Friday, November 11, 2011

Procrastination at a War Crimes Trial--Kwoyelo's last day in court

Photo credit to JRP

This morning I woke up with one goal--I would finish a draft of my next chapter. Then I got a phone call that confirmed the rumor I'd heard yesterday: what was expected to be the last day of former LRA Commander Col. Thomas Kwoyelo's trial would be today. All of the International Crimes Division of the High Court in Uganda and the accused were on their way from Kampala to have the court session here in Gulu. So I thought--what to do? on the one hand, history in the making, on the other, my self-imposed deadline that I really ought to keep (especially since I'm going to Karamoja for some non-thesis-related consulting work next week). Maybe I'll stay up late tonight. History won.

I thought about the event in April of this year when the International Crimes Division had a public outreach session. Many people were concerned about the trial. They were concerned about the independence of the High Court, and the ambiguity behind why he hadn't been granted amnesty like many other former LRA who are back now. He had applied for it, but instead there was a trial. It had created a lot of confusion. Some people were saying that he couldn't have amnesty because he had been captured by the UPDF and only those who surrendered can have amnesty. In reality, the amnesty law has no such limitation. Others were asking why he wasn't being considered a victim since he had been abducted when he was 13 years old (how old he was exactly when he was abducted is reported differently, but he was likely still a "child"). Instead he had been charged with 12 counts and 53 alternative charges amounting to crimes against humanity under the Geneva Convention Act and other Ugandan penal law.

Because I ought to get back to that chapter, you get my un-edited notes as I jotted them down in court. Perhaps after stewing in the events a little longer I'll share more analysis. But for now, this was how the morning went:

Some of Kwoyelo's relatives came in after we'd been sitting on these hard benches for about an hour after the session was scheduled to start. His sister is blind and seems to have difficulty walking. People murmured when she entered. I wonder how she feels, knowing that all eyes are on her, hearing the hushed and accusatory whispers but not seeing the people who utter them. The courtroom is full. I'm squeezed on a bench with staff of a Transitional Justice NGO, police and other people from the community. The door of the defendant's chamber finally opened. Kwoyelo entered wearing a green button-down shirt, his hair combed back. He looked around the room. He's sitting between prison gaurds in the aisle in front of me and four people over to the right. Less than 2 meters away. He keeps turning around and searching the crowd. He met my eyes but not for long. I think he's scanning thre room for familiar faces. Is he hoping for the presence of friends? previous comrades in arms? Sympathetic expressions? Or maybe he is hoping not to see certain people? There is one man wearing a T-shirt which says "right beside you brother." I wonder if it was an intentional show of support or just happenstance of the man's wardrobe. Former LRA Brigadier Banya is here. I saw him outside though I haven't spotted him in the courtroom yet. Former LRA Ray Apire is in the back corner. Kwoyelo's sister is sitting behind me. Maybe that's why Kwoyelo keeps looking past my shoulder. He does not have an unnerving gaze. He doesn't seem nervous. Alert. He seems alert--more than other war criminals whose trials I have attended who looked simultaneously proud and bored--sometimes downright sleepy. Not Kwoyelo. I'm reading Hannah Arendt again right now. Not that he's an Eichmann, but sitting here does make me ponder her words on the banality of evil.

Twenty minutes later his mother came in. A common looking Acholi mother with a scarf on her head, wrinkled eyes and plastic green beads around her neck. I think his sister and his mother are the only barefoot people in the courtroom. He looked happy when he saw her although he didn't smile and they did not meet eyes. She is moving her lips inaudibly. I think she's praying. I'm told they are supportive of him and hope to welcome him home but they've endured a lot in the past 20 years including government intimidation. A clerk stood up and asked us if anyone had questions we'd like to ask the judges. They asked in English and didn't translate. No one responded. Everyone is rising. The judges enter and we sit down. The judge said they would provide clarification on some of the dates and events in the trial and then proceed with the matter before the court. He continued, they had referred the case to the Constitutional Court on July 5th when the judges granted the request of the defense on the grounds that the trial was unconstitutional because it was discriminatory of the Amnesty Commission and the Director of Public Prosecutions not to respond to Kwoyelo's amnesty request. The Constitutional Court had ruled on September 22nd that it was indeed discriminatory and therefore the trial was not constitutional and should stop. The judge is taking care to explain why several weeks elapsed before this session (he was on vacation) and assuring everyone that there was no intent to delay the matter.

And then without any further delay, he said, "We hereby cease the trial. And order the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Amnesty Commission to comply with the Amnesty Act." He pounded a gavel. We all stood. The judges left. Kwoyelo left. We all left.

(Justice and Reconciliation Project has a lot more information, analysis, pictures, commentary, etc. etc. on their website. Thanks for the photo guys! Oh, and you can see the T-shirt I mentioned in the background).

Monday, November 07, 2011

Preventing Orphans

I stumbled onto this blog A couple of weeks ago and meant to post it yesterday, since it was "Orphan Sunday." Better late than never. I was happy to read it, because I've encountered a number of people over the years in Uganda who come here with good intentions, great love for children, and a lot of compassion and US dollars. They want to start orphanages, just like these folks did in Haiti. Unfortunately, many of them don't ask the very sensible questions that the couple in Haiti did before they start constructing buildings and filling beds. This couple thought hard, and ultimately their questions led them to try to prevent orphans instead:

Do the moms who show up at an orphanage's gate really want to place their babies for adoption?Why do Haitian women keep getting pregnant over and over?Are they making educated decisions when they place their babies in orphanages? Do orphanages have a process in place for counseling mothers through this difficult choice?Do mothers and family members understand that placing a baby in an orphanage in Haiti in no way means that their child will actually end up adopted?Do they understand how difficult the government here makes it for adoptive parents? Do they know how long the process is?Do they understand that many times children in orphanages are sexually abused by their care takers or other children in the orphanage? In some orphanages kids don't even get enough to eat or have their basic needs met.Do the parents know that the child they are hoping will have a better life if they drop them off at the orphanage's gate may grow up in that orphanage, age out, never knowing their biological family and never being placed in an adoptive one?Do these mothers want to raise their babies...and if they do...why aren't they keeping them?Is it fair to have an orphanage in every neighborhood (many of them funded by churches) and yet have nothing (or very little) in place in countries like Haiti for helping mothers and fathers obtain the skills they need to keep their children and care for them? Is having an orphanage in every neighborhood helping to fight the orphan crises or are all these orphanages creating the crisis?"Often charity to help the poor attracts more people into poverty. One example I have noticed takes place when North Americans try to care for the needs of orphans in cultures different from our own. If you build really nice orphanages and provide good food and a great education, lots more children in those places become orphans. I see this happen all over. When we attempt to eradicate poverty through charity, we often attract more people into “needing” charity. It is possible to create need where it did not exist by projecting our standards, values and perception of need onto others. "-- Steve Saint

The context in Uganda is quite different from Haiti and different questions should be asked, but perhaps if there was more soul-searching as well following best practices in protecting orphans and vulnerable children "starting an orphanage" wouldn't be quite so faddish--or at least not assumed the exclusive answer to the "orphan problem". A month or so ago I got an email from a woman at UNICEF looking for resources or organizations in northern Uganda that were doing foster care, another alternative to institutionalizing kids. Unfortunately, I had very little information to share with her (I only know of one children's' home that does this and they only have 2 very over-stretched social workers), because resources that go into orphan care are going into homes (many of which don't allow adoptions or foster care) and not into social work and other support services needed to have a good foster care system, or for that matter, to prevent orphans. Fortunately, it's a need that UNICEF recognizes, so maybe more kids will grow up in families and less in institutions in the coming years. One can hope.

What does a grapefruit spoon have to do with economic development in Uganda?

"Asking even the top economists within many African countries to remove barriers to development is like telling a teenager to remove his appendix with a grapefruit spoon." -Karl Muth, a friend and colleague from LSE who recently moved to the neighborhood. You can read his full article here. (ps--I'm the colleague in the cafe closer to Juba than Kampala) On a seemingly related, but actually entirely extraneous note, I'm still looking for a grapefruit seedling to plant in my mini-orchard outside my rather super hut. Just in case anyone reading has one, or knows where to get one in Uganda, or knows if I can just grow it from seed...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A close second: Rush Limbaugh endorses the LRA? Um—what?

OK, so sometimes I get a bit behind the times, what with my slow and eradicate connection to the world wide web. Someone tell me he has now back tracked and realized how bizarre this whole thing was: “Obama invades Uganda, Targets Christians” I never really imagined myself quoting Rush Limbaugh, but this is just staggering, “Lord's Resistance Army are Christians. They are fighting the Muslims in Sudan. And Obama has sent troops, United States troops to remove them from the battlefield, which means kill them.” Right at the end: “Is that right? The Lord's Resistance Army is being accused of really bad stuff? Child kidnapping, torture, murder, that kind of stuff? Well, we just found out about this today. We're gonna do, of course, our due diligence research on it. But nevertheless we got a hundred troops being sent over there to fight these guys -- and they claim to be Christians.”

The most disturbing thing I read this morning

15 activists who took part in the walk to work to demonstrations (which I wrote about here and saw first hand) are being charged with treason, which is punishable by death. So, protestors can face the death penalty. Some consolation, to my freedom loving soul: the article is in the news. The comments in the online version are critical—even evoking the days of Idi Amin—and these things are said in the open--at least for now.

Bad news for women?

The New York Times reported "Contraceptive Used in Africa may double risk of HIV" The most popular contraceptive for women in eastern and southern Africa, a hormone shot given every three months, appears to double the risk the women will become infected with H.I.V., according to a large study published Monday. And when it is used by H.I.V.-positive women, their male partners are twice as likely to become infected than if the women had used no contraception. A lot of Ugandan women use this method of contraception. It's one that they can easily control themselves, even somewhat secretly if they need to--and so those with resistant partners can still do some family planning on their own. It would be a real shame if it turns out that the risks outweigh the benefits. I agree with the WHO epedemiologist, “We want to make sure that we warn when there is a real need to warn, but at the same time we don’t want to come up with a hasty judgment that would have far-reaching severe consequences for the sexual and reproductive health of women,” she said. “This is a very difficult dilemma.” Like many contraceptive methods, how the method works isn't always well understood resulting in ineffective use. Yesterday I was chatting with a woman who used the injection plan. She patted her swollen belly. "I don't even know when I'm due," she said, "I must be a very stupid woman. I didn't get injections at regular times. I only went to get injections when my husband would come back from Juba every few months. I guess that doesn't work." This might be bad news for women like her, who are aware of their husbands extramarital exploits. On the other hand, it just might give them more leverage to push their partners to use contraceptive methods that offer more protection against HIV transmission.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Highest Mountain in the Newest Nation & I'm still that girl

(2 for the price of 1 because I haven’t blogged in too long)

I remember the early days of my first year in University, so bright-eyed and green—I’d spent a bit of time in Azerbaijan, Palestine, and Kashmir and was planning my next summers in Tibet and Bosnia and Herzegovina—I was fired up about the right to self-determination. I’ve come a long way since then—the agitation for and transition to an independent nation is much more complex than a passionate and well-meaning but ignorant young woman who wants peace and justice for everybody everywhere in the world can grasp, but originally, that was part of why I got into this work. And then last month, there I was up on a mountain— celebrating the independence of a new nation--allowing the contagion of hope that permeated the air to swell a little in my lungs. We were witnesses, part of that historic moment when the flag of the Republic of South Sudan was raised, the new national anthem was sung. A nation was born.

Before starting the drive north from Uganda T and I picked up a tent from a friend who previously worked in Darfur and South Sudan—he jokingly waved us off saying, “you go be idealistic on your mountain.” Experience has left a little taste of cynicism in his mouth—“well, at least it means daddy’s gonna have job opportunities,” he said, kissing his new baby’s head. We laughed, and began driving—about 7 hours on what was a lousy excuse for a road and in some places might more accurately be called a river until we got to the middle of nowhere, Eastern Equatoria, also known as Isohe. In Isohe, we met up with G and 3 other fellow trekkers and stayed on the AVSI compound. The next morning we drove to Torit and then towards where we were told we’d start the climb. Supposedly, the trail up Mount Kinyeti, the tallest peak in South Sudan, began from a little town called Gilo and it would take about 6 hours to summit. When we reached a place called Katire we saw a dilapidated and bullet-hole ridden signpost, which read “Gilo.” But it was pointing straight into thick jungle bush. It was raining, so we sat in the car and wondered what to do until someone passed by. We found out that the jungle in the direction of the Gilo signpost used to be a road—in the 70s . And there used to be a town called Gilo—in the 70s. Now there is no such place as Gilo and no road to reach it. (in case you are ever climbing Mount Kinyetti, just note that it takes about 15 hours and that you start from Katire. “Gilo” and “6 hours” are total fictions.) So, we found a guide/farmer/hunter that knows the mountain well but has very few readily obvious people skills or ability to estimate distances. When we would ask how long to a particular point the totally ambiguous answer was always the same, “still.” We would ask, how many more valleys do we need to go down before we start climbing the actual mountain that we are trying to summit? “many”. Right. It was an exercise in staying present. Letting go of control. Literally willing our feet to take one step at a time. The first night we hiked in the dark until 10pm, tripping on vines and who knows what, calling out warnings to each other “hole” and “log” so maybe the person behind you would be luckier than you who just fell into the hole or over the log. Thank God the moon was out. Then July 9th, Independence Day, we started before sunrise and reached the peak around 3pm. We were sad because we thought we’d missed the delegation that was supposed to arrive by helicopter for a flag raising ceremony that morning. There was only an empty pole when we arrived. An hour later we were enjoying the view and discussing food and water rations when a helicopter came up over the horizon. And from nowhere we found the energy in our weary bodies to waive shout and jump around like crazy people as if we’d been shipwrecked and our rescue depended on it. We joined the governor of Eastern Equatoria, a few other South Sudanese dignitaries and UN mission staff and a bunch of Russian pilots to sing the anthem (which they didn’t know--but we did, thanks to G who sang it repeatedly on our journey. I don’t even know Uganda’s anthem but I can now sing South Sudan’s word for word.) They opened 2 bottles of cava and we all toasted the newest nation in disposable cups. Then we painfully had to decline the offer of a ride off the mountain in the helicopter because we had to go back down the mountain a ways where we’d left one of our companions who hadn’t been able to make it to the peak. We camped again and the next day I felt euphoric despite the knee-grinding descent that I still haven’t fully recovered from. Coming down is never easy. I had several days of existential angst after we got back before I equalized at my normal elevation. Doing things like that feed my soul—an adventure, secret identities (I left that part out because I’m not entirely sure it was entirely legal…) , expanding the limits of my physical body, opening up more space in the world where I have breathed deeply, appreciated life, taken in the beauty and let go of some of the baggage that I pick up along the way of the mundane. I felt free. Alive. An open road. the top of a mountain, windows down, music blaring, singing, shoes off—in no man’s land, between borders—as if borders are irrelevant. The limits of real life fade, and we could do anything. be part of everything. We don’t live on mountains and there are a thousand tethers on our heart whose gravity roots us back down. Something in me tries to possess both--to hold on to the necessarily finite state of abandon. I brought back some wild banana plants from the mountain. I’ll plant them near the super hut. There is something beautifully paradoxical about their wild roots growing down into the soil of our first owned home. I had planned to blog, not about myself, but about South Sudan, a little analysis, and some observations from when I was in Yei in 2007 and ideas about where they’re headed, but instead I’ve indulged all these naval gazing muddles. This new nation, born through decades of labor pains is the bigger story—which I haven’t told.

There have been a few moments like this recently where I’ve felt so intensely alive—like those early days in University. Sometimes I feel like I’ve moved so far from that person—maybe lost some things about her that I rather liked, but such moments suggest some fundamental part of who we are that doesn’t change. I’ve smiled a little to myself in those moments, because I think: “I’m still that girl.” That mountain-climbing, tree-hugging, cookie-baking, late-night-chatting, freedom-seeking, on-my-knees-praying, heavenward-fist-shaking, open-door-enthusiast that I was when I was 18. My grandmother died. My brother got married. And I climbed a mountain on a historic day. Each of these events invited contemplation and inspiration—and took place with beautiful dear friends around that think with me and bring out the best in me. “That girl” doesn't happen or exist in isolation—it’s like that proverb: “I am because we are. We are because I am.” Change is coming, and I always get a little overly nostalgic and contemplative when I know that something is coming to an end. Our house is a little emptier. My fellow-mountain climber moved out yesterday. In a couple months we will move out of this big communal house, we’re working on the super hut, Z&C are moving up town. We will still be each other’s community, but in the next chapter, we’ll do it from different houses--we won’t be making coffee next to each other in the morning. When Elliyah hears the gate she’ll get out of the habit of running through housemates names and running to door to see who it is. Our garden will only be the product of our own labor. We will miss the little everyday interaction of walking down the same hallway to our bedrooms, and coming home from work to friends sitting on the veranda.

I’ve been mostly writing the last few months so have spent less time “in the field”—and have felt disconnected with the undercurrent of purpose for doing this work. On Sunday night we had a going away party and I looked around at a wonderful group of people gathered around a cello and a guitar with bellies full of good food and wine. New babies were cuddled, hands held—and I just kinda felt “this is what it’s all about.” So, why am I spending all day long reading transcripts of my interviews with rape victims and writing about the ugliest and most awful things that human beings do to each other? (this is a rhetorical question, to which I do know the answer, I just wasn’t feeling the answer) I want to cook delicious meals and eat them with good people and have nice conversations. Of course, that isn’t really all I want because I’m still that girl that wants peace and justice for everybody and have a somewhat more nuanced perspective on what that means now than I did oh way back when—but I’m just not in the mood at the moment. It’s like Pete used to say “I want cocoa and cuddles not rape and murder.”

I haven’t blogged in too long, so this is a rather-bunny trailing one that isn’t really about any one thing—so coming to some resolution to wrap it up is a little difficult. Here’s what I think:

*Mountains are good to climb.

*What the independence of South Sudan will mean is complex, but mountain peaks are not for complexity they are for inspiration, vision and renewing hope in what is possible.

*I am intensely grateful for the time with all “commune-ers” past and present.

*I’m a little nervous, but excited about living with just my family.

*You can come over any time, because if you don’t I might shrivel up from lack of social interaction and die. (PS-there will be cookies).

*The hokey pokey might really be what it’s all about—but it might also be about peace and justice for everybody everywhere in the world--whatever that means.

*I’m still that girl.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Political Demonstrators, Rebels--what's the difference?

This blog was originally posted on May 12th. It was removed by blogger for maintenance but never restored, thanks to several faithful readers who responded to the last post--Here it is again:

In the last month or so many Ugandans have participated in "walk-to-work" demonstrations across the country to express dissatisfaction over rising costs of food and fuel in Uganda among other political grievances. The main organizers are also political opposition leaders and they have been arrested (sometimes with excessive force) and released several times. Some demonstrations have turned violent. Police and military were not exclusive in their use of non-lethal force using live ammunition with fatal consequences. People have been injured and even killed (9 unarmed civilians according HRW)--including a two year old girl. Most of this has taken place in Kampala, and a few other towns. We had one day of it in Gulu.

There are many things I could say about the demonstrations and the state's reaction to them--but there is one aspect that I've found particularly troubling:

State actors keep making references to Joseph Kony and the LRA when they are talking about the demonstrators.

One friend actually witnessed police beat people in the street outside her shop in Gulu and heard them say, "We dealt with Kony--we can deal with you!"

I was shocked to hear that such inflammatory language is being used in a place where violence at the hands of the LRA is no distant memory. Those in the street and even being beaten had suffered from the war--some of them, undoubtedly, were formerly abducted people who had been forced to take part in LRA activities. I hoped that such statements were just isolated incidences of some over-zealous and insensitive soldiers, but then I watched President Musevini on the news discussing the demonstrations in a press conference. He assured the room full of journalists, "We have the capacity to defend the people of Uganda. We defeated Kony, we are going to defeat these opportunists and criminally minded people."

Then I read an article where General Tinyefuza, the coordinator of Uganda's national intelligence agencies was commenting on the excessive force of police and military and unlawful arrests of many opposition leaders in the past weeks during "walk to work" campaigns:
On how our police handled the situation, yes there could have been mistakes but that is Besigye’s (an opposition leader's) plan to provoke the State to make mistakes so that he gains political capital. These mistakes of the police which I am talking about should be put into perspective. Uganda has been peaceful for the last 25 years and our people know how to handle armed insurgents like Kony or violent demonstrators.

um,what? Uganda's been peaceful for 25 years? someone forgot to tell my neighbors--and just curious, if it's been so peaceful, who's this Kony character you mention? and what relation is he to the demonstrators?

It's not clear to me if the associations being made between demonstrators and the LRA are somewhat unconscious--the product of viewing the world through the lingering lens of the "liberation war"leading to an inevitable interpretation of political demonstrations in tribal/regional terms, or if it is slightly more calculated:

1) to emphasize that the government is in control, and capable of maintaining the security of the country/stamping out any challenge to its' rule.
2) to deliberately evoke a public opinion that associates the demonstrators and the political opposition's leaders to Joseph Kony, playing on negative north/south Ugandan dynamics and perpetuating an image of Acholis/political opposition as dangerous, militant, untrustworthy, brutal, bent on the destruction of the peace--AND therefore justify the harsh reaction of military and police.

Fortunately some people see the situation a little more clearly. “The excessive use of force by security officers was plain to see in the television footage of the event. While I do not condone the violent rioting that followed, the Ugandan authorities must realize that their own actions have been the major factor in turning what were originally peaceful protests about escalating food and fuel prices into a national crisis.” That's the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. read the full release here

In Gulu, I did't want watch it on TV, I got caught in the middle of it. We turned around as quickly as we could when we saw rubble in the road and a crowd of people shrouded in tear gas. But not fast enough. Riot police almost hit our car while they swerved at terrible speed cutting us off and stopping in front of us to fire tear gas. Three times they fired tear gas toward us while we yelled "there's a baby in the car," until we finally managed to get past them and out of the line of fire.(I'd take issue with anyone claiming that the military and police were only targetting those involved in the demonstrations--Z even watched as they shot teargas into a primary school and a crowd of children scatter) After a rather surreal encounter with Mao on the side of the road where we discussed topics as common as the weather, as personal as our adoption process and as significant in that moment as non-violence and how he intended to lead people in a moment of political upheaval in a context where, as he said "anything can happen. this is a traumatized people," We finally got home and had dinner in the dark with explosions and gunfire in surround sound. Things quieted after a couple of hours and we listened as best we could to a neighbours' radio with Mao's voice in Acholi admonishing the demonstrators not to resort to violence. "I don't support anyone who throws stones," he said.

Yeah, there are one or two differences between demonstrators and rebels. There are also a few differences between demonstrators and rapists and murderers but apparently President Musevini thinks they ought be in the same category and wants to have the constitution amended to exclude each of those categories from eligibility for bail--rather making them stay in prison for a mandatory 180 days! (I smiled a little, when I saw one commenter suggest that changing the constitution in that way would be just fine as long as it was also changed back to having term limits...)

On a side note, the new, less brutal, more colorful police tactic is to spray people with pink water. A friend came over for dinner last night and shared what I think is wonderfully creative twist on Mao's statement after being sprayed and arrested yesterday, "I'm all pink." The walk-to-workers should adopt pink as their color of protest--and start off by all wearing pink T-shirts.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Back in action but my last post is still MIA

Any folks out there get the text of our blog posts? It seems that I did not save it anywhere on my computer and the post was only online for about a day and then vanished mysteriously--actually, there's not much mystery. It was removed due to blogger maintenance issues but never restored, (though I do indulge the intrigue of the minute possibility it could somehow have been related to its political content. )

So if you happen to have the text of my last blog, "Political Demonstrators, Rebels--what's the difference?" in your inbox or saved somewhere, please oh please email it to me or post it in the comments.

I would be so grateful.

More soon.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Osama's Assassination: a self portrait?

"A photograph of the violence you inflict is always, in very large measure, a self-portrait..."

This phrase struck me while I was reading a piece about the prudence of releasing photos of Osama's killing. I was surprisingly moved--because the issue of the public access to the pictures themselves seems comparatively insignificant in the grand scheme of everything going on. I did't expect the article to inspire reflection on goals that are pursued through violence--what that says about our crede and our policy.

The article concluded:

At Abu Ghraib, and in far too many theatres of our post-9/11 wars, we compounded the wound that bin Laden and Al Qaeda inflicted on us ten-years ago, with self-inflicted wounds, time and again abandoning our own best principles in the name of defending them. We stooped to fighting terror with terror, and confronting barbarism with barbarism. The assassination of bin Laden allows us to begin turning the page—but surely not if that page is printed with an official trophy photograph of his blasted head.

I came to a different conclusion. If the assassination of bin Laden is to allow us to begin turning a page--should we avoid looking at what we've done? Maybe we ought to look at our self-portrait and ask ourselves if we like what we see.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Capitalist Commune?

Last year I rarely blogged about communal life. It wasn’t because I didn’t think about it. It was just often too personal. I am fine sharing my own personal things, but it is less appropriate to share other people’s private lives—and last year my personal stuff was inextricable from 7 other people’s.

Somehow, it seems different right now. Maybe it’s because I was not friends with my 3 new housemates before they moved in--or I feel more entitled to comment because I was here first. Or maybe it's just new, and reflection comes easily when confronted with the novel. The other night I was talking with Z&C and one of the newbies on the front veranda. We were talking about communism, and differences between Italian and American values around private property and suddenly all the macro talk crystallized my growing awareness of a micro phenomenon in our house. We have a lot of private property. We value it. We safeguard it. When orienting the new additions to the kitchen, we’re sure to distinguish the communal food shelf from the special-stuff-I-brought-from-Kampala-or-was-sent-from-home shelf. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I don’t think I like it, but I’m not sure if or how much I want to change it. More importantly, I’m not sure what inner spiritual state it reflects. I feel some sense of frustration, maybe even disappointment (in myself or in the ideal—I’m not sure) that even in this intentional experiment with communal living—it is still a place where we build fences around our property.

Previous versions of the commune ideal in my mind included us pooling all of our resources—I mean all of them. We would share debts, salaries, everything. Now, we don’t even share beer or coffee creamer. We have specific seats around the dinner table. We have personal water glasses and coffee mugs. We have separate coffee because I drink so much. We have separate toilet paper because... um, someone else uses so much. We have well-established systems to make sure that we don’t have to pay too much for other people’s consumption.

It is funny, because in previous experiences in shared houses where we weren’t doing this whole “intentional community” thing we had less structure around resource distribution. Perhaps because we were so deliberate in the patterns we set initially we tried to minimize potential risk of trespasses and thereby protect our inter-personal relationships from petty annoyances. The way things are now was no accident. The borders between things in common and private property were drawn with intent. After a couple of weeks of not paying any attention when we first started—Ben and I realized our food expenditure had doubled. It was partially because we ate better with more great cooks in the house and meals transformed into social occasions, but also we all had different resources and different priorities. So we came up with systems that are fair and that we are all comfortable with. But somehow, the full circle from my initial ideals crept up on me when a new house-mate asked which mug he should use to drink coffee--and I could tell he had intuited the relevance of his question.

Although I feel tension between my desire to control my own destiny/manage my own budget/make decisions based on my priorities and in holding more things in common, I appreciate the bright side of private property in a commune. In a strange way, it allows us to be generous. If it all belongs to all of us, it is not a kind gesture if I give it to anyone. Truth be told, we do share a great deal of “our own” things. We ask each other and we gladly give. And it is more significant when I make pesto with MY pine nuts brought from the US than when we divide the cost of groceries for a communal meal.

I feel like I’ve learned a few things in the past year. I have many more lessons that have yet to find expression. Perhaps they will get distilled at some point.

One is that I want to "do community” with the people around me. Not wait for some other time, or some specific group of people, or some specific conditions. I want to invest in the relationships that are right here. Right now.

I also feel like I have so much more to learn. I like that I live in an environment where I am confronted with unresolved tension between valuing individualism and freely sharing in group life. I don’t want it to end. What is here is important and we haven’t mined all the resources yet. I remind myself of that when there are times I’m tempted to hasten what’s next (a super hut)—usually it is in moments when my values inconvenience other people and I have to choose between imposing discomfort possibly damaging relationships with the people I love and compromising a way of life that I feel called to (or maybe that I just like more—not to over-spiritualize my preferences). In those times I feel inhibited—like we can only live the fullness of life to the least common denominator present in a group. Sometimes I am that denominator; sometimes it’s someone else. I’d like to think we raise the bar for each other. Doubtless, we do sometimes. I think we can do better. I’m learning (in this case “learning” might be a euphemism for my inaction or blunders and lack of balance) how to struggle for and inspire each other to a higher way of living and have grace and acceptance for where we all are.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Since justice has no "teeth" we'll make condoms that do...

"The ideal situation would be for a woman to wear this when she's going out on some kind of blind date ... or to an area she's not comfortable with," she said.The mother of two daughters said she visited prisons and talked to convicted rapists to find out whether such a device would have made them rethink their actions.

Some said it would have, Ehlers said.

"Yes, my device may be a medieval, but it's for a medieval deed that has been around for decades," she said. "I believe something's got to be done ... and this will make some men rethink before they assault a woman."

This is from CNN, talking to South African Dr. Sonnet Ehlers. (thanks for the tip Casey) Read the whole article here.