Tuesday, October 19, 2010

1st of 3 (or maybe 4?) -part camp series

I’m still involved with individuals, groups and organizations on the refugee camp – some inspire me and leave me standing in admiration of some wonderful people who I’ve known for the past 6 years. Some, often due to outside circumstances, organizations and individuals who have a say over situations and lives on the camp, leave me frustrated and pissed off. At other times, due to cultural attitudes towards people with disabilities, I find myself walking away from families, feeling thoroughly annoyed with the responses given and apathy shown towards their children with disabilities. Regularly I find myself reflecting on my role here, on the role of most “relief” agencies, and on the benefits/harm of relief money sent “for the needy”. Will I get into that in this blog entry? Hmmmm. The electricity just went out (again, ai yai yai – it’s off more than it’s on these days, which in the past wouldn’t have mattered, but these days, with the dependency that’s been created for all our electronic devices – computers for record keeping and most other administrative work and communication (. . . and and and) and cell phones especially – it makes it extremely difficult to get things done when the electricity is off. Office days are planned, but the electricity goes off that day so nothing can be done and it’s too late to make other plans/arrangements. And/Or, the electricity is off for a few days in a row, and all cell phones die.) so, even if I do get into it in this blog entry, it’ll have to wait until the electricity goes on again and I have a chance to continue. Ugggh.



Electricity is back on, so I continue.

When I was involved with life on the camp on a daily basis, fatigue and extreme, out-of-control emotions were regular parts of my life. I remember a good friend giving me a DVD of Bridges of Madison County and in the first 5 minutes tears were already rolling down my face. My friend was confused – why was I already crying – nothing emotional had happened. And yet, in my mind, it had – somehow maybe I knew what was intended from the movie (tearjerker) or I already figured the direction it was going to go and end up – I don’t know. But I cried in those first few minutes and experienced regular tear showers for the next 2 or so hours. When alone during those years on the camp, at the end of the day, thinking about stuff, emotions were running high and tears were often threatening, sometimes falling.

I had a flashback to those days just a couple of weeks ago.

Last year, when I was moved down to Accra, I was asked to follow up with the SMA Technical and Vocational Training Center (SMATVTC) in Buduburam. [Here's a brief history of the SMATVTC (with a few editorial comments): It was begun in 2002 (or maybe 2001 or 2003). In 2005, several staff members and one of the founding lay missionaries went to Liberia to open a branch of the school there. About 1 ½ years ago half of the remaining staff also went back to Liberia. Nine of the original staff people chose to stay behind, believing the school could – and should - continue, that there was still a need for it and students would come. Sadly, that’s not what happened. UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) also opened a vocational school – and . . . it was free. Ah, what a great way to build up people’s dignity and self-respect – give them a sense that they can’t earn something on their own – that they need yet another handout. And what a way to build up community by driving out other organizations that are offering similar services by offering these things for free. How messed up is that?]

So – for the past year I’ve been working with the vocational school. It’s maybe 5% – 10% of what I do – and yet it takes up a disproportionate amount of heart-space. I’ve known the people who are still there since I began on the camp in 2004 – they literally laid the foundation for the school. They are among the people who built it up from the ground. And they have stood by it – they believed in its relevancy and its importance to life on the camp and to building up individuals. And I have an incredible amount of respect for these people who have stuck with it.

I was asked by SMA to become involved and see how best to continue what lay missionaries before me had started. But – in addition to difficulties getting students due to the free vocational school, problems related to the land also entered the picture. And to be frank, I can’t even begin to explain a lot of this stuff – the land belongs to the Archdiocese, but the buildings and all other resources still housed in these facilities belongs to SMA. Something like that anyway.

I’m more concerned about these 9 people. They have been dedicated to the school and to the Liberian community. And when I arrived a year ago, it was already being discussed what to do with the school. The person assigned to this task was extremely busy with his responsibilities – he was an SMA priest working on the other side of the world from the camp and in reality didn’t have much time to dedicate to the situation. So I came in. (In a way there’s not that much choice sometimes in what we get involved with as missionaries. A few years ago the Regional Superior – he’s our local bossman – said something jokingly to me and I told him that I wouldn’t do whatever it was. He told me that I’d signed something about obedience to him. And I told him something along the lines of: “Hell no. I would never have signed anything like that.” When I got back home and dug out my contract, dusted it off, removed the gecko and frog droppings, I found that in fact I had signed something like that. Yikes. What was I thinking? I guess I’m just too trusting about some things (even though in other things I have HUGE trust issues – a topic for another blog entry, which – trust me – will never happen). I might have read and been aware of the obedience part but I never suspected I’d be asked to do something totally wrong or, more accurately, totally against what I believe. I’m not saying that’s what happens – I’m just saying that I guess I also believed that the obedience meant that we’d have dialogue. If I’d been less naïve I’d have realized that obedience and dialogue are not exactly synonymous. Fortunately, though, this has never been an issue - and, in fact, dialogue does take place and blind obedience isn't what's expected.) Anyway – this seemed clear enough – meet with the staff that remained and figure out the future of the SMATVTC. The staff and I discussed their goals for the school and for themselves – they sincerely wanted it to keep running – but also were coming to accept the reality that this was a major struggle when there was free training being offered elsewhere. Students weren’t coming to register.

Hoy. What to do. The staff wanted the school to become registered and to fall under the Ghanaian system. They looked into it and found out details, and suggested offering scholarships to students – I forget the exact numbers, but the numbers got whittled down to maybe 150 students (the school offered training in: auto mechanics, tailoring, plumbing, drafting, electrical engineering, construction/masonry, IT, soap making, and more). A large sum of money was needed for this – I forget exactly, but want to say around $15,000 (this was after much cutting out of things - some materials needed to be replaced because when the other groups went back to Liberia they needed to take supplies with them - so along with the scholarships was a list of needs to build the school up a bit, again). And I thought, "wow – these people are crazy amazing – they’re so dedicated to this project – they want scholarships to be offered to students, get a student population present, and then be able to call in the officials to observe what is going on and then for these Ghanaian officials to accept the school as a valid vocational training center."

Other things were going on, though. The Archdiocese wanted the land. Other plans were in the making. The Regional at the time suggested instead of offering scholarships, it could be more realistic - and cheaper - to offer “resettlement packages” to the 9 staff members who remained – giving them a chance to have something to return to Liberia with and still hold up their heads in justified pride for their accomplishments.

The staff met on their own, discussed things, and realized the future of the school was limited as long as they weren’t able to register and as long as cheaper/free options were available nearby.

I want to skip through all the drama, because I see that I’m now on page 3 of a Word document.

I feel I’ve been the go-between for all that’s been going on. I’ve been meeting with these people who I respect immensely and have known for over 6 years. And I feel that we’ve been getting this non-stop run-around. I’m going back and forth. The SMATVTC staff jumps and responds to requests that are coming for so many things – inventories, assessments of assets, more inventories, proposals, blah blah blah. I take these where they need to go. Promises are made, suggestions are . . . uh, suggested – and sometimes for good reasons and other times no reason at all – delays arrive, I feel like runarounds are presented, and frustration (for me and the staff and others involved with this game being played at a higher level, beyond the pawns on the ground) abounds.

I feel like an ass. The staff has trusted me, and I’m the one who passes the constant delay messages onto them, the constant requests for additional information or different information. I thought this should be a quickly resolved thing – and yet it goes on . . . and on and on and on.

A little over a week ago I got a call from the Archdiocesan go-between that some of the classrooms were needed for something and we need to do an immediate inventory of what was there. And I’m so very tired of playing the “JUMP!” and “how high, kind sir?” game. So I didn’t play. I pissed off some of the other players.

After shouting at (ok, maybe not shouting, but just being very abrupt with) the person I was talking to, finally saying that my phone units were almost gone (because they were and I had just added Ghc 5.00!!, which means nothing to most people who are reading this), I cut the phone and told the people I was with (we were in the process of filming a sort of documentary for the Hope for Life project to be used in Holland and maybe other places for fundraising efforts – and our days were packed solid) who had just returned to where I was (they left me to do some filming when I had the call) that I really needed some #%*()$&@)$(*&# time and I was ($%&*#_$& so $(#)@&%@$#) hungry, thirsty and pissed off and blah blah blah. They had patience with me. I ate some grilled plantain and peanuts, and drank some water in silence for my late lunch, and we moved on – I was fine – it wasn’t related to the moment that I needed to be in.

Early the next week, the camera people agreed to taking a little detour from our schedule so we could stop by the camp and I could meet with the staff of the SMATVTC. The staff told me they did what was needed. They trusted me. They’ve been with me and they knew me and would do what was needed. Oh my goodness. These people whose lives have been played with for over a year, to whom I’ve been passing on promises and hope that their suggestions would be heard and so on – and yet it’s dragged on and on with more and more painful delays – they still trusted me? How the hell? The film people were with me as we drove away from the camp (the camp wasn’t a part of the documentary). I tried to explain a little of what was going on – but couldn’t.

The flashback. Tears wanted to come. They are coming now as I write about it. I really hate being in this position. I hate feeling like I’m being used in this way. Yet that’s where I am. I hate playing with people’s lives – not even knowing I’m a pawn in that game because I’m too stupidly naive. I really hate it. And I’m trying to get out of it – which isn’t fair to the guy I’m trying to pass it off to, or to the staff of the SMATVTC who can't just pass it off and run away (so, I probably won't pass it off entirely). I have a fear that this will end with these amazing and dedicated people getting absolutely nothing to show for their commitment. They will be left on the camp or go back to Liberia with nothing for all their years of devotion to the SMATVTC and to the Liberian community on the camp. I hate that I’ve been a part of this dehumanizing process.

Anyway – this is already incredibly long – and I have some other stories I wanted to tell from the camp – but . . . I guess now’s not the time. I also wanted to include some photos, but my camera battery was dead the last time I went and met with the staff (that electricity problem mentioned above). But – I have a few photos for the next story about an amazing woman I’ve been working with while involved with people with disabilities on the camp - hopefully a less frustrating story than this one.


At 9:38 AM, Anonymous Samuel W. Jacobs said...

So Sad to hear about the school Steve. I was there and saw the work all of you put into getting the school to where is was before I left Ghana. I don't think you were ever a part of dehumanizing anyone in this; there were bigger players than you in the game that control the play.
Keep strong and think of other great project that you have worked on or people you have worked with.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous SEBASTIEN N. said...

hello steve, I am affected by the story. I know your work an it is difficult to hear your feeling of paticpate of dehumanizing system. when i finish to read your note, i would like to be with you to eat fired rice and drink star beer to discus more...je t'envoie beaucoup de courage de la france... sebastien from France

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Ineke said...

Hi Steve,
You sound so hugely frustrated and there is all the reason in the world to be angry. Reading your blog I also understand why we don't hear from you, you probably have no energy left to write. Expect a long letter soon and just feel terrible about tall this, for it IS terrible. Love, Ineke

At 5:21 PM, Blogger MJ said...

I'm so sorry to see this Steve--I know how much of yourself has gone into this and how much it means to you. I can see your happiness when someone you were helping there succeeds and has a sense of accomplishment in doing so. On a little humorous note here, having known you all your life, I also find it very very hard to believe that you signed a note of obedience to anyone

At 7:32 AM, Anonymous Goedie said...

thank you so much Steve for writing this with facts and feelings.
I know so well the frustration, the doing everything you can and then the so disappointing outcome that unfolds after long periods and phases of hope.
What remains though, at least that s what I have experienced it s the contact one has with people. Somehow, people seem to know, they recognize what effort and hope has been put into getting a situation rolling. Independently of the outcome. They have seen this in you, and that is what gives them value Steve. A program, a better school will give them the outside value, but on the inside, it can only come from somewhere else: the inside. That s where you are.
That s who you are. That s where you act.
I wish you to put all this emotional luggage down. Get along with it. Amazing surprises always come up. You know it.
Be well,
love Goedie

At 7:33 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Steve, I know you working so hard at this school and al the other people you give so many. Feel sorry for that. I can feel your tears when I read the story.
love creature


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