If you are a mom, or if you have or have ever had a mom, you'll get a good laugh out of this one.
Friday, October 29, 2010
If you are a mom, or if you have or have ever had a mom, you'll get a good laugh out of this one.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
It came as a total shock.
It’s the end of the day. I’m in sitting with the finance manager and the head of human resources calls me into the director’s office. Budget cuts in our small international organization had been looming…
I float above myself as I sit down in the chair, surveying it all. I see myself sitting across from these people who I’ve known for years. I’ve seen them every day. I know their families and their coffee preferences. I’ve shared frustrations and achievements with them, triumphs and conflicts. They are opening their mouths, handing me papers, though I do not now remember the words.
The ax fell.
So much effort, so much passion, so many hours, so much heart, so much of me—seemingly disregarded in an instant.
Vacillating between resistance and acceptance, I’ve been wading through the accompanying flood of sometimes difficult, sometimes euphoric emotions since that fated day.
I never thought it would be me. Like many people working in international relief and development, it was never just a job. It was a calling. Not just a profession, but also my craft.
And so I’ve had to define—who am I now?
I’ve been working on viewing the job loss and the pursuant free time as an opportunity to discover that ever-elusive work-life balance, to explore passions and possibilities within my career and my life.
But some days, I just want an income again. I want to be engaged with people daily in a larger, shared endeavor.
If only I were Buddhist.
However, I have to say that I’m now far enough away from the lay-off to appreciate that finding and retaining “the right people” in an organization has to do more with attracting folks with particular inherent character traits rather than those with specific skills, education, or status. I believe now more than ever that being an effective development practitioner is a conscious, intentional process that takes persistence to develop one’s skills and requires a willingness to question and examine one’s own thoughts, motives and emotions. In my career, I’ve found that those who genuinely engage in this process are the most innovative, the most effective, and the most fulfilled people in our sector.
God or Buddha or Allah or Yahweh knows that being an effective development practitioner is also about finding faithfulness in the midst of the unknown. When the time is right, I know the opportunity to join (or start!?) an organization that is intentional about the culture they’re trying to create and about including about types of people can best advance the work will come.
Until then, I await the gifts from this period of my life, some days more patiently than others.
Jennifer Lentfer has worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in east and southern Africa over the past decade, focusing on organizational development and learning. Currently, she is the creator/editor of How Matters a blog site aimed at raising the level of human dignity within development assistance and putting real resources behind local means of overcoming obstacles.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Last week I came across a magazine with a woman holding a baby on the cover. The woman, a beautiful blond model, was entire naked and painted to look like a cow. The title of the article was: “mother or cow?”
I kid you not.
Just below you could read:
“the World Health Organization & UNICEF defend with insistence the benefits of maternal milk. Many women feel pressured into breastfeeding and live traumatic experiences. Some feminists see behind these campaigns an attempt to distance women from the job market”
It was –of course- an article on breastfeeding. Take a wild guess where the journalist stands.
The article presented the opposing sides on breastfeeding: on the red corner, the WHO, UNICEF, and other such business interests arguing you should breastfeed your child exclusively for the first six months, and continue to do so, together with normal food stuffs, for the first two years.
On the yellow corner, feminists and history argued that it was rather convenient that this whole “you must breastfeed or die” philosophy started at the same time as THE War ended, and women had to be sent back home and out of the factories.
It went on to expose how the so-called scientific grounds behind the international campaigns for breastfeeding were biased and not entirely scientific, (find me a scientific study that is NOT biased by whomever funds it, no really). That research so far “indicates, suggest, associates” that breast milk is best, but that this does not amount to hard evidence.
It presented cases of women who had been pressured nearly to the point of depression to continue breastfeeding, in spite of hardships, and the case of one woman who breastfed with no problems whatsoever until her child was two, with the sole complain that everyone criticized her for doing so.
The article argued that breastfeeding could cause physical and psychological problems for the mother. Other cons: the mother must consume additional calories and lead a balanced diet; must watch any medicine intake to ensure it does not negatively affect the milk; women with health problems, like thyroid problems, can have complications.
All true. All apply equally to pregnancy and childbirth, yet I don’t hear anyone suggesting women should stop having children all together.
So let’s take a step back and analyze this a bit:
Would breastfeeding be a problem if men where equally implicated in child rearing? as in doing many of the other things that a new born needs. Burping the child during breastfeeding so that mom can run to the toilet, (admit it, been there done that).
And would women of a certain age be discriminated by the job market if men were entitled to AND took full parental leave?
What about flexi-time or working from home options?
In the Netherlands most parents (as in both the mother and the father), take one day a week off, which essentially means children have at least one parent home four days a week.
In the Netherlands I have seen the most shocking and unusual sight yet, and it wasn’t a topless lady or a punk with pierced nipples; it was a man, in a suit, on a bicycle, picking up kids from school.
By the way, the Netherland consistently comes out on top on international quality of life surveys for the developed world.
I don’t agree that women should be forced to breastfeed. Some have a really hard time, and at the end of the day, it should be their decision. What I do argue is that women should be provided with enough information to make this decision, and more importantly, they should be given enough support in order to be in a position to choose, i.e. breastfeeding every three hours day and night is not really sustainable when you have to work for 12 hours the next day.
The thing is, women have been bearing pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding for centuries, for free and on top of their other responsibilities. Women look after the family and the home, more so than men even if they both have paid employment outside the home. So my guess is the state, the politicians and the policy makers are thinking:
“why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
So my question is, when are journalists going to bother doing some research and writing about the real issues, highlighting things like the fact that during that same WAR the US (for example), provided women that worked with free day care. And when that tired women arrived to pick up her children after a long day of work at the factory, she would also pick up her cleaned clothes and the family dinner, all at the expense of the state.
So really, when there is a will there is way. Me thinks.
Friday, October 15, 2010
With a half fake smile my friend said to me:
-“with a nanny and a husband that cooks, you don’t know what motherhood is”
she meant it as a compliment, and as an insult, and it worked. Her words achieved their goal and stung both my heart and my pride, and I’ve thought about that comment a lot since.
This friend of mine is separated. She lives in Europe, thousands of miles away from her extended family back in South America, in a small two bedroom with her two children.
I’m a lucky person, I know that.
Both my husband and I have a job that pays well, not amazing, not the kind of money we could have made had we stayed in the private sector, but that is precisely the cherry on top; we love what we do. We do what we want.
I quit my job after my kids were born, and I wear that with pride, as a badge of honor, but I know it is something I did because I could, because we can live on just one salary.
When we moved back to Europe we brought our nanny back with us. She is an amazing person that needed to leave the country, that is earning four times what she would had she stayed behind, paying for two of her brothers to go to school now. Still, I’ve had “friends” say to me:
-“well, it’s so easy to have kids with all your help, why don’t you have more”
seriously, with a straight face.
In Holland, where I now live, this is unusual, this is a luxury, and it is I know. But when they say things like this to me I feel like responding to them:
I know damn well I am lucky, very lucky.
I’m lucky that I have a nanny, and that I can do what I love as a freelancer. I know I am lucky because my job often takes me to see how the other half lives. Not the ones bitter because I can go out for dinner and leave the kids with my nanny, but the ones that would appreciate the real blessing: that I can eat and feed my children every day of the week.
That neither myself nor my daughter have to walk 2 kilometers each day so that we can have enough water, and that we don’t have to expose ourselves to rape in order to do so. That the water coming out of the tap is safe; safe for them to drink, safe for me (or my husband) to cook with, that it is parasite free.
We are lucky because when they were exposed to parasites and other diseases, like rotavirus or asthma, they had access to the best doctors and the best healthcare. Even when we lived in Cambodia my children would be evacuated to Thailand to access medicine that did not exist in the country, that was up to our standards. We could and we did, and unlike the other 38,000 children that die each week of curable diseases like diarrhea or dysentery , my children lived, and will flourish.
I know I am damn lucky. I know that with every bone in my body, every time my heart breaks listening to my 2 year old asthmatic cough in the middle of the night, and every time I cry while watching the evening news seeing the same images, what is too old and too well known news. I know.
I also know that it is up to us, the random anonymous people of the world to do our bit, be it by evaluating an aid project, or writing a blog post to make people think, signing a petition, making a donation, calling our politicians, or voting in the ones that are aware that there are 38,000 mothers around the world each week whose hearts break forever.
My children will live and thrive, that does not make me one bit less of a mother.
If I never do ANYTHING for those other 38,000 children, it might make me less of a person.
African women walk over 40 billion hours each year carrying cisterns weighing up to 18 kilograms to gather water, which is usually still not safe to drink.
Every week, nearly 38,000 children under the age of 5 die from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living conditions
It’s blog action day, and the theme is water. Do something, big or small, today, this week, this month. Just do it.
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
I’m so tired of the same stories: hiding facts, denying reality. Like they cannot see outside their window. Like they do not know that people are poor, that teachers are unpaid, that children are beat and abused in schools, that girls are raped. Like we don’t know. They want to make the streets safe for children, so they are asking for computers and video games .
It gets harder to trust over time, but many seem honest in their interest, in their desire to change things. They seem impressed by this little NGO that is trying to make a difference . Often so am I. It seems so much more real than many of the things I’ve seen with the big organizations. They know the people, they know their names, they train the teachers, teach them how to play with the kids, give them specific tasks so that they will remember the lessons. And then the ones trained meet with their neighbors for afternoon tea and discuss what they have learned. There is so much curiosity, so much desire to learn.
I asked a group of mothers today what surprised them most about the child rights training they had done,
“that we cannot hit the children” they replied in unison.
They are slowly understanding how important it is that their girls go to school. Bit by bit they are moving forward. We –the aid workers- must work like they walk; with no hurry in our step, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, because if we don’t, if we look at the distance that we have to cover, we’ll panic, loose hope, and never get there.
Doing all this at 45 degrees in the shade was a challenge. At some point I honestly thought if we did not get back into the air conditioned car they might have to pick me up off the floor. During an interview I just started pouring water over my head. After days of travelling on bumpy roads under the sun my body gave in. I was desperately trying to wrap it up, but they carried on talking merrily, excited, sharing what they had learned. They even made me dance for a bonding exercise. A cola and a cake just saved me. Although all these meals in the bush probably means I will have to deal yet again with some sort of parasite once I’m back home. I like the coffee though: boiled water, Nescafe and powder milk. Not much relation to the lattes my Italian husband prepares for me back at home, but it brings back sweet memories of adventures past.
Once I got home I had a long, cold shower. I had forgotten how annoying it is to be covered with your own sweat all the time, with an ever so light layer of dust. After the shower I laid on the bed, aircon blasting off, half naked with my eyes closed, neither awake nor asleep. I thought I would lie down for a few minutes and then get back to work, but I could not move. I might have stayed in this strange state for an hour, perhaps three, I really do not know, until I started feeling human again. My body and my brain needed to shut down. Cool off.
When I rose it was night and I could hear the chants coming from the large white Mosque across the street. At night, when the lights are on, we can actually see into the male-only section of the mosque because we are perched high over them. The sounds go out on the loudspeaker
slowly, rhythmically, over and over the sound is carried off into the desert, and it sometimes mixes itself with the chant coming from a different mosque further away. And the two do a little dance before they fade away. Every time I hear this it makes me want to stop what I am doing and meditate, or something. Its like a reminder to take a moment to stop the rush and take note.
“Allah” repeats the desert, like it’s trying to tell me a secret.
I want to stop and acknowledge the present. There is something soothing about that voice.
But the reality is that I am not invited to join that voice. That I cannot go near it. That it is exclusive, discriminating, and easily offended.
Still, the fact remains, and the lesson is learned that maybe there is something to this habit of stopping regularly to take inventory, instead of waiting until life throws us a punch to reconsider.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
A sand storm makes the windows shake and whistle loudly. Even inside the apartment my eyes get full of dust if I stand too close to one of them. You can look straight at the sun, the red sky and a perfectly round white ball stares back. People walk in the streets below while the trees shake. It is 40 degrees, sunny and dusty in Khartoum.
The roads are good. The land is dry. As far as the eye can see there is only sand and dust.
People come and go with the patience of those used to walking long distances, one foot in front of the other, no hurry in their step. My stomach tightens as we approach the IDP camps. I don’t know we are near, all the same the pain takes hold, so much so that the driver asks if I am feeling ok. After a brief stop to show our license to the police, the one that allows us to peer into this part of society, (particularly important given there is a white foreigner in the car), we turn off the main road past a grand white building that stretches out for at least a block. I enquire about it.
“its a hospital,’ the driver responds, ‘a very special hospital.”
I am impressed. It is new, large, and well kept.
“it is a military hospital” comes further clarification from the back seat.
Now it makes more sense. There it is, big, new and expensive. Hovering over the landless and the displaced.
The IDP camp pleasantly surprises me. It is not as poor and miserable as I might have expected. The houses are made of traditional clay, held together by long thin sticks. They look quite beautiful when fully finished. Some are painted in traditional colours and symetric shapes, some even have windows and doors. Yes, it is misery. Entire families living in one, maybe two rooms, but so much better than other camps I have visited. Sadly, this kind of poverty no longer impresses me.
The school also looks ok. Until I count the number of little colorful chairs in the kinder class: 90. They fit, but how do they mange so many children? Then I see the teachers, the ones recently trained on child rights, walking around with hard sticks and whips, the children instinctively run away from them.
At the orphanage the same stories repeat themselves: high positions belong to men. The men talk, the women listen, and the children struggle to remain invisible. Every now and then I manage to pull away from the ranks and steal a moment with one of them. They are both intrigued and entertained by me. We are aliens from the moon touching down on mars. Soon a crowd is surrounding the car. Looking at the strange foreigner making faces to make them laugh. They place their hands on my window, looking for a more personal interaction, and I struggle to give each and one of them one smile, one shake, one laugh… it is so crowded around the car now that I fear we may run over a little one as we pull away, then the whip approaches and they immediately disperse.
The mandatory visits to the relevant authorities prove as disappointing as ever. As he walks into the room a soft voice behind me whispers,
“I’m not too sure how much he will know about the project”
He speaks, but doesn’t have a clear view of the project, and speaks, and doesn’t know what we train on, and brings issues to the table that have nothing to do with what we came here for, and speaks. All I can think of is how wonderful it would be to photograph him. His dark rough skin, against the white of his eyes. A well kept beard that is turning into thin silver. A long white robe and headscarf give him an air of importance and clout.
They need more money, more support, always more. My questions go unanswered, and his requests will too. The young boy next to him wears snakeskin shoes. The color and texture, which could easily blend in with the red of the sand below his feet, stand out against the rubber sandals that most wear. Eyes and ears around us as government counterparts “accompany” us through our visit.
Just the day before the government has stated that they hope to cut back on all these foreigners’ visits. It takes a lot of time to process their visas, they say, and there is not much to show for it. … obviously, they are not making a link between these annoying strangers and all the money that is flowing in.
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
To me that phrase right now tastes like chocolate and marshmallows put together. Both sticky and sweet, and it lingers in my mouth, my mind and soul.
Six weeks feels like the longest time, the biggest gift.
Six whole weeks: forty two days, one thousand and eight hours… just for me.
It’s a long story, but in short, as a result of my deciding to rock the boat and do my job regardless of the consequences, (read "Shoot the messenger"), the work I was schedule to do from mid-November until January has fallen through. There was a lot of debating about the ethics behind this decision. But the bottom line is that my relationship with the team is tainted, so we finally decided it was best, for the project, if someone else carried it forward.
Which brings us back to the six weeks. The six weeks at the end of the year that are all of a sudden empty. And it is hard for me to express in words the joy that these six weeks elicit in me.
I had promised myself to finish the book I’m working on. I had promised myself to stop procrastinating, to stop finding excuses. Good or bad, the book had to be finished by yearend but, until this happened, it was looking unlikely. Now I have six weeks (six weeks!) before the end of the year, during which my main task will be just that: Writing My Book. And it gives me so much pleasure to think of it, I am finding it hard to concentrate on the work I am meant to be doing right now.
I went freelance after my kids were born. I wanted to work, but couldn’t deal with the full office hours & being away from them all day thing. So I opted for a half way house: part-time work, mostly from home. But the uncertainties of being freelance, together with the fact that I love what I do, (and find it very hard to turn jobs down), means that I have actually been working full time for most of this year.
Now I have six weeks where I can spend the morning working on my book, and my afternoons lazily with my babies, planning birthday parties, preparing for Christmas, painting balloons or telling stories. I can waste the hours away with them. I can stop being in a hurry, or slipping away to “finish just one more thing” or “send one last email”.
Six weeks of bliss and heaven.
In my hectic mornings, while I struggle to get everyone dressed and out the door in time, I open the drawer. You know the one. It’s near the front door and collects all kinds of useless junk, bits of broken toys you’ll fix one day, and plain out trash.
“I will finally have time to go through this damn drawer”
My mind relishes in the thought, and feels just a little more zen at the mere thought of it.
I will have time sort out the clothes, and take out the pants that barely cover the calves so that I stop finding myself in the park with the kids wearing clothes two sizes too small. I will have time to bake cookies. I will have time to update my website. I will have time to actually file the ever growing pile on the “To File” tray.
Six weeks to edit the photos that have been growing old and dusty in the “to do” file.
Six weeks with no excuses to avoid the gym or yoga class.
Time, the biggest gift, and I’ve got SIX weeks.
I can’t wait.
Friday, October 1, 2010
This is a passage from the book I'm working on "Crossing the River; a letter to my daughter on becoming a mother", a bit long, but would love to hear your thoughts and feedback. You can read another passage here
The clock has barely struck nine in the morning, and I can already feel drops of sweat making their way down my back, as yet another stranger with darkened teeth and heavily callused hands makes a beeline straight for you.
‘chum riep sua, sok sobai?’ she greets me bringing her hands together in prayer, ‘srei? maong kaeh?’ She wants to know how old you are and if you are a boy or a girl? They always ask that, even if you are wearing a pink long dress.
‘bun kaeh, srei’ four months, I tell her, a girl
She smiles satisfied showing her black gums and missing teeth as she reaches out to touch you. They always head straight for the hands, the hands that spend more time in your mouth than anywhere else. I wrap my hands around your tiny ones to keep them out of her reach. It's a polite way of saying ‘stay off these!’ So instead she grabs your feet.
You hang onto my Baby Bjorg blissfully unaware, and probably just as hot.
You’ve grown up with this kind of attention, and it doesn’t strike you as odd that all eyes are on you whenever you walk into a room. Surrounded by strangers delighted just to be able to look at you. That in restaurants, while me and your dad eat, there is a person walking you up and down the isle, entertaining you the whole time, while others pop in and out to make you smile.
‘sa’at’ the stranger confirms, beautiful. And finally we see eye to eye on something.
I politely get away as fast as I can. I used to think that it was rude and culturally insensitive to try and keep you away from complete strangers. To keep them from touching you, my preciously clean and brand new baby, in a culture that so adores babies. Obviously this was the custom here, and I had to be respectful. Then one day, walking down the street during our morning stroll, I saw a woman that only the day before had held your hands as I watched on uncomfortably. She was rummaging through garbage, through half putrid spoils in search of things to recycle. ‘Screw this’ I thought.
We make our way through the labyrinth foreigners refer to as the Russian Market. Even years later I would have a hard time finding my way if I stray from the usual paths. The alleys between the different stands are thin, and serpent throughout without a clear structure. The market is covered with wooden planks and pieces of cloth to protect the vendors and buyers from the sun, further trapping the heat in. On account of this, it is always night inside the market and there are no reference points.
You can buy anything here. There is a whole section for foods, where skinned cows and pigs hang upside down like Christmas decorations. You can find all sorts of meats, all sorts of body parts, sitting side by side with bloody knives, cutting boards and children sleeping on the table tops. Plucked ducks hanging by their necks on multi-point hooks, almost like a flower arrangement of skin, claws and wings. Live chickens clucking away from their small cages, perhaps aware of their future fate.
Then there is the fish section, which in time will become your favourite. The fish are alive and move in circles inside their plastic containers of bright colors, probably hoping to get somewhere. Heaps of shellfish and crawling beasts of different shapes and colours, each attempting to crawl away slowly, making the mountain appear as one living mass from some sci-fi movie. The fruit and vegetable sections is an orgy of shapes and colours, with pungent smells. My favourite is the dragon fruit. With a bright hotpink and spiky exterior, white meat with little black seeds in the inside provides further contrast. The flavour, mild and tame, although nice, does not live up to the expectations such an exotic exterior promises. You liked the rambutan best. A spiky little ball that looks a lot like a fresh lychee, inside sticky and slippery at the same time, and sweet, very sweet. Green mangoes, sweet mangoes, bananas of every size, the list goes on and on.
The spice section is an affront to the nose, although a much more pleasant one than accidentally crossing a “public lavatory”, otherwise known as any-ol’ wall assigned to that purpose. Nuts and seeds in different shades of earth, the closest thing to autumn you can get here, surrounded by spices and incense sticks. You could find it with your eyes closed.
There is an area where people can sit down to eat, anything from your typical noodle soup to barbequed and charred little snakes. A section for clothes, were you can find brands from both America and Europe, tag and all, at one eighth the price. I didn’t learn about this for some time. Then it became a bit of a habit as much as an addiction. One dollar fifty for a shirt, maybe three for a pair of pants, I have never been any good at haggling so I’m sure it could have been less. You could find the occasional dress, and they would often try to flog off winter gear to foreigners. How these items make it from the sweatshops to the market is uncertain. Some say they are rejects, or excess production. Others say they accidentally fall of the back of truck. But the brands that pay good salaries and have good working conditions, those never reach the stalls.
It is always hot and dark inside the market, but every now and then a ray of light sneaks in between two planks. And sometimes the smoke from one of the pots mixes with the light, and then you can see the smoke crawl up in circles, like a spirit trying to escape, making for quite a beautiful sight. Bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling. A few women walk up and down selling traditional sweets and foods to nibble on. They carry the baskets on their heads, the food surrounded and protected by large banana leaves. There are of course also beggars, others struggling to sell bad quality photocopies of hand painted cards or of the Lonely Planet guides.
Then there is the souvenir section, where the adventurous tourists wonder alongside the local expats, looking for a remembrance to bring back with them, some kind of proof that they were here, that this moment, soon to be gone, existed; carved wood, Buda heads of every size, shape and material, all with the famous Cambodian smile, calm and sweet. The Mona Lisa is got nothing on them. The elegant hands of an Apasara dancer made of hallow dark metal are another favourite. Large wooden instruments much like a large xylophone which are part of their traditional music. Then there is the famous Cambodian silk, in just about every shape and size you can imagine; clothes, cushions, scarves, anything and everything.
Further north you can find hand crafted silver sold by weight, no value given to the time invested in the hand labour which is so precious back in the West. There is a section for motor parts, where almost everything seems to be made of metal or black rubber, and another where you can buy precious and semi precious stones, next to the Pirated DVDs, all at one fifty. Anything and everything can be bought or bargained here. The myth goes that you can even buy servants for the house. Fortunately I never saw such a thing.
As we exit the market, I wave to one of the many tuk-tuks waiting outside.
‘chum riep sua’ I greet him as we climb onboard, ‘kngom tchoulchat tau ptea roba kngnom?’ I would like to go back home, I struggle say. They are always entertained by my attempts to speak their language
‘ speak khamai?” he asks with a wide smile
“otei” I admit with shame ‘tit tit” only a little. For some reason, he finds this is even funnier.
We struggle to make our way out of the market through the flood of motorcycles moving in all directions, very much like bees near a hive. We head east and as we reach Norodom Boulevard turn to head south. We are flanked on both sides by male mango trees which never give fruit, but once a year do give off beautiful little lilac flowers, that make the entire expatriate community sneeze non-stop. Finally the breeze begins to cool us off. There is barely any traffic and the sun is still setting up shop. Past the beautifully carved burial sites in the Wats, we take a right at the Independence monument, whose red carved stone looks particularly beautiful in this half light. We reach the silver Mekong, where its inhabitants are slowly going about their business, still waking from their slumber. Saffron shadows cross our path as the monks head to the temples for morning prayers.You love tuk tuks; they let you watch the world go by at high speed, just like you like it, that world you are so impatient to taste. They rock and bump you around. You love the noise. There are so many motos it’s almost like the city itself is purring. You are quiet and content. Your eyes wide taking it all in. I’m also blissfully unaware. It isn’t always like this, but today, right now, alls well. It is a beautiful day in Phnom Penh.
you can see more photos from the Asian Markets series here: