Archives for posts with tag: Kenya

The last few weeks – the last few days especially – I’ve struggled with the challenges of writer’s block, of the perils of falling in to the ‘Busy Trap’, and the associated exhaustion, imbalance and familiar wafts of depression which come with these conditions. How strange then, that a moment of clarity should come at the end of a long and tiring day, when I’d been feeling hot and bothered, rather than appreciative and joyful, from the heat wave we’re having. Or maybe not so strange, now I’ve started to wind down after a cool bath, fifteen minutes of mindfulness in my room and some time in the garden watching the sprinkler glide its way from the fuschias and snapdragons to the green grass and herbs.

Since arriving back from Kenya my life seems to have accelerated at such a rapid pace that I struggle to find time to check in with myself, to be alone, or simply to relax. A busy final week in Nairobi, interviewing slum-dwellers at risk of eviction whilst trying to control the amoebiasis – a common hazard of eating contaminated food in Kenya – in my stomach, was followed by an equally busy week in London. On day three of my return my mother contracted a similar infection which, unlike me, put her out of action for two weeks and in need of help and support, and on day four I was thrown back in to the internal politics, mounting bureaucracy and low staff morale of my organisation’s London office. Working in East Africa for two months may have been tough, with the continuous stories of fear and despair I heard and documented from victims of human rights abuses and the related feelings I went through daily of self-doubt and hopelessness; but being back in London suddenly seemed a whole lot harder, with more pressures, and less time to breathe or to take stock. So out went my blog, and any time for reflection or relaxation.

Then yesterday I heard some sad news of a personal nature. My old home of four years was also subjected to its own form of eviction. An entire squatting community in Brixton, some of whom had been there for years, were given their marching orders and police were on hand to make sure they really did leave. Unlike what I witnessed in the Nairobi slums, the procedure adopted here was most probably legal; in other words, notice will have been given, it would not have been carried out under cover of darkness, and efforts will have been made – however inadequate – to suggest alternative accommodation. But the heartbreak felt by the residents – and also me, as a former resident – remains. The scene will not have been pretty; there will have been resistance from those who could not bear to leave their homes, and heavy-handedness from a menacing contingent of bailiffs and police.

I am lucky that I had another home to go to, long before these evictions took place. My time in the squat in Brixton may be in the past, but the memories are still alive – of all its colourful, unique and often damaged characters, of weekend-long parties and the Monday dregs and debris of the guests and gatecrashers; of managing to complete my Master’s degree despite these distractions; of discussions on art, philosophy, or simply how we could survive living in crack alley in the heart of a suburb that never sleeps. I certainly had my moments of frustration and wondering what the hell I was doing, living in a place with no natural light and no central heating. But it was home for me for four years, and to see it now being emptied so forcefully to make way for a new, homogenised community, fills me with no small measure of sadness.

This may not be on the scale of the daily tragedies that the poor and destitute experience across the world, and some may even argue that the struggles of a privileged middle-class white girl are self-indulgent and petty in comparison.   But we all inhabit our own realities, our own dark moments and periods of grief, as well as our own moments of joy and happiness. We all have our own stories to tell, that will resonate succinctly for some and grate or be misinterpreted by others. If we feel it is within us to tell our stories, then we should, as it is one way of fostering understanding, empathy and compassion.  And so, as I recover from my writer’s block, I will finish off this piece with these words….

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.

Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer, 1894-1991

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I have a week left in Kenya. So many thoughts and emotions have passed through me in the time I’ve been in East Africa. There are times when the expectations and requirements of this job have seemed totally overwhelming; where I’ve had no time to stop and digest what I have seen or heard, and I’ve had to push on with writing, researching, asking further questions, whilst often lacking the confidence that what I’m doing will actually make a difference.

Humanitarian work, human rights work, development work. All them giveth, and they taketh away. An average day can feel exhilerating, hopeful, frustrating, desperate. It takes a certain amount of strength to face some of the stark and difficult realities of poverty and injustice; to challenge the authorities even when you know that they may well ignore you and continue to sit back as another crime or violation is committed under their watch; to walk away after interviewing a victim of human rights abuse without being able to offer any immediate assistance. We have to remain confident that doing something – raising awareness at international level, lobbying politicians and demanding accountability from State authorities – is better than doing nothing at all.

A Kenyan woman sits in the rubble of her home after being forcibly evicted from a slum in Nairobi

A Kenyan woman sits in the rubble of her home after being forcibly evicted from a slum in Nairobi

On a bad day I feel guilty and hopeless about all that I have seen and can do little about. I feel angry with the State official who lies to my face, denying that a forced eviction has taken place and that hundreds have been made homeless; or worse stll, refuses to even discuss such matters. I feel ashamed that a victim of human rights violations will be hoping for so much more from me than what I can provide. When I’ve had quiet meditative moments, I’ve contemplated forgiveness; forgiving myself for any action which I feel was not really in my character, or may have offended or disappointed others. I can only hope that in consciously keeping my heart open that I can connect with people beyond the expectations of what I can and cannot give. The same applies to dealing with the authorities. I have worked to release the anger I’ve often felt towards them, and try and understand them and the situation on a deeper level; to have compassion even for those I disagree with, and to continue to connect with the pure light that shines in each and every one of us but is so often darkened by psychological and environmental factors.

And on a good day I feel nothing but gratitude. Gratitude for finding myself back in East Africa, a place that gives me inspiration and fulfillment. Gratitude for having a space to myself to explore ideas and emotions away from the familiarity and distractions of home. Gratitude for the nice weather (most of the time) – the huge African skies and the gentle heat on my pale skin. Gratitude to the people I meet, for welcoming me and increasing my respect for different cultures and customs. Gratitude for every new lesson I learn from my work and from the conversations I have with friends and colleagues. Gratitude that no matter what challenges I experience, there is always a quiet place to retreat inside myself, to reflect and regain some peace.

The view of the valley from where I'm staying in Nairobi

The view of the valley from where I’m staying in Nairobi

I’m looking forward to going home. But I am also looking forward to reflecting on all that I have seen and done here, and finding the inspiration to use these experiences in constructive ways that not only seek to help victims of human rights abuses, but also the aid workers themselves. Self-care is essential in this line of work, and I see this journey I’ve made as an opportunity to recognise and put into practice the tools that are necessary to hold these powerful concepts of compassion, forgiveness and gratitude in our hearts no matter what the circumstances.

I have been appreciating stillness lately. Here in Kenya, I spend a lot of time on my own, cherishing the calm and quiet. I don’t seem to be desperate for company and entertainment all the time like I used to be, instead enjoying moments where I can be with myself and dip in to my inner being. By having time on my own, I can also reconnect with other passions and interests, and avoid the common trap in this line of business of defining myself purely through the work I do.

Indeed, I spent most of my years of NGO work telling people, without much thought, ‘I’m an aid/human rights/development worker’. This was partly because I would have struggled to claim another identity for myself. My time outside work usually revolved around smoking, drinking, partying or sleeping. And none of these activities really form an identity. So I remain grateful for the months I had last year to rediscover my passions. They were there all along, but it took a concerted effort of slowing down and being still to realise them once again.

Such moments of stillness are crucial for NGO workers, faced so often with mounting pressures, expectations, negativity and disappointments in their daily work. It is also easy to live through our work when the job often continues beyond office hours – in discussions with friends or associates, in networking dinners and social occasions. Topics of conversation so often revolve around the difficult situations we’re working in, the communities we’re trying to help, the lack of resources there to support us, the deficiencies of the structures we have to work with….we forget to switch off and talk about something completely different. Particularly when working in the field and overseas, it becomes ‘normal’ to spend all our time outside work either reading or talking about the very human rights or humanitarian issues which we’re confronted with each day.

Of course there is nothing wrong with doing this; so long as there is also some time given over to stepping out of that space, that identity and seeing what else lies beneath in one’s soul. This means taking time out to admire the beauty which surrounds all of us, to remember that as well as the horrors of war, conflict, poverty and human rights violations there is also the abundance and power of nature, of creativity, of love. Whilst there may be many things for us to feel guilty about, there is also much to feel grateful for.

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A monkey and I admire the view of the River Nile in Uganda

The other day my Kenyan colleagues and I sat around a table in their office drinking coffee and eating samosas and mandazi (doughnuts). Two hours had been set aside specifically for the purpose of connecting with each other, and not talking about work. When I was confronted with this unusual exercise, my initial reaction was one of panic. What are we going to talk about? What can I say that’s interesting? But as we went round one by one, contributing something to the very light and candid conversation, I began to relax. I realised this was the first opportunity I’d had to actually get to know the people I’d been sharing an office with for the past few weeks. We laughed and joked, and were moved by stories about our families, or about how we spend our time at the weekend, or about what we value in life. This simple initiative to bring people together in a relaxed way, and to take them away from their all-consuming work and other pressures, was very important. I wondered how often this happens in an office in London, for a full two hours.

One of my colleagues said something which particularly resonated with me. He said that we must find time to admire the flowers. This was of course a metaphor for how we should approach our work. We have much to focus on that is distressing and unpleasant. But admist all that, we each have an amazing and powerful ability to create some stillness in which to marvel at what is pure, beautiful and magical; and to have gratitude for such small and simple pleasures.

hibiscus

hibiscus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One week into my trip to Kenya, and I’ve barely had time to stop and take it all in. As we arrived earlier in Kisumu, a city that borders Lake Victoria in Western Kenya, I felt the exhaustion wash over me. I have seen so much, and heard so many sad stories in the last few days that it’s hard for me to process it all.

Last week I found myself in the Nairobi slums, which house over half the city’s population of three million. On Friday, a forced eviction had taken place in one of the smaller settlements. Shacks made of tin and cardboard had been destroyed, with their contents – the meagre belongings of the residents – strewn across the dampened ground. We made our way along a muddy path – balancing on stray planks of wood and bricks to avoid rotten sewage flowing through the settlement – to meet some of the residents. They were understandably distraught after being made homeless, and being forced to flee their houses as they were being demolished amidst the firing of teargas and live ammunition. The eviction had happened at four that morning and had been carried out by a group of unidentified men, while the police stood by and watched, their role merely to ‘keep the peace’ – an apparent euphemism for providing security to those demolishing the homes, not their inhabitants. Young mothers with hungry crying babies, elderly women with a look of despair and fear in their teary eyes, angry men, some of whom had hit the bottle early in the day and were wondering around looking for a fight – everyone was shell-shocked, and wondering what to do next.

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Mathare, one of the many slums in Nairobi

This long day in the slums was followed by another, in a different slum, where we talked to a 15 year old boy who had been shot by the police during protests against the new Government. We spoke in hushed voices in the boy’s small, cramped home where he resided with his anxious mother. The settlement was full of lively activity – market stalls selling kitchen utensils, CDs, phones, fruit and veg and meat; cars driving along the bumpy dirt track; goats being herded amidst the throng of people coming and going; reggae music blaring from sound systems. But underlying all of this was the fear of violence and bloodshed, the slum having been the victim of serious ethnic tensions in recent years. ‘Tribalism’ – a horrible but much used word in Kenya – permeates through every aspect of social and political life, and has been the cause of much civil unrest, particularly in the slums in Nairobi, and in Kisumu, where I am now.

What a world away this is from the quiet period of self-reflection I imposed on myself in the last year. I’ve been thrown in at the deep end, certainly, but I’ve also jumped from one extreme to another. Suddenly I’m bombarded with unfamiliar and distressing images and stories which are the everyday realities for many people. No sooner have we left one horrific incident behind, we are faced with another, whilst also trying to find some moral purpose for being there in the first place; to somehow justify our presence as human rights defenders, even though there is nothing tangible we can offer to ease the grief that is felt by the victims we meet.

These are the typical struggles of an NGO worker. They push themselves beyond their limits in the hope of finding some way of addressing the cruel injustices they’re witness to. They push and they push, storing up all those upsetting and distressing images, often avoiding emotional reaction on any level, lest it betray a weakness or vulnerability that threatens their capacity to do their job.

There is no doubt that one needs an inner strength to do this kind of work. But one thing I have learned in the last year is that strength is not gained by withholding or suppressing emotions. Each day we absorb so much negative energy as we go about our work; whether it be from the hostile State official, the angry victim who has long ago lost hope in the empty promises made by Westerners with good intentions, or from our colleagues as they juggle the plethora of emotions, expectations and pressures related to their job. It is essential to find a way of releasing this negative energy – of processing what we are confronted with, and letting it go – in order to maintain the clarity and confidence which assures us that no matter what the challenges, we are doing the best we can. I realise that it is more important for me now than ever to have time – which may only be 5 or 10 minutes in a day – to stop and be solely with myself. To touch base, and calmly observe the rush of emotions which are inevitable when faced with endless hardships and injustices. By observing, I go some way in processing and releasing what I have absorbed in the last few days. And in doing so, I can restore that vital inner strength that prepares me for the next challenge.

So, here I am on an early Sunday morning in Nairobi. Seated on my own at the hotel restaurant eating my second breakfast of the day; the first being the dissatisfying dried up morsels provided by Kenya Airways. There is a light, misty rain falling outside the window, but nevertheless a warmth in the air that is unquestionably African.

I feel calm, relaxed. Maybe the calm before the storm, as who knows how the next week will be as I navigate my way from meeting to meeting, most of the time on my own, with people I’ve never met and where we’ll be discussing the thorny issues of post-eleciton violence and extra-judicial killings. And then there’s the Nairobi traffic to deal with – the long queues of matatus (small mini-buses) and 4x4s and impatient drivers forever lurching forward and thereby adding to the bottleneck.

Nairobi Traffic Jam

Nairobi Traffic Jam (Photo credit: rogiro)

And the endless security regulations I have to remember the minute I step outside – don’t walk alone at night, make sure you know who your driver is, don’t carry too much money on you, call your manager each day to confirm you’re safe….

Whilst to some extent I do appreciate the strict security guidelines which assume human rights defenders such as myself to be a possible target of attack – whether by hostile authorities or a poverty-stricken opportunist whose perception of the wazungu (white people) is always clouded by dollar signs – I am overwhelmed by these rules and regulations. I have travelled to Uganda, Palestine and Sri Lanka on my own and never received such preparation. And I do wonder whether all the talk of security risks and the strict do’s and don’ts which accompany this type of work may at times instill fear rather than comfort in the traveller.

A walk around the grounds of the hotel and its neighbouring areas has reminded me of the real and immediate problem with crime in Nairobi. I have to let myself in and out of every entrance gate or doorway with my hotel swipe card, and the place is swarming with security guards. The crime levels now are no doubt as they were the last time I lived here seven years ago; so high that it’s almost certain that either you or another expat you know will be a victim of theft, robbery or car-jacking at some point. Which many would argue is the very reason why we need these seemingly melodramatic security guidelines when conducting business here.

But if certain external realities haven’t changed in seven years, there are a lot of inner realities that have. The last time I was in Kenya for an extended period, in 2006, I had become a tired, cynical and vulnerable person, who sought solace in cigarettes and several bottles of Tusker beer each night. Just a brief walk around the hotel grounds earlier brought back many memories, of emotions and attitudes I held at the time which were either destructive or misguided. I am now such a different person from the exhausted, disillusioned person who fled a disastrous relationship and unrewarding NGO work in East Africa seven years ago.

Nowadays my concern with finding the nearest drinking hole to process the day’s traumatising experiences or drown my sorrows has been replaced by a desire to find a quiet place to meditate. I noted this with a laugh to myself at Heathrow airport, as I wondered on arrival there whether I could find a prayer room to have a  few peaceful minutes with myself before flying. Gosh, how times have changed.

A meditation room - every public building needs one!

A meditation room – every public building needs one!

Admittedly, the old habits have seeped back into my life since resuming human rights work. My coffee intake has tripled (I’ve had three so far this morning, which is particularly excessive for someone who’d reduced to about one a week in recent months), my sleeping patterns are unpredictable and I find myself craving a drink or three after a stressful day. But these habits and addictions are matched by another powerful force which, more than anything else, helps me meet the new challenges I’m facing. And that is a degree of inner peace. I say this cautiously, as inner peace is not an end game but a continuous and fluid process; there one second and gone the next. But since ‘waking up’ – connecting with my soul and becoming the consious observer of what I do, say and think and how it reflects on the deeper truth inside me – I’ve found some peace. Of course there are still times when I muddle through life unconsciously, careering from one problem to another, ignoring my see-sawing emotions, too engrossed in getting somewhere else. When this happens it’s usually a bad day, where I feel disjointed, unbalanced, insecure and irritable. And I know what I need to do to resolve it.

A conscious pause every now and again lifts this negative energy. It may be for 20 minutes in the morning before work, meditating by candlelight.Or  it may be writing Julia Cameron’s cathartic morning pages – letting my first thoughts and emotions of the day spill out onto the page. Or it may be connecting with my heart, and the heart of those I come across each day so that I can communicate better, even in the face of tension or hostility. Or, most powerful of all, I will do some chanting and gentle Qi energy movements which both ground me and fill me with nourishing, positive energy.

Pagan_meditation

These are all quiet, personal moments which help me to let go of the day’s or week’s troubles and anxieties, and truly touch base with myself; connect with my soul and remind myself of who I really am beneath whatever image I may have portrayed that day. And because of these new, essential habits in my life, I know this time in Kenya will be different. I do not yet know how it will be or what challenges I will face, but aside from the security protocols and institional procedures, I have my inner guide to give me real strength and resilience.

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