Monday, April 16, 2012

Why this Blog is called "Pensive Rambling Man"

Well, mostly, because if you know me well, you know I'm a rambler. Give me a soapbox and I will boringly entertain the masses ad nauseum. But to be an effective rambler, one must also be pensive. A thoughtfulness and desire to deliberately observe the world from the viewpoint of the proverbial fly on the wall is paramount to the success of a pensive rambler.

That said, I went on this trip to not just help others, explore the world, look for some semblance of a solution to the many problems in my home city of Chicago, and eat mangos....I also came to have some much needed alone time. I've spent the past 3+years working at a non-profit in North Lawndale: fundraising, marketing, running and evaluating programs, and mentoring dozens of kids who are growing up in the same rough neighborhood I did. Ive also spent the last 20 years (yea, 20 years) living in the middle of many worlds. I find myself to be a broker of people and situations, or a middleman if you wanna use bad language. I have friends from every income bracket, social background, racial group, and geographic location one could dream of. And somehow, I can blend in with any of them, even if they would NEVER meet of their own accord. Thus, I broker. I create situations where they would meet, if only to show each other that their lives have been built upon assumptions of the "others" and that the world is a better place not only if you love people, but if you ACT on that premise.

So, I bring the hood (North Lawndale) to Oz (Lincoln Park). And I bring Oz to the hood. I call Lincoln Park Oz in honor of my mentor, Mike, who explained to me while I was living there for 6 years how atypical and unrealistic my life in Lincoln Park was in comparison  to 90% of the rest of the world. I call North Lawndale "the hood" because that's what every person I know calls it; so just like Obama says despite his bi-racial background, the world SEES him as a black man so that's what he considers himself. I dont believe that we are the sole creators of our reality, but because we live in a world of many people, they also have a role in forming and defining our reality.

This "brokering" led me to a lifestyle of being the horrible messenger (who is often shot), and the need to get away from it all. One sees far too much of life from the middle. I think of it as standing in an art gallery, with people standing all around, looking at various masterpieces. Often, they are too close to really see what the painting is, and even if you told them, because they have always stood that close, it is their reality and they will fight to keep their unfortunate distance because to move away from it would mean reforming everything they believe and have built up over their lifetime. Our actions are based off of perception, so to change our actions, we must change what we see...or as i am coming to find, HOW we see. From my vantage point, I can see them all and what they are looking at. Unfortunately, I often see problems. And nobody wants to hear a message that they are doing something wrong, including myself sometimes. That's why the books I am reading are so important to my development as a person.

I was blessed to be given a Kindle to borrow on this trip. I filled it with all the fancy titles I've heard of, and mused about all the books I wanted to read but just never had the time or moment of clarity to give them their due justice. Well, Kololo gave this to me.

Over the course of three weeks I devoted about 3-4 hours a day to reading. I downloaded a slew of history, political science, African American classics, and other nonfiction books when I left Chicago. On my list for Kololo were:
  1. "The New Jim Crow: The Mass Incarceration of the African American Male" by Michelle Alexander. 
  2. "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau 
  3. "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau
  4. "The Prince" by Nicholi Machiavelli 
  5. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  6. The Bible. 
I didn't get to "The Prince" and only got through some of "Walden" out there, but managed to finish all the rest of the books, including many of the prominent passages I've wanted to read more of in the Bible. 

"The New Jim Crow" rocked my world. It was nothing new to me, but it was the comprehensive detailing of a fight I have spoken to many of my friends about as the skeleton in my closet that darkens every good moment of my life. This book put a light on the "ghost" I have spoken about fighting for the past 5 years. Over the course of several hundred pages, Mrs. Alexander details the systematic and horrible way the American democracy has created a new, and highly effective caste system comprised solely of black males. I, and most black people I know, have always known about the existence of this system, and our families and friends are all touched by our nation's deliberate actions from the top of our country, and the pervasive ignorance of the common people. I have never seen the issue put into such words, however, that I feel it could be fully understood by people who are not living the nightmare. This is a must read. 

"Civil Disobedience" started off as a book I was ready to throw out , mostly due to my dislike for Mr. Thoreau's light and fanciful tone with a serious issue, but his argument won my heart. I feel we have many similarities in our philosophies, though he is certainly willing to go further than I to maintain justice and keep his moral compass straight. If you've never known what you had to fight for, this is a book to get you thinking. This book details why I know my life will be a tough one, because like Thoreau, I refuse to not confront ignorance and injustice when I am privy to it. 

"Uncle Toms Cabin" was a book that actually brought me to tears. It is over a hundred years old, and I've wanted to read it for years, but somehow, I had to come to an African jungle to finally sit down and read it. This book, an echo of the movie "Clash" that came out a few years ago about the lives of numerous people all caught in the inextricable web of life. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was NOT what I thought it would be. I thought it would be about the metaphorical "house negro" making life miserable for all the field negroes in the pre-antebellum southern states of the US, and how eventually all his deeds caught up with him. Instead, poignant arguments against slavery, and the deeper issue of human respect are brought to light in a tear-jerking manner that hit a little too close to home for this descendant of slaves. When I came to Africa for the first time, I went to Ghana, and my mentor Mike had me go to Cape old slave castle that still had blood on its dungeon walls, and smelled of something horrid. He had me walk through the "Door of NO Return": a door that thousands of people who looked like me went through as they were catapulted into the triangle trade that dominated world trade for 400 years. I walked back...I returned. My father reminded me that I was the first Ramey man to return to Africa since our people were brought to the US. Its a harrowing feelings, and I cant say my shoulders don't feel the heavy weight of legacy every time I remember that moment. The plight of those who love people, and fight with that love is a terrible and wonderful story. I saw so many people I know today represented in this book. Its a VERY tough read, but well worth it. 

"The Bible" is something that people either love or hate. I happen to love it, but I am also wary of it. It represents the central issue to my life: When confronted with truth, you either adapt to it, or live as a hypocrite. It is tough to live up to its standards, but my friends, my grandmother, and my mentors all make sure that I am voraciously in search of a life dedicated to truth, love, and a search for God. This trip has been tough with that last one. There is little surrounding me that seems like it is in search of Him, so I realize that my spiritual journey will be a singular one here in Ethiopia. My grandmother gave me several great passages to start with, and my wonderful friend Randy sends me a daily devotional by email. This book has left the greatest impression on me, and shows me how much work is yet to be done. 

These books are impossible to walk away from without wanting to take up a baton, a torch, a pen or a gun and going out into the world to fight. Either fight or ramble. This blog is the verbal representation of my search for understanding in this world, and may take the form of a ramble. My life, I hope, is the physical representation of all of the ideas, people, events, and atrocities that spur this lanky guy to action. I came to Ethiopia to escape the cloud of things that were blurring my view, invest in the lives of others, and figure some things out about myself that NEED to change if I am to be the man I know I need to be to do the things that I feel NEED to be done. 

We cant be a better person tomorrow until we are disgusted with who we are today. Reading helps to change perception. When that is changed, you ACT differently. 

With that said, ramble on!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jungle Living

My job in Kololo is pretty simple: immerse myself in the work the Tesfa and Ethiopia Reads are doing to build schools in the Kembata region of Ethiopia and survive while doing it. I am immersing myself so that I can eventually create a captivating and motivating video and project resume for their efforts here in Ethiopia, to drum up support to finish 3 more schools. To immerse myself, I spent my first week working with the crew. This entailed:

  1. Hauling boulders: using either a barillo (a sort of all-purpose carrying tool made of two long wooden sticks with a flat surface nailed in between to rest some object(s) on top of the surface), or by hoisting a rock on my shoulder and scurrying it over to the school building. We hauled boulders because there is no heavy machinery out here, and we needed to create a floor for the school rooms, so each stone (easily over 20,000 in total) had to be carried individually by a worker/volunteer. The drop site where the trucks left the boulders was on the top of the hill the school sat on, and we would carry them down to either of the three buildings. This lead to very dusty clothing, sweaty faces, strained muscles, and tired knees each day.
  2. Breaking rock: using makeshift hammers, we break down the hauled rocks into tinier pieces to create a more level surface. We had to raise the mud floor 30cm, so this meant bringing in enough large boulders and breaking them down to create a level plane covering a roughly 12'x15' room 30cm deep in rock.
  3. Digging: We had to dig down to create a level surface to lay the boulders. This was the toughest part since the ground was dry, making it very difficult to rip it up. This is how you build up them there arm muscles!
  4. An excavated room before boulders are brought in.
  5. Loafing: I'm a lazy American. I figured I should spend at least half the day in my hammock back at the hut reading and broadening my worldview through literature :)
The work is tough, for sure. And I realized after the second day of hauling rocks that I was perhaps not being considerate of the local workers. The guys who would carry the other end of the barillo with me often ended up carrying the biggest rocks, since I put into the contraption what I could carry, not factoring in that I was about twice the size of every person there. But they were quick to forgive, and everyone was always in good spirits. 

I usually spent the second half of the day rocking in my WONDERFUL hammock. Its a ENO Doublenest hammock, so its made to fit two people...or this leviathan who loved to curl the sides up so no flies would get in, put on some Jack Johnson music and read for a few hours while munching on a mango or a couple local cookies. 

As for food: we eat mostly the same thing each day:
  • Breakfast consists of a few avocados smothered in the Cholula hot sauce I brought for Cien, a mango or two, and maybe a few scrambled eggs and dabo (bread). Top it off with a glass of tea and we're off to work. This is typical if we dont have leftovers from the previous night  (which I don't entirely trust since they are just sitting out on the table all night where the roaches and ants commune and plan their big attack on the fruit basket, which is thwarted by the courageous Lt. Dan).
  • Lunch is simple: mangos and avocados and lots of water. 
  • Dinner is usually pretty fancy: It includes cooked food like rice or gomen (what we would call "Greens") or potatoes, bread or injera (the local crepe like, sourdough tasting bread that I dont really like), and tea. 
You can only eat so many avocados before you flip out. I did eventually, especially when the Cholula ran out and I tried to pour water in the little bottle to make it go further. This was a horrible substitute. You can only have so many bananas, and so many mangos before you go mad. 

This lead to an interesting investment over the course of two events involving our only episodes of meat consumption. One day where I snapped, which involved Doro (chicken), and one involving a homemade stove that nearly killed me from smoke inhalation and a bag (yes a bag) of beef. To be continued.....

My main man Ermeus hauling a boulder on a barillo.

A quarter finished!

Andiso moving rocks around
I do my part too!
A lot of the ladies did mud work 

Temescan hauling a massive rock to lay it on the barillo.

Ethiopia Reads 2012 Book Week Celebration Video