English as a Second Language*

A Tuesday afternoon, in the university gym women’s locker room windows heavy with condensation. Damp is perpetual here, the outside damp of cold humidity with its incessant dripping and the inside damp borne of radiator heat, human sweat, and inadequate venting. I’m keying in my locker code when a clot of athletes burst in, their loud chatter surrounding me, ducking and weaving for their lockers in the ceiling-high stacks. I had a jarring realisation** a moment later – my first thought hadn’t been to notice their accents but to notice nothing.

It sounds dramatic, but that is jarring to a person who has spent her career teaching English and always, always notices accents. Especially as a person who has lived abroad in diverse places, your accent is your badge, you identity and marker. Lately, here in Bristol, I’ve noticed them less. I’ve watched films and television and the Britishness of an accent is fainter, more normal, less of something to mentally note.  I remember a student telling me of the moment that they started dreaming in English and not their native language and she described it as disorienting – I understand some part of that now. I’ve never lived for an extended period in a place where the language became commonplace and unnoticeable – I was never fluent enough in Italian or Polish or Kinyarwanda for language to go faint and disappear from my perception. And now, it’s happened – I hear British English the way I hear American English – only as language, not an accent.

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I’ve been in the UK for just over five months, the right amount of time to settle into some sense of normalcy. It’s enough time to shake stereotypes and interrogate the preconceived notions about what England is and who the English (the British, the Welsh, the Bristolians, the Westerners) are. It’s enough time to remember that most British people are somewhere in between the disparate poles of 1) Mr Darcy and 2) vomiting football hooligans and that life here isn’t all Cotswold stone and afternoon cream tea. It’s pretty normal, just smattered with more consistent rain.

And, it’s enough time to remember that the U.S. and the U.K. are two nations divided by a common language (Shaw, or Wilde, depending on who you ask). And I speak English – British – as a second language.

Before arriving, I swore I wouldn’t actively change my accent (and that’s still true, with the exception of one word – Bath, as in the city of, just because it sounds wholly inappropriate and far too crass in a nasal American accent to refer to that neoclassical tiny town as something that rhymes with “math”). Because, really, what is worse than an American feigning Anglo “sophistication” in bad Received Pronunciation? The answer? NOTHING. Nothing is worse. Evidence? Here. And here. And here. And Lloyd Grossman, explain yourself.

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Oh look, the Mayflower! Bristol harbour**

And I haven’t changed my accent, but my vocabulary and syntax have capitulated to the redcoats. I try my best the avoid the words that seemed cliched, and even more cliched when I use them (bloke, cuppa, uni, cheerio). But, it’s inevitable after 150 days that one’s language isn’t forcibly evolved by the surroundings, so I tell myself that these changes are okay, because it’s easier to be understood – less by British people and more by my very international course cohort that all speak British as a Second Language. Plus, I used to tell my students that one’s English need not be native-like, but effective enough to be understood. Understandability is key. So, I’ve made some changes.

I use “going to” less, shortening instead with just “to” – I’m to bed; I’m to Tesco. Do you want to come along? And there’s less “haven’t” and more “not” – I’ve not done the reading. Sometimes it’s 10:30, other times it’s half ten. I have no shame in checking my diary rather than my calendar, as my diary here is a timetable and not page after page of why Ethan from fourth period will never notice me or ill-conceived plots for selling my younger brother to a traveling circus. And the mass nouns: the data are plural, the team are playing tonight.  There’s a distinct academic vocabulary as well. “Tension” is a favourite**, a way to show some sort of struggle between two concepts. There are “pots” of funding for attending conferences – pots are so much more fun than sources. And then there’s the food vocabulary – the words are almost edible at times. British food vocabulary is its most glorious and Bill Bryson agrees: “England was full of words I’d never heard before – streaky bacon, short back and sides, Belisha beacon, serviettes, high tea, ice-cream cornet.”

I have limits, however. I don’t say cheers, which often seems interchangeable with “thanks” here – used in a very polite, very British closing sequence at the grocery store from yesterday. (Cashier) “Your receipt.” (Leanne) “Thanks.” “Cheers.” “Thanks, see you.” “Have a nice evening, thanks so much.”

Be proud, Patrick Henry.

Peace from the other West coast,

L

 

*this is funny, because I’ve spent my career as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher [laugh, please]

**British spelling. I’m assimilating and #idowhatiwant

Refugee trauma and the ESL classroom

I originally wrote this three years ago when I was in Northern California, working with a refugee resettlement organization. I spent 3.5 years volunteering there, and during that time, I met more than 200 refugees who were resettled in the Sacramento area. They came from all over the world, but primarily Iraq, Afghanistan (many of whom worked as translators with the U.S. military), Burundi, Bhutan, Nepal, Kenya… the list goes on.

This past Friday, Donald Trump suspended the refugee resettlement program by executive order. Just a few facts, none of which are “alternative” – refugees are defined as people who must flee their home country to escape war, persecution, and violence. Number of refugees that the U.S. pledged to resettle in 2017 following a multiyear vetting process: 110,000. Number of refugees resettled in the U.S. who have committed known acts of terrorism, EVER: 0.

I don’t write well when shaking with emotional rage, but I want to say something, to defend the 200+ people that I knew well. This article was originally published with TESOL International Association’s Refugee Concerns newsletter and it speaks mainly to educators about strategies for dealing with students (such as refugees) who have experienced severe trauma (like many, many refugees).

One final note before the article: the organization I worked with, the International Rescue Committee, was founded at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, a refugee who fled to the U.S. to escape the Third Reich.

 


October 2013

His distress was palpable, evidenced in knotted eyebrows and a subtle tremor that shook throughout his rail-thin body. He grabbed my hand impulsively and put it against his heart so I could share in (or at least understand) his terror. His words were impeded by his lack of language, and whatever English he did have was impeded by his extreme stress. “The men…the room…” he managed to get out with labored breaths.

Only because of an earlier conversation with his caseworker did I know what the problem was: He was a new refugee client, and he had identified himself, at least to the caseworker and the hosting organization, as gay. On his first night in English class, only a few days after he arrived in the United States, he was still terrified to be in a small room with other speakers of his language group, large men who may have appeared similar to his overseas tormentors. I’ve volunteered with this organization for 3 years and learned that if I get a hunch that past trauma is trickling into a situation, I am probably right.

His situation was a unique one, to say the least: refugee, gay, from a conservative country, spoke almost no English, most likely suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or similar. To be dealt a few of those cards would certainly be a challenge, but all of them? I’m no psychologist, and like the majority of English teachers, even those like myself who have a master’s degree in teaching the subject, I’m ill-equipped to deal with this challenge. My program didn’t require or even offer a course in ESL and PTSD, just as they offered very little training outside of teaching for well-equipped classrooms full of literate, economically steady, enthusiastic English learners. Like many other instructors in my situation, I had to gauge my reaction to similar situations with a mix of experience and self- research.

This incident, despite involving a very unique individual, can be compared to many similar ones experienced by ESL instructors who work with refugees or asylum seekers. Stressful outbursts, as in the example given, demonstrate one of the greatest challenges of working with posttrauma populations. Refugees, asylum seekers, and some immigrant groups have a “substantially higher risk than the general population for a variety of specific psychiatric disorders—related to their exposure to war, violence, torture, forced migration and exile and to the uncertainty of their status in the countries where they seek asylum” (Kirmayer et al., 2011, p. E961). Unfortunately, when a refugee or asylum seeker resettles in a new country, past traumas are often exacerbated by the serious psychological stress caused by poor adjustment to the culture of the resettlement country (Schweitzer, Melville, Steel, & Lacherez, 2006). Because ESL teachers often have longer periods of contact with their refugee students than other social service providers (such as resettlement agency case workers), stressful outbursts or other classroom issues, such as interpersonal conflicts, can commonly occur. Classrooms often function as safe zones, “where the students can have the opportunity not only to learn English…but also to learn about and discuss many of the cultural adjustment issues and other facets of their new lives” (Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, & Silver, 1999, p. 17). This safe place not only provides a platform for students to learn the language that will assist in their acculturation processes, but it also provides a form of self-expression that “engenders stronger mental health” (Adkins et al.,1999, p. 17)

Many refugees, whether they are clinically diagnosed with suffering from PTSD or other disorders, experience a variety of symptoms caused by the stress and trauma resulting from their past and even ongoing experiences. These factors may be manifested in symptoms such as physical ailments (headaches, backaches, and stomachaches), somatic issues (sleeping in class or complaining of a lack of sleep at night), attention issues, lack of participation in or withdrawal from social interaction, frequent absences, and/or emotional or behavioral issues (Adkins et al., 1999, p. 19). Extensive medical and psychological research has demonstrated that these mental problems are prevalent within the refugee community, but, for a teacher working on a day-to-day basis with these students, the research might not be so important as solutions to the issue.

In the 1999 publication through the Spring Institute, Adkins, Birman, Sample, Brod, and Silver provide an excellent manual that instructs ESL teachers in methods for adapting their classroom pedagogy, methods, and activities to facilitate positive acculturation in response to these mental health issues. But when teachers are faced with outbursts similar to the example presented, they need to be prepared to spontaneously address the problem and help the student to reach a state of calm. To help deal with the effects of PTSD and other stress, emotion, or deeper psychological issues or trauma-related outbursts that manifest themselves in the classroom, teachers have to be proactive about educating and preparing themselves for these incidents, but also in sharing effective techniques and strategies for coping with these issues within the community of practice. In this situation, I followed a protocol that I have used in a variety of similar contexts:

1. Use nonverbal cues to demonstrate compassion and understanding.As refugee English teachers, this is often our default mode. But these situations require an extra measure of compassion: demonstrating empathy with obvious facial expressions (especially for low-level speakers) and a calm, low tone of voice. Horsman (1997) suggests “words and looks of encouragement” (p. 22) over physical contact, as physical boundaries are important to respect and even more difficult to infer in stressful moments.

2. Allow them to be separate from the class. In this situation, I was fortunate that another person could step in and cover the class for a few minutes, which might not be possible in every situation. It is important to help preserve the refugee’s sense of dignity (i.e., not allow others to see his or her distress) and allow them the space to calm down, so it is essential to step outside and away from the trigger. Horsman (1997) noted that refugees dealing with trauma need physical “places to go outside the program when the feelings are ‘too much’ for themselves or for others to deal with in the class or group” (p. 30). Following the incident, I sought to demonstrate to students that they were not “bound” to the classroom and were free to step out if they felt the need.

3. Shift their focus away from what is affecting them. It sounds like something a therapist might caution against, but most teachers, like me, aren’t trained as counselors, and to take on that role could possibly do more harm than good. Revert to what you know you are skilled at: teaching English. In this situation, I took out a copy of the English diagnostic that we used and started to go through it orally with him, effectively shifting his focus away from the situation. This isn’t to say that their experience isn’t valuable or that the teacher is attempting to invalidate the importance of their past. Instead, the teacher is saving those conversations or topics for a more appropriate, less charged environment where students can operate at their own comfort level.

4. Instill confidence. As we went through the very basic material at the start of the test, I made sure to praise him and offer positive reinforcement for everything that he did right, and provide very tempered, occasional correction for his issues. This not only helped his stress subside, but focused him back on the ultimate purpose of the class: to improve his English.

In this particular situation, the pattern that I followed allowed the student to rejoin the class after 20 minutes outside of the room. By the end of class, he was raising his hand to ask questions and even interacting with the men whose presence had caused his panic earlier in the class. With continuing sensitivity to his needs, his teachers can help him and others like him better reach their potential, and move further away from trauma-based outbursts to focus on the positive possibilities that lie ahead. The experience showed me, very clearly, that, as an instructor, I am continually responsible for not only my refugee students’ academic experience but their emotional well-being.

These strategies were gleaned from personal experience and informed by research, but should not be taken as a scientific technique or as one developed by a specialist in trauma. Instead, they are one solution for dealing with stressful outbursts in the moment, keeping the student’s needs first, and helping to maintain their personal dignity and sense of self.

References

Adkins, M. A., Birman, D., Sample, E., Brod, S., & Silver, M. (1999). Cultural adjustment, mental health, and ESL: The refugee experience, the role of the teacher, and ESL activities. Denver, CO: Spring Institute for International Studies.

Horsman, J. (1997). “But I’m not a therapist”: Furthering discussion about literacy work with survivors of trauma. The Canadian Congress for Learning Opportunities for Women. Retrieved from http://en.copian.ca/library/research/therapist/1.htm.

Kirmeyer, L., Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A., Guzder, J., … & Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: General approach in primary care. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(12), 959–967. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.090292

Schweitzer, R., Melville, F., Steel, Z., & Lacherez, P. (2006). Trauma, post-migration living difficulties, and social support as predictors of psychological adjustment in resettled Sudanese refugees. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 40, 179–187.

Neogothic and Neon Paint: Arriving in Bristol

When I see him, I’m mid-way up Park Street, the road that connects the lush, grassy triangle of College  Green to the neo gothic Wills Tower, the edge of the university campus. Brazen, bearded, clad in a tee shirt and tattoo sleeves, slamming down the hill on a longboard, slaloming around the road’s divider line. I stop and watch as he blazes downhill at maybe twenty miles per hour, taking me back to late nights at my undergraduate university looking for my car in the multi-story parking garage with gleeful skaters screaming past, barely avoiding the cement pylons.

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Yarn-bombing and an artistic response to soot-blackened buildings 

Tattoos, longboards, and skinny jeans: my friend Steve described Bristol as “England’s Portland,” and since, more than one non-Bristolian has told me that the “rest of England” views it as green, hipster, “bio” (organic), all phrases similarly co-opted when outsiders describe the Pacific Northwest and California’s Bay Area. My past home, Sacramento, prides (maybe that’s the wrong word) itself in projecting a similar ethos: in a recent study looking to define and identify the most “hipster” cities in the U.S., Sacramento came in fourth, behind Seattle, Portland, and Denver. The researchers came up with a list of businesses which “target” hipster culture, and checked the ratios of these businesses per 10,000 city residents. The businesses? “Microbreweries (manufacturers), records/tapes/CD (retail), music dealers, coffee shops (non-chains only), beer & ale (retail), thrift shops, bicycle dealers, tattoo parlors, and music and live entertainment.”

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On the university campus; a little more mod than postmodern

Even just this road with its steep, rapid upward pitch, Park Street, illustrates that past sentence. On the ten minute walk from my building to the university, I pass three music stores (instruments and records), two vintage clothing stores, two charity (read: thrift) shops, a piercing parlor, two non-chain coffee/tea shops, and two art supply stores. It’s s seductive walk: I buy gingerbread rooibos tea in nylon sachets from a shop with a silhouetted swallow on the logo (always put a bird on it) and mint-green plates from a charity shop. I often find myself in a sea of fashion ripped from 90s closets – short denim skirts with buttons down the front, high-wasted jeans with pockets high on the butt, those ubiquitous circa-1999 polyester Delia’s sweaters, cropped above the belly button.

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Banksy’s statue left over from Banksy vs. Bristol Museum exhibition 

Hip – or hipster – this city has it boatloads (appropriate given its past as a shipping city and its scenic locale on the River Avon). One of it’s most famous sons is Banksy, the anonymous street artist famous for [illicitly] stencilling cleverly subversive and political images on the sides of buildings and walls (for more see Exit Through the Gift Shop, a film for Street Art 101). I walk daily past one of his most famous pieces, a naked man hanging off the “window” of a sexual health clinic. It’s been vandalised with blue paint, but remains – more than one person joins me in photographing it from the sidewalk.

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Street art is all over this city, illicit and clearly non-illicit. I visited Bristol for three days in April when trying to decide it and another school, and happened to look up while stumbling down one street – and saw a mural from one of my favorite artists, El Mac. It seemed like an invitation, a blessing – that somehow this was the right place to be.

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El Mac, “Clothed with the Sun” 2011

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Something else by someone else, painted on the side of St. John’s Church

There’s something that I love about street art, the way it adds color to a city – not just tagging but artistic interest. But the city isn’t all neon paint and suspended naked men, it’s flashes of modernity in a historical mishmash. And the historical still dominates – it’s the hardest layer, the most permanent in this city, buildings that reflect Regency, Tudor, Georgian – a city that has gone through an adolescence and adulthood, reinventing itself in each era.

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Brunel’s suspension bridge over the Avon Gorge

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The university seems to have found the balance between neo Gothic and neon – outside of the Great Hall in Wills Tower for induction week 

Up the hill, past the art and the art stores, towards a university with equal parts historical buildings and steel, brick, and glass. A few days in and I’m already certain – I’m going to like this place.

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Hang a left for the university: an uncertain world.

A Trip Takes Us

“I know I like to dream a lot, and think of other worlds that are not.”

Lou Reed, “Who Am I (Tripitena’s Song)”

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Twelve years ago, almost to the day, I boarded a similar flight at San Francisco International Airport, clutching a passport that was empty save for a pre-issued visa for the United Kingdom, heart hammering with anticipation and anxiety at the thought of the first international flight of my life. I can imagine how I must have looked to other passengers: a small person trying to make herself smaller, watching carefully to understand how others behaved, how they opened their passports and handed over their boarding passes. Not wanting to seem green or stick out, to seem awkward or ignorant in the procedures of international air travel – learning, ultimately, to fly, metaphorically and practically. I took a similar position, as a cautious observer, for the next few months living in London: my first stint of life as a foreigner and outsider.

Very soon, I will be back to the same airport, bound yet again for the United Kingdom. My passport is hardly empty, but contains similar clearance for study in the UK, this time for four years of the British PhD and not a few months of study abroad. Now, I have equal parts swagger and languidness in passing through security and navigating the terminal; it’s the fruit of those twelve years, four continents, more than thirty countries – those statistics stamped into my passport, emblematic of experiences that have grown me and directed the course of my life, up to this very moment.

But the anticipation and anxiety still hammer in my chest, coupled with “hot palms and the lurch of stomach high up under the rib cage,” as Steinbeck once wrote in describing the preparation stages of travel at the start of Travels with Charley“A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has a personality, a temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safe-guards, policing and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” 

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James Town, Accra, Ghana

A trip takes us – there is some comfort in leaning into that lack of control. We can plan, we can state our purpose from the beginning. But ultimately, we have to give over control. The start of each adventure is the start of a new chapter of life: knowing that you will change not only your personal geography, but how you see the world and how you see yourself. Today, though, this journey feels less like the start of something and more like the close, the end of an era, turning the page not on a chapter but an entire section of a book: returning to the first country I visited beyond my own, British bookends sealing in one section of my life.

In the past twelve years, I’ve traveled for many reasons: work, school, research, service, love. Did I ever really know what each of those journeys would bring, outside of those clear, guiding goals? I look back at that girl, 19 and terrified (though she would never admit it), and I wonder who she would be without London, Windhoek, Ferrara, Kielce, Port-au-Prince, Taipei, Musanze, Kigali. Travel is powerful for so many reasons. For me, one is that it creates those memorable blocs – instead of a inky, run-together year, it has a clear start and finish – clear in that you get on a plane and go, and get on a plane and return. Those are dividers in my head, like chapters. But what you learned often comes later, how you grew becomes evident in later chapters of life. 

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Facing east to the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar, Tanzania

I can look back at my experiences in the past twelve years and see the bigger picture, the parts of me that have changed with each trip. I can see how I’ve developed confidence, maturity, intelligence, empathy. Responsibility toward others and not only my nation and my social group. Possessions have become less valuable and people have become more. How authenticity – relationships built on honesty and care – is vital.  How travel brings out the best and worst of you, quickly moving you towards those moments of honesty. How I’ve grown to deal with loss and heartbreak and pain; how I can better weather life’s challenges.

I know my stated goal in traveling today, in this new section of life a few days from my 32nd birthday. I’m more purposeful with this start of an intensive degree program; I’m more knowledgeable and less apprehensive. I know what piece of paper I want to hold in four years – but what flights, what experiences, what growth will happen between now and then – that’s for the trip to decide.


Steinbeck, J. (1961). Travels with Charley. New York: Penguin.

Home Is

Wildfires in the further reaches of El Dorado county mean that the sky is dusty, with the mountains of the Sierra Nevada obscured; so the beginning and end of each day are a symphony of watercolor. John Muir described this range as “so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city” (p 35). I wake up early each morning, often with the sun, a layered pastel sunrise over the Range of Light, far in the distance, as my jetlagged brain bolts awake. It’s usually an hour of reverie before my nephew wakes up, sometimes just a pitter-patter beeline to his parents’ room; other times he snuggles next to me on the sofa and I read to him, usually mixing up words and receiving his corrections. After nearly two years in Rwanda, I’m home, and not sure when I’ll be back in the Land of a Thousand [Much Greener] Hills.

Home is a strange word for me to process. I’ve never lived in my brother and sister-in-law’s foothill house, where I’m currently staying – for my purposes here, I would define “lived” as a place where I’ve passed a definitive period of time. I spent two weeks on this sofa in December, but they had only been in the house for a short time at that point, having moved here a week before I left last year for my second stint in East Africa. Thus, stay is more apropos than live for my current existence as a middle-class vagabond. When you ask Rwandans, and indeed many other Africans, where they live, they often respond with stay – “I stay in Kimihurura.” I grew up in another town, a vastly different environment an hour away, but it’s a place that now tends to feel like anything but home; so, I stay here.

Home isn’t adventurous, but home is good. It’s mornings with my sister-in-law and the kids, watching my niece feed milky Cheerios to the dog. I argue with my brother on the porch, drinking Sierra Nevada pale ales to an evening cicada chorus. Janice and I talk ad nauseam about Myers Briggs; Alex and I get Thai food and he explains Pokemon Go and Snapchat; Janette knows to buy Mission tortilla chips and nuclear orange nacho cheese sauce; my grandmother hugs me with tears in the inner corners of her eyes. Home for me is people – a small group of them, a weirdly constructed tribe. It’s no longer a place.

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I can already feel the creep of wanderlust to go back out, coupled in the exact instant with intense relief to be home again.”No one had forewarned me, however, that if you live abroad for any good while, the notion of home is permanently compromised. You will always be missing another place, and no national logic will ever again seem fully obvious to you” (Solomon, 2016, p 15).  It’s a contradiction of sorts, that I can both miss being in Rwanda and be relieved to be free of the experience.

And maybe this is an essential step in the travel experience, the final step: going home after rewriting who you are, what you know, what you think, even what you believe, based on what you have undergone while outside of your literal and geographic comfort zones. “Travel is an exercise in partly broadening yourself and partly in defining your own limits. Travel distills you to a decontextualized existence. You never see yourself more clearly than when immersed in an entirely foreign place” (p 20). And coming home makes all of this obvious, slams you in the face with reverse culture shock and a churning mass of emotions that I can’t pick apart. In equal measure, it allows distance so you can start to process, to pick apart, to better understand.

Andrew Solomon, in his recent book recounting twenty-five years travelling as a writer focused on art and culture, struggled with this idea of change, preferring to believe that travel hadn’t shifted his values, but made him hone in more vividly on those he found to be the most meaningful: “travel taught me how to relate to disparate people with incongruent values, and, thereby, how to be contradictory myself” (p. 33).

It’s hard to explain all of this to people at home; it’s even harder to answer questions about your experience. It’s impossible to refine months or even years of life to a few sentences, especially for me, long-winded, overly reliant on dry history, and not always able to tell if I’m being asked questions out of interest or obligation. You realize too that people often don’t know what questions to ask you – a shared awkwardness that seems to often result in people saying, “so, how was Africa” and my response being clipped into platitudes – because how do you respond? Maybe this is the aspect that can become the most separating and alienating – most dramatically in the first weeks after you get home, before you’ve again acclimated. To see your country, your home from outside: and then return and be among people who haven’t necessarily had that privilege (and I do think it is a privilege). You coil back into the comfort of communicating with people who understand your experience: what Solomon terms displacement, the “forgiving homeland, a thing held in common with others” who understand your personal contradictions (p. 11).

Muir advocated a different form of travel – through mountain passes, rather than foreign countries, claiming rocky corridors and “mountain mansions” will cure whatever ails you as they “kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action.” He dramatically claims that “few places in this world are more dangerous than home” (p.113). While I understand his point – that we can become complacent, remaining only in our homes and never venturing forth – I can’t quite agree. True, after traveling, to come back and expect that who you as left is what you return as – ultimately, this can’t be possible. But to see yourself, and see how you’ve changed, I would argue that you must come home to see yourself back in your initial context. Live large, Muir – let those of us who can’t process in the moment some time to process on a porch in your mountain proximity.

Whatever it is, whatever I’ve become, whatever I’ve lost, whatever I’ve learned, it is good to be home. Because when I travel, I find more value for what my home is and who my home is: defining it more specifically and allowing those details like images to lodge in my brain for recall on future adventures.

 

Muir, J. (1985). The mountains of California (originally published 1893). New York: Penguin.

Solomon, A. (2016). Far and away: Reporting from the brink of change: Seven continents, twenty-five years. New York: Scribner.

 

Brazier on the Floor: Mekelle, Ethiopia

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Brizaf

Brizaf isn’t home when we arrive at the compound: an oblong-shaped courtyard with rooms that open onto a grapevine and brick pile, a cooker for injera housed in a sheltered corner. Hannah is greeted by Meron with a bright, luminous face and twin braids that begin at her widow’s peak and wind back around her scalp. It has been months – Hannah has been in another part of Ethiopia, and her Mekelle family has missed her dearly. We take a seat in the house – one room, but not so cramped – and wait for Brizaf to arrive.

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Meron fanning the flames of the brazier, gomen (cabbage) cooking 

This is my second trip to Ethiopia this year; the first was for the Fellow program’s midyear conference held in Addis Ababa in March. This time, I’m on Hannah’s farewell tour, saying goodbye to the disparate places where she worked during the 2014-2016 fellowship cycles. First to Arba Minch, found in Ethiopia’s deep southlands, green crags of the Western edge of the Great Rift Valley; followed by a night in Addis and a flight to the opposite pole of the country, Mekelle (also spelled Makele or Mek’ele, among others) far closer to the contentious border with Eritrea, once unioned with Ethiopia.

Brizaf has come back home, her son Unael beside her. She greets Hannah with effusive hugs and kisses, shakes my hand and kisses me four times – double the Italian style – and forces me into a seat on the sofa. We are banned from any form of work to help her in preparing the food: thus, today is a lesson in Ethiopian cooking and hospitality, to watch the food that I’ve eaten for a week be prepared in front of me, with the loving cook squatting in front of a charcoal brazier on the house floor.

We brought cabbage, tomatoes, onions, and potatoes – the base of the cuisine. Meron works from a cutting board, a worn object with a deep center divot, chopping the cabbage into strips, her knees on either side. On the brazier, a two-tiered cooker with fire in the lower cavern heating an open, upper bowl where a pot is nestled among black and grey charcoal chips, everything is smoldering. In the pot, an inch of oil bubbles with pinches of chopped garlic, tomato, and onion – Brizaf, the overseeing chef, checks Meron’s work and stirs in the gomen (cabbage), settles the lid on top, and sets her daughter to the task of fanning the brazier fire.

In Ethiopian cooking, there seem to be two primary spice foundations – red or yellow. It reminds me of New Mexico roadtrips, where every dish ordered requires either red or green peppers, and waiter follow your request with that question, “red or green?” For today’s gomen, the base will be yellow: alicha, a mix of tumeric, cumin, and ginger, enflamed as needed with hot peppers.

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Alicha, a spice blend of tumeric, cumin, and ginger

The second base – red – is found in another dish for today’s lunch: silsi, an oily, oniony fire blended with pulped tomato, garlic, and Ethiopian magic. The red is berbere, a mix of spices that lies at the root of nearly every dish. Each cook has his or her own berbere blend, consisting of dried and ground chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and basil, and a collection of spices local to the Horn: korarima, rue, nigella, and fenugreek.

Today’s meal could be a fasting one – in Ethiopia, fasting refers to vegan food, instead of absolute abstinence. Sudan might be the most Muslim place I have visited, but Ethiopia is the most Christian – practiced in the orthodox variety, with dogma infiltrating everyday aspects of life (the definition, after all, of Orthodoxy). Menus list “fasting” items separate – always the vegan accommodation. When the gomen is finished, Brizaf starts the shiro, spooning the ochre-colored powder from a Quaker oats can. Shiro is ground chickpea and spices, a powder mixed with water and oil and sometimes, if you have the means, onions and tomatoes. She mixes it slowly with oil and berbere, scrapping the powder from the edges of the pot as it boils and bubbles, thickening like like an orange edible lava. Americans, sometimes we forget – oil is not just for taste but needed calories, especially when your diet consists of injera and gomen and berbere. In my photographs, the finished shiro comes out smooth, silken, deep orange.

 

I follow Hannah to arrange my plate: unroll injera, the bread base. Injera is made from tef, a local grain, mixed with water and allowed to ferment for a period before being cooked on a smooth, hot surface – the cooker from the yard, with a space beneath the griddle surface for open flame. The result is a vehicle for both arranging food and a getting that food to your mouth – no utensils, just torn strips of injera to pick up gomen and shiro.

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Lunch plate: injera base, with shiro, gomen, and silsi, clockwise from 12

 

Brizaf continues her hospitable chores as we eat. She is a woman of the village, now settled in one of the largest Ethiopian cities. Her forehead sweeps back from her brows, crossed by a thread-like braid, Tigryan style. A chain from one side of her forehead to the other, gathered at the middle, demonstrates her status as a married woman. She is tattooed as well: a faint circle between her brows and spaced chains on her neck. Meron makes a plate to split with her brother, and gives the first bite – a pocket of injera with shiro, silsi, and gomen in a happy mass – to her mother. Brizaf’s hands are busy – she’s begun the coffee ceremony, roasting green and pale brown coffee beans in a small pot. She shakes them like popcorn, popping and darkening and calls after her daughter, who roots through the curio cabinet for fancier cups – a  prerogative for guests.
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Coffee ceremony, beans roasting

As with Ethiopian coffee tradition, a full spread is laid: beans roasting in a pot on the brazier, a smaller incense burner pipping with charcoal and a stick of incense, small china cups and saucers that resemble espresso cups. Coffee is an ancient ceremony in Ethiopia, outpacing the Italian occupation and the West’s obsession with the beans. She shakes the smoking pot, beans now roasted black, for us to smell – the beans almost oiled black and deep brown. She puts the jebena – the round bottom traditional coffee pot – onto the brazier coals as we finish our lunch, the oil of silsi coating our fingers.

We drink cups of coffee, three in total, stirred with sugar. Throughout, Hannah uses her Tigrinya and Brizaf speaks to us – sometimes through her older son, able to translate, often through smiles and phrases we cannot understand.

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Cup Number Three

There are moments, though, that we speak the same language. She laughs as Hannah takes photos of her son and shows them to him, his bashful smiles becoming peals of laughter. I show her pictures of my niece and nephew, 4 and 2, dressed in their Easter best and she smiles and kisses my phone. It’s the universality of the human experience, that we don’t always need the same language to communicate. She speaks to us with her food, we speak to her by our enjoyment of it: the heart of hospitality.

Much love to Hannah for always explaining Ethiopian ways to me.

Peace,

LC

 

Agents of Resilience: Bukavu, DR Congo

 

The bridge that divides Rwanda and DR Congo’s South Kivu capital, Bukavu, belongs in a fairy tale: a rickety, wood-hewn span, deserving of a goat-hating troll guard. Perhaps thirty feet long, planks spaced so you could catch the rush of the Rusizi River below, the official demarkation between two countries with a convoluted recent past. As we crossed, three English Language Fellows and two Fulbright professors, an SUV cut past on the middle planks, spaced for a car, the bridge groaning and all of us pressing into the rails and away from the vehicle. The bridge conjures images from 1994 and the directly following years, a second river of refugees streaming from Rwanda into the Congo. Today, no refugees: guards on either side, women passing with bags on their heads, stacks of eggs in cartons, a more rural envisioning of the protagonist from the classic children’s story Caps for Sale.

The five us were in the country at the end of May to assist with a two-day conference that Steve, the EL Fellow stationed in Bukavu, had planned – the first of its kind in area, focused on teacher professionalism and gleaning participants from primary and secondary schools throughout Buakvu, and further afield: Idjwi Island, in the middle of Lake Kivu (the primary Western border between DR Congo and Rwanda), Goma (North Kivu) and even south, closer to the Burundi border. One professor from Lubumbashi; others from local institutions in Bukavu – it was a veritable Richard Scarry picture book of transport: people coming by bus, moto, ferry, plane. For us, we traveled by car to the border, about six hours winding through Nyungwe Forest and the western provinces, then crossed by foot and met Steve at immigration.

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Kivu Lak from one of the five “fingers” or peninsulas of Bukavu that extend into the lake; photo taken from a small cafe on a hill where we had breakfast 

Crossing into a new country is commonly done by plane, at least for Western travellers – first steps in the country taken after disembarking are passing through an airport, greeting an immigration officer, and processing through customs and baggage claim before emerging from the building in the new land. The plane provide the air bridge, moving you from one city to another, via the most sterilized ports available. Crossing on foot through borderlands is a more stark contrast, the visceral transition from one nation and another. Between Cynagugu, Rwanda, and Bukavu, DRC, the change is immediate, visible from either side of the river: two different worlds. The paved road quite literally ends on the Rwandan side, a smooth tarmac butting into the lot that opens to the wood bridge. You look out on the opposite side of the river: red dirt earth roads, dust, disintegration.

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En route to the lake, hedged by bamboo, eucalyptus, and dense green

I wrote about crossing between Gisenyi and Goma before, and the stark stratification that exists even among developing nations like Rwanda and DRC, betraying recent history. In 1994, refugees fled into Bukavu and Goma from Rwanda, and were gathered into squalid refugee camps that eventually became anarchical kingdoms of fleeing genocidaires, wracked by cholera and the litany of diseases found in cramped, unsanitary quarters. Many returned to Rwanda after several years in these camps, but few talk about it. Students last year would tell me that they had “stayed” in Congo after the genocide – one horrible tragedy abutting another: in 1994, “the Rusizi plain became white like snow with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tents,” Benjamin Serukiza, vice governor of South Kivu, told Jason Stearns in Dancing in the Glory of the Monster (p.98).

What follows is a gross simplification of a complex web of events (read Dancing in the Glory for complete account): the region was heaved into a second, long-lasting conflict that began in 1996, Africa’s Great War – the First and Second Congo Wars, in which Kivu region became a crucible for rebel armies backed by African powers looking for a piece of the rich Congo and direct access to power following thirty years of the kleptocratic dictator propped up by the U.S. in the name of “communist containment” – Mobutu Sese Seko. The conflict(s) lasted from 1996 to 2004, claiming more than 5.4 million lives and permanently, it seems, sewing seeds of instability in the region. As the country closes in on coming elections, in which the current president Joseph Kabila seeks a third term as the thief in chief, the region continues to rock toward instability: Steve talks about police tear gassing crowds outside of his university – and second-hand gassing leaking into hallways, mass demonstrations, grenade attacks, dissidents disappearances and imprisonments, reports of more serious rebel movements outside of the city itself. The undercurrent is that another conflict will break and again decimate the region. The whispered question seems not to be if it will happen – but when.

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Kivu Lak, a boat (which doubles as an emergency contingency plan) in the distance

Conflict is written on buildings, marked on faces, almost palpable in the air of a place. In Bukavu, the physical form is most striking: poorly constructed roads that dissolve into eroded canyons with the rains, pocked buildings, some completely toppled or decimated. Police are constant – under or unpaid, like so many employees of a failed government state, so they supplement by shaking down drivers with defective paperwork – perhaps even the wrong stamp will result in a fine. Development requires stability- and in this country and especially this place, stability is a luxury. It is the problem of living in a vacuum, a place where opportunity only exists if you are connected by blood to more powerful people. For EL Fellows, who already work in developing contexts with poorly-developed education systems, the challenges are magnified tenfold. Our mandate is often to help improve systems and work toward professionalization, but how do you convince teachers of the value of developing themselves as more aware professionals when there are no monetary gains, few opportunities for advancement, overcrowded classrooms and never-ending workloads – little or nothing beyond personal, internal satisfaction? In a broken state like DRC – which provides a stark contrast to Rwanda’s forward-leaning, bright-eyed future, where change occurs, however slow – you often cannot blame people for doing what they must just to survive. In Stringer, Anjan Sundaram encapsulates this notion well, something that a Westerner with a safety net can hardly understand: there is “a futility to worrying in such a place: the threats were too many” (p. 15). IMG_1718

Congolese teachers compiling a list of ten qualities of a leader and answering the question: “how do we impart these to our students?”

It’s not only a challenge in Congo: teachers in developing nations face professional and personal hardships which consistently demotivate and result in deteriorated performance, factors among them “increasing workloads due to education reform, low and infrequent compensation, lack of professional recognition and development opportunities, lack of accountability, and lack of voice” (Wolf et al, 2015, p. 717). Wolf et al, in a study of cumulative risk as related to teacher well-being in DR Congo (essentially, the “accumulation of risk” experienced by a person which eventually overwhelms their built-in capacity to adapt or cope), explains toxic stress  as “one explanation for how and why cumulative risks may overwhelm teachers’ capacities and ‘get under the skin’ to affect well-being and disrupt their abilities to effectively interact with and teach in the class- room” (p. 717). Essentially, the researcher sought to investigate if cumulative risk, when manifested without a positive, supporting environment to counteract the physiological impact of this toxic stress, predicted diminished teacher well-being and motivation in within the DRC. It is challenging to imagine an environment even more difficult for a teacher than what is faced there.

This is what I knew before we began our first day of the conference – a bleak foundation of history, politics, and comparative education research. I’ve known Congolese and worked with teachers from DRC throughout my time in Rwanda. The newness of the experience was to work within the context, on the ground, surrounded by Congolese teachers and actively negotiating with them: to deliver the content I decided appropriate, to work with them to massage it into their context and experience to find its value.

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Men and babies: Richard and Steve with the next generation

However, as has happened time and again in my work on this continent, the reality of what is in front of me and what I hear and what I experience cuts deeper than what I have learned from reading and research. I saw teachers, eager to increase their knowledge and modify their practice, asking questions, debating, sometimes grandstanding – but ultimately engaging in professional development and the early stages of making PD a self-driven, personal practice.

A handful of university students served as volunteers – helping to arrange the chairs (which, in a darkly comic fashion, continued to break throughout the presentations, hapless victims falling to the floor, sometimes one after the other), setting up technology, herding the teachers toward the concurrent sessions, or just sitting in the back of the room and chat with us. Conversations oscillated around career goals, travel dreams, relationships – most often coming back to weave politics throughout – uncertainty about the future continually tempered by optimism.

During one exercise, I sat with groups of teachers and asked them to choose the top ten leadership qualities that they felt were most important for a leader – not confined to an education leader, but any leader. On their own, they wrote their top ten, then sat with partners and melded their lists together. Over and over again, I could see the same words show up: optimistic, humble, good listener, connected to their people. I asked them to discuss questions connected to their lists: Which characteristic is your strength? Which would you like to develop? Which are most essential for a teacher? Which are most essential for an academic administrator? And – the one I thought to be most essential – How do we impart these qualities to our students? 

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Maggie, alight in fantastic Congolese dress, working with two other teachers during a leadership panel.

Their lists – and their discussed responses – clashed violently with the examples of leadership too often found in Congo. Humility, listening to your people, being responsible to their needs and wants – not words often used to describe dictators, but instead, the words we use to describe those teachers whose impact and memory stick with us through the years. And this is what the toxic stress of an environment like Bukavu, the possible burnout from the myriad of challenges facing teachers in the region, cannot always destroy: continued belief that people are able to see and make change in their worlds, either in classrooms or at higher political planes.

Earlier in May, Facebook CFO and author of Lean In Sheryl Sandburg delivered the commencement address at UC Berkeley, speaking for the first time about the tragic death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, from a cardiac arrhythmia in 2015. In expressing her journey of loss, she connected with the work of psychologist Martin Seligman and his three P’s – personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence – “that are critical to how we bounce back from hardship.” She calls these the “seeds of resilience” – essentially, that when faced with hardship, if we work through these three steps, we are able to strengthen our defenses for dealing with future challenges. One thought, near the end of her talk, resonated loudly:

“You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle,               you can build it up, draw on it when you need it.” 

Perhaps it is trite to link the survivors of Africa’s Great War and Bukavu’s continued tumult with the widowing of a wealthy tech executive, but as I have been realizing with trauma, there is a line that is drawn through our experiences, that even with disparate geography, economic status, race or culture or religion, we can find commonalities in our shared experiences as humans. That what we survive is not the greatest predictor of who we are and who we will be – it does not dictate our capability.

Professionalization, is, after all, a form of resilience: Hoyle (2008)  identifies one aspect of professionalization in the teaching field as “able to function effectively in uncertain and indeterminate situation.” (p. 285). Like the “muscle” of resilience, professionalism builds as a teacher is able to access education, consider their own pedagogical practice, apply what they have learned, evaluate the effectiveness of the practice, innovate, and complete the cycle through sharing their experience. 

Wolf et al in their study of cumulative risk and teacher well-being in DRC found that that “burnout decreases as teachers become more experienced” (p. 735) – congruent with similar Western studies, the highest rates of teacher burnout occur among younger and less experienced teachers. As teachers age and deepen their knowledge and experience, they are able to cope with the challenges of the classroom and balance the stressors of the outside life with their classroom existences. As they view themselves as professionals, and continually work toward that goal (one, I would argue, is never truly attainable, as it is the journey not the destination). Interestingly, the study found that not the challenges of the classrooms (such as a lack of materials or classroom sizes) but the interactions and relationship built in educational environments were most essential in coping with stress and mitigating burnout: “efforts to improve the nature of interactions among staff within a school, such as school management and supervision, may be more important at this stage” (p. 737).

Like operating in an uncertain and indeterminate situation, perhaps like South Kivu, Kabul, or a refugee camp in Lebanon, it requires an equal measure of optimism: resilience teaches that something better and brighter is possible.

For me, personally, I am inching toward the close of this chapter: I’m 25 days from returning home after two stints with the English Language Fellows program, twenty months in total in Rwanda. But each day, considering what I see in front of me, I wonder if I am moving toward a similar frame: that maybe I am an optimist; maybe, ultimately, optimism is the required substance for resilience and the required grit for surviving a career in education, especially work in education in a developing context. But ultimately, they are thoughts for a different day, perhaps 25 from now, so I will end with Seligman:

Optimism is invaluable for the meaningful life. With a firm belief in a positive future you can throw yourself into the service of that which is larger than you are.

Peace,

LC

Hoyle, E. (2008). Changing conceptions of teaching as a profession: personal reflections. In D. Johnson and R. Maclean (Eds.) Teaching: professionalization, development, and leadership. Dordrecht: Springer, 285-304.

Stearns, J. (2011) Dancing in the glory of monsters: The collapse of the Congo and the great war of Africa. New York: Public Affairs.

Sundaram, A. (2013) Stringer: A reporter’s journey in the Congo. New York: Doubleday.

Wolf, S., et al (2015). Cumulative risk and teacher well-being in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Comparative Education Review, 59(4), 717-742.