I am in an aisle seat and a traditionally shaped African woman in a tight full length dress, colourful like some giant exotic jungle bird, is in the seat next to me. She gives me the hint of a smile, and I understand her completely. She has only been in the seat 15 minutes and in a series of deft public transport manoeuvres, no doubt perfected on bus journeys across whatever African country she is from, she has claimed all of our joint armrest and the smile is just to let me know that for the next 8 hours she can do this whenever she likes. For the first time get a sense of why there are so many border skirmishes between African states. But I know one thing that she doesn’t. After a movie I am going to take a sleeping tablet which will totally knock me out for 4 hours and given her size and tight dress she will be landlocked and could find herself praying for a miracle if she doesn’t go easy on the water. I watch her take another sip from her water bottle with more than a little smugness, and smile back.
I watch a remake of the Karate Kid. Young African- American boy, Dre Parker, recently moved to China with his mother …….is bullied by the local kids. He meets Mr Han, a scruffy aging building maintenance man who just happens to be a martial arts expert, still grieving for the death of his wife and young son. Mr Han mentors Dre who prepares heroically for his upcoming fight at the martial arts tournament. Overcoming self doubt, being misunderstood and injustice, Dre wins the tournament, the respect of his former enemies, the crowd and his teen love interest. They would be lucky to share a hormone between them.
I successfully fight off another blatant territorial incursion from the African state to my right, whose open magazine had clearly drifted well across the border. One movie merges into another and I am watching Ninja Assassin. In this tale, the hero fights the brutality and oppression of his previous teacher to save world from evil and bad Ninjas. Ninja incidentally can mean ”the unseen”. So the hero here is fighting the unseen to restore the world to safety and righteousness.
The plane lands in Dubai at 5.30am. My sleeping tablet only worked for 3 hours and my African nemesis must have a bladder like a camel, because she didn’t move from her territory the whole 8 hour flight from Singapore. The next leg of my journey begins in 9 hours with a ten hour flight to Dakar in Senegal via Casablanca.
So I am passing time in the Emirates lounge, having sandwiches and a beer at 11am, who knows what time it is in the world I have come from. Drinking half a glass at a skull is like diving into the foam of a dumper at Lorne on a bracing sunny winter morning and surfacing, tingling, eyes watering, gasping, and triumphant, completely in the moment.
I am thinking of the movies from the flight, of the role of the hero, the role of the mentor, of unseen evils and fighting injustice and oppression. I think about our work in the International Development sector and about my work. And I am thinking of the heroes, mentors and of the archetypes at play in the hero’s quest. And this is where it gets a bit sticky. I know I am jetlagged but I can’t figure out where we fit in and I have a feeling that there is something very wrong.
Typically the heroic story will follow an outline something like this: The hero leaves the safety and comfort of the “ordinary world” to sacrifice him or herself for a righteous challenge in the “special world” in order to restore balance to the “ordinary world”. A Mentor provides motivation, insights and training to help the Hero with his quest. The Hero faces trials and tribulations, overcomes self doubt, yet committed to his quest devises a plan and finally meets his enemy head on. In the process the hero needs to experience an inner death in the midst of the ordeal and to be reborn……. having overcome fear and difficulty. Ultimately the Hero triumphs, seizes the prize and returns to the ordinary world again with new rights, having earned his place and bringing the treasure or an elixir to share with others and heal the wounded land.
As I sit in the Emirates lounge pondering this, I am thinking this is sounding uncomfortably like the story the international aid and development sector seems to be telling itself. Do we really see ourselves as heroes fighting against the seen and unseen forces of darkness, to restore balance to the world? Or are we seeking to empower our donors to be heroes, or are we mentors trying to assist the heroic poor to vanquish poverty and injustice? There is something that doesn’t feel quite right about any of this, yet our story as we tell it, fits well with the archetypal heroes’ quest. I know why people don’t speak too much of these things, it is because it does your head in. Things you thought you knew become empty and words become hollow and you wonder what you can still hold to be dear.
So why am I uncomfortable? It is this: in the hero’s story, in order to live out my quest I need the poor, and in this story my identity is forged as I bring back the treasures of achievements to donors, our agency and our land of plenty which cannot be free unless we confront poverty and injustice and bring back the prize of achievement.
At the same time I know that this is not how I work when I am consulting or mentoring our staff or working with people in communities who are poor. In summary, my modes’ operandi is, showing up, letting go, and letting come. The “letting go” part of this seems risky as it involves demonstrating confidence in the outcome and a fearless certainty that I and others will have what we need to solve the problems at hand. It involves me “letting go” of the known and falling without knowing the answers or the outcome. Then “letting come” is allowing for the discovery of a new future and a plan together. I have generally found that this future is something quite unexpected that comes neither from me nor from others but emerges as something more or less in its own right. And when this happens it is something to behold, those there stand back and say:”Wow, look at what we discovered.” And it may be that this is attributed to me, or it may be that a group attributes it to itself, or it is seen as a joint creation. But for me the mystery is that it is dependent on us showing up and that it doesn’t exist separate from us, but that this new vision for a future also has some identity from its own side. It is as theorist Otto Scharmer says “allowing the inner knowing to emerge”.
In this story there is no hero, it is just being present and the motivation for this “showing up with fearless awareness” is a mystery. This mystery is not something I will be trying to sell to one of our donors anytime soon and yet I wonder whether we need to begin to try. Because if I have any certainty at all in this work, it is that a replication of “our western future” is not a sustainable solution among people in many of the poorest places. There will need to be a new future, one in which we probably have a role, but it will need to come from a place of co-creation, not heroes from foreign lands.
The hotel reception is just up the passage from my room; two women in their late twenties sit behind a high dark wooden counter and watch French soap operas on the television in the entryway reception. Opposite the counter there are a half a dozen cable television receivers stacked on top of each other flashing green lights. Behind the counter in the corner sits a gangly young man tall as a door hunched over a computer balanced on a box knee high off the floor. I register with one of the women who tells me her name as Aisha, she looks like one of the soap stars on the screen behind me. She records Jock Noble as Jacques Le Bon, I think, good choice for a stage name and sign Jacques Le Bon. The television screen is showing a man with an exaggerated Elvis Presley hairstyle kissing the neck of a sighing blond woman and there is a flash of bare breasts.
Aisha is wearing a black, low cut, body hugging evening dress, her chocolate brown skin shiny with the humidity, pretty face, bright eyes, long hair pulled back. She has diamond shaped partings her scalp marked out in lines of bright red ink. Aisha’s eyelids are painted fluorescent turquoise like tropical butterflies; she blinks lazily and flirts effortlessly. Named for the young wife of the prophet Mohamed, Aisha makes graceful slightly exaggerated gestures before her small audience. The gangly boy nods at me, grins appreciatively at Aisha and says he wants to marry her. His name is Serigne and he is the brother of the owner.
The other young woman behind the counter is wearing tight blue denim jeans and a blue tee-shirt which reads in white letters “I Am the One”. It could have something to do with Jesus but I am thinking probably not. She stares vacantly at something invisible and every few minutes flicks her wrist to check the screen of her mobile phone and intermittently sends a slice of herself into cyberspace.
The hotel is on the road just outside Kaolack about 4 hours south east from Senegal’s capital Dakar. I have been assured by the staff here that it is the best hotel available. Today I have no illusions of self sacrifice. I am tired, it is just 10.30pm Senegal time but it 8.30am Melbourne time and I am still trying to adjust. I had half a night’s sleep after arriving and we drove down from Dakar at 7am this morning. The mosquitoes in my room are the size of small birds. A cockroach runs across my cheek and I slap at it but am really too tried to care. Noise from the front desk, someone shouts angrily in a French soap opera, guests shouting in the passage, banging doors, and the wooden vibrato squawk of furniture being dragged by ghosts in rooms to the side and above.
As I drift off to sleep I am wondering if, like Don Quixote, I have constructed a heroic fight against the ferocious giant of poverty, a battle in my imagination against turning windmills and that the solution lies in a different kind of turning entirely, the miracle, which for some reason feels like a privilege, of just turning up and being completely present, no room for heroes in this space, they would only get in the way.
Dakar Senegal September 2010
 Liberally adapted from”The Writer’s Journey”, Christopher Vogler
 Language borrowed from Otto Scharmer, “Theory U”