Monday, September 21, 2015

#147: The heart of the story

Dear all,
It's been a struggle to talk about my experience in Northern Uganda, because there is so much to say, and it's hard to even know where to start.  I've tried to include the heart of the story below.  If you would like to hear more, please let me know.
How strange to arrive back from worlds away, not only in a different time zone, but a different season.  It's taken a while to get adjusted, but I'm getting back on my feet , picking up the threads of life at home, glad to be back to these loved ones, this work, these opportunities.

The heart of the story

Our three weeks in Northern Uganda were full: we supported a dear friend and the large primary school that she runs, took her on a brief trip to a game park, led a five-day peer counseling workshop, and consulted widely about youth employment.  Of course I’ve written tons in the process:  twenty vignettes of people and situations I came across there, a whole series of Haiku on a trip through the countryside, interviews with ten people who were at our workshop, a concept for a new crafts/trade program at the school, reports on what we did.  But what is the heart of my story?

This is a question that has particular resonance for me from our time in Africa.  Many of the people we met were master storytellers.  They could go on for a very long time describing the intricacies of a family conflict or a land dispute, and I would listen as best I could, all the while struggling, in the midst of all that vivid detail, to find the heart of the story.  One of the themes of my workshop experience was helping people get to that heart.
As I reflect, I believe mine has to do with honoring human connection and resilience.  I could tell stories of poverty and horror, but they are not at my story’s heart.  I think of Charles, who is so kind and playful with the shy pre-teen girls even as he worries about school fees for his own; of the old guard at the school who borrowed my glasses to read his Bible; of Felix and his three boys, and how we played and laughed in a living room so small there was barely room for our legs between the couch and chair; of Robin, recently graduated and pursuing a dream of an NGO to support farmers; of Alfred and Naume and the beautiful duets they sang; of Omona, a young man with deep knowledge and pride in his clan’s stories and traditions; of how everyone knows the local tribal dances and loves the opportunity to dance them together.

I think of the quiet motorcycle taxi driver who turned out to know six languages; of Oloya who has been disappointed by people many times, but loves caring for the animals; of Christopher, burdened with tragedy but enormously kind, whose skills as a counselor grew so much in the course of a week; of Emmanuel, damaged as a child soldier, who is now planting flowers at the edge of his farm plots; of Jenefer, a feisty feminist and now young mother, who gathers groups to listen to each other wherever she goes; of shy little Sheila, and how she confided in me about her nightmares; of Agnes, who started a wedding and funeral catering business in her farmers cooperative; of Achen and her irrepressible spirit, undaunted by a hard new marriage; of Abitimo, getting the worried test-takers and their parents to laugh and relax a little.

The heart of my story also has to do with the advice of theologian Walter Wink:  to attend to listening for what is ours to do in this world, then to do just that—no less and no more—and wait in modest confidence for a miracle.
The obstacles can seem insurmountable.  What about privilege?  How do you show yourself fully in a relationship where you carry all the privilege of wealth, power and opportunity without burdening the other person with the weight of your discomfort? 

What about energy? I have grieved to see the tall bags of charcoal standing by the roadside waiting to be picked up and trucked south to the big city, knowing that with each bag of charcoal there are fewer trees.  But when someone suggested that ethanol imported from Brazil to Kampala would be a cleaner fuel, I wondered at the cost/benefits, and grieved for the potential loss of livelihood in the north.

What about education?  Trying to pay school fees, in a country where public education is so under-resourced as to be almost valueless, and where most people survive on subsistence agriculture and the informal economy, is a constant struggle.  Worse, with so many people pinning their hopes for the future on education in a country with so few jobs, those degrees, which are won at such cost and sacrifice, keep declining in value.

Some problems are not mine to solve.  I can’t fix the lives of other people or other countries.  But I can do my share.  I can grieve.  I can love.  I can pay attention, be as present as I know how, and be alert for my best role in each new moment—as both giver and receiver, in ways both large and small.  When I do this, I can be sure that there will be ripples I won’t see, and I can steadfastly expect a miracle.

Somehow being in an environment so very different from where I usually spend my days helped me focus on this intention. Yet, as I reflect on it, this is the way I would choose to live all the time.

Imagine:  A new economy is possible!

Control of corporate influence

In 2005 the World Health Organization (WHO) passed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, commonly called the Tobacco Treaty. It is the first-ever public health and corporate accountability treaty. The treaty creates an internationally coordinated response to the tobacco epidemic, encouraging governments to raise taxes or prices to discourage tobacco use, put prominent warnings on tobacco packages, ban tobacco advertising and sponsorship and more.

Article 5.3 of the Tobacco Treaty enshrines in international law the principle that the tobacco industry has no role in public policy: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, [governments] shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”

The article has allowed dozens of countries to implement much stricter policies than would have been possible with the presence of Big Tobacco in policy debates. Imagine if the international climate talks were able to take place without the heavy presence of fossil fuel corporations, or if health care policy could be created without Big Pharma.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently (in addition to all the people we met in Northern Uganda):

A law passed this spring, requiring new buildings in the commercial zones of France to have either solar panels or green roofs.  Similar green-roof bylaws exist in various cities around the world, including Tokyo, Toronto, Copenhagen, and Zurich.

The Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, which includes 28 U.S. cities, including Philadelphia Los Angeles and Houston, and is complemented at the international level by the Compact of Mayors, all committed to reducing local greenhouse gas emissions, and enhancing resilience to climate change.

More resources

Resource from my friend Daniel Hunter, Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow; An Organizing Guide.

Recent posts on other web/blog sites:

In, Pamela Haines locates her family's homey DIY celebrations on a class spectrum of different connections to upward mobility.


Muscle Building for Peace and Justice; a Non-Violent Workout Routine for the 21st Century--an integration of much of my experience and thinking over the years:  (or just google the title), a website that I've contributed to often (check the archives), a home for all the parenting writing I've done over the past 20 years.  NOTE THE NEW URL. START: a way to study and work together with others to create a better world.

For earlier columns, go to  I'm currently posting at