The Road South

There aren’t many bus journeys in Rwanda that culminate in ice cream, but this one does. It’s a bright, clear Thursday, and I’m on the bus to Huye. This city in the Southern Province, along with being the home of the national university and the intellectual heart of the country, features the best ice cream [possibly] in East Africa. There’s a new gelato place in Kigali’s slick new mall, Kigali Heights, but I haven’t been there yet and I want to believe that this is still the best place, so I’ll hold onto it for the moment.

But it’s been a slow ride. I scheduled a meeting for mid-afternoon, and planned my journey time specifically around the promise of ice cream. But it’s been a slow journey; an extended police checkpoint stop, an expanse of unpaved road clotted with traffic, and the steady pace of the bus are whittling away my ice cream time. The speed thing is new; I was told by a few Rwandans right after arriving that the government recently introduced speed governors. When I first heard about this, I pictured a new class of police officers, the Speed Governors, out on the roads near the cops with the hairdryer-shaped speed guns. But the Governors would be more resplendently attired, perhaps in capes crisscrossed with traditional back and white beading, like the fantastic designs coming out of local Rwandan ateliers.  But alas, speed governors are simply devices which prevent the bus from traveling over 60km/hour, instituted to curb the reckless driving of national bus companies looking to increase the number of trips and thus their earnings. The result is basically a one-third increase in travel time, but also a more enjoyable journey with fewer panicked reverse-fantasies of buses plunging off winding mountain roads and subsequent death. Now, the buses chug pleasantly along, occasionally gathering enough speed to pass a fume-belching construction truck.

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This is what we bus for… well, among other things

To take buses through Rwanda, especially the Southern Province, is to wind through the reality of ordinary people outside of the capital. Rwandan roads are used by all, not just those in cars or buses. You will see men pushing bicycles like beasts of burden, loaded with lumpy white woven bags, probably cassava or carrots or potatoes for market. Occasional motos zip past, especially when we get closer to cities, their drivers wearing blue or red or high vis green pinnies marked with the names of their moto taxi cooperative. There are always police, dressed in navy uniforms with shiny lug-sole boots, and sometimes military (RPF) vehicles, immediately apparent by their particular shade of green. SUVs blaze up and down the roads, some with radio antenna that bob along with the car as it speeds past our slow boat, almost all bearing logos or signage from some NGO or another. We’re overtaken by battered Toyota Carreras, sleek Prados with black-tinted windows, and RPF-green military Corollas. I’ve said it before, but this continent runs on AKs, Blue Band margarine, and Toyota.

We pass one of my favorite buildings: a square, cement mosque just past Muhanga with a misshapen dome, which I appreciate not for its beauty but it’s vibrant robin’s egg, almost Tiffany Blue color. Mosques are easy to identify – there are often no minarets but diminutive crescent moons atop their roofs. Other buildings are similarly identifiable: the road to Huye has at least four significant genocide memorial sites. They are recognizable by their common design: there are often wide cement slab placed over mass graves, and bricked, open-air patios with walls inscribed with victims’ names. Sometimes you will also see gated cemeteries, individual graves built up with platforms of white tile and wide, standing crosses. While the start of the genocide and the week of commemoration come early in April, beginning on the 7th, the months of April, May, and June are part of the memorial period, and nearly every organization, business, and school is slung with a commemoration banner inscribed with the kwibuka flame and the line “remember, unite, renew.” They are everywhere, and especially evident on this road: banners in pale gray with the unmistakable flame.

But most of the time, it’s a road ping-pong between rural areas and short stretches of strip-mall-like shops, some raw concrete gray, others painted bright blue, yellow, red, green. The colors are shorthand for the sponsoring company: they provide the paint, slap on a large logo, and your shop gets an upgrade. You learn quickly to recognize the color and the sponsoring company: MTN mobile’s unmistakable, Africa-wide sunshine mustard yellow, bright cobalt for Primus, a regional beer company, red for Airtel, another airtime and internet provider. There’s not much variation in the shops that pass the window, and while English might be the language of academic instruction, shop signage remains consistently French: paperterie for all of your paper needs, salons and coiffeur decorated with painted pictures of hair braiding and trim and fade services, a multitude of Chezs – Chez Jean, Chez Dieu – usually small cafes and buffets or guesthouses.

Sometimes the bus will stop, often to pick up more passengers or let a few off. It’s slow going outside of Muhanga, where over and over again a passenger will knock on a window or tap a coin against the chassis of the bus, alerting the driver to let them off. When we make “official” stops, sometimes just on the side of the road near an outlet for the bus company, young men and woman come to the bus, pulling open the windows, and showing off their wares: clear plastic buckets filled with small bags of groundnuts, milk in liter jugs shaped like jerry cans, loaves of bread wrapped in white wax paper, water, Fanta, glutenous biscuits. But nothing can compare to the thought of ice cream and I attempt to send impatient vibes to the driver: come on, mate, let’s get this show on the road.

But there’s no changing it: the speed governor means you can’t go any faster, and as usual, I am often the only one in a hurry. So maybe there’s the lesson: chill out, Leanne, relax, enjoy the scenery. We pull back onto the main road and quickly find ourselves behind a dump truck slowing to a crawl as we reach the section of road under construction. The pavement turns quickly to red dirt and clouds of dust mean that the passengers pull the windows closed. Outside, a brave cyclist, clad in the sponsored spandex that indicates his place as a Team Rwanda rider, maneuvers the bumps of the dirt road.

Almost there, I tell myself. Ice cream awaits.

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Into the Field (Part 2)

Honey-colored brick buildings surround a bright, manicured quadrangle, edged with shrubs and featuring Our Lady encased in glass. In the classrooms, wooden desks in tight rows are carved with years – decades? – of teenage musings. Our glow-in-the-dark Lord and Savior hangs on crucifixes above the blackboards. The full picture is reminiscent of my own parochial childhood – with a few substitutions beyond the plastic Jesus: the wood carvings are 21st century-centric (Kylie, Kendrick Lamar, F*ck Taliban?), not to mention that the location is probably six thousand miles from my idyllic Northern California hometown.

I’m at a boarding school in the Southern Province of Rwanda, not quite awake for the 7:40 start time. The school specializes in science concentrations at A-level (Senior 4-6, equivalent of senior high school in the U.S.), but the student body also includes O-levels (Senior 1-3, junior high). All of the students are gathered in the quad, grouped around the headmistress on the basketball court. After they sang the school song and the national anthem, they scatter to their classrooms and she comes to shake my hand. Like any ex-Catholic school girl, I smiled and tried not to remember my own strict, similarly short and square headmistress (well, principal) wringing a cheating confession out of 2nd-grade me.

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It’s the first day of proper data collection: my research is with a teacher association, and one aspect of the many methods I have engineered for the project involves observation and interviews with individual member teachers. Thus, I am wearing a dress and functioning as the center of school gossip on a cool morning: the thing about quadrangles is you can’t hide, and the thing about being white in Rwanda is you really can’t hide. Students in royal blue sweaters and white shirts and ties embroidered with the school crest rush past me; one kind, brave Senior 5 soul greets me and takes me to the Teacher’s Room where I find the “Maurice,” the association teacher that I will shadow today.

Back in my teaching days, I would always get a little nervous when being observed, regardless of whether it was my boss, some visiting delegation, or even a colleague. But today, the roles are reversed: Maurice seems cool, collected, and unbothered by my presence, and I’m the one who’s sweating and shaking a bit and constantly dropping her pen. As a PhD student, starting your data collection is declaring your allegiance to one philosophical orientation and beginning the process of knowledge construction. Knowledge begins with data, and especially important for qualitative researchers, extensive thought and care should be put into how you collect that data. I have put in that thought and care, but this is where it becomes something real.

Until this point, it’s all been theoretical. Who I am as a researcher is passionate but theoretical, recorded in proposal documents and argued in an upgrade panel, but it is a construction, an ideal. Data collection is when you morph into that person, or a totally different one, where you start to work and communicate and face decisions and problems and become mired in messiness. It’s where things can get personally uncomfortable. Not just sitting in the back of the class, balanced on a stool, trying to remember what I am supposed to be looking for and recording for this observation, what will set me up for our later series of prompted interviews.

Maurice has so many class periods, I lose count: maybe seven? Some are short, only 30 minutes; others are more than an hour. All of the classes are A-level and divided for the concentration: MCB (Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology), MCE (Mathematics, Computing, and Economics), and MPC (Mathematics, Physics, and Computing) – but I probably got at least one of those wrong. It all seems like my own high school subject nightmare. So. Much. Math. Some of the rooms are expansive concrete boxes like my old Musanze classrooms, loud and echoing with every movement across the uneven floor, lit by daylight, with peeling, crumbling blackboards painted on the walls. Some are bricked, hung with ubiquitous net curtains and featuring detailed images drawn on the boards: one classroom for MCE has an elaborate drawing of an Excel spreadsheet. The teacher-artist has used multiple colors of chalk and indicated screen details down to the battery percentage on the bottom toolbar. That’s one way to deal with limited technology.

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Behold, He glows: a literal interpretation of John 8:12

For each classroom, I introduce myself. By the seventh class, it’s rushed and to the point. Leanne. Research. American. UK for Phd (yes, I know it’s strange). PhD (don’t do a PhD, you’ll go crazy). They ask me many of the same questions. Married? No. How old? Guess (they are either very polite or very poor at estimation). Some of the classes ask detailed questions – how do I improve my public speaking ability? Others are less interesting – what’s your favorite drink? I wasn’t going to say “gin and tonic” out loud at a Catholic school, so apparently it’s a mocktail of mango juice and Vittolo, the local sparkling water option. After the introductions, I take a position in the back of the room.

Qualitative researchers are (rightly) neurotic over this idea of position and positionality – beyond my wooden stool. Kant famously argued that we cannot possibly experience “things-in-themselves” but can only experience them as they appear to us, encapsulated here by writer Anais Nin: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Whatever the world is, we process it through our selves. It doesn’t mean that research is some therapeutic self-exploration (unlike, say… blogs…) but it means that we are aware that we exist as a filter for that data and subsequently constructed knowledge.

Without getting too far down the research philosophy rabbit hole, I hold a critical constructivist research philosophy which argues that the social world is constructed. If you think the world is one giant canvas and if we design the right camera, the right experiment, the right path, we can see it correctly and document it and pass this Knowledge onto the future generations, that’s the opposing viewpoint: positivism (well, that’s the quick and dirty and reductionist version; I’m sure I’ll get some emails for that). But constructivists think the world is more messily put together, and knowledge reflects this: critical constructivist capo Joe Kincheloe (2005) argues that from this perspective, it is “misleading to merely study random outcomes… isolated ‘facts’ and ‘truths'” (p. 2). Knowledge rather always involves a knower who is permanently linked to a historical and social context : “how the knower constructs the known constitutes what we think of as reality” (p. 2). Thus, for researchers, especially, our position in this place is important. We can’t just fade into the background, become the nameless automaton behind the experiment. As researchers, we play an exaggerated role in constructing knowledge and deciding what “counts” as knowledge. That’s quick and dirty as well, but ultimately, this perspective requires humility, caution, and social awareness in the practice of research.

As such, critical constructivism requires being aware of who you are, what you’re doing, how you’re behaving, how you are reflecting on your work, how dynamics of power and postcolonialism enter the equation. It means examining your biases and what goes into the questions you ask, how your hear the answer. Obviously, you can’t remove yourself from the work – and to believe that is possible is itself naïveté. Instead, we have to recognize who we are in the situation. To quote from my progression document, the solution is an anti-solution: observe, listen, ask questions and be ready to receive responses that cut at the base of who I think I am, recognize the privilege I have and be able to talk about it with honesty and openness. Gadamer (1989) suggests laying bare your affiliations or “horizons” and consider their impact on your interpretation, what he labels a “fusion of horizons” (p. 370). When this is done fully and intentionally, it is meant to be deeply painful in separating what I actually believe and value from what I express as beliefs and values. It I am asking this of my participants in examining their own practice as teachers, I should be doing the same thing. There’s the discomfort.

I tell myself that this classroom, this moment of mentally pressing record is where it all begins, but that’s not exactly true: PhDs require you to define and package your philosophy, epistemology, ontology, and axiology, but really, none of this is linear – just like travel, research requires that you keep going back over yourself, learning more about who you are and what you think and how all of that changes when you are confronted with things that are different and unknown. So I settle in and watch as Maurice divides the blackboard into sections for the class to review last week’s material: “What I know” and “What I want to know.” Fitting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a girl nudge a folded note towards a broad-shouldered boy while her deskmate furiously copies Maurice’s board composition. I start making margin notes in pink pen. Honey-colored bricks, a bright quadrangle, glow-in-the-dark Jesus. 

Peace.

L

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (2nd, revis ed.). London: Continuum.

Kincheloe, J. (2005). Critical constructivism primer. New York: Peter Lang.

 

Refugee trauma and the ESL classroom

I originally wrote this three years ago when I was in Northern California, working with a refugee resettlement organization. I spent 3.5 years volunteering there, and during that time, I met more than 200 refugees who were resettled in the Sacramento area. They came from all over the world, but primarily Iraq, Afghanistan (many of whom worked as translators with the U.S. military), Burundi, Bhutan, Nepal, Kenya… the list goes on.

This past Friday, Donald Trump suspended the refugee resettlement program by executive order. Just a few facts, none of which are “alternative” – refugees are defined as people who must flee their home country to escape war, persecution, and violence. Number of refugees that the U.S. pledged to resettle in 2017 following a multiyear vetting process: 110,000. Number of refugees resettled in the U.S. who have committed known acts of terrorism, EVER: 0.

I don’t write well when shaking with emotional rage, but I want to say something, to defend the 200+ people that I knew well. This article was originally published with TESOL International Association’s Refugee Concerns newsletter and it speaks mainly to educators about strategies for dealing with students (such as refugees) who have experienced severe trauma (like many, many refugees).

One final note before the article: the organization I worked with, the International Rescue Committee, was founded at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, a refugee who fled to the U.S. to escape the Third Reich.

 


October 2013

His distress was palpable, evidenced in knotted eyebrows and a subtle tremor that shook throughout his rail-thin body. He grabbed my hand impulsively and put it against his heart so I could share in (or at least understand) his terror. His words were impeded by his lack of language, and whatever English he did have was impeded by his extreme stress. “The men…the room…” he managed to get out with labored breaths.

Only because of an earlier conversation with his caseworker did I know what the problem was: He was a new refugee client, and he had identified himself, at least to the caseworker and the hosting organization, as gay. On his first night in English class, only a few days after he arrived in the United States, he was still terrified to be in a small room with other speakers of his language group, large men who may have appeared similar to his overseas tormentors. I’ve volunteered with this organization for 3 years and learned that if I get a hunch that past trauma is trickling into a situation, I am probably right.

His situation was a unique one, to say the least: refugee, gay, from a conservative country, spoke almost no English, most likely suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or similar. To be dealt a few of those cards would certainly be a challenge, but all of them? I’m no psychologist, and like the majority of English teachers, even those like myself who have a master’s degree in teaching the subject, I’m ill-equipped to deal with this challenge. My program didn’t require or even offer a course in ESL and PTSD, just as they offered very little training outside of teaching for well-equipped classrooms full of literate, economically steady, enthusiastic English learners. Like many other instructors in my situation, I had to gauge my reaction to similar situations with a mix of experience and self- research.

This incident, despite involving a very unique individual, can be compared to many similar ones experienced by ESL instructors who work with refugees or asylum seekers. Stressful outbursts, as in the example given, demonstrate one of the greatest challenges of working with posttrauma populations. Refugees, asylum seekers, and some immigrant groups have a “substantially higher risk than the general population for a variety of specific psychiatric disorders—related to their exposure to war, violence, torture, forced migration and exile and to the uncertainty of their status in the countries where they seek asylum” (Kirmayer et al., 2011, p. E961). Unfortunately, when a refugee or asylum seeker resettles in a new country, past traumas are often exacerbated by the serious psychological stress caused by poor adjustment to the culture of the resettlement country (Schweitzer, Melville, Steel, & Lacherez, 2006). Because ESL teachers often have longer periods of contact with their refugee students than other social service providers (such as resettlement agency case workers), stressful outbursts or other classroom issues, such as interpersonal conflicts, can commonly occur. Classrooms often function as safe zones, “where the students can have the opportunity not only to learn English…but also to learn about and discuss many of the cultural adjustment issues and other facets of their new lives” (Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, & Silver, 1999, p. 17). This safe place not only provides a platform for students to learn the language that will assist in their acculturation processes, but it also provides a form of self-expression that “engenders stronger mental health” (Adkins et al.,1999, p. 17)

Many refugees, whether they are clinically diagnosed with suffering from PTSD or other disorders, experience a variety of symptoms caused by the stress and trauma resulting from their past and even ongoing experiences. These factors may be manifested in symptoms such as physical ailments (headaches, backaches, and stomachaches), somatic issues (sleeping in class or complaining of a lack of sleep at night), attention issues, lack of participation in or withdrawal from social interaction, frequent absences, and/or emotional or behavioral issues (Adkins et al., 1999, p. 19). Extensive medical and psychological research has demonstrated that these mental problems are prevalent within the refugee community, but, for a teacher working on a day-to-day basis with these students, the research might not be so important as solutions to the issue.

In the 1999 publication through the Spring Institute, Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, and Silver provide an excellent manual that instructs ESL teachers in methods for adapting their classroom pedagogy, methods, and activities to facilitate positive acculturation in response to these mental health issues. But when teachers are faced with outbursts similar to the example presented, they need to be prepared to spontaneously address the problem and help the student to reach a state of calm. To help deal with the effects of PTSD and other stress, emotion, or deeper psychological issues or trauma-related outbursts that manifest themselves in the classroom, teachers have to be proactive about educating and preparing themselves for these incidents, but also in sharing effective techniques and strategies for coping with these issues within the community of practice. In this situation, I followed a protocol that I have used in a variety of similar contexts:

1. Use nonverbal cues to demonstrate compassion and understanding.As refugee English teachers, this is often our default mode. But these situations require an extra measure of compassion: demonstrating empathy with obvious facial expressions (especially for low-level speakers) and a calm, low tone of voice. Horsman (1997) suggests “words and looks of encouragement” (p. 22) over physical contact, as physical boundaries are important to respect and even more difficult to infer in stressful moments.

2. Allow them to be separate from the class. In this situation, I was fortunate that another person could step in and cover the class for a few minutes, which might not be possible in every situation. It is important to help preserve the refugee’s sense of dignity (i.e., not allow others to see his or her distress) and allow them the space to calm down, so it is essential to step outside and away from the trigger. Horsman (1997) noted that refugees dealing with trauma need physical “places to go outside the program when the feelings are ‘too much’ for themselves or for others to deal with in the class or group” (p. 30). Following the incident, I sought to demonstrate to students that they were not “bound” to the classroom and were free to step out if they felt the need.

3. Shift their focus away from what is affecting them. It sounds like something a therapist might caution against, but most teachers, like me, aren’t trained as counselors, and to take on that role could possibly do more harm than good. Revert to what you know you are skilled at: teaching English. In this situation, I took out a copy of the English diagnostic that we used and started to go through it orally with him, effectively shifting his focus away from the situation. This isn’t to say that their experience isn’t valuable or that the teacher is attempting to invalidate the importance of their past. Instead, the teacher is saving those conversations or topics for a more appropriate, less charged environment where students can operate at their own comfort level.

4. Instill confidence. As we went through the very basic material at the start of the test, I made sure to praise him and offer positive reinforcement for everything that he did right, and provide very tempered, occasional correction for his issues. This not only helped his stress subside, but focused him back on the ultimate purpose of the class: to improve his English.

In this particular situation, the pattern that I followed allowed the student to rejoin the class after 20 minutes outside of the room. By the end of class, he was raising his hand to ask questions and even interacting with the men whose presence had caused his panic earlier in the class. With continuing sensitivity to his needs, his teachers can help him and others like him better reach their potential, and move further away from trauma-based outbursts to focus on the positive possibilities that lie ahead. The experience showed me, very clearly, that, as an instructor, I am continually responsible for not only my refugee students’ academic experience but their emotional well-being.

These strategies were gleaned from personal experience and informed by research, but should not be taken as a scientific technique or as one developed by a specialist in trauma. Instead, they are one solution for dealing with stressful outbursts in the moment, keeping the student’s needs first, and helping to maintain their personal dignity and sense of self.

References

Adkins, M. A., Birman, D., Sample, E., Brod, S., & Silver, M. (1999). Cultural adjustment, mental health, and ESL: The refugee experience, the role of the teacher, and ESL activities. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Horsman, J. (1997). “But I’m not a therapist”: Furthering discussion about literacy work with survivors of trauma. The Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women. Retrieved from http://en.copian.ca/library/research/therapist/1.htm.

Kirmeyer, L., Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A., Guzder, J., … & Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: General approach in primary care. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(12), 959–967. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.090292

Schweitzer, R., Melville, F., Steel, Z., & Lacherez, P. (2006). Trauma, post-migration living difficulties, and social support as predictors of psychological adjustment in resettled Sudanese refugees. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 179–187.

Neogothic and Neon Paint: Arriving in Bristol

When I see him, I’m mid-way up Park Street, the road that connects the lush, grassy triangle of College  Green to the neo gothic Wills Tower, the edge of the university campus. Brazen, bearded, clad in a tee shirt and tattoo sleeves, slamming down the hill on a longboard, slaloming around the road’s divider line. I stop and watch as he blazes downhill at maybe twenty miles per hour, taking me back to late nights at my undergraduate university looking for my car in the multi-story parking garage with gleeful skaters screaming past, barely avoiding the cement pylons.

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Yarn-bombing and an artistic response to soot-blackened buildings 

Tattoos, longboards, and skinny jeans: my friend Steve described Bristol as “England’s Portland,” and since, more than one non-Bristolian has told me that the “rest of England” views it as green, hipster, “bio” (organic), all phrases similarly co-opted when outsiders describe the Pacific Northwest and California’s Bay Area. My past home, Sacramento, prides (maybe that’s the wrong word) itself in projecting a similar ethos: in a recent study looking to define and identify the most “hipster” cities in the U.S., Sacramento came in fourth, behind Seattle, Portland, and Denver. The researchers came up with a list of businesses which “target” hipster culture, and checked the ratios of these businesses per 10,000 city residents. The businesses? “Microbreweries (manufacturers), records/tapes/CD (retail), music dealers, coffee shops (non-chains only), beer & ale (retail), thrift shops, bicycle dealers, tattoo parlors, and music and live entertainment.”

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On the university campus; a little more mod than postmodern

Even just this road with its steep, rapid upward pitch, Park Street, illustrates that past sentence. On the ten minute walk from my building to the university, I pass three music stores (instruments and records), two vintage clothing stores, two charity (read: thrift) shops, a piercing parlor, two non-chain coffee/tea shops, and two art supply stores. It’s s seductive walk: I buy gingerbread rooibos tea in nylon sachets from a shop with a silhouetted swallow on the logo (always put a bird on it) and mint-green plates from a charity shop. I often find myself in a sea of fashion ripped from 90s closets – short denim skirts with buttons down the front, high-wasted jeans with pockets high on the butt, those ubiquitous circa-1999 polyester Delia’s sweaters, cropped above the belly button.

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Banksy’s statue left over from Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition 

Hip – or hipster – this city has it boatloads (appropriate given its past as a shipping city and its scenic locale on the River Avon). One of it’s most famous sons is Banksy, the anonymous street artist famous for [illicitly] stencilling cleverly subversive and political images on the sides of buildings and walls (for more see Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film for Street Art 101). I walk daily past one of his most famous pieces, a naked man hanging off the “window” of a sexual health clinic. It’s been vandalised with blue paint, but remains – more than one person joins me in photographing it from the sidewalk.

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Street art is all over this city, illicit and clearly non-illicit. I visited Bristol for three days in April when trying to decide it and another school, and happened to look up while stumbling down one street – and saw a mural from one of my favorite artists, El Mac. It seemed like an invitation, a blessing – that somehow this was the right place to be.

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El Mac, “Clothed with the Sun” 2011

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Something else by someone else, painted on the side of St. John’s Church

There’s something that I love about street art, the way it adds color to a city – not just tagging but artistic interest. But the city isn’t all neon paint and suspended naked men, it’s flashes of modernity in a historical mishmash. And the historical still dominates – it’s the hardest layer, the most permanent in this city, buildings that reflect Regency, Tudor, Georgian – a city that has gone through an adolescence and adulthood, reinventing itself in each era.

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Brunel’s suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge

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The university seems to have found the balance between neo Gothic and neon – outside of the Great Hall in Wills Tower for induction week 

Up the hill, past the art and the art stores, towards a university with equal parts historical buildings and steel, brick, and glass. A few days in and I’m already certain – I’m going to like this place.

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Hang a left for the university: an uncertain world.

Home Is

Wildfires in the further reaches of El Dorado county mean that the sky is dusty, with the mountains of the Sierra Nevada obscured; so the beginning and end of each day are a symphony of watercolor. John Muir described this range as “so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city” (p 35). I wake up early each morning, often with the sun, a layered pastel sunrise over the Range of Light, far in the distance, as my jetlagged brain bolts awake. It’s usually an hour of reverie before my nephew wakes up, sometimes just a pitter-patter beeline to his parents’ room; other times he snuggles next to me on the sofa and I read to him, usually mixing up words and receiving his corrections. After nearly two years in Rwanda, I’m home, and not sure when I’ll be back in the Land of a Thousand [Much Greener] Hills.

Home is a strange word for me to process. I’ve never lived in my brother and sister-in-law’s foothill house, where I’m currently staying – for my purposes here, I would define “lived” as a place where I’ve passed a definitive period of time. I spent two weeks on this sofa in December, but they had only been in the house for a short time at that point, having moved here a week before I left last year for my second stint in East Africa. Thus, stay is more apropos than live for my current existence as a middle-class vagabond. When you ask Rwandans, and indeed many other Africans, where they live, they often respond with stay – “I stay in Kimihurura.” I grew up in another town, a vastly different environment an hour away, but it’s a place that now tends to feel like anything but home; so, I stay here.

Home isn’t adventurous, but home is good. It’s mornings with my sister-in-law and the kids, watching my niece feed milky Cheerios to the dog. I argue with my brother on the porch, drinking Sierra Nevada pale ales to an evening cicada chorus. Janice and I talk ad nauseam about Myers Briggs; Alex and I get Thai food and he explains Pokemon Go and Snapchat; Janette knows to buy Mission tortilla chips and nuclear orange nacho cheese sauce; my grandmother hugs me with tears in the inner corners of her eyes. Home for me is people – a small group of them, a weirdly constructed tribe. It’s no longer a place.

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I can already feel the creep of wanderlust to go back out, coupled in the exact instant with intense relief to be home again.”No one had forewarned me, however, that if you live abroad for any good while, the notion of home is permanently compromised. You will always be missing another place, and no national logic will ever again seem fully obvious to you” (Solomon, 2016, p 15).  It’s a contradiction of sorts, that I can both miss being in Rwanda and be relieved to be free of the experience.

And maybe this is an essential step in the travel experience, the final step: going home after rewriting who you are, what you know, what you think, even what you believe, based on what you have undergone while outside of your literal and geographic comfort zones. “Travel is an exercise in partly broadening yourself and partly in defining your own limits. Travel distills you to a decontextualized existence. You never see yourself more clearly than when immersed in an entirely foreign place” (p 20). And coming home makes all of this obvious, slams you in the face with reverse culture shock and a churning mass of emotions that I can’t pick apart. In equal measure, it allows distance so you can start to process, to pick apart, to better understand.

Andrew Solomon, in his recent book recounting twenty-five years travelling as a writer focused on art and culture, struggled with this idea of change, preferring to believe that travel hadn’t shifted his values, but made him hone in more vividly on those he found to be the most meaningful: “travel taught me how to relate to disparate people with incongruent values, and, thereby, how to be contradictory myself” (p. 33).

It’s hard to explain all of this to people at home; it’s even harder to answer questions about your experience. It’s impossible to refine months or even years of life to a few sentences, especially for me, long-winded, overly reliant on dry history, and not always able to tell if I’m being asked questions out of interest or obligation. You realize too that people often don’t know what questions to ask you – a shared awkwardness that seems to often result in people saying, “so, how was Africa” and my response being clipped into platitudes – because how do you respond? Maybe this is the aspect that can become the most separating and alienating – most dramatically in the first weeks after you get home, before you’ve again acclimated. To see your country, your home from outside: and then return and be among people who haven’t necessarily had that privilege (and I do think it is a privilege). You coil back into the comfort of communicating with people who understand your experience: what Solomon terms displacement, the “forgiving homeland, a thing held in common with others” who understand your personal contradictions (p. 11).

Muir advocated a different form of travel – through mountain passes, rather than foreign countries, claiming rocky corridors and “mountain mansions” will cure whatever ails you as they “kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” He dramatically claims that “few places in this world are more dangerous than home” (p.113). While I understand his point – that we can become complacent, remaining only in our homes and never venturing forth – I can’t quite agree. True, after traveling, to come back and expect that who you as left is what you return as – ultimately, this can’t be possible. But to see yourself, and see how you’ve changed, I would argue that you must come home to see yourself back in your initial context. Live large, Muir – let those of us who can’t process in the moment some time to process on a porch in your mountain proximity.

Whatever it is, whatever I’ve become, whatever I’ve lost, whatever I’ve learned, it is good to be home. Because when I travel, I find more value for what my home is and who my home is: defining it more specifically and allowing those details like images to lodge in my brain for recall on future adventures.

 

Muir, J. (1985). The mountains of California (originally published 1893). New York: Penguin.

Solomon, A. (2016). Far and away: Reporting from the brink of change: Seven continents, twenty-five years. New York: Scribner.

 

May Dispatches: Khartoum, Sudan

There are places in this world that you never imagine you will set foot – the forbidden list, taboo for cultural, religious, or diplomatic reasons. For Americans, Sudan figures high on that list, a response to the strict economic sanctions leveled against the country in response to President Omar Al-Bashir’s war against his own people and perpetration of genocide in the Darfur region. This mean that few Americans will be able to get a visa to visit or work, and American businesses are strictly prohibited from conducting operations in the country. This doesn’t just mean no McDonalds –  it’s a country without ATMs (Visa and Mastercard can’t do business there) and after logging into Upwork while in Khartoum, I received a probationary message that my freelance contracts would be suspended until I could prove that I was not in Sudan as the online portal would not risk retribution for paying someone working in Sudan.

This is to say – it is not a country you visit flippantly, offhand for a weekend adventure. In May, I spent ten days in Sudan, joined by the other two Rwanda ELFs to help the EL Fellow in Khartoum to conduct a five-day teacher training workshop. It’s hard to write about places like this – those that have had such a significant impact on me, that have left me with such overwhelming positivity. It comes as a happy burden to attempt to illustrate the vast difference between Sudanese politics and Sudanese people – that Sudanese people are not their politics, that I left feeling blessed to have been a receiver of their warmth and generosity. So here, among a few frames, are my observations from this place.

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Wandering the streets of Khartoum

Sudan straddles the Sahara, the bridge between Muslim north Africa and the sub-saharan subcontinent, somewhere between our visions of the middle east and the heart of darkness. The bottom swath of the country transitioned to statehood as South Sudan in 2011; it’s independence indicated below on a large map at the National Museum in Khartoum. This means that the country is a diverse spectrum of skintones and cultures.

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Sudan: Bordered by Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, C.A.R., Chad, and Libya.

The country is under a form of Sharia law (since there is not one sharia law and it looks different in each country where it is implemented). Basically, and most pertinent to my own life, this meant no alcohol and keeping covered. Western women and Christian women, I was told, were not expected to cover their hair, but needed to remain respectfully covered: legs and shoulders under wraps. Not all women covered: in our classes, we saw everything from full niqab (face covered) to hair flowing free. Wandering through shops demonstrated  Budweiser is imported through some grey supply chains to be sold in the stores: NA, of course, stands for non-alcoholic, somehow making already awful beer even more horrific, a sort of oatmeal-piss flavour.

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Probably imported from Saudi Arabia, another no-go zone for alcohol

Sudan is my first Islamic nation to visit for more than a few hours (thanks to an unplanned layover in Istanbul). This means corner mosques, quite a bit less touching in busy market situations, and foot washing stations at the school where we conducted the training.

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Beyond these ultimately cosmetic differences, people are people – and even before landing on the ground in Khartoum, I was impressed by the kind, openness of the Sudanese people with whom I flew, worked, ate: a bright, gentle spirit that permeated the entire experience. I felt welcomed at once, appreciated for my work, engaged and connected with participants, one with the teachers there: the international camaraderie and motley brotherhood of educators worldwide.

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Participants working on an activity with the beast swamp cooler in the background: a necessity in 120 degree desert heat

After work and on the weekend (Friday-Saturday given that Friday is the holy day) we experienced some of the city. In a country where Embassy employees take armored cars, we hopped bajaj taxis, those three-wheeled tripod-looking minicabs, better at the bob and weave of trafficked roads – never sensing danger for being four khuawaja teachers wandering the city streets.

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We visited the market where Denise dropped down on a plastic stool for tea and we wandered in search of beads and Darfur baskets.

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Tea station – tea, the national pastime

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Dark alleys of the Omdurman market, the souq

An ideal Sudanese evening is spent sipping tea from glasses next to the Nile – Khartoum lies at the convergence of the Blue and White Niles. Boats motor by, spitting diesel fumes and young men line the bridges, laughing and chatting.

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Given it’s geographic positioning, Sudan is made of ancient stuff. A walk through the National Museum tunnels back through time, a waltz through the kingdoms that populated my African civilizations classes: the Kerma, the Kush, the Meroë. Pyramids, sarcophagi, rough hewn bowls and more detailed scarabs – what I experienced in fourth grade at the San Jose Egyptian Museum, just closer to its source, directly outside the capital. Entire buildings are housed in wide warehouses, allowing you to walk through, to trace your fingers against the carved hieroglyphics, to inspect up close the painted reliefs.

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From a museum to reality: on the final day, we trekked outside of the city with papers in hand to stop at four police checkpoints in search of ancient earthed from the sand.

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Next up, down the road and one stop for Fantas and afternoon prayers (for our Sudanese companions) later, were the Nubian pyramids, the remainders of 255 structures constructed 800 years after their more famous Egyptian cousins.

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Panoramic of the full site, with some pyramids reconstructed (middle)

The sand was so hot it melted my companions shoes: Jessica pealed off the sole of her Chakos, one of the Sudanese women watched her New Balance sole flap along. I drank three liters of water and still had a hangover-style headache; sweat evaporated off of me as soon as it appeared. And then Bob rode a camel, and the week in Sudan was complete.

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Bob: glorious, wild and free

So there it is, my attempt to demystify this place, to maybe replace in your head the image of Sudan from starvation and massacre in Darfur, a smirking Bashir, sanctions and sharia: a place of scorched, impossible landscape, genuine people of kindness, a hot beating heart in the north of this continent that consistently, daily surprises me.

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Love & salam

LC

A Grief Abroad

For Elaine. 

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It came at the close of our second day trekking into the Ethiopian wilderness. Covered in a second skin of dust, blisters rubbing between my toes in the wide box of too-new hiking boots, sweat – everywhere. We are lodged on rickety benches of stretched animal skins that shifted right and left as we shifted off of sore legs and backs, overlooking a wide panorama of cliff edge in the Ethiopian highlands: rolling hills, a jagged spectrum of browns and greens and reds like the painted backdrop of a Western. 

There’s a message from my cousin, the red notification leaping up as I moved my phone out of power-saving airplane mode and it connects to EthioTelecom.

Leanne, have you heard. Grandma passed away this morning.

The first moment is disorientation, counting back eleven hours, realising that “this morning” is still “this morning” in California, despite it being “this evening” in Ethiopia, the sunset subsiding into an inky blackness falling around us on our clifftop.

I’ve been abroad on and off in stints since 19, and always, lurking in the back of my head, was this fear: that being abroad, I would miss something truly memorable, truly important, in pursuit of what is (at its most disparaging) my “wandering” or (at its most respectful) my pursuit of a career and life outside of the usual bounds. A birth, a dozen weddings, and, this year, two deaths: first, my mother’s sister from cancer, and now, my father’s stepmother, Grandma Elaine, at 87.

Grief, at this distance, is sharpened by geography and that creeping guilt that I should have been there at the end. It doesn’t help that I knew it was coming, that at some point, my “abroad luck” would run dry and I would be 6000 miles and a $3000 flight away from jubilation or tragedy. There’s no comfort in the knowledge that it was inevitable, to be away and unable to return home, to be a part of the funeral, to hug my cousins and aunts and uncles, to sit next to my brother instead of crying to him over WhatsApp. It was impossible, in that moment, to walk back to my friends, laughing over cool beers, and share the news.

Even a week later, grief in this form – far away – is a funny thing: when it hits, what it does, what I do. What sets me off: sitting in a conference meeting as my colleagues talk, opening a link to an obituary, seeing condolences from thirty, forty years of her acquaintance added to the bottom. It’s strange how death – and distance – illuminate in those moments, somehow rattling me and making me proud of the woman I knew. 

My grandmother, the second wife of my father’s father, and more a part of my formative years than my biological grandmother, who passed too early and left me a few pieces of art and a perhaps a few creative bones, was named Elaine. We called her Grandma Elaine, or sometimes just her first name, and she lived in Riverside, part of the San Bernardino valley, a desert that will forever bring nostalgia at the sight of the R carved into the Box Springs Mountains or the rolling, dusty brownness – perhaps not so different from my perch in these African highlands. 

She was Scandinavian, and proud, with a careful, platinum bob. She drank refrigerated Franzia with ice cubes, a habit very separate from my family’s conservatism. Her fingers carried a collection of rings, big, bold gold pieces and diamonds, collected from her lifetime. She retired when I was a child and managed to travel swaths of the world – often on cruises. She once told me a story of her cruise boat being held up by some sort of pirates and she put her rings in her mouth to keep them from being stolen.

But, as I realised only recently, she was my role model: a strong woman who survived the deaths of two husbands and a son, who raised four boys, who beat cancer and lived with unapologetic vivacity. I remember one of my last conversations with her, her too far away to speak and me doing all the talking,  at the start of the summer only a few days after I’d arrived home following ten months in Rwanda, holding her hand and telling her how she had been so influential to me – even from a distance, from her home in Riverside to my ordinary (and now past) life in Northern California.

She was a teacher. I am a teacher. She travelled the world – I’m working on that one. She was brash, brave, ballsy – I’m working on those, too. But she was a woman of great depth, great compassion, great understanding. She knew what to tell me when it was something I needed to hear – to tell me I was strong, I was capable, that I wasn’t those other things that people would say about me. That I could do something different, that I was enough.

A few days after hearing that she had passed, deep into Saturday night as I was in another hotel, sitting with friends and looking out not over a cliff face but the lights of Addis Ababa, my phone blipped again with another text, this time from my brother, telling me that my grandmother’s best friend told him that Elaine relived her life through me.

I guess this is the job of a eulogy: to allow you to organise your thoughts, find a direction in your grief, to remember. C.S. Lewis found solace following the death of his wife in this task, “by writing it all down ... I believe I get a little outside of it” (p. 10). And so this is a eulogy to my grandmother: to put into words both grief and thankfulness, for what she imparted to me, even from a distance. It isn’t bad luck, to experience loss and grief while far away, it’s life: a thing better lived than fretted over.

Lewis, C.S. (1961) A Grief Observed. Harper: San Francisco.