26 July 2011

Skepticism (fear) and Optimism. And Realism.

2:44 p.m.

This is the testing time, now, this is the waiting, waiting with every fiber near to taut, stretched out tight between cautious optimism and sheer skepticism.  We meet with the Dean of Students this evening (if my boss calls me to confirm), and if all goes accordingly, the team will walk away with some well-earned knowledge, namely:

-What’s the budget, and can we have at it?

-Where’s the physical Office of Disability Services ACTUALLY GOING TO BE??? (and please don’t put us in that “new” Administration building that won’t be completed for another 2 years)

-How about signing off on the Policy for Persons with Disabilities at UCC, so we can take it to the next person up the administrative chain? Please...

And other little assorted issues… But above are the basic foundations of everything we’ve been doing for the last five months. 

Given what's on the table, let me state that I feel I may just droop into a little flop, unable to even throw a wobbler, if the following occurs:

1.       We learn the Dean of Students has*:

·         Gone to a last minute meeting, off-campus, not to return. Try calling tomorrow, or the next day, sometime.

·         Gone to Kumasi for the week for a wedding.

·         Gone on sabbatical.

*These could all actually could happen.

2.       We learn Administration thinks**:

·         This new “disability fee” should just cover the cost of a lift in the as yet unfinished Administration building.  And that should just about cover that!

·         The Office of Disability Services doesn’t need a whole office. It can share with the Debate Team.

·         You know, this Policy is really wordy. Let’s leave it off until next year.  Or should we just cut out some of these pesky support services instead?

**Yes, I’m completely exaggerating.  It’s my sneaking doubts that are being best communicated, not reality as it's been expressed to me.  And the Dean of Students is a lovely man who has been supportive since our initial stages of idea development.  But you, reader, can perhaps understand that my skepticism (wariness?) is well-grounded in this firm reality: no upfront administrative support = everything we’ve done and want to do becomes Mt. Everest.  Well, maybe one of those slightly smaller mountains, but still. 

So what of that straining between optimism and skepticism (ok fine, fear)?  Where’s the optimism, you say?  It’s in this…the students aren't going to give up.   And, I think, they might just be getting past the point of politeness.  I had a great conversation at the Forum with a gentleman from the Ghana Federation of the Disabled (GFD) about politeness and new approaches in Ghana to advocacy.  He told me, as many others have, that DPOs in Ghana have seen doors swing open the fastest and legislation passed most effectively under promise of demonstration.  Hey, we decided, when you know what works, you use it.  We talked about peaceful movements in the U.S. that became revolutions in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, like the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib (I threw in the Gay Liberation Movement, too, but I don’t think that was a super popular reference) and the Disability Rights Movement. 
Now as something as a side note, I have to say that on multiple occasions, I’ve heard people say that all the post-Baby boomer generations lack a defining event –  none have had an experience like the music, the protests, the fear, the anger and the tragedy that ran riot around the Vietnam War.  So I guess it’s been a little flat since then?  It’s been boring and undefined X, Y, and Z, all those end of the alphabet letters, not really very thought or image-provoking at all (with the exception of xylophone, yo-yo, and zebra).  Well, what come to mind instead are rather generations marked by a multiplicity of events, experiences of social and political revolution in the global North and South (yup… “everyone” has the internet…go google).  Whether you’re an X, Y, Z or whatever, ignoring these monuments to human social progress seems like actively keeping your eyes on the back of the person in front of you.  What defines a generation, after all?  (And who really pays attention to these things, anyway, except when blogging?)  
I definitely don't define myself as a Gen-Xer.  I define myself by how willing I am to learn and by how much I am willing to yield.  I define myself by what fight I will allow to stretch me until I am taut, by what voice I will use, by what story I will write, and by what ending I will give it at its close. 
So, at this close, I’ll quit with the skepticism.  And fear.  And optimism, really.  Instead, I’ll remind myself and you of all the great and small struggles against human rights violations that have been fought and are being fought now, all over the world.  Right here, this evening, is just one piece of one battle, in one place among many; yet it is still meaningful and worthwhile.  Sound cheesy?  Well, then, go find yourself a human rights violation to address (shouldn’t be too difficult), see how it goes, come back after a bit, and tell me that again.  And if the worst happens, since my boss still hasn’t called to confirm the meeting  – be it a rescheduled appointment, or a disappointing (inaccessible) choice of locales for the Office, or a semi-squashed Policy – there are plenty of students around who will show me how to be brave.  I’ll just follow their lead. 

4:12 p.m.

18 July 2011

Flat tires, Syrian kitkats, and wisdom gained only by (re)packing

I’m home, after a day lacking power and therefore productivity at work.  There’s the Pixies playing on iTunes, food to cook, and a tempting Syrian KitKat in the fridge; but, strangely, despite memories of a very sweet college boyfriend (“Hey,” does it every time), ideas for an omelette and chilled chocolate, I just want to go for a bike ride.  It’s very hilly here on Fourth Ridge, and this means that after coasting all the way down, one does have to come all the way back up.  Yet it still sounds right.  So the computer goes off, I get ready, and go to get my charmingly (?) used bike.  And discover a mostly flat front tire. Do you know the disappointment of a flat tire? I rediscovered it. 

If it was my fault, that would be one thing.  You know, as in “wow, Kelly, way too much aggressive bouncing along dirt roads so deeply crevassed and rocky because of the rain that they are basically impassable…at least you didn’t fall into that crevasse.” Or perhaps, more realistically, “really, Kelly, what did you expect from falling directly into that crevasse?”  No, unfortunately, my bike was borrowed – without permission – from the house a couple weeks ago, while I was away for the weekend, and it was this event that evidently led to today’s crisis (no I do not have a bike lock, yes it was inside the house, now please give me a break about this, I’m still a little sensitive).  A few other things were also borrowed in the same manner, and dealing with it has been an ugly saga.  A very difficult and ugly saga.  While the borrower is gone, it feels like he is suddenly back and I am feeling stressed out and deflated all over again, right along with my tire.  I want to throw a wobbler, then a tantrum, and then throw another wobbler (thank you to all Brits for inventing such a wonderful expression as “throw a wobbler”).

However.  I can cite plenty of times in the past (yes, recent past too) in which, when faced with a situation like this, with a relatively minor disappointment revealing one lying deeper, that I have noisily or bitterly complained.  Cried.  Yes, collapsed, even.  But standing here, staring at my bike tire, in front of the third house from the end of the inside of the first block on Fourth Ridge, just by the split you take to get to the girls school (sorry, no residential addresses), I realize that this is just not worth it.  Rehashing the ugly saga doesn’t interest me.  Besides, I want a bike ride.  Oh, no, don’t get me wrong, I definitely whine and wobble a little, but quickly push out along my questionable road and try to make it safely to some asphalt.  And then I just pedal, downhill, uphill, uphill more (oh geeez-us, seriously), downhill, uphill again (why is nothing even?), all on the mostly flat front tire. I know, not great for the thing, but I’ll get it fixed tomorrow.  And if I’m going to continue to be Pollyanna-esque, the back tire is doing fine.  Solid.  Practically indestructible (taking it too far now).

So have I overcome? Do I now reveal, by my day to day existence, how to depose frustration, how to topple the tower of wobbler throwing?  Yeah, that’s a no.  During my placement so far, there have been issues decidedly non-bike related that have left me a mess, a parody of the self-sacrificial volunteer.  Like everyone, I have a tolerance threshold; yet I’ve watched myself feel grated by things I would never have anticipated.  I’m talking about varying perspectives on the flexibility of timelines and deadlines; or maybe when it’s appropriate to answer or return a phone call, and when it really shouldn’t be.  And then, of course, there’s what I absolutely should have anticipated.  Like the internal pulling back and forth between my own beliefs and my acceptance of the beliefs of others, deciding when it is necessary to speak and when it’s time to shut up.  Sometimes it feels like pedaling uphill, hard, bumping along a rocky road, trying to avoiding the crevasses, on a flat front tire.  I’ll tell you all up front: enye easy (it's not easy). 

Again.  However.  Can I learn something here?  Here it is, as straightforward as I can make it: in committing to work in a different culture, with outlooks and values that can differ from my own, I committed to allowing myself to be changed.  I committed to being stretched in every direction, undergoing attitude adjustments and plenty of introspection, and experiencing moments that would be eye-widening slaps, falls flat on my face, wincingly awful cringes (oh yes), and jolting shifts in perspective.  How I deal with everyday differences, everyday frustrations, has had to change.  My core values are not going to shift, but how I choose to deal with issues surrounding those values within this cultural context has to.  Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not condescending to accommodate others.  I’m just trying to grow here. 

Sometimes, overcoming frustration or difficulty comes down to a simple decision – like whether to take the bike out or just go back inside, watch a movie and eat a KitKat*.  Sometimes, but rarely.  More often, I find it coming down to my commitment to this life I have chosen, a commitment I made before getting on the plane in February.  Of course, I know what it means now.  Quite honestly, that commitment has helped sustain me a few times.  In my first blog posting, before leaving the U.S., I mentioned that I would know what to pack about a month after arriving in Ghana.  Well, five months later, I’ll readdress that, and finally tell my February self what to pack. 

1) No expectations, and that really means no expectations.  Really.  I mean, you thought you brought no expectations along, but you were fooling yourself.

2) Lots of reminders to shut up, because sometimes you really just need to. 

3) An extra hard drive, because the worst message your computer can ever give you is “imminent hard drive failure.” 

4) More instant sauce packets**. 

5) Patience?  Chakra cleansing techniques?  A light heart and bouncy step?  Because they weren’t joking about ‘nkakra nkakra (small small).’ 

6) This understanding: you have to be ready to give up everything you’ve packed so neatly away.  And I’m not talking about the tank tops.  Funny, because I didn’t think you were such a great packer in the first place, February self.  But you’d be surprised, February self, all the things that you want to hang on to that just won’t fit here. And, likewise, all the things that will.  And I'm not just talking about about tank tops (but thank god for them, for them and for cargo pants).

There it is.  Perhaps because this posting has been about the absence of even surfaces, and more so, even temperaments (and now too much about tank tops), I have no smooth ending in mind.  Just plans to get a tire pump. 

* (yes, KitKats from Syria taste different)
**Thanks again, mom. You have no idea. Made spaghetti alfredo last night! fabulous.

15 July 2011

4 July 2011

So what did I do for 4 July? Oh, I kept myself very busy, self firmly planted at an exhibit booth for UCC’s Office of Disability Services, at the 5th IDP Africa Forum in Accra. For that entire week, I would talk about the programme we’re building, policy development, environmental access plans, ICT training, assistive technology, advocacy and inclusive education.  I would speak with fascinating people from over 40 countries about disability-related issues for persons who are blind or visually impaired, and for all persons with disabilities.  And with the endless waves of people going and coming, I would learn that with the work we’ve been doing since February, UCC is pushing miles and kilometers past other universities in Ghana with its comprehensive policy and plans for services.  Not that we’re close to settling down and taking it easy, but I can definitely admit to feeling good about our efforts.
And then the endless waves of people ebb away, and participants divide off to attend the Forum’s presentations.  Excitement over new connections gives way to general talked-outedness, which gives way to boredom.  Really, there’s only so many times you can adjust piles of flyers.  I mean, yes, you would perhaps be momentarily surprised at how many different variations of flyer presentation one can invent. But once you’ve chosen your mode of presentation, your course is set.  All that’s left is inconsequential straightening. Additionally, please keep in mind that probably 80% of participants are blind or visually impaired, and then imagine how much they care about the precision of your dramatic spray of brailled flyers.
What to do… Well, my best solution to boredom at a large conference when stuck in a booth is “find a kid to hang out with” and that’s exactly what happens.  I meet Rita with a wave.  She tells me she's in Primary 4 level at school and would keep me company for the rest of the week.  Yes, she should be in school today, but instead she’s at the Forum as a guide for her mother, who is visually impaired, and other participants.  I don’t know the whole situation, so I won’t speculate further.  I will say that Rita tells me she wants to go to university to become a doctor.
In any case.  Post-wave and introductions (which were initially shaky as I think Rita is actually called “Retha” and she thinks my name is “Karen"), Rita and I bond over origami. Paper cranes, why you would want 1000 of them, and a discussion of how to spell ‘Japan,’ and our friendship is sealed.  After that, she helps me add up taxi and meal costs for the week so I can request reimbursement.  And we play a game that I played in class in 4th grade, when the only thing you have to amuse yourself with is a piece of paper, a pen, and a friend – I think the situation here is similar enough – make a bunch of dots on a paper, then make boxes by taking turns drawing the lines, and your initials go inside the boxes that you finish…anybody remember this game?  No?
Right around 3:45 pm, desperation grabs hold and I reach for a previously untried magic trick, and in magic, I think the rule is untried or unpractised=pathetic.  My efforts to capture the street corner version of the disappearing-ball-under-the-cup trick should get some nod for creativity, and therefore gain a little credence – like using the candy given away by the exhibit next to us* instead of a ball. And I am forced to unfold the complicated maneuverings required for this trick with three seriously dinky brown plastic cups.  Shockingly, I lack street corner magician speed, so I sneak a second candy in under another cup to compensate.  Yes, I do say, "Hey Rita, look at that!" with a point, and sneak it under when she isn't looking.  I don't think she's entirely fooled.  But she humours me by laughing as I pretend to switch the candy from one cup to the other with funny noises and ridiculous gesturing.
*Let me clarify “candy.” It’s a loose term, isn’t it? In this case, I have on previous occasions had two candy options offered up for my selection by my neighbors, one booth over: one was described as “yin” and the other “yang,” and I think this was meant to communicate that one was sweet and one savory. And they are actually dates.  Have you ever tried a savory date? It actually isn't that bad, just unexpected, and I can't keep it in my mouth for too long.  Powerful, those savory dates.  But aside the dates, their exhibit and programme is fabulous.  The organization, based in South Africa, brailles the Qur-an and produces primers to promote Arabic Braille literacy within the Muslim community.  If you're curious: Madrassa An-Noor For the Blind at http://www.mnblind.org/organization. The director kindly gave UCC a soft copy of the Qur-an to emboss and an audio book version.

It’s 4:30 pm. The late afternoon entertainment has arrived, and all week will feature music or dancing from groups of persons with disabilities.  A musician arrives and takes his place almost directly opposite where Rita and I are sitting.  He plays traditional West African instruments, and he and his instruments draw the first few participants who snuck out of conference hall early.  I hear something then that I will probably never hear again: “Guantanamera,” plucked out on an instrument I (sadly) don’t know the name of.  The musician doesn’t sing, but the song captivates two lovely women, one from Ghana and one from Zimbabwe, who have to stop and sing along.  No one knows the words aside from the chorus, and really just the one main word of the chorus, although it is clearly internationally appreciated, but that’s ok. It’s lovely.  And Rita is fascinated.

About an hour later, the only other American present at the Forum (strangely, a Californian relocated to Norway) invites my friends and I out for hamburgers, beer, and sparklers (the hotel staff kindly left them in his mailbox to enjoy).  Can't pass that up, doesn't matter who you are.  We gather at the Afia Beach House, a posh out of the way spot where you can hear the ocean pounding loudly against the sand in the dark, where hamburgers are way too expensive but I get one anyway (16 GH!! Imagine.).  My relocated Californian friend passes sparklers around the restaurant, and we use the candles set out on the middle of the table so they all ignite at roughly the same time. Sparklers are the first “fireworks” I ever knew, and I can remember standing in my backyard, trying to write my name in the air with what seemed like a magic wand.  Well, this was different.  But certainly memorable.  My friends and I say goodnight and go home in an overpriced taxi. And what will life will bring around next year, 4 July? Probably not Guantanamera, but surely just as interesting.