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Speak the Silent Cries of the Innocent & of the Perpetrators

An unsettling consciousness of the contrast of my life in Austin with both the victims and perpetrators of violence at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall induced a restless sleep last night. I went to sleep wondering what emotions and fears the 30-plus hostages, the scores of wounded, plus families of the deceased were experiencing after the trauma of the day’s violence.

Westgate

A prior, 24-hour span, Friday to Saturday, had been as near to idyllic as one could hope for.

-My wife and I witnessed our middle daughter being honored as one of ten high school homecoming court nominees, a first for any IB (International Baccalaureate) student from her high school.

-We experienced a welcome summer-to-fall seasonal change, with an overnight temperature drop of 10 to 15°F, thereby coaxing our family outdoors for an evening sit in our lawn chairs, while nursing a hot, sweet mug of cardamom tea.

-We watched a documentary movie (Searching for Sugar Man) so excellent and tragic, that even our 9- and 12-year-old daughters were captivated by its feel-good story. It chronicles a blue-collar, Deer Park Michigan, Latino-American musician, Sixto Rodriguez, shunned and relegated to near poverty status in his native North America, yet who gained near cult status in South Africa during the apartheid era, for music that facilitated freedom of anti-apartheid expression. His self-composed lyrics resonated with people, particularly anti-establishment minded, white South Africans, whose lives were being constrained and compelled by an unjust and immoral political institution.

Rodriguez1

-The final day’s cherry on top was sharing intimate moments with my wife, whose Friday night portrait I had been “forced” to repeatedly look at since posting it on my FB wall.

A last act before sleep was viewing picture galleries of the al-Shabab attack: lifeless bodies lying crumpled and bloodied at the base of stairs and escalators; a twisted and contorted woman’s arm/elbow obviously disfigured by shrapnel; and panicked children being evacuated by security personnel or cowering in confined mall spaces, sheltered by the protective, yet useless-against-bullets arms and bodies of family members.

What had begun as a fun-filled day of shopping for thousands of Kenya citizens, residents and visitors, became in an instant a nightmarish rhythmic of grenade explosions, AK-47 gunfire, tear gas, and I’m sure the high pitch shrill of emergency sirens and human wailing and screams.

The numbers dead changed from a midnight 39 to a Saturday morning 59, with three to four-times that number of wounded.

Obscured and sidelined by Kenya’s tragedy were equally tragic same-day events elsewhere, including a suicide attack on a church in northwest Pakistan, killing more than 75 people and wounding 150. Another 60-plus Iraqis died at a funeral, with more than 120 wounded.

It is purported that some of the al-Shabab militants not only intentionally spared Muslims, while targeting Westerners, but also shouted out “Allahu Akbar” – God is great – as they fired indiscriminately in the mall.

Dignity of Diff

Jonathan Sacks remarks in his 2002 book The Dignity of Difference –

“Time and again in recent years we have been reminded that religion is not what the European Enlightenment thought it would become: mute, marginal and mild. It is fire – and like fire, it warms but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame. . . .

Two conversations are now necessary. One is between religious leaders on the one hand, and politicians and business leaders on the other, as to the direction globalization must take. This has brought benefits to many, but distress, disruption and poverty to many others whose voice we must also hear. . . .

We must speak the silent cry of those who today suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom.” (italics added)

An anti-abortion film, The Silent Scream, was produced in 1984. It allegedly showed via ultrasound the silent screams of a fetus in pain during an abortion procedure.

I thought to myself, “What silent screams born from perceived injustices or personal and prolonged experiences of suffering provoke and motivate acts of violence?”

Simply and quickly branding them as politicians and the media often do as “terrorist” conveniently legitimates retaliatory acts of punitive violence, yet it overlooks the formative life events and context that birthed the “terrorist.”

Certainly, there is no conscionable excuse for acts of violence against innocent people, such as the al-Shabab attack. Yet reactive political statements resolve little except to assuage initial public anger and outcry, such as Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta’s — and any number of similar global presidential statements — in which promises are made to “hunt down the perpetrators wherever they run to.”

We as nations are naive and ignorant at best, arrogant and stupid at worst to think, let alone voice false assurances to the public that the likes of al-Qaeda will eventually be defeated and decimated — no matter how many singular and significant “victories” we might have along the way, such as the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

We might periodically succeed in eradicating this or that regional or global extremist group like al-Qaeda or al-Shabab, but will prove ineffective in the long-term unless we “target” (let me use a militaristic term) systemic influences like widening economic disparity, which are the birth places of extremism.

On the contrary, should we not individually, or as communities, (faith) congregations, corporations, organizations and nations focus more attention and exert more effort to ascertain, help alleviate where we can, and “speak the silent cry of those who suffer from want, hunger, disease, powerlessness and lack of freedom?” After all, much of the wanton acts of violence and terror are last-ditch efforts to be heard.

Insignificant as my voice may be, that is a primary objective of Life — to speak and give voice to the silent cries of “the Other,” who Edward Said described as those who have been excluded, subordinated, demonized and dehumanized by whichever social, political, or religious group wields overt, subtle and underlying power at any given time.

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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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Breast-Feeding, Elephant Ears, and Basking Lizards | Meanderings of an American-African Mind

The mind is an amazing thing.

Do you know what I mean?

One minute you’re sitting alone or with others, thinking or discussing one thing or the other, and the next thing you know a random, sub-conscious word, thought or optical image diverts your thought processes to what appears on the surface to be an absurdly different topic altogether.

A case in point:

It’s a sunny yet relatively “cold” day today in Austin – high of 61F.  I’ve placed my seedling tray of tomato plants just behind our all-glass front door, so they will capture the light and warmth of the sun.  As I bent over to position them in full sunlight, I felt the morning sun’s warmth refracted through the door and on to my face, neck and arms.  The warmth and its soothing sensation, combined a moment later with the pleasured taste of a Starbuck’s Americano, drunk while sitting and looking out on an awakening neighborhood, somehow combined to trigger distant yet still close-at-hand memories.

I remember numerous happy childhood days at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club swimming pool, particularly, how good it felt (and feels) climbing out of cold water, then immediately lying face down on a sun-warmed border of the pool. 

From 3rd Wimpy Kid Movie

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Do you have similar recollections? Can you feel even as you read these words the sun warming your cold body, head to toes?  

This remembrance somehow linked to and triggered in my mind an idiomatic Venda expression for “I need to go to the toilet,” of which, the relevance to water and sun will soon be evident.

One day I asked my Venda tutor, “How do I tell someone, ‘Please excuse me, I need to go to the toilet?'” He thought a minute then replied, “In formal Venda you simply say, ‘Ndi khou toda u di thusa,’ which simply translates ‘I need to help myself.'”  But, he said, “If you want to speak ‘deep Venda’ then you can say, ‘Ndi khou toda u kumbedza tswina,’ which roughly translates ‘I need to blind a lizard.'”

lizard

As you likely are doing now, I chuckled, yet think about its contextual accuracy.  Most Venda people still rely on foot power and foot paths.  Distances are quite far, and if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that relieving oneself outdoors seldom conveys any similar degree of uncouthness as it does in the United States. Given Venda’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn, imagine that it’s a 39-degree Celsius day. You’re walking along a foot path when morning tea catches up with you.  You stop to relieve yourself in the shelter of a rocky and sparsely vegetated hill, and lying just before you is a basking lizard!

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Regrettably, all language lessons were not that painless.

The most embarrassingly painful Venda language learning remembrance for my wife and me was over the simplest and most frequently used daily expression – “hello.”

Our mistake?  Young when we arrived in South Africa, we asked an older – you would think more informed – white colleague how to greet, instead of asking someone from Venda.  As our colleague drove us to Venda from Johannesburg, a then six-hour drive, he told us, “Oh, it’s easy.  If it’s a man you say ‘Ndaa’ (masculine tone). If it’s a woman you say, ‘Aaah’ (feminine tone).”  So for the first few weeks, if not months, every man and every woman we greeted with either an “Ndaa” or “Aaah.”  Regrettably, what our colleague neglected to tell us is that only men greet with “Ndaa” and only women greet with “Aaah.”

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

We each received many strange and smiled looks when we greeted people.

My most painful related remembrance is of a woman I gave a lift to.  As she entered my bakkie (equivalent to a pick-up truck), I articulated in my most feminine tone and pitch, “Aaa!”  She must have been desperate for a ride, because rather than leaping out the window, she chose to remain with this seemingly crazed white taxi driver.

My wife’s faux pas was more painful, perhaps.  Soon after our arrival in Venda there was a peaceful coup, and our immediate neighbor in Block G, Thohoyandou (=head of the elephant), a general in Venda’s “air force,” Gabriel Ramushwana became president.  Rather then relocate from Block G to the substantial presidential compound situated mid-point between Thohoyandou and the white suburb of Sibasa on the hill, he chose to live with and among his people (there’s a lesson in there for all current and want-to-be politicians).

It wasn’t long, then, before the president’s yard was fitted with razor wire and a 24-hour military presence, much to our young son’s pleasure.  As President Ramushwana was exiting his premises one morning, and my wife was simultaneously closing our gate, she greeted him properly through his open car window.  It caused him to stop and respond kindly, “I see you’ve learned to greet properly in Venda!”

SA's 9 provinces & a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

South Africa’s nine provinces and a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

An important thing you should know about many, if not most of South Africa’s eleven official languages. They are tonal. Practically, this means one word can have multiple meanings depending upon tone and inflection. An example in Venda: “thoho” can communicate either “head” or “monkey.”

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

A personal example of a language miscue related to tone and inflection: It was a hot summer day, and as I arrived at my meeting destination a group of Venda ladies were sitting under a large shade tree.  We exchanged greetings, after which one of the group said something incoherent to me.  I attempted to say, “I didn’t hear well or clearly.” They all immediately yet politely stifled laughter, which, of course, told me my language effort failed miserably.  One of the ladies rose to her feet, walked over to me, and politely told me, “You have just told us that you have big ears like an elephant!”

censoredbreastfeed

A more U.S./European view of breast-feeding – taboo

Speaking of women and language learning . . . my mind again, as if it operates independently from intentional thought, skipped to a different page of memories.  This time a page of memories related to two breast-feeding incidents. Breasts and breast-feeding are viewed in wholesome (pure) and healthy terms in Venda, as in most parts Africa.

African woman breast feeding

African woman breast-feeding

Our arrival in Block G, Thohoyandou, Venda in early November, 1989, caused quite a stir, I’m certain.  The reason being: South Africa, even its so-called “independent” black homelands, existed within a canopy of legislated segregation or apartheid. It was more scandalous than normal for races to mix.  Yet here we were a young, white couple setting up home in what was effectively a new “black housing development.”  Within days of arrival, welcoming guests arrived at our front gate, including two pastors of local churches and their wives – one of whom, had recently given birth.

My wife quickly learned the cultural role of providing “tea” and some form of “pudding” (sweet pastry).  Midway through their visit, the one pastor’s wife decided it was time to feed her newborn.  This was no big event, except for two complicating factors:  In likely her first-ever visit to a white person’s house she had worn her best dress, which was beautiful, yet impractical for nursing purposes, in that, the neck of the dress extended up near her clavicle, making “breast extraction” near impossible.  Secondly, she was a very buxom woman.  These factors did not deter her from trying, though – and repeatedly so!  Given that we all were sharing a small living room space, her efforts and failures became increasingly pronounced as time went on.  Much to all of our relief, I’m sure, the senior pastor finally voiced our discomfiture and what was evident to all of us – “Shame, she’s having trouble getting the pipe out.”

A final humorous story related to language and breast-feeding.  My wife grew up in the Dominican Republic, and is fluent in Spanish (and German).  Inspired by a college professor, she chose – actually, we chose – to raise all five of our children bilingual.  Upon arrival in Venda our eldest, a boy, was a year old.  After two years living in Venda and among the Venda people, he had learned a lot, but also “absorbed” a lot – specifically, the reality that many infants and small children received milk from their mothers’ breasts.

One evening we invited an elderly American couple over for dinner.  They were assisting in the management of a relief project at the time.  She, like the pastor’s wife, was quite a buxom woman, and sitting immediately to the right of my son at the dining table, he couldn’t help but notice.  Given the sights and cultural experiences he had absorbed to that point, he very innocently verbalized midway through dinner to my wife – fortunately in Spanish – “Does she have milk?”  It was obviously a moment of great discomfiture for my wife, but fortunately an anonymously embarrassing moment, which today we remember with great laughter.

Concluding thought: 

Meandering minds and their on-the-surface incoherent and dissonant linkages with past memories and associations frequently result in fond and kind remembrances of happier and simpler periods, events and relationships in life, which if we’ll allow them, just might warm up, encourage, what to that point in time or day we might tend to label as struggle, despondency, heartache or melancholy.

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