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Contretemps and good news

We completed 5 visits to teams that have participated in our leadership program in and around Tana. Each visit gave me more insight into what actually happened while I was studying words on paper sent to me via email about these teams. I now understand how incomplete and misleading those words were. Words on paper have no context. And this is what I was now getting. There is no shortcut or alternative to ‘seeing (and listening) for oneself. The words on paper had led to judgements, and thoughts about mediocrity, no good value for money and a sense of futility.

The transformations that my, now ex-, colleague, and her two consultants had brought about were quite amazing, giving the very imperfect preparation and support they got from me. I was astonished how people had taken the ideas and integrated them, not just in their work life, passed them on to colleagues, but also took them home. I was to see much more of that in the remote rural areas we traveled later, where work and home life are not that separated.

The night before my departure, with two other colleagues, we celebrated the 29th anniversary of a young colleague who made her first trip to Madagascar, at a new stylish restaurant (the Urban hotel) in the upper city. We had cider sangria cocktails, I had my first foie gras (in spite of all my ecological and health objections to the stuff), we finished a nice wine and so helped her enter her 30th year.

The next morning I woke at 5:30, was ready to be picked up at 6:15, was picked up at 6:45 and then went all over Tana to pick up the rest of the team. Everyone but me is in a training outfit – fleece tops and bottoms with speed stripes, though speed is one thing we will not have. Our planned departure from the city limits didn’t happen until 2 hours later because of a small ‘contretemps’ as the French call something gone awry. A driver of the rental car company had run the car assigned to us over a rock and so the wheels had to be re-aligned. This is called ‘paralellisme.’ For the longest time I had no idea what they were talking about. I thought another car would drive parallel to us and we would exchange cars.

While waiting for the paralellisme to happen we were invited to sit on a terrace above the garage noise and spray from the power cleaning which brought into focus all that is awful about city living: noisy, grease, dirt and mechanical friction.

Good and bad deeds

I am in Madagascar now. My former colleague and now consultant gave me an overview of the current political situation which reads like a soap opera. The sad thing is that it does little good for the country. The hand grenades that were thrown into the stadium when I was here last, and billed as a terrorist attack, have turned out to be something quite different. The wife of the president organized the attack in the hope of killing her husband’s mistress, an artist who was performing at the stadium. The mistress escaped.

A story that parallels and the converges is about a person linked to the president (allegedly having introduced the mistress to her friend the president, while also being a friend of the first lady, but obviously no longer), had managed to profit in a big way from procurements that were routed through her bank  account. It is a sordid tale of greed and hubris. The story is to juice and too long to recount here. Suffice to say that the culprit is on the lam and the money probably stashed away someplace where ordinary Malgaches cannot touch it. Sometimes I feel all of us doing supposedly good work are only aiding, abetting and enabling the elite to keep stealing from their people.

[Postscript  on 4/25: the lady is back in the hospital in Madagascar. We are all curious what will happen next.]

Walking the woods

The long trip to Madagascar started in a full plane and ended in an empty one. More people fly to Paris than to Antananarivo. A good thing, as the second leg is longer by some 4 hours.

I watched the movie Lion and cried for the small boy who got lost in India and then found his way back again. At the end of the movie one gets to see the real Saroo (or Shere as he was actually called, hence the title of the film, as in Shere Khan, the lion king) and his adopted mom and real mom when they finally all meet. The movie is bringing to the attention of the world the thousands of lost children. Everyday little ‘Saroos’ get lost, and most stories don’t end that well I suspect.

Movies and books shorten a plane ride. I have a Kindle full of books allowing me to parallel read to my heart’s desire. One book that has moved to the top of the list is one Sita recommended (she is a great source of good-read suggestions). It is call The Hidden Life of Trees, written by a German forester. I had been reading it aloud to Axel during our visit to Tessa, a good three hours of reading for the round trip to Pembroke.

On the day of my departure we went to the Ipswich Audubon Park and this was our first walk in the woods since we started to read the book. It was an entirely different experience from earlier walks in the woods. I am ashamed now about the many ways in which I have abused trees in the past, like carelessly hacking off limbs, putting in hooks for our hammocks. This is one of those books that changes you.

Lost and found

We stuck to our tradition of an Easter ‘egg’ hunt party, now in its 32nd year since we initiated it in 1985, when I was pregnant with Tessa. Except for our years in Afghanistan, we never missed an occasion to bring our dearest nearest friends and neighbors together to celebrate what for us has always been a spectacular time: spring, Easter, the rising of the spirit (or Jesus as you wish), of new beginnings, of pruning and of the raking of leaves to discover the green sprouts underneath.opa-oma-saffi2

It is always tricky to schedule the party because of my travel, and our ability to get our act together in time: the invitation which is Axel’s (creative) domain, the creation of the invite list, which we still do manually, the buying of supplies to fill the Easter bags (now less sugar and more seed packets) and then the hiding.

In all these 32 years we have never perfected our game, but we spend less and less time on getting ready, being less compulsive about everything having to be right. This is the joy of getting older. These things matter less and less, and the company matters more and more.

We got reconnected with a member of the Dutch family that put up a spectacular Easter show on its big estate in the town I grew up in. We are related, my mother and his dad were cousins. It was an event I looked forward to every year and which may have contributed to the fact that some important events in my life (though not all) happened around Easter time. We had last seen each other at Easter in 1961 or thereabouts so I didn’t expect to recognize him, but I did, easily. He came late, with his partner. All the other guests had left. The sun which had lifted our spirits all day was losing its strength, so we lit a fire in our fire pit and sat around it, getting to know each other all over again, with Tessa and Axel being introduced to this found Dutch relative who lives in our neighborhood.

Refugees in our backyard

There are a few refugee families in Gloucester who had slipped in under the wire, before Trump started signing people’s lives away. I heard of an Afghan family and made contact. About two weeks ago I attended a fundraiser for this and other families, one from Syria and one from Congo. Only one member of the Afghan family spoke English, M., a young man in his twenties. The rest (two teenage girls, mom and dad) are not able to converse in any meaningful way. They were not at the event. They would have been overwhelmed. Only the son was there, and I could tell even he was rather overwhelmed.

Many people at the event wanted to shake M’s hands as he has been a kind of spokesperson for the new phenomenon of ‘refugee under Trump.’ After the event, as people queued up to say hello to him, he looked bewildered. All these friendly people, many grey-haired, many artists and all liberal and anti-Trump. I approached him and spoke some of my few remaining Dari words to him. He looked up in surprise. We exchanged telephone numbers and I gave him my well-used Dari-English dictionary.

Yesterday Axel and I had lunch with the family. Not just any lunch but an Afghan lunch made for kings and queens. There was mantou, small meat filled ravioli with a yogurt sauce, bolani (flatbread with vegetable stuffing), qabuli pilao, fried chicken. For dessert there was green tea with cardamom and a ginger-nut cake. We had to work hard to keep our hostess from filling up our plates over and over.

I had brought two additional dictionaries, which we used a lot as we tried to have a conversation – me with my rusty Dari and they with their very little English. M. helped out whenever the sentences got too complex.

I learned that they speak Farsi (Persian) rather than Dari, and that this is their first language now, especially for the kids, who spent their formative years in Iran. We learned that they have been ‘sans-papiers’ (without official identity documents) for a good part of their life as a family – lived in Iran, in Nimroz (an Afghan province bordering Iran), Eastern Turkey and finally landed, just in time, in the US.

We also learned that mom used to work in a bank, that dad was good with his hands, a glass cutter, carpenter and car mechanic and that the kids were mostly not in school, except for the older boy. The girls are now enrolled at Gloucester High School, in 9th grade although one is three years older than the other. I cannot imagine them learning anything with so little English. The one girl we met (the other was sick in her bed upstairs) hardly understood us and could not talk back in English.

The apartment is tiny. There is no bedroom for the boy; he sleeps on one of the two couches that are crammed into their tiny living room (one a two seater). A table that barely seated us was crammed into the even tinier kitchen (which appeared otherwise well supplied with donated kitchen gear). There is no air conditioner which will make the apartment unbearable in summer. We think we can solve that problem.

The boy just got his driving license this week which they celebrated in a Chinese restaurant. The father is anxious to get his but his English is too limited. He showed us a Farsi translation of a California and Virginia driver’s education manual but these manuals differ from state to state, so he cannot prepare. And even if he got his license, they don’t have a car. They feel very vulnerable to con men in their search for a second hand car.

The parents go to English classes 5 days a week but had little to show for it. They are still at the bottom of a very steep curve, and despondent. Yet over the years they have adapted, learned the 3 languages they already speak: Dari and Farsi, which are quite similar and Turkish. But English is in an entirely different linguistic class.

All through our conversation after dinner dad was thumbing through his new dictionary and enjoying it in a way I recognized when I was trying to manage Turkish during a long assignment in Turkey years ago. I saw him smile. I hope it helps. Learning a language with a smile is so much easier.

Spirit animals in the basement

We thought we ended March with spring, a teaser only. We started April with a Nor’easter that lasted 2 days and dumped a couple of inches of snow. The tender greens of the garlic, crocuses and other spring bulbs disappeared for a few days. And then it was spring again, chasing the snow quickly.

All of this week was devoted to the end of MSH’s leadership, management and governance project (LMG). I have seen the entire arc of it: the first project that started in 1985, and this one, the last, the ends in September. All of them aimed to do something about the way health services are managed, led and how institutions are governed.

We have learned a lot over those years (as have I). We tried to showcase some of that learning in ways that match our philosophy of ‘creating catalytic learning experience.’ Some people who attended the event, and did not know what that meant, got a taste of what we meant. Others already knew. I suspect we were mostly preaching to the choir.

The days of preparation at our Washington office and the event itself felt like a family reunion. There were old friends, colleagues from decades ago and folks who, like me, have been working alongside each other, sometimes collaborating and sometimes competing for the same pot of money.

Axel had come along to get a taste of what my work looks and feels like from a participant perspective.  My role was to be the MC, introducing speakers, but I also had a chance to slide in some messages that are close to my heart.

Just before leaving Boston I had discovered some forgotten beanie babies that I had used in training decades ago. They came in handy: there was the fox who jumps over obstacles to get what he or she needs in the here and now; there was the beaver who builds strong foundations on which we anchor our aspirations; there was the owl who holds the old wisdom and sees things no one else sees and there was the dolphin which is about joy, energy and spirit. Everything we showcased or talked about had something of these animal archetypes inside it.

And while we spent the day in a basement conference room of the Ronald Reagan Building in the heart of DC, inclement weather moved overhead.It raked havoc with people’s hairdo and apparently also the roof of a school. It also messed up travel plans: the next day we spent a good part of the day at the airport trying to get home. At one point we simply gave up our seats to wait even longer – we were more flexible than others. American Airlines gave us each a 500 dollar credit for our noble geste.

memories unearthed

Over dumplings and noodles we counted our blessings, my friend A and I, after visiting the Henryk Ross exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, memory unearthed. On view are more than two hundred photographs, buried and then unearthed after many years, of life in the second largest Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Europe. They were unauthorized pictures of daily life in the ghetto from 1940-1945. They are views of cruelty, suffering and resilience, familiar no doubt to Syrian refugees but unfathomable to us living in peace and comfort.

I was struck by how many people smiled when it seems there was little to smile about. There are the last glimpses of people marching towards their deaths. Only a few hundred survived from the hundreds of thousands that were forcefully resettled there and then deported. That the photographer and his wife survived is a wonder. A videotaped interview with them at the start of the exhibit left me in awe about the courage they took so that we now can remember. If you live near Boston, make sure you see it.

April 2017
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