Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Rage and helplessness

Today is a great example of how much rage one feels in this era of overwhelming information, knowledge and perspective. We know of raging conflicts in other parts of the world as we live in peace; have seen faces of children suffering from starvation and even drowned up on shores; learn of modern day genocides; hear live streaming of lies and propaganda from the mouths of leaders of former colonial powers and super powers; see racist and uneven coverage of humans being blown up by bombs in various capitals of the world; the inability of human civilisation to roll back environmental destruction; the depravity and horror of sexual violence that women face all over the world; the continuing reign of patriarchy; the hold of religious fundamentalism and even how ordinary people believe in backward ideas stemming from correct or incorrect interpretation of so-called holy scripture; the staggering inequality and poverty in nearly every society; the sheer and vulgar wealth of elites and the widening gaps; unabashed racism; injustice; the idiotic concepts of nationalism and nation states; and, so on. We have all the news and information at our finger tips on our TV screens, telephone screens, podcasts, radio, WhatsApp, Facebook, video clips, etc but live in blinding rage. 

To a certain extent, we are also living in apathy. I sometimes change the channel when I am watching news about the Rohingya or one of the barely-covered or barely-analysed coverage of one of the conflicts in Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo or Central African Republic or Boko Haram's exploits in Nigeria). The headlines that Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time and that every other child is dying of cholera and starvation are so depressing and haunting that one simply doesn't know what to think or say. The reactions are anger, shock, sadness, and utter helplessness. 

What can a human feel but helplessness when one hears of death and suffering and injustice hundreds and thousands of miles away? Hardly a couple hundred years ago, ordinary humans did not have access to detailed news and events even from a neighbouring city or country. News probably traveled very slowly and, I don't suppose much was known about happenings very far away. Perhaps humans lived in much smaller communities and any injustice or suffering was dealt with, even if caused by folks in that same community. 

I'm just imagining the human condition. We are told that before industrialisation and urbanisation happened, human societies were more closely bound. Of course, perhaps they were more insular but I don't think suffering was ignored. And certainly, before this information age, the average human was not aware of suffering far away. 

Somehow, one wants to believe that before our societies were forcibly and violently modernised through industrialisation, colonisation, and globalisation, they were more close-knit and kind. Of course, I'm romanticising a sense of life and reality before the information age. 

Along came the notion of nation states and imagined sense of belonging with millions of other people, and, we were bound together. 

On this trajectory, what is one supposed to do with the knowledge of suffering going on in this world? Perhaps it is important to be aware even if one feels helpless. At least it gives one a sense of perspective. What can one do, though? Perhaps, realign one's politics and sense of history by learning and understanding more about what you have just heard and watched. If by chance you support the power structure that is causing the suffering, you would be inspired to change your stance. Maybe there is a space where you can actually take action too: stop supporting a government or petition or contribute with funds or raise awareness. Sounds very cliché. More or less, it boils down to social media activism. Join the enlightened crowd of social media activists. 

Perhaps helpless rage is better than complete ignorance. Perhaps that simmering rage will eventually lead us to take constructive action down the line. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Safe Streets Festival

I attended the first street festival in Monrovia. I was a little flabbergasted to note that even a street festival (a cultural event) needed to have donors help organise it.

It should be noted that back in 2013, the Nee Gba River Festival was organised by private efforts and since then it has not

We went after midday and, indeed, parts of Broad and Randall Streets were cut off from traffic. We parked our car near the UBA Bank at the top of Broad Street and walked down. We stopped briefly at the Sacred Heart Cathedral Church to take a photo. What a magnificent entrance it has. 


There was a stage with speakers right at the corner of Broad and Mechlin Streets and there was a very big crowd around it. There are booksellers under the old Ministry of Education in the same vicinity where I always try to find some books. So I bought some. 




We kept going and, on the corner of Broad and Randall, there was a stall by Cica Motors. Up Randall Street, there were many other stalls and, we met our friends Luca and Manfred and other known artisans. 

It was a warm sunny day and, since I've been suffering for about a week with a nasty chest infection, I was quite tired at the end of it and we went home in the middle of the afternoon. 

I must say I was rather disappointed with the so-called Festival. All those donor names are splashed on the leaflet but what went into this? These were the usual stalls one sees in town at events like the US Embassy Arts and Crafts Fair. At least there should have been some food stalls, shade, proper places to sit, and some activities for children? And, why not give a facelift to the buildings with at least some paint? One feels everything that is organised in Monrovia is extremely shabby and a 'half baked' effort. 

I hope the public enjoyed this event at least. Perhaps there was a good performance on the stage later on.

Here are some photographs of my purchases. 










Sunday, 19 November 2017

Weekend notes

It turns out our DSTV subscription expired Saturday night. I got up at around 5 AM this morning. For the first time in my life, I have started to experience sleeplessness. I remember my parents and other adults complaining about not being able to sleep or not being to sleep for a stretch. I never appreciated that this age-related calamity could ever strike me, too. So, too frequently, I find I can't fall asleep or I get up in the middle or early morning, having to take a leak and then not being able to fall asleep. I sometimes read or sometimes become a couch potato. 


This morning, I was not only unable to sleep but was also suffering my a hang over. Last night we were at our dear friends Justin and Jyoti's for a Thanksgiving dinner (complete with a slow roasted turkey and typical American side dishes like sweet potato pie and cranberry sauce). We were literally the last guests to leave and I was throwing back wine like I have not done in a long, long time. Inevitably, I came home and threw up. I felt like crap for a while but it was also nice to be tipsy for a while and enjoy the buzz. 

So anyway, I woke up at 5 AM this morning and pottered around the apartment. I first went to check the voltage and, saw that it was still quite low. For a few weeks, now, since the dry season has arrived, LEC voltage is too low in 2 phases and, so we can't sleep with the AC on in our bedroom. We've been running the generator at night. 

I put on the TV and saw that our subscription at expired. I was only able to watch CCTV. It was quite amazing because I learned about China's 'Oprah Winfrey' (Jin Xing) and a Hanggai, a Chinese band who hail from inner Mongolia. The band Hanggai was in Vancouver and were recording an album, being produced a famous producer. 


Anyway, after that I turned off the generator, switched to LEC and went back to sleep in the bedroom. Of course, too soon, it was too hot to sleep in the bedroom and Kavita and I shifted to the living room sofa where I turned the AC on because the phase it's on is still receiving enough voltage (it hovers between 177 or 180 or 190 and sometimes 200). We slept until 1 PM. Haresh appeared to be annoyed we slept so long but I think he had a good time because he played online chess all morning. 

We quickly got dress and took our staff Farman for a farewell lunch as he's going home to Pakistan for a month. We went for lunch at the funky new café next to the New Era Supermarket. What a nice funky café and what's more the food was actually good. The staff was well dressed and courteous. We had Liberian and Filipino staff waiting on us, who even changed $ 700 'dirty' American bills into clean ones. 

We watched people as they came to shop. It's so funny how small Monrovia is and how many familiar faces one can see in this town. We even met folks we know and made some small chit chat. 

We dove back to town, dropped off sometime at our friend Rukshan's. He had come down to pick it up with little Mateo in his arms. When we handed back Mateo to his father, Kavita complained we should have driven away as she's patiently waiting for a younger sibling. 

Farman handed over work and machines to Haresh and bid farewell to him. He was very emotional and too happy to be going home after what I think is 1 1/2 or 2 years. Haresh told me he told him that 10 folks were going to be at Islamabad Airport to receive him. He will definitely have an emotional family reunion and, he is elated he's going home. He said he didn't have the words to thank us for arranging his home trip and, I also can't imagine the struggles, longing and, emotions migrant workers go through. 

The rest of the afternoon was pure laziness. We dozed and watched movies on our DVD player. First I played Ratatouille for Kavita: an animated movie that really only gets better and better each time you watch it.


After this, Kavita wanted to watch another animated movie but I convinced her I needed to watch a movie. I agreed it would be something children could also watch. So, I popped into Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland which I have never actually watched from start to finish. I finally realised today why I never bothered to watch all of it. Sure, it features some stunning technical special effects and famous actors and voices but it's too depressing and drab. This sounds contradictory because Tim Burton is famous for celebrating the macabre but twisting such a famous story into a frightening landscape did not evoke any love in me. I suppose the animated Disney film of 1951 has a very special place in my childhood and, I love it because of its sweetness. Sure, the characters are crazy but there is such a wonder and magic to the film. What happened to the wackiness of the Cheshire Cat in Tim Burton's version? The Mad Hatter is not mad at all but dazed and limp. Really, what was the point? I think only the Red Queen retained some of the wackiness. Everything else seemed to be post - apocalyptic world. That's not Wonderland. And insult on injury, in the end when Alice returns to her world, she turns into a pioneer of the criminal East India Company, suggesting her father in law and her go into business together. This is after she dumps her fiancé. So much for not only destroying the sweetness and childishness of Alice and Wonderland but also turning Alice into a bloody colonialist. Oh but maybe Tim Burton had a subversive idea to actually lift the veil off Victorian England which was living an idyllic life, getting richer and fatter, spinning fairy tales for its children, while England looting, pillaging rest of the world. 

After this, I popped in Into the Wild. I picked up this DVD from Videocon, the local DVD shop in F-10 Market, close to my house in Islamabad. I don't know why I picked this film up in my previous trip because this is a 2007 movie and the English titles are the latest ones I pick up from this store. I didn't realise this is a 10-year old movie. I hadn't even heard of it so it was nice to watch it with a completely fresh mind. The film is pure poetry, meditation, joy and wonder. Haresh also watched the film from beginning to end, and, we keenly followed the story. 

Among all the various thoughts and reactions that the movie invoked in me, I really enjoyed realising and guessing how much the wilderness, the vastness and sheer beauty of the United States has defined its literature, films, and music. I remember reading My Side of the Mountain in 5th or 6th grade. Who can forget the Little House on the Prairie books? The main character runs away to live in the Catskill Mountains. What a great book for kids and for imagining the American countryside. I remember reading about the American transcendalists  such as Thoreau and Emerson in 9th grade and how they spoke about the beauty of the environment. In so many countless American films, the sheer grandeur of the American mountains, rivers, lakes, deserts, fields, and ocean line is celebrated. It's almost a character in itself: refuge, challenge, terrifying, indomitable, beautiful, etc.

The main character's quest to reject his expected path of job-seeking and further education; to get away from the anguish of his parents' deception; and to find himself is remarkable. That a  young man could so firmly cast aside material wealth and status and be so determined to experience a simple living is astounding. He believes humans are made from experiences and joy can be had from  solitary experiences. He wants to seek out his true self. It's an admirable journey. That he died in the end is tragic and depressing. But Haresh commented, "He did exactly what he wanted to do."

One line I really enjoyed from the line was that money makes you cautious and, it rang so true!

I once had a conversation with my brother in December 2004 in Edinburgh. We had gone for New Year's and I remember asking him, who are we really? Nationality? No. Religion. No. Personal traits? No. I kept saying no to all his answers. Even to Male or Female. I didn't have the answer then and, still think about what makes our Self unique to us. Is it our experiences, desires, and actions? And, if we are led to believe certain frameworks, ideas, concepts and ideologies from so early on  - almost indoctrinated - than, are we really ourselves? Are we defined by these inherited beliefs and the resulting actions, even if we didn't come up with them ourselves? And, how many of us question anything we are taught? Who is who? 

The film is utterly beautiful, even with its non-linear structure, it's sense of intimacy with the main character, the stunning shots of natural world, and the voice of the hero's sister. And what a soundtrack. 

It was only at the end I realised this was a true story!

Friday, 17 November 2017

Bubbly and slightly pretentious schooling

I'm quite frustrated with Kavita's new school as time has passed and, I acknowledge most of my reactions are aimed at the wider scenario of how things work. I'm hopelessly ill-informed about how teeny-bopper education works and, haven't really thought things through. I'm hopelessly ill-informed what a racket this preschool education is all about. Use big words, pretend you're in love with the kids, stroke the parents' egos, use gimmicks and charge and arm and leg for 'educating' children of hapless parents. 


For a couple of months I have just reacted: mental meltdowns, expressed shock and sarcasm and, frustration. I feel as if this 'school business' is a gimmick and really, just a business. 

I already explained how much higher the school fees are and, what a small fortune we are dishing out every month in this blog post: "School blues."

When the founder of the school (and known to us as a photographer, host/organiser/founder of the summer camp for kids) convinced me to give the school a try after the first couple of days, I tried my best to be positive. 

That didn't last too long because hardly a couple of weeks later, we were invited to a Meet and Greet and then a Parent-Teacher conference. I rolled my eyes at both events, incredulous that I would actually participate in all this formality for a 4-year old child. What was the purpose of these events, exchanges? Is Kavita really in proper school now? Is it me who cannot believe that Kavita is now so old that her teachers/school will give me feedback on her strengths, weaknesses, and how she is coping with school? 

The Meet and Greet (on 30 September) was quite well organised and, parents got to mingle, see the classrooms, and eat a few snacks. It started off by with all the parents in the Circle and the teachers and Shoana took us through the ABCs, songs, meditation/yoga, and Pre-School TV. 

The Pre-School TV was dominated by Kavita for the first few weeks. See the first episode, narrated by Kavita. She sounded cute while explaining what the kids were doing for the week. But it got tiring watching it after after a while. As much as I like seeing Kavita in action, I wasn't really interested in seeing other children in action per se. In fact, when I saw the other children hosting the Pre-School TV, I couldn't muster any enthusiasm and interest. Honestly, what's the point of this gimmick? Isn't it just a gimmick? And possibly worse, it's free marketing for the school?

During the Parent - Teacher conference we were told very nice things about Kavita. We were even told she is "gifted." This conference took place with the school principal (Wilmona) and founder/director (Shoana) and, hardly 2 or 3 weeks after school started. Haresh responded sarcastically by saying that back in India she would just be average. It was such an absurd conversation. I thought the school's praises were extremely insincere and, hollow. What was Kavita exactly gifted in? And, if she was so gifted, what could this school offer her to allow her gifts to thrive and grow?

During this Parent - Teacher conference, I said I was happy with the atmosphere and how they were exposing children to "music", "art", "science," "yoga,", etc but I think I said all that to be polite. I don't know how qualified the teachers are, what degrees they have or how they have even come to make these evaluations. I think the music teacher knows music and has taught music at the Cachelle Summer Camp but don't first hand his experience in teaching such young kids. I know Kavita's class teacher has most of her couple of years of experience only at Cachelle and, doubt she has a reputable degree in education or child psychology or any related subject. What are they basing these evaluations on?

October crept up on us and, lo and behold, there was a Costume Day, a euphemism for Halloween. Really? Kavita has to observe an American oddity? In art class, the first Creative Arts Preschool of Monrovia couldn't identify a Liberian, West African or even African artist to teach kids about but had to go for the easiest one: Van Gogh. I don't have anything against Halloween or Van Gogh but we are in Liberia, Africa's first independent black republic. We aren't in Europe or the United States. 

I noticed though the class teacher wasn't even ensuring Kavita was eating the food we were packing for her every day! I told her several times to help Kavita finish her food, time after time, Kavita would bring everything back. I politely told her a few times. Even told Kavita in front of her teacher to listen to her teacher and, finish her food. When I complained for the 3rd or 4th time, the teacher dodged the whole thing to say, "Kavita says the food is too spicy." I lost it and went to the school principal.

These are the dialogues I performed for the principal:
  • For almost $ 400 a month and with hardly 5 children in class, the teacher couldn't even make sure the kids ate their food? 
  • I don't feel the school teacher has more competence than my own Nanny who has often started to blame the whole thing on Kavita, as if Kavita is her boss. 
  • Do we order pizza for our children if they don't like the food or, do we teach them to eat what we give them and when we give it to them? 
  • I'm not into child worship and hoped discipline and manners were being stressed at the school. 
The Principal seemed to understand me (or at least that is the impression I got) but as I was leaving she handed me the phone and Shoana wanted to speak to me. We were on camera so she watched the whole thing and then wanted to speak to me. I got so annoyed and, said I didn't want to have another conversation about it.


Afterwards I received a long e-mail from Shoana apologising for having listened in (wish I had been told earlier that we were all on camera). She said they were trying their best but I seemed to prefer the previous school Kavita was in. She said she never forced her children to eat food and she wouldn't allow any child to be force fed at her school. She said  Reggio Emilia schools encourage children. She even went on to say that my complaints had brought a 'tear' to Kavita's teacher's eye! In the end, I was told that if I wasn't happy with the school, they would understand.  It was a very long insincere  e-mail.

Did I tell you they refer to the children as 'Artists' and the teachers as 'Mentors'? It's the generation we are currently in where words are just thrown around but they don't mean anything. How can a 4-year old have a Mentor? Alexander the Great needed a Mentor to advise and guide his military campaigns. What guidance and advise does a little kid need? Advice on which career to choose? And, what about 'Artist'? Are these children 'Artists'? I know some actual Liberian 'Artists' who sell their paintings for a living, trying to make ends meet. 

These liberal and idiotic use of words reminds me how fashionable it is now to buy carved out words like 'Eat' and put it in your dining room. Or to buy decorative pillows with the words 'Love'. It's this modern, superficial, insincere and disrespectful way of using language. I can't stand it. 

I replied back to Shoana saying I would write her a longer e-mail but could she tell me whether her teachers had teaching licenses. I haven't got a rely yet.

I was quite angry and incensed about the insincere e-mail from Shoana. I realised that throughout this 'experiment' with her new school, I was emotionally manipulated. Earlier in the year, she said Kavita was so 'gifted' and would do well at her new school. She specially called us to make sure we would enrol her. She said she 'loved' Kavita and was 'in tears' at how well she was doing. 

Best of all, the idea that it's not the teacher/Mentor's prerogative to make sure a 4-year child eats her food (for a class of hardly 5 kids) shows the school's approach has no sense of responsibility or attention. What is the role of a preschool? It's the grey area between formal school and babyhood. Eating properly falls into 'early education?' On one hand, the creative approach to pre schooling implies that focus on arts and expression is going to really nurture teeny boppers rather than rote learning. The school has an artificial introduction to yoga, music, art, French and even karate. Needless to say, they will not learn any of those comprehensively from 9 to 1 PM. They have all of this pretentious and elitist splattering of elitist aspirations but gosh, we don't force-feed children. We just have a lot of blah blah blah. Nothing solid. 

Kavita is still at the same school. She eagerly attends her school every morning and, only needs a few words of encouragement from Haresh to wake up. She comes back with stories and excitement. I don't think she's flourishing per se or learning something particularly mind blowing. In fact, they're still tracing letters. 

I carry on with my own routine with her where we draw, write, read books, converse, watch movies and cartoons, and so on. I've distanced myself from the school, trying to disinvest my emotional energy and, do some thinking in how things actually work.

Creative Arts Early Learning Center is definitely a pretentious school and for now, they have more style than substance.  At least I've finally realised what it is I find so irritating - it's pretentious. It's their first year and they hardly have 20 kids for their 2 classes. It's housed in the same place that is currently used for evening dance classes, spa, yoga, guesthouse, etc. It's a business within several other businesses. 

There a few children from the American Embassy attending this school so there's a sense that Kavita is attending a bubble school! 

It's ironic I say all this because most of my schooling was done in international American schools. Our schools were great but we were almost disconnected from the cities and countries we lived in. We didn't have any classes to learn about the countries we were living in : but how could you? We were following the American curriculum. I remember in Romania, we had one token class where we learned Romanian folklore. We had someone come in and read us fantastical Romanian stories. Our teachers of course took us on field trips to the local museums and we had a handful of Romanian students in our school. In Sénégal, we attended a Christian missionary school where Bible class was mandatory. By this time, I was in mid high school so I learned quite a lot about American history and literature. What about the country we lived in? Not much except for the French class. In Athens, again, we were preparing to enter universities in the UK or United States. 

I shared my experiences with my best friend, Chipo Nyambuya, on WhatsApp (she and I have extremely long chats and debates on this medium) and she said this about 'good private schools,' which was a good reminder 
The thing is, most 'good' private schools in any given place aspire to some imagined aspirational higher place of privilege...which is a reflection of a greater/broader access to privilege and power and not an affirmation of a local domestic culture or society. Think of the American and British schools around the world. The parochial schools are often the only ones that are about access and a harmonization of culture on the space.
Did I tell you Cachelle School signs every e-mail  as follows:

With Creativity

I shall sign off this blog post, inspired, with something.

With Stapler and Door Knob 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Epic Monday evening walk

Today, Haresh and I went on an epic long walk this evening. Kavita had just woken up from her after-school nap and was quite cranky. Her routine these days is to play, draw and watch cartoons at the office with us until she falls asleep. We try to make sure she sleeps for at least 2 hours every day after school because I don't think she gets enough sleep at night. She usually is up until 10 or 11 PM and then has to be up by 7:30 AM. She loves school so much that Haresh has no trouble waking her up in the morning. Almost every morning, she says she wants to sleep for "5 more minutes" and then gets up with gentle nudging. 

So, anyway, after she woke up up after her nap, she refused to go along on the walk so Haresh and I decided to go ourselves. We packed Kavita off with Musu to the house where Musu was going to allow Kavita to watch cartoons. 

I can't remember the last time Haresh and I walked together, only the 2 of us. Kavita loves walking with us usually so it was strange but also nice for the original 2 members of this family to be together.  Oh, I forgot, Bijli was also with us. 

You know what I have realised about Bijli? She's quite a well-behaved dog. She never, ever barks at any dog (or back at any dog) during our walks. In fact, she's quite timid. She only barks and hollers at passerby's, cars, trucks, etc from the comfort of the balcony. 

During one of my previous walks past the old US Embassy, I noticed that an American (I presume she's American) lady's 2 little dogs barked like crazy at Bijli who didn't even yelp in return. So, next time I saw, them, I joked across the street to the dogs that they didn't own the street. 

We walked from Randall Street up UN Drive and then turned right for South Beach where we connected back to the Executive Mansion and then continued to Capitol Bye Pass. 

On South Beach, this fellow asked for a selfie picture and I asked for one, too. 😉

About 3/4 into our hectic long walk, I asked Haresh, "Are you tired?" "He said, no, I can walk to Zwedru."

We ended our walk with fresh coconut water. Coconuts are now all over Monrovia, being sold in wheelbarrows with a woman or man offering it for 30, 40 or 50 LD, depending on the size. 






















Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Coconuts and evening walk

For today's walk, we went up the hill instead of down it. So, we went to the intersection of Randall and Benson Street where we first drank some coconut water. Then we walked up the hill and did some exercises. 










This shows Kavita and Haresh running up the hill. 


These are photographs of Haresh working out! 





And walking back....