Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Selling Hope

When I started at The Recovery Center I didn’t know how to speak. Knowing nothing of either homelessness or addiction, I told stories instead. I brought other people’s words. I sifted through the history of drugs to find stores to elicit or inspire or ponder in my group sessions. One of these stories:  in Vancouver in the 1990s the addicts were dying. Overdose took several people a week, and serial killer was abducting and murdering sex workers while the city turned a blind eye. Theirs was the hell of the dispossessed. To the drug users of Vancouver, it was clear no one cared for them but themselves. So they rebelled. They organized patrols to bring medical attention before an overdose became fatal, and checked on the sex workers to make sure they were safe. They created public art to memorialize their dead. Stopped traffic. Carried empty coffins to city counsel meetings. They kept showing up. They demanded to be recognized until eventually the people who made decisions on their behalf had to see their humanity. The Mayor change his mind - began to call addiction a medical problem not a moral one. The city began to change. Vancouver is now the most progressive city in North America in terms of caring for their addicted.

Sam loved that story.

Sam is dead now.

And it is this story I choose to remember with him. A story of the downtrodden organizing and demanding change. A story of human agency, defiance and power in the face of death.

I know that he will become a statistic. A number people like me will tally and use to argue for better services, more services, a world less punishing of poverty and pain and the way this manifests. He is another casualty to our vengeance, ‘collateral damage’ in the absurd theatrics that is the war on drugs. In a way, I want him to be used this way. Want his death to mean something. To change things. But I also want to remember the complexity of his life -- the whole of it -- the stories he told about filling his pants with lipstick from pharmacies to resell, the near misses shoplifting, carrying grocery carts and strollers for ladies up subway steps fueled by opioid highs. I want to remember the gruff encouragement he offered the others at the clinic, the way he softened around our most helpless mentally ill clients. I want to remember the fragile hope he carried with him. The hope which flickered in and out of his words as he talked about relapse, about his friends and family dying around him, about how years ago he went to college and did well and one day maybe would go back - someday when he was ‘all good’, not just 80 or 90%. I want to remember Sam, volunteering to pack Narcan kits for the shelter - kits which will reverse overdose and save lives. I want to honor, in this moment, the complexity of him which will be washed out with the words ‘overdose death’.

I came to social work looking for formulas. I wanted The Secret to Healing the Broken, and I wanted in peer-reviewed articles with plenty of references for further reading. What I found is frustrating ambiguity. Healing a broken heart is not curing cancer or setting a bone -- it is far more complicated. There is no one prescription, no one method to make someone whole after trauma, after loss, while they live in a world which tells them again and again they are worthless. What we have found (and in fact, the peer-reviewed articles will back this up) is that what matters is most is love. Empathy is what makes a client come back, and it is empathy, not whatever theoretical orientation you follow or method you use, that best determines outcome in therapy. We take people who have been beaten: physically, emotionally, economically - in every way. We welcome them into our office and we delicately, carefully, we try to love them back together. We look for the best in them and hold up a mirror to it. As a professor of mine put it - our job is to sell hope. Love is our best and imperfect answer to a world full of horror - a world where poverty and pain are criminalized, and each infraction comes with a price tag in years of your life.

So this is what I have. My battle against hundreds of years of the systematic devaluing of human life is fought an hour at time - listening, caring, reminding my people of their goals and helping them to see the ways they can achieve them. I don’t know how much I believe in the efficacy of what I do - my hour against the world - but I believe in them. My clients. My people. My guys. And I love them dearly.

That love hurts today.

But it is that love which brought me back to work, after I spent the night before crying my eyes out for Sam. That love which makes me remember the hope he carried into our clinic, day after day. That love which keeps me believing.

It is an imperfect answer, but it is the best I have found.

(My client’s name was changed.)  

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

It's not about drugs

I don't write enough about my life in America. From looking at this blog you would think my life stops when I am not carrying a passport in my purse. But though this I do an injustice to the meaning I find in my own country, and especially the work I have done over the last several months. These days I joke my life is all about drugs. As part of my social work Masters degree program I work 3 days a week at an addition clinic set in a homeless shelter. I'm in a drug policy research group for class. I write this from a conference on opioid addiction, and I spend my down time reading about drugs and watching videos on YouTube and out drugs. But the more I learn about drugs the more I learn that it's not about drugs. The problems we ascribe to drugs stem from poverty.  From child abuse. From racism, and the systemic oppression which trails in its wake.

Did you know that 80-90% of drug users are not addicted?  Think about it. It makes sense. You know drug users -- maybe your college professor who slyly works LSD references into his lectures, or maybe your nephew who comes in from the backyard smelling a little odd. Maybe even your last three presidents are publicly known to have used drugs. We know that drugs, on their own, don't ruin people's lives and yet we treat them as if they had some inescapable gravity. Some malicious force of their own corrupting the good and the innocent, and catalyzing the bad and the lazy. Rather than the gravity of drugs leading to addiction I believe it is the gravity of pain which pulls people to use drugs destructively. One of my favorite quotes I have read on addiction comes from a Vancouver doctor who works with the homeless who writes “we should ask not why the addiction but why the pain?” I see this question etched into the lives of the men and women I work with,  who struggle with the pain of rejection, of loss, of abuse as children.  When we wage “war on drugs” we should be waging war on poverty,  on desperation,  on the forces and pressures which lead parents to beat or abandon their children. The good doctor says drugs are a replacement for the love his clients were never sure of as children -  as source of comfort they can be at last be sure will never abandon them.

Even in cases where drugs become destructive forces in people's lives I have come to see this damage stems as much from the way our society reviles drugs as from the drugs themselves. I wonder how many of my clients would still be pouring their pain into our cycle of plastic chairs if their lives hadn't been fragmented by a as series of imprisonments, if their chances for legal (much less meaningful) employment weren't destroyed by a criminal record or a urine test. Our society’s monolithic view of drugs fails to recognize gradients of use, and is only now beginning to recognize gradients of the drugs themselves. From the perspective of housing authorities, the homeless applicant who smokes Crack twice a month is just as ‘dirty’ as the one who shoots up twice a day. So I have the task of helping these men (primarily) wrestle with the impossible demands placed on them, as well as their own demons.

It is difficult to imagine a more difficult place to overcome addiction than a homeless shelter. Violence pools like a slick layer of oil on a dirty floor, tempers are sharp and minds and spirits are broken. The place mirrors prison life, and digs the trauma of it ever deeper.  And it is a place absolutely saturated with drugs. I cannot overstate how difficult and labyrinthine the systems which envelop the homeless are, how contradictory and obfuscated the demands are which are placed on the people least prepared to meet them.

But at the same time, I cannot overstate how much hope I’ve found in my clinic’s cinderblock walls. How much compassion and support the guys have for one another, and even for me, this clueless white intern young enough to be a daughter to most of them. What floors me is not the hardship or the failure or the relapses but the (many) times when one guy will tell another that they can do it. When someone reminds his friend of the things he has going for him, or of his qualities. When you see the other person believe it.

For as long as I have been able I have sought out the depths of suffering. But always, whether it is among the genocide survivors in Rwanda or in a refugee camp in Uganda, an orphanage in Cambodia or this shelter in New York City - what I have found is hope.  

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Last Lessons

On the verge of leaving Sri Lanka I am struck by how much Colombo has changed in the seven months I have lived here. It feels as if the city is growing beneath my feet – whenever I go down a road for the first time in a few weeks there is a new coffee shop, or an updated sleek storefront. The ultimate symbol of middle class opulence - Sri Lanka's first bubble tea shop – opened just last week. I've watched a crash of technology wash around the island as Uber competes with local taxi apps, food delivery services pop up, first world comforts at the touch of a button in this developing country. I wonder how sustainable this rush of 'modernity' is – will Sri Lanka trip over its own feet in it's rush to grow? Or is this the natural progression of optimism in a country where an international diaspora is streaming back, bringing with them seeds of business ideas from around the globe? More than this I wonder about what seems to me a growing chasm between the wealthy middle class and the poor – where the 500 rupees (about $3.50) I and the urban middle class slurp up in a Latte is more than many people make in a whole day of labor. While according to official statistics Sri Lanka is on par with America is terms of inequality I cannot square this figure with the reality I see here – that dinner for two and a couple drinks in a decent restaurant in Colombo can cost a month's earnings of poverty level wages. The dinners Jonathan and I treat ourselves with once a week or so will never once be within reach of a large section of the population in their entire lives.

This sense of unease at my own comparative wealth has helped to teach one of Sri Lanka's greatest lessons for me: humility. After my first two long stints abroad I thought I had few illusions left about my ability to 'save' or 'help' another society – I knew that my supposedly altruistic Fulbright grant would primarily benefit one person: me. I had no conception of how true this would be. In fact, last month I began to feel depressed, thinking that my grant was a failure because I have worked so little. Rather than wallow I reframed the past months in my mind from a time to work to a time to relax and explore, and then it became an incredible success, a paid vacation miraculously funded by your tax dollars. But really, it was that. In my seven months I ended up only teaching two months, and even then for only 10 hours a week. I thought I could fill my billowing spare time with an internship with the Center for Poverty Analysis, a think tank and research organization whose institutional stance on poverty as systemic injustice enchanted me. I found though, they were not especially interested in the vast skills that I have accrued in my 4 years of undergraduate study, which are namely: how to write a paper, and how to complain about the United Nations. My job there was essentially (excuse me, grandparents) 'Facebook bitch' – while it was interesting to absorb the knowledge floating through the organization, I hardly needed a four year degree to update their social media pages and edit the occasional article. I felt dwarfed by even the junior researchers, crippled by lack of linguistic and cultural competency. Even once I left CEPA to work in flood relief as an extra pair of hands, I felt helpless under these restrictions, unable to participate even in simple conversation about which student should receive which donated school bag.

Sri Lanka has confirmed what I already knew – that to do effective work somewhere you have to really know that place. It is the greatest of Western arrogance to think that we can sweep in from abroad and solve problems in a place where we can neither speak nor listen, and whose history and intricacies we do not know. I have since my teens wanted to work abroad, but I have waffled and wavered about where. I chased after the Middle East, but got discouraged by UVA's draconian Arabic program and the regional tendency to be treat white women with slightly less respect than a dog. I loved Cambodia, but found it over-saturated with all the other do-gooders who also loved Cambodia. I love Sri Lanka, but feel the marginal benefit of returning to work here would be low, given the breadth of the existing Sri Lankan intellectual class. I loved Rwanda, but feel cautious about working there given the Machiavellian machinations of the government to twist development to their own purposes. But one thing is clear: if I am to work abroad without hypocrisy I need to specialize. I need to learn a language. I need to learn a place. I hope that graduate school will give me an opportunity to dive deep, and until I do I will stay in my own country and use one skill that all this jetsetting has given me – overcoming culture shock – to help refugees and immigrants find their feet here. I am grateful for this time – though its main lesson may be that 4 years of writing papers in a library doesn't qualify you as 'skilled'.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Reading around the world: Bolivia and the impossible questions

My book this week “Whispering in the Giant's Ear” asks one of my fundamental questions about development: how can we improve living standards without environmental degradation? How can we minimize inequality without pushing people down the destructive path of overconsumption laid out by the flailing growth of the West. Some partial answers to these question may lie with indigenous peoples around the world, who often hold a less extractionary view of nature. Crushing poverty suits them no more than anyone else, but as shown in Bolivia, they may not be willing to destroy their forests for a job at Burger King.

The Bolivian forest

Bolivia is a country divided by history and ecology. An indigenous majority historically dominated economically and socially by a white minority descended from Spanish colonists, while the rich natural gas resources of the country are concentrated in a small area leading to fierce battles over how the wealth should be used. And this complicated web of wealth and identity is woven around one of the richest natural resources of our world – the Amazon rainforest. The lungs of our earth and home to 10% of the known species on our planet, this territory is a contested ground between loggers, ranchers, conservationists, and indigenous people for whom the forest is a last refuge of a dissipating way of life. William Powers lived in Bolivia a Development officer working in a Amazon-based advocacy organization focused on environmental protection and equipping the local people with the tools to protect their lands. His self-critical take on development and struggles with the ethics of compromise resonated deeply with me (do you take money for Environmental protection from BP to polish their corporate image? How can you help people without eroding their autonomy? Do you help build the paths of globalization to isolated people to increase their yearly income?) though like any good observer of the world, he left me with more questions than answers.

The Bolivian landscape is one of incredible diversity. As well as rainforests, there are vast and beautiful salt flats. 

In some ways the indigenous people he set out to help wanted the impossible: equitable distribution of natural resource wealth, and jobs without environmental degradation. This is a paradox in standard development discourse, but Powers questions the assumption that has long directed our steps towards poverty reduction: that Environmental protection is a 'full stomach problem'. That you have to bring people out of poverty before seeking to protect the world they inhabit. If this is so, he asks, why does Bolivia as one of the poorest countries in the world have some of the most progressive logging laws? From his friends in the indigenous community he learned that people and nature do not have to be competing forces – that people can find value in something beyond dollars. That livelihoods can be made among the trees, not on top of their graves. Of course, it is reductive to describe indigenous people as angels – there were many motivations for protecting land rights, not all of them environmentally minded. He struggled to leave the saints of his movement room to be human. But ultimately, it seems, he learned the power of people who learn their own influence. He lived in Bolivia while indigenous protests paralyzed the country behind road blocks, while people kept up to the protests despite bullets raining from helicopters, when finally they deposed the white kleptocracy which had held a stranglehold over the country for generations. Now, Bolivia has its first indigenous leader, Evo Morales. He too is human, not a saint, but his assent to the presidency represents a shift in Bolivia's history. That at last the indigenous people may again hold sway over the land that was once theirs. For all of our sakes, I hope they keep it.

Indigenous people's protests. 

Evo Morales, the first Indigenous president of Bolivia

For more thinking: 

For anyone interested in South America, Indigenous people's rights, or simply good cinema I thoroughly recommend 'Even the Rain', a deeply self-reflexive 'movie within a movie' set in Bolivia during indigenous uprising over the unfettered spread of profiteering capitalism in their country. It asks tremendously important questions about white saviorism and responsibility, as well as being just a fantastic film in general.

Reading about Bolivia paired well with the last book I finished, “This Changes Everything” Naomi Klein's magnum opus on capitalism and climate change. She, too, focuses on indigenous people's rights as key to protecting the environment. I think this book should be required reading for everyone who participates in the capitalist system, as it is raises important issues about how our economic system interacts with our environmental ones and our role in saving or destroying our world. 

And as always, BBC provides a more decent overview than I for the curious: 

Monday, May 30, 2016

Reading around the world: Kurdistan, the Country Which Doesn't Exist

Not what springs to mind when you think of Iraq, is it?

This week I explore the difficult history and present of a country which doesn't exist. Kurdistan lives in the hearts and dreams of 35 million people scattered across Northern Iraq, Southern Turkey, and small sections of Iran and Syria. It is the hope of a people who have fought for their existence for generations, and struggled to maintain their heritage in the face of cultural erasure in Turkey and systematic attempted genocide by Saddam Hussein. Who are the Kurds? For a people separated by so many borders this is a complicated question, but the easiest answer is any native speaker of Kurdish. The book I read, Invisible Nation, focused on the Kurdish population of Northern Iraq, a fiercely independent people whose culture has been shaped by decades of fighting for survival. While Kurds are primarily Muslim, they are far less conservative than their regional neighbors. They drink, women go unveiled, and sometimes even join men on the front lines. But perhaps most surprising to me: they love former president George W Bush.

A map of 'Kurdistan', showing areas where Kurds live in four countries. Iraq is the only one where their dreams of autonomy have come close to being realized. 

I am grateful to have found this book, because while I have lived with the Iraq war for almost as long as I can remember, my knowledge of this deeply complicated event is still colored by my simple child's understanding. Going to anti-war protests under my parents wing I learned the Iraq war was Bad, that there should be No Blood for Oil, and that Bush and his cronies invaded seeking only profit and nationalistic fervor. I I never learned about the Kurds, never heard that there was a whole population in Iraq who welcomed the American soldiers with songs and flowers, and fought alongside them.

The  now iconic image of Saddam's statue being pulled down. In the North, meanwhile, uncaptured by photographers, Kurds were gleefully pulling down their statues without the encouragement or assistance of the watching US soldiers shown here. 

To understand why the Kurds would so enthusiastic greet an invading force, we have to back up and examine their history. Perennial victims of a map, they have been consistently exploited for other's wars, strung along by their hope of a homeland. During the last throes of the Ottoman empire they were used by the Turks as executioners for over a Million Armenians, only to be later despised, never 'Turkish enough'. Iraqi Kurds joined forces with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, a disastrous alliance which gave Saddam Hussein an excuse to finally try to solve 'The Kurdish Problem'. In one of the world's most notorious use of Chemical weapons, Hussein poisoned towns full of civilians, and killed thousands in just days. During the first Bush presidency when Bush I invaded to defend Kuwait from being annexed by Iraq, the Kurds were heavily encouraged to rise up in order to create chaos, with heavily implied American support for an independent Kurdistan dangled as an incentive. When the brief war ended and to everyone's surprise, Saddam Hussein was still alive and still ruler of Iraq, this promise melted away. Retaliation, again, was harsh. The slaughter that followed was so terrible that when at last the American grew a conscience and attempted some humanitarian aid, mothers threw their babies onto departing helicopters, rather than let them die together. In the aftermath, the American military began to enforce a no fly zone around Kurdish Iraq, in effect creating the infant nation of Kurdistan.

This nation, having survived Hussein's ravages twice, did remarkably well under the patrol of American jets. While Iraq's currency spiraled into inflation, the Kurdish one stayed stable. The Kurds elected their own government, started reconstructing their bombed cities, and built universities. Things were looking good. They might even achieved independence at last had not political bickering divided the tiny country even further until another Bush came along to unite them.

The capital city of Erbil

Having lived at the edge of security, their existence barely tolerated by every nation surrounding them, when Washington began to growl threats against Saddam Hussein, they were among the old people in the world who cheered. They readily offered assistance in information and manpower. When the invasion finally came, Kurdish Pesh Murga fought alongside American soldiers, and the two armies developed a strong mutual respect. The Kurdish government, well practiced in running their section of Iraq, was eager to offer their experience to rebuild the country. It seemed on the edge of a happy ending for the Kurds, far from the horrific bloodbath I imagined as a child. But it was not to be.

During the initial successful invasion, Bush's envoys to Iraq were veterans of the area, people with strong connections to Iraqis and a good grasp of the complicated politics on the ground. Later though, Washington began to favor politics over pragmatism, and sent people for their loyalty to the White House, not their knowledge of the region. One particularly disastrous ambassador, Bremer, spent most of his career in Europe and then was given the unenviable task of running a country he knew nothing about. He made this harder upon himself by refusing to respect local customs, and horribly insulted every Iraqi politician (whose cooperation he desperately needed) by continually putting his feet up on his desk, soles pointed towards his supposed allies in one the worst insult possible in the Middle East. With clueless bureaucrats the helm, the power vacuum in Iraq quickly turned to a cyclone. Internal politics soured even further, and violence erupted around the country in opposition to the defunct occupation. While the Kurds still maintain a seat in government as the (primarily symbolic) President, they have mostly retreated back behind their invisible border as Iraq disintegrates to less than it was under a dictatorship. Kurdish independence remains at the forefront of everyone's thoughts, but the issue has once again been set aside to deal with yet another catastrophe: ISIS. America may find itself begging their help once again, as the Kurds are one of our best hopes against the rapid spread of ISIS, which they fight with characteristic bravery.  I find the Syrian war hopeless, a battle for the least awful outcome, with no hope for a good one. But after learning about the Kurdish people and their struggles and successes despite the odds I have one hope: that at last, somehow, from the rubble of the modern Middle East, Kurdistan will rise. 

Kurdish pop star Helly Luv sings anti-ISIS tunes, just miles from ISIS occupied territory. 

For more on Kurdistan:

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Anuradhapura: Memory and the Sacred City

A Carving of a elephant playing in the water

There is something magical to me about ancient places. It is a near human universal – this desire to step into the past, to stare at crumbling ruins and try to imagine life in them, to feel some kind of connection to a time we can barely imagine. Why we love this I don't know, but for me it is like walking through a world you can half create: imagine walls around empty foundations and pillars. Fill them with people. In some ways I enjoy the condition of wondering more than the condition of knowing, so my favorite site was the most ruined one. Half covered in grass and trees, sometimes walls emerging from the ground and sometimes only strange lumps of green hinting at the world beneath. Felt like a child again, imagining the kings and gods and ordinary people who filled these palaces and temples.

Jonathan and I navigated the sacred city of Anuradhpura on bikes, enjoying wet air cooled by rain, a world saturated in growth and green. We cycled aimlessly, pausing to admire vast stupas rising out of the fields, or herds of monkeys, goats, and water buffalo that wander through the ruins

These Langiers may have made my day with their acrobatics - we watched them tussle and turn backflips and swing on the wire in the background. 

A random, beautiful, Stupa. 

We visited a 3000 year old Bodhi tree, brought by the Buddha when he came to settle a dispute between Sri Lankan kings. It is the oldest tree in the world continuously cared for by humans. The air hummed with prayer as families in white sang and chanted, offering flowers or incense or plates of food.

The ancient Bodhi tree. 

The only experience comparable to the two great Stupas that I can think of is standing at the foot of the great pyramids – at the time they were built the only things in the world which rivaled them in size. At 70+ meters in size (only half their original height) and made up of 90 Million bricks the scale was astonishing. Barely believable, that such a thing could be made with human hands and sweat before mechanical aid. No words or pictures can describe the feeling of standing next to one – you feel minuscule.

Detail of a ladder going up the Stupa 

But, like everything in Sri Lanka, Anaradhapura has a political dimension as well. After the war the ex president Rajapaksa announced a plan to build yet another stupa in the middle of the sacred city – even taller than the ancient ones – to commemorate the bravery of the (Sinhalese) soldiers against the (Tamil) 'terrorists'. From what I could see of construction the project survived the regime change. It breaks my heart, but this beautiful place has become symbol of triumphant nationalism. Anaradhapura, is, in a way, a monument to nostalgia – to a time when the Sinhalese were the best architects and one of the wealthiest civilizations in the world. Yet, just like when Americans harken back to 'the good old days' (what good old days? The days of 'colored' water fountains? The days when women couldn't vote? The days of slavery?) nostalgia is dangerous. It is almost always built on a simplified, idealized past, and erases those who complicate the present. Not that progress is always positive, Anaradhapura demonstrates the need for a respectful but critical eye towards history, lest it become relegated to a prop for our stories about the present. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Batticaloa and the 'Real' Sri Lanka

This weekend Taryn and Jonathan and I traveled to Batticaloa, a town on the East Coast of Sri Lanka, almost directly on the opposite side of the country. Though it is less than 200 miles away as the crow flies, it is a journey of 10 hours by train, and when you step off dusty and sweat stained, you are in another world. In Batticaloa there is a different language, Tamil, and different faiths - Hinduism and Islam dominate here.There is little in Batti to attract the casual tourist, but we went to visit friends who have lived there as part of their research. Seeing the East through their eyes, mediated by their connections and observations, we saw into a part of Sri Lanka that is hidden from the cluttered streets and shining buildings of Colombo.

After seeing a Tamil action movie with our friends Kim and Sam, and several of Kim's friends.

Colombo is a place of new chances, a place where the enthusiastic proclamations from politicians carry weight, where optimism cautiously circulates around the tongues of an English speaking elite, who watch eagerly for reform, and the flood of Western dollars this will bring. In the East, difficulty crashes back around you – the reality that even when rhetoric changes, this country has lived 12 years under routine torture, kleptocracy, disappearances in the night, bombings. In this world life hovers hesitant, the boundaries between life and death are thin, easy to fall from one side to another by some twist of chance, the whim of some soldier. Even when inflammatory rhetoric cools, the bureaucrats, the police, the soldiers, the monsters these angry words created, still inhabit their positions of power. They will not change overnight at the visit of a United National Commissioner for Human Rights. For Easterners, change is not miraculous with the switch of a president. They see their land, their culture, their language still chipped away at by powerful people imported from the West. Kim tells us how the local Buddhist temple is almost always empty, but for Buddhist holidays buses of Sinhalese from the West are shipped in to worship there, while the Hindu temple next door blasts music in not exactly silent protest. Sam tells us about the bad old days when his Tamil friend's house was firebombed by a 'patriot', and white vans circled the town catching young men and boys, who never reappeared. New buildings are built, new stories are told, but these memories simmer under the surface of the town. The war lingers far closer than in Colombo.

Damage from the  2004 Tsunami 

In Colombo, Taryn and I often talk about how we sometimes feel we are not in Sri Lanka. My life is nestled in the crux of globalized anonymity of Sri Lanka – I live in the wealthiest area of Colombo, next to several embassies. You can go your whole day without hearing a word of Sinhala or Tamil: even in grocery stores people speak English to one another. Our own limited language skills mean we can't make very meaningful relationships outside the English speaking elite, with whom we converse about American politics and TV shows. When I first arrived in Sri Lanka I was primed for intense poverty by my recent experiences in Cambodia and Rwanda, and it took me several weeks to recognize that the facelessly globalized places around Colombo, the business hotels, restaurants serving imitation European food, and Starbucks clone cafes, are primarily inhabited and own by Sri Lankans. They are a part of Sri Lanka too. It might be satisfying to a Westerner to go abroad and find something different and exotic, but who am I to admonish Sri Lankans for not being Sri Lankan enough, to be disappointed in their love of McDonald’s and Pizza hut? This, too, is Sri Lanka.

So I learn to recognize the many worlds contained in this small island, none more 'legitimate' than any other. Is Shakespeare in the Park in Colombo any less 'Sri Lankan' than helping Kim's host sister cook Dhal? Is the hope in Colombo any more 'real' than the fear and resentment in the East? I have to say no, but the danger comes in believing Sri Lanka is limited to one sphere or another. Dangerous to forget that the experience I have had, while it may be a Sri Lankan one, is limited to a tiny minority of the Sri Lankan population. One of the great challenges Sri Lanka faces is the reconciliation of these worlds. And what deserves more priority: the hope for a new future or the need to recognize a horrific past? How can memory be honored without dredging up old fears and hatred? How can you move forward without erasure?

No easy solutions to these questions – they have circled through my mind without settling since leaving the East . One method of reconciling these worlds is addressing the economic disparities between the Western Province and... well, anywhere else in Sri Lanka. It is letting people return to the lands and lives they inhabited before the war. It is improving and investing in rural schools. It is judicious development based on maximizing impact for the people, not the poorly placed and badly designed ego projects of the previous regime. I see these changes moving slowly forward, but I am stumped by the question of memory. How do you memorialize without triumphalism or sensationalizing? I have traveled in the wake of genocide enough to know that the traditional approach – gather bones and stack them high, might impress some NGOs into shelling out some dollars, but the unceremonious and anonymous display of the bits of their loved ones is only hurtful to the survivors. How can you honor the dead and respect the living?

Still circling.  

A Batticaloa Sunset