Other Stories.

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Back online almost a year later.

It’s strange to think nearly a year ago we were traipsing across the foho on the outskirts of Dili, following the Stations of the Cross. Thousands of us beneath the shifting light of the heavy leaf and the damp undergrowth. The only sound, the round robin of prayer thrown back and forth between groups of youths along the mountainside.

A lot has happened since then. I have wrapped up my assignment and the boy and I did a trip to Europe over the Christmas break. I was so excited to be somewhere completely new. That thrill of not knowing what to expect and also to see the expected. London was magical, Paris breathtaking, Barcelona inspiring and Rome just ahhhh. The tropical half isle has permanently set my body temperature at about 33 celsius and it was a shock to be in temps that were close to zero. Though, Winters are beautiful and I have missed them. Even now thinking of those shorter days in Sydney when the coats get dusted off and the boots go on for the first time. Pockets thrust deep in pockets and the trees turning.

Timor has it’s seasons too and they are surprisingly discernible. The rainy and the dry, but also a windy season and a respite season where the mornings and evenings are cool, and we pull out the heavier tais to keep us warm at night. Small but significant shifts that let you know the Earth is still turning.

Part of the reason this blog got put aside for a while was that I was thundering through my Masters Thesis. I finished it on a drizzly afternoon in Ubud, Bali in June last year. It was one of the largest pieces of writing I have ever completed and the bliss was astonishing. Now that I know how to structure a large piece of writing, and buoyed by my enthusiasm, I began making big plans for regular writing. Short stories, travelogue essays, critical essays on development. A larger piece like a novel…

Instead, as the habit of writing ended, the same old fears and doubts came in and took it’s place and silenced me into writing nothing. Not even this simple blog. Many of my doubts are about what to write and whether anything I write will be worth reading.

There are the personal anxieties about being good enough. A therapist I saw once during university said the number of young women that expressed ‘not being good enough’ as the root of their procrastination, avoidance, destructive behavior was leading her to think it needed a diagnostic classification. That’s quite likely part of it. But it was also the kind of young woman I was-a mixed race, white-passing Muslim woman of color. Later on when I knew what identity politics (screw you) were, when I found literature and pockets of thought that answered so many of the questions were the irritations and dead-ends I found myself in able to be unpacked. When the spotlight was on the audience who you wanted to be good enough for.

There are the other socio political anxieties. The appalling realization of the circumstances of Australian history and 200 hundred years of institutionalized racism experienced by Indigenous people. Seeing it all differently, the backyard, the bush, the creek, the foundations of the house you played underneath on hot summer days.  A contemporary government of both sides that fell over each other to find a morally void solution to the humanitarian crisis of refugees. A post 9-11 society where I experienced the world shift. A terrible moment between a held breath and an exhalation where my friendships, the society I lived in, the communities that grew me up become cautious and fractured. To hesitate before saying it was Eid. To seize up whenever Islam or Muslims were mentioned. To cringe and pray the dude wasn’t brown whenever a criminal act made a headline. Down conversational roads with friends that left me unsettled and alone with that rancid exhalation now come between us. The world had changed and I was expected to explain it and soothe that change for them.

The rise of Islamophobia contributes to an underlying nausea, a motion sickness I feel every day. On the worst days the anger and the hammering defensiveness render me mute. My fingers haven’t a tethered word in them. My voice is all anger and rage and I do not play the good Moderate Muslim role well. I am an angry brown woman and we’re a post-racial society now so there’s no place for you, Harpie.

‘There’s no such thing as Islamophobia.’ Cried the educated bigot.

‘Islam is not a race.’ Said the smug Councillor.

‘Muslims don’t win Nobel Prizes.’ Crowed the atheist.

They just invented soap and all.

On other days I can tinker with my thoughts. Push back with some grounded words. Those are good days. Finding yourself amongst some written words. Fist pumping pushing back against the tide of the grand narrative.

Other days I go back to the giants and giantesses who prop me up a little. The different feminisms that talk about the things you saw your mother, your brother, the brown men and women in your and other brown and black communities go through that had nothing to do with glass ceilings and everything to do with inequality.

In the time I’ve been away from this blog, two incredible books have entered the Australian literary scene. Omar Musas’s ‘Here Come the Dogs’ and recently the Stella prize nominated ‘Foreign Soil’ by Maxine Beneba Clarke. For other writers of color or aspiring writers of color, seeing these books published and appreciated is inspiring and motivating. I remember the first time a school text written by a non-white writer was placed in my hands at 16. It was Bharati Mukherjee’s ‘Wife’. The thrill of familiarity, the understanding, the deep feeling of home, the absence of racism and the recognition in those pages had a lasting effect on me.  I felt at home seeing other voices and other stories in print, on real paper with a book jacket and a price tag on the back.

I had read about some readers’ experiments where they would read only female writers for one year. In this article Sunili Govinnage talks about her experiment of reading writers of color for one year. In the intersecting ways in which I find myself in stories and in literature, race is definitely at the forefront. It’s where my synapses tingle and I am drawn into a story where it’s difference makes it familiar. I remember reading a John Berger quote in year 12 that said “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one.”  It changed my reading and gave me the courage to look for those stories that spoke to me of people and time and places that felt like somewhere I had been already. Where I could recognize the items in the room, the way a couple danced around a painful thing, the way the knees of brown and black children become grey when they play. Instead of looking to books to escape, or transcend where I was, I wanted the opposite. I wanted to feel rooted to where I was. To be made real in a book. To be made visible in a story-even if it isn’t your own.

Ten years on from that John Berger quote and I see the other stories getting a seat at the table. Seeing this and finding communities of readers and writers of the other stories has gone someway to dismantling the fears I had and the paralysis I was experiencing around finding voice, shaping it and finally using it. Every writer or aspiring writer possibly goes through these. But for some, the politics of voice throw up different hurdles. As I became a different reader I found in others courage and in other stories the heroes and heroines I needed and the urge to be a part of that chatter too.

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Aside

Busting Bill’s myths

In the eyes of the public foreign aid and development equal altruism, ‘goodness’ and charity. In many ways this popular conception of foreign aid comes from religious beginnings and the exhortation to goodness as a binary response to sin and evil through acts of kindness and charity. Another more cynical assessment would lead me to question altruism’s true motives-do we do good for others or do we do good to feel good about ourselves? There are many contemporary beliefs around poverty and its causes. We blame it on overpopulation and culture, we blame it on bad luck or hard times or as neoliberalism would tell us-blame it on the poor themselves.

You may have recently read Bill Gates (optimistic) annual Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation letter. In it, he makes the extraordinary claim that by 2035, ‘there will be no poor countries’. He goes on to address three myths he believes “block progress for the poor”. The letter itself is not the problem. It is the oversimplification of poverty and our responses to it that make me feel uneasy.

Much of Bill’s assertions have to do with treating poverty as a problem that can be solved with the right formula, much the same as I imagine he does when creating software. The problem with this is that poverty is not just a term, static and simple. It is punctuated by history, class, race, gender, geopolitics and I would argue most significantly capitalism. To try and present it as a clean apolitical concept is to distract from the real players that keep poverty a fixed and continuous feature of our world.

Inspired by Bill’s myth busting, I’ve come up with own three myths I’d like to bust.

Three myths about poverty perpetuated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Myth 1 Aid is without politics

Take Polio for example. Polio is once again on the rise in Pakistan whereas in the past, the World Health Organization used it as a standout example of a successful oral vacc campaign. Cases fell from 1155 cases in 1997 to 28 by 2005, the lowest number ever recorded in a single year.

Today Gates lamented that in Pakistan local conspiracy theories were making it hard to get ahead with administering Polio vaccinations. He blamed violence in the Northern areas and the belief that vaccinations were not religiously sanctioned. What he fails to address was the CIA’s use of a fake Polio vaccine drive headed by a Pakistani doctor to gain information and access to Osama Bin Laden in May, 2011. NGO’s and humanitarian workers were appalled at the co-opting of a humanitarian purpose for political and military means.

Predictably, a vulnerable population retreated making it harder than ever to reach those most in need of health attention. In some instances aid and humanitarian workers were kidnapped and killed with many necessary organizations pulling out. An alliance of 200 non-government organizations including well-known names like Care, Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee wrote to the CIA Director David Petraus directly linking the growing polio crisis to the tactics used to capture OBL. Aid and development groups have known for a long time that politics and aid are inextricably linked. Often they are cleaning up the mess left by corporations and governments in pursuit of profit and increased geopolitical power.

In turn aid and development organiations are becoming more vocal in their advocacy and criticism of governments using aid and development for political gain.

So in fact geopolitics, a fragile trust disturbed and a communities worst fears confirmed are what has led to the rise in polio cases in Pakistan-not ignorant villagers as benevolent Bill would have you believe.

Myth 2 Think poverty, not inequality

According to Gates, the idea that there will be ‘no more poor countries’ by 2035 is because Mexico City has changed a whole bunch since he and Melinda were there in the late 80’s. Today, Gates is astounded by its high rise buildings, new roads and modern bridges. He uses before and after pics of Mexico City, one from 1987 and another from 2011 to illustrate his point. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a happy snap from the back of your photo album to illustrate a point about Mexico’s complex development is not a good way to prove a point.

The real picture in Mexico is somewhat different from Gates’s happy-people-in-high-rises analysis. The World Bank itself does not rely on GDP per capita as an analysis of poverty. A countries GDP may rise, but how is that income being distributed? Who gets it and who misses out? OXFAM’s Executive Director Winnie Byanima recently pointed out that “We live in a world where the 85 richest people own the wealth of half of the world’s population.” What we should be looking at is how wealth is distributed.

For arguments sake let’s look at Gates’s Mexico. When measuring the distribution of wealth using the Gini Coefficient found on the World Bank data site, you find that while Mexico’s GDP has increased, it is the top 20% of the population that own most of it-52.8% to be exact. Conversely the lowest 20% own just 4.9%.

The same goes for India, China and Brazil all of which make an appearance as countries who pulled themselves out of poverty-again using GDP as the only measure. In India’s population of 1.2 billion people, the top 20% own 42.8% of GDP while the lowest 10% of the population has a share of just 3.7%. Let’s look at this group a little closer. The percentage of India’s population living on less than $1.25 a day is 32.7%. That means that 404,499,000 (yes you read that right that’s 404 million) people live on less than $1.25 a day while the top 20% enjoy over 40% of the country’s 1.842 trillion dollar GDP- a cool 748 billion.

Of course there is an argument to be made for the increase of the middle class. This is more about drawing attention to the widening gap between the haves and have not’s and selling it publicly as poverty reduction. Same story in China, same story in Brazil.

Myth 3 Aid is always about charity and goodness

No it is not. Sure the foundation is a huge philanthropic organization that gives money to some areas of need in the world. An example being an immunization drive in Nigeria for polio and measles. Good step towards getting rid of these two communicable diseases. But as uncovered by the LA times in 2007, the foundation’s trust was at the same time investing in Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp, Chevron Corp Total of France and Eni. If you aren’t familiar with these gigantic oil companies they are all responsible for burning oil flares in the Niger Delta, blanketing the area in pollution so severe that doctors have reported an epidemic of bronchitis, asthma and blurring in children’s vision.

It’s important to remember that the Gates Foundation is a philanthropic organization, but this does not mean it is not a for-profit entity. 5% of its worth is given away each year which is common among philanthropic organizations to avoid paying most taxes. 95% of its worth is then reinvested in a broad portfolio of companies ranging from oil, to paper, Coca Cola Amatil to multinational pharmaceutical outfits. Of the latter one was found to be pricing the drugs needed for the treatment of AIDS so high it was unaffordable for many of the patients that the foundation is seeking to treat.

These contradictions aren’t that surprising when you consider the way poverty is approached. To Bill Gates it’s all same same. Poverty is faceless, classless, raceless and genderless. ‘Poor people’ are all lumped in together in a homogenized package. In a baffling simplification he presents his data by “counting people instead of countries”. Which is fine, except that countries matter. Over simplifying and presenting the complex problem of poverty as two lines on one graph with a couple of before and after photos of Mexico City does not make a complex reasoned argument. In fact it all just ends up looking very suspicious.

All of this from the man whose company exploited thousands of Chinese workers making Microsoft peripherals such as keyboards and mice. Workers reported hot and exhausting conditions, a take home wage of just 52 cents a day and sexual harassment of female workers by security guards. What’s this got to do with poverty? Corporations creating conditions in which it flourishes. Power and its concentration and preservation is what creates and sustains poverty.

So Bill’s graphs can break it down into something easy and palatable and achievable and we won’t have to worry about labor rights, structural adjustment of corporate violence. In doing so he creates his own myth that everything is okay and nothing needs to be challenged because there will be no poor countries in 2035. In a way he is right; in the future there will be no poor countries, only unequal ones.

*A correction, the fake vaccine drive used by the CIA was not for Polio but for the Hep B vaccine. Thanks to the eagle eyed reader who pointed this out. 

Birthday pigs

Tis my birthday today. I thought about just leaving it at that but it seemed a little self-indulgent. I’ve had so many things I wanted to write about that I’ve ended up just making a list over the last few weeks and not actually writing.  They’ve piled up into a repository (not suppository) of moments. Several of them have to do with pigs! The most beloved of animals. Here are ten standouts:

Ben the pig appearing one day in my friend’s garden. He scratched his bottom on the rough trunk of a tree every two minutes. Due to some black pigmentation on his eyelids, his eyes looked much bigger from afar giving him an especially sentient look. Ben was clearly there to be eaten at some point. It is the first time in my life I have lived so close to an animal that would soon be slaughtered for food.

Some pigs get very big in Dili. One I saw had long legs and was the size of a little pony. It walked around high and elegant, a funny silver color making him/her look regal. Another one I see often is short, squat and warthoggish. She is bristly with a tough hide and very heavy with milk right now. When I was riding to work one day, she was crossing the road and came to one of the small canals that drain the muck and rain out of the city. She saw me, she saw the canal. Leaning back she then jumped clean over it in one incredibly dainty go, her full mammarys swaying from side to side as she landed. It was for some reason a very special thing to see. Turns out pigs do fly.

Today on my birthday, three little piglets squeezed out from under a gate just as I left home and stood in order of size peeping at me. I wasn’t sure what to do but I ended up saluting them.

When I arrived in Sydney for Christmas I was skinny and bug eyed. At the Henson Hotel on the night I arrived I felt cushioned like I was in some safe, spun cocoon in a thunderstorm. Everyone was bigger, safer, carefree, leaving their meals uneaten, their glasses always full and with coins falling tittering out of their pockets. I felt a little like oil in water that night, part of it but separate. By the next morning it had faded and I was re-absorbed into the pace and privilege of my lucky life. I was stunned at how quickly this happened.

At one of the second hand clothes stalls in Caicoli I saw a GAP jumper hung up on a pole. Faded grey, the letters ‘GAP’ hung back tiredly, the arms loose and empty by its side. I stopped and checked the tag-‘Made in Bangladesh’. I saw the strange circle that consumer goods complete, over and over, running rings around the world. Made in the global South in Dhaka in some malevolent warehouse, shipped to that other great warehouse of iniquity, the shopping mall somewhere in the North, only to return used and discarded to the South.

On the way back from visiting Big Jesus on the hill one Sunday, I rode past two police cars stopped beside a cart owner. I watched a butchy policeman curl his lips and arch his back advancing to his police car. As I passed by on the bike I saw a young man curled up terrified inside against the window just as a stick entered the car. I felt a sick hollow feeling. It wasn’t the stick. It was seeing the fear that comes from realizing another human being had done away with those safeguards of thought and conscience that prevent us from violence. The grasp that once that’s done anything could happen.

Every morning and afternoon I pass by the national police force gym blaring Eye of the Tiger. The gym is positioned by the roadside in plain view of all. You can smell the acrid sweat from the street and see the guys working out inside like shadow puppets. They are all bulking up. The biggest men in Timor are police. They have crew cuts and play Rocky songs while sporting RayBans. The NZ and Aus police force here to train them look exactly like them- or is it that the Timorese look exactly like the NZ and AUS police? I wonder if police brutality was in the manual.

Reading about the David and Goliath battle in the ICJ. Timor Leste is currently seeking a ruling in the International High Court of Justice to regain the documents the Australian Attorney General authorized to be seized in a raid on Timor Leste’s Canberra based lawyer. Despicability aside, the Australian Government’s justification is national security. A tiny nation with a tiny population where children scrabble around in the dirt poses a threat to national security? The ludicrousness of the claim is laughable except that it’s not funny.

The really excellent graffiti on the Australian Embassy wall of a kangaroo hopping away with a bucket of oil. Says it all really.

This is an everyday moment, though more like a constant questioning. What am I doing here? How much good or how much damage am I doing? How to make the little things count? How to persuade an organization that mimicking a Western INGO isn’t necessarily the answer? What about if it is because that’s how you get money to do good work as a local org? How to keep identity when pretty much all of development is about homogenization based on the IMF/WB/UN’s proformas for becoming-a-real-working-country? How to say I’m sorry and express solidarity in Tetun?

My birthday is sort of close to the beginning of a New Year. It brings all the usual reflection and questioning over life and who you want to be in it. I have an overwhelming feeling of having enough of everything I need and how fortunate I am because of it. Today on the 22nd of January there are reports of asylum seekers who during their tow back were allegedly burnt and beaten. We descended into Hades a long time ago with arguably some of the first steps down taken by the previous government. Petitions, protests, awareness campaigns while well-intentioned are missing the mark for me lately. Systems and structures create these conditions, not Cory Bernardi. He’s an idiot, but we know that. His own party knows that. They distract from the real threat- the structures, the history, the politics (shit it’s the ‘P’ WORD!). It’s about organizing so that it isn’t just the pure random luck of the draw where you are born that determines your opportunity and wellbeing.  I guess at 29 I’ve kind of had enough of just a few having enough.

 

 

When Peace was a Facebook status.

…And go. That is all it took to get back on track with this blog.

I feel very strongly when I re-read my last two entries. For a start, they were written in a different home. I have now moved into my new abode. A villa with a calf pink balcony and a really indescribable shade of green in the kitchen and bedrooms. I think the closest thing would be the green of a Sprite bottle. I know. I’m not enthused either. Nevertheless the walls speak of joy and a sea breeze from my North facing window mixes nicely with an occasional zephyr off the hills. The hills. Shape shifting things that reflect and absorb the light depending on the rain. I’ve watched their bare dusty slopes turn a notch greener every day, with every shower. It is glorious to watch them emerge from the big rain cloud shimmering. Dili changes before my very eyes.

I am now in my third month here. This entry has taken so long to write because frankly, I’ve been struggling. The rains initial relief and joy has given way to an intense humidity that hovers between 70 and 95%. It induces the thickest brain fog that nothing seems to dissipate. No amount of sleep or eating well or coaching yourself out of it. Getting to work is a daily strategic event that involves a mix of walking, taxis and cycling. As I write this, the sticky mud is beginning to dry on my ankles and an embarrassing wet patch of mud dries on my bottom and ruins the seats at my drinking hole (sorry Discovery Inn).

I am watching the global televised coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death. In my workplace, my colleagues discussed what solidarity activity would take place to remember his life. A protest outside the Australian Embassy is still taking place against the shameful raid on Timor’s representative Australian lawyer at the Hague’s office. A tiny, poor nation once again has it’s back against the wall as the corporate interests of powerful foreign governments frankly just shit over their ability to determine their own future. I am so ashamed and speechless when I am asked about my government’s actions by my Timorese friends and colleagues. I am worried that these latest developments will contribute to the overall discontent in the country over a lack of access to what we would term ‘development’ or plainly, human rights- education, employment, electricity, clean water. Just last week I stopped aghast on a ride back from the beach when I saw a small child dip her cup into the full black fetid canals and raise it to her lips. I could do nothing but yell stop. I couldn’t offer her a solution. I couldn’t think of anyone else that could either.

Today, with the news of the death of a cult ‘peace’ personality, I like many others are thinking of the other brave participants in freedom struggles who will not and did not get global coverage of their deaths. They are the followers of leaders, or leaders for a day, anonymous and holy in their own way but without the benefit of a state funeral. Women and men involved in resistance, armed and otherwise that died alone, unnamed and remembered in a cursory way. Timor faces its own cult of personality and the resemblance with South Africa is striking. Xanana Gusmao is currently locked in an ideological battle over history. The splinter group naming themselves the Revolutionary Council headed by Mauk Moruk is the manifestation of a resistance history that is exclusively based around personality. The cult of Xanana is propped up by Western governments like our own all too keen on taking sides with a media friendly personality. Mauk has enough supporters now to have the government seriously concerned. Who was involved in Timor’s independence and the contributions of all Timorese is a side note. Instead, like Mandela, a (male) figurehead is applauded, celebrated and memorialized by governments like our own.

Our own complicity in the very regimes whose downfall we now applaud is conveniently forgotten. Peace is an easy thing to celebrate when it is a nice, fluffy shiny word. Our complicity in the war, not so much.

This is not so much a denigration of the achievements of great advocates and orators for peace like Mandela, or even the remarkable efforts of a very young Xanana who pulled together a rag tag resistance against its much larger occupying army. Their achievements are without dispute and to be frank quite obvious. This is a pause to consider those who followed them. This is also an indictment on the continuing agents of colonization who continue to inflict great damage on nations like Timor Leste by making the playing field unfair and inhospitable. This is about us. This is about the leaders we choose who do things in our name that make it necessary for people like Xanana Gusmao and Nelson Mandela to exist, when they should not have to. We celebrate their lives (and deaths) while fueling the fires they and millions of their followers give their lives to put out. Then we write a nice Facebook post about them when they die. We can do better.

What would it look like to be committed to those words-freedom, equality, human rights?  What would it require of us as individuals, in our homes, in our communities, our workplaces, where we spend our money? If peace was a Facebook status heaven knows we would be a wonderful world. Times like this invite bigger questions. They invite reading, understanding. They invite history into the everyday, into our everyday and our every action. They invite us to question why some of us have, and so many of us have-not. In our countries, in our cities, in our communities. May we be brave enough to take the next step.