Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Old acquaintances

Christmas cards might seem like an old-fashioned habit in this electronic age, but for me they are a wonderful reminder of my ecclectic mix of friends scattered all over the world. At the end of each year I find myself remembering old aquaintances, fun times and past kindnesses.

One person on the Christmas card list is my dear friend from Germany who plans to visit me in March. We met by chance in a hostel in France ten years ago where she, having only just met me, bravely offered me a place to stay in her student room in Germany. I, feeling just as brave, accepted. Following a hilarious evening of cooking pasta together, giggling about the phrase "Ich bin gluklich" and finally falling asleep on the floor, we embarked on a friendship that has seen us meet up in Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and now Australia again.

Another is a dear friend and previous flatmate and colleauge from London who reminds me of sharing a bunk bed in a small 2-bedroom flat with a woman and her son, two cats and a couple of fish. We have since met up again in England, France and Australia. My colleagues from Geneva are still very much in my life and call up from time to time and send cheeky emails - it's so nice to hear their voices and remember a life that already seems like a long time ago.

Of course, this time I am feeling particularly sentimental, as a good friend of more than a decade died earlier this year. It's difficult to accept that he will never be around again, but also nice to be able to remember the good times and give thanks for the happy memories. My New Year's resolution is to be thankful for all the friends that I do still have, and to live each day as fully as I can.

Photos - Top: Annette and I in Zurich, Switzerland. Bottom: Aziza and I in Annecy, France.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sensible Shoes

Today I reached a significant milestone. I bought my first truly sensible Quakerly pair of shoes. The large buckles are remarkably reminiscent of those on my first ever pair of sandals, but on the plus side they are comfy and close to the ground and I am sure I will be able to ride a bike or walk for hours in them.

I do believe you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes that they wear. Quakers, uncomfortable with outward expressions of wealth or extravagance, seem to have developed a reputation for their practical footwear. Apparently, the best way to find the Quaker group at any large event is to look for the people with the sensible shoes. In England, Quakers are particularly noted for their determination to wear socks and sandals throughout the year. In Australia the socks are less common, but the principle is the same.

I often take note of the shoes worn by Quakers at yearly gatherings. There are a couple of favourite brands/styles that they love, such as the Birkenstock (they last forever and are extremely comfortable - these are for the trendier Friend), orthopedic "dress" shoes (this shoe falls short ever so slightly of being "cool"and I plan to avoid it for a couple more years) and jesus sandals, thongs or bare feet for the young ones.

So, what does this mean for me? I guess I have decided to accept my Quaker roots, and embrace the dag within. I feel like these shoes were inevitable. It's the sensible shoe that we had to have.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Travelling vicariously

Now that we're based in Sydney and there aren't really any overseas adventures planned, we have had to resort to travelling vicariously through our overseas visitors. Since we joined the couchsurfing network we've had a steady flow of "new friends" to hang out with, share photos and stories with, and introduce to our friends. When these cultures are in our home, we feel like we're travelling too.

Our French visitor entertained us with stories of his love life, our Korean visitor delighted us by writing on her reference that "Aletia is cute and Peter is loves her lots". Our most recent visitors, from Canada, insisted on cooking delicious vegetarian meals every night, and were brave enough to join in such strange activities as the Matthew Hallis Modified Magic Word Game and a Danish Christmas celebration which ended with a trip home wearing animal noses.

Yes, hosting is a great way to "travel" without clocking up any carbon debt. After all, who else can say they've been to France, Korea and Cananda in the past month. Pete says there is a downside to having international visitors - eventually it's time for them to move on. Oh dear. But don't worry, we're "off to" India in a few weeks!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Green thumb?

The women in my family are gardeners. My grandmother's garden was every child's heaven, with pickable fruit, little hideyholes, a mini-train track, and a table and chairs made out of a dead tree trunk. When my grandmother died, my mother took up the habit, and our backyard slowly morphed from a potential cricket ground to an oasis of calm.

With the financial market the way it is and of course being a proponent of a healthy vegetarian diet, it seems natural that I follow in the steps of my foremothers and try my hand (or rather, my thumb) at growing my own greens. Sadly, I am somewhat limited by living in a unit, but nevertheless I have set my balcony up with a few herbs and small vegetables, and excitedly check them each day. I'm sure that my ancestors are watching as I overwater the Aloe Vera, prune the mint out of existence and, most embarassing of all, fail to realise that it's normal for Basil to die over winter. I quietly hope that I inherited the green thumb, and it's just taking a while to form.

There's something so satisfying about "just ducking out for some lettuce" (or tomatoes or basil or mint or parsley or rosemary or coriandar or .... hopefully snowpeas) without leaving home. Better still is knowing that it's fresh, there's no pesticides, nobody died harvesting it, and no carbon emissions were used to transport it to me. Let's give kitchen gardening the green thumbs up!

Photos: my mother in her garden (right) and me in mine

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Kathmandu Cuddle

Nepal has had such a profound effect on me. I don't know if it was the early morning yoga, the meditative circling around the stupa, the vegetarian momos (dumplings) or the workshops themselves, but as I departed I had a feeling that a part of me was left behind in a country full of rich colours and gentle smiles.

On 19th August five Alternatives to Violence (AVP) facilitators arrived in Kathmandu to facilitate a series of conflict resolution workshops. In less than a week the workshops that had been discussed for almost a year were to begin. As Subhash, the local coordinator, ran about collecting materials, responding to last minute enquiries and still managing to maintain his constant calm presence, the rest of us busied ourselves with planning the sessions. In the midst of all this activity, I had not adequately prepared myself for the changes that would take place within me, the friendships that would form, and the lessons I would learn.

When the workshops began, I soon became Aletia Didi (older sister) and enjoyed the feeling of family that the greeting gave me. The group took to some of the lighthearted activities with enthusiasm, and adapted many of them to fit their particular context. Laughing yoga was introduced as part of the morning stretch, and our Koala Hug became the Kathmandu Cuddle. I was reminded of childhood, and of being part of a group that was so positive and loving that I wanted to cry.

People had come to the workshops for very different reasons. Some were there for work and some to improve relationships at home but an overwhelming majority came with the hope of finding alternatives to the violence in their country. When we asked the group at the end of the workshop to imagine and draw a peaceful community in Nepal, it was clear from the posters they produced that they had very specific dreams for their country and had every intention of being part of the solution. Now that the project is in their hands, I can't wait to hear about their achievements.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tourist, Traveller or Trainer

As I sat in my favourite cafe in Kathmandu, sipping Masala tea and watching people circle the stupa, I started to wonder about my role here in Nepal. While I've come here to train people in nonviolence, I know just enough about development to be quite hesitant about what I can offer.

There an old saying that westerners who come to places like Nepal are either missionaries, mercinaries or misfits. Even today, there is some truth to that. Whether it's to Christianity, democracy or capitalism, there is always some level of conversion that takes place when westerners import their values to a developing country. The number of people wearing western clothes and yearning to visit Australia or USA is evidence of that.

The misfits have also played their part. Kathmandu is known for its hippy history. Many of the independant travellers of the 70's have influenced not only the style of clothing sold in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu, but they also began the habit of giving to child beggers, which has made them quite vulnerable to child trafficking, and dependant on hand-outs.

The mercinaries are perhaps the career development workers, who started off with high ideals, but somewhere along the way start to feel that they deserve luxurious three bedroom houses complete with cooking and cleaning staff while their Nepalese counterparts live in cramped one-bedroom apartments together with their extended families. They are not ashamed to display their wealth, and then wonder why corruption and greed are a problem amongst local people.

So where do I fit in all this? I am here for just a short time, and find myself caught between the short term versions of the above categories. I am a foreigner staying in a single room in a hotel, displaying my wealth and visiting the sights alongside all the other tourists (does that make me a mercinary?) I am trying to catch local transport, and bargain for a good price, which I guess makes me a bit of a hippy traveller (misfit). And of course I'm supposed to be a trainer, sharing a particular knowledge that I have, which kindof makes me a missionary.

My challenge to myself is to have real and honest interactions with people wherever possible, to make as little negative impact on the country I visit as I can, and offer a conflict resolution process that has worked for me, without expectation of or control over how it will be used in this country in the future.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Money, money, money

When I recently re-joined the development sector, I was faced yet again with the issue of how much I should be paid. While eager to have some sense of self worth attached to my salary, a voice in my head reminded me that my friends in Kenya, Nepal or Rwanda would be grateful for half my wage.

I am not the only one faced with this dilemma. As a colleague once put it - why should those of us who attempt to right the world's wrongs be punished with crappy salaries, while ethically neutral work is rewarded with ludicrous financial benefits? While employees of development agencies are rightly demanding a fair wage for their services, wealthy donors are now expecting development agencies to spend as little as possible on "administrative" costs and to demonstrate levels of accountability that I am sure are not demanded of their favourite fashion labels or hair stylists.

Of course, I am not saying that we should not be accountable. In the old days when non-profit meant non-salary and development was really just hand-outs, people assumed that good intentions were enough, and as a result they sometimes got it horribly wrong. So it is good that the industry is changing. While committed people still exist, it's time to critically evaluate development work. We find ourselves thinking about "lessons learnt", "best practice" and "Codes of Conduct". We want a website that delivers a stronger donor base and we even write marketing plans.

But in the process of moving forward, let's not forget why we're here. At the end of the day, I want to know that I've made a difference, and I don't care (too much) what I earn. When I was reading a history of Quaker development work, I came across endless stories of truly committed people who had devoted their lives to alleviating poverty, addressing injustices and paving the way for peace. Most lived on the smell of an oily rag and achieved incredible outcomes. They did critically evaluate their work, and they did learn from their mistakes, but they kept true to their principles, and I think that's most important.

Monday, June 23, 2008

High expectations

“Guess what?” the text message said, “At 8pm on Wednesday Sydney will experience its highest tide in, like, ever. Would you like to see it after dinner in Bondi?” While the dinner had previously been arranged, viewing Sydney’s highest tide in decades was an addition to the plan.

How could I refuse? My friend Jono has a knack for involving me in the most unusual of events. I was definitely curious, and even a tiny bit excited. It reminded me of the time, aged 7 or 8, when my next door neighbour came around to our place on a miserable, rainy day. She was dressed from head to toe in wet weather gear, and was insisting to my parents that I was an essential component in “sweeping away the rain” from their driveway. Within minutes, I had dressed myself in the same way, and we then spent a very pleasant day playing in the gutters.

So, here I was, fifteen years later, heading towards the beach in the rain and wondering what I had got myself in for. The tide was expected to reach 2.08 metres, and according to tide gauges at Fort Deniston , it was at least sixteen years since the tide had been this high. Extreme weather conditions matched the significance of the occasion. The wind was so heavy that umbrellas were out of the question. We must have looked a sight. Jono was in his suit, I was in jeans, and our friend Peter had on the same blue jacket that he was probably wearing last time the tide was this high - all drenched and walking purposefully towards the sea.

When we reached the shore, there was only one other person in sight. A man dressed in a yellow jacket, and looking rather sodden, was staring out to the sea. Where were the crowds who had come to see this historic event? Were they too cowardly to brave the storm? Or had we three gone mad?

Many believe these natural events coincide with a rise in madness, which could explain why I had agreed to parade around a dark and deserted beach, soaking wet. At the same time, I am interested in anything lunar. According to the Sydney Observatory, it is the northerly position of the moon at this time of year that compounds the usual factors of synodic month (new moon to new moon) and the moon’s closeness to earth (perigee) which are said to contribute to an unusually high tide.

Suddenly, Jono, determined to maintain the importance of the evening, pointed towards the “Bondi Iceberg”. Here was a landmark against which we could judge the strength of the waves. I peered into the distance and noticed that the swimming pool below the club was submerged in water.

With renewed resolve we headed for the club. The idea was that we would be able to see the waves in closer proximity, from the comfort of a building with a roof. Having ordered our peppermint teas (well, we had already experienced enough adventure for one day), we ventured out onto the club balcony. Nobody else was the least bit interested in sitting outdoors to be closer to this phenomenon, and we had to ask permission to open the balcony door.

“What a view” exclaimed Jono. I tried not to think about the warmer patrons sitting comfortably inside. There, just metres below, was the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. The waves were crashing on and around the swimming pool with such ferocity that we knew it would have been almost impossible to swim there… if anyone was crazy enough to try. I was glad that there was a certain distance between me and the unforgiving ocean.

As I sat there, sipping my tea, and listening to Jono and Peter talk about ocean-related near-death experiences, I realised that this was a significant moment. Just as it had been with the “sweeping the rain” adventure all those years ago, the essential thing was not the event itself, but rather the process of allowing myself to get swept up in the excitement of something completely different. Too bad the rest of Sydney missed out!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Nonviolence in Nepal

While this month’s elections seem to signal a victory for the Maoists in Nepal, it is the victory of nonviolence amongst the youth that has my heart singing.

Although the votes of last week’s elections are still being counted, it is now almost certain that the Maoists will win an overall majority. According to the Maoist chairman and the likely new president of Nepal, this was the week to turn from violence and become "Gandhis".

For many, however, the path of Gandhi was always preferable. Subhash is a young Nepalese visionary, who knows only too well the horror of violent conflict. When his father was killed in the violence, his resolve was to work for peace, rather than to engage in a cycle of revenge. When I met him in Geneva last year, he talked of starting a peace program, and I promised to help. Now, it seems his dream is coming true. Last week the second of two pilot workshops on Alternatives to Violence took place in Kathmandu, and were heralded as a great success.

These workshops were run by two facilitators from Australia’s Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), an experiential process that explores affirmation, communication, cooperation, trust, and conflict resolution. According to John, one of the facilitators, “the highlight of the workshop was the energy, hope and enthusiasm of the participants, a group of mostly young people that included a journalist, a radio journalist, a consultant working on the new constitution, representatives from NGOs and the president of Youth Action, Nepal”. The workshop went ahead in spite of “hurdles of language, illness, limited practical support, the need to change venue mid workshop, running out of supplies and overspending on the very limited budget”, John said.

Participants initiated a discussion following the workshop on how to continue this work. There are now plans to run several more workshops, in order to train around 30 Nepalese facilitators. The most exciting factor is that there is interest from members of the Maoist party. At this crucial time, there is a need for the new leaders of Nepal to turn from violence to peace and nonviolence and so it is crucial that they are part of a program to address that need.

It’s hard to believe that such promise, vitality and hope are the outcome of an earnest conversation by the steps of a church in Geneva some nine months ago. I first met Subhash in July 2007, when he attended a Summer School program for young people to learn about the United Nations. He shared with the group his experiences in Nepal, and spent a great deal of time asking me about peace programs that might be applicable in Nepal. Since that time, I put out feelers and discovered that an Australian facilitator of AVP was actually living in Kathmandu. I linked him up with Subhash, and the process of planning and seeking grants began. The new AVP community in Nepal is now in the process of building a network and is in urgent need of volunteers, resources and funds in order to survive. But I have confidence that it will succeed.

(Photo: Workshop participants, April 08)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

You've got air conditioning, I've got air

There is such a great sense of achievement associated with riding a bike. I was lucky enough to upgrade recently to an adults bike, and with the addition of some lights and a basket have been finding it very useful, and exhilerating. I have been able to test myself mentally and physically over the past few weeks, and found that - yes, I can ride on the road, yes I can ride to work and yes I can get myself up that rather daunting hill.

I'm learning little tricks of the trade by watching other people and chatting with my bike riding neighbours. There's definately a growing bike community in the inner city. I'm sure that if we weren't all so intently looking out for cars or peddling like crazy, we'd wave at one another in the same way that MG drivers do.
There are numerous pluses about riding a bike - apart from it being good for my self esteem it's also good for the environment and it's great for my health. And I hardly pay anything for buses anymore! A few years ago a very talented friend of mine wrote a musical, and one of the characters was keen to learn to ride a bike. At the end of the musical, she achieves her goal, and sings the following words:

"You've got air conditioning and we've got .... air,
You've got six cylinders and we've got strong legs,
You're burning petrol, but I think we're on a winner,
You're getting fat while we burn last night's dinner"

Now I know exactly how that character felt. Next time you see somebody on a bike amongst the traffic, there's no need to feel that they're missing out - know that there are many benefits, and they're probably feeling sorry for you!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

From politics to peace: people are key

As Kofi Annan attempts to gain a peace agreement that will satisfy Kenya's government and "opposition", many ordinary people in Kenya are building peace in their own way - providing assistance to those who have lost homes and family members, creating space for dialogue, and planning longterm trauma healing and community re-building processes.

While I was staying at Lubao, I read the memoirs of Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her book gave me a vivid picture not only of her own political journey - a roller coaster of hopeful anticipation for a new and better government and the disappointment of election promises unfulfilled - but also of the complicated interconnectedness of cultural, colonial and international factors affecting the country's ability to thrive as a new democratic nation.

As part of my work in evaluating the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) in Kenya, I interviewed a number of people who reflected on the factors contributing to violence in the country and the impact of AVP in addressing that violence. Some people saw democratic elections, and therefore election monitoring, as the key to future peace. Others saw inequality between tribes and the disempowerment of women as contributing factors in the country's then-current levels of violence, both domestic and national. Others talked about reconciliation and justice as necessary roads to peace. Interestingly, security and governance, social and economic wellbeing and justice and reconciliation were all identified by the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission as being important elements of sustainable peacebuilding strategies.

I've now been receiving regular updates from friends in Kenya explaining the factors contributing to the current violence, and letting me know how people are coping. I've heard via text message or email that the people I was connected to are safe, but extremely busy responding to the needs of others. For example, the Quakers in Kenya recently held a three day conference to determine strategies for working collaboratively towards peacebuilding in the country. This was the first time that all the diverse Quaker communities had come together with a common purpose. They agreed to facilitate dialogue amongst political actors, provide relief to those personally affected, and strengthen their AVP work, which now includes trauma healing and "rebuilding our community" activities. This confirms for me that, while the UN certainly has a role and responsibility in assisting in the building of peace in Kenya, the contribution of local actors is vital to creating a sustainable peace.
(Photos: Relief work, Jan 08 and Quaker Peace Conference, Jan 08 Credit: Eden Grace)