Monday, November 19, 2007

Bits and peaces

I always hesitate when people ask me what I do, and no less so than at the airport when that piece of beaurocratic paper asks me to state my profession. Titles like "Programme Assistant" don't give any idea of what the job entails. I recently had the idea of writing "Peace Worker" and it sits nicely with me. Identifying myself as a Peace Worker gives an impression of the sort of work I tend to be involved in without limiting it to a definition of paid employment or to focussing solely on the academic or solely on the practical.

So, what have I been doing recently? Last weekend I facilitated an Alternatives to Violence workshop which was, as always, both inspiring and exhausting. I have been reading up on Australia's peacebuilding work in the Pacific, and have been pleased to find that some of the research and advocacy I was doing in Geneva is also happening here. I have also been getting interested in and helping out with Quaker development work here in Australia. I have been following up on projects I was involved with in Kenya, and am very excited to hear that AVP might be part of a new peace project in Nepal all because I was able to link some people up with each other. I have also been putting together some fun African fabrics in order to make a patchwork skirt which will remind me of Kenya. So I suppose at the moment I'm literally doing bits and peaces, and the label of Peace Worker fits well.

I love a sunburnt country

As I drifted from sleep to consciousness on my first morning back in Australia I was greeted by the familiar yet half-forgotten sound of a kookaburra laughing. It was a beautiful reminder that I was in the land of mystical creatures, sun-burnt countryside and of dreaming. There is something so comforting about Australia's wildlife and the stark contrast between the beaches, the bush and the desert.

I have been lucky enough to be back home just as the purple jacaranda trees are lining the streets, I have spent time at my favourite place in the whole world, Werona in Kangaroo Valley, and have sat by the creek at the bottom of mum and dad's street and of course stared in wonder and delight at Bondi's crazy sculpture's by the sea. I took a friend to Manly by ferry, and found myself amongst all the tourists photographing the opera house and harbour bridge at twilight.

It is really nice to be home but I know I won't forget all the amazing people I met and experiences I had in Europe and Africa. They have already begun to inform and impact my work here already - I included a Kenyan activity "I pepeta" into a workshop I facilitated last weekend and it was a great success!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

So long and thanks for all the ugali

I can't believe that my time at Lubao Peace Centre is coming to a close. I've made so many friends in this short time, and there are so many funny memories. Certainly the endless meals of ugali and beans and rice will be remembered but not missed! Chapatti I will miss! And I can't wait to taste fresh vegetables again.

I will remember my first trip in to Kakamega town all by myself and the way everyone waved me off at the road and then was so excited to see me back safe and sound (and bringing chocolate!). I will remember Florence and Chris, the HROC facilitators. I will miss Florence's laugh, the associations crying out for more food in Chris's stomach, and the fries they made for us! There was the night when we had so many people staying at the centre that six of us were piled into Getry's bedroom (which only has two beds!)

There is "Mummy" who cooks and cleans for us when we need extra help and says "aie" when I say something funny. There is Timoth who does errands and is the caretaker. He likes the generator to turn on at 7pm - it is not possible before! There is Eunice who came and helped out for a few days and made amazing chapatti and of course there is the old man down the road who likes to eat unripe figs.
So here are a few snapshots - Getry with her daughter Dennah, Mummy with her extended family, Timoth down by the river with Mummy's son, Wilberforce and me attempting to wash clothes Kenyan style.
One thing I loved was the fact that all the people I know who are living in Kenya are connected to each other in some way. As visiting is a regular event, I was able to catch up with most people either for work or for pleasure. I was able to invite Pete to visit us, and introduce Dennis who I'd met in Geneva to the centre, as well as go visiting friends Eden in Kisumu, Rose in Kitale and Fran, Kim, Christine and Robin in Shinyalu.

The saddest goodbye will be with Getry. She has been a sister, a confidant, a teacher and part of the audience when I was acting the clown. I have learnt to wash, fetch water, and cook mandazi, thanks to Getry's patient guidance. We have laughed and cried. Thank you Getry for being such a wonderful host and a dear friend.

Air time

One daily occurance that I still find amusing is when the matatu fills up to the brim and some people are forced to sit in the isle, somehow straddling the two seats on either side. This is uncomfortable, but better if you're a larger person as more of you fits on the two bits of seat. I asked Getry if there was a name for this situation, and she told me it's called "air time"! If you're a lucky air time person, you will be given a piece of wood to place between the two seats to serve as a sortof bench. I asked if you get a discount if you have to do air time, but she pointed out that you still arrive at your destination, and therefore get what you paid for. But air time is not always a bad thing. Once I even saw a piece of wood covered in velvet - now that is what I call travelling in style!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Second hand heaven

For those of you who love a second hand bargain, I tell you, I have found the ultimate charity shop! The markets in Kakamega (and many towns around Kenya) have streets and streets of stores selling second hand clothing at very reasonable prices.

When I expressed my glee at finding so many bargains, one storeholder shook his head and laughed, saying "but these clothes are from where you're from". It's true, they are. People send second hand clothes to Africa, and instead of just giving hand-outs, the whole thing has become a business venture. Each Monday when the shipments arrive, people go and pick out clothing according to their speciality. Some people sell men's shirts, some sell jeans, some focus on ladies skirts etc. Then they take their wares to their little alloted market store and make a little living.

What this man didn't realise was that nowhere in the western world (that I've seen) are the second hand clothes so well organised and so extensive. You can get absolutely anything you want here, and you don't have to be lucky - there's enough of everything to go around. The fact that I'm supporting local business at the same time as re-using perfectly good designer jeans all for an agreed price of less than $3 makes the whole process very rewarding.

Of course, there is a down-side, as a friend recently pointed out to me. Often in these situations it is the middle person (the one shipping the clothes) who makes the biggest profit, and the virtually free market for western clothes reduces the market for locally made clothing and products. This is true of so many approaches to development - people mean well, but don't think about the negative impacts of their gifts. In order to make up for my sins, I also bought lots of local fabric and artifacts, and look forward to having these little memories about me when I am back home in Australia.

Monday, October 08, 2007

When i needed a neighbour...

I like to take a walk before sunset, just to get a bit of exercise after the heat of the day. Usually people will greet me, either in English or Swahili, which makes the whole experience very pleasant. For many local people it's quite amusing to see a muzungu (foreigner) walking along the road - usually we are expected to be driving a 4wd or at least sitting in a matatu.

The other day just as I was returning to the compound a man greeted me with particular enthusiasm. He was telling me that his vehicle had lost its wheel, and when I looked over at the vehicle parked directly opposite our centre, I could see that lots of people were standing around it, and it had indeed lost a wheel. He wasn't sure if they would get the vehicle working again before night. He had seen the sign for the Friends Peace Centre, and since he was also a Quaker he thought he would ask if we have rooms available.

I think he assumed that because I was white that I must be in charge. So it felt good to say that I would have to check with my boss. We aren't exactly a guest house, even though we do have beds there. I was a bit apprehensive about calling my boss. She is very easy going, but in Australia you just don't invite strangers into your home. I needn't have worried. Getry was very pleased at the idea of helping out, and instructed me to organise some tea for them. She even brought a friend with her who was a mechanic, and he helped get the car to the point that it could be driven the next day at least as far as a proper mechanic. We cooked a bit extra for dinner, and I went and made up the beds. Then everyone shared a meal, and went to bed very satisfied. The usual "appreciation" ritual took place the next day, and I felt sad that this doesn't happen more often in Australia. It's nice being able to help out once in a while.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Building peace in Mt Elgon

For the past three weeks the Peace Centre where I have been staying has hosted peacebuilding workshops with people from Mount Elgon in far western Kenya. I attended the second one, and it was my first time being directly part of such a process.

Mt Elgon has been experiencing violent conflict recently, to the extent that many people have lost homes, land, family members and livelihoods. While some see the conflict as a land dispute between two tribal groups and others see it as an extremest group that has gone "into the forest" to fight for land, what hasn't made the news is the numbers of people from both communities yearning for peaceful solutions.

These peacemakers were so keen to participate in the Healing and Rebuilding Our Community (HROC) workshops that they travelled for a full day by bus, matatu, motorbike or whatever they could find, and often borrowed the money for transport. They arrived in greater numbers than our little peace centre or the two facilitators were prepared for, and many people had to share beds.

The facilitators were from Burundi and Rwanda and they brought their personal experiences of war and genocide to the workshop, urging people to prevent similar escalations of violence. What amazed me most about the three day workshop was how quickly people changed from two groups to one. Some of the activities involved singing and laughter, which was a great source of healing and bonding, allowing people to find commonalities amongst the group.

One particular commonality that was discovered was a shared experience of loss and trauma as a result of the violence. Even though those attending the workshops were there because they wanted peace, it was often the first time in many years that they had interracted with those from the other group and the first time they had heard of the others' feelings and experiences.

As over 100 people complete this same process and return to Mt Elgon, I hope the enthusiasm for mobilising communities and a willingness to trust will continue and help heal the wounds that exist. Hopefully that and a commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation will eventually bring those in the forest to the negotiating table.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Buses, matatu's and boda-boda's

Just getting around Kenya has been a real adventure and we've enjoyed every minute. Nothing is quite what you expect. We decided to spend a couple of days in Kakamega National Park, and from Nairobi the journey to the forest was indeed memorable. First we took the regional bus, which was scheduled to take 7 hours, but the roads were bad, so it took closer to 10. As we got closer to Kakamega town, the regional bus seemed to morph into a local bus, picking up people carrying anything from live chickens to small trees who needed a lift down the road, and charging them a small fee. Although this meant a few detours for us, the plus side was that we could get dropped directly at the hotel.

The next morning we bought everything we would need for three days camping in a forest and headed for the National Park. We found a matatu which would take us part of the way there. Matatu's are very efficient mini-buses/utes that pile as many people on as they can, and then head off for their destination. I felt sorry for the lady who had to stand bent over for a fair bit of the ride.The Lonely Planet does mention that they're the most dangerous form of transport in Kenya, but we used them a lot in Nairobi, and the only accident we had was Pete slipping over on his bum in mud before he even got on the bus!

Then, once in the forest, we needed to negotiate a boda-boda (bicycle taxi), or more accurately 3 boda-boda's - one for me, one for pete and one for the bags! I just had to hang on with the hand that wasn't carrying the groceries. Because of the heavy rains, we had to get off and walk a couple of times, which was actually a welcome relief for me, as I was slightly scared of slipping off into a pile of mud and lying there as I did in the snow crying "I simply can't go on". But the journey ended very well, with no accidents, and we arrived to find ourselves staying in a delightful thatched cottage in the middle of the forest with little monkeys, chameleons, birds and butterflies all around us.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

How the "other half" lives

After weeks of "slumming it" in cheap hotels, Pete and I decided to spend the day at the swimming pool of a posh hotel in order to find out how the other half lives. Of course, I say this with more than a touch of irony, because we know we represent not only the richest half of the world, but probably the richest 10%. The high wall of the Mena House Hotel allowed its residents to forget about those on the other side of the wall - people struggling to make a living selling scarves, fruit or driving taxis. We were amazed at the lengths staff had gone to to create a "home away from home" for rich westerners. If it wasn't for the huge pyramid towering above us, we could just as easily have been anywhere in the western world. It was nice to spend our last day of 40 degree Cairo heat lazing by the pool, but we do prefer experiencing a bit more of real life.

When we arrived in Nairobi, the temperature was much cooler, so no need for posh pools. In fact, the other day a friend of mine took me to see how the "real" other half lives. We visited the largest slum area in Nairobi - it stretches for 200kms. He told us that 60% of people in Nairobi live in slums, and the majority in these slum areas are single families, with many people suffering from HIV/AIDS, Malaria, Cholera, TB and other diseases that are far less common in Australia. It was a stark reminder of just how lucky we are.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

To give or not to give

After all these years, I still struggle with how to respond to people asking me for money. Whether it's a street child selling over-priced tissues in Luxor, Egypt or some of the local characters in Glebe needing a few bucks to visit family - I never seem to get it quite right.

Pete has the benevolent benefactor approach, which argues that it's rude not to be generous when we are so lucky. The other point of view argues that this is naive, and only creates or encourages cycles of dependance. Having worked in international development for the past few years, I know all the arguments about supporting projects that have a long term goal, whether it be microfinance for sustainable livelihoods or educational opportunities for children.
I do support these initiatives, but it doesn't stop some people falling through the cracks and coming up to me asking for money. I have realised that whether I choose to give or not I won't make a significant difference to that person's past or future. But I can respond with respect and integrity to the humanity of the person and maybe change their outlook for that day. The best part of this trip has been the people and the unexpected adventures. Rather than jumping from air conditioned bus to air conditioned hotel, I have found myself amidst it all - haggling for a better price, joining in a game of backgammon, picking up a bit of arabic and being led astray in the local souq (markets).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Backpacking again for the first time

After finishing up my time at QUNO, I have spent the past two weeks making my way down the coast of Italy to Rome. The beaches definately got priority, and were a much-needed way to wind down after the final weeks of work. One thing I found was that travelling (or backpacking more specifically) for the second time doesnt make me an expert. I am kindof learning afresh how to travel - on a slightly larger budget, and with another person instead of by myself. Being almost a decade older also means that I am learning how to travel a bit more ethically and with the experience I have from the past ten years, instead of as a recent university graduate just figuring out who I was. It has been good, but I think we are both ready for Egypt, and Kenya, and the chance to volunteer our time rather than the past fortnight of hedonistic beach indulgence!!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Au revoir

It's really difficult to believe that my time in Geneva is coming to a close. The past few months have flown by, and I'm astounded at what we've all managed to achieve. The past month has been taken up mainly with introducing a group of 25 eager and wonderfully clever young people to the UN and all its partner organisations. Seeing other people learning about this stuff has reminded me of how much I've learnt over the past year.

Apart from the four CDs worth of photos that I've taken, my colleagues gave me a coffee table book of pictures of Geneva. These pictures, which are much more artistic than mine, will allow me a trip down memory lane whenever I'm missing the place too much.

My particular passion and interest while I was working at QUNO was the Peacebuilding work being done in Africa, so it's really exciting that I'm headed there next. I'll be working and living for a month at the AVP Peace Centre in Lubao, western Kenya, assisting with the facilitation of AVP workshops. AVP - the Alternatives to Violence Project - is a workshop process that offers tools for resolving conflicts and healing past hurts. It's been adapted in Rwanda and Burundi to focus particularly on healing and rebuilding communities in countries torn apart by war. In western Kenya, where ethnic tensions are mounting, it will be interesting to be part of offering alternatives to violence.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Getting back to nature

It was my idea to spend my final week of leave working on an organic farm in the Loire Valley in France, but in the end it was Pete who really took to the place. We spent our time learning about organic farming, playing with the dog, donkey, ducklings and goats, mowing lawns, picking berries, weeding and going to the local food markets. We stayed in an adorable caravan, and ate delicious home-grown vegetarian meals. The only problem was that it rained quite a bit and was colder than we thought. When we arrived in Paris, we both thought it seemed... rushed, and crowded. I guess that meant we had almost become farm folk.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A la plage

Yesterday my friends asked if I would like to take the ferry with them to the beach. Being a bit of a beach-lover myself, I was ready with my togs, hat and sunscreen in less than half an hour. Although this sounds like something one might do in Sydney, there were some important differences. The ferry warf is just down the road from where I live and the trip isn't very long at all to get from town to the..ah..beach. The beach itself is the only stretch of the lakeside that I know of that has sand, and the stretch of sand is almost ten metres long! There are no waves, but that doesn't bother me, because I don't like it when I get dumped and the water goes up my nose.

But the biggest difference was the cultural misunderstanding that occurred when we arrived. You see, when my friends had asked if I would like to come to the beach, they didn't actually mean that we would "go" to the beach, just that we would sortof walk past it and admire it as one does with a tourist attraction. Luckily I had my book with me, and could spend a happy afternoon by myself at the beach, followed up by a mandatory icecream.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Blood Diamond

I went and saw “Blood Diamond” the other day. Although it was a Hollywood interpretation of the horrific violence that is associated with the conflict diamond trade, it did get me thinking. At the end of the film, viewers were reminded of the Kimberly Process, enacted in 2002, which has attempted to combat the trade in conflict diamonds. Diamond buyers were encouraged to demand that their diamonds are certified as “conflict free”.

While I am sure that this certification scheme has been important in decreasing the flow of conflict diamonds, the idea of being able to buy “conflict-free” diamonds seems a bit like “guilt-free” chocolate to me. This process has raised awareness of the problem and sent a clear message to those trading in “conflict” diamonds, but has it resulted in a decrease in the violent conflict and human rights abuses that occur in such regions? And does it address the injustice that exists when some of us can afford to pay thousands for a nice ring while others (often those who live nearest to the sought-after resource) still live in poverty?
So, what to do? If you’re starting to wonder what to buy your loved one that is both ethical and longlasting, don’t worry. I’m working on a product that will be truly guilt-free, conflict-free, and chocolate-free... and reasonably priced. It is something that wouldn’t be worth killing or dying for. But sadly, I’ve been told that my “plastic is forever” idea just doesn’t have the same ring!!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Now we are... 25

My siblings were full of excitement as they ran to greet me at our Paris apartment. The plan was to meet in belle Paris on the morning of the 6th, and celebrate their combined 25th birthdays in the city of light. Apart from the minor glitch of embarking up the rickety elevator to the eighth floor of Batiment A instead of Batiment B and having a strange but not unpleasant conversation with an old lady and her very friendly cat, I arrived at the designated meeting place and the adventure began. I have to say, T chose well - the apartment had a magnificent view of the Eiffel Tower, which was even more impressive at night.

We took every opportunity to explain to people that T&J had chosen Paris as the destination for their Golden Jubilee of twinhood and that therefore shopowners and airline staff alike should be suitably proud... and welcoming. Disappointingly, we didn't get any freebies, but lots of smiles. As we ate our lunch in the park, they indicated to me, with a combined selection of fingers and toes just how old they are now!
We spent the weekend visiting museums, having our pictures drawn and attempting to find vegetarian restaurants. We can now recommend two very good venues, both in interesting and accessible areas of Paris.

Now that the birthday is over and T&J have gone, I'm feeling a void. And it's not just because they took my laptop home with them, although that has taken some adjustment. It's dawned on me that my sister has actually moved to Hobart and therefore won't be in Sydney when I return - one of the many changes I will have to adjust to when I am back home.

A thousand hills, a thousand smiles

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the airport at Kigali was the green-ness of Rwanda's rainy season. I was told that the place looks completely different at other times of the year. When I commented that Rwanda lived up to its reputation as the land of a thousand hills, my host said it was known as the land of "a thousand hills, a thousand problems". It didn't seem fair to me that such a beautiful place should be known only for these "problems" that were brought to international attention in a tragic event over ten years ago.

While there's no denying the impact of the genocide on the country, what surprised me was the way that people have dealt with it. While I sit at my desk back in Geneva talking and writing about peacebuilding and the aftermath of mass atrocities, the people I met are living these realities. On my first day in the country, the car I was in was stopped by armed soldiers. They looked very young to me, and it was my first experience of small arms up close.

I was welcomed by Quakers in Kigali and ate a delicious meal at Friends Peace House in the impressive building that was only recently completed. I was inspired to hear that Quaker processes such as the AVP workshops have been adapted for trauma healing work and that people have seen the results as they begin to heal hurts, forgive, and rebuild their communities.

After a slightly bumpy bus ride to Kibuye, we arrived at a luxurious resort by the lake. Although many people were afraid to swim, I bravely edged in but kept close to the shore. During the meetings, it was others who bravely told their stories, while I tended to listen. It was overwhelming to meet so many people from all over Africa and beyond who are engaged in so many areas of peace work, despite obstacles that they've faced in their lives.

But my time in Rwanda wasn't all serious. The fact that everyone has a story of sadness made their laughter so much more real. Wherever I went, I was greeted with a smile, and the re-commencement of meetings was signalled by the sound of voices lifted in song, rather than a bell. The talent night involved an impressive display of poetry, song, dance and a spectacular African fashion show had all of us in fits of laughter as women, and even one man, strutted their stuff.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Peace by peace

Just this week the blossoms have begun to fill the trees, and daffodils are emerging, as if from nowhere. Birds are singing as they busily make their nests. Spring has arrived. This time of year always makes me feel cheerful, and full of hope.

I associate hope, spring and flowers with orange shirts, flares and the peace rallies of my childhood. While these are now distant memories, nuclear weapons, sadly, are not. Last week I attended a meeting on “Challenges to International Security and the Non-Proliferation Regime on the Eve of the Next Review Cycle of the NPT[1]”. This meeting confirmed for me that now, more than ever, countries need to put aside their differences to find agreement on the main points of the NPT: non-proliferation of the non-nuclear weapons states, disarmament of the nuclear weapons states, and agreement around the “peaceful” production of nuclear energy. It seems that there is a stalemate, or a “crisis of trust” as one commentator put it, despite the progress made by regional groupings in implementing nuclear-weapons-free zones.

Despite this stalemate, there was a sense of hope when the Conference on Disarmament (CD) re-commenced this Spring. They are actually talking about agreement on a Programme of Work that might result in new international negotiations and agreements, so the mood is positive While states discuss possible agenda items such as the “Prevention of an arms race in outer space”, and “Transparency in armaments”, these issues are made real by contemporary issues such as China’s anti-satellite test in outer space in January this year.

The process of building peace seems at times an insurmountable challenge. But as I left the Palais des Nations last week, it was not only the sight of daffodils popping out of the ground that gave me renewed hope. Towering above me was the “Broken Chair”, a startling symbol of the international community’s commitment to repair the devastating impacts of conflict and war. Originally built as a reminder of the commitment to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the chair has just recently been re-instated outside Geneva’s UN Building and encourages me to keep faith in the multilateral processes of peace and disarmament.

[1] The 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Women's Troubles

"I'm angry today" I told my colleague. "Is it women's troubles?" he asked, trying to be sympathetic. "Nooo, IT IS NOT" I screeched.

But actually it was women's troubles - of the less fluctuating kind. It had hit me. The workforce isn't fair for women. Amongst most of my friends, the women are in lower paid, lower status positions than their male counterparts. I am slightly apprehensive about this because I will be needing to find work when I get back to Australia. Well-meaning men suggest that I think about "flexible" work choices in case I become a mother in the next five years, but why should I do something I'm not passionate about just because I'm a woman? Even my female friends who are doctors or lawyers are encouraged to think about "mother-friendly" options when they do further training.

And now that some of my friends have babies, I've realised that the workforce really doesn't cater adequately for mothers. Those on contracts, and working for private corporations, are provided with little or no maternity/paternity leave, thus perpetuating the idea that mothers (or active parents in general) aren't valued members of the workforce. In an act of solidarity, my colleague found an article in the Guardian that confirms my deepest fears (,,2023776,00.html). It reveals the findings of a UK Government report - that women with children are the most discriminated group in the workplace, forced to choose in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways between baby and work.

I realise I don't speak for all women. Some are happy to focus fully on baby and others are happy to focus fully on career. Some have the means to do both. But for the majority, policy and public opinion need to improve. So, let's not get mad, let's get even...I mean equal.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Winter wonderland

Yes, it finally snowed in Geneva. The garden of the house where I work looked like Narnia - it was very beautiful, and inspired us to be quite silly as you can see.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Christmas Belles

Okay, so I stole that pun from a friend's blog, but I think the winter look is becoming for both Pete and me - for him the cute hat is just so ..."Who killed Kenny?"-ish... and for me the cute hat hides the fact that I haven't had a haircut in ages due to Swiss prices, laziness and that slightly scary lady in the hairdressing school!!

The Christmas markets were also a sight to see, with lots of handycrafts and bits and pieces to give people for Christmas. Much nicer than shopping at the department store, which is really busy.