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."




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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.








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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 Francis...as 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. 

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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.



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Thursday, November 26, 2015

The road to a UN refugee camp is paved with good intentions

I am convinced, more than ever, that charity begins at home! Let me explain.

On Wednesday, we drove about 90 minutes towards the Tanzanian border. Our goal was to visit a United Nations refugee camp, catering for what we later learned to be a popuation of more than 5000. The back of the van was stacked with those striped bags you find in discount shops, each of them crammed full of knitted blankets, jumpers and dolls.

Our hope was that, during our brief sojourn to this spartan environment, we would be able to sit and dialogue with some of the people who have been forced to call the mud-brick buildings home. We wanted to hand out the donated items - the fruit of many hours of pain-staking love and devotion from faithful people back home - and let them know they were not alone. Somebody did indeed care! It was meant to be an experience where we would attempt to shine a little bit of love and compassion into an environment we had heard was characterised by darkness and despair.

We were wrong! Or maybe it was just that we were naive. It was not only the crafty creations that we were laden up with but also perhaps the expectations of well-meaning people back home.

When people have been forced to flee their homes and end up living in rows of makeshift dwellings, with only dirt for a verandah and paddocks for a landscape, something has to give. When you are reliant on a local constabulary to tell you when you can eat and how much you can consume, your dignity must shrivel and wither, like a piece of fruit lacking sunlight.

Most of you reading this will likely be from countries where the plight of refugees is often a headline to be alarmed by, a cause to be fought for or a slogan to be delivered in a sound-bite. We can so easily forget that they are human beings, each with a story to tell and a voice to be heard. We really don't know the circumstances that force them to flee their place of birth but I suspect, after that slow drive past people sitting in dirt, with a distant look in their eyes, that we may not be able to fully stomach it even if we did.

Our little party, myself included, thought these people would line up in neat rows to help facilitate the distribution process. We thought the police would be more supportive and constructive. At a personal level, the journalist in me hoped I would be able to sit down with some of them and discover more about where had come from, why they had fled and what hopes and dreams they still had.

Instead, what we experienced were people grasping and groping, pushing and pulling, jostling and
pleading. In those frenzied moments, an image that came to mind was of seagulls fighting for the discarded food scraps or a few cold chips. We wanted to restore some of their dignity; instead, we provoked desperate people to become even more so.

Our hearts were already open to these fellow human beings. That's why we were there. It's just that our heads had to catch up. Now that we know more, my commitment is not to expect people who have nothing to be somehow be grateful to simply be given something. Instead, I need to alert people as to how they can truly make a difference. If that means sometimes putting down the knitting needles, and finding another way to show support, then that is a windmill I am willing to tilt at. 

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The part of the trip where I found myself in hospital...again

During yesterday's visit with Fr Gerard, the priest who helped Paul and Sue start Uganda Kids, we were treated to a feast of local cuisine: fish cakes, beef meet balls, chicken, beans, potato, rice, gee nut sauce and, in a feast for our taste buds, tomatoes mixed with onion. Shortly after lunch, we all ended up at the local hospital.

OK, I should clarify that poor sentence structure. We had lunch - then we went on an inspection of the local parish where Fr Gerard now serves. Part of that inspection eventually led us to a local health clinic/hospital, based on the church grounds. So let me say up front: there was nothing in the food that brought us to the doors of this valuable health facility.

What did bring us there was a desire to see, first-hand, the many different ways the Catholic Church is making a difference in the lives of the Ugandan people. This is stuff I have spent the past seven years highlighting and bringing to the attention of the people of Brisbane, Queensland and beyond and I never cease to marvel at how expansive this missionary work is. As I have asked myself many times (and also articulated in several appeal talks): "What would it look like for the people of (insert name of relevant country) if the Catholic Church wasn't present, with people giving of their time, energy, passion and faithfulness.

The 'hospital', such as it is, was more of a few buildings, in a u-shape, and a large verandah running along each wing. Patients, which included children and women (but, seemingly, no men) were either inside the spartan rooms, with doors left open, or laying outside on the grass or blankets. Medical assistance seemed mainly to be offered in the form of dispensing of tablets and antibiotics; a few people were feeding themselves from bowls of food, resting on the ground in front of them.

I hope my description is not seen as disparaging or alarming. I have been in many hospitals back home and they do not offer the same sense of community that this small facility, perched on a hill overloking the nearby village, seemed to offer. Besides, our time there was really not long enough to offer any more informed insights on what else could be done to improve services.

One of the challenges presented by a trip such as this is knowing what aspects of the world you can transform. There is a peace that comes from recognising that you cannot do everything, only some things, with much love. 

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Lessons I never learned at school

The past 24 hours has seen us visit two different schools: St Joseph's Primary yesterday and St Bruno Secondary this morning. Both Principals have expressed immense gratitude for the support being extended to their staff and students, by Paul and Sue and their donors. They also have articulated an extensive arrange of challenges they are facing.

I don't claim to understand the full extent of the trials they outlined. It has a lot to do with the government agreeing to support some schools, but not others; it also seems that teachers, in Uganda, are not paid well (some of you reading this might well say that it is nothing different to the situation faced by the profession in some parts of Australia!) Then there are the issues of water being too expensive to provide on an ongoing basis, shortages in electricity supply, the increased costs of feeding students (especially boarders) and a dearth of basic supplies such as English dictionaries. When they talk about "the school of hard knocks", it could well be a Ugandan school that they had in mind.

And yet... and yet...

I once heard a story about Mexican jumping fleas. Apparently, if these fleas were put in a bottle, they could jump out because they have the capacity to jump quite high. But put a lid on the bottle, they only jump as high as the lid allows. Eventually, the fleas become conditioned to jumping to that height. Take the lid away and the fleas will still stay in the bottle.

It may seem like a weird digression but I think this analogy applies to the students of Uganda. The many adverse conditions they face could be seen as effectively putting a lid on their hopes and dreams. And yet the support of people from places like Australia is the leverage that not only removes the top but even, one day, helps shatter the bottle.

Any teacher will tell you that expectations are key to a student's success. They rise up, or fall down, according to the demands and opportunities we place upon them. A nation's youth is no different from an individual student in the classroom.

It is a privilege to be meeting people who see Uganda, not as it is, but rather what it can be.





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