Meditiations


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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Hauntingly familiar is what Morocco is. Exotic is the first adjective that comes to mind, not because everything is new, but because there is just enough familiar in a different setting to create pause.

I walk down the streets with the salmon clay tiles that have stared back at me in Israel, in Indonesia.  I see the same pattern of red and white paint along the curve, indicating no parking in so many countries I’ve visited, that no one pays attention to.  There is the familiar mix of palm trees, evergreens, and orange trees carefully lining the parks.  As I open my hotel room’s balcony doors, the adnan, call to prayer, washes me with memories.

And yet, nowhere else I have been serves perfect mini creme brulees and macaroons.  The French influence has also resulted in an interesting dialectic mix of Arabic and French that most Arabs cannot understand.  Bright headscarves liven up the souks, which smell different from Jordan or Israel.  While there are still smells of raw meat and vegetables, some of the spices perfuming the air cannot be found elsewhere. The prevalence of leather goods also adds a wonderful and unique component for olfactory senses. I dread shopping in sterile malls, but every trip to the greater Middle East and North Africa region finds me losing track of time as I meander along narrow alleyways and past shops that offer better birthday and holiday presents than I ever find back home.

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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

In Marrakech, the medina, or old city, is stupendous. The large square, Place Jemaa-el-Fna, is notorious for its evening market, where crowds come to see snake charmers, hear musicians of local music, drink fresh orange juice, and eat snails, a local delicacy served in small bowls of broth with Moroccan spices.  Also in the medina are some wonderful restaurants like Le Jardin, which renovated an old home and serves marvelous Moroccan fare.  After a good late dinner there though, Luke, Phil, and I accomplished another requirement of visiting the medina: getting lost literally.  All the shops look completely different once they are closed, and all you can see are ornate doors that were hidden by wares during the daylight.  As a group, we eventually came out, near the Mosque de la Koutonbia, an easy to see icon for the old city.  One of my favorite places in the medina is La Maison de la Photographie, a small museum of photographs from 1870s to 1920s. Our group stumbled upon in back in September, but I was unable to return on this trip.

While bartering in the souk is a fun pasttime, sometimes you just don’t want to buy four extra shawls to get a decent price. Spending time shopping at the Ensemble Artisanal Handicraft Center takes that stress away. The prices are fair (you can maybe get 10% off), and the quality is sometimes better than what is found in the souk.  However, it’s such a good deal that the concierge at my hotel tried to tell me they didn’t sell things.

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(c) 2014 Kathryn Pharr

Another breathtaking aspect of Marrakech is the architecture.  To be overwhelmed, be sure to wind your way through back alleys to the Dar Si Said, where for a mere 10 dirhams ($1.50), you can see stunning combinations of Moroccan lanterns, tile mosaic floors and walls with painted wooden ceilings. The vibrant colors and geometric patterns in Islamic art are one of my favorite things to see while traveling.  Another palace worth visiting is Palais La Bahia, just a few steps from Dar Si Said. Bahia is more elaborate and the same price as Said but also caters to larger tour groups, so you might not have the place to yourself.

While this work trip did not allow for time to visit the Atlas Mountains or pop over to Fez, I really enjoyed the time I had to explore Marrakech.  There were three opportunities I had thanks to work as well.  I attended an evening reception with Dr. Jill Biden and some of our female entrepreneurs at the Palais el Badi, an old fortress palace that houses the Musee de la Photographie et des Arts Visuels.  Local musicians serenaded us as we entered, and the salmon clay walls were light with various colors of light.  At the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, we all sang Vice President Joe Biden happy birthday. If you’ve got to work on your birthday, it’s pretty nice to have 4,000 people singing you good wishes at 72.  Lastly, beyond the amazing entrepreneurs who came through our program and who are so inspiring, we had a fabulous reception (with them of course) on the rooftop of the Pearl Hotel. It was like something out of a movie as we gazed out over the beautiful twinkling lights of the cityscape.

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You arrive in Zimbabwe. You are amazed at the solid infrastructure compared to many other African capitals. You enjoy the lack of painful traffic, the smiling faces, the posh shopping centers. You wonder exactly why someone declared this country a failed state. What can that possibly mean with crowded fast food chains that aren’t American and solid roads?

You stay. You realize that the country imports all its power. At the end of a week, one of the local blacks tells how she had a good night the evening before since it was the first time her family had had power in a week before midnight. All your taxi drivers tell you how no one will ever drive along the road that has Mugabe’s State House if their car is misbehaving. A flat tire along there will result in much more trouble than one might expect… You hear how when the currency switched from the Zimbabwe dollar to the US dollar in 2008, everyone with local money lost everything. You’re told that your hotel room will likely be bugged; that night you hear noise on the phone lines…You remember a friend who worked for IRI, an NGO focused on democratic processes, who can’t come into the country because of the type of work she does.

Where We Have Hope by Andrew Meldrum is an amazing story of a journalist who came to Zimbabwe in 1980 to cover a new multi-racial democratic country as it emerged from a 14 year civil war. I’ve been reading it to get a better sense of what is going on here. The author goes from being a hopeful journalist witnessing the end of a long British colonial rule to being physically forced out of the country for writing about the atrocities performed by Mugabe’s regime.

White Zimbabweans make up about 1% of the population here. Colonial rule is still strongly felt; there’s no local cuisine. What everyone eats is sadza, stiff British porridge made from the maize that the colonials got everyone to grow. The minority white population was extremely racist prior to the revolution, and I’m not clear how much better it’s gotten. The controversial land reform here certainly didn’t help matters. Begun in 1979 as a way to more equally distribute land between the whites and blacks, it started as a winning buyer, winning seller model until 2000. With this model white farmers were paid as their large plantations were converted to communal farming. Almost half a million people were able to settle onto new plots of land with this program. The fast track resettlement program that began in 2000 was not a bright spot. White farmers were violently forced from their land without compensation; the Zimbabwean Parliament has now passed laws so those white farmers cannot challenge the right to the land they once owned.  The group forcing the farmers out were supposedly “war veterans” from the war for independence though many were just youth who often became violent.

Our team members who are working in Malawi heard a lot of accounts from these expelled white farmers. In a newspaper article the other day, white Zimbabwean farmers were granted the right to keep the national Zimbabwean assets they had seized in Cape Town, South Africa, as payment for lost land. Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, much of the land that has been acquired has not been farmed properly. Driving through the countryside, it’s clear that former farms are no longer producing crops. Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of Africa, now it imports almost everything.

On our weekend in Imire, we heard the story of Di, a local white Zimbabwean who lost her farm to a city bidder who wanted it to be his weekend house. She had worked to build up a successful farm. “My workers had a good wage. We had a primary school, an adult literacy program, a nursery. We taught them how to have a nutritional vegetable garden. We had such a wonderful place. Now most of them have had to leave because there is no one running the farm. That man doesn’t plant anything. He just lives in my house a few days a year.” I was impressed with how she had started her life over again, but part of me can’t help but feel there is a sense of superiority in this set-up that while improving people’s lives still does not give them control over their own property.

You may have vaguely heard of the economic crash that happened here in 2008. Notes were printed with a hundred trillion Zim dollars (and you thought the lira had been bad). Eventually locals refused to take the national currency. When the currency was completely forced out of circulation, everyone with a Zimbabwean bank account in local currency lost everything. This was just in 2008. People could not find anything to buy in the grocery stores. Now in 2011, the shelves are full, but most people still cannot afford the imported goods. Petrol is prohibitively expensive, almost $6/gallon.

So there’s the land issue, the economic issues, how all of this ties in together. And there is Mugabe, the “president.” In the 1980s, he launches a secret campaign that slaughtered 10,000-20,000 Ndebeles in Matabeleland, most of them young males who would have been a threat to Mugabe’s Shono party. Ndebeles were the ethnic minority of black Zimbabweans who on the whole did not belong to Mugabe’s party. This happened at roughly the same time that Mugabe was talking loudly to the world about how badly apartheid needed to end in South Africa, how something had to be done. It was a time when Zimbabwe was seen as the shining beckon in Africa, a democracy that could lead the way for others.

The country is Dorian Grey, at first glance beautiful, vibrate, but with a dark secret. One day in class on this trip, I had been talking to an American about how beautiful I thought Zimbabwe was: the kind and generous people, the impressive balancing rocks, the wildlife. She pulled out a folder and said, “This place is deceptively beautiful. Look at this. This is what is happening in Zimbabwe.” She opened up a booklet of graphic photos depicting violence including behinds of people that had been hacked off. “Most of our [work] partners are in jail.”

Having seen those photos of abuse, I had a vivid imagination when reading about the beatings of farmers by the “war veterans” around 2000, onwards. Also punished were people who supported the MDC, a new political party that was trying to stand up to Mugabe. This is the party that won the election in 2008, which Mugabe won’t recognize and likely the election in 2002, probably 2000 as well. Our tour guide at Great Zimbabwe, Phillip, mentioned to us how such violence affected his family. His father, a school supervisor, and his mother, a nurse, were rumored to be in favor of the opposition (MDC). While Phillip was at work as a tour guide, some of the “war veterans” came to his family’s hut. They locked the family inside and burned the house down. He lost his whole family and hid in South Africa for six months.

These stories make it hard to reconcile the friendly and beautiful Zimbabwe we have experienced with the facts of the atrocities that occurred in that same beautiful land.

 

 

 

What do these words mean to you?

After seeing the slave-holding sites at Cape Coast and Elmina, after hearing the tour guide’s discussion of how this should never happen again, I am wondering how it is in fact happening all over the world–just more covertly. In fact, human trafficking is the second largest crime worldwide (number one is illegal arms trade). Maybe you’ve heard of the sex trafficking in Brazil, Ukraine, and many other countries. There is also money to be had in forced child labor.

Eric Peasah is a local Ghanaian whom I met through mutual friends during my time here in Accra. Eric works for the International Organization for Migration. A soft-spoken, shy gentleman, he does amazing work. He goes to the north to rescue children who have been stolen from or sold by their families to fishermen, who take them to work on Lake Volta. In addition to other work, children are forced underwater to find loose nets, and some die. They work seventeen hour days, are fed only once, and are often beaten. Eric goes up north, finds the children, and convinces the fishermen to let them go. He takes the children back to Accra and works to rehabilitate them, put them in school, and reunite them with their families. Beyond that, he also tries to work with the fishermen to help them determine a method that doesn’t require children to make their livelihood.

When Eric told me all this, I was blown away. What was I doing? Just training boring software all day. His response to my awe was remarkable. “But there are so many children I see that I cannot help. They are being abused, but they have not been sold. They are with their families. I cannot take them with me when I go on the rescue missions to the islands. I want to start a non-profit that will let me do this.”

Part of why I’m writing all this is because the US State Dept cut Eric’s grant this year. If you can, please think about making a small donation to the Ghana Fishing Children’s Project through USAIM If you want to ask questions, Erin Dodson is the contact at USAIM for Eric Peasah’s work here in Accra. (You might mention Lori Dillion, an American who has been with Eric on some of his rescue missions. She has corresponded with Erin Dodson. Lori put me in touch with Eric when I arrived in Ghana.)

If you are unable to make a donation, please consider sharing this story with others. I think that many Americans are unaware of the atrocities connected to human trafficking and of the frequency at which it occurs around the world.

 

If our morning was fun, our afternoon was emotionally draining. Elmina and Cape Coast are popular tourist sites here in Ghana. They are along good roads which make access easy, and they do have fun vibes in the towns themselves. But the main sites to see are the castles or forts which were used to hold slaves before they were shipped off to the Americas.

I’ve grown up knowing about the slave trade. I still remember so much of what Ms. Ramsey talked about in our Junior US History course. I remember being horrified at hearing of the conditions on the boats crossing the ocean as well as what happened to slaves on plantations. However, visiting it, standing there, seeing these holding cells…I hope no one goes without being deeply shaken.

We stopped first at Elmina. This harbor town was held by the Dutch who called it ‘The Coast of Gold Mines’ (Da Costa de el Mina de Ouro) after the Portuguese and before the British. We took a guided tour of the Castle of St. George, aka hell.

First we saw where the female slaves were kept. In one of these cells, over a hundred and fifty women would be shoved together. It’s a dungeon cell with very little light. The women were shackled together. There was no where for them to relieve themselves, so that became the new floor of the place. These women were usually held for three months before being put on a ship. They had nothing to help them clean up their monthly cycles. As I said earlier, it was a hot day. Our guide group was about ten people. Just standing apart from each other we smelled from sweating in the heat. Imagine that times fifteen for over three months while no one can take a shower.

Then our tour guide pointed to the governor’s balcony, where the governor would come out to look at the women below. He would pick who he wanted to please himself with. She would be forced up a small staircase, sent to his room, and taken back down to the holding when the rape was done. The other Europeans there also made free with these women. Any woman who resisted was left in the dudgeon courtyard with eight lead balls strapped to her legs and left in the stark heat with no food or water until she relented. Shana and I were both so horrified, we didn’t really know what to say.

I can’t understand how these men could not understand that these people were people. And if they aren’t people, then you shouldn’t want them for sex. As Shana said, “How could so many smart people of the time not question this? Speak out that it’s so wrong?”

The whole thing makes me wonder what we accept now that will be barbaric to future generations.

More than the cruelty of the dungeons or the death sentence of being sent to the containment cell, I was floored by the fact that the fort had a church. And that while doing all of this everyday, the Dutch would refuse to worship in the formerly Catholic sanctuary of the Portuguese and put their “holy” space elsewhere in the fort. Though it may sound too righteous, I could not believe the gall of these men to pray to God like they were good Christians when they were committing such outrageous crimes.

A World Heritage site and one of the largest slave-holding sites in the world, Cape Coast Castle is much larger than St George’s. It’s recommended to stay an hour and a half. Originally a market town, Cape Coast grew to a key trade port between the British sailing in and locals meeting them from their trade routes inside the territory’s jungle. Cape Coast was pivotal in the transatlantic slave triangle.

Shana turned to me when we got there and said she couldn’t listen to another story. I wasn’t sure I could either. We skipped the much lauded tour there and just wandered around for a few minutes. The dungeons were ever so much larger and darker than St. George’s. Walking down into the men’s dudgeon, Shana almost turned back because we could see anything. It was more than four rooms connected. Coming up into the sunlight would have disoriented people enough to ensure they couldn’t overwhelm the guards immediately.  These forts are located along beautiful beaches and are still painted white. They are so deceptively pretty.

We are breaking from our regular broadcast about Indonesia to bring you a link to an article about head coverings. This is relevant to Indonesia as there are more Muslims in Indonesia than the Middle East.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/personal/06/09/o.daughter.muslim.scarf/index.html

This is a story of a typical American mom whose nine year old decides that she wants to wear a hijab, Islamic head covering. It’s well written. It’s an interesting introspection from the mother’s point of view. I still feel it misses aspects of head covering rituals I saw while living in the Middle East. In a community where many girls do not cover, I can see this act as a means of self-expression, a way of loftily ignoring popular mores. Some of us achieved the same effect by wearing hand me downs that weren’t really meant for young girls or by burying our noses in books. But Americans in general seem to have missed the boat on hijabs. Even this mother doesn’t seem to understand that it can be just as much a fashion statement as a bikini–for all the same reasons.

If I’m ever in the position of having a daughter who wants to wear a hijab, I think my answer would be the same as my mother’s when my sister begged for pierced ears, “When you’re thirteen.” Wearing a hijab signals a coming of age, that you are now a young woman. Many young women in the States signal this with an impractical string bikini. At least the hijab will ensure that your neck doesn’t get sunburned.

If you think that wearing a hijab is a purely religious act, then you should walk into a girls’ bathroom at a school with Muslim teens who cover. At Mar Elias, half the girls would be brushing their hair while those with hijabs were busy adjusting theirs to look as nice as possible. Many of the girls used pearl or sequined pins for added flair. In the markets, young girls rifled through the mountains of fabric searching for what would most accurately express their sense of fashion in the same way American teens hunt for a kick-ass pair of jeans. If you think that girls who cover aren’t concerned with their looks, then you need a course on human nature. Just look at the picture of mother and daughter from the article. Her hijab is bright and colorful; it’s an expression of herself.

Of course the other side of all of this is that both these ideas of beauty have been fed to women by a paternalistic society. How is being leered at for showing skin any different from being told that nice girls cover up? I had days in the Middle East where I wanted to put on a hijab because I hoped it would give me more protection from the visual sexual harassment that is simply a part of life in so many places, not least of which is the American high school. This of course goes back to my comment on human nature. Girls are conditioned to care about how we look. Our image is very important. Guys, and my brother might not be the best litmus test, just don’t care. That’s not what they’re told is significant. However, most teenage girls do. Now the girl in the article may be the exception (she’s also only nine) like I was. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that most girls are very conscious about how they look and what that says about them. They will compare who is stylish and who isn’t whether its about sparkling hijabs or Tiffany bracelets. There’s a lot of work to be done on the actual problems not the question of whether your daughter is covering or not.

After all, what’s more embarrassing: cute photos of you wearing colorful scarves or those shots during your Goth phase?

I rest my case. Back to our regularly scheduled program.

Every year this story comes up for the gospel reading and seems like it was just read last week. It is achingly familiar.

I am the oldest: I followed the rules. On some level, I sympathize with the elder, goody-two-shoes son. I think it’s also likely the elder son is a capitalist, who thinks that he should be measured by the work he does. The question is, is God a capitalist? This story suggests not. But that’s a line of thought of another time.

I was blown away when Luis spoke of how the elder brother defined himself by his virtue while his father defined himself by love. It seems painfully clear now, but I’d never thought of that before. So in a way, the brother is equally at fault because he hasn’t stayed by his father’s side from his love for his father but from his desire to do what he thinks is right. Maybe he acts so perfectly, so that everyone will think of him as the good son. This is a society where communal opinion matters.

By not pushing boundaries he has never tested his father’s love. (I feel like this is the logic behind teenage rebellion: If I do my own thing that you don’t like, will you still love me? Or do you only love me for who you want me to be?) I’m not advocating that the elder son also go squander all his earthly possessions. But did he ever ask his dad if he could slaughter that calf to share with his friends that he complains about never getting? Did he engage in an active relationship with his father or did he just follow the rules thinking that was enough?

Luis also pointed out that we don’t know what happens with this family at the end of the story. The parable doesn’t give us a Disney ending because this story is really about us. Are we ready to become active in relationships or are we happier to stand off in the distance making judgments about who is and isn’t worthy? (Last time I checked, that position didn’t have an opening.) It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure. The ending is up to us.

I was at work today thinking about Lent as I passed out chocolate candy to the adults taking our training course. Someone had thrown in  three of my favorite types. Part of me really wanted to reach in and take a nice Reese’s mini. More than usual, this year I’ve been thinking about why people give up “silly things” like sweets or coffee or Diet Coke for Lent. Skeptics  say that it isn’t spiritual; it’s a diet. I disagree. Sure, it may be a diet to some, but it can also be meaningful.

In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron warns readers to beware of “babysitters,” those things we use as crutches to avoid facing tough reality. Maybe after a stressful day, it’s easier to delve into a box of chocolates while watching TV than analyzing and accepting what’s really going on. Lent gives us an opportunity to name our babysitters and break away from them. A chance to free ourselves from routines.  It’s a path uncomfortable, even foreign, to many Westerners: freedom through discipline.

When I was in Israel, for the first time I heard someone describe the rules of the Torah (beginning of the Hebrew and Christian bibles) as liberating. The concept that anyone could find peace and freedom through a set of restrictive rules baffled and intrigued me. I paid more attention to the rules governing orthodox Jews and conservatively religious Muslims during the rest of my stay. I found new meaning in their religious restrictions.

Last year changed my life in innumerable ways that I’m only beginning to understand. This is the first year where I’ve given up something for Lent and felt free instead of bound. It’s an amazing experience.