Anti-G20 protests in Hamburg – of new world orders and other things.

” A – anti- anticapitalista
A – anti- anticapitalista” 

This is the tune that has been ringing in my head for three days now – reason? The Hamburg anti-G20 protests. Once again I find myself bang in the middle of yet another critical world event and here is personal account of my anti-g20 experience.

My overwhelming feeling during this time was that of discomfort and confusion –

1. Confusion at why the G20 would happen in one of the most radically left wing localities of one of the most radically left wing cities in the world.

2. Discomfort at the sheer number of police walking in the streets – all decked up in anti-riot gear, guns ( some with rubber bullets), tear gas, backed up by water cannon trucks.

3. Discomfort at the fear I felt of the black block who ravaged the city setting fire to cars and breaking and looting symbols of the establishment (also to be noted – my discomfort and confusion at feeling this coz I considered my self pretty anti-establishment).

4. Discomfort  with feeling anxious about the immense violence that took place in my street ( Shculterblatt – also the anarchist quarter) on Saturday night. The sky was full of smoke and helicopters that circled with spotlights like lightening in the sky, the street was on fire, big supermarket chains broken and looted, banks and other symbols of capitalism broken in, everything from garbage cans to traffic signs set on fire, thousands of armed police filling the street like cockroaches and attacking people with water cannons and tear gas.

5. Discomfort at acknowledging that I had the privilege to stay in for my safety.

6. Confusion about why I felt so much discomfort with anti-establishment violence, when I agree that sometimes for radical change, there needs to be a disruption, a break in the routine of the system that exists. Discomfort at realising the everyday violence that current dominant systems inflict on alternative peoples around the world that the rest of the world doesn’t see, doesn’t acknowledge.

7. Discomfort with the immense amount of media coverage that the violent protests got, while the other forms of resistance ( love parades, dance marches, creative theatre, silent sit ins, peaceful marches) were ignored. Discomfort that the protests were all called ‘ anti-globalisation’ protests, when in fact they were about so so much more.

8. Discomfort at witnessing the aftermath scene – the police and the protesters clashed all night and yet when we got out at 8 am, the streets were cleaned of all the broken glass and other signs of clashes. Discomfort at the overt sanitisation of the city by the state and the pretence of ‘ order’.

9. Discomfort at the witnessing the scene on the final day of protests – the majority of people out were bystanders, literally standing on the sidelines – many of them drunk, showing no respect for anyone or anything, trampling banners (about the revolution), using force to pull doors that say push (and not in a symbolic manner), just waiting around to watch protesters clashing with police,

10. Discomfort at the overwhelming whiteness I saw around me, there were literally 3 other people of color on the street. Discomfort at feeling myself close up by what whiteness does.* ( Reference to Sara Ahmed – note at the bottom)

11. Discomfort at realising that I am an outsider after all. This is not my native politics and nothing is black and white, so maybe I am missing something. And maybe I need to learn more about it, because for all the ‘antiness’ I have witnessed in the past days, I still don’t really know what the alternative looks like.

*Note about what whiteness does –  Sara Ahmed: “I think of whiteness too as a sense of being surrounding, of having no room to be. You feel cramped, even nervous. To feel whiteness as oppressive is to be shaped by what you keep coming into contact with in such a way that you are restricted. I am speaking, here, of non-white people who inhabit white spaces, spaces that have become white through who as well as how bodies gather. This is how a ‘not’ can be so tight that it too feels like the loss of wiggle room (we might think a “not” is quite roomy, perhaps we can make it so, when we embrace this “not,” willingly and willfully). You might experience yourself becoming tighter in response to a world that does not accommodate you. You have less room.”

 

 

 

 

A night at the detention centre

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
I’ve always loved Sundays,there is something refreshing about them. That Sunday I woke up extra excited, in a few hours I would be in Ireland, meeting inspiring people from all over the world. Attending the Global youth Peace summit, something we need so much in today’s time. Young people from Sri Lanka to Colombia would be getting together for one week in Belfast to inspire change. And I was going to reunite with some of my beautiful friends again, I couldn’t wait to be there! “This is exactly what I need at this point in my life,” I thought, as I got to the airport in Hamburg.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Breezing through border controls at Hamburg Airport, I felt reassured that I had the right information about visa requirements. A bit of a backstory to put this in context : I am an Indian citizen, with a Dutch residents permit as a family member of an EU citizen. According to a million legit websites, if you are a non-EU spouse or family member of an EU citizen and have a residents permit card that says so, you are FREE TO TRAVEL in the EU. Just to make sure I made a call to British Embassy in the Hague, asking about this. It was confirmed. So I was confident.

” We are now landing in Heathrow, thank you for flying with us” at these words, I was itching to get out of the plane, it was half an hour delayed, which gave me only half an hour to get to my next flight! I hate when that happens, and transfers always make me nervous so I made a dash to border control wanting to make sure I make my flight. I had never missed a flight in my life and I did not plan to give with without a fight, little did I know, that fight I would have to, but for a whole other reason. At border control, sat a big white man looking stern in the way authorities at borders usually do.

 S ( Srushti): Good evening. ( Puts passport and residents permit on the counter)
O (Border control Officer) : ( Looks at the passport, at S, at passport, roughly flips through the many stamped pages) Where is your visa to enter the UK?
S : (nervously pointing) I have EU family residents permit.
O: (grunts and examines the permit) It doesn’t say family on it.
S: Uh, yes, right here ” familie en/of gezin of  …”
O: But it doesn’t say it in English now, does it?
S: Yes, but it is a Dutch residents permit.
O: Wait aside I need to check this out.
S: My flight leaves in 20 minutes.
O: Not my problem.
Restlessly I sit down where he pointed. Another young woman with an Iranian passport sits there waiting. We exchange nervous smiles.

10 mins… 20 mins… I’ve missed my flight… 50 minutes later, the man comes back with my passport.

O: You cannot enter the UK.
S: But..?
O: Ah ah, don’t argue, if we made if so easy for Indians to come to the UK, they would all come running here, wouldn’t they?
S: But I have an EU permit, I spoke with the British Embassy and they said it was fine.
O: Yes, but I am saying it is not fine. I have worked here for 17 years, are you telling me how to do my job?
S: I am not trying to do anything of that sort, I was informed by the British Embassy and I have checked a million websites that as a family member of an EU citizen within the EU.
O: But we not part of the EU anymore.
S: I know, but the rules haven’t changed yet, the British Embassy told me so.
O: ( angrily) I am the British Embassy! Who do you think you are?  Just because you have travelled all over the world, you think you can enter the UK! We need everybody to know that we are the strictest law in the land.  We are going to deport you back on the first flight, ( looking at his watch). It might be tomorrow, you’ll have to spend the night at a centre, we’ll just have to see. Take a seat and wait for further instructions.

On my way to  my seat another officer comes to me and advises ” That man is the highest border official in the airport, I would be nice to him if I were you. You don’t want to tick him off.”

Now I was panicking, being deported, spending the night at a detention centre!? Shit was now circling around in the air, very close to the fan.

I calmed myself down, and changed my phone sim card to my Dutch number. My husband was in Trinidad ( taking separate vacations didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore). I called my father in law in The Netherlands to make sure the family knew what was happening. Immediately they set into motion, made a whats app group to offer support in different ways. I informed by friends in Belfast and a few other friends ( if I was going to disappear soon, people needed to know where I was last, I thought, years of watching dramatic movies and reading horrible stories dancing around in my head). Calling the Embassy Indian, or Dutch or British somehow didn’t cross my mind, possibly because I was freaking out and all I wanted was to get home. Anyway, there was nothing else to do but wait.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

I sat in the waiting area for 3 hours before the officer came back. Different people were brought into the waiting area during this time, guarded by two officers, situated in the middle of the airport, surrounded by lines of travellers getting to border control who walked past staring at us like something  you look at in a zoo. All the people brought to waiting area in the three hours had something in common – they were all not white.

After three hours, the officer came back and asked me and the Iranian woman to follow him for further instructions. He took us to some rooms behind giant steel doors, all the while making inappropriate jokes about how we needn’t worry because he was not going to ‘do anything to us’, because there were cameras everywhere! He told us that the Iranian woman would be sent onwards to Dublin that evening ( she had an Irish residence permit) and I would be sent to a detention centre for the night as there were no more flights going to the Netherlands. Shit had officially hit the fan.

After this explanation I was told to follow two female guards into another room where they took my finger prints and picture and made my file. While their lips said the words ” don’t worry you have not done anything criminal, this is just procedure” their actions continued to humiliate and dehumanise me. I cried during this ‘routine procedure’ and they just looked away and continued to talk amongst themselves about where one of them was going on vacation next week. At some point one of them asked the other ” what are we going to do with this one?” and her response was “I don’t know, we need to wait for instructions.” All the while ‘this one’ was sitting right there. An hour later, they had further instructions and I was escorted to collect my bags which had been taken off the plane hours ago. While I was waiting, I tried to talk to them and emphasised how I did not want to go to a detention centre, I preferred to wait at the airport instead, to which they answered, ” we have to make sure you are comfortable, the detention centre has a bed and a shower.” In my head I was screaming – comfortable!!?Seriously!!

On the way to the centre, one of the female guards started making small talk with me asking what I was ‘ in’ for. I explained my situation to her and suddenly they both stopped walking, “You have an EU family residents permit?” “YES!”, one guard says to other “she has a family permit, she should be allowed to go”,  I see a glimpse of panic in their eyes,
“But the chief officer ( using his name) checked her papers” says one, ” yeah, he must have checked properly, I am sure he couldn’t have made a mistake.”  Seeing my window of opportunity I tell them that he did not let me really explain my situation well and that I was informed by the British Embassy. I see the confusion on their faces, and also the shackled limitation of their positions. Finally the conclude that he could not have made this mistake and if he said I was not allowed, he was probably right, so we continued on our way. But suddenly they were much nicer to me, more polite, asking about what I do and how I speak such good English? ” 300 years of colonialism” I wanted to answer, instead I say that I went to an English medium school, growing up.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Once at the detention centre, I had to hand over my phone, my belongings, even my shawl (a potential self strangulation device) to the guards. I was patted down by an officer and led into a closed room, where another woman of color was sitting in the middle, blankly staring at a TV screen. This room had a table with two chairs, some newspapers, a pay phone in one corner and two thin mattresses in another. A glass window separated it from the area where two guards sat. One of them said in a sing song tone – ” you be nice to us and we be nice to you. If you throw a tantrum, cry or make any trouble, you and me will have trouble and we don’t want any trouble now do we? ” I was given a paper and a pen and allowed to give the phone number of payphone in the room to my family members so they could call me on it. “Till when am I going to be here?” I asked, ” as long as it takes” was the answer. I was given a cup of instant noodles and some coffee to take with me in the room. And then the door closed.
Soon my husband called on the payphone and I broke down listening to his voice. I just wanted to get home. A few minutes later I was calmer and we hung up. Somehow, having this other woman in the room gave me an enormous sense of relief. I sat down beside her and introduced myself. We started talking – she was Mexican. My age, visting her boyfriend after three years, she had an invitation from him, she had an entry visa for the UK, but at the border, they started asking her questions, they asked what her job was and when she said she was a cleaning lady in Mexico, she was asked to wait. An hour later, officers told her that her job was not according to their standards and she did not have enough resources to enter. So she would be deported back to Mexico on the first flight out. By this point she was in the detention centre for 10 hours already. Her boyfriend and his family waited outside for hours before finally realising there was not much they could do. I felt pained and angry for her, she was upset too, but consoled me saying “It was unfortunate that this happened but at least I got the opportunity to get on a plane for the first time in my life. And I will go home soon.”

A few hours later, another person was brought into the detention centre, a white American man. He was there because he had overstayed his work visa for 10 months, now returning from a vacation in Thailand, the border guards realised this and refused to let him enter.

At 12 am the lights in room were switched off and there was nothing else to do but sleep. I did not sleep that night. I lay awake thinking, simmering in my anger and feeling the pain of humiliation, dehumanisation and uncertainty – my pain and that of millions of people around the world who are in similar or worse situations. I was in this situation and yet, I knew that I was privileged. I spoke the language of the authorities, I was highly educated, I knew what they were talking about, I had a network of people around the world who would fight for me and whose support I could rely on. I would get out of here. But everyday thousands of people are dehumanised, humiliated, detained or worse sent back to places that may not be safe for them. What is this world we live in, where borders rule supreme, where an officer on a power trip can deport someone just because he says so, where people become things and things become more important than people?

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise

The next morning, the lights got back on at 6 am, we were given coffee and some bread. An officer came in and informed me that I would be put on an 8.30 flight back to Amsterdam. At 7.30 two women guards came along to escort me to the flight. They stayed with me till I got onto the plane and handed my passport and a letter, that among other things, gave the crew “the authority to keep in custody on board, if I tried to escape.” For the 45 minutes of the flight duration I stared at the seat in front of me. The crew handed me my passport when we landed and I was free again. At the Dutch border control, I fidgeted nervously as I waited in line. Once at the counter the officer looked at my residents permit and passport for 3 seconds and said, “welcome”.
Tears of relief and exhaustion streamed down my face as I walked to pick up my bags. I was home.

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Poem: I rise, by Maya Angelo.

About responsibility a.k.a the role of men in feminism/ the role of white folks in race discussions.

So yesterday my Feminist Club organised a discussion night about the role of men in feminism. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have some discomfort with this idea – for many reasons, some of them being – the way heforshe was framed, how men sometimes have a knack for taking over, that feminism is sometimes used by some men to seem ‘progressive’, the importance of safe spaces (women only)  meant for sharing lived embodied experiences and for healing… the list goes on. (Click on the hyperlinks to read more about it.)

Anyway. So at this discussion, one of the things that came up was the question of ‘responsibility‘. Whose responsibility is it to ‘educate’? Some folks said that women should share more with men ( afterall how else would they know about the issues we face), some folks said men should just educate themselves first, like go read a book or something. And soon, much to my discomfort, the discussion moved to the question of race. Is it the responsibility of people of color to educate the so called priveleged white folks around them or is the white folks who should go read a book? Now I say much to my discomfort as I was one of the few ‘visibly’ colored people in the room therefore was expected to have an opinion about this,  and as much as I like confrontation, all I wanted was to find a strategy to heal my discomfort about men in feminism!

If this question had come up a year ago, I would be the first in line to share my experiences with those who have  not had them, I would be all there for making people ‘aware’, to fight! But this year has made me more cynical and I am tired, because even though people might have genuine interest and ‘good intentions to learn’ – people get defensive. Countless times I have come up against statements such as “not everything is about race ( /gender)”, “don’t be so sensitive”, ” you must learn to say things more diplomatically”, “but I’m a man ( /white person) and am not sexist (/racist).” In the end requiring me to provide assurance ( it’s not you) so that their feelings are not hurt, or give more examples ( it happened to 10 of my other friends) or even cite academic sources ( the whiter, the maler, the better)! Basically explain and explain and explain. And I am tired of explaining! Especially when my explanations are only scrutinised for points to retort back to, instead of being understood with an open heart!

An article I read earlier today by John Metta, said this – “Living every single day with institutionalized racism and then having to argue its very existence, is tiring, and saddening, and angering. Yet if we express any emotion while talking about it, we’re tone policed, told we’re being angry. In fact, a key element in any racial argument in America is the Angry Black person, and racial discussions shut down when that person speaks. The Angry Black person invalidates any arguments about racism because they are “just being overly sensitive,” or “too emotional,” or– playing the race card. Or even worse, we’re told that we are being racist. But here is the irony, here’s the thing that all the angry Black people know, and no calmly debating White people want to admit: The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings.”
And I realised – YES! This is it! I am tired of protecting other people’s feelings. I am tired of being responsible for educating the ‘unaware’ ( priveleged) folks. I am tired of being the  goddamn bridge for everybody! ( Reference to poem at the end.)

Responsibility is a heavy word. It must be shared so that it’s weight becomes bearable. I realise that because of the body I inhabit, I will have certain experiences that those with other bodies may not, and that it would help everybody if I shared those. But it is also the responsibility of the person who asks to listen, really listen and not put up a wall, or to not make it about them. Because many times, it’s not. I realise that I should be more open as well, not expect people to always say the right things, or even be politically correct but to deconstruct their defensiveness and undersatnd where it comes from.

The fight is not against each other, the fight is against the patriarchy and the different systems of oppression that lead us to other each other. So yes. We need men in the fight for gender equality and we need white people in the fight against racism. However. Privelege must be acknowledged and make itself useful; speak out loud in its own circles, call out racism, sexism and injustice. But know where( when)  to speak out and where ( when)  to sit down and listen.

This is one of the most beautiful poems’ I know and fits this occassion like a glove. So here goes.

The Bridge Poem

Donna Kate Rushin (1981)

I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody

Nobody
Can talk to anybody
Without me Right?

I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the Ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…

Then
I’ve got the explain myself
To everybody

I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

Forget it
I’m sick of it

I’m sick of filling in your gaps

Sick of being your insurance against
The isolation of your self-imposed limitations
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people

Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip

I will not be the bridge to your womanhood
Your manhood
Your human-ness

I’m sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long

I’m sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf you your better selves

I am sick
Of having to remind you
To breathe
Before you suffocate
Your own fool self

Forget it
Stretch or drown
Evolve or die

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
Mediate
My own weaknesses

I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

-from This Bridge Called My Back
     edited by: Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

NO means NO, really!

 A questioning of the embodied experiences of being‘ woman’ through the use of our bodies.


At what point in our lives does a woman’s ‘ NO’ become less powerful than a man’s ‘NO’?
 

At what point do we, women go from saying ‘NO!’ to ‘No, please…’?

Who convinced us to  ‘take disadvantage’  in society?

Were some of the questions that were explored within the wooden walls of Perdu Amsterdam on Saturday evening last week. The aim was not to ‘find answers to these questions’ but to merely encourage a questioning, of our lived realities in different bodies and how these experiences are shaped by those bodies. The chosen form of enquiry? Forum theatre.

For those who are new to this form of expression, as I was, Forum Theatre is an aesthetical representation of a real problem. The audience is invited to come on stage to intervene, suggesting alternatives in order to transform the staged reality. This is an extremely powerful way of harnessing social change, because the audience is not a mere spectator anymore, nor are they allowed to simply theorise about the issue at stake – ‘come on stage and show us how you would do it differentlyBarbara ( the artistic director)  would say and you could see an audience shy at first, slowly growing in confidence to intervene, to address and to change the status quo.

The play, NO means NO, was simple in it’s delivery and that is what made it impressive. In three recognisable scenes it presented the complex process of ‘socialisation of gender‘.

Scene 1: At the playground
Two boys and two girls are playing, they get into a fight, each one screaming as loud as the other – a teacher( a symbol of society) walks onto the scene, tries to pull them apart – it doesn’t work – takes the girls aside and teaches them ‘manners’, good manners, be good girls, do not shout, do not be loud, do not say NO! but say No, please – “but  the boys are still playing and shouting” complain the little girls hesitantly… oh let them go “boys will be boys”.

Scene 2: High school Party
A young woman drowning in papers, needs to study – two friends come by and invite her to a party – “No” she says – “come on!” – “No”– “Oh come on” – “No pleaseeee” – “oh don’t be a loser, come on!” – “okaaaayyy”.
At the party everyone is dancing – a guy comes in and starts rubbing up against one of the girls – “excuse me!  NO!” she says – he continues – she moves away, “NO thank you!” – he continues – hearing the commotion her friends come over  – her guy friend puffs his chest and tell the other guy “NO! back off” – and off he goes.

edited-5

Scene 3 : Still at the party
A few minutes later – the ‘saviour’ guy friend – more drunk, a bit horny – starts making advances towards his woman friend – she pushes him away – he continues – she says “No please”- and he continues till his sexual advances turn into rape…

20161002_151951
There she is, in the middle of the stage on her knees shouting “I said NO! I said NO!!” And he says “She didn’t say no ‘clearly’”.
The room is still and silent. I look around and see in the eyes of those around me, something that I feel in every cell of my body – anger and  recognition. The scenes presented were not new, all of us sitting in that room were familiar with these experiences, some more than others. But what happened next was new – the floor was opened up for discussion, but not just talking about what we saw and how we feel but showing. This way of expressing ourselves with our bodies gave a channel to all that anger. The scenes were replayed and women and men from the audience, went onto stage to intervene and change the scenes and through that, change realities.

20161002_1637351

The results were incredible – A young Indian woman intervened at the 1st scene and tried to discuss with the teacher, to not treat girls and boys differently, a Dutch woman intervened in the first party scene and firmly told the guy to back off – when he tried to offend her by calling her ugly, she stood her ground and told him to leave. An older woman intervened in the same scene by seeking solidarity with other women in the party, asked them to surround the guy and make him uncomfortable, and a man intervened in the same scene by trying to talk to the guy to change his attitude towards women.

Heated discussions ensued from these interventions – why target only the teacher? Where does she get her understanding of gender from? Why do men use women’s appearance to offend them? Why do women care so much about their appearance? Is it right to make the guy in the party the ‘bad guy’? After all,isn’t he following gender expectations as well? Is one man helping another man to see women as more than mere objects to be possessed,  a good way to bring about change? How do we make the personal political? – were some of the questions that arose in through the discussion. Some questions were answered, some others, only created more questions.

In the end I left feeling inspired and alive and hopeful – A feeling I seldom get when talking about issues so deeply embedded in the patriarchy. I was reminded that while being critical and problematizing our view of the world is important, it is also important to sometimes just intervene, to simply use our bodies, to use our voice and say NO! Nahi! Nee! Não! Nie! Nein! Non! – Because NO really means NO and it’s time we all understood that.

Final scene:
On the way back home in a crowded tram, I am standing with my friends and gushing about the play when a big white man comes along and nudges me to move so he can pass. I move aside, but rather than passing by he stands in the place where I was standing instead, and starts gesturing wildly and talking with his friends. At first I feel uncomfortable and small, ordinarily I would have just let it go, (after all its just a short ride). But today, fired up from my evening,  I see an opportunity to say “NO! I shall not accept this” –  I intervene and I tell him that I was standing there and that he must move. He looks at me like I just asked him for a kidney and sighs,  but makes space for me – a small victory!  I will definitely be using this word more!

 
This event was organised by PLEK in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The play was created and presented  by Madalena-Berlin –  a female group from the  Theatre of the Oppressed and collective of activists from KURINGA (Berlin), founded in 2011. With several Forum Theatre plays, the group stimulates public debates about the oppressions faced by women, and dynamizes the search for concrete alternatives to identified injustices. Madalena-Berlin is part of the Madalena International Network. PLEK is joining Kuringa as an ally to collaborate together. They promote social transformation using Theatre Of the Oppressed as their main methodology. Ana and Inke ( from PLEK) aim to form Madalena-Amsterdam and present  PLEK for Women by the end of this year.  If you are interested in joining this amazing platform for expression and social change, send an email to Ana Barona on ana@plek-maken.nl 

‘Africa adventures’ is now ‘Everyday adventures’!

Dear beautiful readers,

Last year you accompanied me on my journey to DRC. We started conversations about breaking the dominant narratives of a place, about seeing more than a single story about Congo and about the world. You supported me through my harsh wake up call to  racial discrimination and through my struggles with navigating identities.  You celebrated my tiny triumphs and larger ones and in the end grieved with me at having this adventure end.

It has been a little more than a year since Congo, it feels like 10 years! So much has happened in this year. My adventure in Congo may have ended in August 2015 but it opened up a whole new array of adventures to expereince. In trying to make sense of my expereinces within the bubble of aidland, my eyes were opening to the other things I never saw before in my seemingly ordinary everyday life. I was not navigating identites only in DRC, I have been navigating identities my whole life, just as everybody else. In understanding the underpinnings of my navigations within Congo, I discovered how my body, my place in the world and my the role I play in it at a particular moment shapes the experiences/interactions I have and that people have with me. Social science calls this reflexivity and I am hooked!

Looking at life through this reflexive lens reveals new adventures everday! But it also has pitfalls; analysing everyday reality can be hard, and exhausting and I often get super judgemental of myself, and then get judgemental of the judgemental self, and of that.. it goes on. And thats why even though I have been meaning to create this new blog for a year, I never went through with it. I remembered this feeling the other day – it was exactly what I felt when I was writing my thesis ( an autoethonoraphy). Dissecting my own expereinces left me feeling vulnerable and hindered a truthful analysis of my expereince, after a point I couldnt do it anymore. So I created ‘S’. S became my subject, she was having the expereinces and me as the researcher was trying to get underneath these expereinces. It worked then, so I dont see why it can’t work now.

So here we go, round two –  everyday adventures! I hope you’ll join me on this journey !

Want to get in touch?

Leave comments or send me an email!

 

Goodbye (for now) Congo!

So my 6 weeks in Congo have finally come to an end! On one hand it feels like it went by too fast but on the other hand it was not going by fast enough. The last week especially felt like a year! I knew it was just a few days now and I would soon be reunited with the love of my life for a super romantic honeymoon in Tanzania. One week only, but it was so long!

The night before my departure I was quite anxious, I kept procrastinating packing and watched some stupid series instead. To add to my anxiety one of my well meaning ‘psychic’ friends sent me a alarmist message asking if I was okay, because she had bad vibes! Thank you very much sweet friend! My already on edge nerves were now ready to be fried! My roommate made helpful jokes and told me to relax. Apparently, she had experienced this before as well, after being somewhere ‘dangerous’ for a while and nothing happens, the last 24 hours before leaving can feel like a pain in the ass and all the anxiety from the past days can creep up on you. Anyway. I don’t know what it was with me, but it was not only anxiety but also the fact that I was leaving. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to pack. 6 weeks is a short time but I made a life for myself here and it felt so right, I was not ready to let go of that yet.

This realization already made things a little easier. I reassured myself that I would come back and got to packing. Two hours and a super sweet girl talk with ‘A’ later, I went to bed. A was back in the house with me. She was my first friend in DRC and it was quite sweet that I was ending my DRC adventure with her there. Felt like the trip was coming to a full circle.
The next morning I woke up quite early and was all ready to go an hour before my pick up. Finally my pick up arrived 2 hours later and off we were! Within 10 minutes we were at the border already. 20 minutes later I was done with all the formalities and I had an exit stamp on my DRC visa. I still had to sit there for an hour waiting for my driver to finish his formalities(apparently it takes longer for Congolese nationals). And as I sat there on the pavement staring at the sign – Democratic Republic of Congo – I felt a feeling rise in me, a feeling of saying goodbye to a dear friend. The Congo. In just six weeks it had given me so much. I had come there feeling scared and numb and I was leaving a different person. How different I am only yet to find out. Being here, having all the experiences that I had helped me find new stories not only about DRC but also about myself. In falling in love with this glorious, messy, chaotic beauty called the Congo, I fell more in love with the chaos within me.

I didn’t know much about the Congo before I met it, and now I don’t know much more but I want to know and I want the world to know more than the single negative dominant narrative that comes out of this beautiful country. If these 6 weeks were a glimpse into the magnificence of the world’s best kept secret, it has only left me longing for more.

So, Aurevoir dear friend. Until we meet again. 🙂

A Congolese wedding!

On the 7th of August I was invited to a Congolese wedding!
This was the wedding of a colleague from the Bukavu Office lets call her ‘L’. L is originally from Kinshasa(which could have been another country, given the distance and the difference in culture) and her husband ‘M’ is from Bukavu. They had been living together for a few years now and have three beautiful children. This in Congolese culture, very much like in the Indian culture is considered a blasphemy. And so this wedding had even more importance in terms of ‘legitimising’ not only their love but also their children in the eyes of God and the state. For L the wedding preparations began a year ago, for me, about 3 weeks ago. The custom here is that all groups wear the same clothes for the civil and the church ceremony. So as her Oxfam-family, we were all in the same clothes. We had to buy the material that she had selected and give it to the tailor to stitch. I was a bit disappointed that the pagne was black and white and not some bright, fancy ‘African color’. But this was nice too. I made a jacket and a dress out of the material. For the dress I had no picture to show the tailor, only a design in mind, and I cannot draw to save my life. But luckily E can draw, so she penciled out what I wanted and we gave that to the tailor. A week later I went back there and I was mind blown with what he had done! It was perfect! So well cut, so well stitched, super sexy! I couldn’t wait to wear it.
The day before the wedding, we had a small party at our house, and L came over and stayed the night (as she was not allowed to stay in the same house with her fiancé the night before the wedding). That night the Earthquake happened! Poor girl, her already stressed nerves were shaken all the way.

The next morning she woke up at 5am and was off to the hairdresser by 6! We had to be at the townhall at 9am. E and me were dressed and ready to go at 8.15, with still no sign of L! She still had to come home, change into her dress and do her make up (which I was going to do). Well, finally at 8.30 she shows up, looking super pretty, hair done, make up done and now for the dress. We help her get dressed and she leaves in 15 minutes. We get to the townhall and wait. Finally at 9.30 everyone who should be there is there and we enter and the official ceremony begins. The state official is sitting at a desk in the middle of the room with a gigantic Congolese flag behind him, emphasizing the legitimacy of the state in this very personal event in their lives. He starts saying his thing, talks about the country – the importance of civilizing marriages in this way, he talks about the role of the man and the woman, the man should provide for his family and the woman should obey her husband. Then he asked the grooms parents to announce the dowry that they had paid for the bride. The man announced it proudly. He then asked the bride’s parents if that was true and if they were happy with it. They affirmed. The couple signed papers and voila! They were married officially. Clapping , cheering and wooing ensued. Then we stepped out for pictures! After half an hour of smiling and posing, some of us slipped away to go get a coffee and relax before the church ceremony.
A few hours later we found ourselves in a brightly decorated church in a school compound. This ceremony was so much fun! I was super pleasantly surprised! First of all there was a glorious choir who were singing and dancing and just being super awesome! It was very difficult not to groove to and tap your feet to the hymns! Then there was this priest who was the most fun priest I had ever seen – he was wearing a beautiful pagne suit and also danced with the choir. His sermon was super funny and witty and so much more progressive than the state. He spoke about everything from the condition of DRC, to politicians to love and accepting change in each other but also in society. It was a super interesting to hear him talk, with jokes and witty comments he made everyone laugh but also seemed to be driving home a point. This however went on for 4 hours! At first it was fun and interesting but it would have been a bigger success if it had ended after 2 hours. When it finally did, everyone seemed relived and happy, then for the pictures again! After that there was another small break before the big party!

A few hours later, we got dressed up again, this time in fancier clothes and went for the party. It was in a big room, decked up with lights and flowers and drapes and chinese lamps and more. Everyone was assigned tables and on every table there was an array of drinks to choose from. There was music blasting on the speakers, with the DJ announcing his own name in a metallic voice at regular intervals. The master of ceremony came in soon and started the show by cracking a few lame jokes. Then the guy’s family walked in one after the other, with the MC announcing who they were and how they were related to the groom. Then the bride’s family came in and the same happened. Soon the newly wed couple walked in and were subjected to some awkward ‘you have to do this’ activities, for the amusement of the crowd. Then they sat down and everyone started lining up to congratulate the couple and give them gifts+take pictures. The MC went on announcing who was congratulating the couple now and what their relationship to the couple was! About an hour later everyone was asked to stand for prayers, the annoying MC now wanted to someone from the crowd to volunteer to say the prayer, and no one was coming forward so he started pinpointing and almost forcing people to lead the prayer. When people refused, he made some jokes about the Earthquake from the previous night. Finally someone agreed. A short prayer ensued and the buffet was declared open. Table by table people were instructed to go get some food. It was a gracious spread – There was a range of different meats, fries, salads, sambousas, and lots of sweets. Everyone piled their plates and sat down to enjoy their meal. For a while not much was happening, everyone was busy eating and the DJ kept announcing his name in the backround. And all of a sudden, some boys started clearing some space up in the middle of the room. The music changed and the couple was invited onto the dance floor, they grooved to one song, smiling a little at times and looking a bit mortified for the rest. Apparently its custom that the couple, especially the bride ‘must not smile’ during her wedding! This shocked me a bit and I couldn’t help but feel that they were not enjoying the party, however I was assured by the bride later that indeed they were having a good time.
And once the dance floor was declared open there was a transformation I the room! All the guests who were just a few moments ago sitting all prim and propah at their table and eating were on the dance floor going ballistic! It was awesome!!! The music, atmosphere, everyone dancing fantastically – just having fun! I danced my ass off – trying to groove to the music, it was so different from what I was used to. The movements looked very distinct but in fact were super subtle, this way of dancing I was told is very typically Congolese. It looks amazing in any case and everyone seemed to have it in them. I was mesmerized! But after a while we were exhausted, and went home. Apparently the party went on till 5 in the morning. Before leaving we were all given a keychain/bottle opener with a picture of the couple on it as a souvenir from the wedding.
In all it was a long and exhausting but awesome day and I was glad to be part of it. 🙂

Hiking the active volcano Nyiragongo to see the world’s largest lava lake.

On the 14th of July my friend A, (who I met in Kigali at the start of trip) and me dared to hike one of the one of the most active volcanoes – The Nyiragongo to see the world’s largest lava lake. Read on to find out more…

“ Beautiful and brooding, locals in Goma fear and respect the power of Nyiragongo Volcano. Having destroyed half the city in 2002, the volcano certainly deserves its reputation. Those who do undertake the five-hour climb are rewarded with views into the earth’s smouldering heart and the world’s largest lava lake from the crater’s rim. Wrapped in a sleeping bag, watching the fiery glow of the lava light up the night sky is a wickedly surreal, if slightly unnerving, experience.”
– Lonely planet.

When I read this I had goosebumps. But nothing I read had prepared me mentally, emotionally, spiritually or physically to experience the sheer magnificence of this beautiful beast called the Nyiragongo.

The previous day A and me went to the local super market and stocked up on food for the trek – peanut butter, bread, eggs, nut bars, chips, couscous. We rented sleeping bags and got our hiking permit. We were super excited! I was bit nervous as I had heard that it was a difficult hike, just how difficult we were about to find out!

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The next morning we woke up early, packed our backpacks and left for base camp. This was in Virunga National park, we were happily driving through the park when all of a sudden I saw something behind the clouds in the distance. It was the Nyrigongo! Now apparently, this mountain is very easily visible from Goma but the previous week that I had been here, thanks to the dry season dust and clouds in the air I hadn’t caught a glimpse of this beauty yet. But now, there she was, emerging from behind the clouds like a mighty whale. My jaw dropped and I felt a shiver run down my spine! We were going to climb this!? A wave of nervousness, fascination and excitement washed over me and I suddenly felt super awake!

Soon we were at base camp. Thankfully there were only two more hikers with us (there could have been 12 more). A and me were quite curious about them and based on the information we had at hand we tried to guess who they would be. We concluded that they would be tourists (not working in DRC, as it was a Friday), from the U.S or around and mid 30’s. We were not far off; our fellow hikers were a very sweet, super interesting young couple from Canada, who were on a trip around the world, making a stop over in DRC to climb the volcano! This was going to be fun! So along with the 4 of us, there were 2 porters – J and P and 2 guards – Y and Pt. with big guns and machetes. (Apparently the mountain is also known, from time to time to house rebels, bandits and others that we would not want to run into.) After a short security briefing – (stay in the group, do not do this if you are pregnant, there will be 5 short breaks before reaching the top)and a picture, we’re off!
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The first hour and a half is quite an easy walk through a closed forest, we are all happily talking, telling each other ‘our stories’, enjoying the sights and smells and soon it is the first break. We sit down, have a bit of water oblivious of the next steps… the mountain seems close enough now. The second part is a bit more difficult, soon we are walking on black gravel and the small rocks. We are informed that this is lava from the past volcano in 2002. There are big holes in the ground at some places, we’re told that those used to be trees that were now burned away. We’re climbing altitude fast, I’m starting to pant and puff and soon it is already time for break number 2. This time we find ourselves in an open space with small lava rocks scattered around. I am happily lying on a bench examining a rock when suddenly a few large drops of water come tumbling out of the sky.

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But it doesn’t seem cause for worry yet so we stay put. I realize that I don’t have a raincoat, no one told me I had to get one and moreover its dry season, its not supposed to rain, is it? Big mistake!
We continue the hike and first it starts drizzling, – I love the rain so I’m getting happy! Then its raining a little harder – I’m still mesmerized – beautiful mountain, forest all around, we are warm from the hike and the rains are cool. Doesn’t seem so bad. But soon enough, the shower turns into pouring, torrential rain and suddenly it’s not so pleasant anymore. We are hiking up the mountain, there are a lot of bushes but not so many trees to take cover under, and soon we are all completely drenched so we continue anyway. Water is flowing in small streams all around us, we’re getting tired, the hike is getting more difficult, the rocks are getting bigger and the summit doesn’t seem anywhere close by. One of guards first gives me a climbing stick to help me and upon seeing that it’s not working, he gives me his hand, making it a little easier to climb. About an hour later, its still pouring and we come to pause number 3. It’s starting to get cold and we’re all tired – we sit down, have something to eat and drink and hope that the rain will go away. After 20 minutes the rain doesn’t seem to have reduced but we’re getting cold, so we decide to keep moving. This part is super difficult, I’m exhausted, my bones hurt from the cold and my sweater is heavy, but taking it off means getting more cold! But we have to keep going, the guard grabs my hand and I let myself be dragged on for a bit, pushing my limits, fighting the cold and all the pain. I keep looking at the top of the mountain, breathing and reminding myself that’s what its about.

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*You can do this. Come on Srush* is playing on repeat in my head. After what seems like forever we come to a small hut, this is pause number 4. We run inside, its super cold and damp and we’re all standing shivering and panting. The guides try to cheer us up by singing and dancing and encourage us to move to keep the cold away but my feet are numb and I cant move!
After 15 minutes they say, okay lets do this, the last part. Pause 5 is at the top! And the best part is we can already see the tents on the summit. Small, white tents seducing us from the distance. But the rocks between us and the tents look so huge, steep and monstrous. There is a strong smell of sulphur in the air and the high altitude means its colder. Look at the tents, almost there, 45 minutes! I am almost dead. I am so tired, I cannot walk. Cold and wet. Pushing my limits I make small steps to the top. Soon the guides realize that I don’t look good, my lips are blue and my skin is white! They exchange a few worried glances and one of the porters runs to the top. He drops off the bags and runs back down. I am instructed to get on his back, I do as told and soon he is making his way up still slowly but faster than I could have done myself. My fellow hikers, who are actual hikers and marathon runners are at the top already, exhausted but cheering me on. In all this chaos on the guides thinks it would be a good idea to take a picture that I can show my friends! I am like – seriously!!?? But too weak to protest I agree. Funnily enough even in that condition I smile for the camera!

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Once at the summit, all of us try to get out of our wet clothes, but tada! The bags are drenched are so are our clothes! I have one warm shawl that has managed to stay dry in the middle of my bag. I wrap myself in it and roll up into a ball inside my tent, shivering like a leaf in the wind. My friends seem better off than me (they had rain jackets, at least they were not completely soaked) run around to get some charcoal and make a fire. After what seems like a very long time, someone gives me a pant and a shirt and in a few minutes I am sitting by a small but warm fire. I can finally think again – an hour and a few cups of soup later, I feel like myself again.IMG_20150814_175606571

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Having regained some energy I climb up to the edge of the crater to see the reason I put myself through all this – the lava lake and all is see is a few spots of orange in a cloud of white smelly sulphur! It still looks pretty but I’m like – You gotta be kidding me. This is what I almost died for? (I do have a flair for drama) We’re reassured by the guards that it will get better in the dark and we come back and have seat by the fire waiting for it to get darker.IMG_20150814_174054733_HDR

An hour later, the sky is orange and only gets brighter as the sun is setting. We climb up the rock and lo and behold, there it is! The world’s largest lava lake, bubbling and boiling – glorious and beautiful. The cold makes us run back to our little fire and we’re told that around 20h it’s going to be at its best. So we wait. At the right time, we gather some blankets and climb the rock once again and oh the magnificence. Gasps and screams and words of praise escape our lips. There it is in all it’s splendor. I sit on a small bench put there for precisely this moment and stare mesmerized by the orange lake of fire in front of me. I can’t take my eyes off. Its pitch dark everywhere else except for this bright orange lake gurgling and growling in a gigantic hole in the ground. There’s something almost sacred about it. It’s like looking at the stars and realizing how small you are, only a million times more intense. This goddess in the ground seems so mighty, so majestic and so alive. One can’t help but bow down in reverence. I stay up there for a long time till I feel the shivers coming back on…. With one more look to last me a lifetime, I rush back to the tent.IMG_20150818_142252

Despite the loud wind and yet another downpour of rain, I pass out and don’t wake up until 6 am the next morning.
It is cold and grey when we wake up and the lava lake is covered in a white cloud once again, almost as if the previous night had been a dream. We pack our stuff and head down again. A few hours downhill it seems like it is going to rain again and I have no plans of getting wet again (I already had a terrible cough that made my lungs hurt) so I grab a porters hand and started running down the mountain, I almost twist my ankle a few times, but I don’t care. I just want to be down. We run non stop for an hour at some points I feel like I am flying – shouting from exhilaration and exhaustion! Finally we get to the point where we started and I could cry! Whoooooo… my body just gives away and I lie there in the grass feeling completely spent, proud and accomplished. So dead and yet so alive. I’m in love with the Nyiragongo!
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Hiking the most active volcano in the world was one of the hardest things I had to do in my life, but it was also the most worth it .
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Turning 25 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Yesterday was my 25th birthday. For 24 years I have spent my birthday at home. “Travel. Do what you want all year round, but you have to be home for your birthday!” was my mom’s order and I obeyed. But this year it was different. I was in Congo and I loved it.

I had a super nice day, slept in late (that was my gift to myself), had a huge breakfast, spent most of the day looking out onto the magnificent lake with a sweet friend and ended the day with a yummy dinner, interesting conversations and candles on a tiramisu! 🙂

A birthday is a nice time to take stock and review the past year and this has been an eventful year and how! The year began with a big move – I moved to the Netherlands to live with the man of my dreams and fell more in love with him than ever before! I started another masters where I met beautiful, awesome, inspiring people from all over the world who I am now proud to count among my best friends. I landed an internship at one of the best development organizations in the world and felt I was part of something bigger. The opportunity to come to DRC was granted to me on a silver platter and though it scared the living daylights of me, I took it. Then I got married to the man of dreams. Standing there in front of all our friends and family we promised to love each other until love shall last and had a fabulous party drenched in love, light and happiness! Two weeks after the wedding, I was on a plane to DRC and now here I am with two weeks to go until I leave it.

I have been in Congo for the month today, and I am surprised with how settled I feel here. If someone had told me a month ago that I would be so comfortable here I wouldn’t believe them. Heck if someone had told me a year ago that I would be celebrating my birthday in DRC the next year I wouldn’t believe them either! But here I am – In the beginning I was shocked but now I’m getting used to seeing men with guns. I was awoken a few nights ago by a grumbling, growling Earthquake that shook my house like a leaf in the wind. Later the next day I saw a volcano get active and spew lava on the horizon. I heard apparent gunshots and stories about some colleagues getting kidnapped. I had my first experience of racism that made me aware of my own conscious and unconscious assumptions and hurtful behavior towards those around me. It also reinforced my fierce pride in the color of my beautiful brown skin. But I also met some amazing people, I lived for a month with of the most inspiring, strong and brave women I have ever come across. I was part of a colleague’s wedding, I helped her dress up and spent all day with her, feeling a familiar festive family vibe, I had the honor of sharing the office with super sweet, talented and hardworking people. I learnt that if you are smiling and friendly to people, most people reciprocate. After all everyone is looking for a friendly conversation. I made new friends, swam in the lake and danced with the wind in a storm! Congo is beautiful, and devastating and glorious and chaotic and I love it! I have never felt so alive before, never felt so close to the version of me that I have always aspired for – strong, independent and content.
In this one year I learnt a lot about the world and much more about myself. I see now that I am capable of making an amazing life for myself no matter where I am. I was a 7th month, premature baby, stories say that when I was born I was so small and fragile that the doctors were scared I wouldn’t make it. I was a warrior then, I am a warrior now and no matter what, I know I will make it, I always do.

All in all life is good, it is more than good, it is grand and the fact that I am blessed with the love of so many beautiful, inspiring and positive people only makes it better each day!

A big thank you to all of you and I sincerely hope I can reciprocate all this love in everything I do…


Srush

Arriving in Goma

So on the 8th of August, I moved from Bukavu to Goma. I will spend the last two weeks of my stay in Congo in this beautiful city.

Leaving Bukavu was more difficult than I had anticipated! I packed my present life in one big backpack, went for one last swim in the lake and said goodbye to my loving host and the house that I had lived in for the past 4 weeks. As the car drove away from the compound, I tried to hold back a stream of tears that ran down my cheeks and threatened to turn into a river. I had arrived here just four weeks ago flustered and scared. Everything seemed unfamiliar and strange. But now this felt like home. It’s always funny how fast that happens. Driving away from this place that gave me so much, not knowing when I would come back, if ever, made my heart heavy with grief.

The ride to the port was quiet. Once at the port, I had to rush a little bit to get my boat on time. I went from one desk to another dragging my bag around – first passport check, then weighing the bag and paying for the extra luggage, blah blah. Anyway, I made it onto the boat a few minutes before departure. This was a medium sized boat with about 60 people on board. I went inside but as all the seats were taken I came back out and found my self a place on the deck and that was the best decision I took that day! It takes three hours to get from Bukavu to Goma, three hours of scenic beauty of the magnificent lake! I couldn’t stop taking pictures! Everywhere I looked it was so beautiful it took my breath away – the beautiful blue lake surrounded by hills and palm trees. Small fishing boats on the water and the sun shinning brightly in the sky. It was pristine! I looked at this for three hours and even that wasn’t enough.
I met some new friends on the boat – two Chinese men, one Congolese girl and a man from Central Africa. We had very different but interesting conversations. The Chinese men and I spoke about food, with my Congolese friend I spoke about boys and with the man from Central Africa, we talked about war and racism. We were served sandwiches and beer on board – it was so nice. Zooming across the beautiful lake, sitting in the sun, with the wind in my hair, among funny, interesting people, with a sandwich and a cold beer – bliss! We clicked a lot of pictures and laughed a lot! I don’t know our paths will ever cross again but we enjoyed the few hours of our shared existence together.

Upon getting to Goma, my Greek friend who I had met when I first arrived in Bukavu, lets call her ‘I’, was waiting for me at the port. We were super happy to see each other and we drove home chatting away to glory. At her house I was greeted by her boyfriend ‘D’ and a sweet but shy doggie. I have a super pretty and comfy room with a yet another beautiful view, of course!

Goma is way more developed than Bukavu and looks like any other big city in the world – roads, streetlights, restaurants and all the works! The people here are also super fashionable! Everyone is so well dressed. That always struck me in Bukavu. No matter where I went everyone seemed dressed for an occasion – with beautifully tailored pagne suits in all the possible colors. Here it is similar. It seems like people really put lots of thought into their attire – from the headgear to the shoes. They don’t just throw something on. And all of it looks amazing! I’m always in awe when I go out!

So this is Goma, new place, just as beautiful. Keep watching this space for more stories from this part of the world.