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TEDWomen – When and how do women act?

December 21, 2010 by Gretchen

This month I had my first TED experience. And it was a first for TED too – TEDWomen. Whether or not we still need separate events dedicated exclusively for and about women is a debate worth having, but that I will reserve for another post.

I went to TEDWomen out of curiosity in the intersection of innovation, ideas and women. I went to engage with and to explore the diversity of who attends such events – from artists to athletes to politicians to activists. And I went for inspiration and new possibilities for collaboration. I found all of the above, but I also left embracing the paradox of discontent that comes from a gathering of still largely well-educated, privileged Westerners celebrating their roles in the world, largely without the voices of the disenfranchised. Again I am asking the question – who and where are the change agents? I found several and I found several missing.

I was deeply inspired by Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of the Omega Institute, who spoke of being both a mystic and a warrior and called on us to eliminate the orientation of “otherness”, which continues to enforce a paradigm of separation, of us vs. them. We need more examples of mystic warriors.

I was mesmerized by Joan Halifax, Engaged Buddhist and spiritual teacher, who spoke of the multiple dimensions of compassion, including both strength and a soft heart. She spoke even of the wrathfulness of compassion that does not tolerate delusion, and that calls upon us to witness and then act upon suffering in the world. Why are we not teaching our children compassion, voting on the basis of compassion, she asked. Why does compassion not drive us in every action?

And I was enamored by Caroline Casey, a legally blind elephant handler and social entrepreneur working on behalf of the disabled, who called on each of us to believe in the right thing and embrace your unique self.

During one particular session, I was delighted to sit between two significant leaders of change for women. We listened to a surprise speech by Hillary Clinton, where she proclaimed the empowerment of women and girls was a core tenant of her foreign policy. She explained that she saw it as a national security interest, because countries that embrace the empowerment of women were both more prosperous and more stable. While this is an important priority, I was dismayed that we still have to use arguments aligned with national security to uphold the human rights of women. Things have yet to change as far as needed, if that is still our primary rationale as a nation. Expressing this to my two neighbors, the NGO leader indicated her satisfaction with the argument so long as it enabled the outcome. The other, a long-time feminist activist, refused to stand during the ovation, and commented that the US was very good at putting its finger on the success of women in the world.

I mentioned to both of them that right then, while we were sitting in our comfortable auditorium in the exquisite International Trade Center, Lisa Shannon, activist for ending sexual violence in the Congo, and four other dedicated individuals were holding a 24/7 vigil for five days straight in the freezing cold out in front of the State Department. They were calling upon the administration to assign a special envoy for Congo and to work with the international community to spearhead comprehensive security sector reform to ensure the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice and women are protected. What if, I proposed, we could get a cohort of attendees, including some relatively well known women leaders, to take a quick cab ride over to the State Department and stand with Lisa in solidarity? The NGO leader responded with practical hesitation, albeit no precise objection, advising us to have a concrete call to action first. The other jumped at the opportunity to walk the walk of what we were there at TED to support, and quickly moved to create a flyer and press release, coordinate logistics, and mobilize people to respond.

As the two of us handed out notices between speakers, I was shocked when one woman muttered at me, “That’s so annoying.” Well, it’s also so annoying that women are being raped repeatedly in the Congo, I thought to myself after I recovered. I felt a momentary reprieve when later Madeline Albright declared that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” And then I recognized myself “otherizing” again.

After passing out 400 flyers, the two of us were able to mobilize just three other people to join us in a cab for a quick trip through traffic and a five minute visit to Lisa’s vigil, before returning to the evening session of speakers. I was so grateful for these four other women who felt a sense of duty and delight in responding to a simple call for action. I felt such disappointment that within a conference for and about women – where people had expressed their interest through an application process and paid thousands to attend – we could not convene more willing to take such a simple step. Then I reminded myself that we each have something we are called to do, and it is not always the same. And perhaps I should be aware of my own orientation when one declares an event on behalf of women – TEDWomen was not actually TEDWomensIssuesandActivism, after all.

As we jumped from the cab and crouched together to take a photo with Lisa and her colleagues, I felt a level of guilt sinking in my gut – what in the world did our brief action offer the cause, and why do we feel we even deserve a photo documenting our 5 minutes of attendance? Later, my new activist friend remarked with content that we have to be satisfied that for every one person that shows up, you usually reach 100 others with the message. I suppose that is the hard work of activism.

One of my mentors, a Vietnam Vet, practicing Buddhist and mind-body practitioner once told me: “It is not the magnitude of the task, but the intentions that matter most”. Joan Halifax says that we can have no attachment to outcome. The NGO leader I sat next to was willing to accept less than optimal intentions if the outcome was realized. And the activist was satisfied with the action and potential exposure, despite the outcome in numbers.

So what does really matter for change to happen? The intention, the action or the outcome?

The next day I went back to spend a few hours with Lisa and her colleagues. I asked her what she thought. She responded that she’s always been surprised by the outcome when her actions are in line with her beliefs and when she’s simply put her best foot forward. The results have always been so much greater than she ever imagined. Here, her theory was proven again. Though she was just one of five people who were camping out on the State Department steps, she had ended up getting a meeting with the head of the Africa Division later that afternoon.

I suppose the formula is different for each change agent. Certain circumstances will move us, outrage us or motivate us, often without warning. And some will not. A vision of change for the common good will likely inspire and set our direction. Our role then, I believe, is to listen deeply to identify what our most unique contribution might be. Sometimes we don’t always have to act. But when we feel we must, we must also ensure our response is aligned with our highest intentions, and double check that our intentions are in service to that vision, not our own egos. Finally, we must let go of the results. For we are just one piece of a larger landscape of interconnected parts moving collectively toward an emerging reality that we cannot yet see.

No Woman Should Ever Have to Trade Sex for Water

August 17, 2010 by Gretchen

Let me tell you about an extraordinary Rwandan woman and water change agent, Seraphine Hacimana, a 39 year-old mother of seven children, who I first met in 2007.  Seraphine first became aware of water issues when working on her father’s farm and fetching water as a child.  When she later married, she moved to the rural village of Gahanga, where she experienced first-hand the 3-4 hour walk women have to make down a hill to collect water from a contaminated, hand-dug well.  As with other such water holes that serve thousands in the surrounding area, it was not uncommon for the women to wait in line for hours, and occasionally fights would break out between them.  Some would even wake in the middle of the night to get to the water source first, before it got too crowded, the water murky with activity.  Walking alone in the dark, these women would face the risk of attack or sexual assault.  For others, the long and grueling return hike could further serve as a trigger for domestic violence, as their husbands waited angrily for the water they needed to bathe or for tea.

But what Seraphine was most concerned about were the women for whom this journey was almost impossible.  The women who were blind, pregnant, elderly, physically disabled or HIV + and too weak to carry large jerry cans back up the hill each day faced two impossible choices:  if she had children, she could keep them home from school to manage the task or she could pay for water to be delivered by a man on a bicycle.  Most women know how important it is to keep their kids in school.  And the latter is only an option if you can afford to pay.  One woman told us on condition of anonymity: “If your children are coming home from school and you need water to cook them rice and beans, you do what you have to do for that water.”  Women throughout Seraphine’s community were left with no choice other than to trade sex for the water they needed each day.


Seraphine recruited a team of 18 other women, who now call themselves Abanyamurava or “Hard Workers”, to design their own water solution.  Of the team of 19 women, only seven are actually literate, and their leader, Seraphine, only has a first-grade education.   With a little social entrepreneurship training and a small $2600 grant (provided by my organization, Global Grassroots),  Hard Workers embarked upon a project to install two large water tanks right in the middle of their village.  The venture collects rainwater off the roof of a church during the rainy season and orders water delivery by truck during the dry season.  They purify and then sell water to those who can afford to pay, so that they may give water away for free to vulnerable women.  Now in their third year of sustainable operations, the project is serving 800-1000 people daily, and has eliminated sexual exploitation for water in their community.  With their proceeds, they have further been able to buy health insurance for women, pay school fees for local orphans, ensure girls stay in school, combat water-borne disease and even reduce incidents of domestic violence.  The women even guard the tank themselves, taking shifts in twos each night, sleeping beside the tank to ensure no one steals their water.  The project has become such a recognized value to the community that now, when a woman gets ill and cannot cover her shift, sometimes her husband will offer to do it for her.

Their influence is gaining.  Hard Workers’ project has been visited by women on the other side of the country, via a three-hour bus ride, to see how rural, uneducated women were able to launch their own water venture.  Seraphine has been invited to speak at both local meetings and on the radio about water issues.  This year, Hard Workers is expanding to a second site to serve another 800-1000 people, and men have since asked to join the venture.   These amazing women change agents, some even grandmothers in their late 70s, are now seen as the first to bring development to their community.

I have seen time and time again, in my work at Global Grassroots, that women are experts in their own experiences and know exactly what they need to do advance their lives.  They have viable solutions to those critical issues, though they also have the least access to the education, skills and resources necessary to advance their own ideas.  The issue of sexual exploitation for water is almost invisible to outsiders, so it is critical that we trust local women’s ability to identify their own priorities, and then serve as their partners while they take the lead.

I share this story for three reasons.  First, in addition to microcredit for women-run businesses, we also need more resources for micro-social enterprise, or women-operated non-profits.  As Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn proclaimed in their best-selling work Half the Sky, grassroots women are the solution.  Not only can education and economic empowerment enable women to find their voice and achieve gender equality, but facilitating their work as change agents ensures they will build civil society, advance human rights and lead systemic social change too. These grassroots women are radical innovators within their local or cultural context, even if their ideas are not always new in a global context.  Unfortunately, the larger social entrepreneurship arena does not always recognize these women as social entrepreneurs.  Similarly, the international development world does not often trust that local women have the ideas or know-how to advance change themselves, thus investment in and the participation of women at the grassroots level is minimized.  I firmly believe a woman with the courage, resources and skills to advance her own solution is the greatest lever for social change in the developing world.

Second, when women have the opportunity to serve as change agents, it facilitates healing from the wounds of war and conflict.  In Rwanda, DR Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries where sexual violence was used as a tool of war, women experienced not only a terrifying physical violation, but a failure of their community to protect them.  Many of these women now not only struggle with significant post-traumatic stress, but they feel utterly devalued by society. At the same time, they are most often tasked with rebuilding civil society post-conflict.   Experiencing the success of advancing social change locally supports a woman’s sense of agency, sovereignty, dignity and power in her own life and her community.  Not only can she transform the social issues she faces (often silently), but she can also come to see that she is valued by society and has something to offer.  “Restoring the connection between survivors and their community” is one of three primary phases of the trauma healing process, documented in Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and an integral component of our work fusing personal transformation and social change.

Finally, as we can see in Seraphine’s story, water access is one of the most critical issues facing women throughout the developing world.  Ensuring women have control of and affordable access to clean water allows girls to stay in school, decreases incidents of violence, combats water-born disease, increases women’s productivity by freeing up a significant portion of each day, prevents sexual exploitation for basic needs, enables women’s change leadership and provides a means for alleviating poverty through social micro-enterprise.  Not only should clean water access be a right of every human being, but clean water ventures are an opportunity for women to ensure their equality and security in several other spheres as well.

Grassroots communities throughout the developing world, especially across Africa, are now joining this new “women for water” and “water for women” movement.  Encouraged, Seraphine and I await the day, where every woman globally may sip a cool, clear drink of water in safety and solidarity together.

To listen to Seraphine, who was just nominated for a CNN Hero Award, talk about water and to learn more about her work, go here:




The Politics of Power

August 17, 2010 by Laya

I recently came across this fascinating article about the how power affects us by one of my favorite science writers, Jonah Lehrer. It brought to mind something that happened at the Academy of Cnscious Change this summer.

In essence, the article tells us that contrary to the phrase “nice guys finish last”, science is finding is that nice guys actually finish first. But then, once they get that promotion, win the election or start that organization, they often lose all the nice-guy qualities that got them there to begin with.

“It’s an incredibly consistent effect,” Mr. Keltner says. “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making.”

We’ve seen that idea play out over and over in everyone from Google to politicians to priests.

While the article presents a rather bleak picture, it got me thinking back to a day at the Academy where we did some role-play exercises around the idea of power. One thing that struck me was that our Rwandan participants had a very easy time describing what it felt like to be powerless, but when in the power position, seemed to be more concerned with how their powerless partner must be feeling.

However, as they start their organizations, they will increasingly find themselves in more powerful leadership positions within their community. It suddenly struck me as not only socially, but neurologically sound that the next part of the academy emphasized increased self-awareness and compassion as they rise in stature.

I wonder if the CEO’s of the world might like an Academy of their own….

Early Thoughts

June 27, 2010 by Christina

We’ve spent two very short weeks in Rwanda and leave the country this afternoon, but Caitlin and I return in August to spend a full year here. In some ways this brief trip was perfect in its incompleteness – the children of new friends not yet visited, whole swaths of Kigali still missing from my mental map, mango season just around the corner. I can’t remember ever leaving a place so full of impatience to get back. Each project site we visited this past week gave such a rush of inspiration that even just selfishly, emotionally, I cannot wait to meet the rest of the Global Grassroots teams and get to work.

Emotion is such a cumulative beast, built of links to personal history. In a way it is selfish by definition, but I’ve been feeling guilty this week when my brain lines up that way. During our Monday visit to Have A Good Life, a clean water project in Nyarugenge, I found myself staring up at this nearby tree. It looked like the arboreal version of Indian Paintbrush: red blossoms stuck on the tips of skinny branches, dark against deep afternoon sky. My California high school’s symbol was a Paintbrush blossom, and suddenly all I could think about was our little green campus and cafeteria conversations from seven years ago and the research project on Darfur I did for history class my senior year. We looked at water-related contributions to the genocide and even had a poster at some youth conference in San Francisco. It suddenly felt so absurd – how little, in retrospect, I could have understood about a region of Sudan I’d only glimpsed in stylized photographs. How hopelessly self-absorbed I must be, at that moment, to stand next to a crowd of children dragging jerry cans of water up a hill in a country full of loss and to tie up my emotions in a wave of nostalgia for a childhood community I was ready to lose. A young woman was explaining to Gretchen and Caitlin how many kilometers she lugged dirty water each day before Have A Good Life. Wow, I thought. Feel something you should.

But then Caitlin asked one of the boys playing nearby to explain the project’s sign post – a hand-painted rendition of the Global Grassroots logo – seven women clasping each other’s hands over a globe. “Everybody is coming together to hold hands to bring water to Africa,” the boy said. And he’s right, of course. Just the hand-holding helps.

Without those cafeteria conversations, I wouldn’t have chosen that twelfth grade international studies class. Were it not for that twelfth grade water project, I wouldn’t have gotten so involved with STAND, the national student anti-genocide group, in college. I might not know anything about Global Grassroots, and I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here writing on a porch in Kigali beside oversized pumpkin vines. We see and feel the world the way we do because of who we come from, and perhaps that is not only our right, but our duty to those people who made possible whatever good we do in our lives.

I’m sure I can’t imagine the number of individuals involved in the establishment of Nyarugenge’s water access point and in the creation of the water safety and gender based violence trainings held by Have A Good Life – let alone all those who influenced those individuals to prioritize personal strength and social change. Sure, some change leaders are the heroines of the heroines, the heroes of the heroes, the strongest and busiest intersections in the community web. No matter what help I am able to offer our teams in the coming year, my impact will be nothing beside the work of any one of the invincible Rwandan women changing their communities with Global Grassroots’s support. Women like Jeannette of Have A Good Life. Women like Mediatrice of Think About the Young Girls, another project we visited this week. As part of their work to keep girls safe from sexual assault and in school, Think About the Young Girls has built separate female latrines at the primary school in Byimana and is currently constructing showers and changing rooms that will be stocked with sanitation supplies. But during our visit we noticed a new addition – a line of kids waiting to have their heads shaved by a young barber behind a classroom. When asked about the haircuts, Mediatrice explained with intensity that young girls often face harassment at the local salon; apparently the salon site is a favorite target of boys. In addition, many kids pick up lice or a skin disease from the shared instruments at the salon. So, the school had hired someone to shave heads for a smaller fee, keeping the kids safe, healthier, and on campus. I think everyone listening to Mediatrice’s story felt uplifted at that moment. The women of Think About the Young Girls began with particular goals for a particular project, but they have become true social change agents, constantly watching for chances to make the world better in quiet, innovative, effective ways.

These incredible women work every day to change their communities, but they are also the products of those communities. We try to change the world according to our own vision, just as we experience and feel the world according to our own histories. Is either of these a selfish act? Yes and no, I think. The conflict lies in the definition of selfishness. The words “our own” describe not a single point on the globe but a mesh of all those who have touched our lives – whose hands we have held – spreading out from ours, our left and our right.

See you in August, can’t wait,


June 25, 2010 by Gretchen

At the conclusion of our training the teams surprised me with the most amazing gifts.  Leoncie, the project leader of HRD, stepped forward with a team member from each of the other 6 teams to present me with a work of traditional Rwandan art.  A rural scene composed entirely of banana leaves depicts a woman filling a large gourd with milk, a symbol of prosperity.  Leoncie explained that I was represented by the mother wishing them prosperity and success.   Another team working with teenage mothers brought me a work of art made by the women in their program.  It was a large log-cabin style house made of the stalks of a plant.  Then Aloys, one of our three male participants stepped forward with a gift containing a wood carving.  The carving is of two warrior figurines in a hut, once with a bow and the other with a shield.  He had included a note written in English that he asked me to read aloud:

If someone ask me to say a single word about Gretchen Wallace I would say: “Gretchen is the Hero Woman I have never seen before. She is the woman keeping ever still by holding an arc to fight poverty, ignorance, etc. and a shield to protect violence (gender based violence) and other nightmare for Grassroots Community in Rwanda.

Personally I am very grateful.

God bless you.

I almost cried. I didn’t know how much this program and teachings meant to them.

To be true, I am always astonished, almost uncomfortable, when a team presents me with a gift.  Sometimes they will offer me a single papaya from their gardens.  It will be presented dressed formally in a clean paper bag.  Knowing these particular teams are subsistence farmers – even while operating their social venture – this means a great deal.  Still, I struggle with my own awkwardness in accepting a gift when I feel like I already have too much.  I grapple with the inherent inequality or injustice I somehow feel in these exchanges.  The flow of gifts should surely go the other way.  And yet, I’m slowly, humbly learning from these women to focus on what lies beneath – the gift of their intentions and their honor.  From such a place, intentions are all equal.  And my discomfort with who has more can transform into a higher consideration.  Above all, the greatest gift they can give me is the work they are doing to support other women and girls. And the chance to be their partner.

An Apprenticeship in Stretching the Heart

June 24, 2010 by Gretchen

The last few days have flown by as we have completed our Academy for Conscious Change intensive training course.  Today our teams made final presentations.  The work they are embarking upon is not easy, and they challenge me to think about how I might go about advancing my own rights in the face of opposition or threat of violence.

One team, “Handicap Rwanda, Reintegration, Rehabilitation & Development “ (HRD) is working on violence against women who have handicapped children.  Apparently, the stigma is so great against children with disabilities (including the blind, deaf, mentally disabled and physically handicapped) that they are often kept home from school, as they are considered to be without value to society.  HRD is providing education to parents about how to care for their children, and they will be creating an association for the mothers so that they can earn income to contribute to the needs of their family.  Through this association, they will have access to a support group with whom to share their challenges so that they will not feel isolated from the rest of society that discriminates against them.  The venture will also travel to raise awareness about the rights of children and the needs of  handicapped children.

Another team, titled “A Friend Indeed”, is combating the issue of violence against single mothers.  They are working with 80 single mothers, with a total 120 children, in learning how to parent.  They visit the mothers every two weeks to provide support in child care.  They are also providing education to young girls about reproductive health.  Finally, they will utilize theater to fight the stigma against single mothers and young women who seek access to contraception.  Their vision is that no child will be born who is not planned or wanted, and they hope to expand their program nation-wide.

In the next phase of the Academy, the teams develop a comprehensive venture plan over the next 3-6 months with our advisory support.  I cannot help feeling like a committed coach rooting for their success.  And yet, who am I to coach them?  Each of them is living in the midst of hardship unimaginable to most Americans, and yet they are fearlessly committed to working with those even more vulnerable than they to advance equality, opportunity, justice, and human rights.

Take “Justine” for example.  She has four children, including a teenage daughter born of another man.  Her current husband is HIV+ and sounds as if he is battling severe depression as a result of his circumstances.  Luckily, neither Justine nor her children are HIV+.  However, she carries the full weight of her husband’s anxieties, as he contends the support she provides for his step-daughter to go to school results in less care and attention for his own needs.  He frequently demands the daughter be sent away to live with her grandparents.  Justine is caught between a dying husband and an isolated daughter, both of whom need her care.  Even still, Justine is working to fight unplanned pregnancies through reproductive health education within her community.  Apparently there have already been three pregnancies of young girls aged 12 -14 in their village this year.

These women’s hearts stretch to what appears to be a limitless capacity to take on the needs of others.  I think I could stand to do an apprenticeship with each one of them.

Dear Rwanda

June 24, 2010 by Laya

Dear Rwanda,

Remember the times we watched the sun rise over the Kigali hills together? And remember the time we hung out with all those barber shop boys and their Jessica Alba obsession? And the Francophone door to door Congolese mask salesman? The markets, and the wrong-side of the car taxi drivers, and all the beautiful women… Oh, and Rwanda, remember the long walks on dusty roads and the way you always smell like firewood…

Rwanda, I know I’ve only known you for two weeks, and that we don’t even speak the same language, and I know you’re much more complicated than I can understand, but Rwanda? I think I love you.



Monday to Monday

June 22, 2010 by Caitlin

When our van pulled up to the Academy this morning, the scene was such a contrast to what we had witnessed in the same place, at the same time, just a week earlier. When we arrived Monday, June 14th for the first day, Rwandans were gathered in thick clumps all around the entrance and peered at us, silently. I stared back at them, wondering who was supposed to make the first move. After all, I was a visitor to their community- should step up and introduce myself, or wait to see how they welcomed me? Ultimately the children provided a buffer, crowding between us and the Academy participants. They struck cheesey poses for my camera and pushed to see the digital display. Eventually, I turned to the women and gave a sheepish wave, a ‘muraho!’ and an over-eager grin.

Today when we arrived, the children were not there; our presence is no longer novel or exciting. Some Academy participants— Marcelline, Marie-Jeanne, Christina— waved to our van as we rolled up, and I returned the greeting without hesitation. When I climbed out of the van, I shook a few hands on my way into the classroom, set up some supplies, then took a seat on one of the benches, between the women…

8 Hours Without Accoutrements

June 22, 2010 by Gretchen

Today’s adventures began with the door to my room in the house I’m staying in blowing shut while I was in the shower.  I discovered, while I stood dripping in a towel, that the door had somehow locked me out with my keys, clothes, money, phone and everything else I owned inside.  Hmmm.  Quite inconvenient, given my staff was going to be arriving to pick me up in 10 minutes.  I changed back into pajamas and found the guard, who came in with a butter knife to see if he could unscrew off the deadbolt.  I quickly realized this was going to take much longer than anticipated.  I ran around to the windows, which are all barred, but managed to cut open the screen to make a hole large enough for my arm to fit through.  Luckily my suitcase was open next to the window and I was able to grab some clean clothes.  Phew.  At least I wasn’t going to be teaching in pajamas today.

With a pair of borrowed flip flops, I combed through my wet hair with my fingers and my outfit was complete.  I headed off to class significantly lighter than usual – no longer toting a bag filled with Wet Ones, hand sanitizer, wallet, phone, camera, chargers, Luna bars, water bottle, notebooks, pens, passport, teaching materials, calendar, business cards, blackberry, sunglasses and cloth wrap.  I went through a small wave of panic, but then quickly settled into a new sense of liberation.  Why can our women show up with nothing to their names, but I can’t seem to go 8 hours without accoutrements?

There has been a practice I have been working with in the US when I get overwhelmed by my never-ending list of to-dos and emails flagged for follow-up.  I put all lists aside, meditate a moment and just feel into what is most important for me to respond to. Usually the most critical items come to mind and then I do not have to get overly distracted by the sheer quantity to tasks awaiting me.  (Apologies to anyone I did accidentally let fall through the cracks – this is not meant to suggest you are not important).   It is more about trusting my intuitive to guide me.  Today I did the same – leaned into what felt important to teach and we actually had a more productive day than most.  There was no stress, no need to take time to review notes or prepare.  It just flowed.

Maybe we are a little too hung up on our stuff in the US.  Even including those of us who think we are already anti-materialistic.  What would it be like to go about an entire day with nothing but your clothes and shoes?  I highly recommend you try it.

A Darker Red

June 19, 2010 by Laya

Arriving back in Kigali after class today, I promptly plunked myself down on the back porch and sat like a stone there, eyeing the birds and the flowers until the sun set and darkness grew around me.

At the beginning of my first week in Rwanda, I was enchanted by everything. Everywhere I looked were bright colors and even brighter smiles. Africa was as glorious as I had imagined. I was welcomed to it with rhythmic song, abundant laughter and joy.

This place has a pulse, it feels alive and real and vital in a way few areas can compete with. Biologist E.O. Wilson theorized that because the human species had spent over two million years “growing up” in East Africa, we are each hard-wired on a cellular level to feel a particular resonance with it – to feel like we’re returning home.

Yet, day by day, the more difficult realities of Rwanda began to fall like big, heavy raindrops, turning the terra cotta colored earth a darker red.

On one hand, I feel so at home here, so at ease, so inspired, and yet the complexities that rise up around me are sometimes so dense and relentless, that I am having trouble coming up with the words and the writing that normally keep my head above water.

This week has grown more and more “real” in small yet potent doses. Slowly, and in hushed tones, the events and consequences of what transpired here 16 years ago have been discussed with or near me. Not unlike the dialogue of a Jane Austin novel, there is a great sense of both propriety and consequence to what is said.

It’s not that I didn’t anticipate this aspect, but when it’s actually there in front of you it penetrates in ways you can’t really prepare for. When there is a 20 year old guy downtown joking with you while holding the wares he’s selling in the mangled remains of what were possibly once his healthy four-year-old arms… well, that’s when pain and cruelty creep up on you and wipe their dirty boots all over the otherwise bucolic pictures in your head.

It’s a tricky thing. I know from experience if you let images like that run on repeat in your brain you end up like the otherwise trusty steed Artex, sinking slowly into the Swamp of Sadness  (three points for getting that reference).

I’ve been doing cohesive breathing work all week with the group. It’s remarkable to feel the silence that enters the red-floored room when we practice together. Even the groups of school kids looking in with curiosity from the windows and doorways seem to get more still.

It seems to me that, in any occupation, finding a sense of peace inside you is important, but in work for social change, it’s positively vital. Some of the problems these group are addressing, from water shortages to child prostitution, are so overwhelming that to keep the joy and gratitude pumping through our hearts, you need that place of peacefulness to return to when it gets a little much.

And so tonight, as I sit out outside watching the southern stars appear and the red soil darken, I’m trying to remember the feeling in that room. I’m trying to remember to breathe.

Just. Breathe.

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