Monthly Archives: May 2013

Consigned to Work for a Young American Family, a MuVenda Woman’s Enduring Gift

Allow me to tell you about Selinah Mahamba of Tshitavha/Sambandou; a village 30-minutes drive north of Thohoyandou/Sibasa, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Vho Selinah with our first born, Daniel.

Vho Selinah with our first-born, Daniel.

Preamble – 

Imagine that you are a black or “non-white” person (South African context), consigned by historical fate to live during either the era of US slavery or South Africa’s apartheid.

Think about what it was like for black people living in those times and contexts. Imagine that every day, and in every conceivable way, you’re forced due to life circumstances to view yourself by and through the mirror of coercive subservience to a white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

If you’re not fond of or good at imagining, then rent The Help. Watch it! – either alone or with friends. But if with friends, choose those who won’t make snide remarks throughout, thereby cheapening the movie’s powerful portrayal of the inherent humanity of individuals who have suffered immense less-than-human injustices, and of the corresponding inhumanity of those who enacted such injustices.

Watch it several more times over the next few months for good measure. Perhaps other movies exist, which equally depict what life is like for individuals forced to work for – and please – people, who hold such prejudicious and contemptive power over them.  If so, I’m unaware of them.

As John W. Blassingame noted in The Slave Community; Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, whereas whites were historically privileged (had de facto and de jure power) to shape their identity upon the social mirror of the savage and heathen black or red “Other,” in America’s slavery and South Africa’s apartheid context, black people were by fateful default consigned to view themselves by the mirror of coercive subservience to the white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Complimenting this is Edward Said (1935-2003), author of the pioneering and foundational text, Orientalism. He convincingly argued that identity is not natural and static (i.e., fixed, pre-determined). It is constructed and inseparable from the disposition of power and powerlessness within societies.

Story –

My family of (then) three lived in Thohoyandou, Venda, South Africa from 1989 to 1992; a brief, yet important span of time in South Africa’s history, in that, Nelson Mandela went from being decades’ long political prisoner to freed man and future head of state.

We were naive young North Americans, who arrived in town with an over-inflated optimism of the good and change we might bring to the Venda people (A characteristic naiveté of most North Americans, I believe. A result, perhaps, of our heritage, in which we’ve erroneously come to believe we are the par excellent God-nation, a “city upon a hill,” as Puritan, John Winthrop unknowingly popularized in an early 1600 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”). Fortunately for us, the VhaVenda are (and were) extremely patient, kind and forgiving!

After three years we relocated to South Africa’s southeast coastal region, yet in leaving Venda, we were only too aware that instead of us changing a place and a people, it was they who had changed our lives.

Although I could list several prominent individuals during this 3-year period (for example Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend) – in terms of their effect upon and mentorship of our lives – this blog is singularly about one individual, Selinah Mahamba.

Vho Selinah, somewhat like Mother Teresa but without the global recognition, is an a-typical VIP and mentor, in that, her life is void of any distinguishable secular “success indicators.”  She was a de facto single mother of four, who recounted being shocked when her husband arrived home unannounced with a second wife and then she throwing this woman’s belongings out of the house, and who struggled daily to keep her children fed. She spoke no English, and we were only just learning TshiVenda – one of South Africa’s eleven official languages.

At the recommendation of a Venda caravan camp manager (now a Protea Resort) we hired her as a “domestic worker.” Each weekday exacted a minimum 2-hour roundtrip on public transport for her, plus 7 hours work at our home – where she cooked, cleaned, washed clothes and cared for our two children – then returned home to do the same for her family.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

We employed several inside/outside “domestic helpers” during our time in South Africa, most of whom became second family to us. My wife remarked one day how amazed she was (and respect felt) at the strength, resilience, and kindness-of-character of domestic workers, in that, they tolerated the daily whimsical and sudden and unaccountable changes of demands, moods and behaviors of their many and varied (all races), mostly under-paying employers.

Vho Selinah demonstrated few, if any of the “public persona refinements” typically evidenced by formal education (my written loquaciousness, for example!:), yet lack of formal education and opportunity is not synonymous with lack of potential, or lack of ability, or lack of intelligence. She possessed all of that and much more.

One (of many) enduring gift of Vho Selinah to my family was in her mentoring my wife in Venda/African methods of “being” and mothering; specifically how to “sling” and tie one’s child to one’s back, so as to be able to lull a child to sleep, to feel and gauge the well-being of a child’s heartbeat against one’s back, and be able, then, to go places, meet people, and re-engage daily responsibilities, whatever they might be.

My family and I are forever grateful that a portion of our identities have been crafted and shaped by Venda mirrors!

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa - Johannesburg

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa – Johannesburg

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

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The Devolution of Children’s Development | A Call for (healthy) Boredom

Women’s rights have rightfully progressed since the days and era when even cigarette brands, like Virginia Slims, based their marketing on a then male-dominant social context; popularizing the slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.”

VASlims

Regrettably, I don’t think we can unequivocally say the same about children’s developmental progress, particularly in terms of play and interpersonal.

Listen, I’m not suggesting kids are less intelligent today than previous periods. And, certainly, when looking back on history to periods in which “children were to be seen but not heard from,” they, like women, have attained many long-overdue rights and protections.

Rather, what I’m suggesting is this:

Today’s children (North American, at least) seldom experience what I call “healthy boredom”; a type and degree of inactivity that encourages and facilitates creative and imaginative play; voracious reading; friendships with heretofore unknown neighbors, and down time with siblings and parents that often evolves into reminiscing and unrestrained laughter.

Look, this isn’t a researched critique of 21st century life, such as, “technology’s effect on children” (although merely google that and you’ll find 1 million-plus links to expert perspectives on the subject, including “Antisocial Networking?,” “Wired Kids, Negligent Parents?,” or How Technology is Affecting the Way Children Think and Focus.“), but rather, a personal perspective based on a recent cursory trip down memory lane, and a “trip” through my iPhoto folder.

If you’ve read my “About” you know that I grew up in East Africa. That, plus my 40-ish age translates to a childhood void for the most part of typically American childhood experiences such as TV, Six Flags Over Texas and Wet-N-Wild type amusement parks, non-stop sporting events, plus, in the so-called Bible Belt, weekends and summers filled with church and mission activities/trips.

Most of my childhood consisted of post-colonial Kenya experiences. This included the typically European and tourist varieties, such as tented safari, but gratefully, a predominance of local activities with indigenous friends as well.

So, for instance, my recollections of childhood include:

*In Nyeri (near Mount Kenya), herding small herds (5 to 25 animals) of foraging cows, goats and sheep alongside Kikuyu boys. I remember being near-obsessed with the long sticks the herd boys used, and hoarding a stash of herding sticks. For this blog’s relevance: It was boredom that drove me out of my house and to our 1-acre property boundary, where I initiated contact and friendship with passerby herd boys.

*My four years in Kisumu, a town bordering Lake Victoria, were the most formative ones for me; especially in terms of how fun-filled a “boring” life could be.

I slingshotted and fished with nets for Tilapia alongside my Luo friends (see Fly Fishing for Sheep and Slingshotting for ‘Ndeges’). We frequently played “Cops and Robbers” with my assortment of toy cap guns. One group would hide and the other would count to 100. The “counters” then shouted in Luo “wathe?” (ready?), to which frequently came the reply “podi” (not yet!).

A favorite game my Luo friends taught me I’ll call “bottle cap car racing.” It cost and utilized nothing more than discarded bottle caps from glass soda/beer bottles. We each found and jealously guarded (sometimes trading) our own collection of Fanta Orange, Coke, Sprite and even Tusker beer bottle caps. We made them “road and race worthy” by eliminating any unsightly dents or bulges by gentle hammering, and then rubbing them vigorously against a coarse, sandpaper-like surface. This made them smooth, slippery, and crazy fast.

We created “race tracks” of curves, banks and bumps in our gravel driveway by means of placing two hands together – much as you might to create a silhouette butterfly impression on a white wall – placing them palm down on the gravel, and with bulldozer maneuver pushing them along and through the gravel, thereby forming a 6 to 8-inch wide bottle cap race track. The caps “raced” by flick of the fingers propulsion (middle finger flicking out and away from the thumb). Like any game, you incurred penalty. For example, if your bottle cap flew outside the race track, or you hit another racer.

Other remembered (and memorable) collective activities motivated by periods of “boredom” from this period of life include making wire rally cars, replete with battery-powered headlamps (flashlight bulbs), gear shifts, and rubberized steering wheels.

A wire car similar to those my friends and I made.  Borrowed from arteilimitada2011.blogspot.com

A wire car similar to those my friends and I made. Borrowed from arteilimitada2011.blogspot.com

Also, making a two-room, A-frame structure of sticks in my family’s backyard. Finding large stacks of field grass (aka, grass thatch), securing them tightly to our stick structure to prevent rain seepage, and then overnighted with my Luo friends in “our house.”

*During high school we lived in Musoma, Tanzania for one year. I have to admit, finding meaning in boredom in a small, out-of-the-way lakeside town was a real challenge. Nevertheless, a fond memory from this brief and boring residence was sitting outside on a quilt with my parents and younger brother (and 2 dogs), and looking up at the near pitch-black, yet star-studded night sky and searching for the many crisscrossing satellites.

My walk down “boring” memory lane road spontaneously occurred this past week, when I came across select pictures of my own children, likewise exhibiting “boring” life moments. So “boring” that there’s seldom a week that passes, in which one or all three of my younger kids say something like, “I miss (South) Africa! I wish we still lived there.” See the following photographic evidence of the deprived long-term effects of no TV, no iPad, no Nintendo, no non-stop activities et cetera –

Foot race in a dry riverbed, alongside elephant dung!

Foot race in a dry riverbed, alongside elephant dung!

Free falling off a large riverbed rock.

Free falling off a large riverbed rock.

My youngest playing "office" on a broken iMac consigned to the garage.

Playing “office” on a broken iMac consigned to the garage.

Did you ever imagine an office chair with wheels could be so fun?

Did you ever imagine an office chair with wheels could be so fun?

Imaginative creation of a zoo in the "desert"

Imaginative creation of a zoo in the “desert”

I wish for you and yours the pleasures and longterm benefits of “boredom”!

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Numbers | Our (misplaced) Measure of Success

Regrettably, quantifying has become the standard, all-in-all measurement for defining success and identity.  

Quantifying is a global practice, yes, but distinctly North American. Numbers are thought to convey everything important: the all in all of a business’s bottom line; an individual’s legacy or value to society; a sports team’s record; a university’s national ranking; and for some, even a measurement of sexual prowess. Frequently it’s cloaked in the language of “indicators,” such as “economic or performance indicators.”

For example:

Since I’m attempting to re-enter the workforce full-time, everything related to “finding employment” that I read in blogs, books, articles, or hear via webinars suggest that my chances are slim to none of finding prior comparable work if I can’t quantify my work and life experience in such a way as to inform a would-be-employer how I will either make them money or keep them from losing it.

My dilemma?

How do I quantify and communicate a career built to date on the qualitative – aka, interpersonal?

Since the majority of my work experience has been in Africa, it’s imperative that I convey my transferable skills and accomplishments for a North American context and audience.  But how?  

If I were my former Kenya-based colleague, I could display an impressive photographic portfolio of rural children’s community development centers, replete with annualized financial and enrollment figures.

But . . .

Because my skill set resides primarily in the qualitative realm of the interpersonal and intercultural, my challenge is to try and sell what my colleague once described as a “non-sexy” product. That is, he was implying that North Americans like to give and invest in projects and ventures that result in quantifiable and self-branding payback potential (e.g., “Look what we built!”).

Therefore, how do I quantify, for example, a life and work goal – one shared by US Peace Corps – of “helping to promote a better understanding of North Americans to the world,” and conversely “helping promote a better understanding of the world to North Americans?”

“Success” should not be excessively based on quantifiable activities and accomplishments as currently exists.

Equally important are the intangibles such as: lives mentored and supported, local profit and non-profit initiatives empowered, conflicts ameliorated, clients engaged and retained, partnerships mediated and MOAs facilitated, interdisciplinary-interdepartmental-intercultural relationships fostered, and good will, mutual understanding and respect engendered.

An essential problem with the prevailing measurement of success is that people and relationships can’t be quantified – at least easily.  They can’t be framed, stuffed and put into picture frames or hung on walls for donors, investors and the like to copyright or affix their brand logo.

A final example, yesterday my wife was one of 64 MSN graduates from The University of Texas’ School of Nursing. Also graduating were 7 PhD’s, and 76 BSN’s. One graduate from each degree program, plus two alumni, were recognized as “outstanding.” The 5 had the honor of sitting on stage among faculty.

graduation

“Outstanding” was (apparently) determined based on: 1) International service – mostly Africa. 2) Service that benefits the many under-served populations. 3) Prodigious research and publications. 4) Highest grade point average. And, specific to the alumnus: 4) Management oversight of millions, and in one alumnus’ case, billions of dollars.

I highlight my wife’s commencement’s traditional pomp and ceremony to make a point:

America’s over-zealous valuing of and reliance on quantifying – whether it’s in the area of work, resume/curriculum vitae, study, life, church, et cetera – is less reflective, to me, of how “outstanding” a candidate, corporation, body, team or country is or could possibly be.

Rather, it’s more reflective of how unskilled and uncomfortable we have become with the interpersonal.

It’s my opinion, that frequently to most often times, “outstanding” people, projects or achievements attain this fleeting accolade at the expense of others and relationships, whether it be work/study colleagues, spouse, children.  

It’s as if we have learned to deflect our many painful and failed relationships by throwing up smoke screens of numbers. Instead, we pour our energy, time and focus into activities and achievements, all of which are more easily controlled, manipulated, rewarded and promoted or publicized.

Impartially speaking, of course:), I believe my wife attained “outstanding” status, in that, she completed a difficult 3-year graduate studies program; she did so during midlife and after birthing and raising 5 children – plus, as of yesterday, 05/18/2013, she succeeded in staying married to the same, sometimes cantankerous man for 28 years!

But then . . . who will ever know about many of her “outstanding” candidate qualities because they are not quantifiable according to standard curriculum vitae or certificate of merit protocol!

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The Gift of “Cut To The Chase(rs)”

This morning I spoke plainly with my dawdling youngest daughter, because departure for school was rapidly approaching and she still had a number of daily and allocated responsibilities to complete (meds to take, teeth to brush, and, oh yes, the dishwasher to unload with the help of her older sister – a task that was allocated the previous afternoon!).

I told her, “You better speed up!  I assure you that you’ll be late to broadcast (she’s an in-school TV anchor for morning announcements) rather than us leave home with chores undone!” Do I even need to mention that she didn’t particularly like my message or my forthrightness?

Can you recall words and statements, expressed by never-t0-be-forgotten persons of influence (admired and hated), which stung like salt in even the smallest of open wounds, like a blister, BUT, which, you look back on with gratitude for the truth you needed to hear?

Early 2004 I remember one such occasion.  I was under pressure to finish my research dissertation and be able to graduate by May.  I e-mailed my advisor (and friend) what I thought was a decent, if not good concluding chapter.  After a few days wait he responded with this basic message, “Scott, this stinks! Re-write the chapter.”

Me & Advisor/Friend, William H. Brackney

Me & Advisor/Friend, William H. Brackney

Like my daughter, I didn’t much care for his response, let alone his candor. But, I knuckled back down and persevered through the tediousness of a concluding chapter re-write. The result?  Gratitude to my advisor for not allowing me to settle for mediocrity, or for wasting my time in circuitous efforts to soften the message I needed to hear.

Wiki defines “cut to the chase” as “getting to the point without wasting time.” Some individuals have a knack for compassionately cutting to the chase, while some people are more abrasive in their “cutting.”  Either way, personally speaking, I’m grateful for parents, friends, mentors, colleagues, and occasional acquaintances, who cared enough about my life and potential that they risked cutting to the chase with me.

I hope you can be so grateful as well.  AND, perhaps today will bring an occasion and opportunity, whereby you can return the favor to someone.  In so doing, however, remember to abide by Google’s informal motto  – “Don’t Be Evil!”

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3 Benefits of House Cleaning for Children’s Development

Preface: I admit this blog is not my hippest or masculine of topics, yet last week my wife completed a 3-year long MSN program at UT-Austin. During this period I assumed most management responsibilities of home and family.  The following are just a few personal observations gleaned from my more concentrated time at home.

Our house lies within 150 yards of a Northwest Austin two-lane, east-to-west road, which, in effect, serves as a boundary marker between quarter-of-a-million-dollar (or less) houses and those 2 to 4 times that amount.

We live in a 3/4 mile-long sliver of a neighborhood where the two residential zones (for lack of a better descriptive) overlap.

Differences between communities on either side of the boundary road are noticeable.

One noticeable difference, is the prevalence of small business home cleaning companies in the more white collar zone.  Cleaning ladies (I’ve yet to see a male) usually arrive in personal, nondescript cars, which contain a variety of house cleaning solutions and equipment.  Occasionally a company fleet car is parked curbside, with a logo and slogan painted on the side, such as this one from a Chrysler PT Cruiser I photographed last week and then cropped for blogging usage:

Life'sTooShort

Is house cleaning really so menial a task that it detracts from and diminishes life?  Is there no inherent or transferable value in a few hours of weekly or bi-weekly house/yard cleaning?

I say yes.

Insisting on each family member’s weekly/bi-weekly participation in house/yard cleaning chores, provides at least the following benefits:

It counters negative minds and inert bodies. It’s Behavioral Therapy 101.

For example, you have a pressing project or assignment due, yet you feel lousy, depressed, and flat.  Somehow you force yourself off the couch and away from the TV. You start clearing the kitchen, while simultaneously stealing glances at the show you were watching. The show ends but you’re now well into the job, and it’s a short step to the laundry room, where you start folding clean but thrown-in-the-basket socks and undergarments. Before you realize it, you’ve done a mini-clean of the house and your body and mind feels invigorated and focused enough to engage that procrastinated project.

It teaches respect for the other(s).

Unless your house is obscenely large, personal and collective activities take place in “shared spaces.” Children need reinforced reminding that consideration of the other’s needs, preferences and (quirky) mannerisms are of equal importance to one’s own. What is one family member’s “clean & tidy” is another member’s stressors and vice versa.

No two families are alike. One family’s siblings do well if they talk or see each other once a year, while another’s are best of friends. My experience is that teaching respect for another’s “life and living space” is a painstaking role parents need to help facilitate.

Keeping house is perhaps a minor yet far from insignificant area where respect can be taught.  Respect for sibling, certainly, but also respect for the diversity of people, cultures, customs and beliefs our children are increasingly encountering on a daily basis.

It provides an opportune and safe place to help children learn how to resolve conflict.

In my family conflict always occurs when cleaning chores are requested, assigned, and finally inspected. House cleaning is almost always a once (or more) a month moment when disgruntlements necessitate we sit down as a family and discuss not only the cleaning assignments, but also underlying and dormant grievances that ‘magically’ somehow surface, yet which in hindsight were developing for days, if not weeks.

As my wife once and wisely remarked, “Parenting well can’t be done in just your spare time.” It’s time and energy consuming.

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More Conversation and Candor, Please

This blog is an appeal for change.

As individuals, groups, communities, societies, even corporate and government, let us please resolve differences of opinion and feeling by a commitment to and practice of “More Conversation” (MOCO) and “More Candor” (MOCA). 

Candor – i.e., frank, sincere, open, transparent, blunt, direct, plainspoken, honest, and forthright.

Like Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign/slogan, why don’t we more often “Just Say It”?

“MOCO” is from Liz Ryan’s Harvard Business Review Blog, “We Approach Diversity the Wrong Way.”

As for “MOCA” . . . as Mike Myers, aka Austin Powers might express it, “It’s my own acronym, baby!”

My appeal for a MOCO/MOCA commitment might on the surface seem silly.  A no-brainer. Yet is it?

My point is this:

Unlike in many African and Asian countries, in much of the so-called Western world there are few, if any, cultural or social norms that exert pressure on individuals or groups to stick with and work through interpersonal conflict.

-Your best friend says or does something that hurts, offends or disrespects you? Disengage. Find another.

-Your pastor frequently speaks on topics that trouble your conscience?  Leave and find another church.

-Your parents persist and insist on managing your life? Go live elsewhere.

-Your neighborhood is morphing into a racial and cultural hue of a different kind? Relocate.

-Your spouse cheats on you?  Forget the kids’ well-being or any extenuating circumstances that precipitated this hurtful indiscretion, divorce the good-for-nothing. Refuse any efforts to reconcile.

Working through disagreement, differences and conflict is more often than not all-consuming for a time.

Sometimes sustained dialogue is unsuccessful in resolving differences, yet it often results at a minimum to understanding and respect for the other’s position.

Yes, the process of sustained engagement and dialogue might leave one feeling physically and emotionally comparable to clothes having been wrung through an old wringer washing machine. And, yes, I realize that life’s pace and socio-political complexities don’t always allow for such privileged hashing out of differences.

I’m not suggesting that we shout more, or be even more of an ass toward others than we already might be.

I am asking that we commit more time, effort and compassionate/empathetic candor to resolving differences and disagreements.

It might not make us popular in the short-term, but it will improve our long-term credibility, as well as strengthen relationships.

Perhaps Wendy Lea’s (CEO of Get Satisfaction) responses about entrepreneurship to The New York Times’ Adam Bryant are a fitting closure:

“If you think there’s a problem, there is. If your instincts say there’s something wrong, there is, and the longer you wait to tackle it, the worse it gets. I’m so tired of having to relearn that lesson. . . . I am open and willing to tell the truth that you need to hear, and I expect people to do the same with me.”

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