Belief in what is real takes all kinds of forms. I recently bought a new pair of glasses in Jakarta. They cost about the same as they would have in Australia, but I needed them, my world increasingly out of focus. I proudly collected them a week later and I am now wearing some specs that turn my head into a bill-board for Giorgio Armani. That Giorgio reputedly sniffed so much cocaine that he burned out his nasal passages and had to have a stainless steel plate inserted in his nose, didn’t diminish how special I felt for the first few days. I think it was about the fourth day that I was and working with an economic development committee in a slum community. One of the Ibu’s (women) came out the front of the room to write up something on the flip chart, and I noticed that she was wearing the same glassed as mine. She too had the silver Giorgio Armani emblazoned on each side of her glasses. Were they real, were they fake, did it matter that this humble woman was also sporting my precious designer look? Did she spend $400 at an optometrist or $5 down at the local market?
A few months ago, I also became the proud owner of a Rolex Submariner. I had wanted one since I was a teenager. Naturally, it has a Swiss movement, a shiny Oyster case with the little bubble in the glass to better see the date and the weight conveys strength, reliability and quality. The Balinese man who sold it to me swears that no one can tell the difference from the real timepiece, in fact he said he is not sure, it may even be real. That it was made in Korea and was $4000 cheaper than the original made it affordable, believe me, I didn’t put any Swiss watchmakers out of work. I wore it proudly for my four days in Bali between work assignments and spent time in restaurants looking admiringly at my wrist. But there is a problem. It is so realistic that I no longer feel comfortable wearing it. When working directly with people who are poor, it is one thing to wear a $50 watch, but quite another to wear one that is $4000. And what is the point of wearing such a watch if you have to explain to everyone you meet that it is a fake, whenever you look at the time?
I have been wrestling with the idea of what I believe in and my role in helping others to believe in things that are a lot more real than my Rolex. And I am struck that the value of something or someone has a lot to do with the belief we project and how we name it. I notice that I am much more productive and infinitely more creative when others believe in me. And I am astounded by the power of my belief in others. Some of this has to do with our use of words. For example I have begun to discipline myself to say “people who are poor” rather than “poor people” as I think this better conveys the belief that we are all people first and we share a common humanity rather than a portfolio of labels. It is like, we don’t say “cancer people”, as though their cancer defines them, we say “people who have cancer.”
I am travelling in a car to a remote town on the East Indonesian island of Flores, it is late, the other five passengers are asleep. I am sitting in the front seat and exhausted. I only returned from Africa the day before yesterday, that trip was 25 hours with no sleep. In Dubai I bought a new Canon 550D digital SLR camera, I think it was a good deal but I don’t really know, anything looks like a good deal when you are sleep deprived . So I am somewhere between excited by my new purchase and concerned that I have just put the equivalent of two years income for one of the people I am working for, on my credit card. I know from past experiences that sleep deprivation merged with a deep ingrained retail compulsion is a risky combination . Like when I bought some Bose ‘noise cancelling’ earphones and latter discovered from my credit card statement that they had cost me the equivalent of a small car; not of course that I need a small car when travelling in an aeroplane at 35,000 feet.
We flew 5 hours today and are now taking a 4 hour car trip to Larentuka in the east of Flores. It is just dark, we are on a narrow bitumen road that passes through small villages, there is no electricity, just the soft glow of a kerosene lamp here and there. On my lap the new Canon, in case we pass the shot of a lifetime, or because it makes me feel special,? A slight contraction of the heart, I am too tired to work it out. Around each curve our headlights reveal one surprise after another, a broken down truck, some rocks from a landslide, a section of road partially collapsed to the valley below, we swerve to miss a some brown skinned villagers walking in the middle of the road. The women wear beautiful locally woven ikat sarungs dyed in dusty earthen colours. The men have the sarungs draped around their shoulders like Indonesian Masai, have I been on the road too long? The radio is playing country and western music by a local band from Flores. Every so often one of the songs is in English. The chorus of one is “He drinks tequila and she talks dirty in Spanish” , this refrain goes over and over in and out of my half sleep, I see the Sphinx and the Pyramids and again the road as we swerve to miss another group of locals.
The hotel is uncharacteristically clean, we come through the doors into to a wide entrance hall and all the rooms open on to it. There are armchairs beside each door and there are half a dozen men relaxing with sweet tea smoking clove kretek cigarettes. The men look relaxed , do they know that their island fags are now being produced by the global Philip Morris and have twice the nicotine and three times the tar of a regular cigarette? Marlborough country. There are also mosquitoes, swarms of them. I have a little plug in anti-mosquito device, but there is no power, so I give one of the boys some money and he goes off to buy me some mosquito coils. There is no towel in the room. I ask the house boy but he thinks I want soap and I can’t make myself understood. I am so tired I give up. I take a bath in the mandi, throwing cold water over myself from a water tank in the bathroom and dry myself with the shirt I have worn all day. About 3am, something smacks my cheek, it has legs, and in a second I am standing on the bed, heart pounding not really knowing where I am, but knowing that something and I have had an unnatural connection. Fortunately the power is now on, and I see a cockroach the size of a cigarette lighter running for its life. Not fast enough though, my one litre bottle of water nails it to the floor and it is an ex-cockroach. At least I know what it was. It must have been running across the ceiling and lost it grip, landing inauspiciously on the cheek of the only white man in Larentuka. I go back to sleep wondering if God loves cockroaches.
Next day. My work this morning is work with twenty of our staff to help them come up with ideas on what they can do to help to increase the incomes of people in this ADP in eastern Flores. They have been working in the area for 10 years and generally household wealth has not increased. It’s not that these earnest young men and women don’t want to make a difference to peoples economic wellbeing, but it just seems that they don’t know how. And part of not knowing how is that they don’t share a belief that things can really change. They are often so preoccupied with all the problems, the powerlessness of villagers and our own systems that they seem almost confused as to their role. I ask them, one by one, “why are these people poor?” and they come up with a number of different answers, one says “because they are not educated” and I say, “ but I know uneducated people who are not poor” another says “because they are not motivated” and another says “because they are lazy” and I say “ but I know people who are not motivated and who are lazy but they are not poor” and then one says “because they don’t have enough money”. And as an economic development person, that is the answer I am looking for . Someone else says “but it is not in our Annual Operating Plan” and I say, “the people in your ADP cannot eat your AOP (Annual Operating Plan).“
There is a lot of malaria here and this morning I noticed some mosquito bites and so on the way to the ADP I bought some anti malaria tablets. So in the middle of this discussion, I have just remembered I have them and take a couple of bitter pills. It is a brand I don’t know and I have a reaction to some anti-malarials, I know I should have started a few days ago, but what to do, probably can’t do any harm and believing I am doing something, makes me feel better.
I am a very expedient user of Bible verses , I use them to make points I want to make, and I am not always sure that this is what God intended. But I believe this is my calling and I am trusting in a forgiving God.
So I quote some of Mathew 6 to the staff.
“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
I hear myself saying: “what you put in your reports it is the equivalent of being honoured by men, a good report is acknowledged and acclaimed, and that is acclaimed by World Vision and there is your reward. But I am also asking you to do some things that may not be in the plan or in the AOP, that you may not be able to put into your reports, that you may not be acknowledged for and no one may know except the people who you are helping. But if really we want to make a difference then you have to make a choice about what is really going to make a difference here and perhaps add some activities beyond what you are doing now.”
I am thinking about how difficult it is, how long, how invisible, this practice of community empowerment and it is no wonder that this is not in their AOPs and not being measured…. how hard to keep this in focus. And I am looking at beautiful open faces and I have some sense of the demands on them and I know they want to do some things differently and are torn, and I can’t say for sure that I have made any difference or that they can, but in this moment I absolutely believe in them and I know that there is nothing more important for any of us right now than this moment. There is a silence that it is not right to fill.
I am awestruck whenever I catch a glimpse of this power of positive belief to make the unseen Real, it is what sustains me in this work. When my African friend Peter decided he would do something about water in the Wema ADP none of us had any idea he could mobilise local people to dig over 90 dams, he infected each group with his belief that they could make a difference. Now we jokingly call him ‘the Minister for Water’ but before he believed he could do something, he was just another dirt poor farmer in ragged clothes. Peter’s belief is contagious and now I see him and some others like him inspiring and empowering our own ADP staff.
I remember the story of the Velveteen Rabbit and for a moment I wonder whether I should take the risk and tell them. I decide not to. Once in Timor I made the mistake of trying to tell the story of the “King with No Clothes” . The people I was addressing had absolutely no clue what I was talking about, and the more I talked the less sense the story made, from beginning to end. It is hard to answer sensible questions like “if the King was so gullible, why was he still the king?” . The Velveteen Rabbit is a children’s book about a stuffed toy rabbit who becomes a real rabbit because of the love a of child. Let me quote you a section: “Real isn’t how you are made, “ said the skin horse. “it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with , but REALLY loves you, then you become Real. it doesn’t happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been rubbed off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I am musing about how what I believe in defines me as individual, whether that belief is in Rolexes, or Giorgio Armani glasses, ADP staff or African damn builders. And how what I believe in, is always a choice and if I want to make a Real difference, how often I may need to transcend the limitations of what I think of as ‘the facts’.
I wonder if sometimes I am more worried about a portrayal of what our donors or our experts will perceive as real, than the potential for my work to believe others into Real. To help others “become” . Not being sure what is Real and what is not, means that at times I can become cynical and focused on all the things that might not work and I risk missing the opportunities to believe in the miraculous and in truly awesome potential of untogether and broken individuals. Of course it is safer to try to systematise approaches than risk and believe in the power of people to do things in time frames that don’t fit funding agreements.
Talking of risk, I am checking in to the hotel in Surabaya, the attractive receptionist’s name is Risky. I use her name a couple of times. “Yes Risky, thankyou Risky”, “Risky can I have a room on an upper floor?”, “Thank you Risky”. Now it maybe a middle aged man thing, but I notice that I am much more interested in talking with in a young woman named Risky than I would be in say, an Agnes or a Mary. I was delighted to learn later, that in Javanese, Rizky means blessing or gift from God.
Surabaya Indonesia November 2009