Tuesday, March 2, 2010

From Chuck Taylors to Charles Taylor

I think part of the reason I've had trouble blogging, apart from not having a ton of time, is that even though I like doing updates of my travels around South Africa, I’m sort of more interested in something else—in writing down my impressions of the experiences I've had living in three African countries and my views on sociopolitical events and patterns in these places and in my life as an American. I think in this I’d like to change the nature of this blog, even though I’d like to continue with updates about my life every so often. I’d like to put in more of what I’m passionate about—comparisons and discovering patterns between cultures, forming my opinion on various topics that pique my interest, and generally trying to stop forcing myself to write a travel blog, as this was originally intended to be. So, I’m going to try out this approach and see if it works.

So, without further ado…This is something that’s been rattling around in my brain for a while. This title.

The first Chuck Taylor Converses I put on were my friend’s American flag high tops, two sizes too small, for the first “protest” I ever participated in—five high school students (it might have been three) on the main strip in the small town of Ojai. The cops did get called, though it was because some less-than-well-wisher called and said we were running around in the road. We weren't. A few people honked for peace for us. It was not even months after the US invaded Iraq. I was in DC when Bush invaded, and I’ll never be able to forget the absolute feeling of outrage I had watching—“shock and awe” has become somewhat of a cliché, but I still remember exactly how I felt when I heard the term for the first time.

I've been to a lot of protests, and even organized a few, since then and worn many pairs of Chucks (good for protecting the toes in big crowds) and gone from idealism and anger to apathy and disillusionment for various reasons, from getting burned through political wheelings and dealings, to watching fellow activists get sent away from college for making stupid decisions they thought were justified at the time, to getting stonewalled and ignored by various levels of authority, who attempted to appease with piecemeal responses, if any. For a while I felt useless, and sometimes I still feel betrayed. I’m not very good at politics, I’m afraid.

Then I went to Senegal, and everything was given a chance to change. I managed to extricate myself from the aspirant politicians and the professional protesters, and I took a step back. I saw things I’d never imagined, and poverty was only a part of that. I lived with a Senegalese family, ate Senegalese food, and spoke Wolof. I stayed in villages and rode around in cars rapides and dilapidated taxis and went to clubs populated by locals, not expats. This was the only time I was really able to do this.

I took African history classes throughout college, from my freshman year onward. Senegal was the first time I got to live something I’d learned (I've learned something I’d lived—art history and French classes after living in France—but that was different). And it was radically different from what I’d thought and completely transformative for me. I almost had to be dragged home.

Then I went to Sierra Leone and worked in a hospital for nine months. And it was hell a lot of the time. But also an experience I wouldn't give up for anything. I went through experiences I won’t talk about here, and I saw things I don’t share with many people—no fun to be the downer in the room (I do that enough as it is). I sat with patients every day and worked with and managed staff. I got into arguments and committed a lot of cultural and political faux pas. I paid out a lot of money for things and sometimes was thanked and sometimes was scorned. I was happy sometimes but mostly frustrated and angry. Mostly tired and disillusioned, and confused as to how to change anything in a country that was so far gone. I learned how difficult it is to help when you don’t know much about the culture you’re in and when you’re not from the culture you’re in. How important it is to work within communities. And how important and complex things are that seem easily addressed—fixing roads, or giving out malaria nets, or buying uniforms for the nurses, or even motivating people to fight a fire that was threatening to destroy their homes. Note: I’m going to merge my “Making Do with Soda Soap” blog with this one, so you can read about it in the archives if you haven’t already.

And then I left and I’m here now in Cape Town. And this might be the most complex it’s ever been—because the race and ethnicity issues are so pronounced and so visible. Because even though the slums have electricity and sometimes clean water, they’re less than twenty minutes from luxury hotels, office buildings, vineyards, and tourists planning expensive trips to paraglide or watch animals or, in some cases, to drive through the townships in air conditioned buses. But it’s also the easiest because I love what I’m doing and feel like I’m making a difference, even if I’m in an office and not a medical tent, and driving a BMW (1993!) and not being driven around in a Land Cruiser, and living in an apartment with electricity and running water and a bed and not in a hut.

Part of this, then, is about my academic and real life experiences in Senegal, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. About the reality of life for many people that are often overlooked (I won’t pretend to know much about this), about how I think about current events and things that happening across the continent (though my understanding mostly lies in West African events), and about how much a history that is largely unknown to people from my home country, though distinctly intertwined in their history as well, continues to rear up in the present. Charles Taylor is facet of the present/recent past of much of the African continent and only a part of a much larger historical narrative of slavery and colonialism, the thirst for resources and power, and anger over ethnic divides exacerbated and even created by colonial powers. Charles Taylor is, perhaps too simplistically put, a product of an environment shaped by a complex and exploited past.

From Chuck Taylors to Charles Taylor.

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