Tag Archives: North American

Ride A Hound, Discover E-Cigarettes & Connect With The (real) World

North America, even the entire world might be a kinder, more equitable and empathetic place if elected officials were required to ride public transport on a semi-frequent basis. It wouldn’t do the rest of us any harm, either. I say this because few places on earth can match public transportation and its connecting hubs for encounters with the “real” world and its “real” people. 

Instead of whizzing here, there, and everywhere in protective cavalcades or luxuriated personal SUV’s and Mercedes Benzes, which cocoon the moderately to excessively wealthy from the sounds, smells, and sometimes snail’s pace of public life and transport, I encourage us to ditch our wheels once or twice a blue moon and risk riding on the likes of Greyhound, as I did a few weeks ago when I rode from Austin to Waco. 

greyhound

We Americans have become so co-dependent on rubberized four-wheeled transportation that at a Geneva conference I attended, a red-headed Scottish woman’s takeaway impression of the United States was American mall shoppers parking and entering one store, then exited the store and driving around to the other side of the mall to shop in another.

My recent 100-mile bus ride was my second ever Greyhound bus experience; the first being decades ago when I traveled alone as an eight-year-old from Dallas to Shreveport, Louisiana, to visit an uncle and aunt for what I had hoped would be a weekend of bass fishing, but which got rained out. This time I rode up so that I could drive back with a new-used Honda Accord I purchased.

I knew my Waco trip was going to be an adventure of sorts the minute I tried calling Greyhound to make changes to my reservation. Repeated calls to an 800-number, plus to the Austin Greyhound station went unanswered. The two times I succeeded in getting through to the internet sales support division, a Latina answered, yet her voice sounded distant, as if I’d been routed to a Latin American call center, and each time I could hear her voice but she couldn’t hear mine.

At the Austin station my bus eventually arrived. Like livestock nervously lined up for a tick and flea dip we all lined up at the boarding door hoping to secure preferred seating. In front of me was a group of three, one of whom, a young lady in her 20’s, sat next to me on the ride north, and for most of the trip used her Droid cell phone to either listen to music with her popular Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, or talk to a friend about her car, which evidently was in a questionable mechanical state.

I discovered that her two standing-in-line male companions were merely waiting until boarding time with her. One of them inadvertently introduced me to the popular phenomenon of e-cigarettes, a questionably disturbing popular trend, particularly with middle and high schoolers.

If you, like I was, are oblivious to what e-cigarettes are, they are battery-powered devices that deliver nicotine in an aerosol mist, and come in a variety of flavors. Her companion in his early 30’s, periodically blew out of his mouth what at first appearance looked like smoke, yet I couldn’t account for why it quickly dissipated and didn’t have a lingering smoky tobacco smell.

Given that he had the cheek “to smoke” inside a non-smoking area, at first I wanted to report him, yet was hesitant since the evidence of his crime (smoke) vanished as quickly as it was blown. It wasn’t until a few weeks passed and I was reading an article entitled “Rise Is Seen In Students Who Use E-Cigarettes,” that I put two-and-two together and realized what this young man had been “smoking.”

e-cigarettes

My 1.5-hour trip was uneventful. I, like the young woman seated next to me, slipped my ear buds in and listened to music and a TED clip most of the way, while I simultaneously took bored pleasure in looking down into passing motorists’ cars.

While I’m grateful to have the means and privilege to own a vehicle, I told those who picked me up that this brief two-hour excursion outside my familiar and personal comfort zone was healthy – not only for my personal life perspective, but also for the heightened consciousness it provided me of others’ day-to-day life realities.

Given that such “others” are a sizable national percentage, and a majority percentage of the global population, I encourage all individuals – particularly of economic and policy means (especially politicians) – to periodically at least disconnect yourselves from your insulated power and yea-sayer bases, and by yourself (i.e., vulnerably and independent from cronies or friends, who facilitate perpetuation of hardened negative opinions and stereotypes) connect yourself with those whose lives you have responsibility toward, either by your elected position and its power of policy, or by inheritance or fortuitous life circumstances. Such first-hand experiences might better equip you to make wise and empathetic policy decisions, which help alleviate negative societal symptoms and address malfunctioning systems.

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Filed under Diversity, Life, Memories, Pedagogy, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith

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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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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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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The Positive Power of Difference | Us + Them

I remember the wall that encased my third grade home in Kenya.  It was quarried rock, thinly plastered with cement, and as a security measure, injected along the top with jagged, multi-colored shards of glass.  I was sitting atop that wall one day (at a point void of glass!) when my family’s first of two pet Vervet monkeys, Penny, decided to join me, and then out of sheer pleasure at the prospect of terrorizing a young boy, bit my arm.  I screamed more in fear than pain, and shoved her off the 6 to 8 foot wall.

Glass as Crime Deterent

Glass as a crime deterrent

Aware that neighborhood, community and nation are rapidly changing toward a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic hues – and interspersed with varied degrees of crime – it’s easy and enticing to buy into the myth, marketing and politicking, which advocates that people and nations are predetermined to be in perpetual conflict and hostility with each other.

Such thought and argument utilizes fear of the unknown and different to persuade us that the best defense and antidote against inevitable change and conflict is an impenetrable barrier – or, as former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachman suggested – either an electrified fence or one that stretches the entire length of the Mexico/U.S. border.

A not uncommon residential security - Durban

A not uncommon residential security – Durban

It’s a modern-day circling the wagons scenario.  Confronted by a perceived or real threat, we erect barriers  to protect self, family and assets.  Sadly, we disregard the inevitable and historical fact that we are building nothing more lasting than structures of sand, which will not last beyond a spring tide of social discontent. Look no further for evidence than the Berlin Wall or France and the storming of the Bastille.

1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

Walls are physical structures, yes, but they are also symbolic.  China’s Great Wall was built as a northern barrier against the threatening barbarian Huns.  Andrew Sinclair, however, noted that walls suggest “a mentality which still persists—the view of a world in which the limits between the civilized and the barbarian are exact and impassable.”  Today we might revise this “wall mentality” to express our longing for an impenetrable divide that guarantees personal protection.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

What precipitated my thinking about walls and barriers, you ask?

Two things.

First, midpoint on my daily run are two separately owned houses for sale.  A distinctive of these two residences has been a shared, unpartitioned backyard.  What is now distinctive is that prior to sale, a high, dividing fence is being constructed that will effectively restrict one new homeowner’s access to the formerly shared swimming pool, as well as minimize social interaction.

The second precipitating factor? My own long-held thoughts on difference, well enunciated by Todd Pittinsky and his book Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference.

I frequently voice – particularly post-senseless acts of mass violence – that despite their unconscionable and numbing reality, given a burgeoning global population and people’s access to firearms, as well as the pervasiveness of mental illness and socio-economic disparities, it’s a miracle many times more random acts of violence don’t occur.

It seems we individually, as societies, and “the media” conveniently overlook and under-report the positive dimensions of stories (the many examples of how people positively and daily relate to one another), focusing instead on telling and showing the macabre because that is what sells and excites social consciousness.

As Pittinsky observes, “We are letting the worst of the news become our underlying picture of us-and-them relations.  We know the negative power of difference very well, but we are barely acquainted with the positive power of difference.”

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

This is exactly Pittinsky’s point.  Since the Holocaust and extending into the Civil Rights era, social science research has singularly focused on the negative – on hate and negative prejudice type studies.  Positive research and reporting on “liking of the other” (which he calls allophilia) is largely excluded.

Social sciences’ singular and myopic research on causes of and ways to eliminate or minimize the negative (hate/prejudice) has over the decades thoroughly and negatively saturated and shaped society at large (via education), especially government, military, business, education and civic leaders’ perceptions, attitudes, and responses to difference and “them.”

This overwhelming negative outlook has adversely affected societies at large because leaders and groups views of and approaches to difference and “the other” reflect an “us versus them” or an “us against them,” and seldom, if ever, a positive science of “us and them” or an “us plus them.”

Us + Them

Us + Them

There’s something wrong, Pittinsky notes, when all focus, effort, and expenditure is on tracking “hate back through generations while overlooking positive attitudes and actions that happen today, never mind seeking their distant roots or long-term effects.”

Take Africa for example.  Western coverage of the continent is dominated by news of genocide, dictatorial atrocities, and ethnic massacres.  Yet, Africa has an “estimated 2,035 linguistic groups and more than 3,000 ethnic groups.  It is not uncommon to find more than 20 ethnic groups in one country.  And yet, at any given moment, most Africans are not hating or fighting.  Why not?  We really don’t know.  It’s mostly the hate we study.”

In researching his book, Pittinsky found more than 200 published measures of hate and negative prejudice toward “the other” group, yet not a single measuring tool for constructing positive attitudes toward “the other.”

The Core of the Problem

The Core of the Problem

North Americans have at least two significant challenges ahead of us.  First, as Harvard’s Diana Eck states, “Simply open our eyes.  Discover America anew, and explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious (and cultural) landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools.

Secondly, strive to maintain our nation’s e pluribus unum (out of the many, one), given the twin facts that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in the world, yet also the most religiously (and culturally) illiterate.

religion-dm-500

Our economic prosperity, global dominance and geographical size has in the past minimized our “need” to initiate relationships or understanding of difference with the “other.”

Like South Africa, the United States is a rainbow nation of diversity and multiple cultures.  We need to discard/unlearn any and all notions that suggest people and nations are predestined and hard-wired for conflict and hostility, as Samuel Huntington’s popular book title suggests, The Clash of Civilizations.  For the passionately religious minded, this will require, in part, a cessation of bearing false witness against those different from oneself.

All it takes to begin reversing the centuries’-long cultural and religious ingrained notion that hostility and conflict are immutable aspects of our created differences, is to risk sharing in what Eck describes as “the common tasks of our civil society.”

If that is too risky or demanding a task, then share a cup of hot tea/coffee and a conversation with “the other” about shared memories of life and loss, perhaps during what Elizabeth Lesser calls, “Take ‘the other’ to lunch.” It would help communicate across cultural, political, economic and social divides, if you took along a few personal photographs to share, too.

We all, yet leaders, in particular, “Have the responsibility to understand and increase what we want (peaceful and productive multicultural societies), not just to understand and decrease what we don’t want (prejudice and hate).”

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