Saturday, August 1, 2015

Zed Books to Publish "Africa Existential"

I received the very welcome news a couple of days ago that Zed Books is offering me a contract to publish Africa Existential: American Quests from "The African Queen" to KONY 2012.  I hope to have a good draft of the manuscript finished by June 2016, and it will be another year or two from then, if all goes smoothly, until Zed publishes the book.

I'm honored and excited to be working with Zed.  It's a workers' collective in the UK "committed to increasing awareness of important international issues and to promoting diversity, alternative voices and progressive social change."  The two scholars they found to review my proposal and chapter gave prompt and very critical, helpful feedback, and they publish all of their books in paper.

This will be "my" (explanation of the quotation marks to follow) seventh book, and my views of having a book published have changed quite a bit in the twenty years since Harvard University Press published the first.

First, although  having books published by presses considered reputable is a great way to get credibility in the academic world, very few  bookstores, newspapers, radio stations, or readers outside of one's immediate family or narrow slices of academia are interested.  The consequences are underwhelming.

Second, one's book is not really one's own.  Africa Existential will not really be "my" book.  It has already been improved immeasurably by two very bright readers.  It will receive, I hope and expect, a good deal of additional attention from those readers as well as a general editor and a copy editor, people who will make the book more logical, compelling, and readable and save me from embarrassing errors.  The book is also the work of many hands in a more general sense.  I have read hundreds if not thousands of accounts of Africa and watched many films.  Everything I have to say is, in a very real sense, second hand.  Not all of these contributions will show up in the references.  I have had the pleasure of visiting Africa several times myself and am friends with many people from Africa and many Americans who have traveled to and thought about Africa.  All of these experiences and people have shaped and will continue to shape "my" manuscript.  Writing a book, furthermore, requires a vast support network in all sorts indirect ways.  Wendy and Peter, my immediate family, are very supportive.  I was raised by bookish working-class parents who had a mania for education that dozens of dedicated teachers nourished.  Scores of librarians have assisted in the research itself, and vast, modern mechanisms of education, communication, and food distribution that only a tiny sliver of people in the history of the world have enjoyed have made it possible to set aside thousands of hours of time to work on this project and to use that time with a degree of efficiency unavailable to scholars even a generation ago.

Thirdly, I have learned that a book is never definitive.  Our intellects our weak, our reach is modest.  Every subject is a vast ocean.  We do not master such vastness and complexity.  Even those who spend decades at a given subject are only dipping their toes in here and there, exploring a few samples through distorted lenses. We therefore are always writing "a" history of something, never "the" history of anything.  We must agree with Job: "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know."

One has to wonder, then, if publishing a book is worth the countless hours of research and writing and rewriting that go into it, hours that might be more responsibly spent at more socially constructive and useful tasks, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if this turns out to be my last one.  Still, for someone who spends much of his time trying to figure out what makes the world tick, it's a great privilege to have one's thoughts--refined by others--recorded and dispersed, their many shortcomings not withstanding. .

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lessons from When Helping Hurts and Brando Akoto, Concluded

I have already pointed out one of the key points made in When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert: We all need help.  Hence comfortable Americans who head off determined "to help poor people" often discover their own poverty of relationships and resilience, for example.  A slogan that quickly emerged from Peace Corps veterans sums this realization up nicely: "I got much more than I gave."  Giving and receiving often unfold in surprising ways, and material goods are shown to be but one part of a rich life.

A second key realization that often emerges from working in impoverished areas is the intractability of problems.  Distributing food or building buildings is easy enough.  But doing so in a way that ensures that local people benefit in the long run is much more difficult and requires a great deal of patience and listening and, above all, collaboration.

In other words, development work done right leads to and requires sustained and meaningful relationships.

When Mr. Brando talked about relationships during our September 2014 journeys to Yo Ghana's Ghanaian schools I enjoyed watching how community and school leaders responded to his words.  Some expected--and hoped--that we would act like a "Western NGO" was supposed to act: build classrooms and distribute school buses and computers. But most responded very positiviley once Brando explained that: 1) We didn't have that sort of money; 2) The community already had resources to start improving its schools without our help; 3) That we hoped to be their partners and friends for years, even decades to come; 4) That the letters, the warmth and knowledge, that their students shared with their friends in Oregon and Washington was a great gift that we could work on right now.

"If you take care of relationships," Brando likes to say, "everything else will follow."  When Helping Hurts can be read as an exposition of that truth.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Lessons from When Helping Hurts, Part II

Last week I wrote about how this fine book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert underscores the importance of humility in relief work, not simply because humility is some sort of abstract virtue but because humility prompts people with money to realize that financial wealth is often accompanied by poverty in other important aspects of life, such as friendships and resilience, and that possessing money does not magically give one the wisdom required to use it effectively to help without hurting.

That said, people who have more than enough wealth should not be discouraged from helping those who lack things like sufficient food, safe water, and access to education, for example.  But how does one help without hurting?

One cardinal rule that the authors repeatedly emphasize is the importance of respecting local people, organizations, and solutions that are already sustaining communities that might look poor from a western perspective.  Those of us with money are often too quick to rush in with solutions to problems that were not necessarily problems--or to problems that local people could or would have solved without outside intervention.  One of Yo Ghana's strongest supporters likes to remark that the West African community in which he grew up was much better off several decades ago than it is today because western NGOs had not yet discovered it.  The residents knew that they had to meet their own needs, and they did so.  Now the temptation is to wait for a western NGO to take care of everything, an expectation that undercuts the work ethic and determination needed to succeed in any society.

Indeed, a growing number of people from diverse backgrounds point out the problems that commonly ensue when outsiders come in and simply start building schools, hospitals, wells or providing other materials or services:
1) Local leaders feel undercut and undervalued.  If food is being given away, for example, how will local farmers make a living?  A local pastor may take days to gather money to help a church member in need finds that a stranger visiting from the U.S. will provide the funds instantly.
2) Local elites and local and national governments conclude that they are not responsible for helping the less fortunate, as western donors are taking care of that.  A local wealthy person may feel no responsibility for helping neighbors.
3) Spending money quickly and in large amounts attracts and rewards corruption.

Next week we'll look at the key solution Corbett and Fikkert recommend for how to help without hurting.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Wonderful Book: When Helping Hurts, Part I

I recently read a book I had skimmed a few months ago: When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and
Brian Fikkert.  It's the most sensible book I know of on the role of privileged people in poverty alleviation and feels a lot like being inside the head of my dear friend and fellow Yo Ghana! board member Mr. Brando Akoto.

When Helping Hurts is written from a Christian perspective, so one of their central concepts is that everyone is broken and poor in some respect.

This brokenness or poverty has two major consequences for development work.

Since one aspect of our brokenness is arrogance, particularly if we have reason to think that we are powerful or superior, many of us are unaware of our poverty and brokenness.  We are apt to think of our material wealth as a manifestation of superiority.  More tellingly, perhaps, we are often unprepared to recognize and deal with our blind spots and limitations.  Our lack of humility is often crippling, because it keeps us from being able to recognize and address our weaknesses.

Second, a broad definition of poverty helps one to see that wealthy people can be poor.  Part of what intrigued me right away about Ghanaian schools was their richness in resiliency and relationships.  I discerned those same strengths among ordinary Ghanaians in all walks of life; their determination and social skills were, by American standards, extraordinary and, for me, inspiring.  

Before well-meaning people try to help those with far fewer material resources, then, we are well advised to: 1) Bear in mind our limitations and lack of knowledge--and to remember that the more we learn, the more we will learn about what we don't know; 2) That, as many Peace Corps Volunteers like to say, we are likely to gain more than we receive, that people who are poor in material goods are often, perhaps by necessity, rich in social skills and moral character.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Post Defeat, Part III

Yesterday I visited Astoria to meet with one of the fine teachers Yo Ghana! works with and to have lunch with some old friends.

On the way home I took a quick detour in St. Helens to visit their high school track, a place where I have some vivid memories.  The cinder track has been replaced by an all-weather one, and I wasn't altogether clear that the new one was in the same spot.  But walking across the parking lot and athletic fields awakened some flickers of recognition from the spring of 1974 and 1975, times in which shaving a few seconds off a personal best or beating a rival seemed like the beginning and end of life.

It's hard to recapture that feeling these days.  I run occasionally but have gained a lot of weight in recent years.  Even a few years ago, when I was lighter and training pretty hard, I couldn't even manage to run six miles at 7:00 a mile, a pace once reserved for long recovery runs.  I could barely run a half mile or so at my former marathon (26.2 miles) pace.

More telling are the weight of responsibilities.  Mike and I had talked about how to more fully engage his students and their partners in Ghana.  My old classmates had moved on from athletics to being focused on work and family and how to be good friends with people like Bill, who passed away last year.  Back in Portland I met with a close friend who is battling a daunting illness with tremendous grace and shared time with him with other friends.

For several years, running trumped everything, and I was sure that happiness would come with achievement.  And certainly there were moments of euphoria, like that afternoon in St. Helens when I broke 10:00 in the 2-mile for the first time and got second place in an invitational.  But the memory of that triumphant day seemed small yesterday, an interlude dwarfed by even ordinary meetings and developments, for extraordinary people reside in those places.

Are athletics a bridge that carries us across the troubled water of adolescence, or a distraction from what we should care more deeply about?

Friday, June 19, 2015

Post-Defeat, Part II: Why Do I/We Care So Much about Athletics?

Reading what a big scar losing a race in an obscure high school track meet left on my psyche has left me a bit, well, embarrassed.  After a wrenching end to a marriage and other close relationships, being a single foster parent, watching my parents and two close friends my age die from cancer, learning how to be a loving husband, adopting and parenting an amazing son and watching him become a man before my eyes, and so forth and so forth and so forth I have to wonder: Why did I care so much about getting second place in a race?  Why was running at the center of my life for so many years?  And why did I immediately translate the competitive drive behind my running to fields like Evangelical Christianity and academia, prompting me to in a few years burn out from each?  My desire to be the best would plunge me into an activity for hours, weeks, even years, then spit my back up on the beach of life, exhausted and confused well into middle age.

And why do so many men, especially, care so much about how our sports teams do?  Why are we so depressed and angry when people we don't even know playing in games we have absolutely no control over "fail us"?

And why do so many adults who appear otherwise reasonable spend hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars making sure that their children have every imaginable advantage in soccer, basketball, gymnastics, or other sports?  And this even--or especially--when the children themselves don't seem very interested?

The answer: I don't know.

OK, I'm enough of a real man to not be able and willing to stop there.  So here goes:

1) Modern men get so fixated on sports in part because we can.  We have the time and money for hobbies, and sports--especially if it involves ourselves or our children--is a compelling hobby.

2) We are also bored.  Most of us have pretty routine lives, and the opportunity to compete vicariously through out children or even our sports team gives us something to look forward to and to savor.  With children, too, the future seems endless.  They dream of  playing professionally, and we are excited to see how far they can go.

But is all of this really necessary?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Post-Defeat: Part I

Despite running my hardest and and achieving lowering my time in the mile by about ten seconds, losing to Jeff Edwards left me feeling bitter.  What if you lay it all out, push yourself to your physical limits, and still lose?  What if someone who is two years younger, who has only begun to make the sacrifices necessary to run hard and well, beats you simply because he was born a better run than you were?

Of course I kept running.  It was really the only part of my life that excited me.  I did well the remainder of the season, getting down to 9:53 in the two-mile and finishing sixth in districts (behind both Bob Olsen, who got second, and Jeff Edwards, who got fifth) in a race against runners from twelve teams.  I trained hard over the summer and went off to run cross-country at the University of Idaho for a semester, then for a year and a half of track and cross-country at Blue Mountain Community College.  It was after track season there that I trained a couple of weeks for the marathon, then entered one in Vancouver, British Columbia, hoping I could break three hours and instead ran 2:48 with surprising ease.

I liked training for marathons, which required a high tolerance for discomfort (which I could handle for long periods of time) rather than pain.  I was a mediocre runner in community college.  Pretty much everyone running in college was serious about it and getting good training, so I could no longer count on my dedication to training to set me apart.  So I figured I'd finish up my undistinguished cross-country and track career and then focus on the marathon.  I had no illusions of getting to the Olympics.  I figured if I trained relentlessly for ten years or so I might break 2:20 and get to run in the Olympic Trials, which would be glory enough.   I ran 2:42 after cross country season my sophomore year and my junior year, at the University of Oregon, was training for the marathon for the first time, running about 100 miles a week and in great shape, when I turned my ankle badly three weeks before the marathon I intended to run in 2:36.  Then I came back to soon, messed up my knee to favor my sore ankle, went to a top-notch running doctor who told me that my knees were a mess and I'd never be able to train or run seriously.

To hear that was something of a relief, to tell the truth.  For more than five years, ever sense Coach Dominey had shown me the map of the U.S. and told me that I'd run across it, I had focused my life around running faster.  But the sad truth was that I'd never be an excellent runner, even though the single-minded pursuit of that goal had made me extremely fit (resting pulse of 30 beats per minute) and disciplined.

But what does an athlete do when athletics ends?