Wednesday, July 1, 2009

a transient reflection on change and smiles

As the motor coach \slows to a standstill I slowly become conscious-   we have arrived. Moving the drape that serves as a veil cutting off any intrusion from outside sites reveals a new world. “We’re in Ndola” my coworker informs me; the veil is replaced and I reorient myself to my surroundings. After five hours of travel, five hours spent trying to sleep with no success– no oneiric journeys for this Mzungu – I have arrived. Groggy. My bag, where did I leave it? As if players to some sort of script the bus riders slowly shuffle off to the outside world; not a thought of anything exciting or extra ordinary can be seen on the faces of the distant strangers as I watch them depart from the last row of the bus - the bus left in the morning, perhaps everyone is tired. This is not the same energy I saw last time I rode the coach. I feel my face is a similitude to those of my now distant travel companions; vague and blasé. Despite the excitement of arriving to a new horizon, where the timeless dance between the sun and moon will unfold before me for the next few months, my face doesn’t edify to a single feeling of uncertainty or exhilaration, I doubt my actions were much of a testament to such feelings either. Stoic? My coworker remarks “are you still dozing?” – I don’t think I ever dozed on the road, I never arrived in the place where vivid dreams linger; my consciousness stayed slurred in that awkward state of being on the fence between reality and dreams, an uncomfortable state oh so common when I take to the road. Baggage located – time to depart the bus. It’s the nineteenth of May, 2009 Anno Domini.

I gaze at the monoliths of Ndola underneath a cerulean ceiling sky painted with blotted clouds... Sweet bite - a modern fast food restaurant. Shoprite – something akin to safeway. The sprawling bus depot – a world of activity. The district government office – a colonial era building standing out with a glimmer of a new paint job.

What is development? Is it these paved roads, these deep fried food eateries, these motor cars racing down the streets, these swarms of rabid taxi drivers who pounce on those who depart from coaches? Is it the web cafes, photo copy shops, monolith shoprite stores, beggars on every street corner, vendors selling goods on cloths outside of said monoliths while children lay in the dirt? Is it giant motor coaches and street lights? Power lines and vendors selling cigarettes, power adapters, and boom detergent? Is it a kidney transplant from the USA, Canada, UK – the western world – to an “ailing” new world? What is this place Ndola? Why does so much of it feel like some sort of bizarre skin graft gone wrong from North America? Do the voices of the compounds around, the beggars within, and the unemployed cry “we have opportunity?” - is this progress?

Is development Canada? The UK? The US? Is development the tangible material goods we cling to and lust for daily? Two car garages and seventeen bedroom luxury homes? New ipod models every three days, high speed internet, coke flavoured chocolate and chocolate flavoured coke? Washing machines and bubblegum, feint lights of vending machines, sterile sickening glow of the dairy aisle in safeway?

Is development the thought processes we espouse – notions of sanitation, rights, laws, freedom, and happiness that are fresh born in our minds when compared to all the collective knowledge ever to exist? Are the hallmarks of development things we have only recently stumbled upon? Was it Dr. Snow’s fluke, that chance discovery of epidemiology, which makes us developed? What enduring trait of our culture makes us entitled to pass on Prometheus’ flame – as if we are the keepers of some divine knowledge? Is development sharing these notions? Instilling what we think... no what we believe works?

Is development an act of mercy? An act of guilt? An act of selfishness? Of selflessness? Act of desperation? A marriage of passion and critical thought? A dive into the world of majority trying to bring thoughts we have had from living in the minority?

It’s now July 1st – the solitude of the office becomes palpable as many colleagues stand amongst mourners as friends and loved ones; last respects are paid in some township, some foreign locale unknown to me. The office contains a relative level of energy only slightly greater than some graveyard in the rain; the disembodied voice of worship music, a fresh import from America – full of synthetic pop sensibilities – can be heard in the distance, whoever the audience was for the tunes has long since left for the funeral. The day’s field work has finished, meetings now become transcripts, memories are simplified to clumsy words on paper or typed kachick kachick kachick. Somewhere thousands of kilometres away, an incomprehensible distance for the limited mind of this volunteer, Canada-kind is celebrating Canada day, somewhere beyond the scope of my comprehension. Maybe in the distance as sleep overtakes my senses in Zambia so the night sky will overtake Canada and be continually bombarded and ruptured by fireworks and Roman Candles celebrating whatever it is to be Canada.

I feel the field reveals many secrets to on lookers, and perhaps even more to those who stop to listen. Enigmatic parables detailing in fine script the tragedy that is poverty- the shear brutality to bring children into the world knowing that what they will achieve is limited by circumstances that are irreconcilably uncontrollable – are woven into the tapestry of life in places such as Mapalo. Children grow with great smiles on their face into an adulthood that embodies a dire dichotomy - both uncertainty and certainty – uncertainty in how they’ll be able to care for their family and certainty in the fact that if there are not sweeping positive changes the realities of unemployment, piece work, and struggle may embody the remainder of their days. Families with so many children who have found some pot of gold – which child gets the full brunt of this limited opportunity? Who gets to go to the good schools, who gets the slight shot at post secondary? Some of the folks encountered herein have shared with me their struggle which mirrors this dilemma.

So, what is development? Is it the boreholes sunk to a predefined depth? The filters that “clean water”? Is it the hygiene training “bestowed” onto communities? Is it something tangible and nice – children smiling at a borehole – (as at least five people seem to think) some pleasant imagery, evidence that someone has fixed, over night, the most grievous injustices present for the minds of donors and North Americans, safe in their homes with the TV blaring, drowning with concerns over who will win the Stanley Cup/super bowl/Olympic gold/what?

I don’t know what anyone really thinks development is. Humans are complex. Their motivations are complex. There’s no easy answer to what development is – I don’t think “development” can even be contained in a little box. Maybe only one box is found when we try to do that – Pandora’s.

In the expressed ignorant feelings of a white boy lost in Zambia working in “development” - I think that there is something that perhaps Development can aim to be. I think perhaps development is realizing we don’t have the answers to this “problem” of poverty, or at least that these answers do not come in pre packaged projects with easy to follow instruction manuals.
For maybe it could be something intangible, idealistic, naive, and every other adjective in that scheme of “unobtainable, unreasonable, wrong” family of words – but to me I think development is an accumulation of actions, thoughts, and love that creates an enabling environment. What is this enabling environment?

Not a cosset environment of indulgence where every need is met and doled out adding nausea to life. No, not that. Perhaps one where the acquisition of basic needs isn’t a giant game of Russian roulette –not one where food and water fight out sub consciously for what need can be rendered on a daily basis, or where water can become a Trojan toxin destroying lives. Maybe it is an environment where knowledge is offered and teaching is two way? An environment where people have the opportunity to offer a different future to their children – a future those children can embrace or shun. An environment where people answer to their own decisions and actions instead of answering to cruel circumstances beyond their control. An environment where the environment does not take away choice. One that allows people to make choices on how they want to live their lives – to find their own meanings for success and failure. Maybe that is what it means to be developed. It’s an accumulative process with stumbling and spurts of growth. Or maybe I speak nonsense.

So yes, I write these words in my ignorance and inexperience – trite and superficial conclusions drawn from experiences that are but a drop in the bucket. I write them to remind myself of my thoughts on today, July 1st 2009, tomorrow and the next day and the next day and for all the tomorrows that stretch out to where I dare not count.


pity this busy monster,manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim(death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
--electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange;lenses extend

unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
                        A world of made
is not a world of born--pity poor flesh

and trees,poor stars and stones,but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical
ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if--listen:there's a hell
of a good universe next door;let's go


ee cummings

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