Travelling with Osama bin Laden; Solomon and the deaf cousin

I walk up the hill towards the apartment where am staying with friends in the Damascus suburb of Al Afif. Directly in front of me, desert sand coloured houses are stacked against the steep rocky side of Mount Qasioun and shimmering in the midday heat. I cross the street and have no option but to walk between some members of the Republican guard standing under a tree on the footpath. Some strikingly handsome, Omar Sharif like in dark suits and sunglasses, others in a mix of army disposal garb, like urban duck hunters. They are not difficult to spot. For a start they look at you penetratingly as though you are guilty of something, which of course you are; guilty of feeling guilty and they know it. And then there are the automatic weapons with well worn stocks casually slung across their shoulders, a kind of fashion obscenity. I ask my friends whether they ever shoot anyone and no one is sure. Someone says there are occasionally body sized blood smears on the footpaths. I believe that Coca-Cola is excellent for removing bloodstains from street scapes.

Escaping the heat back at the apartment, I am watching Syrian President Bashar al Assad in a BBC interview. He is saying that Israel’s attack on the Gaza aid flotilla has increased the chances of war in the Middle East, and that war could begin at any time and that when it started it would start unexpectedly and suddenly. Israel doesn’t have too many friends in this neighborhood, it is still holding around 700 square mile of Syria’s Golan Heights. The only condition to obtain a visitor’s visa to Syria is that you don’t have an Israeli stamp in your passport. Sitting on this couch in a darkened living room, not many blocks from the Presidents house but just over 9000 km from the Whitehouse, I am feeling we in Syria are misunderstood. President al Assad seems like a serious man and right now I am taking him very seriously.

I am here to do some work with my friend Paul who is consulting for the European Union. Together we are exploring ways in which development can be done more effectively. The approach we are using is mostly to do with the ways in which multiple players see and understand a development situation. We are attempting to build a generative process that takes into account these different ways of knowing and understanding and includes for an infinite range of possibilities and unknowns which can still be included into program design and implementation.

What we are working on is less about what to do and is more about how to engage in development using building blocks that only emerge as a program develops.

Recently a number of people have told me I am the Guru of World Vision’s innovation in Economic Development. My knowing is mostly based on how little I know, knowing that all truths in this work are only partial, and knowing that if we are going to make a significant impact in economic development we need to come up with new ways of seeing the issues we are confronting. Some Guru!

At Damascus International Airport, my flight to Kenya has been delayed by three hours. Sitting in a comfortable chair in an airport lounge, I pull out my Utne Reader, a magazine I subscribe to from the USA and whose motto is “best of the alternative press”. Puzzlingly a number of Arab men in full length flowing white Dishdashah gowns stop in front of me and give me disapproving stares. I give a friendly nod, “Australian” I say, in case they think I am the American enemy….then I realize, on the cover of the Utne Reader is a picture of Osama bin Laden outrageously photo shopped in shorts sitting on a couch watching TV eating chips with a Coke. I am not sure how Osama is thought of here. I consider ripping off the cover and eating it to destroy the evidence but decide to stow it, I move seats and mentally rehearse plausible excuses incase some of the Republican guard appear.

Ultimately I was untroubled by the Republican Guard and some 10 hours later my plane lands at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta airport but now am more concerned about the possibility of being hijacked on the way to the hotel …it is 4am, still dark, it is better not to travel in the dark here. I remember a story I heard when I first came to Nairobi four years ago. A hapless development worker takes a taxi from the airport but it stalls at an intersection on the way into town. The battery is dead and the driver and passenger both get out to push start the old Toyota. The engine starts and the taxi roars off leaving the passenger with just the clothes he is standing in, but at least with his money and passport. The newcomer finally finds his hotel and exhausted after his 24 hour flight takes a shower and on emerging finds his clothes, money and passport all gone. He has been in Nairobi a little more than an hour and he has lost everything but the hotel towel he now stands in. As they say here, welcome to Nairobery.

The latest advice from the Australian Governments travel advisory reads:

The level of crime in Nairobi is high. Violent crime against Westerners, including armed carjacking, kidnapping for ransom and home invasions, occurs frequently and can be brazen and brutal. There have been fatalities. Anecdotal evidence suggests that foreigners are increasingly being targeted in homes, tourist areas and while travelling by road.
You should avoid walking or travelling after dark or on isolated roads, especially in downtown areas, public parks, along footpaths or on beaches, and remain vigilant during daylight hours.
Muggings and burglaries are common, particularly after dark. Jewellery and bag-snatching from open vehicle windows frequently occur while motorists are either stopped at traffic lights or in heavy traffic. When driving, you should ensure that windows are up, doors are locked and valuables are out of sight.
The risk of armed banditry, violent robbery, carjacking and kidnapping is also high on isolated roads and after dark. Crimes of this nature are common in Kenya’s urban centres, Due to the very high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, victims of violent crime, especially rape, are strongly encouraged to seek immediate medical assistance.
In Nairobi, confrontations between police and criminal suspects occur regularly. Bystanders have been wounded or killed as result of indiscriminate gunfire in crowded areas. We advise you to remain vigilant at all times.
But I am delighted to be back and though I have had a couple of uncomfortable encounters with corrupt police at night and daytime street thieves, I have always felt reasonably safe. And what I have never been able to reconcile is why there is so much crime when Kenyans are generally such friendly and relational people.

A few days later I visit an area called Soweto in Nairobi’s Eastands area. It is typical of Nairobi’s poorer urban areas, no reliable power or water, deeply potholed dirt roads winding randomly between buildings. Rough two and three story grey cinderblock apartment blocks of perhaps six or ten units, most owned by exploitive landlords, barred windows and steel doors painted bright turquoise or burgundy. Negotiating potholes the land cruiser dips and weaves like a ship in rough seas. We pass small ramshackle businesses, timber buildings impossibly constructed with Dr Suess angles or solid concrete bunkers with steel doors and can be locked up like a safe.

We pass a seedy bar called Zebra Lounge with black and white painted stripes across the front, sloppy on the woodwork, coloured lights above the doorway, then New Hope Dressmaking next to the Ebenezer Butchery, which is not much bigger than the hanging beef carcass inside and The Ebony Fashion Centre, Glory Beauty Salon and Salvation Shoemaking. Youth unemployment in these areas hopelessly high, as is the rate of crime and most residents stay indoors after 9pm.

We have pass a church called Helicopter of Christ Ministry and meet the Economic Empowerment Committee at the Crown of Life Victory Centre, a corrugated iron shed with a concrete floor. Inside the walls have been roughly lined with Masonite painted cream and draped with cloth bunting which gives it a sad, day after the wedding feel.

I have been leading a workshop about how the group can plan and sustain itself into the future. We have broken for lunch and a meal of Ugali [1], bitter greens called Skuma Wiki and goat meat strew. It is 1.30pm and this will be the first meal of the day for most people in the room. Mysteriously food in Africa seems to keep the strong taste its origins. If it is cooked chicken you can taste the feathers, if it is milk there is the flavour of fermented cud and a sweet cow dung aftertaste, and if it is goat, like we are having today, then it retains a flavour that goes with the smell of freshly butchered meat when the skin has just been peeled off and the flesh steams in the morning off the warm carcass. I have renewed my vows of vegetarianism and am trying hard not to smell the stew.

I sit with Solomon who is a member of the group we are advising. Solomon is probably in his early thirties, he stands about sit foot two, his eyes are bright and he is so thin that I can see all the muscles in his face working when he talks. Solomon tells me he started his own community organisation for people who are deaf. Solomon has a diploma in business and marketing but learned sign language to help his cousin who is deaf. No one was able to assist the cousin so Solomon decided he would and he helped set him up with a hand cart so that he could earn some money by delivering water throughout the slum. And then Solomon began to help others and now there are 45 people who are deaf in the self help association he established. I asked Solomon how he managed to support himself. He said that he is able to pick up sporadic work doing deaf signing at meetings and he tries to pick up odd jobs here and there. Solomons wife sells fried donuts on the street each morning and a friend who runs a small school lets his three daughters attend school at no charge. “We get by” he says with no self pity.

Solomon says he is now studying counselling. I ask him why, and he tells me that the deaf cousin who carries water is often beaten because he gets angry in frustration and people don’t realise he is deaf. “He has developed a slow knock….. Poor fellow has lost his mind”. So Solomon has decided that if he studies counselling he will be able to assist his cousin and then perhaps others as well. As we talked more I began to see that Solomon sees himself as part of a human web in which we all have an important part, and his independent self interest was just not a high priority for him except as it had to do with benefiting the whole.

That evening go for an Indian meal. I have eaten Indian food all over the world; my favourite is the Bukhara Room at the Mauyra Hotel in New Delhi and next is Angithi at Westlands in Nairobi. I went there with my book for company and was shown to a table for two, last in a line of four tables for two. At the first table was another single male, maybe eastern European, pasty complexion, balding, probably in his late thirties. The waiter, and I were following the unwritten rule of men’s urinals, single men should be as far away from each other as the infrastructure permits. When I was seated I leaned towards the other man and said “excuse me… ah hem…excuse me” and the man looked over. I held up my book as if to say it wasn’t great company and said “would you like to eat together? “ Now this may seem slightly unconventional, but to me two westerners in far off places sitting alone in a restaurant should have something useful to contribute to each other’s life journeys. “I am fine thanks” he answered shuffling uncomfortably.

“Of course you are fine, I wasn’t offering you a kidney transplant, I just thought as two solo voyagers at an Indian restaurant, me with my book and you with your magazine, we might relate”. But of course I didn’t say that, the John Cleese in my head did. Instead I nodded, smiled and tried to put on my best heterosexual look in case he thought I was trying to pick him up.

I think that one of the greatest problems in life is fear of relating to other human beings and that we develop life time strategies just to deal with this one fear. Unless of course, we have the wisdom of Solomon.

Jock Noble

Nairobi, Kenya September 2010

[1] Maze flour cooked as a porridge until it reaches a dough like consistency

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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