Thursday, August 29, 2013

Absorbing Multiple Worlds: A Response to MSF leaving Somalia

This recent op-ed on MSF's departure from Somalia filled me with sadness. It's not totally distant- I felt like I knew and understood, at some level, the players involved- because much of my academic and work life is with Somalis who are currently outside of Somalia.

Despite having thought about it for a few days, I have no idea how to move forward in this sadness in a helpful and productive way. The best thing I've come up with is to write about the tension and try to be more intentional about praying; prayer that not only changes the reality on the ground but also prayer that changes me to know better how to live my life. This is my attempt at the writing part.

There's a whole field that deals with vicarious trauma- trauma that one hasn't actually experienced, and I'm not trying to reinvent all those wise thoughts in a blog. Using the trauma of others to reassert an enjoyment of one's own privilege also leaves me with an icky feeling- like, isn't it enough that we're lucky, do we need to constantly feel smug about it?- though perhaps that is closer to what I'm trying to do here.

This past year, I have been doing my fieldwork. I've been going into homes and interviewing migrant women. Whereas in past settings as a researcher I tried to learn everything I could about a person, now I tread more carefully. When I first started working with refugees, it was tempting to think that by hearing about suffering I was doing something about it- being a listening ear or something. I was quite proud that I was "safe" enough to hear about FGC or domestic violence or fleeing one's home country or seeing one's family killed. There was an innocence in my approach- I really thought maybe I could be helpful- but the innocence was arrogance. I grew into a realization of my arrogance as time went on, particularly since I was always involved in project planning/management/research rather than direct service provision.

So when I chose my PhD topic, I chose something that put the participant women and I on [more?] equal footing, particularly as mothers. What foods did they like to eat when they were pregnant? I did not claim the right to women's deeper stories, especially women's trauma. But there was still the reality that when I got home from an interview, I always said to Eug "wow, we have it good.", and I always meant it.

There seems to be a delicate balance between absorbing stories as a kind of disaster tourism- which is exploitative and imperialistic- and absorbing worlds as a means of taking our place in the world. If you haven't done already, the global rich list is one tool for helping understand this place. This article by Annie Leonard provides another opportunity to connect buying choices to outcomes.

What do I mean by "taking our place in the world"? I am not sure exactly. It probably means gratitude and trying to give more generously. {It's hard to force gratitude so I'm not pushing that on you. BE GRATEFUL DAMMIT! Anyway}. A recent quirky thing it has meant for our family has been for the four of us to move into one bedroom, so that we have a guest room (it connects mainly in the sense that I realize we have a lot of space, whereas before I thought our house was relatively small for our family).

Perhaps it means that we can peek out, every now and then, from the hustle and bustle of cooking and cleaning and laundry and mopping and work and breastfeeding and love and amazement-at-brilliant-babies and diaper changing, and the stupid-always-broken-car... and claim a small part in a larger story.  For me, hopefully a story that God might suggest to Eug and I. Who knows. In prayers for places without basic security, services, food, I do feel a tiny bit empowered not to be too concerned or hung up about those things for myself. And we'll probably buy a bike for Noah at Christmas and the contradictions and tension will persist; but over time, we're changing. 

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