Monday, January 23, 2017

The power of one little word

During our trip to Timor, I attempted to learn different Tetum expressions. These mainly focused on greetings, a note of thanks, and, to the bemusement and perhaps horror of our group, asking people "are you married?" (It was an ideal 
ice-breaker, I found.)

There was one word that, when I heard it early in our trip, I found myself unable to grasp its full meaning, I needed to sit with it, sound it out in my head, repeat it to myself, to fully absorb the power of this solitary, Tetum word. 

Before I share the word with you, I want to digress slightly and share some notes I took down while visiting a museum dedicated to commemorating the Timorese journey towards independence. These notes are offered without comment and editorialising; they say enough without my foreigner's perspective being added to the mix. 

One display shared this: "In 1974, Timor Leste had 653,211 inhabitants. In 1978, that figure had dropped to 498,433. This means that Timor Leste had lost more than 23% of its population in the first four years of Indonesian occupation."

On another display, I read this: "In July 1979, an Indonesian census reveals that more than one-quarter of the population has died as a result of the war and starvation. The Catholic Church estimates that more than one-third of the East Timorese population has been wiped out."

In a part of the exhibition entitled simply "Shackles of Tears", the wall carried these words: "It is estimated that by the end of 1979, more than 300,000 people were detained in concentration camps. Many [people] were abandoned along the roads without food or medicine and were repeatedly controlled or interrogated by the invading forces. Whole villages were evacuated."

These are the quotes I noted down. I share them with you now so you can understand why I needed to wrap my head around the significance of one, simple, but profound, Tetum word: Chega.

To the Timorese, Chega is how a country is able to go on after losing what the quotes above estimate to be between one quarter and one-third of its population. Chega is what you say when you see your family, friends or fellow villagers detained in concentration camps. It is the word you scream when the thought of revenge or the desire for retribution becomes so pervading that you cannot function. It is what a Timorese mother tells her children when they see their Fretilin father taken to prison or what a priest tells his congregation when they come to him for inspiration and comfort. 




The word, it seems, is variously translated as "no more", "finish", "to draw a line." Another interpretation is it means "never again." 

It was the word settled upon when, after the conflict was over, the invading forces had departed and a reconciliation process was begun, that the word was uttered. Chega. Never again. We will not let this come to define us. No more. We are drawing a line in the sand and we will move forward together, from this moment.

I have come to love the word Chega. It has an air of resolve and determination about it. It speaks of truth borne out of struggle, of hope emerging from despair. It is a language all of its own. 

Consider introducing Chega into your own vocabulary: It can be the word you use when you ruefully stare down at the scales and wonder why the weight keeps piling on. Never again. No more.

It can be the word to draw upon when you realise that a personal  relationship is taking more than it is offering or when you are no longer passionate about the job you hold. Never again. No more.

Chega: it is a word the Timorese have used, not to forget the past, but to shape their future. They know that holding on to transgressions only weighs a nation down and that bitterness and hatred cripples one's ability to grow and transform. 

Of all the words I will take away from my time in Timor, this is the one I pray I will always remember. 


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Going for a spin on the dance floor at home

I am at my desk. It butts up against a wall, with a window, that looks directly onto the fence separating our small townhouse from the neighbour's. A tall hedge peers over the top, its branches watching intently as my fingers hover above the keyboard.

To my right is our TV. Celena has come home after her shift at the library and chosen a playlist from one of the many options on Apple TV. A song by Sia has just finished. Beyond the tv is a narrow window, bisceted by cream slats. Through that window, I can see the six, spinning colours of a whirly-gig. They rotate in the late afternoon breeze - red, green, purple, yellow, orange and blue - dancing to the music of Sean Mendes. "I know I can treat you better than he can..."

At my left, alongside the open laptop, is a pile of books, some writing journals, a set of headphones, a Bible. Disrupting the scene is an open train timetable, listing the many journeys to and from our local station at Wellington Point, to destinations in Brisbane and beyond.

This insight into domesticity is shared because, for too long, I have been unable to appreciate what it means to be home. Last weekend, I was in Hervey Bay for work. Tomorrow, I will be on the road, speaking at several Masses in different locations. My week is filled with appointments, extra-curricular activities such as squash and networking and the commute to and from a place of employment that is fulfilling, but also demanding. This is not a complaint - it is the lot of many of us, as we look to navigate across the waves of work, family and social responsibility, in the ocean of life.

Sometimes, we - or maybe I should avoid the collective pronoun and start to acknowledge the truth for what it is - I need to stop and realise that no amount of running around is going to provide the peace and tranquility I am looking for inside. We - sorry, I - can expend so much energy beyond these windows that I forget that, maybe, just maybe, whatever I'm looking for is here in this room?

In a few hours, some friends will gather for a business meeting. I won't be joining them. Part of me feels a bit sad that won't be the case. But another part of me is glad that I can realise that I don't want to explore the world beyond the windows tonight. I want to watch as the sun sets and those spinning colours fade to black. I want to sip a beer and dance with my wife, to her chosen playlist. 

Enjoy your night folks! Regardless of whether you are outside your house, visiting someone else in their's, or staying put, like us, the world, unlike that whirly gig, will keep spinning. The time to step outside the door will come soon enough.  



Sunday, April 24, 2016

At the setting of the sun, it's time to be reminded of the ongoing battles around us

It is the night before ANZAC Day. Across Australia, those who have served in conflicts overseas, their loved ones and people who appreciate the efforts of the men and women in uniform are preparing for a multitude of events and ceremonies tomorrow. Each year, the news reports at the end of April 25 declare that the spirit of the ANZAC - a fierce and unwavering loyalty, a determination to succeed against the odds, a willingness to sacrifice for mates - is alive and well! The tradition, the headlines tell us the next day, continues.

As I type this, I am sitting in a motel room, just off a main road in Toowoomba. Tomorrow, I will attend a dawn service; later on, I will meet some new colleagues at a special ANZAC Day Mass downtown, before heading to Roma, where I will spend the rest of this public, almost spiritual, holiday. Tonight, however, my thoughts have turned to other battles that continue to be waged today.

I am spending the night catching up on some outstanding reading. The pile of literature includes several social justice statements, focusing on different issues, such as environmental sustainability; the exploitation of small-scale miners in a country like the Philippines; the challenges facing lowly paid or unskilled workers and the unemployed; and, finally, the emotional, psychological, physical and mental difficulties faced by those in prison, and those who love them.

To describe these issues as "battles" is not to downplay the harsh realities faced by our soldiers, sailors, pilots and others, who have fought and served overseas, in various wars and military actions. But as my reading reminds me, the above social plights do impact on those affected. Whether someone is behind bars or looking for work, tunneling deep underground in a Filipino mine or lobbying to protect the environment, there is a toll! The victims of these contemporary conflicts may not march, nor carry medals on their chest; but the challenges they face do leave scars!

Tomorrow morning, when I am listening to that poignant bugle blow, I will give thanks for people like my grandfather and a mate's older brother, among the many thousands, who have fought so that I can spend a night with my wife in a country motel. And I will also spare a thought for those who continue to fight today, both here and overseas, for rights and opportunities that we can so easily take for granted. Lest we forget, all that we have is a privilege!


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Love blossoms when we can bring 'Lili' to life

This is being written just after Celena and I have returned home from viewing The Danish Girl. A film loosely inspired by the lives of Danish artists Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, this film is deeply moving and inspiring. It captures the struggles of this couple as they come to realise that Einar Wegener, the husband in the relationship, wants to become a woman. As the movie unfolds, Lili comes to life, both literally and metaphorically, ultimately undergoing what was, for the era (the 1920s), groundbreaking transgender surgery.

By rights, this is not a movie I should have liked. The subject matter is quite foreign to me, dealing with matters and a struggle I have only encountered in perhaps one solitary relationship in my life...that I am aware of. And while I am sure the depiction on the big screen has been brought to life with a healthy dose of poetic license, I found myself strangely drawn to the turmoil of Einar and the loyalty displayed by his wife, Gerda.

Let me be clear: I am not intimating that I want to become a woman. But is it not possible that we all have an inner "Lili"? Don't each of us have something inside that needs to be given a voice, an inner truth that, no matter how much we try, cannot be suppressed or ignored? We may not need to dress it up in the clothes of the opposite sex, or undergo radical surgery to, finally, feel complete and whole but isn't there something crying out to be given expression?

Go to any gym and you see people wanting to sculpt their bodies. Enter any church or temple and you will find those with their eyes turned to the heavens, seeking divine intervention for some transformation in circumstances. Wander the campus of a university, the classrooms of a school, the corridors of a parliament - are these places not graced by individuals looking to advance in intellect and enquiry, hoping to give themselves a chance to make a difference in their life and the world at large?

Such comparisons are not to downplay the struggle of those who are undergoing a more personal journey or who may start out in one lifestyle but then feel compelled to enter another. Nor is it my intention to downplay the angst experienced by those forced to watch on, as this journey to wholeness unfolds. Part of the beauty of The Danish Girl is that it brings to light the sadness of Gerda, as she comes to terms with having to let go of the man she loved as her husband. For as Einar shares in one of many poignant moments between them: "I think Lily's thoughts, I dream her dreams. She was always there." 

In the end, I think the real power of The Danish Girl lies in its affirmation of the importance of self-sacrifice. We may very well have an inner flower that we want to see blossom but we also know that, sometimes, we have to make sacrifices for those we love, and those who love us. Gerda, knowing the cost, does more than just paint and sketch her husband dressed as Lili - she makes the ultimate sacrifice by letting go of Einar.

And in her doing that, Lili is able to profess a love that defies boundaries and labels and social mores. As she tells Gerda: "I love you, because you are the only person who made sense of me. And made me, possible."


Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"Once upon a time..." - it's how all good stories begin

Where to from here? After all the adventure, inspiration and joy of the past 12 days, what will my next project or goal be?

It has been a question that occupied much of the 17 hours spent in the plane on the way home. Ideas would randomly pop into my head as I scanned the viewing menu on the in-flight entertainment console or the food menu on the little cards handed out at the beginning of the journey.

I think, however, the lasting legacy of my time in Uganda is a reminder of the power of the story. Stories shape our society and ourselves. We all have them to tell and we can all draw inspiration from the tales lived out by others. Brodie loved hearing stories and we both loved telling them to him. So the answer to the question of 'what's next', somehow had to do with stories.

Some of you may not be surprised to hear me describe myself as a story teller. It's why I became a journalist, all those years ago. It's why I serve as a volunteer Community Correspondent now, for the local public broadcasting radio station (in Brisbane, it's called 612ABC Radio). And it's why I continue to use social media so extensively (including this blog). Through all of these mediums, I want to help others give voice to their stories.

They say that we all have a book inside us. Celena is part of a Writing Group where people aspire to show the truth of that expression each time they gather (and in the moments when they are not gathered as well.) I have long reflected on what my first (how's that for optimism?) book might be about, what form it might take, what topic or genre it would emerge from.

And now Uganda has provided the answer. In so many ways, the time spent in the heart of Africa was about witnessing the stories of this beautiful nation and its even more gorgeous people. The smiles and hugs, the landscape and history, the clan names and customs, were the words and I was the blank page upon which they became written.

This blog, therefore, is my humble announcement that I would like to compile a book that offers reflections on why Africa is so precious to so many people. (The reference to the 'precious' nature of the continent is, in itself, a reference to the oft-cited description of Uganda as 'the pearl of Africa'.) I know many people who have been to the continent and come away committed to helping transform a particular part of it. Some of you have made a vocation out of serving the people of this part of the world. Others have come from there and are now serving in other parts of the world, as graciously and generously as those who welcomed and hosted us during our visit.

If you are one of these people, I hope you might consider contributing. I do not claim to be able to tell all the story of this special place; one visit could hardly do it justice. However, I hope you might do me the honour of inviting you to share your particular African story.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

I have found a precious jewel indeed

Our final night looms. As I type this, there are four of us sitting in a cafe in Kampala, each peering down at our communication device of choice. (For the record, there are three android users and me, the solitary Apple customer. It has become a running joke as we banter about which has the best features, which is the easiest to use and so on...But I digress!)

Today (Sunday) has been a huge day, involving a Catholic Mass, a tour of a Muslim mosque, shopping at an inner-city craft market and then, on the cusp of twilight, a visit to the Apostolic Nuncio of Uganda, Archbishop Michael Blume.

Of all of those, I am not sure which is most responsible for the fatigue I am experiencing: the protracted drive to 8.30am Mass; the 308-stair climb to the top of the minaret, at the mosque; the haggling with two sales girls at the markets; or the interview I conducted His Grace, just before we left. Or perhaps it's the combination of them all, coupled with the adrenaline rush of yesterday's close encounter with Pope well as several hundred thousand Ugandans and other Africans.

I do know that I have not slept well on this trip. Some nights, that's been due to external factors - music playing loudly, football coverage provoking shouting, storm clouds unleashing their load or rehearsals late into the night on the of the Papal Mass. Other times, however, I have simply woken up.

But as I look across the table, or glance over my shoulder, I take heart from those with whom I have shared the journey:

* Sue has come to Uganda with several serious health challenges - her persistence and gracious outlook, coupled with a huge heart for all she encounters, has made her a constant source of encouragement;

* If Sue is the heart of Uganda Kids, and this trip, Paul - her husband - is the legs, arms and broad shoulders. He has shaped the schedule, cajoled the locals, amused our hosts and stepped into the driver's seat - literally and also figuratively - when the need arose. Without his affable, strong presence, I think I would have felt more unsafe and less secure.

* Aloysius and Lucy have opened their hearts, home and souls to me. They didn't know me at all but they accepted me with the same grace and generosity they continue to extend to Paul and Sue. I am the richer for it.

This blog was never intended to be a travelogue, offering a day-by-day account of where we went and what we did. My intention was to give some sense of how the trip was impacting on me and what insights I was acquiring along the way. Most of what I gained has been from the people I have met, seen, spoken to, sat with, broken bread with, hugged and shaken hands.

This brief tribute to those I have been accompanying is yet another page in yet another chapter of my life. When the time comes, I will simply call that chapter 'The Pearl of Africa'. It is something precious, something that is created from friction and the abrasion of elements like sand and water. It also has a biblical significance: the owner of the pearl knows what he has found and wants to do all he can to protect it and preserve its value.

Paul and Sue found it back in 2008. I have been fortunate, and blessed,  that they have now shared this gem with me. 


Friday, November 27, 2015

Someone asked me how the trip was going - this was my reply

It has been such a wonderful experience....The people are so warm and welcoming but yet they have a particular African way of doing things: it's like 'whatever it takes to get something done, but no more than that.' It's not that people are lazy - more that they don't seem to think beyond the moment. That is quite inspiring in some ways; in other ways, it can be bloody frustrating, especially when it comes to customer service.

The landscape is spectacular: Uganda is so green and the brown of the earth is rich and dark, the blue of the sky is piercing and when storms roll in, the grey clouds seem so low and heavy.

As I type this response to you (it is 3am), there are people talking in the corridor outside my hotel room (there is that attitude of 'being in the moment', which does not allow for consideration for others who may still be sleeping), someone is banging downstairs (perhaps the chef preparing a cut of meat for breakfast?) and the sound of amplified music drifts up from the surrounding township. It is in Ugandan so I can't understand it; however, the tone is such that I suspect it is church music and it is probably coming from the field where the Mass with the Pope will be today. That is where we will be later as well.

The trip has been life-changing! I have seen children struck down with malaria, parents sitting patiently by their bedside as they wait for some form of medical assistance; I have hugged people who are just so grateful to have Mzungo (white people) visit. I saw giraffes, zebra and hippos in their natural habitat, at a national park. We have almost got bogged, eaten a dish called a 'rollex' made by a solitary man at a roadside cooking plate (so yummy) and even tried grasshopper (not so yummy).

This has been a huge tick off my bucket list. and I am so grateful that I could come. I could see myself coming back but I guess circumstances will influence that. There are places that I would like to travel with Celena as well. Whatever the future though, I will be doing even more to help tell the story of Africa and its people, when I return.