Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The stance of silence

My Dad says that I need to reassess my position on Afghanistan. He says it’s not clear-cut and coalition forces might be doing some good. He is uncertain and wants to stay silent while he ponders. He would rather I stay silent, too.

I say that in our silence, we are acquiescing in this war. We may not understand its complexities, but by saying nothing – doing nothing – we are saying that it’s ok. Silence is as strong a stance as any. The war will continue as long as we let it.

I say that my Dad needs to reassess his position, too.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Prayer of thanks for street evangelists, Socialists and British backpackers

Thankyou, God, for the man who stands on Swanston Street with grey hair and a PA system, reading the letters of Paul and telling us to repent.

Thankyou, God, for Socialists with card-tables who clamour at blank-faced pedestrians, for signatures in petitions that nobody cares about.

Thankyou, God, for the British backpackers who tell us about lost dogs and refugees and children with guns, asking for an ear and monthly donations on our credit cards.

Thankyou, God, for tacky religious tracts, badly-written political leaflets and UK citizens who talk too fast. Thankyou for stopping me when I need to be somewhere. Thankyou for making ignorance and ipods a choice.

Thankyou for reminding me, daily, that I have an option to listen and a chance to think. The possibility claws at my door like a hungry cat.

To Sibel

Bubs -
Streak of light
in a wintery room.
I'm sorry your world
has so little to offer
a ray of sunshine
like you.

Goodbye sweetie.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Charity ball

Charity balls are bizarre occasions – particularly ones that are aimed at poverty. You sit there is all your finery, sipping wine and nibbling at raw salmon, while somebody up the front is telling you about children who are too poor to bring lunch to school, and who struggle to hold their pen because they lost fingers in the war. The din of clattering cutlery and small-talk rises above the distinguished speaker, whom we are so privileged to hear from as he has come all the way from Rwanda. We are so privileged we can ignore him.

The Y-GAP Asante Sana Ball was a momentous occasion, with the historic St Kilda Town Hall decked out with giant African statues, pillars throwing fabric flames and exotic flower arrangements on every table. I’m not sure how much the tickets cost because Merridie shouted both David and I, but I gather they weren’t cheap. The proceeds would be going to two projects in Africa – classrooms for an overcrowded primary school in Malawi and a safehouse for children who have exited slavery in Ghana.

I’m impressed with these people. Their projects seem really great and they seem to have an incredible amount of know-how. I’m used to trivia nights in church halls and barbeques at Bunnings, but these guys are auctioning off guitars signed by U2 and opening Fairtrade coffee shops at major train stations. When I was doing this kind of thing with VGen (World Vision youth movement), we were teenagers and uni students. But these guys are young professionals working as solicitors at top-tier law firms and accountants at Price Waterhouse Coopers. They know how to work it!

I’m feeling slightly depressed, and I’m sure that it’s more than a vague sense of inadequacy. I think it’s the juxtaposition between these extremes – the champagne and the expensive cuts of meat, the stories of children living in abject poverty.

I’m also conscious of some elements of the ball, which might actually perpetuate the kind of injustice we are trying to fight. I nibble at my chocolate cake, encrusted in giraffe-print marzipan. Was the cocoa harvested by the enslaved children, like the kids at the Ghana project?

They’re raffling off a $5000 diamond ring, the kind that might put your back out if you wore it too long. A woman with a tiara, leopard-print dress and a tanned cleavage struts the room, offering people raffle tickets for $40 a pop, in exchange for a glass of champagne and a chance to win the prized jewel. Were the diamonds in the ring used to finance militant groups in Sierra Leone or Zimbabwe? They didn’t say.

It’s easy to get excited by wads of cash, because we are infused with a mentality that money solves everything. I remember running a fundraiser when I was in high school – something about protecting platypus habitat. We decided to make milkshakes and sell them at lunch. I remember the big jar of gold money and feeling proud. But I also remember looking out over the oval after lunch, and seeing it littered with disposable milkshake cups. I wondered how many might end up in the river.

Sometimes we give with one hand, and take with the other.

I sigh at the BHP Billiton MCG box they are auctioning off at the ball (what has this company done to the environment and to indigenous groups in Australia and around the world?). I gasp at the shopping-tour fundraiser advertised in our showbags (a percentage of the money you spend goes to projects in Africa – as does a percentage of the greenhouse emissions produced from the manufacture of the shit you buy).

But – as David keeps reminding me – these people are on a journey. They run advocacy forums educating young people on issues of slavery, so they are further along than most. We are all contradicted. These young professionals are straddling two very different worlds, and it’s gotta hurt a bit.

At the same time, we need to think of responses to poverty that go beyond giving money. Cash can fund some excellent development projects that have some wonderful, life-giving consequences, but without challenging the fundamental systems that we benefit from, children will always be enslaved in Ghana and the Malawian education system will always be impoverished. The West has a great deal of responsibility for much of the world’s poverty – whether through the Structural Adjustment Programmes it imposes on countries steeped in debt, or through the Western companies that benefit from slavery.

Our continual giving absolves us from guilt and allows us to continue sinning, much like the indulgences of the Catholic church. By continually being in the position of donor, we reinforce a position of power.

But 16 committed and passionate young Australians have been to Africa, and have seen the product of colonialism and oppression firsthand – even if it hasn’t been articulated as such. Some of them might come back, run a couple of fundraisers, get married in a few years, and then push their experiences to one side. But some of them will be fundamentally changed, and will continue the journey. Some – like the good soil in that Gospel story – will dedicate their life to fighting injustice, inspiring many others to do the same.

And some kids in Malawi and Ghana will have a better future now. Some of them might also use their opportunity and power to fight injustice, and bring many others with them.

The ball is jarring…depressing and hopeful all in one. I am choosing to hope.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Afghanistan: Standing in questions and half-truths

If Iraq was based on lies, then Afghanistan finds its legitimacy in half-truths. Iraq harboured no weapons of mass-destruction, but the Taliban is a reality that causes even the most peace-loving liberals to think twice. Everybody wanted out of Iraq. But Afghanistan…will peace jeopardise freedom? Will the exit of troops amount to the entrance of hand amputations for nail polish, and executions for teaching girls to read? Thousands are dying and the war is failing, but which father, which feminist, which brother, could abandon the women of Afghanistan?

These are the questions that tumble our way as we stand on those steps at Flinders Street Station with our banner: END THE AFGHANISTAN WAR. I try to stand proud but for the first bit at least I can’t help but feel naked, beside a banner that is too big and too red. My tendency is to avoid conflict, and right now I’m not feeling very agreeable.

“Sayyid Ahmad, 16 years old, killed when he picked up an unexploded US cluster bomb in Shakar Qala village, near Heart, Afghanistan, on 21 November 2001. We remember.”
We remember,” repeats a small assortment of peace activists, crowded around the banner.
“Private Benjamin Ranaudo, 22 years old, from Melbourne, killed in an IED attack in the Baluchi Valley north of Tarin Kowt, on 18 July of this year. Lord have mercy.”
Lord have mercy.
This morning’s weather seems fragile, a crisp blue sky clumped with thick wads of grey and white. We don’t know whether it will break into a smile or a torrent. Turns out we’ll get a bit of both, but this morning at least is brisk. We call out the names of the dead over a patchwork crowd – students, workers, day-trippers, tourists. Some people pause, consider, move on. We keep reading the names.

After a few hours we are standing in silence, having exhausted the small sample of names that Simon printed off the internet. We survey the crowd and let people survey us. A man with a determined shuffle and a golf cap pauses in front of the banner, mouths the words, nods, shuffles on. A woman with wiry, frazzled hair and a lined face considers the message a moment before swatting at the air in disgust. She swings her arms widely as she stomps towards the lights, where her worn face breaks into a beam as has a chance encounter with a friend. The woman picks up the friend’s dog and cuddles it. She turns to us again and swats in our direction, before crossing the road.

And then come the questions. Some are questions that don’t want responses – assertions more than anything.
“How is this helping the troops who are fighting overseas?!”
“Do you people support the Taliban or what?!”
These questions leave as quickly as they arrive, slipping back into the crowd in a whir of shaken heads and fists.

Other questions come with brows knitted in conflict – despair, perhaps – but not anger.
“If we leave, won’t the Taliban return?”
It’s these questions that dry my mouth, doubts and half-truths soaking up the saliva. War is bad and people are dying, but aren’t these guns holding back the reign of a quintessential enemy to human rights and women’s liberation? If the troops leave will life for the people of Afghanistan get better or worse? What if it gets worse?

When I allow the questions to sit, away from troubled faces wanting answers, the lies seem to rise to the surface on their own. The idea that the USA is unleashing its might on the poverty-stricken country of Afghanistan in order to liberate its people emerges from murky waters as untenable. Of course, the whole region is key to the US and allies for its natural resources – Afghanistan, in particular, is required for natural gas and possibly oil pipelines. The more I think about it, the more the threat of the Taliban seems part of an elaborate PR campaign designed to convince us that this war is not about energy resources and wealth generation, but democracy and human rights.

PR campaign or not, the Taliban is a very real threat. A broad man with grey, concerned eyes approaches the vigil, which has now reduced in size to three. The clouds have lifted and the sun is heating the bluestone steps. The man says that he doesn’t have time to talk now, but he is worried about the vacuum of power that will be left if US/NATO withdraws. Won’t the Taliban just swoop in and take control? The man apologises for not having time to hear us out, scurrying back to work and leaving me wondering what I might have said to him. I think about the war criminals who make up the Afghan parliament, and how they are not so different from the Taliban – fundamentalists who use the name of Islam to justify cruelty and oppression. The ‘democratic’ government of Afghanistan recently legalised rape in marriage. Rule under the Taliban would be oppressive, but perhaps no more so than the current government, minus the military occupation and air strikes.

The answer in my head depresses me. Somehow I want something better than Taliban rule for Afghanistan. I ask Simon how he might have responded to this question. Simon, who admires men like Ghandi and Martin Luther King, talks about the potential for non-violent resistance to authoritarian rule. I want to know what that might look like, and he tells me about the non-violent student resistance to Milosevic, which successfully overthrew the Serbian dictator. Interestingly, he says, there was far more resistance to the Taliban before the US/NATO invasion and occupation. Now people are siding with the Taliban because they provide a degree of security, and also some basic services. Perhaps not education for girls, but more than what the government is offering. If the troops leave, suggests Simon, there will be room to support grassroots non-violent resistance to Taliban rule. We don’t know how this will result, but one thing we do know is that violence hasn’t worked.

No easy answer, but perhaps, in the cracks of this bluestone, a blade of hope.

The vigil stretches on into a second day, my feet sinking into the rhythms of the Flinders Street steps. I am beginning to enjoy the act of standing, like a proud red pimple disrupting a creamy complexion. We pack up umbrellas, sunscreen and banner at 6pm on the second day, sunburnt faces tired but content.

And now, in the days after our vigil, we hear that the president of the USA has been awarded the Noble Peace Prize. “No peace here,” quips The Age, as it places an article on the scaling up of the forces in Afghanistan right next to the NPP piece. This disparity is so ludicrous it makes me laugh. I wonder if the company that does the US government’s PR has somehow got a rep on the Peace Prize committee.

The view from the steps is a collage of flashing billboards. From the steps, it all seems one and the same – half-truths packaged up in lights and full colour, when what lies behind is greed and destruction. Usually I switch off, prefer to stay numb, not to think. Today I choose to do it differently – to refuse to go along passively with someone else’s PR campaign. I wish I felt as sturdy as the bluestone beneath my feet. Here, I find no easy answers.

We stand beside the big red banner - testament, perhaps, to the truth that lies in the question. It feels good to be here.