A Childhood Erased

In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood is closing its doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.

An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.

Last night with my younger daughter and husband I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend Paul. I got to experience the thick fog of Jhika Gali, and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.

I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class will graduate. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.

My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”

The closer the closing ceremony comes, the more I feel an urgent sadness that needs to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that this day would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:

Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.

Robynn Bliss

To be sure, we live in a different era. The school has dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.

What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had. Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.

As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.

The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.

What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?

My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.

I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.

At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.

Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule

Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School

Fellow MCSers, what are your stones of remembrance?

The Train Party

In May of last year the International Business Times wrote an article marking the 150th anniversary of the railway system in what is now Pakistan.

The opening paragraph reads as follows:

On May 13th, 1861 the first engine left the station in Karachi to an astonished crowd.  One of a kind in the region, locals were shocked as John Brunton, the Chief Engineer of the Karachi-Kotri Railway, drove the steam locomotive for its first trial.

The Karachi natives were astounded.  I drove the engine myself of course at slow speed – the natives thronging all around, I was fearful of some accident.  At last I thought I should frighten them away, so I blew the engine steam whistle loudly.  Instantly, they all rushed back from the ‘Demon’ falling over one another.

I smiled as I read the article, for train travel and my childhood go hand in hand.  Some of my earliest memories include trains and the rhythmic sound of train engines chugging their way through the country side of Pakistan. To this day, when I close my eyes on the subway in the morning en route to my job in an ugly, institutional grey building in the heart of Boston, the rhythm of the train transports me back to another time and another place.

By the time my parents arrived in Pakistan in 1954 train travel was well established and the most common way to get from place to place in the country. It was safe, it was cheap and it was relatively comfortable.

Those of us who lived far away from the school, in the southern areas of Pakistan, used trains as the means of transportation to the school. Earlier than I can remember it was decided that it would be wiser to band together and send a couple of chaperones with all the school-age children on a train to the train station at Rawalpindi. This organized system would make sure that every parent did not have to make the long trip. On arrival, the school would send the solid army-green school bus, bearing the name and emblem Murree Christian School, to the station to transport us the remaining journey to the school. This trip was affectionately called “The Train Party” and it was only later in life that I found out how difficult this could be for the parent chaperons.

My time to join my older siblings on this “Train Party” came at the tender age of seven, during the latter half of first grade.  I had heard it mentioned so many times that the images in my mind had taken over.  A party, games, food, and most of all friends!  “What could be better?” I thought!  I dreamt of the day that I would get to go and join the ranks of missionaries children heading off to Murree Christian School.  It was a rite of passage – it was the “Train Party”.  We would arrive at the station with trunks, small carry cases, and bisters, large green canvas carriers that held all our bedding. Along with this would be the food our moms had lovingly hand prepared and packed for us, no doubt aching as they packed sandwiches, cookies and carrot sticks, knowing they were sending us far away, where they would not be a part of our daily life.

I remember standing nervously with my older brothers, aware that this was a big moment and already feeling a shyness come over me in relation to these brothers who I lived with, played with, ate with and fought with. I somehow knew that the train party would usher us into a world where it wasn’t always easy to acknowledge siblings, where home and sibling connection grew farther with each station and each rhythmic sound of the wheels on the track.

The “party” would begin in Hyderabad, making stops along the way picking up children of various ages and sizes from their winter homes, all with the ultimate destination of boarding school. The trains snaked their way from the desert to the lush Punjab, ultimately arriving at the busy Rawalpindi station. “The Ranks” were a group of motley and assorted children of missionaries from all over the world – Meg, Lizzie and David from the UK; Nancy, David, Jonathan from Atlanta, Georgia; Bill, Paul, Phil and Tim – 4 boys from the Midwest with a mother who I loved and of whom legends are made; Alberteen Vanderveen and others from Holland, and the list went on.

The train party was not without its significant moments.

“Help, someone’s lost a thumb” was the cry that rang out through the compartments one time when I was in elementary school. We all looked in horror at our own, now precious, thumbs. Evidently the Someone had been on the top bunk of the compartment, where small fans whirred dangerously close to heads to keep air circulating. She had accidentally reached up during a shaky point in the normally smooth ride and the result was the tip of a thumb off and a lot of blood flowing, making the accident far worse than it was.

A thumb was not the only thing lost as the train sped its way up-country through brown desert and green fields. Some things were lost intentionally, like hardboiled eggs thrown out the window; other things were lost unintentionally, like sleeping bags, and one time we almost lost Lizzie Hover as she leaned out the window so far that we had to pull her back inside to the safety of the compartment.

The 18-22 hour train ride provided much time for catching up with our friends, all who had spent their winters in equally isolated locations throughout the country.

Stops at stations were opportunities to buy hot tea, purris and halwa. Station food tasted to us like gourmet cuisine. Shouts of “Chai, chai, garam chai” (Tea, Tea, Hot tea!) and “Undae, Undae, Garam Undae” (Eggs, Eggs, Hot Eggs!) were heard at every station, promising food that was tastier than the food at the richest of homes.

The trip ended just as it became almost unbearable for the adult chaperones. At that point we were unloaded with baggage only to be loaded on the school bus and make our way the last two hours of the journey to Murree, 7500 feet above sea level, and begin the spring boarding term.

The first evening was always a combination of chaos and excitement as trunks and bisters found their way to our bedrooms and unpacking began. We were allowed bedtimes a bit later than the normal, strictly enforced, hours and we began to claim drawers, dressers and beds. I don’t remember a lot of fighting over this process. Perhaps it was because it was the beginning and always exciting to be together again. The night ended with a meeting in the apartment of a houseparent, closing with prayer as we traipsed to our rooms, ready at this point for a nights sleep in a real bed on solid ground instead of the small bunk of a moving train.

It never failed that I would wake up early the next morning, disoriented as soon as I opened my eyes to my surroundings, not knowing where or who I was. As I slowly woke to my reality, tears would begin to fall. It wasn’t that I was unhappy being there as much as I realized that I had left the safety of the unconditional love of parents and home and was in a place where my daily world was those as immature as I. It was a realization that as much as I loved her, my substitute mother for the next three months would be a houseparent who had many others to care for, all away from the moms who had birthed us, all needy of her love, care and patience.

As I wept silently, tears flowing, it’s as though an invisible strength would enter me. As though God himself was reaching to me through my tears whispering the words “I am here, I am here for you”. Those words whispered in the early morning hours were stronger than any Biblical text and rooted themselves deep in my sub-conscious giving me strength to get up and begin the new semester.

Old Hymns, Timeless Truths

He left his Father’s throne above
(so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
for O my God, it found out me!

~C Wesley, 1739

These words were recently posted by a fellow third culture kid and friend from Murree. Despite generational gaps one simple verse evoked distinct memories from many of us who attended Murree. It was a reminder that there are those distinctly “Murree” memories that don’t respect place or time, but rise up and must be acknowledged –  sometimes with tears, other times with anger, still others with laughter, but mostly with gratefulness and joy for a heritage, not perfect but lasting.

A distinctly Murree memory comes through old hymns and memories of singing these hymns with our clear voices of childhood.We sang them in chapel held every Friday at Murree Christian School, we sang them at Sunday night “Singspiration” and we sang them on summer Sundays at Holy Trinity Church.

Holy Trinity Church on the winding Mall Road in Murree was our place of worship during the summer months in Pakistan. It was at Holy Trinity where missionaries and more would congregate from all over the country, sharing communion despite doctrinal differences over sprinkling or immersion, predestination and free will. While the outside mall road had all the noises of a busy commercial area in Pakistan from vendors selling seasonal flowers to small children hawking their wares, inside the gates of Holy Trinity we were a culture removed. For a child the inside of the church seemed huge with its enormous vaulted ceilings and tall stained glass windows. Plaques lined the walls in memory of people who had come before us. Men who had served in the British Army and had lost their lives were forever memorialized through the walls of Holy Trinity. Occasionally there was a plaque that in just a few words told the story of a small child dying far before their time. Holy Trinity was a church that was steeped in tradition and memory.

On Sundays the entire community would gather and sing out of old hymnals while being led in worship by any of a number of the well-qualified missionaries who were escaping the heat of the southern parts of Pakistan through a break in the beauty that was Murree Hills. What amazes me in all the years since that time is the power of the words in these hymns. The theological truths proclaimed are life-sustaining and the words never grow old.

Consider this song, written in 1917 by Frederick M. Lehman:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

Or this, written in 1864 by a 16-year-old named William Featherstone:

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

And so many more…Great is Thy Faithfulness, I am not Skilled to Understand, A Mighty Fortress is Our God….the words would resonate to the rafters, heard even during thunderous monsoon rains that came like clockwork every summer.

During the times in my life when I have been farthest from acknowledging or understanding any truth, these words were still in my memory. When words are in your memory, they have a greater chance of winding their way into your heart. I am convinced that these words, sung at one time with innocence, gusto, and minimal understanding find their way into a capsule of grace in our minds, a capsule that opens later in life as we sit, spent, knowing that we can’t do it on our own, but the One spoken of in these hymns can do it.

A comment from an old friend from Murree expressed my feelings particularly well:

“I don’t know what it is about the 5th decade of life, but I find the old words often coming to mind as I take my long drive along Pacific Coast Highway each day… Do you remember when we were young – I think it was particularly during the “preparing for evacuation years” we heard stories about how it was important to memorize verses incase we were ever captured and held prisoner. I wonder if other children heard such stories, and I don’t know the source. But it is true, those songs are coded into our brains. The words are rich. The memories strong.” (Susan Pietsch-Escueta)

What is coded into your brain in a capsule of grace providing rich memories, theological grounding, and reminders of truth? 

Bloggers Note: Holy Trinity also held some not so sacred memories: sneaking out of the service on Sunday nights to go to buy soft serve ice cream cones at a machine nearby (we had just enough time to sneak, eat, enjoy, and come back – missing the sermon but loudly participating in the hymns) and finding marijuana in the church yard during junior high. But those memories are for a not so sacred blog post!

Crossing the Athletic Line

Murree was not kind to children who could not cross the “Athletic Line”. Sports played a big role in both the school community as well as “popularity potential”. In the fall, when leaves were changing from green to gold there was field hockey for the girls and flag football for the guys. As November came, and the cold stone classrooms held the smell of kerosene from tiny heaters working overtime to offer at least a bit of heat, athletes kept warm on the sports fields playing soccer. And in the spring basketball teams for both girls and boys were formed.

I could not cross the athletic line. From the time I could remember, whether the game was Capture the Flag or Steal the Bacon, I was last to be picked for any team. I dreaded standing in line and waiting…waiting…waiting as girls and boys were one by one picked to join a team. It inevitably came down to one or two of us and the silent prayer “Please God, let them pick me, don’t let me be last, not this time God…”. And sometimes that prayer was answered, although the older I got the more I realized there were most probably competing prayers prayed in those dreadful moments and wondered how God decided the outcome. Was it like picking a daisy and pulling off the petals the way a preteen decides whether the boy in question “loves me or loves me not?”.

Sometimes my prayer was answered. Other times the person standing with me was picked and I could hear the audible sigh the minute their name was called. I dared not glance up to see their look of pity as they awkwardly ran to take their place. It is easy to both write and laugh about this now. To my knowledge, no matter how good anyone at Murree was at sports, none went on to compete professionally. In other words, they were good, but they weren’t that good. Their achievements were limited to our small school “nestled ‘neath the great Himalayas” and faded black and white photos showing teams lined up in green and white uniforms are all that’s left of their athletic prowess.

There was one time when I made it on to the girls soccer team. In my junior year of high school, the Walsh girls were unable to attend an inter-school tournament at the end of the semester as they lived in Bangladesh and had already booked flights back home. The Walsh girls served as a reminder that life was not fair. They were beautiful, smart, kind, and athletic, capturing the imagination of every boy at Murree and the envy of many of us girls. That year, I got to take their place on the soccer field and go to the tournament and play my hardest. The trade was unfair.

All of this was years ago, and is easy to laugh and write about now, but at the time it held all the pain of adolescent angst. What is interesting about this memory of waiting to be picked for a team is that I still have my moments of feeling exactly as I did during those years of being picked last. To the outside eye I am successful. I have achieved success in my career, I never worry about my sports ability but enjoy physical activity, and I have an amazing family. But the “Please God, pick me, pick me” times come around every once in a while, like I am on the sidelines of being picked for a team, waiting while the captain looks us over making their decisions based on what they know of our athletic skill, except it’s no longer athletic skill, it’s “ability to do life” skill. I’m feeling a bit like this now.

This too shall pass. Thankfully I’m old enough to learn that while I feel like a child, I have the choice to respond as an adult. That means I’ll hold my head high until my name is called.

A friend, Pat, who attended Murree for only one year, the year after I graduated, posted a quote under her yearbook picture that I’ve tried to recall for years. It goes something like this:

Just when I think I’m all grown up, I learn some astounding fact of life and feel like a child who thinks she’s mastered the art of tying her shoes, only to realize that one loop doesn’t make a bow.

Childhood Friends in High up Places

The bond between many third culture kids is like family. Sometimes a dysfunctional family, but family nevertheless. At Murree Christian School, regardless of generational gaps, there is a sense of community.

It was this sense of family and community that made all of us proud when we saw our childhood friend, Jonathan Addleton, now Ambassador to Mongolia, in a photo blog on MSNBC. He was pictured front and center with a Mongolian wrestler and none other than Vice President Joe Biden. Jonathan’s mom and dad had arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, just three days before the arrival of Biden. Bettie gave a detailed description through an email update:

The officials were due at 4 and finally arrived just a little past 4:30. The prime minister arrived first and then Biden and Jonathan came in to a special tent erected for the officials. The Mongolians are beautiful people. Their ceremonial attire is absolutely beautiful. The musicians were dressed in colorful clothes. I liked the music.  I do not know the instruments, some string, something like a flute. Wrestlers came and they were in spectacular outer robes and the Mongolia hat, and when they removed them the trunks and top were scanty. I cannot explain the wrestling but there were 2 teams and 2 men in robes were on each side of the grassy “ring.”  One by one a wrestler was taken down and as they left, they waved to the crowd, first to the VP and then the rest of us. The winner paraded around and gave some sweets to the VIP tent. They came on several times.  There were parades of horses, ridden by young boys and it was a beautiful sight to see them march in from the distance, with the lead horse carrying the banner. After the parades they went off in the distance to race and came around again.  Even the Bactrian camels (2 humps) entered the celebration.  I noted that some of the American men rode the camels a short distance.  There were archers to show off their skill with bows and arrows.  Prizes were awarded to the winners in the various categories; wrestling, horse races, archery.  I cannot leave out the dance performed by 3 young men, dressed colorfully in ancient costume. A young girl, perched on a special made table, gave us a show plus in the contortions she executed. Everyone was astounded by her skill in manipulating her body into intricate and unbelievable  shapes –  like a pretzel!  The unique throat singer performed and a female vocalist.

As is the custom in this country, the Vice President was presented a horse and he got to name the horse. Because of his Irish heritage he called it Celtic. The horse is then returned to the herd and because of serving in this ancient ritual, will probably be given preference in food and care! When Jonathan was here a few years back, he received, I think, 2 horses! A blue shawl was given to VP Biden to tie around the horse’s neck. Both Jonathan and the VP tied a knot which is part of the ritual of the horse giving/receiving.  These ceremonies lasted about an hour.

The VP proceeded to visit among the guests, press, etc. First he greeted the performers and thanked them. Then he came to our tent and Jonathan introduced him to us. He gave us warm handshakes, we exchanged a few words (I can’t remember what I said), and he went among the Embassy personnel, greeting them. After that he came back to me and listen up folks: HE KISSED ME ON BOTH CHEEKS. Now, what do you think of that.  The crowd was pleased when he did that and I was speechless!!!

U.S Ambassador to Mongolia, Jonathan Addleton and Vice President Joe Biden. Jonathan is in the middle

Jonathan was a student at Murree and my brother Tom’s best friend all through elementary and highschool until their senior year. At this point Tom left for the U.S. to finish high school in a small town in Massachusetts and Jonathan remained, finishing at Murree. He was also brother to my best friend, Nancy. The Addletons served with my parents for years in the Sindh area of Pakistan and the number of holidays and dinners spent together cannot be counted. They are like family. It took me a long time to move from the “Aunt Bettie and Uncle Hu” names to dropping the aunt and uncle and calling them “Bettie and Hu”

As third culture kids, there weren’t many of us who were impressed with pop culture and we were somewhat illiterate about Hollywood and it’s ilk. But an ambassador? That we understood, so there is a collective pride those of us who attended MCS feel about our friend being Ambassador to Mongolia.   He is not Ambassador Jonathan Addleton. He is “our” Ambassador Jonathan Addleton. When Tufts University‘s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Jonathan’s alma mater, published an article called “Our man in Mongolia” I remember feeling offended, thinking “Jonathan isn’t “their” man! He’s “our” man.” In our world-wide extended family with relatives in too many nations to count, he is our cousin, our second cousin, or our brother. He is family and we are proud.

We are aware that Jonathan now holds dinner parties with the likes of Madeleine Albright, well-known senators, and Richard Gere – but we still feel like we know him and he knows us, that we care about him, and the care is reciprocated. So we raise a glass in honor of this man, our childhood friend and family member who has risen to a high up place and but still cares enough to comment on posts and pictures on our Facebook pages!

Bloggers note: Many thanks to Bettie Addleton for her descriptive email updates! Read more about her in this article from the Macon Telegraph: 

Guest Post – Analyzing the Current Approach to Change in Afghanistan

One of the benefits of being a third culture kid is enjoying the wide network of people who come into our lives. For many of us who grew up in Pakistan, the network spans generations, countries, occupations and more. We have one thing in common and that is growing up in Pakistan and attending Murree Christian School, but that one thing has too many subplots to count. The wealth of experience and knowledge among this group of third culture kids is nothing less than amazing. Ambassadors, chiefs of party for NGO’s, scholars and more all bring their unique background into their work, providing much needed perspective in a world that tries to find easy answers and oversimplify complex issues.

A week ago, Samuel Lammi, a fellow third culture kid gave me permission to re-post a note he had written on Facebook. It is a thoughtful piece about Afghanistan. Samuel recently held an internship as Assistant to Officer of Political Affairs in the Embassy of Afghanistan. Take a look at the piece and see what you think. Add to the conversation in the comment section!

A few ideas about the current approach to change in Afghanistan and it’s shortcomings by Samuel Lammi

I was raised in the most tumultuous time in Afghanistan’s modern history during brutal civil war of the 1990’s. My primary education happened largely during the Islamic regime of the Taliban in a small expat school. I had to attend a boarding school in neighbouring Pakistan – Murree Christian School – for my secondary schooling. As the result of a terrorist attack on our school, we relocated to Thailand for two years to recover. The last four years until my graduation, I was back in Pakistan – yet it was a completely different Pakistan to the one I had known in the 1990’s.

I believe I have a unique perspective into foreign intervention in Afghanistan as my personal experience in Afghanistan is balanced by “war years” of bitter and ravaging civil war to control the country (1990-2001) and the “coalition years” and the so-called “nation-building process.” (2001-2008). I grew up in the middle of the Afghan war as my parents and their co-workers assisted those in desperate need. We were not only learning about the people we were helping, but also assimilating with the Afghans as we too – though more secure – were victims. Subsequently, we are frequently referred to as “the ones who stayed;” as Afghans who could afford it and had the opportunity, fled the country.

This perspective enables me to see events in Afghanistan from different viewpoints. I see the views of various Afghan ethnic groups, and various foreign interest groups, such as governments, NGOs, and militaries.

About 60 years ago, Afghanistan “opened-up” to the world, and immediately it saw a dangerous influx of foreign influence penetrate this traditional and conservative society. After these years and a few generations later, the society is unchanged yet this warring and proud country is on its knees after 30 years of vicious war. This has resulted in the common belief that Afghanistan is just another “god-forsaken,” tribal, anti-democratic and terrorist failed-state. Contrary to this belief, there is a too-common pattern to be seen with voracious and hegemonic world powers. They simplistically assume they can ravage the natural resources or take advantage of the geopolitics of a country for their own benefit, all under the pretence of bringing “change” to the backward places of the earth making them democratic, egalitarian and educated.

The recurring themes of the recent history of Afghanistan are comparable to the modern history of the Middle-East (1830’s to 1950’s). The pattern starts with the secure Western powers seeing an opportunity to exploit something – natural resources, geography, people – or everything. Next – supposing they have limited opportunity – they enter the desired country rather hastily to seek opportunities. However, with no prior interaction with the country, there is no grassroots knowledge of the local culture and language. This ignorance only affirms “superiority thinking” where the newcomers start to assert themselves through bringing “higher values” to “modernise” the culture. At first, modernisation is welcome, but soon the pace of the transformation is so rapid that the locals start to resist the change. Subsequently the foreigners with their ideologies have lost their “innocence” and come under suspicion from the locals. Upset, the foreigners become slack and their ulterior motives emerge, inhibiting mutual distrust. If the last resort of using force is utilized, the inevitable clashes continue to scar future relations for generations.

In Afghanistan, the generic rhetoric of bringing education, democracy, jobs, economic and political reform – all under the umbrella of “nation-building” – hasn’t delivered on its promises.

Essentially the same problems continue to plague the common people: education is poor and unavailable, real jobs are scarce – even in the cities, and the money that was meant to bring roads, hospitals, schools and jobs has disappeared into the pockets of warlords and corrupt politicians. Most of the young population is grappling with the warlords, crime syndicates and insurgents offering more employment than government services and independent enterprises. In most of Afghanistan – apart from the introduction of mobile phone services – life has hardly changed from 20, 30 or even 50 years ago; from when the “modernisation” of Afghanistan started.

In terms of the present situation in Afghanistan, the “basics” of cultural interaction are not considered important until they are desperately needed. In the place of humility to understand others through knowledge of culture and language – which create sympathy and understanding – this grass-roots work has been outsourced with nearly all other aspects of the “nation-building.”

Development simply cannot be outsourced as it creates irreconcilable distance between the ones bringing “change” and the ones being “changed.” Instead, participatory dialogue is imperative. What has happened is that the dialogue has engaged the already corrupt systems, excluding the common people. This creates the “in-group” who decides, and it supports complacency with the status quo of corrupt warlords and institutions. Subsequently the people become objects of the change coming from outside, through the powerful private-interest groups who exploit age-old tensions and rivalries. Instead, the people must become active, participatory subjects of change which benefits mutual trust and cooperation.

A Guest Post – No Dignity

A tremendous benefit to blogging is the ability to connect globally with people who you otherwise would not have met. Sophie is a third culture kid and refers to herself as a “global hobo”. Married to a Frenchman, She has lived across the globe in Pakistan, the UK, France, New Zealand, Fiji Islands and for the moment makes her home in Australia.

Sophie and I share a history of Pakistan and Murree Christian School. We are a generation apart and last time I saw her, she was a cute little girl running through the halls of Murree. I had no idea that 23+ years later I would be avidly following her writing, and through this a bit of her life. Sophie writes in several places but today I am reposting from her blog Little Gumnut. As I read this last night I was laughing so hard I almost cried. Enjoy and take a look at some of her other work as well!

The thing no-one tells you about parenting, and in particular, motherhood, is that it is a humiliating, embarrassing affair where you totally lose your dignity.  And then come those moments that go down in family history where you can’t quite believe it really happened.

With one baby in the pushchair and the other preschooler in the middle of potty training, picture yourself in a department store.  You know the kind, the ones with highly polished floors.

Picture yourself browsing the sales racks while your preschooler plays quietly a little way off but still in sight.  You actually have time to look at all you need and pay for your purchases.  As you’re preparing to go, she comes and announces to you that she’s done a poo.  As she’s in a nappy, that’s ok.  You sniff the nappy.  Oh yes, that has become normal behaviour to you now, you never thought it would. You take a little peek.  No poo in sight.

No, you haven’t done a poo darling you say.

Yes, yes, I have, she insists and points: Over there.

No, there’s definitely no poo, you reply.

Looking over to where she has played you pause.  Is that…?
You squint your eyes.  Is that a small brown object on the floor under a rack of men’s shirts?
Oh no!  You wander over casually to have a look, parking the buggy and squatting down.  Yes. A small brown, hard poo has somehow slipped out.  Her nappy must have ridden up her bum like some irritating g-string.

What do you do?  You consider doing a runner and pretending it wasn’t your child.  But then you’re a Christian.  WWJD? Sighing, you make your way over to the customer service counter, eyeing up the young man and the older woman, praying that you get the older woman.

But you forgot that God has a sense of humour and of course, when it comes to your turn to be served, you get the young man.

Erm, I’m so sorry, but my child has done a poo on your floor over there. Do you have a cleaner who could come and clean it up?

It’s a cliché but the young man’s lips definitely start to twitch, he’s trying his best not to laugh and ever so seriously, he explains that no, they don’t have any cleaners.

What do I do?  Do I just leave it there?

He looks at a complete loss.  Nonplussed I believe the word is.

Do you have any paper towels I can go and clean it up with myself?  

Relieved not to have to come up with a solution himself, the customer service expert passes you a wodge of hand towels.

You retrieve the offending item, wrapping it in the towels and take it back to the young man.

Do you have a bin I can put it in?

He smiles apologetically, Sorry, no.

There you are in the middle of a not too shabby department store, clutching a hand towel with your child’s poo inside, at a complete loss as to what to do next.  Forgetting entirely that there are public toilets just around the corner, you put it in your handbag, take your child by the hand and push your buggy as fast as you can out of the door.

A day later you put your hand into your handbag and wonder what on earth those paper towels are… until you feel that hard little nobby poo inside and you remember: dignity is a rarity in motherhood.

When We Don’t Know the Rules

The sign seems obvious: 15 items or less. But what if you don’t know the rules? What if the sign means nothing to you from your context of shopping in open markets and bazaars where items in shiny plastic containers or wrappings are nonexistent and the idea of a forming any kind of line for checkout is completely foreign?  Not only is the sign and concept of 15 items or less not intuitive or obvious, it’s also completely confusing. You stand at the check out counter, thinking you’re having a  pleasant conversation with the cashier, thrilled that the shopping experience has gone so well and unaware of the glare of the gentleman behind you and the reproachful look of the elderly woman in the grey sweater.

Sometimes the situations aren’t as small as  “15-items or less” . They involve others, often our families, and bring about a sense of isolation and the feeling of being misplaced all over again, reminding us that we don’t really “get it”, that we need an interpreter, not of language, but of events and rules.  My friend Robynn Bliss, Author of Bright Pink Razais faced “a moment” this week and writes well of the memories and feelings associated with not knowing the rules. Enjoy!

Yesterday I had another moment. I thought I knew the rules. I thought I knew how it should go but in the end I had to give it up. Let it go. Assume that once again I really am a foreigner.

You see, yesterday was the Annual Awards Ceremony at the Middle School. We had been notified earlier in the week that our fourteen year old son, Connor, would be receiving an award. After supper I cleared the table and began the job of getting everyone out the door so that we would be in plenty of time to find good parking and a good seat at the ceremony. Suddenly Connor announces he doesn’t want to go. That seemed to me, to be completely immaterial. Want to or not, we’re going and we’re leaving in 10 minutes so get ready! But he really didn’t want to go. There was emotion attached to it. His eyes filled with tears. I kept up the pace for an on time departure.

Lowell, my husband of 17 years, my cultural informant extraordinaire, my interpreter of all things teenage boy, motioned for me to follow him into the other room. Lowell indicated that if Connor didn’t want to go maybe we shouldn’t go. Not go? I was appalled. We had to go. Connor was receiving an award and we needed to be there.
This is when the angst entered the room. Lowell explained, patiently and in good humour, that it was just a middle school event. There would be hundreds of young people acknowledged for achieving anywhere from a 3.2 grade point average to a 4.0. Many more would be acclaimed for good sportsmanship, good citizenship, marked improvement, persistence, perseverance and other note worthy virtues. Connor would not be missed.

In my mind it was disrespectful and rude to not show up. If you knew you were going to be presented an award you needed to be there to receive it. We went round and round it. I couldn’t conceive of the idea of not going. Lowell thought we could blow it off.

Finally Lowell said, “Robynn this isn’t the small Murree Christian School community” –that’s all he had to say. Of course it wasn’t. Murree Christian School was a small international Christian boarding school nestled in the Himalayan foothills of Pakistan. While I was there the enrollment never exceeded 250 students from grades 1 through twelve. It was a small closely knit community. At Murree you knew the Principal who handed you the award. You made eye contact. They had seen you grow up, they had known you since you could hardly spell, they were there, in the back ground giving witness to your childhood, your accomplishments, your achievements. It was Mr Roub, that very same Principal, who had to break the news to me that our pet dog would be taken away. It was Mr Roub who hugged me and handed me a tissue. Mr Roub asked about my parents. Mr Roub knew my aunt and uncle, my cousins. He knew me.

Later when the Principal was Stew Georgia the same was true. He quickly got to know us kids and our families. Phil Billing, already a staunch and established member of the community, entered the administrative role with relational finesse. He spiritually mentored me and taught me to think. These were responsibilities far from his job description and yet he embraced them.

Don’t misunderstand me. The Principal at MCS was responsible for dishing out punishments,academic probation and disciplinary actions as they are here at Eisenhower Middle School. It’s just that here  Greg Hoyt the Principal, who is reportedly an amazing person, only has access to these kids for two years. At Murree they had the unlikely advantage of watching us become who we were all the while knowing whose family we belonged to.

Murree Christian School was a small place with close emotional connections. If you didn’t come to receive an award, for which you were personally chosen, it would have been a slight against those who had chosen you, and those that presented the award. It would have been hurtful and rude. It would have been deliberate and disrespectful.
Here where the classes are enormous—there’s over 200 kids in Connor’s eighth grade (there were 5 in mine!)– it was okay, I guess, not to go.

A friend texted me from the ceremony. Connor received honors for scoring a 3.99 grade point average. He was also nominated for the citizenship award. It still feels strange that we didn’t go, even now, the day after.It feels stranger though, that still, after all this time I can’t always rely on my instincts. Those instincts were cultivated in a different place, in a smaller circle far away from here.

For those interested, take a look at this video taken of Murree in 2008. See what’s recognizable amid all the changes!