. I watched how the driver acknowledged the man in uniform, his eyes taking in the holstered gun, and then watching him in the rearview mirror as he took his seat. I looked at the couple seated next to me, carry on bags on their laps, with their heads resting on top, exhausted. The man beside me stared straight ahead and hardly blinked.  I looked out the window as we pulled away and wondered again at the ability of drivers in India to circumvent accidents when even in a highly regulated space like an airport tarmac, the lines on the roads seemed only like suggestions for optimal driving conditions. We pulled away and began to rattle past the terminal and then out along the perimeter of the airport. On the other side of the fence, were derelict buildings, abandoned planes and all manner of decaying building supplies and refuse from years gone by. As we rounded a corner, the typical airport type buildings gave way to a slum. I hadn't noticed it on the way in, from the air, but from what I could see, it was an incredible amount of people and haphazard buildings pressed into whatever space the distance from the fence and the city streets afforded them. In the darkness, there were fires lit and people cooking and walking and talking. A few cars were parked in no particular order amongst the streets and dogs and people just circumvented them naturally. The homes were shanties, mostly tin or wood, built up two stories high with rickety boardwalks connecting one to the next above the ground at the second story.  Doors were open and small electric bulbs provided the only light, strung from cables run from who knows where, illuminating each doorway like it's own theatre entrance, the tableau inside exposed for all who passed by to see. In one doorway a mother holding a baby on her hip and conversing with an older woman below. In another, you could see boxes stacked with colourful cloths folded inside. And another, a red piece of fabric, held to the side by some unseen hook, revealing a woman lifting something onto an upper shelf. Each little image, only seconds long, ticking away like a rapid slide show of life in a slum. And then the boy. Just a few seconds where he appeared. Illuminated as if in a strobe light, by the light emanating from the open doorways where light spilled onto the boards on which he ran. He was young, no more than 10 or 12 years. The only details I could salvage were that he was wearing ankle boots and socks and shorts and a red t-shirt. Small and lithe, light on his feet and he ran as though the dinner bell had been rung and a feast awaited. I turned in my seat to watch him, flashing visible in the light of each doorway and then disappearing. And then he was out of sight, physically anyway. But he's with me here. In Canada. In the winter. Flashing visible and disappearing again, as if by his own will, inserting himself into my days...as if I am forbidden to forget him. As if I could if I wanted to at this point.

He's a boy. With no relation to me. With no name or face to search him out. A boy who ran by me in the the final moments of my visit to his country and who has stayed with me ever since.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Language of Play

Riding in style.

This evening, I was looking through some of my fellow team member's photos from our recent trip to India and I was surprised to see photos of one of the best days' play I've had in a long time. While most of the team took the school kids to the amusement park,  I stayed behind to observe the medical clinic that took place in Khalpur with Ryan, a doctor from Oregon who was seeing patients. For a good part of the afternoon,  I watched quite a crowd of people come and present their complaints to the doctors in front of their friends and neighbours and family members, with no privacy whatsoever. It struck me how we take so much for granted in our health care systems in North America.

Once the last patient left, Ryan and I walked around Khalpur. It is just a slum on the side of what used to be a canal. It's congested and cramped and haphazard, with no services other than what One Life has brought in...a generator to run the fans and computers in the school and bio toilets so that the inhabitants of the slum would have access to...well...you know. Just another thing we take for granted, that we have somewhere to go to the bathroom, in privacy and cleanliness for good health sake. Not so here, before the bio toilets, there was no designated place to relieve yourself so it was basically wherever the need hit you...

As we walked through the community, people were very friendly and wanted their photos taken with family members, in front of their homes, with their children or with their dogs. It was quite something to communicate without English or Bengali on our side. We were outsiders but we weren't unwelcome, in fact, just the opposite. We felt very welcome and there were many who spoke a little bit of English, enough to say hello and ask how we were.  We wandered around for a bit and soon attracted quite a following of kids. So, with no agenda, I just began to play with the group of little girls and boys surrounding me. I soon figured out that games needed to be as simple as possible, not because the kids weren't capable, but because I was unable to explain intricate rules without knowing Bengali. So, we started with simple clapping games which always seem to translate well. I simplified them as we went along and soon, there were children joining in from out of nowhere. We exhausted that game and went to "Duck, Duck, Goose" and "Go, Go, Go, Stop!" and straight into "Hide and Go Seek" where I found myself searching for children in the most incredible places. Imagine playing as children in a literal garbage dump and submerging yourself in garbage to secure a hiding spot. As I would find one child, covered in discarded plastic and cardboard and many other things I choose not to think about, three others would pop up from their hiding spots, just as deep in the garbage. I actually wanted to stop the game in an effort to keep them from playing in the garbage but then I took a look at our surroundings and realized that this is the environment they know and deal with every day. When it came my time to "hide", it became like a game of sardines very quickly. Of course, I had no great knowledge of good hiding spots so I ducked into a small alley and hid behind a barrel between two homes with about 15 children around me. I was leaning against a small house and startled the poor older man napping there, just on the other side of the open wall.  I'm sure he thought he was dreaming to see some strange woman and children crouching just inches from where he lay his head.  

The amazing thing about children is that they all have such an incredible spirit about them. Here in this community, amongst the garbage and the rubble, they have the brightest smiles and just play wholeheartedly, without the need for toys or electronics or anything other than each others' company to entertain themselves. It's not to say that their lives wouldn't be improved with these things but  in our North American culture, we lament the end of imaginative play, and yet the very things that have squelched it are those things we have that are luxuries and excess.  
Anything becomes a plaything when there is nothing.
These children and I played for over an hour, in the heat, and through it, I watched each of them. Each child has their own unique personality and even without language, I could easily identify the mischievous, the shy, the courageous and those that could lead. I could see the girls who are strong and whose physical athleticism challenged the boys in a way that other boys did not. I watched as children's faces lit up when they were acknowledged and whose demeanour changed just by a hug or by being the hand I chose to hold when we lost and regrouped. 

I learned a lot this day. I learned the art of play again. The language it speaks. And the bonds it builds. And it felt an awful lot like love. 


Explanations with a little language and a lot of actions. 

Dirty knees and a full heart.
I love this photo that Ryan took...just two small hands...
And our hands. Mine and hers. 

*Thanks to Dr. Ryan Hutchinson for sharing his photos...and for capturing so many great memories of that day in Khalpur.