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good-bye Cote d’Ivoire

August 14, 2010

I am leaving Cote d’Ivoire in about 4 hours (inchallah, all goes well at the airport). And then I am leaving Africa two days later.
I am so (so) excited to be getting home. I miss my family (related and chosen) so much. I think my hello hugs will lift people off the ground. I am ready to tackle senior year. I have so many good things waiting for me.
And still there’s this lump in my throat. The past six.five months have been intense. I’ve been scared, inspired, motivated, humbled. I’ve had some truly crazy adventures (getting pulled into dance circles, climbing mountains, allergic reactions on borders, getting chased by an albino weilding lawn chair, getting chased by a mentally unstable 300 pound man, getting chased a lot in general…)
My big adventure is at an end.
All the cliches are true and I am wondering where all the time went. I am thinking about January in Dulles, first meeting the people I’d get to know like family over rounds of Castel, too many hours cramped in a van, exploring Cameroon from north to south.
I was terrified when I left Cameroon for Cote d’Ivoire. The first week at work, I had many moments where I thought, “There’s no way I can do this.” These moments happened again during focus groups, when combing back through recordings, searching through piles of Ivorian legal documents (in French).
But I did it. Last night, I sent in my final reports. My boss said they were good. I know understand what people are saying when they talk to me.
And I got a new plan for the next five years.
Things happen fast, but right now it feels right.
This is a victory blog post.
I am heading out of Africa with my head on right(er) than it was when I got here. I am confident for the future and ready to start the next chapter of my life. So grateful for these last few months.
I refuse to say good-bye to Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, or Africa. A la prochaine – I’ll be back (who knows, maybe as a foreign service officer).

Good things happen here.

Libraries for Peace

August 11, 2010

SFCG is in the process of building a library for peace in Sierra Leone. They need 2,000 items. My boss asked if I had any suggestions for novels/films/non-fiction which have to do with Africa, peace building, conflict resolution, etc.
eeee, nerdy dream come true.
Anyone have any suggestions?

last day in Daloa

August 6, 2010

In keeping with the French system, most people take a full month of vacation in August. Therefore, our field office is closing today and I am heading back to Abidjan for my final week.
Although I am very happy to have the weekend to do some more exploring in a crazy city (right in time for 50th anniversary celebrations!), I am a little sad to leave Daloa.
There’s not a lot going on, it’s true, but I have rarely visited a place where I felt more genuinely welcomed: from the corner store that started stocking cold Diet Coke because I need my daily caffeine fix somehow to the fellow intern who helped me navigate the pot-holed streets after dark, Daloa has been a good place to work and learn.
I am going to msis the call to prayer, the kids who shouted ‘courage!’ during my nightly(ish) runs, hearing Joel (the office cleaning guy) sing while he swept out the courtyard …
One more week here, this is crazy.

this piece is about home

August 5, 2010

Today I am having a hard time thinking about conflict resolution in Côte d’Ivoire. I spent Sunday-Tuesday in Bouaké, the stronghold of the Forces Nouvelles, a rebel group which is in the process of demobilizing. I spoke with community leaders about the process of rebuilding in a post-conflict environment, the politics of constructing a future when all the guns aren’t put away yet. I left feeling inspired, a little more in awe of the organization I’m laboring freely for this summer.
When I got back to an internet connection, a friend sent me an article about America’s latest killing rampage – nine dead in a workplace shooting. The picture showed a group of people praying outside of my high school. The title read “Massacre in Manchester,” my hometown in Connecticut. Although I do not know any of the victims, I find myself needing to take a moment. Today, I’m confused and sad. I’m thinking about how Manchester was when I was growing up. I remember it being a good place to be a kid. I remember neighborhood block parties, summer days spent at the pool, little league practice, swim team, the high school homecoming parade down Main Street. I’m thinking about the contrast with this image and the way I see it now. The last time I was home, I noticed two new jail bond offices blocks from my house, my mother tells me the owner of the corner convenient store was pistol whipped, drug addicts randomly started shooting down the block, there are less families moving in, more moving out. My mom has been talking about how Manchester is changing for a while, but I never thought it had changed this much.
Before Omar Thornton, the 34-year-old shooter in Tuesday’s tragedy, was called in for a disciplinary hearing and shown video footage of his theft from Hartford Distributors, he had complained to friends and family about racial harassment in the workplace. He said there were racial epithets written on the bathroom wall, and a stick figure drawn with a noose around it. He said his supervisors made racially charged comments. He called his mother after he had shot and killed eight people to say that he had taken care of the racists who were bothering him. Then he turned the gun on himself. His family and friends cannot make sense of his actions.
I got on facebook this morning to read the reactions of my community. I saw one post expressing frustration with the press “pulling the race card.” Comments agreed, most saying there was no good excuse for killing eight innocent people. One comment, however, read, “Whenever they do something wrong and get caught they try to blame the white man.”
I don’t know the specifics of Omar Thornton’s life. I do not think senseless violence is ever justified. But when I start to think about race dynamics in my town, I find it hard to just dismiss the racial overtones in the press coverage I’ve read. The racial composition of my town has changed substantially during my lifetime. Although my high school had failing test scores, we boasted the “highest diversity rates” in the state. If you took a walk down the hallways though, you’d quickly notice how segregated it was. Honors and AP classes were mostly white. General studies courses, on the opposite end of the spectrum, were mostly comprised of blacks and Latinos. The cafeteria was equally segregated. This must have bothered the school because they created a mandatory class called “Race Relations.” All freshmen were required to take it. My little sister still had to take it five years later when she arrived at MHS. From the way she describes her experience, it sounds about the same as I experienced it: a few clichéd videos about diversity and togetherness, one exercise where we wrote all of our races on the board and then shouted out stereotypes, white kids getting defensive about how not-racist they are, kids of color getting frustrated about how much that misses the point. One of the few truly honest discussions I ever had about race during my time at MHS occurred at the bus stop with a kid down the street. He told me that he was sitting on his porch and a passing motorist shouted “nigger” at him. I was incredulous – that stuff still happens? He answered, all the time.
I am not trying to draw a cause-effect between the Manchester education system and the tragedy that took place this week. (Omar Thornton wasn’t from Manchester, for one). But seeing pictures of the family’s of the dead crying on the lawn of my high school started me on a thought flow which lead to this obvious epiphany: there is a lot of conflict in my hometown. There was more shooting in Manchester this week than there was in Bouaké. I am realizing that there is a need for conflict resolution in my back yard. There is a need to do what I have spent my summer encouraging others to do: look to the roots of the problem. Do not adopt an “us” versus “them” attitude. Be honest. Realize that questions like, “What is happening to my town” miss the point. “Why is this happening to our town?” and “What can we do to make things better” can help us start to get there. I’m grateful for the distance that has helped me to see this.

finished the first draft of my case study

July 31, 2010

damn this is a lot harder than it looks. The fellow intern who I travelled with for the last leg of the research has been writing hers at last. It feels like finals – many cups of tea/coffee, wireless enabling our procrastination, sharing notes, and proofreading together. Yesterday she told me, “Now that I’m writing this, I have a better idea of what I was trying to find out.”
I repeated this to the French evaluator as she was on her way out of Abidjan. She’s done a lot of these style reports and she just laughed and said, “That’s always the way it is.”

It was nice to recap about the last week of travel with the other women on the trip. We all noticed that women are not being reached through SFCG programming – about 80% of our interviews were with men, even though we tried to seek out women. Frustrating to bring this up to men in our office who don’t see it as a big deal or accuse me of “inventing gender” – like I want to see sexism everywhere I go.
We had a talk in Sassandra one night about youth prostitution. The men all condemned the girls and excused those who solicit them.
Strange feeling, as usual, to hear people I respect, whose work I respect, believe things like that. Gender is in everything.

We also talked about how SFCG media outreach is really not reaching youth in Abidjan, where the bulk of the political action actually happens. I’m excited to go see the hip hop concert the state dept is sponsoring next week, want to find out if this is something youth here actually respond to.

Going back to Bouake tomorrow to finish my research for case study II. Glad I get this chance after I’ve actually tried writing a report.

Highlights of this week: had an actual salad (first since the states), got the contact info for some Ivorian rappers, found a nearby fruit market, stumbled onto a fantastic mural down the street.
I also went to the grocery store. Abidjan has an actual mall, complete with a food court and escalators. When I got into the supermarket I just wandered around for about forty minutes, mouth agape. By the end, all I had in my cart was toothpaste, Corona, and nutella. Then they put the Shakira/Akon/K’naan world cup trinity on repeat, I started to really miss Cameroon, and I had to leave.

I feel like I could live in Abidjan.

writing poems is a good feeling

July 28, 2010

After going door to door in rebel territory with surveys about social cohesion

I am a surveyor’s daughter.
My father measures land, maps borders.
Saturdays when I was small
he would take me with him
walk through New England farmland, forests.
We would brush aside grass, twigs, dead leaves
unearth centuries old corner stones
the vertebrae of walls.
Together we would draw the story
of our piece of earth.

These days, my life passes through borders.
I collect visas, ticket stubs,
conversation with strangers
who are also poised in the spaces in between.
When I feel homesick I draw bridges
spin them in the air
sound them into the phone
snatches of streets I carry:

even the very young have eyes
hard enough to state the truth,
it’s poverty which causes wars
people only break things
when they want to be heard
and in the moments after
(even during)
there is nothing for it
but to trust in the cycle of days.

I do not know if I will
ever be afraid to go anywhere.
Every time I get
to where they tell me not to
someone invites me in for tea.

I am my father’s daughter.
I want to map the world the way it is.

door to door in Bouake

July 27, 2010

There wasn’t enough time for me to do my own research in Bouake, so I just assisted with the evaluation. This involved approaching random members of the population with questionnaires to gage levels of violence and the impact of SFCG programming.
Language-fails all over the place. In Abidjan I’ve found that most people can understand me. Outside of Abidjan, it’s mostly those with higher levels of education that can decipher my accent. So, I was pretty much out of luck when Viviane, my fellow intern, and I hit the streets of Bouake armed with a folder full of questionnaires.
Viviane is Ivorian. She’s amazing: one of the nicest people I’ve ever met but also a social justice spitfire. I’ve seen her go toe to toe with older Ivorian men arguing for respect for prostitutes. That takes balls. She is also very dedicated to the work. She’s from the center of the country but is married to a man from the North – better than most, she understands the nature of the conflict in this country. It’s inspiring to work alongside her. This dedication also means that she’s willing to literally knock on people’s doors asking them if they have time to answer a few questions. I wish I could have taken a picture of some of these people’s faces, their lazy Sunday afternoon interrupted by two idealistic young women (one of them randomly white) asking them if they have a minute to talk about social cohesion. “um…sure?”
We met a group of women who were very patient with my accent and our questions. We were getting ready to leave when one of the women asked, “How do you get NGOs to give you money?” Viviane explained the importance of forming groups, for working for your own change. “NGOs support existing efforts,” she said.
When I”m out on the street I encounter this a lot. People see my clipboard and my skin and then start listing all the problems they have, mostly monetarily based. I feel like a fraud as I nod and write it down like I can atually do anything. Once again, Viviane inspired through example: explain clearly what you can actually do, explain how different resources actually function.

Sidenote: I had pizza and salad (actual salad, not just a pile of shredded carrots, as often happens) last night. Success.


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