Living in this World

Monday, January 17, 2011

#97 Weaving a new reality

Three years ago our family spend three weeks in northern Uganda, visiting with our dear friend Abitimo, supporting her school and her work with AIDS and war orphans, and teaching peer listening skills to a big group of young people who had lived all their lives in the midst of a brutal civil war. It felt like a miracle to have this opportunity, to get to know these young people, to be of use. They, in turn, were thrilled with the healing power of the basic listening skills we offered, and were eager for more.

Then we came home. Through a series of hard and sad circumstances it became impossible to continue relating to the young man who brought the group together, who knew everyone and still held tight to leadership. I had e-mail addresses for only a handful of the people we had been meeting with, and about half of them bounced back.

These folks seemed glad to be in touch, but would usually write about three lines of very generic greetings. In response to my pleading for more news, they would promise to get back when they had more time. While I had first-hand experience of the challenges of using the few internet cafes that were available to them, I hadn’t fully taken in how hard it was to share freely in a second language.

So here I was, thousands of miles away from a group of young people whom I had known for a few short weeks, in thin, infrequent communication with just four young men, who would often disappear for months at a time, out in a village for the summer, or up in the Sudan and away from any computer. It felt like everything that had been real and wonderful and full of life and possibility was slipping away through my fingers, evaporating like the mist. My grand plans for partnering these young people with like-minded folks at home foundered on this lack of contact. I couldn’t get enough news from them to allow me to build on what they were doing. I felt discouraged and useless.

After more than a year--maybe two--it occurred to me that I could offer what I had, whether I knew it was what they needed, or even whether they were getting it. I began writing to everyone I had addresses for every three or four weeks, remembering our connection, sharing a thought about this process of peer listening, wishing them well. I got the occasional three generic lines from one or two of my four, and some of the messages always bounced back. I didn’t take anyone off the list; somehow, deleting a young person who had survived a civil war and had said they wanted to be in touch seemed too harsh, too final.

Though I had virtually no idea what was really going on at their end, I was acting from my end as if they were a group who were in touch with each other, in motion, using what they had learned, eager for more. It felt like trying to weave a reality out of the most insubstantial bits of memory and rare scraps of contact.

As we slowly realized that the time was coming to go back to visit Abitimo, the question of whether anything we had done with these young people had stuck was a painful one to contemplate. And so I wrote again, as if it were real, inviting them to come back together and build on the work we had done.

Simon Peter wrote back saying that he would try to get folks in the school where he taught together and tell others from the group that we were coming. Okello Richard said that his group in the village would like to meet us and learn more. Omona Richard said that his work in the Sudan has been greatly helped by his understanding of peer listening and could we do something there? Abitimo said that Okello Richard had met with her and she was excited about the potential of his group. Omona Richard said that he could come down from the Sudan when we were there. Omony Geoffrey just said how happy he would be to see us again.

We go in a few days. I’m seeing the decision point more clearly. The obstacles to maintaining connection over all that distance and all those years were overwhelming, and I could have bowed to that reality and let it go. But I decided to keep weaving. I used the strongest and best thread I had, others kept throwing me all the threads they could manage, and together we wove something of substance. As I consider this story, I have to believe that when we keep acting as if what we hope for is real, we change reality.

A few things that have made me hopeful recently:

How non-violent training has diffused potentially deadly cattle disputes in Sudan,

The passage by Congress of the Cobell trust fund case, clearing the way for half a million Native Americans to receive the money that the federal government has owed them for many years for the use of their land, 

A young man from a poor farming family in Malawi who got books out of the library, scrounged trash heaps and made a windmill (,

Thousands of Egyptian Muslims who showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside, to protect them from the threat of Islamic militants and support religious tolerance in their country.